No Return by Zachary Jernigan

No ReturnTitle: No Return
Author: Zachary Jernigan
Published: 5 March 2013
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

This is the kind of book I find quite daunting to review. It’s differs from the norm, has a ton of worldbuilding, detailed plots, and plenty of character issues, all of which are hard to sum up in a review. I also happen to like it quite a bit, so add to that the task of making it look as good as I thought it was.

On the world of Jeroun, the existence of god is an absolute certainty. The deity Adrash, clad in divine armour, floats in orbit above the planet, trying to answer the ultimate question – “Return to Jeroun as mankind’s redeemer, or cleanse the world of mankind forever.”

After twenty thousand years trying to change human nature, Adrash is inclined to destroy them. As an expression of his dissatisfaction he created the Needle – a line of spheres hanging in orbit above the planet. Humanity knows the spheres are weapons, and Adrash once threw two of them down to Jeroun in an event known as the Cataclysm.

Thus, Adrash’s dilemma is of equal importance to humanity, and society has been shaped by the question of how to address it. Adrashi sects believe Adrash is benevolent and the world can be saved by worshipping him. Anadrashi sects believe the god is their enemy and they need to place their faith in mankind. Each believes that the other puts the world in danger, so Adrashi and Anadrashi frequently express their faith by fighting each other, sometimes to the death. And now, as the world approaches the midpoint of the millenium, fighters from across the continent are travelling to the city of Danoor to take part in an epic tournament, where competitors will all fight to the death. The winner will take home money and fame, but will also have the chance to make a speech that will have major religious influence.

Vedas Tezul is a highly skilled Anadrashi fighter from the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits in the city of Golna. Although he hasn’t left Golna since he was a child, the master of his order sends him to Danoor to compete in the tournament. Joining Vedas on the 3-month long journey is Berun, a constructed man whose powerful body is composed entirely of spheres, allowing him to change shape. Berun is not interested in money or religion, but he’s passionate about fighting. Along the way they are joined by Churls, a woman who has developed her own deadly technique with a blunt sword, and who could use the tournament winnings to pay off her many debts.

Of course, road trips typically symbolise and provide the opportunity for personal journeys, which is certainly the case for our three companions. Vedas is struggling with issues about his faith. Shortly before leaving, one of his young students was killed in a street battle with the Adrashi, and it’s not the first time he’s seen a child killed in a religious fight. He should be able to just shrug it off, but he finds it deeply disturbing. Now that he’s away from the Order with nothing to do but hike all day he starts to question not just his faith but the things that he and others do in the name of faith.  Churls’s presence also raises the awkward problem of sexual attraction. She is attracted to him but keeps a respectful distance because they tend to antagonise each other. Vedas, at any rate, is a virgin who imposed a strict monk-like lifestyle on himself and it’s only now that he’s starting to realise how odd this is.

I really like the way Jernigan externalises this conflict in the black elder-cloth suit. All the Anadrashi warriors wear this suit (Adrashi wear white) and it’s made from the skin of elder corpses. The elders are extinct but their bodies do not rot, are magical and highly valuable – the bones are ground to dust and used as currency or drugs, and their skin is used to make cloth and leather. Elder-cloth suits like the one Vedas has forms itself to the wearer, regulates temperature, protects the body, assists with minor biological functions and can grow horn armour according to the wearer’s wishes. The wearer never needs to take it off, and Vedas has been wearing his for the past 20 years. So on the one hand, Vedas’s suit has become a part of him, while also representing his faith and function. Berun however, is unimpressed and sees Vedas as “half-finished… like a man who had never become comfortable in his own skin”. And this of course is true too, because Vedas is increasingly at odds with the person he’s become.

Berun’s insights seem remarkably perceptive for an automaton, but he was created by a famously brilliant wizard, so he’s more sophisticated than other constructed creatures. Still, he is tormented by questions of his own individuality and freedom. His creator is supposedly dead, but Berun is not sure if he is still somehow controlled by his creator, if he’s been programmed to behave in certain ways. He’s been having dreams in which he’s told to kill Vedas, but although he doesn’t particularly like the man, he sees no reason to murder him either, and battles to be his own person, not his creator’s puppet. Churls, besides grappling with her awkward attraction to Vedas, is haunted by her secrets. Literally so, in the case of her daughter’s ghost, who possesses some odd powers.

All this is enough story for one novel, but in fact I’ve only described half the plot. On another part of the continent, two eldermen scholars (elder-human hybrids) are caught up in a power struggle over the Academy of Applied Magics. The Academy is the only institution on Jeroun devoted to outbound magic, which is essentially space travel. With spells, alchemy, and elder-skin suits, outbound mages can make individual journeys into space, and see Adrash hovering silently above the planet. Which is exactly what Ebn, head of the academy and one of the world’s most powerful mages did. Driven by desire for Adrash, she approached him, with disastrous consequences, and has now taken it upon herself to prove humanity’s worth to him.

