The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams

Hodderscape Review ProjectI enjoyed this debut fantasy novel immensely. I loved Williams’ characters, particularly Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven. She’s terrific; a hard-bargaining, tough-talking fighter from a sea-faring island who raises the stakes for future fantasy heroines. When we first meet her, she’s holding court in a rowdy tavern, winning at cards and threatening an aggrieved party with her trusty daggers.  Next we’re introduced to Sebastian, a one-time Ynnsmouth Knight who, exiled for reasons we don’t yet know, is now Wydrin’s partner in the “sell-sword’ trade. Refreshingly, their relationship, while affectionate and close, is not romantic. The next major player to enter the tavern is the white-haired Lord Aaron Frith, whose torture and subsequent escape from his family castle in the Blackwood begin the book in dramatic fashion. When Frith meets Wydrin, Williams has some fun at the expense of a familiar fantasy stereotype:

Frith had imagined a tall curvaceous woman, with hair as red as blood tumbling unbidden to her waist, a pair of green eyes as playful and cruel as a cat’s, and armour that perhaps did not leave much to the imagination. In truth the Copper Cat was a young woman of average height with short, carroty hair, freckles across her nose and almost every inch of her covered in boiled leather armour.

In the tavern, a deal is done: the ‘copper promise’ of the title. Frith contracts with Wydrin and Sebastian to accompany him to the ancient Citadel of Creos, where it is believed that mages once incarcerated gods in the final act of an epic battle. Sebastian and Wydrin were already en route to the Citadel, having planned to meet up with their friend Gallo. The original plan was Gallo’s — break into the Citadel and steal the riches hidden there. To their dismay, however, Gallo hadn’t waited for them, but had forged ahead, Citadel map in hand. After two more rounds of ale, Frith and Wydrin settle on a price and agree to set out the following morning. In one of many such humorous moments, Wydrin shows more enthusiasm for the venture than her male companions:

Wydrin lifted her tankard. ‘To sacking the Citadel!’ Sebastian and Frith raised their own drinking vessels reluctantly, and she crashed her tankard into theirs, spilling more than a little over Lord Frith’s embroidered cuff.

The adventure inside the Citadel sets into motion events that will occupy our trio (and a Gallo of sorts) for the rest of the novel. Events underground trigger the release of the dragon god Y’Ruen, and the birth of her brood army of ruthless female killers. Far from riches beyond their wildest dreams, our band of adventurers has reaped a whirlwind of evil. The rest of the story takes us across Ede as Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith undertake a series of quests. Frith, motivated by a desire to reclaim his family’s seat in the Blackwood, uses his newly acquired but barely controlled powers to spirit the three of them. Soon after their arrival,  they visit the village of Pinehold, which is being menaced by a murderous tyrant. Eventually, they fight to liberate it, and then turn their attention to other battles, most importantly the ongoing destruction being wreaked by Y’Ruen and her daughters.

Pinehold and the strange tunnels beneath it will eventually play a part in the fight to rid Ede of the dragon and her brood. The twists and turns that lead to the ultimate contest with Y’Ruen are more than can be sketched in a review, and I wonder if less complexity might have been desirable; I sometimes found myself struggling to remember where we were off to next, and why. Still, at every step, we encounter memorable characters who, while recognisable denizens of the broad fantasy universe, are drawn with the lightness of touch and sense of humour that characterises Williams’ style.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

A recurring and compelling theme in the book is the importance and power of language. The ancient power that Frith gains in the Citadel can only be controlled and directed by ancient words, and he must learn them in order to bend it to his will. Words also fascinate the few members of the brood army who teach themselves to read, and, defying Y’Ruen, give themselves names.

This is not a story for the squeamish; there are some very evil, violent and bloodthirsty people in Ede; even the noble Sebastian has some dealings with Prince of Pain Bezcavar until he thinks better of it. From the start, we are not spared the gory details — the following is a description of Frith after he’s endured torture:

One side of his face was slick with blood, and one hand was red to the wrist. His chest was livid with burn marks, and Bethan could smell the hot, sweet scent of scorched flesh.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book. Williams has a marvellous imagination; some things stood out were the Sea-Glass Road, tunnels that spell out powerful words when viewed from above, and a Rookery guarded by killer doves… I look forward to reading about the future exploits of this quirky band.


