Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Category

Historical Fiction

An Interview with ANTONIN VARENNE

image003 (1) Name: ANTONIN VARENNE

Author of: BED OF NAILS (2012)
                      LOSER’S CORNER (2014)
                      RETRIBUTION ROAD (2017)

Antonin Varenne was awarded the Prix Michel Lebrun and the Grand Prix du Jury Sang d’encre for Bed of Nails, his first novel to be translated into English. His second, Loser’s Corner was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs Quais du polar – 20 minutes and the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone. Retribution Road, translated into English by Sam Taylor and published by MacLehose Press is now available.

Thank you, Antonin, for taking the time to chat with us.

The scope of Retribution Road is vast, ranging from the East India Company’s campaign in Burma to the fledgling American West almost a decade later. What sort of research was involved in ensuring you got all the detail correct?

Research materials come from all sorts of sources, books, movies, documentaries, the internet and a few blogs. I read hardly any novels about this time period and the places in the book, only studies, biographies, even a bit of Darwin’s theory that I had studied at the university years back. I read the books that the main character, Arthur Bowman, discovers along his journey; Irving Washington, Thoreau… but they were not novels either. Reading a contemporary historian like Howard Zinn was inspirational too. The scene of the arrival of Bowman in New York, in the middle of a demonstration of female workers, is a tribute to Zinn’s historical work and political engagement. Sometimes, I read to get material for a scene, sometimes reading gave me the idea of a scene. It goes both ways.

And how does this compare to the research involved in writing a contemporary French-set thriller such as Bed of Nails?

The freedom of imagining a story is comparable for two books as different as these two, but in a contemporary universe, a lot of things don’t have to be checked: I know the speed of the cars, the name of the train stations, I know the towns… In Retribution Road, I had to check everything: how fast does a rider on his horse travel, when does he have to change the horses, was there a town or waterway on his itinerary, could you drink a draft beer in London in 1858? Take a train to Liverpool and be back the next day? How long did it take to sail from Madras to Rangoon? How many soldiers were there on a war ship of the East India Company? Were there worker unions in the US in 1859? And so on. To be accurate, you sometimes spend two or three hours to fine-tune a little detail, which is something you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction. But it is part of the pleasure as well, to immerse yourself into the research. As I mentioned before, it is fuel for the imagination.

One of the most striking things about the novel is that we never learn the whole truth about what happened to Arthur Bowman and his team during their six months of captivity in the jungle. We catch little more than glimpses of the horror they experienced as the story progresses, and through the map of scars on Bowman’s body. Can you talk us through the logic behind this decision?

It came from a decision I made after I published my very first book in 2006 (not translated). I didn’t think too much about the impact it could have, and it had almost none since it sold only a few hundred copies! But it was very violent, a serial killer story. Then I realized that violence had become an industry in the thriller genre, that if I was to really become a writer, I had to take a position on that matter. So I decided not to not write about violence, but to not do it lightly. No blood for the thrills, but to talk about something with more importance, like war and its traumas (Bed Of Nails), torture (Loser’s Corner). When I chose a veteran as the main character of Retribution Road, both executioner and victim, I still decided be careful with the treatment of violence; in this book there is another serial killer, but the causes that induce his behaviour are more important than the creation of yet another killer, just for the sake of it. So the descriptions of the murders are rather elliptic, and the same goes for the torture in Burma. Another thing that I had discovered writing Loser’s Corner, about the institutionalization of torture during the Algerian war, is that sometimes not seeing is as scary and potent as telling everything.

What are you working on now? Should we expect more sweeping historical epics (and maybe even a return of Arthur Bowman), or are we likely to see a return to the Gallic noir through which we first encountered you?

Well, I just published a book named “Equateur” in France, not really a sequel to Retribution Road, but a story starting where Arthur Bowman’s ends, in the USA, in 1872. But this time the travel doesn’t follow the sunset in the west, but goes down south, in Central America, then French Guyana where I spent a year with my family. And I am now writing a story whose principal character is related to Arthur Bowman (I don’t want to spoil his story), in 1900, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. I think this third book would be the end of this cycle. After that, I think about something completely different.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

It’s hard to just mention a few names, and to know which ones really have been influential on my writing: but in France I would say Jean-Patrick Manchette, and one of the first American writers I discovered, James Ellroy, but my admiration for him is fading (he never went past his obsessions, and his creativity kind of dried out, or it’s me who’s not into that kind of reading anymore, I don’t know); same kind of lost love for Cormac McCarthy (I thought he was the king of using the least amount of words necessary, then I realized that in fact he was sometimes very, very talkative; I could never finish reading Blood Meridian; he is a fabulous writer, but I just got bored, or I had something else to do…).