She’s also silently in love with the younger elderman Pol, who lives with her in an odd domestic arrangement. Pol however is decidedly gay and more inclined to murder Ebn and take her place than have sex with her. He has no choice but to comply with her current plan to please Adrash, but in the meantime he has his own ideas for empowering himself.

The outbound mages bring me to one of the most interesting aspects of the book – the way Jernigan has made science and magic indistinguishable. I wouldn’t know whether to call this science fiction or fantasy because the way he writes his tech makes those categories irrelevant. Alchemy and spells have the feel of chemistry and engineering. A dragon launches mages into orbit. A cyborg is created by a wizard. A god cracks humanity from iron eggs.

And it’s fantastic stuff. No Return leaves you with the sense that you’ve just read something rare and exotic, and the satisfying suggestion that there can be much, much more.

But I would argue that there is such a thing as too much awesome, and that is the problem with No Return. There’s so much going on that I can’t even scratch the surface of it in this review. It’s overwhelming. Even though I love all the characters, the story, the tech/magic and other worldbuilding, a lot of it could use more page-time, more in-depth exploration. The novel is the first in a series, but I have to wonder if it was initially meant to be a standalone because if feels like Jernigan threw everything he had into it, with no hope of a sequel. And I guess that’s actually possible, given that it was published just before Night Shade Books did their much-discussed crash-and-burn. There are enough ideas here for an entire trilogy or more, and enough plot for two novels.

Both the Vedas/Churls/Berun and Ebn/Pol stories are interesting, but except for the concerns about Adrash, they have absolutely nothing to do with each other and they never intersect. The novel also opens with a glimpse of a society of mindless immortals that no one knows exists and never comes into play, then ends with what is basically a novella about Adrash. All great reading, but it lacks cohesion. Perhaps the structure of the story was supposed to mirror the Needle or Berun’s body, both of which are seen as whole but composed of many individual spheres. If so, I’m not sure if that was a good idea. I enjoyed reading it, and it didn’t bother me too much but something doesn’t feel quite right.

I would have preferred a more streamlined novel, with more in-depth focus on certain elements. The novel relies very heavily on infodumping, perhaps because it’s the author’s first, but perhaps partly because he doesn’t have the room to flesh things out. Similarly, some of the character development – especially with Vedas – seemed to come more from descriptions of psychological states rather than behaviour. Then, near the end, the epic tournament that Vedas, Churls and Berun spent the whole novel travelling for turned out to be a major disappointment.

That said, I would love to read more stories set in this amazing world. Preferably stories that are given their own space, but either way, more please. Even a collection of short stories would be cool, about the origins of the mindless immortals who live on elder corpses, the Baleshuuk who mine elder corpses, the days when humans still knew how to navigate the ensorcelled ocean teeming with monsters, the story of Churls and her daughter, Berun and his creator, and Adrash, Adrash, Adrash. After reading N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy I’ve realised how much I love stories of complicated gods who are as much human as they are divine, and the sections about Adrash were some of my favourite in the book.

According to the author’s website, the second (and final) book is entitled A Shower of Stones and will be published in 2015, by Night Shade Books. I look forward to it.

A note on the cover: a bit of whitewashing there, assuming that guy is Vedas, because he’s supposed to be very dark skinned.

Hitchers by Will McIntosh

Hitchers_Press_rv01.inddTitle: Hitchers
Author: Will McIntosh
Published: 2 October 2012
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 5/10

Finn Darby’s wife and grandfather died on the same day. While Finn misses his beloved Lorena, he doesn’t really miss his grandfather Tom – a tight-fisted, alcoholic, racist, abusive old bastard. Tom Darby created Toy Shop, a long-running newspaper comic strip, and refused to ever let Finn – an aspiring cartoonist – have anything to do with it.

But Finn went against his grandfather’s dying demand, resurrected the strip, updating it for a modern audience, creating new characters and selling merchandising rights. It’s more successful than ever. Most of the money goes to his Finn’s long-suffering grandmother but Finn has become fairly wealthy too.

Then, after a terrorist attack kills half a million people in Atlanta, Finn starts blurting out things in a strange, disturbing voice that he can’t control. Eventually he realises that his grandfather is speaking through him, and that the terrorist attack has somehow allowed the dead to return by inhabiting the bodies of the living. At first they can only blurt random words and phrases, but it’s not long before the hitchers’ influence begins to grow. Finn’s grandfather wants Toy Shop back, but it’s not all bad. Finn quickly realises that he can contact his dead wife, and he finds her in the body of a waitress named Summer.

Together with Summer and an ageing British rocker named Mick Mercury (a combination of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, I assume), Finn tries to understand the hitchers and the afterlife they come from. It looks like they’re here to stay, but can they be allowed to?

