|THE SHINING GIRLS
Lauren Beukes (laurenbeukes.com)
When Harper Curtis murders an old woman, he finds the key to a house to which he instinctively knows the way. In the bedroom of the house he finds the names of girls scratched on the walls next to mementoes and trophies, threads linking them together in an intricate web. Harper is a murderer, and these are his shining girls, spread across time, awaiting his visit. Kirby Mazrachi is one of these girls, the only one to survive Harper’s attack. Obsessed with her assailant, Kirby begins to look for similar cases and discovers the impossible: she was attacked by a man who cannot possibly exist. Her investigations bring her to the killer’s attention, and now Harper is back to complete the circle.
I’m always on the lookout for novels that bring a fresh new perspective to often tired old genres. In the case of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, the tired old genre is the serial killer novel; the biggest problem with her fresh perspective – a time travelling serial killer – is that it’s extremely difficult to pull off well and very easy to mess up completely. Fortunately for us readers, Beukes has taken the road less-travelled and produced a fresh-voiced crime/science fiction crossover that is, to put it succinctly, stunning.
The action takes place in and around the city of Chicago, and spans various periods from 1931 to 1993. Beukes, a native South African, captures the soul of the city perfectly and makes it one of the few constants, one of the few things we can rely on not to shift beneath our feet, in an otherwise twisted and ever-surprising narrative. Harper Curtis, the antagonist of the piece, and in some ways its central character, is a nasty piece of work, a man driven by the House, or more correctly, by the list and the trophies he finds in the bedroom of that house. His nemesis, the young Kirby, is damaged and obsessed, determined to find the man who tried to kill her and exact her revenge, whatever the cost. At times extremely unlikeable, Kirby still gives the reader someone to rally behind, if only because she is a better alternative than the despicable Harper upon whom to shower our sympathies.
The time travel aspects of the novel are introduced early in the story, so it is immediately obvious that this is no straightforward serial killer novel. As the story progresses, it becomes clear just how many strands there are to this narrative, and how difficult it must have been to get on paper without any massive holes in the various timelines or logic. As a result, later chapters are full of Easter Eggs and pleasant surprises for the careful and attentive reader. It’s easy to see that plotting was a long and laborious process, but it pays off in spades: the reader is never sure what to expect next, and right down to the book’s epilogue, Beukes manages to hold secrets back from us that, when slotted into place, complete the picture as neatly as the final, central piece of any jigsaw puzzle.
The Shining Girls is more than just cleverness and gimmicks, though. The time travel aspects serve the central storyline, rather than the other way around. At its core, the novel is a crime thriller and while the time travel adds an extra – if you’ll pardon the pun – dimension to the overall experience, it still provides a satisfying read for fans of the serial killer genre. With the introduction of sportswriter Dan, Beukes has also created the possibility, should she wish to hang around the thriller scene for awhile, of an on-going series with a recurring character (and let’s face it, stranger things have happened).
Best known in certain circles for her niche novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes finally stretches her wings for what should be her breakout work. The result is one of the best novels you’re likely to read this year, in any genre. Careful plotting combined with pitch-perfect characterisation, edge-of-the-seat tension and the feeling that anything could happen next (or, in fact, may well have happened already) combine to keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime, or their bus stop, or…well, you get the idea. The Shining Girls has been one of my most anticipated novels of the year so far. It’s definitely one that has been worth the wait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
|FORTRESS FRONTER (SHADOW OPS: Book Two)
Myke Cole (mykecole.com)
Colonel Alan Bookbinder, a Pentagon-based paper-pusher, wakes from a nightmare to the feeling that he is drowning. Before the day is out, it is clear that Colonel Bookbinder has come up Latent, though he has not yet Manifested any particular powers. Surrendering himself to the SOC, he finds himself in a new office, doing the same old job. This office is in Forward Operating Base Frontier, in the alternate plane known as the Source. When Oscar Britton effects his escape, leaving what remains of the base open to almost-constant goblin attack, Bookbinder finds himself drawn out of his comfort zone, fighting for the survival of the base and his people. His options limited, the colonel finds himself on a collision course with the very man who left them all to perish.
Rather than picking up immediately following the end of the first book in the series, Control Point, Myke Cole takes us back in time and introduces us to Colonel Alan Bookbinder, and reintroduces us to this brave new post-Great Reawakening world from a new point of view. Career Army, Bookbinder has, nonetheless, never served in combat. Despite his rank, he does not have the respect of his subordinates, and feels that he doesn’t really deserve it. In many ways, Bookbinder is Oscar Britton’s opposite: when he discovers that he is Latent, he surrenders himself willingly to the SOC and finds himself doing the same job in a new base. Where Oscar is a combat veteran who is starting to question the methods of the Army in which he serves, Bookbinder finds himself recreated as a new man through his experiences in the Source: his fear is gone, replaced by a desire to not only lead, but to lead from the front; he finds himself endowed with a new sense of authority and quickly discovers that he has the respect of the relatively small group of men and women under his command.
