“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.

“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

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“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

“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.

“The Rain-Soaked Bride” by Guy Adams (2014)

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rain-soaked“From the other side of St Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession.”

I made a mistake this week, it turns out, although not one that had particularly dramatic consequences. I started reading the book in question this week and thought something seemed a bit … odd. It jumped right into the action, and while that’s not unusual in a book, said action was never then later explained. It took longer than it should’ve done for me to realise that The Rain-Soaked Bride was a sequel. As such, I may have missed some of the finer points of an ongoing arc, and perhaps it tainted my enjoyment a little, but nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

The novel opens with Tony Greene chasing down the Russian Mafia through a hotel to save a woman from a life of prostitution. (I think if I’d read the first book, this would’ve all made a bit more sense to me as to the stakes and the characters.) It jumps ahead three months and we learn that Tony is the latest recruit of The Clown Service, the department of British Intelligence that deals with paranormal threats to the nation. This time round, people have started dropping dead after receiving a cursed text message, each of them being killed by the accident-causing rain-soaked bride of the title.

When it turns out all the dead people are all related to a trade agreement between the British and the South Koreans, Tony Greene and his superior August Shining are called in to accompany the delegations at Lufford Hall in Alcester. They are accompanied by August’s sister April and various other members of the Secret Service, but before long more people are found dead, each in a situation that could be an accident, but the sodden and saturated surroundings suggest otherwise. Tony, Shining and the others must work out how to remove this curse once and for all before the negotiations entirely fail.

The cover of the book bills it as “the spy thriller that Douglas Adams never wrote” and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It has shades of Douglas Adams about it, but it’s not as funny for a start. The funniest character is April Shining, by a long way, and that’s simply for her amazing dialogue and sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about her, nor bowing to any demands thrown her way. The rest of the characters all fall a bit flat for me, and there are very few physical descriptions of any of them, although, again, perhaps this is what happens when you miss an installment.

It does have some great observations, particularly those about the English, noting that the English response to approaching trouble is “polishing the silverware and pressing the shirt collars while the enemy advances”, and April at one point notes that English food is fine “once you get the hang of gravy”. However, generally a lot falls flat and there feels like there are a lot of plot points left hanging that never quite get explained, and the reveal of who is behind it all comes a bit too soon, meaning we spend a lot of the final third of the book dealing with the fallout without the suspense. The supernatural stuff is quite good – I enjoyed the expert in curses and the dip into a Japanese mythology – but I’ve seen this sort of thing done better, such as in The Rook.

I’m probably not being fair on the book, because I’m obviously missing a fair amount from having skipped ahead, and while the dealings with the bride herself work as a standalone, the ongoing plot threads are lost on me. Still, I’m not writing it off, and I probably will end up reading the first book too. Lesson learned – stick to the prescribed order!

“Dublin Folk Tales” by Brendan Nolan (2012)

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dublin“It is very hard to be a storyteller in Dublin for everyone has a story to tell if you will but listen.”

Earlier this year I read Sussex Folk Tales, which was exactly what it said on the tin. About this time last year I was in Dublin and picked up this addition to the series because, well, I like a story.

As in the Sussex book, it lists a number of stories that have survived down through the ages that took place in and around Ireland’s capital. Most of them seem to take place more recently than those from Sussex and are far more focused on people than on fantastic creatures. Granted, there are a few about ghosts, pig-faced women, and monstrous creatures that stalk and kill through the streets at night, but the vast majority look at some of the city’s more eccentric residents.

Some of the characters here are well known, like Molly Malone, and it seems Dublin has hosted numerous famous people from the annals of history such as St Valentine and Little John, of Merry Men fame. Most of them, though, are just ordinary people. There’s Bang Bang, a simple-minded man who would pretend to shoot city residents with a key, delighting when they joined in and shot back or pretended to die. There’s the unsolved murder of Sarah Kirwan who may or may not have been drowned by her husband, the tales of headless coachmen who came to claim the bodies of the dead, the legend surrounding the famous Ha’penny Bridge, and the story of the coal that seemed to produce a miracle, and the Devil’s personal visit to the city’s Hellfire Club.