And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?

That would be We Come Back As Shadows (don’t know if it is the title chosen in English) by the great Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II. He is an historian by trade, and an eternal creator of amazing adventures in different time periods of his home country. He is a political activist, a heavy smoker, a man who cultivates friendship and love.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Antonin Varenne look like?

A writing day must start early in the morning, without a hangover and without too much sun, because then I go ride my motorcycles. If it is a good day for writing, I will skip lunch, human communication with my family, and come out of my office like a zombie, wondering what is that strange unreal world surrounding me.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Wow. To pursue fiction writing, you need to like and want to write before thinking about making a career out of it. It seems sometimes that success in literature comes from a recipe, ingredients well mixed and good marketing; but it is because somebody somewhere started something and usually did it sincerely, genuinely; then it became a trend and the others followed and copied. So to make a career, you start by writing what you want. And if it is different, it might take a while to find its readers, but if it is good, it will take off. If you worry about what people will think and want of your books, your personality is dead. It’s like starting to wonder: what people will think about Antonin Varenne after reading this interview? Is he spontaneous or a pretentious prick who says Ellroy and McCarthy aren’t that good? If I asked myself the question, I would write and rewrite my answers indefinitely till I turn crazy trying to please every reader. And the only way to do that is to write platitudes. The truth? I’m in the middle of an insomnia, it is dawn and I’m awake since 3 in the morning and my brain runs on its own weird sugar. Probably a good time to start a new book!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Purely business! A biography and engineering piece: Rudolf Diesel, The Man And The Engine!

If Arthur Bowman’s story should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Argh. I’m sure Bowman’s role can seduce lots of actors (strong, broken, heroic, romantic too, on his way to redemption), and I have no doubt lots of them have the talent, but it will take an actor with wide and strong shoulders to do it, because he is carrying a whole world on them, the colonial 19th century, plus all his personal idiosyncrasies!

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)?

Well, I would have a few drinks of any sort with Jack London. Probably, the first few rounds would be friendly, but later in the evening we’d have to discuss why a clever, talented and adventurous human being like him was such a racist pig. Him being a much stronger boxer, it would end up badly for me, but it could as well be the beginning of a real friendship, no?

Thank you once again, Antonin, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

RETRIBUTION ROAD by Antonin Varenne

image001 RETRIBUTION ROAD

Antonin Varenne

Translated by Sam Taylor (samtaylorwriter.wixsite.com/sam-taylor-writer)

MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

Sergeant Arthur Bowman is a fifteen-year veteran of the East India Company’s private army when he and his team are taken prisoner in Burma in 1852. Six months of torture leave him mentally and physically scarred when he is released along with nine of the men who were captured with him, and he returns to London. Working as a policeman, he finds a body in the sewers, a body whose mutilation is uncannily like his own, with the word “SURVIVE” daubed in blood beside it. Only ten men could have perpetrated this horrific crime, and Bowman is determined to find out which one before the crime is pinned on him. From Burma, through Nineteenth Century England and the burgeoning New World, we follow Arthur Bowman is his search for a killer, and for a reason to live.

Antonin Varenne’s new novel is a wild departure from his earlier, noirish offerings, but anyone who has read those earlier works will immediately recognise the author’s skilful hand in this Patrick O’Brian meets Arthur Conan Doyle meets Larry McMurtry epic of one man’s search for retribution and redemption in both the beautiful narrative style and the intense, gritty world that Arthur Bowman inhabits.

Bowman himself is a hard character to like, a man who speaks little and seems to hold those around him in contempt for much of the time. When he is tasked with picking a group for a special mission that he will then lead, he finds himself facing capture or death, and shows – in no uncertain terms – what he is prepared to do in order to survive. Varenne places us, very early in the story, in the middle of a pitched river battle in which we get to see the true Arthur Bowman, a man for whom we have had very little empathy up to this point, but whose actions and interactions endear him to us as violence rages around him.

