“The Goddess Of Buttercups And Daisies” by Martin Millar (2015)

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“The agora was always busy.”

If I was ever to acquire a time machine, I’d head straight back to Ancient Greece. It’s not that I’m particularly interested in the country now even, I just really love so much of what I read about the place. Most of that, granted, is the myths, monsters and gods, all of which – we assume – didn’t actually exist, which is a shame. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to dive back into that world now and again, so I did.

Playwright Aristophanes is panicking. He’s lost the funding for his next big comic play, the props aren’t funny enough, and he’s constantly being pestered by Luxos, the self-proclaimed best lyric poet in Athens. The fact that Athens has been at war with Sparta for years isn’t helping matters, but Aristophanes is convinced that his play will help change people’s minds and bring about peace. But he wasn’t counting on Laet, a goddess of strife and discord. When she enters a room, everyone in it immediately makes the worst possible decision, and it’s tearing Athens apart.

Athena, the city’s goddess, sends the Amazon Bremusa down to Athens to hunt down Laet and scare her off. She enlists Metris, a permanently happy water nymph who claims to have inherited her mother’s powers to restore happiness and order to nasty situations. However, when it turns out that the only power she actually has is to make buttercups and daisies grow wherever she walks, the problem suddenly doesn’t look so easy to solve.

Will Luxos ever get an audience for his poems? Can Aristophanes ensure his play is a hit and win first prize at the Dionysia festival? And can Metris and Bremusa save the day, without getting distracted by such mundane trivialities as love and revenge?

The novel is a blend of reality and fiction. Aristophanes was a real playwright and the play he’s putting on, Peace, really does exist and is still occasionally performed. In turn, Athena was, of course, really one of the gods, and Bremusa was one of the Amazon women. However, other characters have been inserted into the narrative that are of Millar’s own creation, including Luxos the poet and Metris, the titular goddess.

What Millar does well, though, is to seamlessly blend the mortal world and that of the gods and divine beings together so that they exist in perfect harmony. My favourite thing about the Greek gods has always been that they were so petty and so human in their flaws, meaning that when they meet, real narrative magic happens. In this novel, as in many set at the time, the gods are taken as fact, and indeed few people are ever truly surprised to learn of a deity or nymph walking among them. They have some interesting powers, and are probably the most engaging characters in the book, but that might just be me and my love of mythology. Some of the human characters, particularly Aristophanes and Luxos, are fun too, but most others don’t get enough page time to be fleshed out particularly.

It’s quite funny in places, but a very broad humour.However, Greek humour was broad – much is made of the fact that the play will be deemed a failure if the comedy penises aren’t big enough – so the style fits the era.  It’s also a comment on satire, with Aristophanes’ plays mocking important figures of the time like an ancient Dead Ringers. A jolly little book, worth spending an afternoon with.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“City Of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

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“‘I believe the question, then,’ says Vasily Yaroslav, ‘is one of intent.'”

Some books feel like spending time in the embrace of an old friend. Others feel as refreshing as diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. But there are always the ones that put you in mind of cloying, claggy swamps, where every step you take is prefaced by ten minutes of wiggling your leg out of the quagmire with that shlurp sound, only to find you’ve lost your shoe. Again. I emerge from City Of Stairs after over a week, muddy, sweaty and looking for somewhere with a power shower.

The first in a series, this novel takes place in the ancient city of Bulikov, central location on the vast Continent. The Continent was once ruled by six Divinities (i.e. gods), each of which had their own followers, belief system and powers. That is, until the nation of Saypur attacked as part of its plan to dominate the globe, and killed all the Divinities. In doing such, all the miracles and magic that they had performed immediately failed, and the Continent, Bulikov in particular, was ripped asunder. Climate changed in an instant, buildings collapsed into one another, and staircases and doors suddenly led nowhere.

