SHADE by Emily Devenport (Book Review)

Shade, the runaway daughter of a long-gone father and an absentee mother – Mom’s a concert pianist, one of the best on Earth – who stowed away on a spaceship in light-years-distant California two years ago and now survives among the other Deadtowners living out of garbage bins on the multi-cultural (hah!) planet of Z’taruh. Why “hah!”? There are various different intelligent species – the Q’rin, the Lirri, and the Aesopians, among others – but not much culture, unless you count combat sports like fighting to the death no-holds-barred, and rat-fights, like cock-fights or dog-fights, but between giant marsh-rats and again always to the death. Oh, and not much sign of intelligence, either.

The only ones she likes are the Aesopians.

Early in the book, she is with a mixed group of assorted humans and sub-humans when somebody calls the Aesopians “ugly bastards” and says they were “made out of household pets”.

‘The Aesopians made themselves,’ I said. God knows why I bothered.
He glared at me. ‘Shut up, bitch.’
‘No one knows what they originally looked like,’ I lectured. ‘They worshipped animals for thousands of years. When their technology was advanced enough, they started playing with their genes, trying to imitate the characteristics of their gods.’
‘Who the fuck cares?’
‘They were more successful than they could have dreamed. Soon the different animal-types could not interbreed. Powerful families began to gain control, and war broke out between the groups. Lion, bear, elephant and wolf stuck together against horse, eagle and cobra. The wars lasted hundreds of years and ravaged the planet. The survivors were thrown into a dark age.’
‘Jezus, somebody shut her up!’

But in Deadtown the mix is rather different. Babies, Scarbabies, Skids, Ragnir vets, G-workers, tinkers, dogs. One big, ugly family, all incestuous and diseased. But all better than the thing I was sitting next to.

The thing she was sitting next to was a Lirri.

Knossos, an Aesopian elephant man, and the only person on the planet – indeed in the entire universe – that she has any time for, tells her:

‘Listen. Whether someone is your friend or your enemy does not depend on the shape of his body or the place he was born.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I know.’
And I did. Wasn’t I standing there with the elephant man, respecting him more than I did myself and wishing I could follow him back into hiding?

The book is studded with one-liners you just want to quote, like:

Lately I got the feeling that the people I thought I knew never really existed.

and

‘How old did you think I was?’ she asked.
‘Eighteen. Nineteen.’
She hugged me like it was some big compliment. It wasn’t. Arrested development isn’t anything to be proud of.

and

Making music and painting pictures are two of the three things humans do best. Guess what the third is. No, I’m not telling you.

and, talking about war, Knossos tells her: Where there is no conflict, there is no life.

And what about this? She was looking for Snag, a Q’rin, so she went to the morning rat-fights … Sure enough, he was there by late morning, all bright-eyed about watching his favourite kind of meal hop around and bleed. Remind you of Spain?

 

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Film Review)

Heralded as “The Best Vampire Story Ever!” “The Best Horror Film of the Year!” etc, etc, and all certainly true, this is in fact first and foremost a love-story: the unexpected love that develops between a twelve-year-old sissy and a vampire who “has been twelve for a very long time”.

The tall but shy and slender Oskar, with his long blond hair, and the small, dark, reclusive but far from shy Eli.

Oskar’s parents are divorced, his mother works nights and he has no friends. At school he is tormented by bullies. At home he spends most of his time reading and wandering around in his brief white underpants studying his reflection in the mirrors and tightly-closed windows. The house – an apartment in a big block of flats – has central heating, but outside there is thick snow, and snowdrifts everywhere.

Occasionally Oskar goes outside, well wrapped up against the cold, and mooches around by himself, afraid to go further than the garden/courtyard of the apartment block in case he is spotted by the other boys.

And there one night he meets Eli, a strange girl of about his own age who seems not to feel the cold and although she doesn’t go to school solves Oskar’s Rubik’s Cube with ease – which really impresses him!


She lives with her “uncle” in the next apartment to Oskar, and this uncle, we soon learn, is a ruthless serial killer. He anaesthetises boys, hangs them up by their ankles and drains their blood into a plastic container – and he does it for Eli.

Of course, the killings cannot go on, but while normally they would leave, move on to another town – the life of a solitary vampire must necessarily be peripatetic – this time the uncle gets caught.