The stories aren’t ordered by area or age, but form a mixed bag of stories both entertaining and interesting. Dublin is a beautiful, colourful city and it is tales like this that will ensure it remains so. Just a short review today, but if you like Ireland, tall tales or spooky events, give this a go.

“Sussex Folk Tales” by Michael O’Leary (2013)

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sussex folk“When I was asked to tell stories at a place called Gumber Bothy, I thought it must be somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.”

I suppose that most people have a fondness for wherever they were brought up. Or, at the least, a fondness that means they can insult it but heaven help an outsider who tries. I happen to hail from Sussex, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful and interesting county (or rather, pair of counties, as it is divided into East and West) in the British Isles. Home to Rudyard Kipling, Simon Cowell, Virginia Woolf, Sir Patrick Moore among others, it also holds the claim to originating thirty variety of apple, and being the last place Lord Lucan was seen before he disappeared.

But Sussex is old, being one of the first places colonised in the British Isles as it used to be linked to the continent. It’s where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 (near the town of Battle, not Hastings), and where the Home Guard of Dad’s Army were ready to fight on the beaches in World War Two. It has had a long history of mystery, magic and a fair bit of smuggling. Over time, stories have laced the landscape, from Gatwick Airport in the north and Brighton in the south, from West Wittering in the west, to Rye in the east. This book fills us in on those stories.

Moving around the county in a widdershins direction (anti-clockwise), O’Leary tells us many strange legends and myths. He is a professional storyteller by trade and argues that he’s not a folklorist, so cannot give explanations for anything that happens; he’s just interested in the stories themselves. He’s clearly passionate about his subject too, and constantly professes to us that he isn’t lying, because what would he have to gain from that? I’m prepared to accept all the stories as true.

It’s hard to say how many of them are well known to the wider world, but being from around here, I knew of a few of them. There’s Devil’s Dyke, a valley dug by Satan himself in an attempt to flood the county’s churches. He was bested by Old Nan, an elderly woman who lived in Amberley Swamp and turns up in numerous tales. She tricked him into fleeing before he’d finished, leaving behind an unfinished furrow and clods of Earth that became the South Downs and the Isle of Wight. Old Nan was known to be too, as I live near Nan Tuck’s Lane, a forested road where her shade still haunts and there’s a patch of ground among the trees where nothing ever grows. I was also aware of the Piltdown Man, who is not only a famous archaeological hoax, but also a strange Frankenstein-like creature who can catch you unawares as you drive through the village of Piltdown.

But there were so many other stories I had no knowledge of. There’s Lord Moon, the creepy moonlight trickster who leads people to their doom; Elynge Ellet, the frog-like demon who lives in marshland and steals your favoured possessions; Daniel Ratcliffe, the King of the Cats who walks on his hind legs and has no time for humans who are stunned by his ability to speak. And that’s before we get into the numerous knuckers (dragons) and pharisees (fairies) that seem to populate every lake and hill respectively within the county borders.

O’Leary also gives details on other stories that are well known but perhaps not usually linked to Sussex. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, the ship doomed to never arrive at shore, begins in Sussex when a man who killed his brother is sent to sea for penance, and Little Bo Peep is said to have originated somewhere in East Sussex. We learn why the Long Man of Wilmington is lacking in the private department (and why the Cerne Abbas Giant seems to be packing spare), what lives down in the Mixon Hole, and discover that folklore is still developing and growing with the new legend of Trevor’s Boots.

I may be biased, but when I stood last week looking out across the South Downs from atop the Seven Sisters cliffs (they’re probably the ones you mistakenly think of when you think of the White Cliffs of Dover) I find it impossible to not love Sussex, and this book brings home some of the magic therein. I’ve you’ve not been before, pop down and have a look round. I’ll get the beers in.

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