The War in the Dark by Nick Setchfield

This review is jumping the queue because I got sent an advance review copy and only started to read it on release day.  Also, I want to get the news out there in a timely fashion.

It’s 1963 and British Intelligence assassin Christopher Winter is sent on a routine job.  But the priest he is sent to kill turns out to be a demon, his handlers drug him to get him to tell the truth, his wife tries to kill him, and the only person he trusts in the Service is killed.  Acting upon a final clue left by his colleague, Winter is led on a quest through Cold War Mitteleurope in search of an occult weapon which would ensure victory for the side that holds it.  There’s a creepy mansion in the Vienna Woods, tunnels under Berlin (a Berlin which I recognise more from having seen Wings of Desire like 20 times than from having been there recently), lost towers in Bavaria – all stuff I cannot resist.

I read *a lot* of urban fantasy.  For approximately the first quarter of the book, I was thinking “this wants to be the Laundry books without the humour”.  But that was harsh and unfair.  Setchfield very much  has his own voice, and this book is well plotted and paced. I ended up enjoying it very much.  (Anyway it’s more Len Deighton than Stross, and if I was to pick an occult espionage novel to compare it to it would be Tim Powers’ Declare.) Granted, none of the occult elements are new or presented in a particularly original way, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a good solid occult spy thriller, and I early await further books by this author.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I bought this when it first came out because I liked the presentation as a faux-antique book with the photographs.  I’ve only got around to reading it because we recently got a Now TV subscription, which has made the film available, and I wanted to read the book first.

Our protagonist is Jacob, a rich, underachieving Florida teenager whose life is changed when he sees his grandfather killed by monsters.  He is understandably traumatised, and everyone thinks he is crazy because he told people what he saw.  Going through his grandfather’s effects, he finds there’s a lot more to the old man than he knew, and drags his father off to a remote island off the coast of Wales to find clues to his grandfather’s early life.

Here he comes across the eponymous Home and Peculiar Children, and adventures ensue.

It’s reasonably well enough written in that the voice of a hitherto not-very-engaged adolescent boy comes through well, and I quite enjoyed it right up until Jacob finds the Home.  Unfortunately this book fell down completely for me because I found the mythos not at all thought through, pointless and unconvincing.

Build me a world I enjoy and I will read any old shite.  This one just left me going “what?”, in a bad way.  Ends on a cliffhanger and I didn’t immediately order the sequel.  Am actually contemplating not watching the film now, I care that little.

The Devourers by Indra Das

I heard about this from a friend, thought it sounded good for my attempt to read more books by non-Western authors, bought it and it promptly sat on my shelf for a couple of years.

Alok, a young history professor in Kolkata, meets a man who claims to be half werewolf, who starts to tell him a story that completely mesmerises him.  They meet up again and the stranger gives Alok two manuscripts to transcribe that tell the rest of the story.

Set in the time of the Mughals, when the various European nations were just starting to trade with India, the manuscripts tell the story of the strangers parents – a centuries-old werewolf from France, and a lower-class Indian woman.  This story is interwoven with the story of the relationship between Alok and the stranger. It’s violent and often unpleasant (the stranger is a product of rape), but it certainly kept me wanting to know what happens next.  The description of the European werewolves is pretty viscerally icky.  (A large group of them came East about the time of the crusades in search of a supposed tribe of Indian werewolves in the Sunderbans).

Apart from the narrative, there’s a fair bit going on here.  The book is set up in the format of the “frame tale”, something that 18th century Orientalists were convinced was the hallmark of “oriental” works (such as the Thousand and One Nights) and was used by various early Romantic poets to add an exotic flavour to their work.  I think there’s a lot about the Indian reaction to colonialism I’m not getting.  (Das grew up in India but as an adult has lived in the USA and Canada).  The European traders are seen as marginal and not a threat.  The protagonist is quite Westernised and doesn’t speak the dialect of the area where his family are from.  Despite being engaged at the beginning of the novel, Alok is attracted mainly to men and he has to work that out for himself.

There’s enough threads to this book that it could have been a mess, but I felt that it all came together quite well, and that it is well written and paced, and a worthwhile read even with all the unpleasantness.

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Anna read at BristolCon Fringe last year.  This is not the sort of fantasy book I would usually be particularly interested in – I have a limited tolerance for grimdark (I know, take away my goth card).  But she is an expert in medieval poetry and it was obvious from her short reading that she knows all about alliteration and repetition and all the other stuff that makes literature for a semi-literate society (ie most people will have it read aloud to them) work.  So I bought the book, in hardcover.

It’s (I guess) typical grimdark fantasy stuff – a company of mercenaries is brought to the city to overthrow the king and everything goes predictably wrong.  But the aftermath is not at all what I was expecting, involving the adventures of an escaped priestess and an exiled, drug addicted, berserker prince-turned-mercenary.

Everything about the world in which they live is repellent – the “civilised” society is nothing but a theatre of cruelty.  (Well, it’s superficially gorgeous and sumptuous).

At one level, all of the characters are horrible people.  But look a little closer and most of them have endearing, human features and motivations and some of their failings can be explained by the brutal society in which they live.  (Some.)

