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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Steampunk

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde

EYRE AFFAIR - Jasper Fforde THE EYRE AFFAIR

Jasper Fforde (www.jasperfforde.com)

Hodder (www.hodder.co.uk)

£7.99

review-projectThe following review is the first in a series of reviews for the Hodderscape Review Project, a project that I’m very happy and proud to be a part of. Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, for anyone that has already read it, will seem the obvious choice of book to kick this fantastic project off, given that it’s the inspiration behind the Hodderscape team’s logo, Pickwick the Dodo. Check out the blog, and the reviews of my fellow participants, here.

Thursday Next is a LiteraTec, a member of the Special Operations Network (SpecOps) who specialises in literary crime. When the original manuscript for Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen, Next is approached by the leader of SO-5, a top secret SpecOps department, who believe the theft to be the work of their quarry, one Acheron Hades. Following a disastrous stakeout, Next relocates to Swindon on the advice of some future incarnation of herself where she finds herself once more on the trail of Hades. When the manuscript for Jane Eyre is stolen, and Jane herself kidnapped, Next finds herself thrown once more into the deep end, tasked with rescuing Jane and restoring the nation’s most beloved book to its former glory.

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels have been on my radar for some time now but, like many others, I’ve never quite managed to get to them. So, receiving the first book, The Eyre Affair, as the first book in the Hodderscape Review Project gave me, as much as anything else, an excuse to finally give it a try. Am I glad I did? The jury’s still out, I’m afraid.

The plot is wonderfully-constructed, and Fforde has spent a huge amount of effort in building a world that will support its every twist and turn: this is an alternate 1985, a world with slightly more Victorian values than our own timeline (watch the speech patterns, and the large role that novels like Eyre and Chuzzlewit play in the national consciousness), but much more scientifically advanced than our own in some ways: gene-splicing is widely-used and accepted, which is why Next can have a pet dodo. The Crimean War is in its one hundred and thirty-first year, and Next – along with many of her contemporaries – is a veteran. This is a world where people can move between reality and fictional worlds, often on a whim, sometimes with the help of technology. And it is this ability that drives the central conceit of The Eyre Affair, the kidnapping of Jane Eyre.

The book is much darker than might be expected. Next is an edgy woman with a razor-sharp wit and a sharper tongue. The few outbursts of violence are shocking in their content and approach, especially coming, as they do, amongst so much light-heartedness and frivolity. This isn’t the type of book where people should be killed, but many are nonetheless. The on-going war, and the division it causes in the population, introduces a political tension that explains the existence of the Goliath Corporation, the giant multinational that has powers above even those of the more secretive SpecOps departments.

This evening several hundred Raphaelites surrounded the N’est pas une pipe public house where a hundred neo-surrealists have barricaded themselves in. The demonstrators outside chanted Italian Renaissance slogans and then stones and missiles were thrown. The neo-surrealists responded by charging the lines protected by large soft watches and seemed to be winning until the police moved in.

There are some deft touches – what happens when you kidnap the protagonist of a novel which is told from that person’s point of view, for example? – which might have raised the book to perfection had it not been for the niggles that turned me off continuing with the series.

The biggest problem, for me, comes in the naming of the characters, many of which seem like placeholders that Fforde used and forgot to change pre-publication. Jack Schitt? A LiteraTec called Paige Turner? A policeman with the unlikely moniker of Oswald Mandias? And let’s not forget the Big Bad himself, Mr Acheron Hades (who, if you can credit it, has a brother named Styx). While they fit with the book’s overall sense of humour, they do become something of a distraction as the story progresses. I should point out that I have problems with novels that are designed to be funny: I’ve never finished a Terry Pratchett, nor a Colin Bateman. I can take humour when it’s integrated into the storyline, but when a book sets out to be a comedy-fantasy or comedy-mystery, I find that much of the so-called humour usually falls flat. The Eyre Affair falls centrally into this category for me, and while I enjoyed elements, the humour was a big turn-off for me. Which is a shame, because The Eyre Affair has all the elements that should make this a winner for me.

At its heart, this is Fforde’s love letter to literature. The message here is that these classic works of fiction are not the exclusive domain of a small group of intellectuals, but works written to be enjoyed by everyone. As someone who hasn’t read Martin Chuzzlewit or Jane Eyre, it’s difficult to know if I’ve missed anything deeper (Internet searches show me that Fforde tinkered massively with the plot of Eyre for the purposes of the story), or if someone who has read them will come away having had a different experience; I do know that it’s not essential to know the works to enjoy or appreciate what Fforde has done.