After the suspicious death of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a diplomat researching the history of the Continent – a history that, under Saypuri rule, is never to be mentioned or acknowledged – a descendant of the man who killed the gods, Shara Komayd, makes her way into Bulikov under false pretenses to find out exactly what happened. Accompanied by her terrifyingly large bodyguard Sigrud, she soon takes command of the diplomatic mission and soon learns that something is going on beneath the surface. There are talks of an uprising, and if anyone finds out her true identity, there is sure to be hell to pay. And more urgently, it seems that someone has gained access to the Warehouse, where all miraculous items from before the Blink (the disappearance of the Divinities) are being stored. She has a week to get to the bottom of things, before her commanding officer – and aunt – pulls her back to Saypur.

A review on the back of the book notes similarities to three other authors, and I have to say that I can complete see where they’re coming from. SciFiNow notes that the talk of ancient gods seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin also seems relevant, both stories being full of scheming politicians and worlds that feel familiar but off-kilter. The one I was most strongly reminded of, though, was China Miéville’s The City & The City, featuring as it does a city that is uniquely damaged. I think the apparent instant similarity to his work that I felt when I plucked the book from the bookshop shelf last summer was what attracted me most to it. As it is, I prefer Miéville.

The novel’s primary redeeming feature is that while it’s set in a fictional world, it hasn’t gone for the old fantasy cliches that seem to require all fictional races are based on the Europeans. Saypur seems Arabic or Indian in its nature, while other cultures, Sigrud’s Dreyling identity, for example, feels Russian, or maybe even Icelandic. All the characters names have a foreign feel to an uncultured Englishman such as myself. The way the gods work is also fascinating. Because the Continent had conflicting beliefs on how it was formed, each creation myth was the truth in the area that that specific god ruled over. This is why everything fell apart so quickly when the gods died – there was no unified truth of reality. Frankly, it’s quite a clever piece of writing.

Unfortunately, it’s let down by the characters. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of them, nor especially interested. It’s refreshing that many of the central characters are women, and women of colour at that, but a lot of them seem to run to cliches in ways the world building doesn’t. The right characters make it through to the end, sure, and there doesn’t seem to be much that it has cost them to do so. The book ends on a note of hope, which I suppose is what you want in a book, but it didn’t inspire me to read on.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad book, because I don’t think it is. The mythology is interesting, the world is thorough and different, and there are some very interesting and creepy beasts to do battle with, but there’s definitely something missing. I never felt like any of the jeopardy they were going through was really all that bad, despite some of it really being quite horrific. I also never quite brought myself to care properly about any of the characters. It’s a world I could paddle in for a long time, but I never wanted to take the plunge.

“Sum” by David Eagleman (2009)

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“In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the evens reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

There are several questions that have long stood unanswered throughout the history of human. Is there a God? Do we have souls? What is it about Joey Essex that people seem to find tolerable? But one of the biggest is, of course, the question of what happens after we die. Some say we go to heaven or hell, others say we reincarnate, and yet more still say that it’s game over and we get to feed the worms. David Eagleman has other ideas

In his collection of forty stories, he shows us forty alternatives for what the afterlife could have in store of us. Each one is uniquely brilliant, and quite often they’re beautiful, too. In one, you aren’t allowed to die for good until no one on Earth remembers you. In another, only the sinners survived, doomed to suffer eternity with God. In a third, God is a bacterium and doesn’t even know humans exist. Elsewhere, we are a cancer in god’s body; another one has Mary Shelley sat on a throne, cared for by angels, and one story gives us an afterlife where we sit in front of a bank of television screens and watch the world we left behind.

There’s one where you’re stuck with multiple versions of yourself, one for every age you were, and another where the multiple yous all did things differently to you, leading you to be stuck between those who achieved more and those who wasted their lives, hating both equally. Sometimes we weren’t created by gods, but by Programmers, or Technicians, or Cartographers. Each one has enormous scope for just a few short pages of text, and you can get lost wondering which, if any of them, you wouldn’t mind happening.

Sometimes they teach us more about who we were on Earth. For example, the one where you live with more and less successful versions of yourself reminds you that if this one is real, the harder you try and better you do in life, the fewer smug, successful versions of yourself you have to compete with. Another one has you live in an afterlife populated only by the people you knew from your time on Earth, stating that after a while you tire of not being able to meet new people, yet no one having any sympathy for you, because “this is precisely what you chose when you were alive”.

