“Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch (2013)

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“At twenty-three minutes pat eleven Robert Weil drove his 53 registered Volvo V70 across the bridge that links Pease Pottage, the improbably named English village, with Pease Pottage, the motorway service station.”

I’m back in the midst of a series again, so if you’re fussy about things like an ongoing narrative or spoilers, I’d advise you first work through Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground before disembarking here. In the fourth installment of this series, we’re back with Peter Grant, London policeman and amateur wizard, and his unusual caseload.

The novel opens in Sussex, near Crawley, when a car crash brings to light a man who may be a murderer. When there’s a suggestion of something unusual going on, Nightingale, Peter and Lesley descend to look for hints of magic. However, soon London calls them home when a town planner is reported to have jumped in front of a tube train, and there’s the news that an old German spell book has turned up in the wrong hands.

Events bring to light a strange housing estate near Elephant & Castle, designed by a bonkers German architect, and focused primarily on the Skygarden, a tower block with bizarre dimensions and larger-than-necessary balconies. Sensing that this is where the answers are, Peter and Lesley move in and begin to explore. But things quickly go sour when the estate’s resident dryad is killed, and the gods of the river begin to seek revenge. With a Russian witch on the run, and suggestions that the Faceless Man isn’t too far away, Peter and Lesley must work out what’s so important about the Skygarden before it’s too late.

Four books in and the world is pretty established by now. London is full of magic, ghosts, gods, fairies and a whole manner of other supernatural beings. Peter is becoming increasingly skilled at wielding his magic, but a lot of it takes place off the page, so we don’t get to see everything that he’s developing. Perhaps this is for the best, as the study of magic seems to mostly involve reading a lot of dusty old textbooks and since most of Peter’s spells still end in something catching fire, I guess there’s only so many times you can see that. We finally learn a little more about Nightingale who lets slip some information about his family for the first time, and Zach, the half-fairy from Whispers Underground is back, and far more sympathetic this time around. He’s a complicated character, simultaneously a help and a hindrance.

A friend who had read this one before me warned me that there is a moment towards the end that made her gasp openly, meaning I read the whole thing with a sense of trepidation, wondering what surprise was about to be sprung on me. Her wording was so vague though, that I couldn’t think where it had come from. I’ll leave you with the same wording, too, because you won’t see it coming until it’s too late.

The reintroduction of Beverly Brook, one of the river goddesses and former fling of Peter Grant, jarred with me a little. I remember her being important in the first book, but it’s been so long since I read that one, and we’ve seen nothing of her for the last two books, that her impact is dulled for me. Nonetheless, the river gods remain quite entertaining characters, if confusing. I like the introduction of the dryad, and hope we get to know more about this species in later books. Their life cycle seems to mimic their trees, acting childish in the spring, taking evening classes come autumn, and hibernating in the winter.

Aaronovitch has a really relaxed and fun style of writing and he’s heavy on the understatement. There’s barely a page goes by without some incident of litotes, although my favourite has to be, “In 1666, following an unfortunate workplace accident, the City of London burnt down.” The following description of how London was rebuilt against the wishes of Christopher Wren and his buddies is also brilliant.

A nice continuation of the series, although I was desperately sad to realise that many of the buildings in this novel are fictional, when most of what had come before seemed so realistic. Nonetheless, it’s handled well and with great fun. Expect the fifth installment along soon.

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

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woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

“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!

“Kraken” by China Miéville (2010)

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London is home to many secrets.

London is home to many secrets.

“The sea is full of saints.”

A couple of months ago, as some of you may know, I started up a second blog, unrelated to this one, called Love Letters To London. There, I can share my thoughts and views on every conceivable aspect of my favourite city. But those are very much based on reality and, as anyone with even a smattering of fondness for fiction will know, London is a popular destination for anything slightly strange to be going on.

In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the tube network takes the station names literally; in Harry Potter there are magical buildings hidden all over the city; and in Doctor Who, every landmark is somehow linked to aliens. That’s just scratching the surface. In Kraken, Miéville shows us another version.

The book opens in the Natural History Museum, with curator Billy Harrow, expert on molluscs great and small, showing a tour group around the Darwin Centre, the back area of the museum that contains hundreds and thousands of pickled creatures; endless shelves of glass tanks containing preserved specimens of most of the planet’s species. The pride of the tour is the preserved, nine-metre giant squid, Architeuthis dux, one of the least understood animals on Earth. But this time, when Billy and his guests get to the central room, the squid, tank and all, has gone.

With no sign of a break in, and the odds of someone sneaking out a tank of Formalin and squid nearly ten metres long without being noticed at absolute minimum, they are left with a quandry as to what has happened. The museum is closed for the day and the police are called in. And once the regular police have gone, a very specialised department move in, ones who deal with the stranger aspects of London.