Hitchers is a quick, light read, but even if that’s what you’re looking for, you might not appreciate it in this book, especially if the ideas in the plot are what intrigued you. On the one hand, the story incorporates a lot of serious ideas and situations, but it’s mostly handled in a superficial and sometimes amateurish way that wastes the premise. Also, it features Toy Shop cartoons that all suck.

Let’s take the existence of hitchers, to start with. They’re all people who either really, really didn’t want to be dead or have unfinished business. Finn’s grandfather was vicious, Lorena incredibly vivacious, and Mick’s hitcher has… actual unfinished business. It’s pretty boring, but the ghosts’ existence is more important to the plot than their reasons for hanging around, so fine. What bugged me more was that everything the characters need to understand about the ghosts and the afterlife come from one book. Summer is a hippy who just so happens to have this book – a tome by an Indian mystic named J. Krishnapuma. And Krishnapuma is spot-on about everything. It’s so very lucky for everyone in the kind of plot device that should be reserved for children’s adventure stories.

The situations that the hitchers create are much more serious though, and McIntosh plays around with some interesting and disturbing ideas. The ghosts are basically always present in the bodies they inhabit. It’s like looking out silently through someone’s eyes. After a while, instead of just blurting out a few words, they take full possession of the body. Neither the ghost nor its host can control when the ghost speaks, when it takes over the body, or for how long. During possession, the body’s owner becomes the viewer.

The issues of privacy and control are the most obvious ones here, and Finn’s situation is particularly scary because his grandfather is a thoroughly hateful bastard. Finn’s relationship with Lorena raises a different set of disturbing problems.

Of course, Finn can only speak to Lorena through someone else’s body. A body that Lorena is involuntarily hijacking. Finn and Summer become friends, so Summer is at least understanding and co-operative when it comes to giving Finn a chance to spend time with his wife, but this quickly becomes far more complicated. For example, when Lorena takes over Summer’s body, they kiss and touch in physically intimate ways that Summer hasn’t consented to but experiences because she’s still inside her body. Then, Finn finds himself increasingly attracted to Summer, which Lorena picks up on because she’s watching all the time.

It’s a weird love triangle with two bodies and three people (four, counting Finn’s grandfather, although he doesn’t care about the romance), but it’s one of the issues that I think was handled too lightly. Yes, the characters agonise over it, but it feels a bit superficial. At the end, the whole thing is dealt with in a way that I found far too easy and dismissive.

The plot as a whole suffers from a similar problem. For a story featuring a terrorist attack that kills half a million people, uncontrolled possession of the living by the dead, some very bleak depictions of the afterlife, and personal struggles to deal with grief, Hitchers is just too relaxed and simplistic even when it’s supposed to be serious.

The Krishnapuma book that explains everything the main characters need to know about the hitchers and the afterlife is one example of this. Finn’s grandfather is another – technically Finn got rich by stealing his work, but Tom is such a vile person that you could never muddy the moral waters by taking his side. McIntosh also avoids the most interesting complexities of hitcher possession. There’s only one glimpse of a cross-gender hitcher. Except for Tom enjoying having Finn’s young, healthy body, there’s nothing about the experience of having a body notably different from your original one (male/female, child/adult, able/disabled, black/white, etc.). And although Finn, Mick and Summer are always listening to news reports about the hitchers, there’s no mention of anyone seeking out their loved ones as Finn has. This is the best thing about the hitchers, but also the most morally conflictual because of the way it affects relationships. Why then, is this most interesting of plot points restricted to Finn, Lorena and Summer?

In terms of the broader social effects of the terrorist attack and the hitchers, there’s one scene that stands out for me as the book’s failure to deal with difficult problems. After a night out, Finn and Summer are attacked and nearly murdered by religious fanatics who believe that people with hitchers are evil. Afterwards, this problem disappears from the plot, and Finn, Mick and Summer carry on as usual, as if there weren’t psychos trying to murder them in the streets.

At the end, the main plot is resolved far too quickly and conveniently, giving the impression that the author had just gotten tired of the whole thing. And honestly, it doesn’t feel like a story that’s worth your time. So much weight has been lifted from it that you feel like you’re getting something lesser than it should be. Easy reads are great, but not when it feels like an easy way out.

Rapture by Kameron Hurley

Rapture by Kameron HurleyTitle: Rapture
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha
Kameron Hurley
Night Shade Books
1 November 2012
science fiction
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

It’s seven years after the events of Infidel, and for once Nyx is living a peaceful life in exile. She even has a girlfriend. But Nyx isn’t Nyx unless she’s hunting and killing people, so when she’s  pardoned and offered a job by the bel dames, she takes it. The centuries-long war between Chenja and Nasheen is ending, but the ceasefire is creating civil conflict, largely because of the large numbers of men and boys returning from the front. For centuries, most Nasheenian men have been little more than cannon fodder. Now unemployed and unemployable, they have little social value in a country where they’ve always been treated as second-class citizens.