As well as introducing this new central character, and the secondary characters that form around his storyline, Cole uses Bookbinder’s story to remind the reader of what has gone before: the rules of this strange new world, the various types of magic, and the makeup of the people based at FOB Frontier. He manages to re-cover a lot of ground while pushing the story forward and keeping the reader engaged. It’s also an interesting device in allowing the reader to see what happened inside the base when Oscar and his friends made their bid for freedom, and shows the consequences of the action that closed the first book.
When Bookbinder is firmly bedded in, Cole eventually returns us to Oscar, and picks up where he left off. Here, a lot of the groundwork prepared in the first novel begins to pay off, as Oscar tries to find a movement that will allow him to expose what is going on, and change how Latents are viewed by the rest of the world. The insurgencies mentioned in the first book begin to play a greater role here, and it’s no surprise that they view Oscar – sometime Public Enemy Number One – as something of a hero. Here, too, we see an expansion of some of themes Cole touched upon during Control Point: the mistrust between normal humans and this new breed of Latents, and the origins of this schism. It’s an interesting – and all-too-plausible – take on that age-old superhero problem.
As the story moves towards its final act, the paths of Britton and Bookbinder begin to converge, as it becomes clear that Oscar may be the only person alive who can help Bookbinder to save his people. On the journey, we see whole new swathes of the Source, and meet a handful of new races that may have been glimpsed, or hinted at, before. In one of the book’s most surprising turns, we run across an old, and completely unexpected, friend, serving to close off – perhaps a little too conveniently – one major plotline in the process.
With most of the groundwork laid in Control Point, Cole is free to spend his time telling a good solid story this time around. Once again, the use of fictional epigraphs – interviews, document excerpts, and the like – at the start of each chapter serve to expand our knowledge of the world without encroaching on the on-going story. Fortress Frontier feels a lot less disjointed than its predecessor; there is a more coherent flow to events, perhaps helped by the fact that the story is split across two main characters this time around, and less a sense of one short mission following another with no real connection between them beyond the characters taking part.
Myke Cole has found the perfect niche for his work. Military fantasy with a dash of science fiction, Fortress Frontier shows us a whole new side to the Shadow Ops world to which Control Point first introduced us. The introduction of a new central character gives us a chance to get a slightly different perspective on what we thought we already knew without contradicting anything that has gone before, while still managing to move the plot on considerably by the book’s action-packed ending. As fast-paced as the first, Fortress Frontier is, however, a much different beast: the origin story is out of the way; now it’s time to get down to business, and Myke Cole delivers beyond expectations. There is much to love here, and the reader is sure to come away with an intense need to find out what’s next.
James Smythe (james-smythe.com)
Harper Voyager (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/voyager/Pages/Voyager.aspx)
Released: 17 January 2013
My name is Cormac Easton. I am a journalist, and, I suppose, an astronaut.
In the middle of the twenty-first century, man strives, once again, to further his knowledge. Turning once more to space, the vessel Ishiguro is launched, its purpose simple: to take man further from Earth than he has ever been, and return him safely home. It is a mission designed to re-kindle humanity’s natural curiosity, and to usher in a new era of space exploration. When they awake from the stasis in which they have spent the first few weeks of their journey, the crew discover that their pilot is dead, his bed somehow malfunctioned. Four of the remaining five crew members die, one by one, over the course of the following few weeks, leaving a single survivor: Cormac Easton. A journalist, his sole purpose was to document the trip, and he has none of the skills that his fellow crew did. All he can do is sit and wait; wait until the Ishiguro reaches its furthest point and turns back towards home.
Regular readers may remember that I read and reviewed James Smythe’s debut novel, The Testimony, last year. So it was with no small amount of trepidation – and a certain amount of excitement – that I sat down to read this, his second offering. The Explorer, on the surface, takes Smythe into a completely different genre, this time into the realms of hard science fiction. What we discover as we read, is that space, the isolation offered by a deep-space vessel, and all the other trappings of the genre, are little more than the backdrop for an intense and often surprising character study.