His time in England, just another damaged war veteran, builds upon this stoic character to show us how far he will go to obtain justice. One of the men he chose that day in Burma is now a murderer, and Bowman feels no small measure of blame for it and so, pulling himself together, getting his life into some sort of order, he sets out to find which one and make him pay, going so far as to follow the series of murders first to America’s East Coast and then out west to where many are attempting to make their name and their fortune in fabled lands riddled with gold.

As Bowman’s story progresses, our opinion of him changes as we watch him come out of his shell, a man of integrity and a sense of duty who carries on despite the pain it might cause him. Bowman is obviously damaged, both in terms of the physical scarring that covers his body, and of the less-visible emotional scars, but is not so damaged as to still understand that what he suffered has no place outside the jungle camp that was his home for six months. What’s interesting here is Varenne’s decision not to focus on the violence, not to describe what Bowman went through, nor for that matter, what the killer’s corpses look like. It is somehow more harrowing knowing that something happened, even if we only catch brief glimpses of the details in a throwaway line here – about Bowman’s facial scarring – or there – about memories of other men being taken from their cages.

Retribution Road feels like three distinct novels in one: the historical epic covering the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852; the detective novel set in the grimy streets of Victorian London and England; and a story of rebirth as Bowman reaches the vast plains of the wild West. It’s beautifully written, Varenne’s distinctive style shining through Sam Taylor’s wonderful translation, and impeccably researched. While Bowman stands firm at the centre of the story, he comes into contact with many other people who leap from the page, regardless of how briefly they appear therein, or of how much impact they have on Bowman’s journey, on his transformation from automaton-like soldier to human being, lover, father, friend.

A stunning, epic tale from an author who is not afraid to step outside his comfort zone, Retribution Road is an entirely engrossing read that, despite its heft, will still leave the reader wishing for more. It’s a dark story with a surprisingly warm heart, the tale of a man who we should never come to like yet who, against all odds, settles himself comfortably into the reader’s consciousness, staying with us long after the story has finished. With Retribution Road Antonin Varenne proves that he is an author who deserves to be on your “must-read” list, and offers his work to a much wider audience than his earlier novels might. If I could only recommend one book this year, this would probably be it.

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES - Aliya Whiteley THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES

Aliya Whiteley (aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com)

Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)

£9.99

The Great War is a not-too-distant memory, and England is still in the process of recovering from the horror and loss that it wreaked. Teenager Shirley Fearn lives in the small village of Westerbridge, where she attends the local school taught by Mr Tiller and harbours the desire to become a teacher herself. As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, Shirley discovers Mr Tiller’s terrible secret, and learns of the missives he receives from a mysterious source. Mr Tiller has made it his life’s work to change the future of mankind, and enlists Shirley’s help. But where Mr Tiller sees something that must be avoided at all costs, Shirley sees only opportunity and a new form of repression that isn’t much different from that which rules her everyday life.

When we first meet Shirley Fearn, she appears to be much like any stereotypical young lady from the early twentieth century: she is madly in love with her teacher, the mysterious Mr Tiller, and spends her days planning their future together. But Shirley has a spark of individuality, an ambition to become a teacher that sets her at odds with her family and friends. The Shirley who takes over the story as May Day arrives is a much different person to the young girl who has accompanied us thus far: she is more determined, surer of her own value to humanity.

Mr Tiller has recently returned from the front lines, a limp the only outward sign of the terrible injuries that he has received. The women in the village see him as less than a real man while Shirley, blinded by her childish crush on him, sees his differences as a good thing.

No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

As the story progresses we learn the true nature of Mr Tiller’s injury, and the mental torture that comes along with it. Like Shirley, we are drawn into his confidence and become complicit in his plans to obey the plea that his mysterious missives carry, and of the possible future that awaits humankind.

The Arrival of Missives, for all its brevity, is a story of two distinct halves. From the start, it’s a wonderfully-written examination of life in rural post-War England, and of the mind-set and mores of the people who populate it. In Shirley Fearn we have the perfect protagonist to guide us through this strange old world – a teenage girl who has hopes and dreams of her own, but whose life has already been mapped out in this male-dominated world by her parents to a certain extent, but mainly by the town and the town’s expectations. She feels herself inexorably drawn towards Daniel Redmore, a young man not much older than she is, but finds herself resisting partly because of Mr Tiller, and partly because it is assumed by everyone that they will end up setting up home together.