This led to formation of the Broederbond – a men’s advocacy movement headed by one of Nyx’s old enemies. But this man has disappeared, and Fatima, head of the bel dame council, wants Nyx to bring him back alive. If he dies he could become a revolution-inspiring martyr. Fatima doesn’t seem opposed to gender equality; rather, the fear is that the men could form a “new, repressive government that puts bel dames and all other women back under some archaic law they carve out of the Kitab”. A more progressive government needs to be formed, and of course the bel dames want to have some of that power too.

Nyx accepts the job, and puts together a new team of mercenaries for a journey to some of the most remote and bizarre regions of Umayma.

Like God’s War and Infidel, the plot is based on a sociopolitical conspiracy that I find a bit difficult to follow. It’s full of twists and betrayals, most of the information comes in two large info dumps at the beginning and the end, and for most of the book it was all a bit vague. I tended to focus on the the more immediate goals of the plot, without always being clear on how they fit into the whole. At any rate, Nyx’s journey is so arduous and the characters have to try so hard to simply stay alive that the Nasheenian politics they’re suffering for seems abstract and remote. In other words, it didn’t matter too much to me that I couldn’t keep track of the politics because there was so much more going on. Rapture has some the best world-building I’ve read in a while, great characters, loads of action, and of course the kind of fluid sexuality and gendering that is one of the best things about the Bel Dame Apocrypha.

The world-building is what really made this is great book for me. The planet Umayma always a bit different, with its bug-tech, shape-shifters, magicians who are nothing like regular magicians, and Nasheen, an Islamic city where women are in charge. It’s a very alien, very dangerous world that, thousands of years ago, was forced into the image of another world (Earth?).

In Rapture, we travel far beyond the relatively tame cities and get a striking idea of exactly how vast and alien Umayma is. Desert monsters, weird organic tech, structures made out of flesh, pyromancers, sand that eats you alive, dead bodies reanimated by bugs… it’s totally outlandish and quite fucking awesome. Most of the action (of which there is no shortage) is entwined with the world building too. One of the most intriguing characters is a mysterious ‘conjuror’ with badass powers that tap into the fabric of the world, and a lot of knowledge about Umayma’s history. Inaya also returns, and we learn a bit about her incredible shifter powers and what she can do with them.

She’s now one of my favourite characters, and I’m glad that she has her own parallel plot in Rapture. Inaya did little more than weep in book one, was revealed to have incredible powers as a shifter in book two, and is now secretly leading a shifter rebellion in Ras Tieg. Of all the the character arcs, hers is the most triumphant, and the most spectacular. Seeing Inaya in action is always a thrill, and the strength of her character is formidable.

Rhys has a much more pathetic story. He never found his feet after the bel dames ruined his life, and ends up stranded in the desert, then virtually enslaved to a man who saves him. His story seemed random until it reunited him with Nyx. Their love-hate relationship is still an interesting one, although far less hopeful. Rhys is bitter after having lost so much, and Nyx is too callous a person to rebuild broken bridges. With each book my feelings about them changed a bit, and this time I favoured Nyx.

Previously, my sympathies often fell with Rhys as the more gentle character, despite his many misogynistic religious beliefs. I like Nyx more, but she’s a brute, and in Infidel Rhys suffers a great deal because of her.

This time I found him a more unlikeable character. He has a tough life, but the way he treats his wife Elahyiah left me with little sympathy for him. Rhys was always in a position where he was either unable to exercise his beliefs about women (in Nasheen or as part of Nyx’s team) or where those beliefs were benign (living an affluent lifestyle with a similarly pious wife). Now hardship reveals the more sinister side of his character, as he exercises dominance over his wife with little regard for her feelings.

Admittedly, Nyx acts like a stone cold bitch most of the time, but she often seems to be hiding the fact that she actually cares about the people around her. With Rhys, it’s more like his gentle nature hides the fact that he can be a complete asshole to women.

As a result, I was pleased that Rhys didn’t have a big role in this book, which has more interesting people on the page. Eshe is back, the raven-boy who Nyx ‘adopted’ in Infidel. He starts out with Inaya and her rebellion but returns to Nyx, still looking up to her when almost everyone else hates or fears her. Other members of Nyx’s team include a beautiful boy fresh from the front, a petite spider-like girl with impeccable sniping skills, a mad magician, and another bel dame. Each has their own story, personality, and culture clashes with other team members, adding to the world-building and making this is the most memorable of Nyx’s teams.

As usual, Hurley makes most of her characters suffer greatly. Nyx looks thoroughly battered at this point (she’s lived about ten-years longer than almost any bel dame or bounty hunter), and of course there’s only going to be more fighting, more scars. She and her team also endure a prolonged slog through the desert that seems impossible to survive. This went on for too long, but the pace picks up once it’s over and we get to the really weird parts of Umayma.