While the humour and the character naming made this book assuredly “not for me”, I did enjoy the central plot and the world upon which it is constructed. Names aside, the characters are perfectly-drawn and it’s a shame they should be consigned to such obscurity (Fforde managed to make me despise Jack Schitt, for example, and hope for a sticky end for him). There are glimpses of genius here, and it’s obvious that Jasper Fforde is an author who bears more study (just not in the rest of this series). If you’ve enjoyed the novels of Nick Harkaway, I would definitely recommend this one. If, like me, you prefer your fiction with a little less canned laughter, it might best be avoided.

A Newbury & Hobbes 100-Word Short Story by George Mann

newbury_hobbes[4] THE EXECUTIONER’S HEART: A NEWBURY AND HOBBES INVESTIGATION

George Mann (georgemann.wordpress.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Released: 12th July 2013

To celebrate the release of George Mann’s latest Newbury and Hobbes novel, The Executioner’s Heart, this coming Friday, 12th July, I’m very pleased to offer you a 100-word short story that George has kindly allowed us to host on the blog. Think of it as a taster for the series, and enjoy! The Reader Dad review will appear soon.

“There’s a woman,” said the Queen, “who is proving to be something of a thorn in our side.” She emitted a wet, spluttering cough, and Newbury saw a trickle of blood ooze from the corner of her mouth. She dabbed it away. The bellows of her life-giving apparatus sighed noisily as they laboured to inflate her diseased lungs.

“A foreign agent?” asked Newbury.

“Perhaps,” murmured the Queen. “Perhaps not. She operates under the alias ‘Lady Arkwell’. It is imperative that you locate her and bring her to us.”

“What has she done?” enquired Newbury.

“Ignored our invitation,” replied Victoria, darkly.

About the book:

A serial killer is loose on the streets of London, murdering apparently random members of the gentry with violent abandon. The corpses are each found with their chest cavities cracked open and their hearts removed. It is clear some new and strange contraption is being used to affect this procedure. Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, suspects an occult significance to the crimes and brings Newbury and Veronica in to investigate.

THE AYLESFORD SKULL by James P. Blaylock

Ayelsford Skull - Blaylock THE AYLESFORD SKULL

James P. Blaylock (www.jamespblaylock.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

A girl is murdered in a cemetery in the quiet English town of Aylesford. She is found beside an open grave from which the skull appears to have been taken. The culprit is none other than Dr. Ignacio Narbondo; the Aylesford Skull – and more importantly, the modifications that have been made to it – are central to his latest plan. Kidnapping the four-year-old son of his old nemesis, Professor Langdon St. Ives, he flees to London and finds himself hunted not only by St. Ives, but by the headstrong young Finn Conrad, and old Mother Laswell, who has motives of her own. Narbondo and his associates are planning something big, and it’s up to Langdon St. Ives to stop him, and save his son in the process.

What at first glance may appear to be a clichéd and formulaic Victorian fable – the good guy and his nemesis fight a battle of wits with the world, or the Empire at least, at stake – gains much more depth the further we read. Langdon St. Ives may once have been an adventurer of some note, but he is now happy to have settled in rural England with his family. The upheaval caused by the return of Narbondo is unexpected and unwanted. When he learns the truth behind the missing skull, his scientific brain takes over and refuses to let him believe what he is being told, but he is not so close-minded that he is unable to accept the fact of magic when everything points to a supernatural explanation. Narbondo, the perfect foil for St. Ives’ character, is a larger-than-life, almost comical villain, the Joker to the Professor’s Batman. A man of few scruples, pure profit is his only motivation and there are no limits to what he will do to achieve his goals.

Around these two central characters, Blaylock has constructed a solid supporting cast, seeing the return of many characters from the earlier novels – Tubby Frobisher, Jack Owlesby, Bill Kraken and Hasbro, St. Ives’ factotum – as well as a few new faces – Finn Conrad, Mother Laswell and a certain young Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Doyle. Blaylock admits to an enthusiasm for 18th and 19th Century literature, and his love of the form shines through here, both in the narrative structure of the novel, and the dialogue itself. This authentic writing style only adds to the experience, and makes the book’s steampunk and supernatural elements more palatable for the reader.

