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SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon

SpeedofDark SPEED OF DARK

Elizabeth Moon (www.elizabethmoon.com)

Orbit (www.orbitbooks.net)

£8.99

In a not-too-distant future, pharmaceutical companies have eliminated the majority of illnesses and disabilities that plague the human race. Lou Arrendale is autistic, one of a small number remaining: Lou was born too early for the procedure that can cure autism in babies. Along with a number of other autistics, Lou works for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies; his specialty is the discernment and creation of patterns, and the work Lou and his colleagues have done has made the company a fortune. Now, with the introduction of a new, younger breed of management, and the discovery of a cure for autism that has been proven on primates, Lou’s world, and the structured routine that keeps him safe within his world, is already changing.

Elizabeth Moon’s 2003 Nebula Award-winning novel examines a world not too dissimilar to our own through the eyes of Lou Arrendale. Lou is a high-functioning autistic, a man who lives a structured and carefully-managed life (Tuesday night is grocery night; Friday night is laundry night). Now Lou – and the others with whom he works – are faced with the possibility of a "cure", of becoming "normal", and the question arises: Will Lou still be Lou if he isn’t autistic?

It is this question – the question of identity, of what makes us the person we are – that drives the novel to its inevitable – and strangely devastating – conclusion. Told, for the most part, from the point of view of Lou, Moon gives us incomparable, no-holds-barred, insight into the autistic mind and the thought processes that govern it. There are inevitable comparisons to be made with Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn as Raymond Babbitt in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man but here the written word has more power than cinema, taking us directly into Lou’s head. There are comparisons, too, with Jonathan Lethem’s wonderful Motherless Brooklyn, which gives the reader similar insight into the mind of Lionel Essrog, a private detective who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. As in that earlier novel, Elizabeth Moon allows the reader to feel the challenges and everyday struggles of her protagonist by putting us into his head, and allowing us to see the world from his unique perspective.

Speed of Dark is a novel in which very little happens. Sure, there are episodes of tension – the repeated vandalism against Lou’s car which, in itself, seems to be the product of a mind that craves routine, or the frequent clashes with Mr Crenshaw, the new manager at work – but they are few and far between and pale in comparison to the meat of the novel: a character study of this man who may be more "normal" than the rest of us, with his routines and his constant questions about the nature of things (one of which, his musing that since light always chases dark, then the speed of dark must be faster than that of light) gives the novel its unusual name. Despite this, it’s one of the most gripping novels I’ve read in some time: there is something about Lou and the situation in which he finds himself, that demands the attention of the reader because, while nothing really happens, Speed of Dark follows the journey of one remarkable man as he attempts to discover whether he is defined by his disability, or whether it is a simple "trait" without which he will remain relatively unchanged.

Lou is surrounded by a cast of equally engaging characters – there’s Tom, Lucia, Marjory (the love interest) and the rest of Lou’s Wednesday night fencing class, a group of "normals" who accept Lou as he is, and evidently enjoy his company; there’s Emmy, from the Center, who doesn’t like the fact that Lou spends so much time with normal people, though she, herself, doesn’t appear to be autistic; and there are the other autistics with whom Lou works, a group of people who have defined their own social contract and who Lou constantly compares to his "normal" friends.

‘I am thirsty,’ Eric says suddenly.
‘Do you want water?’ I ask. ‘It is all I have except one bottle of fruit drink.’ I hope he will not ask for the fruit drink. It is what I like for breakfast.
‘I want water,’ he says. Bailey puts his hand up. I fill two more glasses with water and bring them into the living room. At Tom and Lucia’s house, they ask if I want something to drink even when I don’t. It makes more sense to wait until people say they want something, but probably normal people ask first.

Lou Arrendale joins a very select group of fictional characters who take on a life above and beyond the fictional world that is their own. His unique and engaging manner coupled with his distinctive voice means that he will stick with the reader long after the plot of the novel has faded from memory. In some ways, this is the ultimate coup for the writer: in this case Elizabeth Moon has created someone different, yet someone with whom we can still identify, for whom we can still feel some empathy. Lou’s mind is wired differently to that of most people, and yet we find ourselves wondering about the little things that he fixates on: what is the speed of dark? And what makes us so normal when Lou’s outlook on life, his routine and sense of structure, makes so much more sense than our own.

Published in the UK by Orbit and labelled as Science Fiction, Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is a novel that breaks the mould. The tomorrow setting is what makes this science fiction, the fact that most human defects no longer exist, but aside from that, this is a story that could happen at any time. It’s a slow-burner, but once you start, it is imperative that you finish, and as quickly as possible. Over ten years old, this is one of those books that I occasionally stumble across and wonder why I’ve been ignoring it for so long. It’s a beautifully-written character study that forces the reader to see the world from a slightly skewed perspective, and ask the question: what is it about me that makes me who I am? Unmissable.