Rapture is definitely my favourite of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, and despite being the last book it’s the one that made me hunger most for stories set on Umayma. In fact, it made me like the world so much that I felt a bit sad when I reached the end of the novel. I was satisfied with the conclusion to Nyx’s story, but I didn’t want to leave Umayma behind. So I asked Hurley about it on Twitter and luckily, she’s got another three books planned:

So, yay 🙂 Hurley’s sf is the kind of thing I want to see more of in the genre, so I’m curious to see what series she come out with next, and what else she’s got planned for Umayma.

I’ll try again later: Empty Space by M. John Harrison

Empty Space by M John HarrisonTitle: Empty Space
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #3
M. John Harrison
First published 1 January 2012; my edition published 5 March 2013
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Night Shade Books
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

This isn’t so much a review as an admission of defeat and a comment on difficult books. After reading Empty Space, I don’t feel able to write any kind of useful review. I couldn’t even tell you if I liked it or not. The question is irrelevant, because I simply don’t get it, and I think I would have to do more reading before I can.

Before requesting a copy of Empty Space, I tweeted Night Shade Books to ask if it was necessary to read the first two books in the series – Light and Nova Swing. I’d read the former, but not the latter. They said this was fine. I respectfully disagree. Loudly and vehemently. From what I’ve read about them, it seems that Light and Nova Swing are fairly disparate. They’re set in the same universe, but tell two very different stories. Empty Space functions as a sequel to both, sharing characters and locations, and tying up loose ends. I re-read Light just before reading Empty Space, and found them to be closely linked. In comparison, I felt alienated from the aspects of the plot related to Nova Swing.

So to better understand this novel, I think I would have to read Nova Swing first. Then I’d have to re-read Empty Space. I had a similar experience with Light – it bewildered me the first time around; after the second reading I liked it more and felt like I’d understood it.

So what can I say about Empty Space in the meantime? Well, I can give you a bit of plot. Anna Kearney, Michael’s fragile ex-wife from Light, becomes a POV character in Empty Space. After Michael’s disappearance from a beach in America, Anna “fucked the first kind of person she found” who happened to be Tim Waterman (he made a brief appearance as her lover in Light). She married him after falling pregnant with their daughter Marnie. When we see Anna, it is almost 30 years after the events of book one and she is an old woman in her 60s or 70s, no longer suffering from anorexia but most definitely deranged, to Marnie’s great concern. She avoids visiting her therapist, takes long walks to snoop around other people’s homes, and does loopy things like swimming naked down a river in the middle of the night.

She also has experiences that sound completely crazy, but given the bizarre nature of the universe in this series, what she sees is most likely real (whatever that means). She keeps turning around to find that her summerhouse is on fire, except that the flames look fake, like something she saw on a tarot card, and after a while they disappear without having damaged anything. Her cat brings in glowing organ-shaped things from the garden. She has weird dreams that are no doubt more than just her subconscious at play. Notably, Anna is still carrying around an external hard drive that Michael gave to her before he disappeared. On it is the work he and Brian Tate were doing – the groundbreaking mathematics that enabled space travel and made the future storylines possible. Anna, however, has forgotten the significance of the hard drive.

Like Light, Empty Space has two narrative strands several centuries in the future. In one, the crew of the space freighter Nova Swing pick up a creepy, illegal alien artefact. In the third narrative, an unnamed policewoman known only as the assistant is investigating two decidedly weird murders. The victims’ bodies are found floating in midair, and as the novel progresses they rise higher while fading slowly into invisibility. The assistant used to work with a detective, but he’s dead now, existing only as a ghost hovering aimlessly in her office. The assistant is heavily gene-tailored and if she was once human she can’t even remember that time. With her heightened senses and abilities, she’s practically a weapon or a machine, and most people prefer to avoid her. Nevertheless, there’s one guy who keeps coming to see her, and somehow walks through walls to do so. His interest in her is based on the fact that someone – or something – keeps asking for her.

This person or thing is ‘Pearl’, an entity common to all three storylines. It is something between a bizarre phenomenon and an ancient, inexplicable artefact. When Pearl appears she/it says “My name is Pearlent and I come from the future”. She appears as a woman in grey, in a state of falling. Her existence remains incomprehensible to me, but as a character or plot device, she connects the storylines and brings a sense of closure to the series.

Empty Space shares many of the characteristics of Light – a tendency to connect characters, stories and timelines with little details; strange people who do strange things; incomprehensible alien technology; an abundance of violence and horror wrapped up in literary sf. There’s still a strong sense of the pain and terror involved in space travel and discovery, but with less optimism. Aliens exist, but you never see them. And of course there are cats, hundreds of cats. The future world feels more like the current one than it did in Light, perhaps because of the policewoman’s plot.

But I do not know what the fucking point is.