The prose is beautiful.  While Smith Spark obviously appreciates medieval poetry, the use of its elements is not overwhelming.  (I Get It because I’ve read a fair amount of medieval poetry myself; I don’t think that the language would confuse anyone who hasn’t).  I particularly loved the use of interior monologue following what is said out loud.  It caused me to laugh out loud more than once.  The novel overall was a lot easier to read than the part that she read to us had indicated.

Between the language and the really cool plotting, I found myself really enjoying this book and I will be picking up her new book at some point.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

I broke my current rule for buying books (I only do so if the author is in the room with me to sign it) when I heard Jesmyn Ward speaking about this on Radio 4’s Start the Week programme.  She said a lot of really impressive things in general but the clincher was her description of the work as a road trip in the tradition of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  The next time I was near a book shop I picked up a copy.

The book is narrated mainly by Jojo, a 13 year old mixed race boy living in Mississippi, and his mother Leonie (black), a meth addict and part time waitress.  They live with Leonie’s parents, both of whom (unlike Leonie) are steady, positive influences on Jojo.  Sadly, the grandmother is dying.  But the poverty they live in is grinding and so much of the description of the way they live sounds like something right out of Faulkner, to the extent that when the characters use cell phones it seems wrong.

Leonie’s finds out her boyfriend is being let out of jail early and so she, Jojo, the younger child Kayla and Leonie’s friend Misty, set off on a journey to the jail to pick him up in a not-registered and insured car, so by the backroads.  Unsurprisingly, the trip does not go smoothly.

The book is also narrated by Ritchie, the ghost of a boy who was in jail with Pop (the grandfather) many years ago.  (Because there is more to everyone in this story than first meets the eye).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  The prose is utterly beautiful, lyrical and captivating.  One reads a lot of news reports these days about racist incidents in the USA; nothing has ever made me feel it so viscerally as this novel.  There is a scene when they are pulled over by the cops, who pull a gun on Jojo and he nearly gets shot.  Michael, the father, is white, and his family are so racist it’s right out of Faulkner.  This is an absolute condemnation of the system that kills young black men (Leonie’s brother was killed by a white teenager in a “hunting accident”) or puts them in jail for next to nothing, and the absolute inability to lead a good life or get ahead in their circumstances.

As for the As I Lay Dying parallels, they are certainly there but if you don’t know it you wouldn’t feel like there was something big you were missing.  (I’ve read it but a long time ago).  There is a race against time to get back home before the grandmother dies (who is some sort of a local healer woman with voodoo undertones, and her story is fascinating in itself, as is the backstory of Pop as it is revealed).  There is even an obscure and not entirely linear reference to being a snake.  It’s incredibly skilfully done.

I was very disappointed to read that this didn’t win the Women’s Fiction Prize, because I cannot imagine a finer book.  I also wish I hadn’t sat on this review for a month because I had a lot of thoughts at the time which I failed to write down.

I am really having a wonderfully good year for books – this is at least the third book I’ve read this year where I think “it can’t get any better than this”.  We shall see.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

I’ve read two of Martyn’s books where he is writing as Tanya Carver.  They’re perfectly serviceable thrillers but not that special.

I was at an event the other week where Martyn described this book as “Brexit noir meets The Wicker Man”.  Sold!

Tom Killgannon is an ex-cop under witness protection, currently working as a bartender in a remote Cornish village.  One day he lets a young on the run from the local “hippie” (not) commune crash at his house, but she spooks and takes off with his jacket.  Which has all of his new identity in it.  He can’t tell his police handler because of Reasons so he sets out to find the girl, and his ID, himself.

Meanwhile, things in the village are Not Right.  The residents are really focussed on getting the last bit of EU funding to restore the harbour, and some people are decidedly scared.

As things do, these two things turn out to be part of the same mystery and  Tom is stuck right in the middle.

I loved this one, couldn’t put it down.  If you read crime and/or folk horror at all you should really check it out.

The Best of Hawai’i’s Best Spooky Tales collected by Rick Carroll

That’s not a typo, that really is the title.  There’s six volumes originally.

You can tell where my parents have gone on holiday by which local ghost story collections I end up with.

The rationale behind this collection is first-person “real life” supernatural encounters.  A lot of them revolve around meetings with Madam Pele, the Hawai’ian volcano goddess.  A really impressive number are written by native Hawai’ians, and even those written by others have a take no prisoners approach to the use of Hawai’ian language words. (As an aside, this is interesting as these books are so often meant strictly for the tourist market and clearly this is not).  I’m cool with this – I have a high tolerance for ambiguity (a language teaching term) and if it bothers me that much, we live in the age of Google.

These stories are all really short and really well edited so that the voice of each writer comes through strongly.  It represents a good cross section of the ethnic groups that live in Hawai’i – Hawai’ians, Europeans, Japanese, etc.

There’s not much to it – I finished it in two days.

That makes two of these volumes in a row that have been better than average.  <eyes shelf>.  The law of averages says that I have some real stinkers waiting for me.