ABOVE by Isla Morley

ABOVE-Isla Morley ABOVE

Isla Morley (www.islamorley.com)

Two Roads (www.tworoadsbooks.com)

£13.99

hrpv2The latest book in the Hodderscape Review Project comes from Hodder’s sister imprint, Two Roads, and is, at least early in the book, reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room. The Review Project’s March book was Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. You won’t find a review of that book here, because I couldn’t finish the novel. A faux-Russian dialect coupled with barely-comprehensible political rants proved to be something of a turn-off for me, so I had to abandon partway through. Above, on the other hand…well, read on to find out. And don’t forget to check in with my fellow Review Project participants to find out what they thought.

Blythe Hallowell accepts a lift from Eudora’s school librarian, Dobbs Hordin, and disappears off the face of the Earth. Dobbs is a survivalist who is convinced the world is about to end. Blythe is the person who will help him to reseed the human race, so Dobbs locks her in an abandoned missile silo in the remote Kansas countryside and waits for his prediction to come true. As the years pass, Blythe grows to accept her fate, helped along by the arrival of a child. But as the child grows, and becomes more curious, Blythe must prepare herself for the possibility of escape, a return to the world Above. But how much will the world have changed in the lifetime that she has spent underground?

As Isla Morley’s second novel opens, we meet 16-year-old Kansas schoolgirl Blythe Hallowell, who has been abducted by the school librarian and locked in an old missile silo deep below the ground. As if this isn’t traumatic enough we become accustomed to the place through the eyes of this young confused girl: the loneliness (Dobbs returns to his normal life, and is therefore absent for much of the time); the darkness (the lights are on a timer switch that mean Blythe is in complete darkness for large portions of the day); and the strange noises that Blythe’s overactive imagination attribute to some unknown creature with which she is sharing this enclosed space.

There are the inevitable comparisons with Emma Donoghue’s Room, and while the core subject matter is the same, Morley presents us with an entirely different beast in Above. There is something extremely intimate about Blythe’s first-person narrative as we watch her progress through shock and outrage to eventual acceptance, by way of the most terrible grief that can be visited upon a woman. By rights, Blythe should be a gibbering wreck within the first five minutes, but there is something in her character that makes her carry on, drawing strength from each new injustice, each new challenge.

For much of the story, the only other character we meet (with the exception of those we meet during Blythe’s frequent flashbacks to when life was normal) is Dobbs Hordin himself. It doesn’t take long for us to realise (even if Blythe has not) that Dobbs is the closest thing to insane it’s possible to be, and still function in the every day. There is evidence of this in everything from Blythe’s abduction itself, to the introduction of Charlie, and Dobbs’ rationalisations for the child’s abduction, to the novel’s ultimate reveal and the fact that it comes as a complete surprise to Blythe, and to the reader. At one point Blythe labels him as evil. It’s clear to the reader that this is far from the case: Dobbs’ motives are good and simple; his execution leaves much to be desired. Dobbs is a fascinating character and the only drawback to the intimacy we share with Blythe is the inevitable distance between us and his broken-down thought processes.

What makes Above so affecting is its realism. This is no far-fetched scenario, but something we see on the news on a regular basis: young girls abducted only to be found years, if not decades, later having made the best of a bad lot, waiting for their chance to escape. In Blythe, Isla Morley presents us with a character whose survival is assured, not because we’re looking at the world through her eyes, but because of the strength of character and the will for life with which the author has invested her. The choice to present Blythe’s story in the first person means that we live through the daily trials and the overall ordeal with her, never knowing what lies around the next corner, completely immersed in this tiny world that is the polar opposite to the big skies and rolling land for which Kansas is famed.

It is impossible to talk about the latter sections of the novel without introducing major spoilers. Suffice it to say that whatever you think you’re going to encounter will most likely turn out to be wrong. Morley uses every weapon in her considerable arsenal to ensure that we’re never entirely sure about anything beyond the scenario playing out in front of our eyes. Time passes – Blythe spends at least as long in captivity as she did living a normal life before her abduction – but it does so quietly, nothing but hints in the text to suggest that weeks, months or years have passed in little more than the blink of an eye, or the turn of a page. This is used to full effect, meaning that seemingly throwaway lines contain clues that we’ll often only pick up in hindsight.

By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.