The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin

The Hodderscape Review Project

It seems fitting to end a sometimes unsettling year with the admission that I didn’t like a book often cited as an SFF classic. Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the latest work in The Hodderscape Review Project, epitomises for me the best and the worst of “SFF” generally, beginning as it does with a genuinely interesting and novel idea but falling short in the execution.

Much of the story is related by Genly Ai, envoy to an icy planet that hasn’t yet discovered space flight. His account is interspersed with information from other sources: local legends, scientific observations and written accounts from other eras. An organisation called the Ekumen, made up of eighty-plus planets, had previously sent a landing party of investigators to Gethen/Winter. Now Genly Ai is on the planet alone, hoping to persuade its two nations, Karhide and Orgoreyn, to join the Ekumen, at which point he will summon a nearby spaceship. Uniquely among known humans, Gethenians are ‘ambisexual’: taking on a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ physiology for a short period each month when they have sex and are said to be ‘in kemmer’. The rest of the time they are sexually inactive. This is a hugely interesting premise. And yet…

The Left Hand of Darkness

Throughout, I was disappointed with LeGuin’s treatment of Gethenian gender dynamics. She tells us how the system functions in practice, through Genly Ai’s words, those of his Gethenian friend Estraven and some rather smug, clinical investigator’s field notes on the topic that make up Chapter 7: The Question of Sex. While the reader is left in no doubt about the mechanics of Gethenian ambisexuality, I wanted more, and different, information. The 40th Anniversary edition, which I read in e-book format before obtaining a paperback of the 1969 text, included a piece among extra items at the end called “Coming of Age in Karhide.” This was a vivid, first-person description of kemmering that, had it been included in the original, near the beginning, might have gone some way toward remedying a dearth of immediacy and detail that left me less engaged in the narrative than I might otherwise have been.

As a contemporary reader who has encountered sophisticated world-building, I found much about the planet “Winter” and its two civilisations unsatisfying and downright strange. I couldn’t get past the presence of Earth technologies on such a distant and isolated planet. Radio? It’s hard to recognise our own consumer electronics from one generation to the next, so the idea of radio on isolated Gethen is just… well, bizarre. The Ansible, something new and inexplicable, was much easier to accept.

My stylistic quibbles are numerous. After a promising beginning featuring a parade reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s weird Gormenghast ceremonies, the first thing we hear Genly Ai say is, “It’s hot. It’s really hot.” The reply, from powerful courtier Estraven, is no more inspired: “So it is.” The rest of the text is peppered with similarly ungainly phrases:

My conscience itched a little, but I did not scratch it. I wanted to discourage him from coming to me. That this involved humiliating him was unfortunate.

Food at the Transient-Houses was dull but plentiful, lodging decent, lacking only privacy. Even that was supplied in some measure by the reticence of my fellow travellers.

Even the planet’s name is wanting: a very cold icy planet, it is dubbed’ Winter’ by the Ekumen — why not something more evocative? Other conceits work well; “kemmering” is good, as is “shifgrethor”, the Karhide sense of personal honour. However, detailed information about Gethenian calendar and clock systems provided at the end left me completely cold — Karhidish month names for instance (Thern, Thanern, Nimmer… ) and statements like “The 26-day month is divided into two halfmonths of 13 days.”

This is not to say that there’s nothing of merit here; certain ideas are wonderfully resonant, like the Gethenian practice of always calling the present year ‘Year 0′. The friendship that develops between Genly Ai and Estraven as they make a difficult journey across the ice is well drawn, particularly in sentences like these:

I could not know, or ask, what lay behind his words: it had cost him too much to say the little he had said.

His loyalty extended without disproportion to things, the patient, obstinate, reliable things that we use and get used to, the things we live by. He missed the sledge.

