Ace, King, Knave is a historical novel set in 1760s London. The main protagonists are two women: Betsy-Ann and Sophie. The third viewpoint character is a fifteen year old black slave boy, called Titus / Fortunate.
At the start of the novel, Betsy-Ann is a street peddler, selling second hand goods, fencing the odd stolen knick-knack, while squirrelling away her most valuable and treasured possessions in hidden hidey-holes in the flat she shares with Sam Shiner. Sam is not legally her husband, although she has gotten used to using his surname instead of hers. When Sam tells her that he is getting into business with her brother, she is mortified: her brother is a rough, violent sort, and his business is graverobbing. The work leaves its mark on Sam - he starts to rely heavily on alcohol, and the smell of the dead follows him home. As Betsy-Ann's domestic life becomes more troubled, she recalls the road that led her to that little flat in London.
Sophie, meanwhile, is a young woman of nobility and upper class. Her story starts with romance and courtship and the road to marriage. Sophie initially finds it all so very blissful, but marriage soon starts to be oddly isolating. Her husband, Ned Zedlander, is busy all day (how strange for a nobleman to have so much to do!), and keeps her away from society, peers and family, much to her growing frustration.
Historical novels tends to have a more stately pace than the speculative fiction ones I usually read. Ace, King, Knave is no exception. A lot of energy is invested in worldbuilding and using authentic phrases in dialogue. The characters all seem perfectly convincing. As a piece of writing, Ace, King Knave shows great craftsmanship and attention to detail. It is a very accomplished work.
However, for all its impressive qualities, the story is quite bleak. Not, perhaps, quite as grim as Maria McCann's debut masterpiece As Meat Loves Salt, but neither is it the playful romp that the description and cover of the book led me to expect. Gamblers and graverobbers, women protagonists searching for the truth: I expected something with a bit more of a spring in its step when I bought the book. I also hoped for the plot to be rather more empowering of its women & slave protagonists than it was. I guess I'm too used to fantasy novels imagining better versions of the past, whereas this historical novel takes historical authenticity very, very seriously.
Ace, King, Knave is an excellent work of literary, historically accurate fiction, but less satisfying as a piece of entertainment. It was never a chore to read, but it left me feeling empty and hollow inside, which wasn't what I had expected when I picked it up....more
A novel about a happy little whorehouse in a parallel world that has portals to other parallel worlds. Too many plotlines for one book. Is it a noir sA novel about a happy little whorehouse in a parallel world that has portals to other parallel worlds. Too many plotlines for one book. Is it a noir search for a missing girl? A serial killer novel? A novel about religion and cults? A novel about godhood? It's three or four different novels in one. Readable, but lacking drive and direction for the most part. The device of interspersing chapters about the distant past with chapters set in the plot's present is one I will never quite understand. Scott Lynch does the same, and even in the Locke Lamora novels I found it initially annoying and perplexing. In Babylon Steele, it means you are reading a (confused) novel and its prequel at the same time.
The writing is not bad, but the story could have used a lot more focus and direction, and more tension. ...more
Spark and Carousel is the story of two youngsters. Spark is a former apprentice of a powerful sorcerer, on the run. Carousel is a former urchin, making her living as street acrobat, working for one of the gangs of the city.
It's also the story of the two sorcerers trying to find Spark, the city's ruling family and their youngest daughter. Not to forget the merchants, landlords, gangmasters and other inhabitants who live in this world.
There are some things that make Spark and Carousel stand out from other fantasy novels. We meet characters of every class, from the lowest street rats to the highest aristocrats, and it is the interactions and intersections between the different characters's lives that drive much of the plot. Each character has reasons for the things they do. There is evil, but it is not the evil of a moustache-twirling villain. Instead, the evil is a bi-product of people' actions and desires. Some is unleashed by accident, other evil deeds start out as self-defence against oppressive and abusive situations. Even some of the 'good guys' are distinctly flawed. Noble, a black gang leader, inspires great loyalty and strives hard to earn and repay it, but he is also a pimp and a gangster, ruthless and brutal in the pursuit and punishment of the disobedient. Finally, there is realism that rarely appears in fantasy novels: we see Alzheimer's disease ravaging one character. We see prostitution that seems authentic, neither glamorised nor villified. Spark and Carousel is surprisingly complex for a fantasy novel, and not at all run-of-the-mill.