It’s impossible to talk about too much of the plot without giving everything away, so in the interest of avoiding any spoilers I’ll be as vague as possible, while still hopefully conveying some sense of the gist of the story. At the centre of things stands Cormac Easton, the lone survivor on a weeks-long deep-space flight. As the story opens, Cormac gives us a brief overview of how his crewmates died, and we watch boredom and insecurity set in as he spends most of his days staring at control panels, unable to do anything to change the ship’s course. Luckily for the reader, the boredom never breaks from the confines of the page. From the opening sentence, we’re hooked, drawn into the story in a single, masterful stroke that guarantees we will still be on board at the final page.
One of the first things I did when I realised that I was never going to make it home – when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures – was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again; let me wallow in it, swim around in missing them as much as I could.
Cormac, it turns out, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. As Smythe expands on the brief overview we are given at the novel’s opening – without ever breaking out of Cormac’s character – we quickly learn that this man is not exactly all that he seems. As we watch his humanity and sanity slowly dissolve in the loneliness of space, and with the help of flashbacks detailing how he secured his place on the mission, Smythe hits us with a number of revelations, each packing more of a punch than the last, and each renewing our suspicion of our narrator, making us question his motives, his sanity, his whole story. There are similarities to, and themes shared with, the likes of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lem’s Solaris, but The Explorer manages to be completely original and Smythe always manages to retain the upper hand with the reader, moving the plot in the opposite direction to the one we expect or dropping a bombshell that changes the very nature of our relationship with Cormac, never letting us get too comfortable with the proceedings, or too close to a working theory about what’s going on.
Smythe’s second novel delivers on every level. It’s an intense and quietly horrific ride that keeps the reader hooked throughout. Literary science fiction that still manages to be cinematic in scope, The Explorer succeeds where The Testimony failed: it carries through on its early promises and presents a satisfying conclusion worthy of what has come before. Beautifully written and cleverly constructed, The Explorer establishes James Smythe as one of Britain’s best young writers. Don’t let the scifi tag deter you: what you’ll find behind that beautiful cover is a must-read for all lovers of great fiction.
Tim Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)
Far underground, deep in a remote area of the Appalachian Mountains, lies the Coldbrook facility where, for ten years, Jonah Jones and his team have been trying to open a doorway to a parallel Earth. Three weeks ago, they succeeded and have been watching “the breach” ever since, gathering samples and preparing for the inevitable moment when a chosen few will cross over to see what lies beyond. Before that can happen, something comes through from the other side; something that may once have been human. Unaffected by the electrical field designed to kill anything that comes through, the creature grabs hold of the nearest scientist and bites. Holly Wright, thinking fast, sends the facility into lockdown, but it is already too late. The creature from the other side is carrying a virus and has already begun to spread it. When one of the scientists breaches lockdown and makes it to the surface, he inadvertently unleashes apocalypse upon the world, as the disease spreads like wildfire. But there is hope: a girl, bitten but unaffected, may hold a formula for the survival of the human race in her blood. They just need to get her back to Coldbrook in one piece.
I first discovered Tim Lebbon around a decade ago when someone recommended that I read his collection White, And Other Tales of Ruin. I was immediately hooked, so it was with no small measure of excitement that I cracked open Coldbrook, Lebbon’s take on the zombie novel. From the outset, it’s easy to tell this is something different: there’s a reasonable explanation for the outbreak, and a plausible explanation for the rapid spread of the disease: these zombies aren’t the traditional variety, chasing braaaaaiiiiins for their tea; they are people infected with a deadly and aggressive virus whose one goal it forces them to pursue with single-minded intensity: to spread itself. They are fast and, perhaps most frightening of all, they are patient, prepared to wait quietly outside your door until you believe the danger has passed, or have no other option but to step outside.
In amongst all the fun horror and buckets of blood, Lebbon takes time to examine how individuals might react in the face of oncoming doom. Family plays an important part in the story, and it is through this lens that Lebbon contrasts the stories of Vic Pearson – who risks everything to get his family as far away from Coldbrook as he can – and Sean Nott – no less dedicated a father, but whose daughter is in France, unreachable, her fate a mystery. Here, too, a look at community, as the initial sense of “every man for himself” gives way to a concerted effort to reach safety in a larger group. Inside Coldbrook, Jonah and Holly find themselves facing a different set of trials, as we discover what lies on the other side of the breach, and the shadowy Inquisitor begins to shadow Jonah’s every move.
What came as a pleasant surprise as I read Coldbrook was the unsettling sense of fear that it manages to instil in the reader. This is, after all, “only” a zombie novel, and we hardened veterans of the horror genre should have seen it all before. But Lebbon has more than a few surprises up his sleeve and, despite borrowing from a handful of the genre’s classics – the most obvious echoes here are of The Andromeda Strain and The Stand – still manages to produce something original and scary. Lebbon sets out his stall early in the novel as he presents the moment of outbreak from the point of view of Jonah. What makes this interesting is that Jonah is not in the room with the zombie, and is listening to the events on the phone. Because he can’t see what’s going on, neither can the reader and it puts us on edge. It’s a feeling that persists throughout the book.