One of the strengths of the novel is the world that Blaylock has created around his characters. The action takes place in the summer of 1883 in a world much like our own, with some technological advances. This is a world of dirigible airships, steam-powered church organs and miniaturised-clockwork gadgets, but for the most part the steampunk is subtle, much less in-your-face than, say, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, or Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine (both fine examples of the genre, don’t get me wrong). Blaylock weaves real-world history into the plot, setting the story against the politically charged background of 1880s London: a series of bombings blamed on Fenians and anarchists provide cover for Narbondo’s preparations. The result is a realistic and believable world not too far removed from our own.

James P. Blaylock is one of the fathers of the steampunk movement, and Langdon St. Ives is one of the genre’s most enduring characters, having first appeared in the early eighties. The Aylesford Skull is my first experience with both author and character: I have been lusting after the small press limited editions of the St. Ives novels for years, since they’ve been the easiest copies to find, despite the high price tag. Fortunately for me, and all those like me who have yet to meet the Professor and his companions, Titan Books are using the publication of this latest novel to re-issue at least some of the older novels, and hopefully in time we’ll see the complete collection as affordable paperbacks.

The Aylesford Skull is an old-fashioned adventure story with a sprinkling of technology and a hint of the supernatural. A fast-paced read, its audience is likely to be confined to fans of steampunk, or long-time readers of Blaylock, even though it deserves a much wider audience (it should appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and all possible stops in between). With a strong cast of characters, an engaging storyline and a writing style that demands the reader’s attention, this novel shows that James P. Blaylock is worthy of the “Steampunk Legend” tag that adorns the book’s front cover. Despite references early in the story to previous adventures, this is an excellent place for the new reader to start. A wonderful addition to the genre, The Aylesford Skull has left this reader looking forward to more tales of Langdon St. Ives, both old and new.

An Interview with JAMES P. BLAYLOCK

James_Blaylock Name: JAMES P. BLAYLOCK

Author of: THE DIGGING LEVIATHAN (1984)
                 HOMUNCULUS (1986)
                 LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE (1992)
                 THE AYLESFORD SKULL (2012)

On the web: www.jamespblaylock.com

To celebrate the release of James P. Blaylock’s latest novel, The Aylesford Skull (my review will be available later this week, so do please check back), his publisher, Titan Books, are running a competition to win a Limited Edition copy of the novel. Enjoy the interview with the author, below, and check out details on how to enter the competition at the end.

One of the founding fathers of modern steampunk, James P. Blaylock is the winner of a Philip K. Dick Award and two World Fantasy Awards. Befriended and mentored by Philip K. Dick, James P. Blaylock pioneered the steampunk genre along with his contemporaries, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. He is distinguished by his unique, humorous style, enthralling characters and vivid real world settings.

I’m delighted to welcome James P. Blaylock along to Reader Dad for a chat. Thanks for the taking the time out, James.

You’re credited, along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, as one of the fathers of modern Steampunk. Tell us a bit about the history of the genre: what was your starting point? What were you trying to achieve?

The three of us were friends (still are) in the 1970s. After we graduated from the university, we were young enough and idle enough to have time to hang around with each other during the day. We were all new writers at the time. I had published my first short story, and Tim and K.W. had sold novels. I was enthusiastically working on an impossible novel, which I’d figure out how to write several years later as The Digging Leviathan. All of us were big on Victorian literature. K.W., who had a degree (I seem to remember) in sociology, had read Henry Mayhew’s brilliant London Labour and the London Poor, and was regaling us with wild accounts of treasures and feral pigs in the London Sewers and that sort of thing. Tim was researching and writing the novel that would become The Drawing of the Dark, and K.W. was writing Morlock Night. Much of this “research” went on at O’Hara’s Pub in downtown Orange, California, where I lived at the time and still do. (I mean I live in Orange, not at O’Hara’s Pub.) K.W. and Tim were living in a bohemian sort of neighborhood in nearby Santa Ana, where Phil Dick was living at the time. I was engaged in an effort to read all of Robert Louis Stevenson and P.G. Wodehouse, and I very badly wanted to spend some time in an earlier era, taking a shot at making slightly arcane language work and writing wacky adventures about backyard scientist/explorers. The result was my short story “The Ape-box Affair,” which was the first of our early Steampunk pieces to see print, only by virtue of its being a story rather than a novel: quicker to write and quicker to publish. None of us had the idea of writing any particular sort of thing at all. It simply seemed right and natural to set a story where the story seemed to want to be set. It was nearly a decade after “The Ape-Box Affair” and Morlock Night were published that K.W. would coin the term Steampunk. Up until then I had no idea that it formed any sort of science fiction subgenre. So I have to say that we weren’t trying to achieve anything much beyond publishing stories and novels. We might as easily have been writing pirate fantasies (which would come later) or vegetarian thrillers. We’d be Piratepunks or Vegetarianpunks now.