The latter part of the story is an allegorical feminist manifesto of sorts, though by no means the hectoring, anti-male rhetoric that those two words suggest to many. When Shirley hears Mr Tiller’s missives first hand, something inside her breaks, and forces her to question her very nature. Mr Tiller’s future disaster seems much less troubling to Shirley, especially when she works out why. The reader is drawn into this argument and forced to decide for themselves: in much the same way that history differs depending on the teller, surely, too, the future must look different depending upon through whose eyes it is viewed.

‘It shows humanity,’ he says.

‘One part of it. One part, one group, with a message that has truth only to those who choose to believe it.’

What is interesting is how directly the book speaks to the speculative fiction community, and the frequently lambasted male-dominated science fiction community in particular.

My only clue lies in the fact that they have one thing in common. They are all pale old men…how can there be no people of China, or the East Indies? No youths? No women, no women at all? How is that possible?…I will not be a foot soldier for pale old men, no matter where they live or what pretty patterns they weave.

It is, undoubtedly, an important message, but one that is interwoven so closely with Shirley Fearn’s tale that it comes as a natural consequence, rather than as the aforementioned feminist manifesto around which a story has been constructed.

Aliya Whiteley’s follow-up to her first novella, The Beauty, is as deeply affecting and beautifully written as its predecessor. A very different beast, The Arrival of Missives weaves history and speculative fiction together and presents us the link in the form of the characters at the centre of the tale. While the novella seems to be Whiteley’s medium of choice – and it is one that certainly works well for her – this reader yearns to see her turn her hand to the much longer form in the near future. An incredible talent, Aliya Whiteley continues to astound and delight, and The Arrival of Missives confirms what anyone who read The Beauty already knew: these books, and this writer, are not to be missed, under any circumstances.

GUEST POST: The Arrival of Opportunity by ALIYA WHITELEY

Name: ALIYA WHITELEY

Author of: THE BEAUTY (2014)
                 THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES (2016)

On the web: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @AliyaWhiteley

Aliya Whiteley’s second novella, The Arrival of Missives, goes on sale on Monday 9th May. To celebrate the book’s launch Reader Dad is very pleased to welcome Aliya back to talk about the book’s origins.

There are lots of brave young women out there in literature but I never wanted to write one myself.

I’ve certainly loved many of them. I reread Jane Eyre many times and winced at Emma Woodhouse’s mistakes. I recognised the yearnings of Ursula Brangwen and held my breath for the nameless bride in Rebecca. Modern books have given me female leading characters who are perhaps more action driven (which you could say is a trend in popular entertainment generally) in the form of Halo Jones, Lisbeth Salander, and Lyra Belacqua. But the more these characters found themselves in incredible and dangerous situations, the less able I felt to create one myself. I wouldn’t be writing from a position of empathy. I didn’t feel I would make the same choices if I ever got thrust into such interesting perils. As a teenager I was bookish and quiet (well, I still am). I wished for excitement and did nothing about finding it in any place other than within the pages of the stories I loved. And I certainly didn’t want to create a heroine like myself – what would be the fun in reading about that?

But then The Arrival of Missives popped into my head, and I started to write a story that, as a writer, terrified me. I didn’t have the emotional distance from my lead character that I thought I needed to make it work. My own experience of being a young woman, dreaming of a future I was also scared of, kept getting in the way.

Somerset in 1920. Shirley Fearn is a bright young woman who has opinions about the immorality of war and the importance of love. She feels passionately about education as the tool that can guide young men towards making a better world. She also feels passionately about her mysterious schoolmaster, Mr Tiller. She has plans for her future. For everyone’s future.

When I first started to get into her voice I thought of her as the opposite of me. I soon realised that she was utterly recognisable: not in deeds, but inside her head. I was giving her thoughts and feelings that I had experienced as a teenager. I might have been quiet, but I had lots of opinions. It’s not a question of what both Shirley and I were thinking, but when and where the opportunity arose to express those thoughts.

Writing Shirley made me realise that character and opportunity are not automatically the same thing. Often the situation of the book controls characterisation, feeding into the idea that we learn from our experiences and become the sum of them. This is the act of making meaning from our lives. So Ursula Brangwen (a huge influence on The Arrival of Missives) becomes a teacher and finds the experience changes her. She recognises the intense, seething battle taking place between the young and the old for power, and therefore must decide on what side of that battle she lies. DH Lawrence was a master of this organic growth from event to action to internalisation, I think, and the struggle this creates in us all.

