Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes


The Shining Girls MulhollandTitle: The Shining Girls
Lauren Beukes
review copy published by Mulholland Books; originally published by Umuzi
 15 April 2013 by Umuzi; review edition published 4 June 2013 by Mulholland
fantasy, science fantasy, crime thriller, historical
review copy via NetGalley

Kirby is a bright girl bursting with life, despite her troubled childhood with a single mother whose “default state of being is absent” and the constant upheavals as they move from one home to another.  It Kirby’s sense of promise, the fact that she’s a “shining girl”, that draws Harper Curtis to her. He visits her for the first time when she’s six years old. He gives her a My Little Pony that hasn’t been invented yet. Fifteen years later he returns to kill her in a brutal attack, as he does with all the shining girls.

Harper is a serial killer travelling through time in the city of Chicago, drawn to girls who ‘shine’ with potential and determination. It’s his destiny to snuff their lives out. It’s the House that drives him. He was living in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Depression-era Chicago when fate delivers him a key that unlocks a seemingly abandoned house. Inside is a room full of objects and women’s names written on the wall in Harper’s own handwriting. The names of the shining girls. The objects are what will lead him to them, and Harper knows that he has to find them and kill them.

But he didn’t kill Kirby. Four years after his attack, she starts tracking him down. She joins the Chicago Sun Times as an intern for Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her case. He’s writes for the sports desk now, but Kirby will do whatever she can to find the man who nearly killed her, even if she has to waste time compiling baseball scores.

Kirby gets everything she needs, but Harper still presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. He started killing in 1931, and with the House he can leap across the decades before returning to his own time, untraceable. Any evidence he leaves behind offers only impossible conclusions, allowing him to murder the girls unhindered.

The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.

Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.

Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.

It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.

How they came together in the House, however, remains a mystery. The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates. There are hints and ideas that seem to lead to understanding but never quite get there, leaving the reader pondering the possibilities. There is no how and why for the House. We don’t know how it enables time travel, how it came into being, or why it is focused on killing the shining girls. It’s not clear what exactly motivates Harper either, even though we spend so much time in his head. He avoids taking responsibility for his acts, blaming his victims for shining:

“It’s not my fault, sweetheart,” he says, “It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

There’s also a sense in which he’s driven to do what he does by the objects, the House itself and the time paradox it’s entwined him in. The objects call to him and shine in ways that show him what to use and when.

He tells himself he is only looking around, but he knows one of his girls is here. He always does. It’s the same tug in his stomach that brought him to the House. That jolt of recognition when he walks into someplace he’s meant to be. He knows it when he sees the tokens that match the ones in the room. It is a game. To find them through different times and places. It’s a destiny he’s writing for them. Inevitably, they’re waiting for him.

The force exerted on him by the House and the object sometimes makes him uncomfortable, hurts him even, suggesting that he’s being coerced. He certainly doesn’t choose any of the victims himself; they’ve already been chosen and he’s just drawn to them. On a personal level though, Harper is a sadistic psychopath. It’s obvious that he wants to kill and takes a perverse pleasure in contacting his victims as children and then murdering them as adults, destroying the potential that makes them shine.

I will definitely be in the minority here, but Harper is my favourite character. Which isn’t to say I like him – he’s utterly despicable and I like all the other characters a lot more, with the possible exception of a hipster who wants to film Kirby having sex with him so that she can “reclaim what happened to [her]”. Harper disgusts me, but I love a good villain. He’s not especially smart, but he has an intuitive understanding of the House and eschews all gasping disbelief that characters typically go through when fantasy invades reality. When he steps into the House he claims his destiny as if slipping into a perfectly tailored suit. The way Harper hunts and kills the shining girls is so sick and brutal that I find him fascinating and repulsive in equal parts.

The shining girls are wonderful characters too, by virtue of the qualities that make them ‘shine’. Their roles are small, but they would be strong enough to drive an entire novel themselves. Each of them shows a rare sense of determination, typically in defiance of the racial and sexual discrimination prevalent in Chicago across the decades. Zora is a young black woman doing hard manual labour in a shipping yard to support her four children after losing her husband to war. Alice is a transsexual; Willie a lesbian. Some of them shine because of the difference they make in society. Margot arranges safe abortions for girls and women who can’t afford them. Jin-Sook is a social worker changing lives in black communities. Others shine because of their talents. Willie is a promising architect who fought her way into the field at a time when women weren’t normally given such jobs. Mysha is a brilliant botanist.

What makes Kirby shine seems to be something a bit different – her ability to defy Harper, and her potential to find him and stop him. She is the very reason there is a story. Surprisingly though her part of the narrative moves quite slowly, focusing on character development, her internship with Dan on the baseball desk, and his growing affection for her. The investigation takes a back seat. It seems a little odd, given Kirby’s fervour, although we later learn that she’s spent most of her free time trawling through old newspapers and police reports looking for clues and patterns. Nevertheless, it’s not until we near the end of the book that Kirby starts to make real progress, much of which is dismissed because it seems impossible. The book is by no means boring, but I think it relies heavily on Harper and the other shining girls to drive the narrative until Kirby’s story is ready to get into gear for the climactic ending.

The advantage is that you’re kept in prolonged suspense wondering how the hell Kirby is going to find Harper, the seemingly unstoppable serial killer. I didn’t particularly like the way this happened – through chance, rather than Kirby’s deductions – but I can’t deny that the ending was pretty tense and exciting anyway.