There is plenty to like here, and the good points far outweigh the bad – a number of coincidences that just seem too trite, too neat. Lebbon paints a believable picture of a world that is rapidly falling apart – burning cities, army quickly deployed and even more quickly overrun, airspace patrolled in a vain attempt to keep the disease contained – and populates it with a group of people that it’s hard not to root for, even if we don’t necessarily like them. The climax, always a tough nut to crack in this type of novel, is satisfying and thought-provoking. This is no read-and-forget pulp horror; there is plenty of food for thought here.
In a welcome return to pure horror, Tim Lebbon has put a fresh twist on an old trope, and come up with Coldbrook. Fast-paced, blood-soaked and zombie-filled, it still manages a coherent and engaging storyline with an unsettling edge. I’m not afraid to admit that this one made me wary of turning off the lights at night, which puts it a cut above most of what’s out there in the resurgent tide of zombie fiction. Lebbon remains a solid, reliable writer who deserves to be better-known outside horror. Whether you’re new to the genre, or suffering zombie fatigue, I can’t recommend Coldbrook highly enough to you. Read it, enjoy it and, while you’re at it, hunt down some of Lebbon’s older horror novels. You can thank me later.
|Name: MYKE COLE
Author of: CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS 1) (2012)
On the web: mykecole.com
On Twitter: @MykeCole
I’m very pleased to introduce our first guest post here at Reader Dad. Myke Cole, author of Control Point, the first book in the Shadow Ops series, has very kindly written an essay about the origins of the Shadow Ops world. So, without further ado, I’ll let him get on with it.
SHADOW OPS is definitely a military story. But I’ve also written satire. I’ve written high fantasy, I’ve written horror, I’ve written straight science fiction. Heck, I even wrote a zombie love story. But when people talk about my fiction, it’s always Myke Cole the MILITARY writer. People seem to think I’m a one-trick-pony.
I’m a two-trick-pony.
Those two tricks form the basis of the SHADOW OPS series and, when you think about it, makes my writing it almost inevitable. The tricks are: 1.) A deep and abiding love of all things military. 2.) A traditional nerd upbringing (raised on Dungeons & Dragons, comic books and fantasy novels).
It began with a suit of armor.
My mother took me to the Metropolitan Museum when I was a kid, and from the first sight of that armor, I knew that I wanted to be a knight when I grew up (and not the Judy Dench/Paul McCartney kind. The Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar kind).
I was absolutely undeterred by her explanation that knighthood was an occupation in . . . decline . . . in the 21st century. I knew they were warriors, and so I embraced every text I could find on the fighting man, and trained myself in the arena of imagination provided by role-playing games. Always the Paladin or Fighter, I waded into the thick of things, sword in hand, usually getting killed in the first round of combat. I devoured every story I could find about knights, from the classic legends of Sir Thomas Mallory to the modern reimaginings of Terry Brooks.
You’d think that as I grew up I’d realize mom was right.
But she wasn’t.
Real fighting knighthood never truly died. It evolved into a nearly unrecognizable shape as the heart of the modern military officer corps. I still clung to my fantasy imaginings of knights, from Aragorn to Galahad to Ned Stark, but now they were informed by an older man’s familiarity with the realities of evolved technology, military bureaucracy and the blurring (at least on the surface) of class distinctions we have in the modern world.
Years later, when I first girded on my officer’s saber, the little boy in me sang. I was as much of a knight as I could ever be, true to both the modern evolution of the profession and the fantasy underpinnings that wouldn’t let me stop dreaming about it. That whole saluting thing? We’re miming raising a medieval helmet-visor, folks.
Writing SHADOW OPS felt the same way. It was . . . right, somehow. A story about military sorcerers? That’s as me as it gets. It was like coming home.
I like to think of myself as a complex guy, especially in my writing. But “military” writer? Sure. I’ll take it.
|CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS: Book One)
Myke Cole (mykecole.com)
In the aftermath of the Great Reawakening, the world is a different place. Magic has returned, and people across the globe are turning up Latent, Manifesting in any one of a handful of schools of magic. Those who Manifest in the legal schools (Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, Aeromancy, Physiomancy) have the option of joining the Supernatural Operations Corps, and using their newfound skills for the good of mankind. Those who run – Selfers – are considered dangerous criminals, and eliminated accordingly. Those who Manifest in one of the Prohibited schools – Probes – don’t have the same luxury; their skills are much more rare, but much more dangerous, and they are dealt with quickly. Lieutenant Oscar Britton is a Marine helicopter pilot assigned to a team whose job is to provide support to SOC when dealing with Selfers or Probes; he’s well aware of the consequences, so when he Manifests in one of the Prohibited schools – Oscar has the ability to open doors to another dimension – he runs. Hunted down and captured, he discovers that the rumours of a secret training base are true: Oscar finds himself enrolled as a contractor and dropped into the middle of a secret war in a different world.