How Ursula views that relationship between age and youth is, though, entirely a creation of her mind. She has such strength of will, and it paints the world around her. That’s what helped me to write Shirley. Very strange things happen to her (events that we might characterise as science fiction or even horror in terms of literary genre) and yet she sees them all as a reinforcement of her world view. I found that I loved writing Shirley’s forceful decision to interpret all the things that happen to her, and her small village, as steps towards the future she wanted.

When I reached the end of Shirley’s story she had changed; what’s the point of writing if people, characters or otherwise, aren’t changed by it? But I’m still not sure if the change within her breaks my heart or reassures me. I suppose we all have to alter to grow. We can’t stay the same, and character can’t be an excuse for stagnation on the page or in real life.

Having said that, I’m still quiet and bookish. But it doesn’t worry me so much any more. It turns out that being afraid of whether life will ever give you an opportunity – whether the unique things inside of you that makes up your character will be wasted – is a big part of being young. Writing Shirley Fearn reminded me of that, and also proved to me that the thoughts are equally as important as the actions. It’s how the two relate to each other that decides the future, whatever it may be.

missives tour

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne

THE  BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN - John Boyne THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Émilie always maintained it was the war that killed him.

It is 1936 and seven-year-old Pierrot Fischer lives in Paris with his French mother, his German father having drunk himself into an early grave several years before. His best friend is Anshel Bronstein, a deaf Jewish child who lives on the ground floor of his apartment building. When Pierrot’s mother dies, his father’s sister takes him in, and brings him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is a housekeeper, and the house where she works is perched atop a mountain on the German-Austrian border, close to the small town of Berchtesgaden; this is the Berghof, and the master of the house is none other than the man who will soon become Führer of the Third Reich. Taken under Hitler’s wing, Pierrot soon rediscovers his German heritage, but finds that his newfound power comes at terrible cost.

Almost ten years after the phenomenal The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne returns to the subject of World War II as seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy. While both the title and cover of this latest story are both very reminiscent of that earlier volume, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a very different beast, though one that, ultimately, examines the same core question – “nature or nurture?” – through a very different lens.

We see the world through the young and innocent eyes of Pierrot, though the third-person narrative allows the narrator to impart secrets to the reader that might otherwise be beyond the youngster’s comprehension. Precocious and likeable, we feel a blow at the death of his mother, and are glad when he finds a place at a small family-run orphanage where we get the sense that he will be well looked after. When his aunt brings him to live with her, we watch and understand Pierrot’s apprehension while at the same time feeling joy that he still has family who want to do their best by him. It is a joy that is short-lived, when we discover exactly where he is going.

For the most part, Boyne paints a very human picture of Hitler, a man with much on his mind for whom this young boy is excellent company. There are moments when the evil peeks out from under the mask, and even the most jaded reader will feel a chill as we see the monster within. As Pierrot – now Pieter – grows closer to Hitler, his relationship with his aunt, and with the house’s other servants grows ever more distant. We watch as Pierrot changes – first forgetting his Parisian roots and his friendship with Anshel, then alienating himself from what few friends he has been able to make at the school in Berchtesgaden, and from the people with whom he shares the house, even when the master is not in residence – and the change becomes most marked when Hitler presents him with a gift almost a year after he first arrives: his own Hitler Youth uniform, which bestows upon him a sense of belonging, and of power, that has long been missing from his life. There comes a point in the novel, a moment of shocking betrayal, where we witness the boy’s transformation into early manhood:

It was Pierrot who climbed out of bed that morning, but it was Pieter who returned to it now before falling soundly asleep.

As we have come to expect from the works of John Boyne, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is beautifully-written and well-researched. His evocation of the Berghof is enough to transport the reader to the Obersalzburg, and his characters are as full of life as any he has created. While it lacks the emotional kick in the gut that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas provides, it is no less intense an experience. (Regular readers will be pleased with the brief crossover between the two books, as Pierrot and Bruno come face-to-face at Mannheim train station.) It’s an engaging – and all-too-short – look at Pierrot’s journey to the very brink of evil, but it is also, at least indirectly, a very frightening examination of Hitler’s fabled charisma, and goes some way towards trying to explain how so many people might have been talked into doing so many bad things in the name of furthering the Reich, not least the once – and potential future – King of England who turns up with Mrs Wallis Simpson on his arm for a weekend retreat with the Führer. What is perhaps most frightening about the experience is how Boyne plays on our own feelings about this man, presenting him in a different light that contradicts everything we think we know.