There are unfortunate passages that I suspect LeGuin would handle differently now. To have the aliens unable to pronounce the letter “l” in Genly’s name, and substituting an “r” sound, is a discordant note. The envoy’s repeated negative characterisations of what he considers “feminine” characteristics are also regrettable. In these respects, the text has not aged well.

Overall, I felt that an interesting premise was burdened with too much information and not enough memorable language. I finished it with a sense that, while I’d been told a lot about Gethen and its inhabitants, I didn’t really know anything.


The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart

The Hodderscape Review Project

Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave was pleasantly reminiscent of the fantasy that I read as a kid, perhaps in part because it was published in 1970. There is a steady pace and straightforward style of storytelling less common in an era accustomed to the quick cuts of film and video. I couldn’t help imagining how some of its scenes might be treated today — perhaps we’d jump into the midst of a bloody battle, only getting the necessary background information later. We might be told this tale by a succession of different characters with

The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart

different voices, here it is only Merlin recounting the story of his early life and the coming of Arthur. But the consistency can seem a virtue; we take this journey with Merlin, from its beginning in South Wales to the conclusion at Tintagel. He even describes for us the moments leading up to his own conception, gifted as he is with the Sight, in the Prologue.

The Crystal Cave is an excellent example of how disparate scraps of legend, history (5th century British in this case) and elements of actual landscape can, in the right hands, form a rich narrative tapestry that holds the reader’s attention. The Author’s Note at the end gives us insight into Mary Stewart’s writing process and thinking, from her choice of historical source material to decisions about which place names to use. It is quite fascinating. She is well aware that The Crystal Cave will not pass muster with historians looking for accuracy; she has set herself a different task, that of telling a good story. In that she has definitely succeeded.

One of Stewart’s great strengths is deft plotting. Several times during The Crystal Cave I felt that I knew what was coming next, only to be completely surprised. Merlin doesn’t get the girl; quite the opposite. Other last-minute sleights of hand are enjoyable – the charismatic uncle that seems so solicitous of the young Merlin turns out to be a wrong’un after all. Relentlessly we move, battle by battle, sea voyage by miserable sea voyage, toward what we know will ultimately be the birth of Arthur. Like Merlin scaling the cliffs at Tintagel during a ferocious storm, we cannot see too far into the distance. Similarly, Merlin’s character unfolds only gradually – we see him come to terms with his gifts, his parentage and finally his unshakeable commitment to doing what he knows he must, even in the face of grave doubts from those around him and at the risk of angering very powerful men.

Stewart’s descriptive language is often quite lovely, never more so than when she turns her attention to the natural world:

Hazel-nuts were thick in the coppices, mountain ash and brier grew from tumbles of mossed rock, and the bracken was breast high. Rabbits ran everywhere, scuttering through the fern, and a pair of jays scolded a fox from the safety of a swinging hornbeam.

Likewise her treatment of domestic details, as in this passage about Merlin’s modest room in the palace at Maridunum:

My clothes were kept in a wooden chest which stood aginst the wall. This was very old, with panels painted with scenes of gods and goddesses, and I think originally it had come from Rome itself. Now the paint was dirty and rubbed and flaking, but still on the lid you could see, like shadows, a scene taking place in what looked like a cave; there was a bull, and a man with a knife…

The above passage is also a neat piece of foreshadowing – later we will hear more of the god Mithras and the bull when Merlin runs away to Brittany. Echoes of Rome are never far away in The Crystal Cave. All the major players make their appearance: the men of Cornwall and South Wales, the ruthless Saxons, the Armoricans of Less Britain (Brittany) and the ancient druids.

There are memorable characters that bring the story to life. Cadal, Merlin’s servant, is particularly well-drawn and their banter provides much of the levity in the story. And of course the influence of Galapas, Merlin’s first teacher, who lives in the cave near Maridunum, is felt throughout the book.

Overall, Mary Stewart has created a richly textured tale built around the Merlin legend, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys an imaginative retelling of a familiar story.