THE COPPER PROMISE by Jen Williams

THE COPPER PROMISE - Jen Williams THE COPPER PROMISE

Jen Williams (sennydreadful.co.uk)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£13.99

hrpv2For the fifth title in the Hodderscape Review Project, we move into the realms of fantasy with the debut novel from Jen Williams, The Copper Promise, released this month by Headline. Don’t forget to check in to the Review Project site to find out what my fellow reviewers thought of this title.

The Citadel of Creos has stood for centuries, a remnant and constant reminder of the ancient mages, reputed to have been built as a prison for the gods. Aaron Frith, Lord of the Blackwood and last remaining member of his family, has endured hardship and torture, and now wants revenge. He believes that the secrets that lie within the Citadel will give him the power he needs to find and defeat the monsters who destroyed his family and stole his lands. Hiring Wydrin and Sir Sebastian, a pair of sell-swords, the trio head into the depths of the Citadel. In finding the power of the mages, they unwittingly release Y’Ruen, a dragon goddess, and the army of lizard-like women she has spent her centuries of imprisonment creating. Now revenge must take a back seat: Y’Ruen must by stopped before she lays the entire world of Ede to waste.

I can be a bit hard to convince when it comes to so-called “high fantasy”, the type of novels which take Tolkien as their inspiration and spend more time creating races of funny-looking people and languages to go with them than they do developing a plot outside the basic quest structure. Thankfully, Jen Williams’ debut, The Copper Promise, is nothing like that sort of book. Yes, there is an element of the quest novel here, though it is abandoned and picked up and abandoned again as the novel progresses; yes, there are strange new creatures, but it is how Williams handles them that sets this apart from the norm. The emphasis here is on the characters and how their decisions impact on the world around them, while still managing to tell a story that moves at a rollicking pace and provides the requisite amount of wit, blood and fire-breathing dragons to keep even the most sceptical of fantasy readers turning the pages as fast as they can.

At the heart of the story is the Frith family, all but young Aaron tortured to death by invaders whose sole aim is to find the location of the family’s secret vault. Left for dead, Aaron makes his way to Creos, having heard the rumours and stories about the Citadel, and hoping to gain some of the mages’ magic for himself in order to get vengeance for his murdered father and brothers. When it turns out that all of the rumours about the Citadel are true, and Frith and his hired muscle release the savage dragon-god, Y’Ruen on the world, Aaron finds himself faced with the choice between getting his revenge, or saving the world. Aaron’s companions are Wydrin, who styles herself the Copper Cat, and Sir Sebastian, a disgraced knight who was once a member of the revered order of Ynnsmouth Knights. Where Williams sets herself apart is that the majority of the development of these characters happens when they are apart. Unlike the standard quest structure of “here to here to here”, the band fractures quite early in the novel, the three individuals going their own way to seek their own adventures. This is a pattern that will repeat later in the novel, and the story feels much fresher for it, a proper examination of these unique personalities, rather than a constant trading of banter and insults.

Along with the dragon, the trio find themselves faced with an army of lizard-like women who have been created by the god during her captivity in the Citadel. These creatures have been brought to life as a result of Sebastian almost bleeding to death within the confines of the monstrous edifice. This has an unexpected side-effect, and Williams gives us some insight into this process, as members of the army gain self-awareness and develop their own unique personalities, to the point that they are choosing names for themselves.

‘I want to keep these words with me,’ said the Twelfth. She tried to gather up all the books and dropped them again.

‘Tear out the pages?’ suggested the Ninety-Seventh. The Thirty-Third frowned. Somehow she felt their father wouldn’t approve of that.

‘No,’ said the Twelfth, who apparently felt the same. ‘I will make them my name. You will call me Crocus from now on.’

This in strong counterpoint to the journey that their father, Sebastian, is taking, sinking ever deeper into darkness until the point where he swears his sword, and all the blood that it spills, to a demon, as if his daughters are sucking the humanity from him in their own bid to become more like him.

While not quite as “un-fantasy” as George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise is certainly a lot more grounded than most swords and sorcery-type fiction. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book – and one of its biggest selling points for me – is the fact that it does in a single volume what many fantasy authors might try to do over the course of three or four books (five hundred pages before the dragon makes an appearance and our heroic trio finally escape from the Citadel, for example), while still leaving us with the promise of much more to come. The characters are well-rounded, fully fleshed-out and we find ourselves wanting to know what will happen to them next – this is most prevalent when they are apart, and we find ourselves wondering if they’re likely to get back together again, or whether they will continue on separate paths for the duration.