Myke Cole sets the tone of Control Point – his first novel, and the start of his Shadow Ops series – very early on. The action starts almost from the first page, and the story progresses through a series of action-packed – and, often, breath-taking – set-pieces to an arbitrary point that acts as the end of the book (think of the final sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, which is less an ending, and more a quick breath between two action-packed chapters of a larger story). When we first meet Oscar Britton, he is flying into action as part of a team tasked with bringing down a pair of Selfers. Britton is a career army man, but the actions of the SOC and the necessity of their mission – namely the murder of two teenagers – play on his conscience and he finds himself questioning his loyalties. This is a theme that runs throughout the book and, while some of his interior monologue comes across as decidedly whiny, it gives the reader a reason to root for Oscar – he’s a man of principles, the man we hope we would be, should we find ourselves in the same situation.
Unusually for this type of fast-paced action story, Control Point comes with a vast amount of backstory, drip-fed to the reader through chapter headers and conversations between characters. It’s here that we learn about the disaster at the Lincoln Memorial that led to the current controls on magic, about the Native American insurgency that forms a background to much of the story and about the different schools of magic, and the controls enforced on them. On top of this backstory, Cole has created an alternate dimension – the Source – and a race of beings – the Goblins – that inhabit it, and it is here that much of the novel’s action takes place. The marriage of magic and state-of-the-art military technology works well, and adds a layer of realism that might otherwise have been missing. As with Marvel’s X-Men or Samit Basu’s Turbulence, Cole also examines the relationship between these new magical post-humans and the rest of the human race, and we find similar themes coming through: distrust, fear, power-hunger.
Control Point is what it is: a scene-setter, the first part of a much larger work that promises to be the very best of military fantasy. As Oscar completes his training, we move from one fight scenario to another, each one designed to show not only what Oscar is capable of, but also the capabilities of his colleagues and his enemies. At times it feels slightly disjointed, like these are individual short stories whose only common denominator is the characters that populate them, but it is the most effective way to show us what we need to know for the coming instalments of the series. “Show, don’t tell” is advice often given to writers, and Cole does just that, giving us everything we need without slowing the pace or interrupting the flow of the story.
Smart, funny and packed to the endpapers with action, Control Point is a fast, fun read that sets up what promises to be an exciting new series. Myke Cole has written a first novel that finds the perfect balance between action and story, and filled it with characters compelling enough to make us want to learn more about them. The ending-that-isn’t is the perfect stopping point, and the perfect ploy: there is more to come, and anyone who has read this far is unlikely to want to miss it. A blend of military, fantasy and science fiction, Control Point and the Shadow Ops series will have broad appeal, making Myke Cole one to watch.
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.
|THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE
Released: 24th April
I have mentioned before my love for the work of Stephen King, so it’s difficult to describe how excited I was to find his latest novel – a Dark Tower novel, no less – on my desk a month before the official publication date (many thanks to the wonderful folks at Hodder for the opportunity). As I read, I convinced myself that a straightforward review of the book might not be enough this time around. As a result, I’ve written a three-and-a-half thousand word essay that includes a review of the book in the context of the larger series, and also the work of King over which the Tower casts its influence. It’s something of an experiment for Reader Dad, and I appreciate it’s not what everyone wants to see. For that reason, I’ve made life slightly easier, and you can skip directly to the actual review by scrolling down to the section headed The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel. If you feel inclined to read the essay, I’d love to know what you think (Do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying? Does the experiment work, or should I stick to the type of review I’ve been producing for the past year or so?), so do please comment below. Thanks, as always, for visiting.
The Dark Tower
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
I probably hadn’t quite reached my early teens when I read this line – the opening line to Stephen King’s seven volume Dark Tower series – for the first time. What followed was a strange tale that was part fantasy, part science fiction, part western, and somehow much more than the sum of its parts. I quickly devoured the first two books in the series – The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three – and promptly got stuck halfway through the third. It took me two more attempts (and two more re-reads of the first two books) before I finally made it through to the end of book three – The Waste Lands – wondering what had held me up for so long. Since then I, like the many others who have read and enjoyed The Dark Tower novels since early in the author’s career, have had two long waits – first for book four (Wizard and Glass), and then for the final three instalments of the series (Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower), which appeared in rapid succession (a wait that was made marginally more bearable by the publication partway through of the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). Finally having a copy of that seventh volume in my hands brought a strange sense of relief that King had managed to finish what he started, something that was cast into doubt on that fateful day in June 1999 (it’s a worry that nags persistently at every fan of George R. R. Martin, and so many others, that the author isn’t getting any younger, and these massive works remain uncompleted).