In other aspects, Spark and Carousel is following current trends. It's part of the grimdark sub-genre / movement. There's violence, rape, incestuousness, and worse. The aristocracy could have come straight from a George R R Martin novel, while the lower classes could be meandering into a Brandon Sanderson one without raising an eyebrow. There's sex that's enjoyable for women in the book, as well as persecution-free bisexuality and homosexuality. It's a novel that would probably not have been written this way twenty or thirty years ago.
In terms of the writing, I would put it on a par with the novels of Joe Abercrombie. There's less of a sense of humour in Spark and Carousel, and the characters, while memorable and charismatic, are not quite as larger-than-life as Abercrombie's, but they feel more real and believable as a result. If I had to sum it up in one glib sentence, I'd describe it as "Juliet McKenna meets Joe Abercrombie" - if you enjoy the novels of either, you'll enjoy this one, too.
A solidly entertaining read for those who enjoy reading fantasy and don't mind grimdark elements....more
A brief summary: Grave of Hummingbirds showed a lot of promise at the start, but sadly it collapsed in on itself with inconsistent characterisation of a main character and a plot which used a lot of cheating devices to resolve itself. However, it's a quick read and quite entertaining....more
My Own Dear Brother is the story of Ursula Hildesheim, her brother Anton Hildesheim and Schosi Hillier, three youngsters in Nazi-ruled alpine Austria. The Second World War is heading for a conclusion, and in people's minds the oppressiveness of fascism is joined by the fear of the approaching Russian juggernaut. Basically, times are bad, and looking as if they might get worse.
Ursula, however, has more immediate concerns at the start of the novel. Growing up is a struggle, and life in a small, conservative rural community has its challenges. Then there is her brother Toni, whom she worships, but who has an unsettling fierceness about him. All too quick to hate, all too quick to lash out, her love for Toni can be quite isolating, as he viciously persecutes any friends she makes.
My Own Dear Brother is a very authentic story. This makes it a quite harrowing reading experience. Life in a small, very Catholic community is not easy at the best of times - and WW2 is not at all the best of times.
Everyone has their noses in everyone else's business. Pettiness and judgmental, malicious gossip are everywhere. People are oh-so-keen to have someone to ostracise or look down on. Deeply Catholic, rural areas are, on the whole, godawful places to live. Especially for anyone who is a bit of an outsider.
Ursula's family are outsiders. They are poor. The children run around barefoot until temperatures necessitate winter footwear. They wear patched-up hand-me-downs, their home is not spotless and neat but mildewy and worn, and they live in a farm cottage, outside of the main village.
When her mother starts receiving a regular visitor from Vienna, Ursula's family life starts to slowly derail. Anton hates the newcomer and town busybodies start to gossip, sniffing scandal in the air. The Hildesheims are shunned and publicly shamed, which proud and furious Anton cannot stomach at all.
Life under fascism is hard to imagine for people who never experienced anything like it. In this novel, the atmosphere is captured vividly. The way gossip and petty resentments can turn deadly, the way certain people gain a mantle of fear, the way people hush their voices and dare not talk of certain things, the way the unspoken gains power over everyone, the way everyone quietly ignores the unspeakable. And yet, the everyday continues. People go to work. People find ways to put food on the dinner table. People see even the most loathsome of their neighbours on an everyday basis, whether at church or at the grocer's. Anyone wondering what life in any authoritarian, ultra-conservative parts of the world is like right now could probably read My Own Dear Brother and get a good inkling.
The novel puts you right into that world, and it's a terrifying, dangerous and grim place to be. Take a young teenage girl who isn't quite aware of how dangerous her world really is, add a disturbed older brother to the mix, and put them at odds, and you get a book that is so much more than you might expect from the cover and the description.