Steampunk is still thriving today, both on and off the page. Do you follow the genre much? If so, which authors, in your opinion, are worth following? Who are the people pushing the limits of the genre and keeping it alive?

I watch the Steampunk phenomenon with great pleasure, and I admire the trappings. I have to say, however, that I don’t follow the genre much, except by chance. I recently had the pleasure of reading Ghosts by Gaslight, an anthology of Steampunk/Gaslight stories edited by Nick Gevers and Jack Dann. They managed to pack the anthology with great stories. I wasn’t surprised to see that first rate writers like Gene Wolfe or Lucius Shepard could write first rate Steampunk or Gaslight fantasy as well as anything else they set their hand to. I’m also fond of the publications of the VanderMeers. And Tim Powers’s Hide Me Among the Graves is characteristically brilliant. It’s arguable that Steampunk culture is being kept alive by the growing number of aficionados who dress the part, play the music, talk the talk, and generally live in their version of a Steampunk world. I’m guessing they’re abetted and encouraged by writers like Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger, who create fully conceived and persuasive Steampunk worlds in their fiction. I’m all for keeping it alive.

There was a gap of 17 years between your last Langdon St. Ives novel, and the first of the novellas. The Aylesford Skull is the first full-length St. Ives novel in twenty years. How did you approach your return to the character after such a long time away? Was it difficult to find your way back into his world?

It was in fact easy to find my way back into the world. I was attracted to it in the first place because I’d long been an enthusiastic reader of 18th and 19th Century literature, starting at around 10 years old. That enthusiasm never declined. I have other enthusiasms when it comes to reading, of course, but I’ve always had one foot in the past, looking back as often as I look forward. That being said, most of my novels take place in contemporary California settings, and I wrote a string of them in the late 80s and 90s, taking a couple of years on each. About 12 years ago I developed a program in creative writing at what was then the Orange County High School of the Arts (now more accurately the Orange County School of the Arts) and I stayed on to direct the program and to teach. I was already teaching full time at Chapman University, and the result of all this teaching and directing was less writing. Along the line, however, I read James Norman Hall’s brilliant collection of stories titled Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, and I was reminded of how much I missed writing Steampunk, and I found myself writing “The Ebb Tide” and “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs” for Subterranean Press. I also found a new agent, who leaned on me to write a longer Steampunk novel, and the result of that was The Aylesford Skull. I assume that my agent will keep leaning on me.

On a similar note, what was the driving force behind the return to the character after such a long absence?

The driving force was a complicated mixture of Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, the expectations of a new agent, the compulsion to write more, and the knowledge that if I didn’t write more I’d wake up one morning with the knowledge that I used to be a writer.

What’s next for St. Ives? Can we expect to see more adventures from the Professor in the near future?

His next appearance (as far as I know now) will be in a new publication from Subterranean Press that’s a companion volume to the previous two. Its working title is “The Pagan Goddess,” but that will probably be supplanted by something more… something. There’s also another full-length St. Ives novel in the works, just taking shape in my mind at this point.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

The writers who inclined me toward writing Victorian science fiction included Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Poe. Those writers made colourful, old-fashioned adventure novels particularly appealing to me when I was a boy. But my love of language, of writing, of setting and character can be blamed on Twain, Steinbeck, and Stevenson. Their novels and stories and essays were the driving force, so to speak, of my writing. The die was cast when I was ten years old, and my parents gave me Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer as Christmas presents, just at the time that I had discovered Steinbeck in my mother’s library and read In Dubious Battle and some of the short stories in The Long Valley. I didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, but I was entirely swept up in the flood of word pictures and strange characters, and I’m still swimming in that river. (Sorry for the wonky metaphor.)