The Dark Tower is probably one of Stephen King’s most divisive works, and there are many Constant Readers who have yet to read it for one reason or another. At the beginning, it was seen as a massive deviation from King’s standard horror fare (if anything he has produced over the course of 35 years could be called “standard”), but as the series progressed, and King’s back catalogue grew, it became very clear that this was not a separate work, but the backbone to almost everything King has ever written, and the influence of the Tower shows up in the unlikeliest of places, as if leaked through a thinny from that next-door world into this one.
Based loosely on Robert Browning’s epic poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, The Dark Tower tells the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger from the land of Gilead, and his quest across Mid-World to reach the Dark Tower. Along the way, Roland draws three people from our world – or close approximations thereof – at different points in time: drug-mule and heroin addict Eddie Dean; wheelchair-bound Civil Rights campaigner Odetta Holmes, who is sometimes the foul-mouthed and vicious Detta Walker and who ultimately becomes Susannah Dean; and the boy Jake Chambers, whom the gunslinger has already met, and lost, at an early point in the story. Rounded out by the billy-bumbler Oy, the ka-tet follow the Path of the Beam through a world that has, as Roland puts it, moved on. As the story progresses, we learn snippets of Roland’s backstory (the bulk of Wizard and Glass tells the story of a much younger Roland and his friends, a love lost and a treachery avenged), and discover some of the driving force behind his quest.
The Dark Tower forms the nexus of all possible worlds. As the series progresses we learn that these worlds exist on different levels of the Tower and for the most part are completely separate, but there are doorways (such as the ones used by Roland to draw his ka-tet) and thin places (thinnies) where the worlds merge together. Mid-World is part fantasy land, and part future post-apocalyptic version of our own world (clues like slightly off-key renditions of “Hey, Jude” point to deeper links than are immediately obvious). Technology exists, but it, like everything else in this world, is tired, and few know how to use or maintain it. It plays a large part in the group’s quest, often in an adversarial or outwardly threatening role (most memorably, Shardik, the great bear that guards the end of the Beam along which Roland will travel to the Tower; or Blaine the Mono, the insane monorail aboard whom the group flee the city of Lud). Behind the technology, the ever-more sinister North Central Positronics, which plays a pivotal role in the series’ climax.
It took Stephen King 30 years, give or take, to write The Dark Tower opus. Towards the end he makes an appearance in a complicated self-referential storyline that makes perfect sense when looked at within the overall context of the Dark Tower series, and King’s wider canon. There was always a danger that after all that time, and all those words, that the ending may not live up to expectation (it’s not a view I share, but it has been said on many occasions that King tells a great story, but lacks considerably in writing endings), but in hindsight, there was only one way that such a story could possibly end and King pulls it off with a skill and mastery that is, quite frankly, second to none.
There a number of themes, both literal and figurative, running through the series. Roland is driven by a strange sense of honour and duty that often places him in a difficult position; more often than not, duty to the Tower wins out over duty to anyone or anything else and as a result Roland comes across as a cold and calculating character, something that Eddie points out in colourful ways on more than one occasion. He may seem a strange choice for the hero of the piece, but it’s difficult, as the story progresses, not to like him, despite his faults. The concept of ka underlines all, a concept similar to destiny (or probably, more closely, predestination) that drives Roland on his quest, and binds this group of disparate souls together as a sort of family. “Ka,” King tells us on many occasions, “is like a wheel” and this is probably the underpinning ethos of the whole Dark Tower opus. With the final three books, King introduces the number nineteen (see the name of the ka-tet, for example), which takes on significance as the story proceeds towards its climax. It is a number that crops up in King’s fiction quite frequently.
In the Shadow of The Dark Tower
As the story of the Dark Tower progressed, and as King grew as a writer, Constant Reader started to find references to this larger work throughout King’s novels and, more importantly, references to King’s other novels within The Dark Tower series. It was probably with the publication of King’s 1994 novel, Insomnia, that he cemented the idea that the Tower forms the nexus of his own work, that all of his novels take place in worlds on various levels of the Tower. It is also in Insomnia that King introduces the villain of the overall piece, in the form of the Crimson King.