I usually knew what was happening in Empty Space but most of the time I didn’t know what to make of it. I could not have given you a reason why a particular scene was in the book or articulated the way in which it fit into the whole. Why does Anna’s cat bring her glowing neon organ-shaped things? Why do three characters dream of a vulva appearing in the wall? Why does the crew of the Nova Swing pick up a ‘mortsafe’ containing the fused, ghostly bodies of a child, his mother, and the nanny who started a weird sexual relationship with him?

I’m not writing a proper review because I can’t offer you any coherent understanding of the book beyond a prolonged plot summary. It might be brilliant. It might be a bunch of random crap cobbled together in a way that gives the illusion of brilliance. It could be anything in between. I can’t really say.

I am not despondent though. I felt the same way about Light when I first read it, but it was way better the second time. I also did myself a huge disservice by not reading Nova Swing. I could have skipped this blog post, but I felt like making a point about difficult books and re-reading. With a few exceptions, I try not to give up on books. Sometimes it’s obvious that a book is very bad or simply something that I won’t be interested in. Otherwise, I give it the benefit of the doubt, and assume I wasn’t ready to read it or that I was in the wrong mood for it. I choose to read books because I think they have something to offer me, and I’m willing to stick it out until the end to see if they deliver.

And in cases like this one, I feel that reading a book once just isn’t enough. That’s just the way some books are, and the fact that they’re difficult doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarding or entertaining. Some things simply take more time and effort than others. I’ll shelve Empty Space for now, and give it a second chance in the future.

Up for Review: Empty Space

After being both baffled and intrigued by Light when I read it several years ago, I’m feeling more than a little bit daunted by the task of reviewing M. John Harrison’s third novel set in that universe. But Empty Space promises the kind of surreal reading experience that seduces me as much as it scares me, so I will venture forth nevertheless. If I have the time, I’ll re-read Light beforehand. I’d like to read book two, Nova Swing,  as well, but I doubt I’ll be able to squeeze it in. At any rate, Night Shade Books has assured me that you don’t need to read either of the first two books to appreciate this one.


Empty Space by M John Harrison

Empty Space by M. John Harrison (Night Shade Books)

NetGalley blurb:

One of science fiction’s premiere stylists, M. John Harrison has received abundant praise and awards for his wildly imaginative ideas and transcendent prose. Now he returns to the richly complex universe of Light and Nova Swing with a stunning new novel that braids three glittering strands into a tapestry that spans vast reaches of time and space.

In the near future, an elderly English widow is stirred from her mundane existence by surreal omens and visitations. Centuries later, the space freighter Nova Swing takes on an illegal alien artifact as cargo, with consequences beyond reckoning. While on a distant planet, a nameless policewoman tries to bring order to an event zone where ordinary physics do not apply, only to find herself caught up in something even stranger and more sublime. . . .

Empty Space was first published on 19 July 2012 by Gollancz. This new edition will be published on 05 March 2013.

Night Shade Books
Reviews: The Guardian I The Independent I Locus

About the Author:
Michael John Harrison was born in Rugby, Warwickshire in 1945 and now lives in London.
Harrison is stylistically an Imagist and his early work relies heavily on the use of strange juxtapositions characteristic of absurdism. – Goodreads

Review of The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton

The Constantine Affliction by T Aaron PaytonTitle: The Constatine Affliction
Author: T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt)
7 August 2012
Night Shade Books
science fiction, crime and mystery, steampunk, horror
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Victorian England is definitively conservative, with its emphasis on prim and proper behaviour, its sexual restrictions and strict gender boundaries. In The Constantine Affliction, T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt) disrupts these delicate sensibilities with the titular Affliction  – an STD that either kills its victims or causes them to change sex, leading to a slew of gender troubles. For men – considered to be the superior sex, of course – it’s a colossal embarrassment because it implies that they’ve been consorting with prostitutes and puts them at the social and existential disadvantage of being female. For women, becoming male offers all sorts of empowering opportunities, but the law quickly to nipped those in the bud by declaring that everyone be treated according to the gender of their birth. You can’t have girls becoming men and inheriting family fortunes, after all. But laws aren’t much help for those who wake up to find that their spouses have changed sex, or for poor Prince Albert who became a woman and was locked in the Tower of London for the treasonous crime of adultery.

Surprisingly, the Affliction hasn’t made Victorian society any more open-minded about gender; if anything, it’s made it worse. However, it has led to the invention and reluctant acceptance of clockwork prostitutes – mechanical women who are lifelike enough to satisfy men’s desires without the risk of infection.

London is still full of real prostitutes however, and the plot kicks off when master criminal Abel Value blackmails Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday into finding out why his whores are being murdered. Pimm enjoys a drunken, leisurely lifestyle financed by his family’s fortune, but he has a brilliant mind and every now and then he sobers up enough to help the police solve crimes.