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

An Interview with ZEN CHO

str2_shgzencho_sharmilla_12 FOR ONLINE Name: ZEN CHO

Author of: SORCERER TO THE CROWN (2015)

On the web: zencho.org

On Twitter: @zenaldehyde

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer of SFF and romance. She was born and raised in Selangor, read law at Cambridge, and currently lives in London. Her debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown is out now in the UK, published by Pan Macmillan.

Thank you, Zen, for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks for having me!

Sorcerer to the Crown is garnering lots of favourable reviews, and has been compared to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to the work of Terry Pratchett. The obvious question to start us off, then, is: what or who were the influences for Sorcerer and how far from the original idea is the finished book?

You’ve named two big influences on me! Terry Pratchett’s books taught me that writing could be serious and smart while also being funny and silly. And I love Susanna Clarke’s writing – it’s so erudite and elegant. I don’t know that Sorcerer to the Crown is anything like their stuff, but I’m certainly a huge fan of both of them.

I did write Sorcerer in conversation with other books, though, and the direct influences are actually P. G. Wodehouse, with his absurd young gentlemen, and Heyer’s frothy romances.

A lot of the basic elements of the original idea have survived into the finished book, but I spent more than a year revising Sorcerer to the Crown and it certainly looks very different from the first draft. One of the biggest differences is that Prunella Gentleman, who’s one of the two main characters, became much more central. In earlier drafts you saw her from the outside, but she became much more of a co-protagonist in revisions.

A fun and magical “Regency Romp” it might be, but Sorcerer also has a very serious side that is as relevant today as it was in the book’s setting. The novel examines, in some depth, the question prejudice, both the racism directed at the book’s two main characters, and the sexism aimed at Prunella and the other women with magical abilities. One of the main criticisms aimed at SFF works is the lack of diversity, and you have gone almost to the opposite extreme. How important were these themes to you when you were writing the book, and did you encounter any difficulties in finding the right balance between story and “lecture” (which, to my mind, you have managed perfectly)?

Good, I’m glad it didn’t feel too much like a lecture! That was actually one of my main challenges when writing the book: I wanted it to be fun, but I had these quite serious ideas I was interested in exploring as well, and it was a hard line to walk. I didn’t go into the project saying, "I’m going to write the most diverse book ever" – there’s lots of axes of diversity it doesn’t address. But these themes were my entry-point for the story. From the very outset I wanted it to be about a black man in Regency London and about an irrepressible female magician in a society that disapproved of female magic, and once you make those decisions the rest of the story unfolds from there.

There is a beauty to the language you use in the book, a very formal English that you manage to maintain for the duration of the story. What sort of research did you need to do to find the right voice, the right sentence structure to ensure the story fit into the Regency setting?

I did a lot of research on Regency England because I wanted the world to feel convincing and complete. So I made these lists of what they would have worn and what they would have eaten and so on, so I could make references to them that would flesh out the setting. When it comes to the language, I’ve always enjoyed the Regency "voice" – several of my favourite authors have that voice, whether it’s an assumed voice or just their actual voice, like Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and so on. Getting to play with that voice was one of the main attractions of writing a novel set in Regency London. I read a lot of books written during and set in that period, including diaries and letters as well as fiction – I love reading people’s correspondence so it was a great excuse.

And speaking of research: you have created a detailed magical world, both in England and in Fairyland. Was there much research involved in getting the details right: the structure of the Society, for example, or the different creatures that inhabit the magical realm of fairy?

The structure of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was built piecemeal in response to what the plot required, but of course it’s supposed to sound a bit like the actual Royal Society. I have no idea how similar it is to the real Royal Societies and how they’re structured, but it’s to be expected that thaumaturges will do things a little differently …

With the different creatures in Fairy, I’m quite nerdy about supernatural beings and magical creatures and because of my cultural background I’m aware of lots of different sorts. I included magical creatures from different cultures because I wanted the world to feel convincingly like ours – large and full of different types of people and things and stories.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a proposed series. Can you talk about where the story will take us next, what is likely to become of Zacharias and Prunella?

Book 2 is very much a work in progress so even I don’t entirely know where it will end up! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will make a reappearance, along with a few other familiar faces, but the story will also follow the adventures of a couple of new characters. There’s a couple of explosions and there will be at least one mistaken elopement.