The Shining, by Stephen King

Hodderscape Review Project
By rights I should have handed in my Mainer card years ago for never having read a Stephen King novel. I mean, seriously. King lives in Bangor, Maine, about an hour north of Mount Desert Island where I grew up. In Maine that’s practically next door; he was our local ‘Famous Writer.’ I did once read quite far into Needful Things, far enough to go Ayuh, dude can write. He is pitch perfect on small-town Maine; I still remember the name of the sewing shop – You Sew and Sew.

In thinking about why I hadn’t finished that book or read others by King, I realised I was doing with horror what many people do with science fiction or fantasy: ‘Oh that. I don’t really do that. It’s an acquired taste.’ But better late than never, and just in time for the publication of King’s follow-up Doctor Sleep, I’ve discovered the error of my ways, thanks to the Hodder Review Project. Casting aside pre-conceptions about The Shining (many based on hearing about the movie), I began to read. And it’s a hell of a book. Newsflash I know.

The Shining by Stephen King

Coming to The Shining from a diet of contemporary genre and weird fiction, I am struck by the richness of King’s characters and his convincing portrayal of their inner thoughts and emotions. They ring true. King shows us things that are much scarier than physical violence: implacable anger, rage, jealousy. If you’ve read much genre fiction, the image of someone with a knife in their back coming after you on a stairway probably won’t trouble you overmuch. But if you’ve ever felt powerless to control a negative emotion that threatens to overwhelm you, watching Jack slowly losing the battle with his inner demons is truly terrifying.

King creates complex psychological portraits; we learn about Jack’s violent and abusive father, which makes him more three-dimensional. Wendy’s inner struggle to acknowledge five-year old Danny’s supernatural gifts is brilliant; who hasn’t painstakingly created implausible explanations for things you don’t want to be true?

King has a light touch. The religious resonances – young child saves the world from evil, purfication by fire etc. – are not too obvious. The plot is skilfully constructed but seemingly effortless – when we learn about the temperamental hotel boiler, it doesn’t feel forced, perhaps because of the deft dialogue that conveys the information. The same is true of the buildup to the wasp incident – I was not aware of the writer pulling the strings. Of all the episodes in the book, I found this one of the most emotionally charged, setting as it did Jack’s honest desire to let his son experience something he’d enjoyed as a child against the hideous outcome, for which he bore no actual guilt.

And King does weird. The malevolent hedge animals could be straight out of contemporary genre fiction. But they are subservient to the overall work – there is no sense that they are there for their own sake, because they are ‘cool’. The heart and soul of the book is the interactions between the humans in the ill-fated and murderous Overlook hotel, particularly the beautifully drawn relationship between Wendy and Jack, and the passages describing their early married life. Because the book was written in 1977, I expected it to be a bit dated; in fact I think it has aged well. Yes, as a feminist I cringe slightly in places, and also at the slightly caricatured black man in the form of Hallorann. And yet. I was a kid in the 1970′s, and we’ve all ‘come a long way baby,’ to quote a cigarette advertising slogan of the time.

I did find the ending slightly disappointing; a more satisfying conclusion would have been the three survivors driving away from the hotel on the snowmobile. But that’s a minor quibble. Overall it is a true tour de force, and one of those too-rare instances of something being even better than its hype. If, like me, you haven’t read horror, I recommend starting here to see what you’ve been missing.


The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
Hodder and Stoughton, 2001

Hodderscape Review Project

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
This is my first post for the Hodderscape Review Project, which finds me in the company of some truly kickass reviewers; do check out their take on The Eyre Affair

(mild spoilers ahead)

Fortuitous timing meant that The Eyre Affair went on holiday to France with me, and a most entertaining and witty companion it proved to be. Not flawless, but quite delightful in many respects. Comparisons with Douglas Adams are not misplaced; now there’s a compliment I don’t pay often.

Underpinning The Eyre Affair is the imaginative and engaging notion that the border between literature and everyday reality is porous. What reader has not longed for the ability to step into a novel and exist in its world? In The Eyre Affair, this is possible. And, in a related concept destined to enchant writers, literature is taken very seriously indeed, to the extent that there’s a Special Operations division dedicated to fighting literary crime, and the public is outraged at the possibility of beloved fictional characters being extinguished. I’m tempted to say that these constructs alone would have been more than enough material for a novel. But wait, there’s more. Much more.