Confused, and after rejecting an offer of working with Baron and Collingswood, the strange police officers, Billy tells his friends Leon and Marge about what happened. Back at the museum a few days later though, Billy then finds a man picked in another jar, and before long that’s about the most normal thing that’s ever happened to him.

Billy is dragged through the strange, unseen underbelly of the city where he meets two torturers-for-hire, Goss and Subby, a villainous tattoo, a cult of squid worshippers, the angels of memory that patrol the city’s museums, the striking union of magical familiars, and the Londonmancers, those who use the city’s magic for their own ends. Because it turns out there are a lot of cults and sects hidden in London, and all of them have just predicted the apocalypse.

The world is about to end a hundred times over, but by finding the squid and restoring it to the museum, Billy might just be in with a chance of saving London and the world.

I knew from experience that Miéville was going to be a dense slog, but I didn’t expect it quite like this. I always feel when I preface a review by saying it’s dense that it sounds like I’m being negative, but I’m really not. The novel is absolutely crammed with ideas I wish I’d come up with, from the idea of imprisoning someone in a tattoo (and then having them corrupt the innocent body they’re on), to Wati, a character who died and then crawled back through all the afterlives to the world of the living, but found he now had no body of his own, so instead inhabits London’s statues, figures, dolls and carvings. There’s the idea of how you can communicate using the city (speak into a post box, and the recipient gets the message in Morse code from their nearest streetlamp), and the fact that the city has antibodies, creatures made up of remnants of city life.

But above all you have the angels of memory. Each museum has its own angel, made from things found within it (the Natural History Museum’s is a tank of formaldehyde with bones for limbs; the Sewing Machine Museum has a beast made of needles and bobbins) that protects the past from the present. It’s a wonderfully cute idea, although the angels are not strictly benevolent.

And then there’s the stuff I can’t tell you because it’ll ruin some of the surprises.

The plot jumps around a lot between numerous characters, and we see events unfold from many angles. It’s a fun ride, and part of the joy comes from never really being able to tell who is on who’s side; the lines of good and evil are blurred and alliances that would never normally be formed have had to come into play simply through necessity. The language is fun, the plot is complex but nonetheless works and very much holds together, and Billy is at least a likeable hero.

There are lots of books out there about the mystical, hidden side of London, but you could do far worse than this one. Miéville is definitely an author worth checking out at least once – the new master of weird fiction.

“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.

“The Magician King” by Lev Grossman (2011)

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magician king“Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.”

The inescapable trouble with book series is that, if you leave too long between each one, details slip from your mind and the story unravels, so that by the time you get to the next one, you’re tromping a half-remembered country with a dodgy outdated map. Being someone who dislikes reading the same author twice in immediate succession, this presents a problem for me. I solved it with A Series of Unfortunate Events by reading one a month, and Patrick Ness solved it for me with Chaos Walking by making the books so damn good. However, it had been about sixteen months since I last visited Grossman’s series about magicians. In fact, the original novel forms the very first review I did on this site. Diving back in was never going to be easy.

I liked the original very much, so I had high hopes for the sequel although, as I will explain below, much of it was swathed in mystery once more.

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

Quentin Coldwater used to be a normal teenager, unusual only for his intellect, but all of that now seems long ago. Instead of getting into one of the colleges he was expecting, he took the entrance test to a hidden college called Brakebills – a college where magic was real and very much on the curriculum. Through this twist of fate, he made new friends, lost old ones, and discovered that the land of Fillory, an up-until-then fictional world that featured heavily in his favourite childhood books was real and accessible.

This story picks up two years later, when Quentin is now the King of Fillory, along with two other Brakebills students, Eliot and Janet, and his friend Julia, who, while not attending magical college, somehow learnt magic anyway and is more than capable of holding her own with the others. Quentin has had enough of just sitting around and being kingly, feeling desperately the need to go on a quest. When it turns out that one of the islands on the very edge of Fillory’s borders haven’t been paying their taxes, Quentin volunteers to pay them a visit, along with fellow monarch Julia, a young mapmaker, the most talanted swordsman in the country, and a talking sloth.

The island turns out to be tropical, but otherwise fairly boring, although he learns about an island even further out, After Island, which is at the centre of a fairy tale involving golden keys and the very edge of the world. Setting out a course for this island, they eventually find it. Without quite knowing how, using the key in an invisibile door, Quentin and Julia suddenly find themselves back in the real world, on Earth, and they’re neither too happy about it. Desperate to find a way back, Julia uses her underground contacts to seek out a portal home. Instead, they find their old friend Josh and dragon expert Poppy, and after a lot of searching, both in the world and in themselves, they find a way back, only to find that this is anything but the end: their problems are only just beginning.

Interspersed with this narrative is the story of how Julia came to use magic, and the struggles she faced, filling in the gaps of what happened while Quentin was studying at Brakebills. As it turns out, what happened then and what’s happening now might be more closely related than any of them realise.