What is the sweet little Eli (she really is very sweet) to do now?

This is a hell of a film, and everyone, but everyone, should see it. And I think I do mean everyone. On the cover of the DVD it stipulates 15 years of age, and as far as the violence and horror is concerned that should probably be 18. BUT, on the other hand, it would do most twelve-year-olds the world of good to see how these two twelve-year-olds cope with the cards life has dealt them – which, don’t forget, includes each other. It is, finally, a film that glorifies friendship and – yes – love.

The ending is unforgettable. But so is the rest of the film. (I am about to start again, but mustn’t, or I will spoil it for you.)

DYING TO TELL by Robert Goddard (Book Review)

This is my first Robert Goddard book, and I was both surprised and impressed. I’d been expecting the usual divorced and hard-drinking tough guy at home on the mean streets of New York or Los Angeles, London or Glasgow, Paris or Amsterdam or Marseilles – or the cosmopolitan version at home everywhere.

But no. I got an unmarried, unemployed resident of Glastonbury who was perfectly content with his life just the way it was. The only thing he had in common with the aforementioned tough guys was that he enjoyed a drink or three. And when the going got tough (and the tough guys got going) he enjoyed a drink even more – preferably with his mates in the local after signing on for the dole.

But, as you will have guessed, our hero (for he is certainly not an anti-hero) gets going too, when needs must. Under protest, of course.

At one point he describes himself (to a woman who has become involved through no fault of her own) as a natural quitter. Later, when she tells him it’s time to quit, it’s getting much too dangerous, he surprises himself – and us! – by saying “The time to quit has come and gone.”

I won’t tell you about the plot. Surely it is enough to know that here you have a local lad without a penny in his pocket taking on highly organised crime (think Great Train Robbery and John F. Kennedy Assassination) in places as far apart as Berlin, Tokyo, San Francisco and – yes – Somerset, and winning!

 

THE DRAGON QUEEN by Alice Borchardt (Book Review)

This novel, by the late and sorely missed Alice Borchardt, is the fantasy version of the legend of Guenevere (here Guinevere, Gwynaver and Guynifar). (“You must understand, my name was not written down. Those who say and sometimes write it use what form they care to. So the spellings sometimes differ greatly. So much that it might seem as though I had many different names; but in reality, I still have only one. And, like all true names, it was a word of power.”) The book is filled to overflowing with the magic and mystery one has come to expect of Alice Borchardt including, of course, shape-shifting: Maeniel (“The Wolf King”) plays the role of father-figure in Guenevere’s upbringing.

In this version of the story, Merlin and Igrane [sic] are lovers. They are also sorcerers, and the villains of the piece: young Arthur is being reared by them, a virtual prisoner and destined to rule in name only as their puppet. This long-term plan of Merlin’s was supposed to include Guenevere; she would also have been brought up by them, then married Arthur (this marriage has been foretold far and wide) and become a puppet queen. However, she was rescued as a baby by Dugald, a druid, and Maeniel, the werewolf. Now, as a pert teenager (everyone calls her “pert”, and she is!) she faces a series of superhuman tasks, the accomplishment of which will prove that she is the hero destined to both occupy the dragon throne of the Painted People and rescue the Fisher King (Arthur) from an Otherworld. (Another world? There seem to be several.)

Guen, then, is of the Painted People, the Picts: no new idea (for a full discussion of this possibility, indeed probability, see Norma Lorre Goodrich’s “Guinevere“), but here in “The Dragon Queen” the Picts are made flesh, and it is to them that Guen comes after a great fight, with the head of her enemy in her hand: With my cracked ribs searing, I ran up the nearest housepost, using the carvings to climb. I should be ashamed, I thought. The armor set off my bare body the way an enameled setting displays a rare jewel. Even the blood streaming from the gashes Merlin’s champion inflicted were part of the grim beauty of my flesh. I knew the eyes of every man, and not a few of the women, were fixed on me, and that fear alone hadn’t saved my life.”

Now she must lead them against the Saxons: We all knew what they were after – women, ivory, walrus, sealskins, wool. Pictish wool is the best in the world. But above all, slaves. The eastern countries had an insatiable appetite for them, and a beautiful girl would bring a dozen pounds of gold on the block in Constantinople, especially if she were blond. As the woman in Igrane’s hall had suggested, the slave trade was booming.