Beyond the scope of Sorcerer, what authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I’m influenced by the authors, primarily British, I read as a child – so Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and the like. More recently I’ve been inspired by other Commonwealth writers – the historical adventure novels of Amitav Ghosh, for example, and the elegant science fiction of Karen Lord.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’d like to write a book that is like Stella Benson’s Living Alone. It’s quite an obscure novel about a witch in London during the Great War. It’s very sad and funny and whimsical, and just on the right side of twee (in my opinion). My version would probably be less sad and more Asian.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Zen Cho look like?

I wake up at 9-10 am and have a look at what’s going on on social media over coffee and breakfast. After some futzing around I settle down to writing. When I’m actively drafting a novel (as distinct from planning and outlining or revising) I have a daily wordcount I’ll be aiming for and I use a Pomodoro app to help me keep on track – you write for 25 minutes, take a break, then go for another 25 minutes, etc. That’s my main job of the day, but I’ll also take time out from fiction writing to deal with what I think of as the "busy work" – dealing with emails, writing blog posts, updating my website and so on. I usually also check my day job emails at least once a day to make sure nothing’s on fire at the office. Because I take breaks throughout the day I usually work into the evening.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Keep going, enjoy writing for its own sake, and don’t worry about the externals too much. Do it regularly. Don’t be afraid of failure.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748, which is sort of for business. For pleasure I’m reading a novel called Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a capable young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.

If Sorcerer to the Crown should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Not really! People have proposed fantasy casting for Prunella and Zacharias to me, but I don’t watch much TV or film so it’s not something I’ve thought about myself. I secretly think it’d make a better BBC miniseries than Hollywood movie, but I guess that’s already been done with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell …

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

It would have been nice to have had the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. I love her work. If we imagine it happening at a con bar I’d probably have a gin or tonic. I don’t know what tipple she would have gone for!

Thank you once again, Zen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks for the questions!

SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

9781447299486 SORCERER TO THE CROWN

Zen Cho (zencho.org)

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.

Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.

When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.

For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.

Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.

Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW by David Lagercrantz

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW - David Lagercrantz FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW

David Lagercrantz (www.davidlagercrantz.se)

Translated by George Goulding

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

On a wet morning in early June 1954, Detective Constable Leonard Corell finds himself investigating the death of a mathematician in the sleepy Cheshire town of Wilmslow. Preliminary investigation points towards suicide, the man having died after eating a poisoned apple in a gruesome parody of Disney’s Snow White. His name is Alan Turing, which rings bells with Corell. It doesn’t take long to work out why: Turing was recently convicted of homosexuality. But there is more to this death than appears on the surface: Turing was followed for several weeks prior to his death and seems to have played a mysterious – and very secret – role during the Second World War. Going off-piste, Corell digs into the mathematician’s past, discovering the breadth of his genius as he attempts to find a reason behind his sudden suicide. But his digging alerts the British secret services and, as the Cold War rages, Leonard Corell is about to discover what happens to people who ask too many questions about the wrong subjects.

Alan Turing is a man who has seen something of a resurgence of popularity in recent years, what with the fiftieth anniversary of his death spawning a number of events last year, Benedict Cumberbatch immortalising him on the big screen in Oscar-bait The Imitation Game and his long-overdue Royal pardon at the end of 2013. David Lagercrantz’s novel, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, takes a look at the man’s life through the lens of 1950s England and shows just how surprising his current status as the man who broke Germany’s Enigma ciphers actually is.

The novel opens with Turing’s death, and follows Leonard Corell’s investigation as he first attempts to prove that it was suicide, and then tries to dig deeper into the man’s short and seemingly unhappy life. It quickly becomes obvious that the reader is at an advantage over Corell since we know who this dead man is, and the services he has rendered in the name of patriotism, whereas Corell is encountering him at a time when his war efforts were still a closely-guarded secret and the most anyone knows of him is that he was a mathematician who was recently convicted of homosexuality. Despite his feelings on the subject, Corell finds himself intrigued by this man of many secrets, and begins to dig into his past, formulating theories that come a little too close to the truth for the people for whom Turing worked until so recently.

