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HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

HEX - Thomas Olde Heuvelt HEX

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (www.oldeheuvelt.com)

Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier (jimandnancyforest.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

The town of Black Spring lies on the banks of the Hudson River, close to the military academy at West Point. It looks like any other small town, but its residents are hiding a terrible secret from the rest of the world: the legend of a curse, and of a centuries-old witch that still haunts the town is real. As Robert Grim and HEX – whose sole purpose is to keep Katherine van Wyler’s existence hidden from the outside world – work to keep the town’s secret, a small group of teenagers, led by Tyler Grant, are looking for ways to make her existence public. But they have no idea of the consequences of their actions, because Katherine van Wyler has been relatively sedate for their lifetime. That period of peace is about to come to a horrifying end.

Everyone lives in a town with a history, a story about a lingering spirit who pops up from time to time and scare the bejeezus out of some random passer-by. In this respect, the fictional town at the centre of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut novel is no different from anywhere else. What sets it apart though, is the fact that the ghost – in this case a four hundred-year-old witch – is a normal part of everyday life, seen walking the streets, or randomly appearing in the kitchen of the family next door. All of the residents of Black Spring have come to understand this, and to know the rules, laid down in a law that is as old as the witch herself: don’t speak to the witch; don’t touch the witch; and whatever you do, don’t cut the stitches that bind her eyes and mouth closed. It’s a set of rules that has served the town well for centuries, and with the help of HEX and the high-tech surveillance system that covers the entire town, they have managed to keep the fact of her existence contained to the people who live in the town.

It’s a neat background, which Olde Heuvelt lays out in the first handful of pages – no waiting around for the ghouls to appear with this author – and which he builds upon as the story progresses. There are reasons why the residents of this small town continue to live here under the constant threat of Katherine’s wrath, chief amongst them the strange sense of despair that comes over people when they have been outside the town’s boundaries for more than, say, normal working hours; a despair that is so intense that suicide often seems like the only way out. It’s interesting to watch the lengths HEX will go to in order to keep outsiders from moving into the town, because the moment you become a resident, there is no going back.

The story centres around the Grant family, specifically father Steve and oldest son Tyler, and presents us with two different sides to the argument of whether the witch’s existence should be revealed to the wider world. Steve, a blow-in who has lived in Black Spring for almost twenty years, has experienced first-hand the despair that distance from the town brings, and was also present for the most recent explosion of Katherine’s wrath, so he knows why the precautions are in place, but is also aware of the horror with which he has unintentionally burdened his two sons. Tyler is the typical teenager who sees little more than constant surveillance and restrictions not only on what he can and cannot access on the Internet, but also on whether his out-of-town girlfriend can stay over for the night. Blinded by the certainty that he is right, his actions – the secret website, the pranks he and his friends play on the witch – are a disaster waiting to happen. Enforcing the secrecy, and fighting a constant losing battle against the town’s mayor, is Robert Grim, head of HEX. Grim is a pragmatic man who understands exactly what he is up against, but who is powerless to do anything about it beyond the precautions that he has already put in place.

Katherine van Wyler herself is one of the most compelling supernatural creations you’ll find in modern fiction. Dressed in Seventeenth Century garb, she wanders the town, sometimes following the same route on the same days, sometimes appearing somewhere entirely at random. The town’s surveillance system and the HEXApp mobile phone app allow the town to keep a constant eye on her location. Her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, and she makes a constant mumbling sound which, it is said, is enough to drive anyone who gets close enough to hear what she is saying to their own death. She is, in short, as frightening as any ghost, ghoul or monster you have come across before, and the image of her sewn-up face is one that will haunt the reader long after the book is done.