I’ll confess that it took me longer than it possibly should have to get into this one, but I put that mostly down to the fact I’d forgotten a lot about the original. Thankfully, the first few chapters are fairly heavy on recapping, filling in gaps about previous events and giving explanations as to why certain characters are supposed to be important. Although I’m not in any way a Narnia fan, it’s even clearer here than before that Fillory is just Grossman’s take on the subject, inventing as he does a world where magic is not only possible, but runs through the entire place. As one of the characters says, there is magic on Earth, but Fillory is magic.

It’s also full of references to pop culture, and in particular Harry Potter. Last time, Grossman mentioned Hermione and Quidditch, and this time Hagrid gets a mention. It’s logical – these characters probably did read Harry Potter, and as magical references go, most people are going to get these ones. This is sort of a Harry Potter for adults – one in which magic is real, but everyone is still very concerned with sex and alcohol.

The characters are fairly well constructed, although I think I’d find any of them a bit boring to go for dinner with. Julia is interesting, and her backstory is explored in wonderful, painful detail, making you feel sorry for all she has had to go through. There are heavy moments of exposition, but it never feels particularly laboured. Some scenes don’t get nearly enough time to play with. For example, minor antagonist of the first book, Penny, shows up in the Neitherlands (the space in between universes) to throw some backstory at Quentin and Poppy, but he’s gone again fairly quickly with little fanfare. Also, there is a wonderful scene with a dragon, but it could really have done with a little more time.

All told, it definitely reads like the middle novel in a trilogy, but not one that makes me feel like the third book will be a chore. It’s hilarious, and the magic works so seamlessly. People’s reaction to magic and Fillory is exactly what you’d expect from reality. Most people wouldn’t just accept it, there’s got to be a few double takes and moments of denial. It ends in a manner that is frustrating, but then again so perfect, and I for one am now going to be desperately looking forward to the series conclusion.

“The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall (2007)

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the raw shark texts

Just when you thought it was safe to go back…

“I was unconcious. I’d stopped breathing.”

Every so often, and with increasing frequency, I stumble across a book with an idea so great that I become consumed with jealousy that I didn’t get there first. It’s already happened this year with The Magicians and The Dinner, and now here again with Hall’s so-far-only novel, The Raw Shark Texts.

Recommended by a friend, I found my copy in a second hand store and thought I’d give it a go. Despite said friend not steering me wrong in literary choices before (he’s the reason for my small but solid fondness for Paul Auster), I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book. Basically, I didn’t think I was going to be keen. The blurb was vague, flicking through revealed cheap but attractive tricks and and I wondered what sort of thing I was getting myself in for.

I needn’t have worried.

Eric Sanderson wakes up without his memories, with no idea of where he is, how he got there, or who he is. He finds a note from himself telling him to go to Dr Randle and she will explain things to him. She explains that this is the eleventh time he’s done this, and each time he sees her, he has fewer and fewer of his memories. She also tells him not to read any letters or messages from his past selves as they may be dangerous. She also gently lets him know that his mental issues began after his girlfriend, Clio Aames, died while they were on holiday in Greece.

Eric returns to as normal a life as he can manage, just him and his fat ginger tom Ian, and a year later, he’s feeling pretty stable, busily ignoring the almost constant stream of letters and packages from his past self, putting them in the kitchen cupboard and not reading them. However, when his television tries to attack him and it becomes clear that something very strange is happening, he begins to read.

Thus begins his journey of discovery. He is being hunted by a conceptual shark, a Ludovician, a creature that exists in his mind and feeds on his memories. Life will find a way, as Darwin said, and now life has formed inside language and thought, and some of it is very dangerous. He discovers someone else who can help him, Dr Trey Fidorus, the world’s only cryptoconceptual oceanologist, and sets off to find him, taking Ian with him. From then on, things only get more and more complicated…

The idea of a conceptual shark is absolutely breathtaking and beautiful in equal measure. There is in fact and entire ecosystem of conceptual creatures, some of which we meet over the course of the novel, others that are merely discussed or hinted at. The novel uses innovative forms to really add impact to the writing, such as including diagrams, codes, letters spaced out across the page in unusual patterns and, most fascinatingly of all, a shark made of words and letters, stalking Eric and the reader through several otherwise blank pages.

The ending, annoyingly, feels a little bit flat to me, leaving a few questions still outstanding, but I can live with it. It ends on a note of hope, and the preceding events more than make up for an excellent story which involves a man determined to live forever, a cavern system made of paper and the most enchanting cat in recent fiction.

Neil Gaiman fans will get a lot out of this, but then again I think anyone can. Anyone who believes in the power of words and books the way I do will also find great comfort here.

An outstanding, beautiful, excellently-crafted read.

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