Meanwhile, Arthur (having met Guen and witnessed a clash between her and Igrane where Igrane came off worst) has also rebelled and in consequence been consigned by Merlin to another Otherworld, where he finds that the test is simply to stay alive: in order to do so, he takes the shape of first a salmon (shades of T.H. White!), but as a salmon faces death every instant. Then a snake, which he finds more “wholly other” than the salmon. And finally a young female eagle, a creature “capable of both love and loyalty“.

My only problem with this wonderful book is the continuous switching of viewpoint. In the opening chapters it is truly confusing and quite off-putting. Then it settles down, and the reader becomes used to the First Person Guen as opposed to the Third Person of alternating chapters, which is more and more usually Arthur. But by this time there is no confusion, we know all the characters, we know what is happening; now the problem is that we are (or at least I was) far more interested in what was happening to Guen, and each cliffhanger meant a chapter with boring Arthur till I could find out what happened to her next. However, when Arthur becomes a salmon, things improve, and even I forgot poor Guen for a moment.

A thing that needs saying always about Historical Fantasy is that the fantasy should be real fantasy, in the sense that it is what people believed, that it is in accordance with the mindset of the people of the time. To them the notion of space-travel would have been fantasy.

In this book, the fantasy is always real; scrupulously so.

EASY KILL by Lin Anderson (Book Review)

I don’t know Glasgow, I’ve never been there, but from all accounts parts of it at least are pretty rough. Not the sort of place you’d want to be if you were down and out.

Especially the part known as Calton. Calton – from the Gaelic for “wood on the hill” – cognate I imagine with the word Caledonia itself. It isn’t like that now. A BBC Scotland report placed life expectancy in Calton lower than the Gaza Strip, Lin Anderson tells us.

Most certainly not the sort of place you would choose to work as a street prostitute. Yet there are “an estimated 1,200 street prostitutes in Glasgow, compared with 100 in nearby Edinburgh.”

That’s the setting.

So when a young woman is found murdered in the Necropolis, the sprawling cemetery known locally as The City of the Dead, the first thing the police ask themselves is: Was she a prostitute? Read this:

When a prostitute was murdered, it was nearly always by someone she didn’t know. No relationship between the murderer and victim meant the circle of potential suspects was limitless. Men using the services of prostitutes didn’t volunteer information, since many had girlfriends, wives and families who didn’t know about their little hobby. The public weren’t interested, unless the death involved an ‘innocent’ young woman out jogging or walking her dog.
‘Is she a user?’

‘Probably,’ Rhona replied. ‘There are marks on her inner thigh.’
‘The press will go for “junkie prostitute found dead in graveyard” and the punters will go to ground.’

Or to put it in a nutshell, “They are shite, killed by shite, who gives a shite?”

But in fact good cops like D.I. Bill Wilson – and good forensic scientists like Rhona MacLeod – do “give a shite”.

And when it turns out that this latest murder is only the most recent in a series involving prostitutes, and that there will most certainly be others, an Orcadian named Magnus Pirie, Professor of Psychology at Glasgow University, joins the hunt. The police, naturally, object to his being imposed on them from above, but there is what Hollywood calls “chemistry” between him and Rhona from the first moment. Well, he does have the looks of a Norse god …

Meanwhile, a blog entitled “Glasgow Pussy” is giving details of the murders. Like this:

Friday July 30th
Two mangy crackheads lying one on top of the other. One fresh meat, the other rotting. The police didn’t even know the rotting one was missing. Told you. No one gives a shite.

And yes, there is another victim buried in a shallow grave under where the first one was discovered. Is it the killer himself, taunting them?

A great read. There are four earlier novels by Lin Anderson featuring Rhona MacLeod (I just happened to pick up the fifth one, as always drawn immediately to stories involving prostitutes) but I don’t think I shall make a point of ordering them. There is too much of the soap opera about the back-story for me to want to read what will now be old news, but I want to know what happens next, so I have already ordered the next one, Final Cut. A good novel makes the place it is set seem so familiar and I have the feeling after reading this one that I would have felt quite at home there at one time, especially in Calton, among the junkies, the mangy crackheads and the shite – and women like Cathy. No, no more. You’ll get to know her when you read it.