The title story “Sum”, is especially wonderful, as it says our life replays out of order, with similar events grouped together. Here, you “sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes”, spend “fifteen months looking for lost items”, “two weeks wondering what happens when you die”, “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator”, and “one year reading books”, which is definitely far less than I’d get. The moment that gets me though is when he mentions the time you spend experiencing pure joy – fourteen minutes. Compared to the fifteen hours writing our signatures and six days clipping our nails, it’s heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are funny, some deep, but all are thought-provoking in the extreme and Eagleman gets you thinking about what may be out there in the great beyond.

As for me? Well, I’m not religious and I think probably when you die, there’s nothing waiting for us out there. But I like to imagine that, maybe, you end up in a library of some kind, with all the books ever published there. And because I’m a sucker for lists and statistics, I’d like to imagine that your private library contains a book that lists all the statistics that could ever have mattered, from how many ice creams you ate and how much time you spent asleep, to how many books you read, and how many people fell in love with you on public transport.

That’d do for me.

“Here, The World Entire” by Anwen Kya Hayward (2016)

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“I hear his heartbeat first.”

If you’ve been lingering around this blog long enough, you’ll know I have a particular fondness for Greek mythology. I’m no expert, but I like to keep my hand in, enjoying the stories of the heroes and gods who live their lives like a historical soap opera with added magic. Anwen Kya Hayward, is someone who knows what she’s talking about. Academically instructed up to the eyeballs in the mythological studies, Anwen and I met through social media several years ago, and I have always enjoyed her passion for her subject. I’m a lazy git, so I can’t claim now that as soon as she was published, I snapped the book up, but nonetheless, here we are. Only six months late.

The tiny novella is based around the myth of Medusa, confined to her cave after being punished by Athena for something that wasn’t her fault. Once beautiful, Medusa’s golden hair has been replaced with a nest of snakes, and anyone she looks at turns to stone. Perseus intrudes upon her quiet cave, telling her that he needs her help, and was sent by Athena to ask for it. If only she would come out and meet him…

The main narrative is interspersed with events from Medusa’s history, primarily the events that caused her to be transformed into this monster, and an incident where she accidentally wiped out a whole village with her powers. Often seen as a villain in modern interpretations of Greek mythology, it is really something to see her here portrayed with humanity, sealing herself off from the world to protect everyone else as much as herself. She knows she is dangerous and doesn’t actively want to hurt anyone else, even shouting through the cave entrance that very fact to Perseus, although acknowledging that he will die if he comes in.

As mentioned, it’s a short book but I consumed it in an hour or so, supine on a sun lounger on one of the hottest days in living memory. Hayward is economical in her language, and not a word is wasted, building up an incredibly rich and beautiful world set entirely in a cave, where neither character can look at the other. Medusa, naturally, rarely describes anything she can see, so much is made of what she can hear, using aural clues to work out what Perseus is doing outside her cave. For something written, it’s incredibly unusual and very well done.

It’s a gorgeous little read, with a real sense of tragedy about it, as we explore the inner workings of a monster’s brain. It seems to tie into my recent readings of Frankenstein and Wonder, which also deal with not judging people based on their appearance or first impressions. Medusa is sympathetic, but if you know how the old myth ends, you’ll know why that’s a difficult thing to have to deal with here. A sublime piece of work, and I look forward to more.

“Whispers Underground” by Ben Aaronovitch (2012)

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“Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living.”

Any review of a book that’s in the middle of an on-going series requires a certain amount of preamble, although I’m far too lazy to provide a fresh synopsis of what you’ve missed so far, so either duck out of this review now until you’ve read the series, or if you’re happy to get potential spoilers or would like a brief rundown on what came before this, then click for reviews of the first two books, Rivers of London and Moon Under Soho.

And breathe.

Whispers Underground reunites us with Peter Grant and the supernatural side of the Metropolitan Police. After Abigail Kamara, a nosy young girl from his housing estate, tells him that she’s seen a ghost, but Grant is soon pulled away from this discovery when a young man is found dead, stabbed, on the platform at Baker Street tube station. James Gallagher was an art student with no known enemies, but unfortunately for the police, his father is a US senator, and soon the FBI have descended.