Corell, through whose eyes we watch the aftermath of Turing’s death, comes across as an unsympathetic character early in the book. Born into a wealthy family which soon after lost both money and status, Corell is a bitter young man who dislikes his job, and the small Cheshire town in which he works. Many of the people he encounters during his investigation have lived the life he feels he should have lived: good school, Oxbridge education, high-paid job. When he encounters Turing, something long-dormant is awakened within him, and he finds himself yearning for that parallel existence, where mathematics and science are his central focus, rather than petty crime and small-town politics. By the book’s end, we find ourselves identifying more firmly with this young man who has proven to be more tenacious and more open-minded than we might have initially given him credit for.

Lagercrantz’s portrayal of Alan Turing is remarkably on-target. Seen through the eyes of Corell, and of the people with whom Turing lived, worked and, in some cases, the people he loved, we get a remarkably intimate picture of what his life was like in the years before he ended it. While he never preaches, Lagercrantz leaves us with a sense of horror and despair that a man who gave so much to his country could have been treated in such an inhumane manner because of his sexual preferences. It shines a light on the injustices Turing faced and that most likely drove him to take his own life while reminding us of just how much he achieved during his brief stint at Bletchley Park, and of the legacy he left a world that nowadays relies very heavily on his “universal machines”.

Lagercrantz touches on the Cold War mentality that suffused England – and most of the western hemisphere – during the early 1950s and introduces Corell to Britain’s fledgling secret services, for whom Turing worked before his sexual preferences became widely acknowledged. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is an excellent companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also features Turing in a prominent role: like Stephenson’s weighty tome, Lagercrantz’s novel is keen to expand the reader’s horizons, to open their minds to new ideas and new philosophies and is not afraid to shy away from long discussions of mathematical problems – most specifically the liar’s paradox, which formed the basis of Turing’s work on a universal digital machine – in order to allow us to completely understand not only Turing, but also the policeman who has become consumed by a desire to know who the mathematician was. Some readers may find this heavy going at times, but it forms an integral part of the story.

David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.

GUEST POST: Researching The Widow’s Confession by SOPHIA TOBIN

tobin_sophia_13017_2_300 Name: SOPHIA TOBIN

Author of: THE SILVERSMITH’S WIFE (2014)
                 THE WIDOW’S CONFESSION (2015)

On the web: sophiatobin.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @SophiaTobin1

From day trips to directories: researching The Widow’s Confession

The Widow’s Confession is set during a summer season at a Victorian seaside resort. Researching the life of the Victorian tourist with its excursions, shell-collecting, sea-bathing and fireworks was a necessary pleasure, and a provider of many dramatic possibilities.

widow%27s confession blog tour graphics (2)Having pieced together various visual sources, my documentary research began with reading the newspapers for the period, searching for mentions of Broadstairs. I had prior knowledge of the town – I was brought up there – but the papers gave me the contemporary flavour I needed, historical texture and more information on its maritime culture. Through reading reports of shipwrecks I found descriptions of the sound of the lightships at the Goodwin Sands firing their guns to warn of a wreck, which became a defining motif in the book. Through the newspapers I also learned of events which served to drive some of the action, such as the Ramsgate Regatta, which became a pivotal scene. And when I read, in the London Standard, that Broadstairs was sought out by people who wanted privacy, in a moment I could hear my main character, Delphine, telling me it was ‘the perfect place to hide’.

Contemporary directories and guidebooks were hugely valuable to me, such as W. Kidd’s Picturesque companion to the Isle of Thanet, published in 1840, which described the most desirable shells collected by visitors – including the ‘beauty shell’ which found its way into the plot. As you might expect, the sources sometimes disagree (by 1851, Dickens was complaining that Broadstairs was too loud and busy; a guidebook printed that year described it as ‘very genteel and very dull’) but from such disagreements I could make my own decisions about how I saw the town, piecing together the sources and extracting a sense of atmosphere from them.

Swathes of research never made their way into the book, apart from brief mentions. When Theo describes a book he has been reading on archaeological finds at Reculver, justifying a visit, he is referring to a real book, written by Charles Roach Smith and published in 1850, which I pored over in the stacks of the London Library for an entire evening.

I don’t think you can beat an excursion for research purposes. I can still feel the icy wind whipping at my coat as I looked at the ruins of Reculver. Spending a summer weekend at Broadstairs, I watched the sky transformed by a summer storm, and lightning over the sea. A day later, a thick sea-mist fell, making everything ghostly, so that I could almost hear the sound of horses’ hooves and the creak of the lantern raised at the headland to signal to the boats. The town had given me, in days, a light-show of what I needed for the book. I have to admit, the best part of the research was watching lightning shiver over the summer sky.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