In The Eyre Affair, we join our heroine and narrator Thursday Next in an alternate 1980′s Britain. Reading it now, it’s hard not to credit Fforde with real prescience, knowing as we do (and as he could not have in 2001) about the events of 2003 and the long, controversial involvement of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conflict casting a shadow over this novel is a Crimean War that, instead of lasting from 1853 until 1856, is still being fought in 1985.

Appropriately, there is a literary connection; much of Thursday Next’s back story revolves around a disastrous event during the (alternate) Battle of Balaclava, one that echoes the doomed advance that inspired Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Thursday was involved in this critical episode along with her brother Anton and one-time fiancé, Landen Parke-Laine; she is widely recognised for her courageous and selfless actions there. This strand gives Fforde the opportunity to raise issues of war and peace that resonate today. When Thursday encounters her former superior from the Crimean conflict, Colonel Phelps, he makes the following argument for fighting on:

“If we give the peninsula back, every single one of those lives will have been lost in vain.”

The sunk (human) cost fallacy, coming soon to a theatre of war near you.

Also timely is the capture of the democratically elected government by a monolithic quasi-military corporation (Blackwater, anyone?) accountable to no one: Goliath. Another inspired conceit is the pugnacious and feared People’s Republic of Wales.

The military subplot – which involves the gradual unpicking of what actually happened on the battlefield, and afterward – runs alongside the business at hand, Thursday Next’s involvement in solving several literary crimes, all perpetrated by a nasty piece of work named Acheron Hades. The first crime is the theft of the original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit from Gad’s Hill Palace. As a member of SO-27 (Special Operations – Literary Detectives), Thursday is called to the crime scene, where stringent security measures have been utterly defeated.

It soon becomes apparent that Hades has larger ambitions, and has set his sights on none other than Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Thanks to technological advances by Thursday’s Uncle Mycroft, it has become possible to travel in and out of fictional worlds, and, much to Acheron Hades’ delight, to hold individual characters to ransom.

A few words about Thursday’s family. Their home in Swindon (a rather popular setting for fiction these days; see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) is something like a cross between Rowling’s Weasley abode and Madeleine l’Engle’s Murry household. As entertaining as her relatives are, I tired of them over the long haul, particularly her mother and aunt’s clichéd attempts to set Thursday up with her former fiancé. Her father is another story; of necessity, he appears infrequently. A renegade member of ChronoGuard (SO-12), he is unimpeded by petty temporal concerns and the definitive version of history. This leads to some entertaining exchanges with Thursday:

‘Harold?’ Killed? How?’

‘An arrow, Dad. In his eye.’

‘English or French?’

Thursday’s eccentric uncle creates all manner of strange contraptions and devices in his workshop behind the family home. To name a few (and I did feel there were a few too many): the Olfactograph, Rosettionery (translating carbon paper), and critically, Bookworms and the Prose Portal. It is this last invention that enables travels to and from fictional worlds, and it plays a starring role in the story.

It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the climax of the action involves Jane Eyre and its protagonists. I can’t help but wonder if a less familiar work might have packed more punch here. Enjoyably, we revisit the long-running argument over Brontë’s ending, and at the conclusion, reality parallels (revised) fiction in a way that I found just a little too neat.

The book is peppered with word play; no doubt I missed many literary in-jokes. Some worked brilliantly, others not so much. It was funny at first that a Goliath Corporation agent was named Jack Schitt; by the end of the book, less so. Another aspect that may not sit well with some readers is the shift in tone from frivolous literary tomfoolery – the Finis Hotel in Swindon is hosting the Annual John Milton Convention when Thursday arrives, Henry Fielding enthusiasts swap bubble-gum cards – and quite brutal violence, mainly courtesy of arch-villain Hades.

In one of my favourite flourishes, Fforde begins each chapter with ‘excerpts’ from future works of non-fiction: Millon de Floss’s (geddit) A Short History of the Special Operations Network and Thursday Next – A biography, Acheron Hades’ Degeneracy for Fun and Profit, and Thursday Next’s A Life in SpecOps.