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

If you mean someone else’s book, sure – a hundred or two of them. I wish I had the talent and the information and sensibilities and experiences of any and all of my literary heroes and could write the books they wrote. If you mean a Blaylock book that I’d like to have written, then I’ll say that I wish circumstances had conspired to compel me to write a sequel to The Disappearing Dwarf, which was a sequel to The Elfin Ship. That would have happened if my editors at Del Rey Books, Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey hadn’t passed away. So it goes, however. And if I’d written that imaginary book, then I wouldn’t have written some other book, and who knows what would have come for me. I’m happy to have written what I’ve written, and happy that people are still reading my books more than 35 years after my first story was published.

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

I’d tell them not to quit their day jobs, to be ready for the long haul, to read as much as they can read, to write what makes them happy, and to remember that the stuff that goes into their books and stories is most often not the stuff that they learn in school, but the stuff they see in the world around them. Perseverance is worth as much as talent, and work is worth more than all the rest combined. Back when I was first selling stories and trying to sell novels, Tim Powers had a strict rule that he would write a thousand words a day. I bought into his rule, and it made all the difference.

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

Pleasure. My business is writing and teaching, and I only teach what I myself like to read. Right now I’ve got several books going: My nightstand book is Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. My desktop books are The Pickwick Papers and also The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian. (I perpetually read O’Brian.) My vacation book (my wife and I are in Carmel at the moment, looking out over a grove of cypress trees at the ocean) is John D. MacDonald’s The Lonely Silver Rain.

Would you like to see Langdon and company make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’d be deliriously happy to see the whole crowd leap onto the screen. I’ll admit, however, that I’m a little behind the times when it comes to actors and directors. I’m happily watching “Downton Abbey” and the first and only season of “Firefly.” If I could fit Gary Busey into the mix I’d do it.

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)?

This is a tough one. Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, India Pale Ale, and we’d talk about heaven knows what, but I’d start with an idea from Dickens – that “Trifles make the sum of life.” I’d ask him what trifles make up the sum of his life, and which of them made up the sum of his books. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

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

Thanks to you and your readers, too. Cheers, Jim Blaylock.

Ayelsford Skull - BlaylockThis article was posted as part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years [The Aylesford Skull, Titan Books, £7.99]. For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock”.

Details about The Limited Edition (available Feb 2013)

750 signed and numbered editions:

Jacketed, cloth-bound hardcover with ribbon

Signed by James P. Blaylock

Exclusive foreword by K.W. Jeter and introduction by Tim Powers

26 signed and lettered editions:

As above encased in a custom-made traycase

Be the first to find out when The Aylesford Skull (Limited Edition) is available, by signing up to Titan’s mailing list here: http://www.titanbooks.com/signup.

THE MAP OF TIME by Felix Palma

THE MAP OF TIME

Felix Palma

Translated by Nick Caistor

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£12.99

Released: 9 June 2011

I’m a big fan of fiction that uses actual historical figures or events as part of its fabric. Fiction like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist or Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. So, I was excited when Felix Palma’s The Map of Time landed on my desk and I discovered that H.G. Wells and Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man, were amongst its seemingly vast cast of characters. The Map of Time is the first of Palma’s novels to be translated into English.

As one reads, it soon becomes clear that The Map of Time is less of a conventional novel, and more a trilogy of interconnected stories, all of which have a number of things in common: they all feature to a lesser or greater degree the author H.G. Wells, and the fictional entrepreneur Gilliam Murray; they are all set in London, 1896; and they are all constructed around the central theme of time travel.

The first part of the novel concerns Andrew Harrington, a man on the verge of suicide, having spent eight years trying to come to terms with the death of his lover, the prostitute Marie Kelly, the last victim of Jack the Ripper. His cousin, sensing his intentions saves him from the fatal self-inflicted bullet, and introduces him to Gilliam Murray, proprietor of Murray’s Time Travel, in the hope that Murray can help Harrington travel back to 1888 and change the course of history. Unable to help, Murray directs the pair to the home of H.G. Wells, a man who recently shot to fame with the publication of his novel The Time Machine. Wells, as it turns out, has an exact replica of the very machine from his novel stashed in his attic – a working copy, no less – and agrees to help young Harrington out.

Part two tells us the story of Claire Haggerty and Tom Blunt, a pair of lovers who, it seems, are trapped in different periods of time. It is also the story of Murray and his time travel company, and begins to reveal something about the relationship that exists between Murray and Wells.