The cause of Gallagher’s death certainly seems to be in Peter’s remit, which becomes more obvious when it turns out that Gallagher’s housemate is half-fairy and doesn’t seem all that keen to help the police with their inquiries. Meanwhile, Peter is still struggling to get used to magic and Lesley’s half-face, the FBI agent seems to be on a mission of her own and should definitely not be allowed to know about magic, there are some shifty looking traders down the market who swear they can do you a good deal on some unbreakable pottery, and Christmas is just around the corner. Just another day, then.

More than anything this time round, I felt a lot of similarities to Peter James’s novels featuring Roy Grace. The research into the working of the police force is evidently greatly detailed, and whereas those books show the familiar streets of Brighton, here we get to explore London. The true joy comes from the supernatural elements that most of society ignore, partly because the police are very good at hiding the truth, and partly because people would rather not deal with anything out of their comfort zones.

The style remains flippant and genuinely funny, packed with pop culture references, and there’s a real joy in these worlds. When I reviewed the first book, I said that something was missing, and I think I know what it was now. The books are not separate entities; they are complete continuations, and if they all existed in the same tome, while it would be heavy to read in the bath, it would make just as much sense. The ending is great, setting up things for the fourth book, and the final line sends a shiver down the spine. Clever, clever stuff.

“The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman (2014)

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magic land“The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.”

Well, here we are. A year and a day after my review of The Magician King, I finally produce one for the final book in the trilogy, The Magician’s Land. The first one, The Magicians, was my first ever review, and this has a weird sense of a circle closing. Not that I’m packing in this blog, but nonetheless the completion of a series – particularly a very good one – is always a moment for reflection. So I’m going to crack on and, please be careful, there are spoilers ahead.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read The Magicians or The Magician King. Read on at your own risk.

The book opens with Quentin Coldwater back in the real world, banished from the fantasy land of Fillory which, until recently, he was the High King of. Now forbidden to return by the ram god Ember, he is alone in the world and has no direction. He manages to find his way back to his old college, Brakebills, where he learnt so much of his magic. He’s not sure how pleased they’ll be to see him, but Dean Fogg allows him to join the teaching staff, where he proves to be a competent teacher.

However, he is also distracted by a page he stole from a book in the Neitherlands – the world that exists between the worlds – which seems to contain some kind of very heavy duty magic. Dedicating his non-teaching time to decoding the page, he develops further passion for magic and its wonder. And then something terrible happens and he has to leave, and so does one of his students, Plum, a highly talented witch who seems to have her own private link to Fillory.

Now unemployed and with even less direction than before, he finds that he has been summoned to a bookstore where several other magicians have gathered. They are given a task by a blackbird: track down two thieves known only as the Couple and steal an unstealable suitcase from them. The bird says that the contents are valuable but claims not to know what they are. Quentin and Plum join the team and soon find themselves up to their necks in some of the most powerful magic they’ve yet encountered.

Meanwhile, back in Fillory, Eliot and Janet, the High King and Queen, are coming to terms with the fact that the world appears to be ending. The clock trees are running out of sync, the daily eclipses have stopped, and even the animals have started going a bit funny. With time rapidly running out, they must try and find a way to save their kingdom before the apocalypse comes and wipes everything out.

And on top of all of this, the ghost of Quentin’s ex-girlfriend Alice has started appearing at mirrors throughout the multiverse, which is probably not a good thing.

Like the previous two installments, Grossman fills this one with a wonderful series of interlocking narratives, taking the reader on a journey backwards and forwards through time, teaching us things we haven’t yet learnt, and explaining things that have so far been unexplained. Everything ties together but you better have a good memory because there are things brought back to the forefront here that haven’t been relevant since the first book, and given it’s been two and a half years since I read that, my memory is a bit shaky. Nonetheless, it all felt right. There’s not too much exposition on what has come before, but we do get lots of long stories from the characters about things we didn’t see first time round.

Grossman is a very smart writer and his style is beautiful. Whatever causes him to produce his ideas must be pretty special indeed, and I want some of it. Without trying to give too much away, this book contains a flying billiards table, a moving chalk man, a room in a library that contains all the novels that were never written, time spent in the mind of a blue whale, a potential explanation for why ghosts are happy to stay ghosts, and the most powerful spell ever encountered.