All told, The Eyre Affair is a highly entertaining read that will delight many, literature geeks in particular. It could have profited from some judicious omissions; it includes time travel, vampire hunters, musings on the military industrial complex, a genetically engineered pet dodo and an airship. Speaking of that dodo – Pickwick (plock-plock) is a brilliant creation, but where did he go? I desperately wanted him to be a sidekick that stayed, well, by Thursday’s side! These criticisms not withstanding, I most certainly look forward to reading more about Thursday Next.

P.S. The cover design is very good; I particularly liked the faux ‘wear and tear’. I would, however, request that whichever Guardian reviewer used the term ‘fictioneer’ (cover blurb) be banished by ChronoGuard to another era forthwith.


Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

©2006 Akuppa John Wigham http://www.flickr.com/people/90664717@N00/ used under a CC-BY license

Sea Glass 1 ©2006 Akuppa John Wigham CC-BY

I was delighted when the organisers of The Kitschies asked me to review Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass, a 2012 finalist for the Red Tentacle. The Kitschies seek to reward fiction with speculative or fantastic elements that is progressive, intelligent and entertaining. With this in mind, I have looked for these three qualities in Jack Glass, and happily, have found them. Jack Glass is published by Gollancz, and the print edition is 382 pages. I read the kindle version, which includes extra content at the end which I don’t discuss here.

I began reading Jack Glass with an awareness of Adam Roberts’ broad knowledge of literature and fondness for playing with language, and I was not disappointed in my expectation that both would be in evidence. There was never any doubt in my mind that this book would be intelligent.

This is a wide-ranging, engaging tale that plays fast and loose with a number of conventions. It’s less Space Opera and more Chivalry in Orbit. The front cover tells us point-blank that this is “The Story of a Murderer”. So, not a page-turner then, you might think – we haven’t even opened the cover and he’s given it away! But what keeps you reading is not the who, but the why, and the how. Seemingly against the odds, a most improbable love story is beautifully rendered, and issues of politics, psychopharmacology and the nature of thought itself are raised.

Before we go any further, let me give the obligatory spoiler warning – I’d find it impossible to discuss the book fully without giving away some major plot points – look away now if you want to be surprised.

Jack Glass is a story told in three parts. Part I – In the Box is preceded by an introductory passage in which the unnamed narrator addresses the reader, telling us that “This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time.” We get an inkling that, like doctorwatson, our narrator is full of admiration for her/his subject, in this case Jack Glass, that amalgam of seemingly irreconcilable personas, “detective, teacher, protector and murderer.” Into the ongoing debate about whether readers can enjoy a book if the protagonist isn’t likeable, Roberts throws down the literary equivalent of an FTL gauntlet: You will see this character doing horrid, gruesome things, and yet by the end, you will view him with some sympathy. Not everyone will agree that this is successful, but I’ll admit that in my case, I was largely won over. I particularly enjoyed the narrator’s voice, and was a bit sorry that she/he doesn’t address us directly again until the end of the story.

Did I mention? Horrid, gruesome things. Part I is incredibly bleak, and it is a brave authorial gambit to begin there, stuck on an asteroid with a group of male prisoners. If the “A Golden Age Story” on the title page makes one think of Arcadia and the pastoral, this is instead a lengthy excursion into the picaresque. It is not this choice, however, that gives me pause about this section, but some qualms I have about its length and the box conceit.

The novel is set in an age of space travel where humanity has spread throughout the solar system, now called the Ulanov System after its all-powerful ruling family. We watch as seven male prisoners are deposited on a distant asteroid to serve out an eleven-year sentence. Politics is one topic of discussion; we hear that the commercial firm responsible for imprisoning them makes a profit from their labour; the hollowed-out asteroid will ultimately be valuable real estate. Later conversations revolve around System economics and are, to my leftie ears, quite refreshingly clear-eyed  and a progressive assessment of How Things Tend to Work.