WHORES OF BABYLON by Ian Watson (Book Review)

The situation, the setting, seems simple enough at first. Out in the Arizona desert, the city of Babylon (ancient Babylon, with the Tower of Babel and The Hanging Gardens) has been rebuilt. The date set is quite late – not the heyday of Babylon, but 323 BC, when Alexander the Great lay there dying.

A theme park? No, it is serious sociology, organised by the University of the Future at Heuristics (yes, really). American (and other) volunteers are trained and taught ancient Greek and arrive in Babylon as (ancient) Greek tourists. But they are there for good. There is no way out unless you leave – as a tourist – within a month. Otherwise, you learn Babylonian and you stay.

Was the autumn of a culture marked by vast, capricious building projects? By exercises in architectural metaphysics, designed to stem the tide of time? […] Was Babylon the psychic salvation of the American Dream, or the very symbol of its decay?

Very reminiscent of J.G. Ballard!

Yet when Alex Winter, our hero, descends from the hovercraft outside the Ishtar gate, though the experiment has only been under way for about five years, everything is old, everything is ”normal”, and, weirdly, the people seem to have been there for ever: they are people of the ancient, not the modern world.

Alex arrives in the same batch of newbies as the beautiful Deborah, falls in love with her, and wants to ‘enjoy’ Babylon with her. However, she adapts fast to the utterly different way of life while he is still being the all-American boy-tourist, and after a couple of days she drops him as an embarrassment to be with.

Searching for her, he meets and makes love to the rich and aristocratic Thessany at the Temple of Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility; and when he gets into debt it is Thessany who pays his debts for him, and thus, as it turns out, purchases him. He becomes her slave. Unable to adapt, to believe what is happening, he is forced to submit by two arrogant but very adaptable women, Deborah, who treats him with complete disinterest, and Thessany, who, while seeming to be his friend, buys him, and has him whipped and branded – and goes on sleeping with him. They are the whores of Babylon. But he, the cynic, has become by the end of the book a true Babylonian, too; and he adores them both.

Actually, Alex is all along very effeminate. A real man would adapt to what was, after all, very much a man’s world. The opening lines of the book are: When Alex was thirteen, he and the other kids in his age group used to fight with knives. Every Saturday morning for months on end they practised single combat, and pairs, and two-against-one. Alex hated it. The blades were made of stiff rubber but the bruises were real. This sounds like the opening of a TG sissy-boy story, and I am surprised that in Babylon he doesn’t get castrated, a perfectly normal procedure in that world at that time. Still, at the end of the book he remains hardly more than a boy and after being whipped and branded, what else can happen to him? But that will come in the still unwritten sequel.

But what is happening? It is too real to be artificial, yet it is not quite real: there are anachronisms. For instance, Alex finds a cassette – which everyone but him refers to as a strange “scroll”. And when Alexander (yes, Alex meets his namesake, Alexander the Great) quotes the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes, General Perdiccas mutters “Not born yet.” “Never mind,” responds the King. On the other hand, Alex gets to watch Euripides’ Andromeda, a lost play of which only a fragment is extant. Impossible if this artificial.

I think we can safely say it is time travel. Nothing else fits. Most of the population are native ancient Babylonians. Then there is a small group of time-travellers, some aware, some unaware. Of the characters in the book, Alex and Deborah are unaware on arrival, though she surely is aware when, later, she becomes a priestess in the Temple of Marduk. The substitute Alexander the Great and a few of his closest associates are  clearly aware . Thessany, on the other hand, is probably a native.

Alex (with whom of course I identify) is, it must be said, a complete wanker with an obsessive urge to interfere, and he deserves all he gets. Yet even he soon comes to understand that all is not as it seems, or rather seemed when they first arrived. This is from near the beginning of the book:

All of a sudden Alex really saw these people in the street, not just witnessing them but experiencing them.

Slaves. […]

What if the slaves ran away? Would soldiers hunt them down in the desert, using dogs to track and spears to chivvy? Could one escape across a state line from Babylonia into America and be free again?

America didn’t yet exist. America was unknown. Any state line was a fault line in time, behind which Babylonia had slumped into the past, had submerged itself like a whale sounding deep into the abyss of history …

Great writing and a great book.