At times, the novel is as tense and suspenseful as the most relentless of thrillers. At other times, the book is a microcosmic coming of age story, and the story of a teenager who feels like an outsider and struggles with self-loathing. Nazi rule is sometimes a backdrop, sometimes a very imminent danger.
My Own Dear Brother is a rich novel, handling difficult topics and weaving together different threads with masterful aplomb. There are a few scenes, a few half sentences, which in my opinion did not really fit properly, but it's quite possible these will be gone by the time it hits the bookshops. (The netgalley version I read was an uncorrected proof, so subject to copyedits)
Fascism, messed up relations, and puberty... they are all psychologically scarring in their different ways. This is a book that combines all three. It features psychological damage and horrors, with sections of page-turning tension, sections of trauma and sections of heartbreak. This is not a feel-good novel, and there is little or no relief from the darkness of its time and subject matter. As such, it is utterly authentic and utterly gruelling to read. I would say it's a great literary achievement, and a perspective on WW2 that I have not seen before. I would not, however, recommend it to readers looking for a feelgood novel. ...more
In summary: The Fox and the Star seems to be primarily a gift book. It looks beautiful, it'll be pretty on any shelf, but it's not satisfying to read for grown ups and too precious an object to be meant for children....more
Summary: it's a bit less mysterious and with fewer character relationships forming and developing, so it's a little less absorbing. That said, it's funny and a fun, light read, and not half bad....more
Deep Water is a young adult novel, at the more literary and atmospheric end of the genre. Our hero, Danni, lives with her mother in England. One day, her mother does not return from work, and Danni slowly begins to suspect something may be wrong. When her mom still isn't back in the early hours of the morning, she raises the alarm, calls her (divorced) father, and waits for news that can only be terrible.
While the police search for her missing mother, they insist that Danni has to be in the care of an adult, so her scatterbrained hippie father is the only palatable option. Danni temporarily moves in with him. He happens to live in Cornwall now, where her mom is originally from.
There, Danni begins to investigate her own mother's history, while meeting the locals, some of whom are instantly, superstitiously hostile of her. And there's a dark history here, centering around the old chapel and a terrible deed that happened there...
Deep Water is a rich novel, slowly building up tension and a sense of dread, but also a sense of mystery. It's very much a novel where place is a character - Cornwall is in the DNA of the novel just as much as a love of the mythical.
This isn't a cute little fairy tale - it's a thriller with mythical, magical elements, deeply invested in coastlines and landscapes and place and small community life. It's the sort of story that all too rarely makes it into cinema screens - perhaps the superb Ondine is the closest comparison in terms of atmosphere.
If you like Alan Garner's novels, you'll enjoy Deep Water just as much. It's really rather good. ...more
In summary: As a thoughtful, clever, complex, authentic and well-written thriller, this book is an excellent achievement. The problem is that it turned me into a nervous wreck as I read it. One of its themes is mental illness, and this was handled realistically, convincingly, and gut-wrenchingly, resonating and hitting far too close to home for comfort. Therefore, it just wasn't the book for me at this time. ...more
In summary: The Severed Streets is an engrossing read, relentlessly grim, with a few emotional gut-punches, but not as harrowing as the first in the series. Definitely worth a look for people who like urban fantasy, but not perhaps the series of choice if you're in the mood for something cheery and light. While The Severed Streets does explain and sum up some of the key events from London Falling, I doubt it works very well as a standalone - I recommend starting with the first book in the series. ...more
London Falling is a good, entertaining, thrilling read. It's a lot darker than other recent offerings of urban fantasy, with heavy elements of horror. It's definitely a satisfying start to a series of novels....more
In summary: The Beauty is a rich and atmospheric tale which handles the uncanny and horror with huge confidence. I'm not sure it could ever be made into a movie, but if so, Guillermo del Toro (who made Pan's Labyrinth) would have to direct. It is a stunning achievement. ...more
In summary: it's a unique novel, quite unlike anything I've ever read before. It's also intelligent, thoughtful, strategic, all without ever forgetting about character complexity, with a lot to say about the politics of power, geopolitics and much food for thought....more