The concept of life in a sealed cavern inside an asteroid has a certain geeky fascination, and time is devoted to explaining how this might be possible. The sealed-in prisoners have been given only the bare necessities: a fusion cell, air scrubbers, a lightstick, spores that grow into a food called ghunk, drilling equipment for hollowing out the asteroid. The environment is hostile – rocky, dark and bitterly cold – and it is a constant worry that one error will cause them all to perish. A crisis ensues when they can’t locate a seam of ice in the rock and nearly run out of water.

The seven prisoners are a varied crew, serving sentences for a range of crimes. One of them, Jac, has no legs and is suspected of being a political prisoner. A friendship of sorts develops between Jac and the rotund Gordius, revered as a globe-shaped god by his people but convicted of murder following the traditional ritual killing of his father. There is endless arguing and hostile banter between the occupants as they struggle to set up their living arrangements, and soon there are regular sexual assaults on Gordius and “Legless Jac.”  As time passes, Jac seems obsessed with small bits of glass that occasionally form during the mining process. Gordius believes Jac is creating a window through which to signal a passing ship, and pleads with Jac to take him along. Jac clearly has something in mind for the pieces of glass: “he took a few likely looking shards: two handsome sicklemoons in brown-green…”

Eventually, the disgruntled in-fighting reaches a fever pitch; even Gordius and Jac have a vicious fight in which Gordius loses an eye. Then there is a coup. The plan was to kill E-d-C, but when the dust (and airborne blood droplets – no gravity) settles, Lwon, one of the ‘alphas’, is also dead. Finally, we learn why Jac was hoarding glass: in a quite astonishly violent rampage he uses the glass to kill the remaining prisoners, even Gordius, and after some demonically creative handiwork with the organic material to hand, fashions a primitive powered space-suit and escapes into space.

For all its imaginative virtues I did at points find Part I heavy going; I’m not sure that readers will be invested enough in this world or in Jac to sustain interest throughout the lengthy exposition. Also, I had trouble with the conceit of “the box” – I couldn’t set aside my nagging discomfort about this – is an asteroid that much like a box? Yes, the prisoners are enclosed in it, but beyond that… It didn’t resonate. But that is a minor quibble.

Part II – The FTL Murders, is a different animal all together, and it is very, very good. We are introduced to a new cast of characters (with the exception of Iago the Tutor aka Jack Glass) who have come down to a future earth from “the uplands” for a visit. There are some really delightful ideas to ponder here, and Roberts makes them convincing and entertaining. The high-born sisters, Diana and Eva, future leaders of the Argent Clan, along with their large entourage of bodyguards and handservants, struggle to adjust to gravity, sometimes to comic effect. Strangely, their tutor Iago seems to stoically resist making any concessions to the oppressive phenomenon. Only later do they learn that this is because of his high-tech artificial legs.

There are numerous little touches that tell us this is the future, technology has moved on – windows can be commanded to appear in previously opaque walls, there are smartfabrics, some people look up information on a device called a bId (Biolink iData) which is something like an internal data port. There is the Ideal Palace, or IP, a private worldtual that Diana and Eva use frequently for work and recreation. There are crawlipers, which help those unused to gravity walk more easily. One of the most interesting ideas, which resonates in our era of medications that influence affect, is the use of CRF, a drug administered to staff members of the elite households to ensure their loyalty and affection. It becomes significant later that Jack Glass, as the sisters’ tutor Iago (arch-villain) is not required to take CRF by the sisters’ parents, despite them being fully aware of his past life.

The sisters are MOHsisters, with two MOHmies (Mommies! Genius) – I didn’t read any of the glossary entries until I’d finished the book, but it was clear even without them that genetic tinkering had given these sisters abilities suited to their roles as future leaders of the Argent Clan, the information guild. Roberts does a better job than almost anyone I’ve read at making a feminine-centred society sound unremarkable; it isn’t forced, it’s just there. Diana has a crush on a girl from another clan, the concept of female-male relationships is seen as a bit out of the ordinary, and Diana exclaims ‘goddess’, not ‘god’.