Olde Heuvelt, despite writing the novel in his native Dutch, gives the book a real small-town American feel. The people that we meet are characters we feel comfortable with, characters that feel familiar while still retaining their own vitality, their own unique attributes. The book that sprang immediately to mind while I was reading HEX was Stephen King’s Needful Things: King’s trick of welcoming the reader into Castle Rock and introducing them to the key players is one that Olde Heuvelt uses to great effect here while introducing us to Black Spring. The key to a successful horror story – by which I mean one that actually frightens us, or makes us feel uncomfortable in our own familiar surroundings – is a good understanding of what gets under people’s skin. It’s the reason that much so-called horror fiction falls flat, or turns to gore and violence to elicit a reaction from the audience. That’s not a concern here: Olde Heuvelt has an excellent grasp on both what it is, and how best to deploy it within the story to really get our attention.

HEX reads like the work of a much more mature and developed author, so it’s a surprise to discover that it is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut. Tension and horror combine to make this a story that is impossible to put down, as the deepening sense of unease suddenly flares into all-out shivers that run the length of your spine. Wonderfully written – and presented here in an excellent translation by Nancy Forest-Flier – and perfectly-judged, HEX is old-fashioned horror with a modern-day twist done right. It’s a story that will stay with you long after the lights have gone out, and places Thomas Olde Heuvelt high on this reader’s must-read list.

WAY DOWN DARK by J. P. Smythe

WDD WAY DOWN DARK (Book 1 of The Australia Trilogy)

J. P. Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

When Chan Aitch’s mother dies, she leaves a gaping hole in the so-called power structure aboard the Australia. Chan is left to pick up the pieces, and attempt to defend the part of the ship previously controlled by her mother against the Lows, who are set on taking complete control at the cost of the lives of anyone who does not believe in their extreme philosophy. But the Australia holds many secrets, from Chan herself, and from the rest of the people aboard, secrets that will call into question the very reason for their existence. As violence threatens to consume the entire ship, Chan realises that there may be a way to escape, and to save the ship’s innocents in the process.

With his latest novel, Way Down Dark, James Smythe moves into the realms of Young Adult fiction, though this is like no YA fiction that you’ve seen before – as dark as the title suggests, this is an intense and frightening novel with more than a little adult appeal.

Set in a far future, Way Down Dark tells the story of a small portion of the human race sent into space after catastrophic events have made the Earth all but inhabitable. Their mission, several hundred years and many generations later, is to find a habitable planet, and rebuild civilisation from the ground up. Their home for all that time, the giant spaceship Australia, a sort of Mega-City One Block-in-space.

When we encounter Chan and the Australia, we find ourselves on board a ship that is the very definition of “run down” – lights don’t work; air and water processing systems are patchy; and the floor of the towering structure is buried under hundreds of years of filth and refuse and the bodies of those who have died during the ship’s long journey. Imagining the worst possible scenario, Smythe gives us a population that has split into a number of distinct groups. On one side are those struggling to survive; on the other, the Lows, tattooed and maimed madmen and –women who want control of the whole ship whatever the cost. Aloof from (and quite literally above) both groups are the mysterious Pale Women, a semi-religious cult who seem to have plans for Chan.

From the outset, the tension is palpable, and Smythe succeeds in making us feel claustrophobic despite the size of the ship in which Chan is imprisoned. Chan is the perfect guide for our journey into this strange new place: she is deeply conflicted and still mourning the loss of her mother, but manages to find the strength to stand up to the constant advances of the Lows into the territory that she has inherited. There are several detours into the head of Agatha, her mother’s friend and a guardian angel of sorts for the girl who she first saved many years earlier, which gives us a look at Chan’s family history, and a better understanding of the currently politics of Australia.

Smythe’s latest novel has much to recommend it: his track record in writing gripping, engaging and thought-provoking science fiction; the shift from HarperCollins to Hodder & Stoughton whose own track record with the genre is second to none. But the story itself, and the characters that inhabit it, is, as always, the biggest draw to a Smythe novel. The word “Smythesque” has been bandied about for some time, and there is a definite style, a definite theme, for want of a better word, that sets his novels apart from those of his contemporaries. Unfortunately for Smythe, the reader will always have a set of preconceived notions of what his books should be. Fortunately for the reader, Smythe shows us that he can meet these expectations in many ways, but that he can also surprise us: the novel we think we’re reading as Way Down Dark opens is very different from the novel we find ourselves holding as we close the back cover, and it leaves us crying out for the next instalment of this excellent new trilogy.