To help Pimm in his investigation, Value puts him in touch with Adam, a brilliant but very weird and intimidating physician who performs autopsies and specialises in reanimating the dead. Pimm also encounters another curious and lively mind – Ellie Skyler, a young woman enjoying a blossoming career as an investigative journalist by using the gender-neutral byline E. Skye. Ellie is researching the clockwork prostitutes when she stumbles across some very dangerous information about Sir Bertram Oswald, the Queen’s consort. Everything is somehow connected – Abel Value, Oswald, the clockwork prostitutes, the murders, and the Affliction itself. Both Ellie and Pimm find that their paths lead to the grand schemes of a mad scientist and they end up themselves tangled in a bizarre plot that is a wonderful metafictional genre mash-up of science fiction, steampunk, mystery, horror and adventure that includes automatons, zombies, and grotesque monsters, and weird inventions.

It’s a crazy combination, and it’s not all that surprising that the novel started with Pratt joking “ that the perfect commercial novel would be steampunk with zombies”, although the zombies ended up playing a small role and there’s no steam, so Pratt has labelled this “gonzo-historical” fiction. It’s all bit kooky, but The Constantine Affliction is a fun, adventurous read that’s also quite smart.

It has plenty of wonderful gender-play, of course. Ellie plays at being a man everyday in order pursue her passion for journalism, and she goes a step further when she dresses up as a man to infiltrate a clockwork bordello. Getting the right paraphernalia is no problem – a family friend of hers has made a business out of helping men hide the fact that they’ve become women – but it’s a bit harder for Ellie to adjust to the social differences of being a man.

My absolute favourite character is Winifred, Pimm’s stunningly beautiful ‘wife’, who used to be ‘Freddy’, Pimm’s closest friend. Pimm married Freddy to save him/her from society and his family and s/he is one of the few Afflicted to change identities and being new lives. Like Ellie, Winifred defies all notions that women are the weaker sex, but she also puts paid to the belief that gender defines who you are as a person. Like Freddy, Winifred is a bold and hilariously outspoken social butterfly who enjoys shocking people, she still prefers to sleep with women, and she’s a brilliant inventor. She isn’t exactly thrilled about the change, but she’s adapted to it perfectly. She and Ellie are hardly stereotypically bland Victorian women.

Just before reading this novel, I had read two articles – one at Tor, and one at The Mary Sue – about why historical accuracy is not an acceptable excuse for sexism in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. If we can create other worlds, the writers argued, there’s no good reason to make them misogynist ones. Why is it that writers imagine worlds with dragons and wizards more readily than worlds where men and women are equal? At the same time, writing historical fiction about sexist societies doesn’t mean you can lazily create flat female characters who are just as weak and uninfluential as people believed them to be. “History is not society”, writes Tansy Rayner Roberts at Tor, and your characters should be people, not stereotypes. Having read those articles, I was particularly delighted to come across Ellie and Winifred’s characters, both of whom have to deal with the social restrictions imposed on women, but who are by no means defined or subdued by those restrictions.

What I also liked about The Constantine Affliction was its metafictional touches. We’re told that the first case of the Affliction was a man named Orlando, a direct reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel about a character who changes sex halfway through the story. Pimm has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. The best and most memorable reference however, is the character Adam, who turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster. Since the events of Mary Shelley’s novel, Adam has surpassed Victor Frankenstein’s abilities as a scientist, and he lives a strange but contented life in an underground lab, doing autopsies, bringing the dead back to life and running his own biological experiments. He is cold and methodical, but it’s easy to like him. He narrates in the first person (Ellie and Pimm are in third) and the reader is able to understand and care about him as a creature who was rejected by his creator, who distrusts humans because of their cruelty, but is still looking for someone to love and who can love him, no matter how grotesque he is. He ends up falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (I’m sorry, that’s a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it).

As much I loved pretty much everything I’ve written about this book so far, I do have reservations. The novel doesn’t really get into the average victim’s experience of the Affliction, and the social rather than legal attitude toward them. We’re forced to simply accept that the society hasn’t changed its beliefs about gender, without really understanding how or why. There is also a tendency to rely a little too much on long passages of exposition and the arch-villain is just far too crazy, taking the whole mad scientist act to extremes. In fact, I felt that the end of the novel got too ludicrous for my liking. It went from being fun to being silly and, finally, sentimental.

However, it could be said that this is just a natural outcome of the pulpy, outlandish stories Payton has poured into those melting pot of a novel. What else did should I have expected, having read about clockwork prostitutes, people changing sex, a drunken detective, a mad scientist with grand schemes to change the world, and an undead man falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (yay, I got to say it again!)?

But really, the problems I had with the novel are minor. It’s a great read, clever but light, with lots of adventure, likeable characters of all sorts and plenty of madcap dashes to save the day. Recommended.