There are references to the Tower throughout King’s later work, often oblique and easily missed, but sometimes more obvious. Some of his novels are more closely linked: the fairy-tale-like The Eyes of the Dragon is set in some remote corner of Mid-World, and contains at its centre the same dark man that wanders through much of his other fiction; and the opening story of his collection Hearts in Atlantis deals heavily with the Tower, seen through the eyes of the people forced into a kind of slavery, their goal the downfall of the Tower. Some clever retro-fitting brings many of his earlier novels into the fold: the ka-tet arrive in a version of Topeka ravaged by Captain Trips, proving that The Stand takes place on a nearby level of the Tower (although this novel has much closer ties, as we’ll discuss momentarily); Father Callahan, who we met first in 1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot, turns up late in the series, and the group encounter him as they enter Calla Bryn Sturgis. The Tower also, surprisingly, has a heavy influence on King’s second collaboration with Peter Straub, Black House. Surprising because it is a collaborative effort, but the two series – The Dark Tower on the one hand, The Talisman/Black House duology on the other – do have similar themes and concepts driving them, which makes the crossover much more logical.
There is a single figure that moves through King’s work like a restless ghost, pure evil distilled in the form of man, although it’s immediately obvious, to the reader at least, that this is no mere man. We first meet him in The Stand in the form of Randall Flagg, and he turns up again and again throughout King’s works, often – but not always – bearing the initials R.F. We find him in many places throughout The Dark Tower: he is the fabled man in black who fled across the desert (who has been known as Walter, and as Marten Broadcloak), and appears in the city of Lud in the guise of one Richard Fannin. Flagg (the name by which he is most commonly known) is one of the most instantly-recognisable figures in King’s fiction, regardless of which disguise he wears, and without doubt, one of the most sinister characters in fiction.
The Dark Tower is, perhaps, King’s most personal work, so it was interesting to see him relinquish some creative control to his research assistant Robin Furth (author of the encyclopaedic The Dark Tower: A Concordance) for a series of comics from Marvel chronicling the earlier years of Roland, picking up where the story Roland tells for the majority of Wizard and Glass left off, and detailing the fall of Gilead and the beginning of the gunslinger’s quest. It is also interesting to note that Ron Howard is planning a series of film and television adaptations of the novels which will reportedly cast Javier Bardem in the role that was custom-built for a much younger Clint Eastwood.
About 35 years after the first publication of the first part of The Gunslinger in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and over 40 years since he first put pen to paper on the project), the Dark Tower still casts a shadow over much of King’s work. As recently as the massive 11/22/63, King is making reference, in some shape or form, to Mid-World, and the other worlds that branch from the Tower. Likewise, many Constant Readers (and I’m happy to be counted among their number) have lived in this same shadow, waiting for long periods for the next instalment, breathing a sigh of relief when that final volume was finished, and watching hopefully for any small reference in each and every one of King’s novels and short story collections.
Imagine, then, my surprise, not to mention outright glee (and that of many other people, presumably), at the announcement of a new novel set in Roland’s world. Seven years after King brought his gunslinger to the end of his quest, he returns to Mid-World.
The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel
There are a number of gaps in time during the course of The Dark Tower, presumably because a lot of walking and not a lot else went on. One such gap is between the fourth (Wizard and Glass) and fifth (Wolves of the Calla) volumes, as the ka-tet leave the Green Palace that wasn’t Oz and head for Calla Bryn Sturgis, and End-World beyond. The Wind through the Keyhole goes some way towards plugging this gap, picking up immediately after the events of Wizard and Glass and joining Roland and his companions as they follow the Path of the Beam towards the river Whye. Oy, the billy-bumbler, is acting strangely, stopping suddenly and raising his snout towards the north, and it takes the ferryman who carries them across the river to jog the gunslinger’s memory, and alert him to the approaching starkblast – a storm of such ferocity and freezing temperature that it can cause trees to implode, and birds to fall, frozen solid, from the sky.
Hurrying to shelter, and beating the storm by a heartbeat, the group settles down with enough firewood to see them through a couple of days and, finding themselves unable to sleep, they turn to Roland for another story. The gunslinger starts to tell them of a time shortly after his return to Gilead from Mejis when he and one of his original ka-tet, Jamie deCurry, were sent to the town of Debaria to capture a skin-man that was terrorising the town, and which had already claimed upwards of twenty lives. When they arrive, they find fresh slaughter, but this time there’s a survivor – a young boy no older than Jake – and Roland, already showing some of the coldness for which he will be well-known in later years, decides to use the boy to flush out the culprit. As they wait for the arrival of a group of suspects, with a wild wind blowing through the town, Roland tells the boy a fairytale, the story of young Tim Stoutheart and his encounter with a trickster in a dark cloak.