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

GOLDEN SON by Pierce Brown

GOLDEN SON - Pierce Brown GOLDEN SON

Pierce Brown (pierce-brown.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

Two years after his victory at the Institute, Darrow au Andromedus, the Red who now lives the life of a Gold, is on the cusp of repeating the trick at the Academy, and gaining command of a fleet of Gold vessels. It is a surprise to everyone, then, when he is defeated in the final battle, and a bigger surprise to Darrow to learn that his sponsor and protector will be cutting him free following his failure to gain control of the fleet. In a race against time, Darrow must find a way to remain under the protection of House Augustus in order to stay alive long enough to progress his true mission: the downfall of the Gold’s Society from the inside. As civil war looms, Darrow will find his loyalties tested, and his own sense of identity increasingly blurred.

Returning to the world and characters he created in Red Rising, Pierce Brown takes us once again into the head of Darrow, the Red miner who has turned Gold in order to help free his people. Within a handful of pages, the reader will feel comfortable with this familiar world, with the idiosyncrasies of the language, and with the relationships between the characters. Of course, it is imperative to read Red Rising first, or very little will make sense. What Brown began sketching out in that first novel on a small scale, we now see on a much larger canvas, as the author expands the scope of the story out into the solar system, much of which has been colonised by the Golds. From the old ways that we grew used to on Mars – the ancient Roman setting an effect broken only by the occasional glimpse of technology – we move into epic space opera, fleets of gleaming spaceships, giant behemoths that make Battlestar Galactica look like a lifeboat, and the threat of looming war is apparent from the outset.

Much has changed in the intervening two years, and Darrow finds himself the centre of an odd circle of friends. Relations with Mustang, the girl to whom he grew close during their time in the Institute, and the daughter of his patron, are strained following his decision to enter the Academy. This is the first sign we, the reader, see that the transition from Red to Gold may have affected more than just Darrow’s body: there is a hunger for power (admittedly, we are fairly certain that it is all for the greater good, but there is still plenty of room for doubt), something that we might associate more with the Golds than with the lowReds from whence Darrow came. This is a theme that recurs throughout the novel, and Darrow frequently questions his own motives, seeing in himself a man he has no desire to be, a man his wife would not – could not – ever have loved.

As the story progresses, Brown begins to drip-feed us answers to some of the questions that remained unanswered at the end of the first book: who are the Sons of Ares, for example, and what, exactly is their game plan? As friendships shrivel and die, Darrow quickly comes to understand that he has some very dangerous enemies who know a little bit too much about his origins. It becomes difficult to know who can be trusted, who is waiting to plunge the knife once his back is turned, and the reader feels as helpless as Darrow since we know only what he knows. In a shocking revelation as the story heads towards a stormy and cliff-hanging climax, Brown pulls the carpet from under our feet and completely changes the nature of the game; everything we thought we understood about what Darrow is doing, what his mission is all about, is called into question in a single moment of magic.

All of the elements that made Red Rising such a special book are present and accounted for in this second outing, but the increase in scope allows Brown to play around a bit more with the ideas and concepts that make up this world he has created. Edge of the seat thrills coupled with scenes that take place on a cinematic scale make this an entirely engrossing read. Darrow, although changed from our first encounter with him, is still as engaging as ever, and it is his journey that we keep coming back for. In the tradition of the finest “middle volumes” of classic trilogies, Golden Son builds on the world created in the first volume, makes us rethink what we thought we knew, and finishes on a bang that will ensure we’re all waiting impatiently for the trilogy’s final instalment.

A stunning space opera of epic proportions, Golden Son is gripping and intense at times, tender and funny at others. It takes the story begun in Red Rising in unexpected directions and manages to be that most rare of beasts: the sequel that surpasses the original. If you enjoyed Red Rising, Golden Son will knock your socks off. If you’ve yet to experience Pierce Brown’s multi-coloured world, you will definitely want to be caught up before the third volume drops next year. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

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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