In the closing part of the book, a traveller from the far future summons Wells, Henry James and Bram Stoker to an old abandoned house with a dark history in the centre of London and tells them that their lives are in danger: a man from the future will, within the year, publish three novels under his own name. Those novels are The Invisible Man, The Turn of the Screw and Dracula. And, as Wells soon discovers, the only way this traveller will be able to get away with this is if the original authors are dead.

The novels gets off to a promising start. The Harrington section is concisely told. The language is beautiful, whether because of Palma’s original Spanish or Caistor’s translation – it’s an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned tone, by a narrator who has a tendency to break the fourth wall, which makes it almost like listening to one of Grandad’s old yarns.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book fails to live up to this excellent start. The story encapsulated in the middle section is interesting, and well-told, but somewhat overlong. Here, Grandad’s old yarn turns into that story he always tells when he’s in his cups, and everyone rolls their eyes, wishing for him to reach the point so they can talk about something more interesting. What is perhaps most disappointing, though, is that the third section seems totally unrelated to the first two, except that they share some characters and a plot device: namely time travel.

Here’s how it looks to me: Palma saw an interesting device in an early episode of Heroes (you’ll know it when you come across it, if you’ve seen the first season or two of the show), constructed a story around his own version of this device centred around the novelist H.G. Wells, introduced a couple of incidental characters and came up with a neatly-packaged, exciting story that ran about 150 pages. Then, in order to flesh out some of the incidental characters he produced a whopping 350 pages of backstory which had absolutely no bearing on the original story.

Which is not to say The Map of Time is a bad novel. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, a great novel, but it’s not bad. A bit on the long side, and could do with some trimming, but the first and last parts are worth the price of admission alone. Just don’t expect them to be the first and last parts of the same story. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

THE DEMI-MONDE: WINTER by Rod Rees

The Demi-Monde: Winter

Rod Rees

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£16.99

The Demi-Monde in the title of Rod Rees’ new novel – a novel that forms the first part of a quadrilogy – refers to an advanced virtual reality environment commissioned by the US government to simulate so-called “Asymmetric Warfare Environments” – places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the normal “rules” of war do not apply, and traditional armies find themselves somewhat out of their depths. The idea behind the Demi-Monde is that trainee soldiers will be immersed in the environment and receive training that will stand them in good stead when they find themselves in one of these AWEs.

The Demi-Monde, a circular world enclosed in an impenetrable boundary, is split into five sectors, each of which consists of three or four city-states modelled on real-world locations  – London, Berlin, Warsaw. It is vastly overpopulated, and has a number of key conflict-points built in – religion, gender, colour – which makes it the ideal training environment, as it is a world that constantly exists on the verge of all-out war.

To make things more interesting, the world has been seeded with a couple of handfuls of real-world historical figures, usually psychopaths, whose drive for power feeds the constant strife and ensures that the tensions are kept, at the very least, on a constant simmer. People like Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of “the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”, Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret police.

As the novel opens, elements within the Demi-Monde have managed to shut it off from the Real World, trapping everyone inside, and allowing no-one else in, at which point it is discovered that the daughter of the President of the United States is trapped inside. Unable to pull the plug without killing the girl, the US government enlists young Ella Thomas to enter through a back-door left by the software’s creator and retrieve her. As Ella becomes enmeshed in the machinations of Heydrich and Aleister Crowley, she finds herself in the middle of a world at war, with only a handful of people on whom she can rely.

The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books. A sprawling work it may be, but it manages to maintain its pace throughout. There are some edge-of-the-seat moments – the defence of Warsaw is a good example – that left me gasping for breath, and for more of the same.

It’s not, however, without its flaws. The biggest problem, in my point of view, is also a relatively small one, in terms of the overall plot. In designing a computer simulation to help train soldiers to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military decided a 19th Century steam-driven world would be the best option. Why not a world that more closely modelled the environments they found themselves fighting in? Which is not to say that Rees should have created a virtual desert world, because that’s not nearly as interesting as the Victorian world he created, but that he should probably have come up with a more plausible explanation for the world he created. But it’s a minor quibble. WINTER, the first book in the Demi-Monde cycle, is a fine addition to the genre, and a wonderful taster of the three novels still to come.

On a more physical note, Quercus have produced an absolutely beautiful volume, not at all what you’d expect to find on the shelves of your local bookshop, but rather something you’d expect to pay a premium for from a small-press publisher. The jacketless printed cover with gold-leaf effect is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf. If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.

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