The Wind through the Keyhole is a tale within a tale within a tale. The titular story is a fairy-tale told to Roland as a child by his mother. Set in a remote corner of Mid-World, it is a coming-of-age story centred around Tim, a young boy willing to do anything to save his mother’s sight. Set on a quest by a man Constant Reader will know all-too-well — up to his old tricks, manipulating people for his own amusement — Tim finds himself out of his depth and in the path of an oncoming starkblast. This tale is sandwiched between the two parts of the story about Roland and his hunt for the skin-man (or were-creature) and the whole is book-ended by the story we know and love so well, the journey of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy along the Path of the Beam, moving ever closer to the Dark Tower.
King slips into Mid-World very comfortably, despite the fact that it has been almost seven years since his last visit. The feel of the world is unchanged, and the language has a handful of idiosyncrasies that weren’t there before, but in all, nothing has changed here and the return is as comfortable and natural for the reader as it apparently was for the author. This book, described on the cover as A Dark Tower Novel, was more accurately described by King in the original announcement as “Dark Tower 4.5″. What’s obvious is that this book will have no impact on the outcome of the series as a whole, and will contain very little in the way of character development (except in revealing more about the still-mysterious past of the gunslinger). As a result, it’s unsurprising that King spends very little of the book with the ka-tet (less than 50 pages all told) and launches as quickly as possible into Roland’s tale, which he then uses as a springboard for the main event.
As a result, the book deals very little with the key characters of the series (with one obvious exception), and is perhaps closer to The Eyes of the Dragon in that respect than even Wizard and Glass, which would be its closest counterpart from the original seven volumes. In his Foreword, King assures us that this book can be picked up and read even without the in-depth understanding of the surroundings and characters that comes with reading the original series and, to a certain extent that is true, but those readers will have a much different experience (most likely with much more head-scratching and -shaking) than people who followed Roland for the duration of his quest. The exception I mentioned above is, of course, the man in black, best known as Randall Flagg who sets Tim on his course because it amuses him to do so.
Ka is like a wheel. As we read, and as the elder Roland recounts the tale, this fact comes crashing home, and the parallels between Roland’s story and Tim’s are unmistakable. It also speaks to Roland’s stubbornness that, despite this realisation, he is as determined as ever to complete his quest and reach the Tower — he has a score to settle, regardless of who set him on the path, or what that person’s motives were.
Through all three stories, there is a constant wind — starkblasts ravage outer and inner, while a simoom blows alkali dust through the town of Debaria in the middle tale. The wheel is a metaphor that Roland used frequently when speaking of ka, but he also spoke of the mysterious force as a wind, before which nothing can stand. Blowing across the years, the wind carries revelations that shed greater light on Roland, and add a richer experience for the long-time reader.
As with all the Dark Tower novels, The Wind through the Keyhole contains a number of illustrations. Noted artists such as Michael Whelan, Bernie Wrightson and Dave McKean have illustrated past volumes, each stamping their own style on Roland, his world, the Tower. This time famed comics artist Jae Lee (who also provides the art for the Marvel Comics Dark Tower comic book series) takes his turn. As well as chapter and section headers, Lee has provided five beautiful full-page black-and-white pieces that help to set the tone. What’s missing, unfortunately, are the colour plates that he also produced for the novel, and which seem to be exclusively included in the limited edition of this volume from US publisher Donald M. Grant. It’s a shame, since past volumes from Hodder have included all of the artwork.
The Wind through the Keyhole is a welcome return to a well-loved world, and a set of well-loved characters. It doesn’t advance the plot and adds minimal character development to the overall arc, but it’s a welcome addition to the set nonetheless. King is a master storyteller, and this is as good a showcase as any for his talents, as he interweaves three seemingly unrelated narratives into a single, consistent whole that stands with some of his best writing. It’s a beautifully-written novel that is clearly close to the author’s heart and is sure to be well-received by long-standing Dark Tower fans. Will it win any new recruits? It’s certainly not a bad jumping-on place, in that it provides a taste of the world without the commitment to the complete seven-book series, but I suspect it will deter as many people from seeking out those books as it will drive towards them. It is the nature of a beast like this that in order for the standalone novel to work, it must still meet the needs of the multitude of existing fans, and elements of the Dark Tower series — the language, the history — are just too alien to hold the attention of the average reader.
For the aficionado, though, The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.
If you’ve read the series, I urge you to pick this up (though suspect I’m preaching to the choir on that one). If you haven’t, this one is definitely worth a go (and at just over 300 pages doesn’t require much commitment), but I would urge you to find a copy of The Gunslinger and see where you end up.