Perhaps it ends too abruptly, but that might just be me always wanting to know what happens next, and there’s definitely a quite literal dues ex machina quite late in the story, but you can forgive it (just) because everything else has been so smart. There’s a lot of wisdom about books in here, especially the repeated wisdom that you can never unread a book, so be careful which ones you choose.

Frankly, as a series, it is a thing of beauty and I’ll probably end up returning to it again at some point and discover many, many things I missed or don’t remember from the first time round. If you’re going for this series, do start at the beginning, and I really think that if you have even the smallest interest in magic and how irresponsible people can be with it, then it’s worth checking in and spending some time in the company of some of the most intelligent magicians of all time.

“Antigoddess” by Kendare Blake (2013)

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The gods are dying...

The gods are dying…

“The feathers were starting to be a nuisance.”

Long time readers and friends of mine will know that I’ve got a bit of a thing for the myths of ancient Greece. If, at gunpoint, I had to choose a religion to go for, it would be Hellenism. I like the idea that the gods are just as flawed and messy as humans, because surely only a flawed being (or race of beings) could create a world as conflicting and conflicted as ours. Initially wary, however, that an author was moving these well established characters of myth to the young adult genre, I was curious enough about the concept and the portrayal of the gods, so decided to plunge in.

This time round, however, the gods are dying, something that until now they thought was impossible. The story opens with Athena (choking slowly to death on feathers) and Hermes (body wasting away from the inside out) searching a desert for what remains of Demeter, who is now just a thin sheet of skin stretched out for miles on the desert sand, bracing herself for the day she rips apart. She warns that the gods are going to war again and they need to seek help from the prophetess of old, Cassandra.

She, however, has long since been reincarnated and is now a high school student with vague psychic powers that she sees as a mere fluke of brain chemistry. With no idea of who she once was or that gods are real, she has few worries greater than homework or getting grounded by her parents. But her boyfriend, Aidan, will go to the ends of the earth to protect her, especially when he realises that the gods are coming aftter her and he has to reveal his true nature. Athena and Hermes, however, are on a mission to find her and must first seek the help of the last of Circe’s witches and Odysseus, the hero of Troy, also reincarnated, to get a clue as to Cassandra’s whereabouts before the rival gods seek her out and use her for their own means. It’s a race against time as each day brings every god one step closer to their final breath.

Young adult fiction takes a bashing from critics (including from myself), but as with Patrick Ness, when it’s written well and doesn’t patronise the audience, it can be great. Refreshingly, there’s no love triangle here (although, given the nature of the Greek gods, I don’t doubt the sequels will have one or two) but there is an obsessive boyfriend. The best characters are the gods, and it’s nice to see some different ones take their position at front and centre stage. Hermes, Aphrodite and Apollo are all fairly standard in these sort of stories, but for once Zeus is nowhere to be found, Demeter gets the part of a supporting character (she’s usually lucky if she even gets named) and the main character is Athena, who I’ve only ever seen as a background character. Even more excitingly, the book emphasises that she is the goddess of battle, making a change from the fact she’s usually just seen as the goddess of wisdom.

It’s also nice to see how it includes the heroes of the time, such as Cassandra herself and Odysseus, as well as the descendants of the witches, who now run a high-end escort service and provide assistance in both the boardroom and the bedroom for anyone rich enough to afford them.

Some of the imagery is pretty powerful – Athena pulling feathers out from the roof of her mouth is actually quite vile – and it’s fast paced, perhaps slacking a little in the middle, but generally racing towards the dramatic (and surprising) conclusion. It uses the same old theme of morality – how there’s no black and white,  just shades of grey – but mixes it up by showing how the gods change sides over the centuries, and that everyone has their own reason for doing what they do; no one is the villain in their own story.

The book is billed as a trilogy but the second one is only out in hardback, so I’ll wait until the paperback release. However, I probably will return here, as I like the interpretations of the characters and am curious as to how and why gods would die.

To read my take on the nature of gods and witches, head to Amazon, iTunes, SmashWords or any other ebook retailer and find my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, where the two factions come together, somewhat against their will.

 

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