Fast-paced and wonderfully-realised, Jen Williams’ first novel is a delight, even for one so jaded as me when it comes to fantasy fiction. An intriguing premise made more so by the neat touches Williams adds to the story – the Secret Keeper is a prime example of these – the reader will encounter pirates, dragons, zombies, gods and demons, to name but a few, on their journey through this exciting new world. Not for the faint of heart, but you probably knew that already.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula Le Guin

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS - Ursula Le Guin THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS

Ursula Le Guin (www.ursulakleguin.com)

Orbit (www.orbitbooks.net)

£7.99

hrpv2The third title in the Hodderscape Review Project was Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, the first book in her Merlin Trilogy. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish it, so you won’t find a review here. The fourth title brings the series back to solid ground with Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 Hugo and Nebula winning classic The Left Hand of Darkness. Don’t forget to check out what my fellow reviewers thought over at the Review Project site.

Genly Ai is an Envoy, the First Mobile to the planet of Gethen from the Ekumen of All Worlds. He bears an invitation for the humanoid inhabitants of Gethen – known to outsiders as Winter, due to its constant arctic weather – to join this League of Worlds and share in their knowledge and resources. Greeted with mistrust by the androgynous inhabitants of Winter, Genly soon discovers that the person he least trusts is the one who has the most faith in him, and he must play a dangerous game to ensure his own survival and the future enlightenment of the people of Gethen.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that is almost 45 years old, introduces us to a far distant planet, and an alien race, through the eyes of an Earth-born human who now serves as an Envoy for a League of some 80 planets populated by human and humanoid races. When we first meet Genly Ai, he has been on Gethen/Winter for a number of years, an honoured guest of the people of Karhide. Despite the fact that he can almost pass for a native, Genly is different in at least one major way: the people of Gethen are androgynes who, once every month, choose a mate and become a member of one or the other sex for the period of their fertility. Once this short period is over, they return to their original sexless forms, unless they have been impregnated, in which case they will remain female for the duration of their pregnancy.  Genly’s constant maleness is one of the many reasons he is viewed with an element of mistrust by the natives.

While in Karhide, Genly is championed by the Prime Minister, Estraven, who, on the eve of Genly’s audience with Karhide’s King reveals that he can no longer support the Envoy. Estraven’s exile forces Genly’s own flight, first from the capital city of Erhenrang and ultimately to the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, where he will learn a valuable lesson about trust, in a series of political machinations that make George R. R. Martin’s Westeros look positively friendly.

At the centre of the novel is the question of sex, and the innate strangeness of a human race where there are no males or females. Le Guin describes many of the characters as effeminate, while using male pronouns throughout. It does take some getting used to, although it does lend the Gethenian characters more humanity than might a gender-neutral pronoun such as it. The people of Winter do not have the concept of war, and there are hints throughout that the lack of a male dominance might be behind this peacefulness. Le Guin describes other worlds as "bi-sexual" and, for this reader at least, it took some time to realise she was talking about the gender-split of the worlds’ inhabitants, rather than their sexual orientation.

As might be expected from a novel almost 45 years old there are elements which date this novel. The off-world and far future nature of the novel hides this to a certain extent, but there is always something about the language that gives away the age of a novel like this. In The Left Hand of Darkness, there is a certain quaint sexism – Genly and Estraven’s discussion about Earth’s women, and their differences to the planet’s men, for example – but it works within the context of this androgynous world. It might be interesting to see Genly’s response in a novel written in 2013, rather than one written in 1969. Perhaps more interesting, considering the novel’s vintage, is the lack of racism: Genly’s racial profile is revealed naturally, and without comment, partway through the story, and no further mention is made.

Genly’s story unfolds through a series of chapters told in the first person from Genly’s point of view, in the first person from Estraven’s point of view, and in the form of Gethenian myths and legends which serve to open Winter to the reader, and to explain the behaviour of the natives when certain events occur. This fractured narrative structure ensures that we’re never entirely sure how the story will end. With 80 worlds already part of the Ekumen, we know that Genly is not the first Envoy to set foot on an alien planet. We learn that in the long history of this Union or League, many First Mobiles have died at the hands of the natives who have felt threatened by the individuals or by what they represent. Genly’s success is by no means assured, and his survival is as delicately balanced. It’s a beautifully-constructed story that moves at a relatively sedate pace that allows us to get to know the characters and this interesting new world, while never slowing enough to leave us bored or hoping for something interesting to crop up around the corner.

A classic of the genre by one of science fiction’s greats, The Left Hand of Darkness is (shamefully) my first exposure to the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. Part philosophy, part thrilling adventure (there is an ice-bound episode that might make the perfect companion for, say, Dan Simmons’ The Abominable), Le Guin gives us unparalleled world-building with unique and engaging characters who give us insight not only into this new and interesting world, but into the human condition itself. A short but unforgettable read, The Left Hand of Darkness deserves its place in the annals of science fiction, and on the shelves of anyone who calls themselves a fan of the genre.

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.

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