Review of Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell

Title: Terminal Island
Author: Walter Greatshell
1 December 2012
Publisher: Night Shade Books
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Henry Cadmus returns to one of his childhood homes – the island paradise of Santa Catalina – in order to find his mother. They only communicate about once a month, but Henry got worried after she moved back to the island without telling him and bought an expensive apartment in a gated community he knows she can’t afford. Since then, he’s been unable to contact her. With his wife Ruby and their toddler in tow, the trip to Santa Catalina is part investigation and part family holiday, but also a chance for Henry to face his demons and reconcile with his mother. Ruby – some kind of New Age goth hippy – is determined to document the journey by filming as much of it as she can.

Henry’s memories of the island are mostly violent and disturbing – he recalls seeing a jackal-headed woman on a balcony, dripping blood; being chased by a terrifying ‘butcher’; and hearing a gruesome story about a crazed bison stampeding through a school yard. When he returns, Henry continues to experience such monstrosities, and he’s concerned that something terrible might have happened to his mother. He gets increasingly anxious when he can’t find any way into her apartment complex and no one on the island is willing to help him.

The narrative is divided into alternating parts – Henry’s present-day struggle, and the account of his childhood on the island, which still baffles and unnerves him. The island is so beautiful that it’s hard to imagine anything sinister could be going on there, and yet it seems to be host to unspeakable horrors. As Henry slowly untangles the mysteries of his past and present, he eventually realises that he’s trapped within them.


I generally like all these sorts of things in horror stories – an adult confronting a traumatic childhood, creepy imagery, weird communities hiding terrible secrets – but Terminal Island was disappointing. It started out well enough, but even then things bothered me. Henry is a war veteran, but thanks to a car accident, he lost ten years of his memory and remembers nothing about the war except a few scraps. While I love the idea that he’s left with his childhood memories and nothing in between to cushion them, the war veteran thing felt a bit pointless.

Henry’s wife Ruby wants to document the whole story, but her reasons for doing so are vague and I couldn’t understand why Henry tolerated her whipping out the camera every time he seemed to be having an emotional moment or looking back on his past. Yes, she’s his wife, but she clearly intends to show this to people and the whole idea is so invasive.

I also don’t quite understand Henry’s issues with his mother. When we see her in the childhood narrative, she’s perfectly ordinary. A bit daffy and insecure perhaps, but she’s a struggling single mother who tends to trust people too easily, so it’s easy to forgive her flaws. She’s also willing to give up a good job and leave the island when Henry becomes so fearful of his schoolmates that he won’t leave the house. The blurb describes Henry’s mother as “the one he fears most”, and he’s clearly anxious about seeing again, but we don’t see this fearful mother on the page. All we get are Henry’s anxieties, which suggest that he doesn’t fear his mother so much as the guilt and memories she evokes. And that’s rather unfair, given what she did for him.

Anyway, I was willing to just accept this all for the sake of the story, which, as I said, is interesting enough at the start. There is plenty of intrigue, in both the present and past narratives – lots of gory sightings, moments of shocking cruelty, creepy rumours about animal sacrifice, things that don’t make sense. Henry and Ruby are particularly baffled by his mother’s apartment complex, Shady Isles. It’s an upmarket gated community supposedly designed to give residents total privacy, but Henry and Ruby can’t find any way to get in. No one is manning the gate. They can’t contact anyone inside to open the gate. Entry is possible by appointment, but they can’t make an appointment. Not surprisingly, Henry starts to come up with sinister theories about what the islanders might be doing to the vulnerable residents of Shady Isles.

He keeps digging and uncovers part of the conspiracy, but that turns out to be only a fraction of the truth. When the rest is eventually revealed, a single character delivers it in one giant chunk of exposition so clunky that I wondered if it was a ruse. But it’s not, and the novel gets seriously chaotic from then onwards. It makes sense in a hazy kind of way, but what I didn’t like is that all kinds of insanity suddenly descend on you, so it’s like you’re carried away on a tide blood, pain, perversion and batshit-craziness. I’ve experienced this kind of thing in horror before, so some fans of the genre might like it, but to me it feels like overkill, with the author screaming as he hurls buckets of gore around, pausing only for more passages of exposition.

It lacks… style. All the weird things Henry has seen on the island turn out not to have much significance beyond being part of the general craziness. If you were wondering, for example, why he saw a jackal-headed woman or a hovering bison head in the bushes, the answer is simply that the island and its residents are FUCKED UP, and not because they were there for some specific purpose.

I don’t know if I need to add this, but none of that scared me in the slightest. It just grossed me out, and for me that’s never enough when it comes to horror. I’d also hoped for something better from Walter Greatshell, since his sf novel Enormity was one of my favourite reads this year. Perhaps I’ll just try and forget about this one and hope that his earlier novel, Xombies (2004), is better.


Buy a copy at The Book Depository