The breezy, irreverent quality of Diana’s internal monologues is superb – she is the epitome of a lively, intelligent, entitled teenager – with added problem-solving abilities and attitude: “A problem to be solved! And who was better at solving problems than her? (Nobody! Her problem-solving is second-to-none: intutive, human, chaologic — it’s what she was bred and raised to.)” Roberts contrasts Diana and her intuitive abilities with her older sister Eva, the logical one, who is doing yet another PhD in astronomy. Interactions between the two sisters are like the bicameral mind imagined by Wodehouse. Throw in a healthy dash of the Mitford Sisters and the heroine of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and you’ll have some sense of the tone. Diana is constantly playing with words and people’s names: “Sisterissima Evissima,” “You love me, don’t you, Eye-ah-go?” and “No. Wavey. Way.”

The action in Part II revolves around the murder of Leron, one of the sisters’ handservants. It seems clear that the murderer must have been one of the other servants, since no one else could have entered or left their quarters. Diana, an avid consumer of virtual whodunits, is giddy with excitement and determined to solve the case herself. Such is her status that the local police agree to this. We learn that the sisters’ problem-solving ability is contingent on dreaming. “Dreams have utility. Dreaming was central to what the girls did, not because of what the dreams contained, but because of what the urge to interpret sparked inside them.”

Soon, rumours begin spreading (via ‘gossipoppers’) that someone has developed Fast Than Light technology. This is pooh-poohed on factual grounds by Eva, but it becomes clear that even rumours of such a thing will cause upheaval in the System and strife between the clans.

The sisters are then visited by a tough-as-nails agent of the Ulanovs, Ms Joad. She tells the girls that the murder IS in fact a much bigger deal than they realize; far from being a matter of one servant murdering another, it involves that infamous criminal Jack Glass, and, yes, FTL. Ms Joad relates how Jack Glass was sent to serve his sentence on a distant asteroid, but had (impossibly) escaped. Ms Joad stresses how evil he is. Even Diana is amazed: “The say he has hey-ho murdered more than a thousand people,’ said Diana, with a touch of awe in her voice.”

Diana continues her “investigation” and ultimately realizes that Leron was killed by Sapho, another handservant, after suffering abuse at his hands. What she doesn’t realize is that the stage for the crime had been set by (Jack Glass!) It becomes clear that this feat of problem-solving has marked Diana out as the chosen leader of the Argent Clan, pushing Eva to one side.

Events move rapidly from this point. Suffice it to say that Ms Joad returns and does some killing of her own, the island comes under heavy attack, and the two sisters flee separately. Iago and Sapho go with Diana, (who now knows Iago’s true identity) and what ensues is a trip through the System as they run from whatever forces are pursuing them. This is very well-drawn – we see a variety of settlements in floating spheres, some in poor shanty settlements, others in more desirable orbits. There are revolutionary gatherings, unfamiliar religions (the Hindu Christ) and more. There are RACdroids whose purpose is to provide a reliable account of events and contracts. Ms Joad reappears, employed now by Eva, who has betrayed Diana.

The climactic showdown that is the central action of Part III – The Impossible Gun involves an encounter between Jack/Iago and his one time comrade and now foe, the policeman Bar-le-Duc. The infamous policeman is killed, in and we have a third murder mystery, eventually unravelled with the help of a RACdroid. We learn that the revolutionary Jack Glass does not kill for fun but always in the service of a greater cause; he knows that FTL does exist, and fears that the entire system is in peril if it falls into the wrong hands. This is his motivation, always. The only exception is that he was willing to sacrifice himself (and his mission) to see Diana safe and free, because he loves her. When he tells Diana of his long-standing love for her (and it is a chivalric, noble love) it is beautifully judged: moving, funny, sad. He sends her to safety, and he and Sapho (who is our narrator) remain together.

I know there is much more to discover here – how could there not be? There are jokes I haven’t mentioned – Iago’s retreat named Dunronin, and more. I can’t do it justice, and I highly recommend that you read it yourself; it will be time well spent.


One sentence

And, to leave you on a more edifying note, I’ll share one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read. It’s not long. It’s from Empty Space, by M. John Harrison:

“When we ask it about itself, it asks for you.”

Why is this so affecting? Maybe because is captures the very essence of love?

Not me. YOU. The Other. That is what is important.


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