There is much to appreciate in the interim – Beukes’s awesome writing, the horror that is Harper, the stories of the shining girls, Kirby’s relationship with her mother, Kirby’s relationship with Dan. I also waited very patiently but with growing anticipation for the chapter where Harper tries to kill Kirby. As much as I’d hyped it up by the time I got to it, it still managed to be shockingly brutal and evocative, leaving me stunned with one of the saddest and most painful images in the book.

The Shining Girls collectors edition

Umuzi Collector’s Edition

One final thing I want to mention is how impressive the depiction of Chicago is. Beukes has obviously done extensive research (don’t ignore the acknowledgements; it’s worth seeing how much work went into this). The plot traverses six decades, and in the relatively short space of 298 pages we see several of Chicago’s historical and cultural faces as the city shifts and grows.

I’m glad that I bought the Umuzi signed and numbered collector’s edition hardcover of this. It’s a great story and one of the best South African novels I’ve read. I love its mysterious take on time travel and the way Beukes uses it as a plot device that brings a fresh perspective to both historical and crime fiction. The Shining Girls deserves its status as one of the most talked-about books at the moment, and strongly encourage you to read it and join the conversation.

Review of Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Title: Blackwood
Author: Gwenda Bond
Published: 04 September 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre: YA, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10 (sorry, I keep changing my mind about the rating, but I think I’ll stick with 6 now)

In a North American mystery known as ‘The Lost Colony’, over a hundred English colonists travelled to America and settled on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. Due to unfavourable conditions and growing hostility with the tribes whose home they’d invaded, the settlement’s governor John White was chosen to return to England to petition for help. It was three years before he was able to return, only to find that the 114 men, women and children of the colony had disappeared; a mystery that is still unsolved.

Now, ‘The Lost Colony’ is just a theatre production for tourists on Roanoke Island. Miranda Blackwood has spent the last three summers interning at the theatre in a bid to escape her life for a while. The Blackwood family is said to be cursed, and it certainly feels that way for Miranda. Her father became a drunk after her mom’s death, and now Miranda takes care of all household duties. Thanks to the Blackwood’s reputation, she’s an outcast at school where people call her snake and do things like write “Freak” on the side of her car. According to the curse, the Blackwoods are doomed to stay on the island forever, so Miranda harbours no hope that she could ever leave.

Then Miranda’s father disappears, along with a bunch of other island residents. Exactly 114 of them, just like in the Lost Colony story. Miranda finds herself entangled in the mystery, not least of all because her family and the curse she bears is a part of it. She finds a surprise ally in Phillips Rawlings, another misfit, who was sent away to boarding school four years ago for all the trouble he was causing. When he’s on the island, Phillips hears the voices of the dead in his head, and his father, the police chief, hopes that he can use this ability to help the islanders.

Phillips and Miranda quickly become companions and then close friends as they try to solve the mystery of the two Roanoke disappearances. Unfortunately, their bad reputations soon begin to count against them, and family histories return to haunt them until they’re forced to run from everyone but each other.

Blackwood is partly a supernatural mystery, but mostly it’s a novel about the blossoming romance between two troubled 17-year olds who find themselves trapped by family legacies. The way it begins is a tad unlikely. At the start of the novel, Phillips already has a soft spot for Miranda, while she only remembers him as an asshole. Years before, dazed by the voices in his head, he humiliated her at school, and the incident has haunted her ever since. He didn’t mean to hurt her though; if anything he finds her alluring and he’s always felt guilty about what he did. When he sees her on TV, snapping at a reporter who questions her about the latest mass disappearance, it sort of sparks an obsession, so when Phillips returns to Roanoke he goes straight to Miranda’s house.

Miranda, of course, is shocked and suspicious to find him at her door. Frankly, I find the way he gravitates to her rather odd as well. They haven’t seen each other for four years, and they were never friends. She expects that this is some kind of prank intended to humiliate her again, but Phillips consistently proves that he’s a really nice guy who cares about her and wants to help her. She really needs a friend too, especially once she learns that her father didn’t disappear – he was murdered. After years of bottling her emotions in the face of insults and pranks, Miranda seems to take the news a little too calmly, but Phillips knows she’s just holding her emotions back, at least until she loses control.

Phillips needs her too, when the voices in his head begin to overwhelm him. They were once so bad that he intentionally caused so much trouble his parents were forced to send him to a boarding school away from the island. Now, it’s even worse. The pair help each other as best they can and try to investigate the disappearances, but they’re dragged down by their reputations and the baggage of family history. This is particularly bad for Miranda. After her father’s death, the snake-shaped birthmark on his face suddenly appears on hers, something she finds more shocking than anything else that’s happened to her so far. Also, the curse of not being able to leave the island is true – when she tries to cross the bridge to the mainland, she feels intense sickness and pain. It’s a teenager’s nightmare – being unable to escape your family history and being stuck in the same place for the rest of your life.

She finds unexpected solace in her relationship with Phillips, and I generally liked the way it plays out. A lot of their interactions are awkward and uncertain, as suits their age and experiences. At the same time they’re also very considerate of each other, understanding that people sometimes act in a certain way because they’re scared or hurt and that that behaviour doesn’t necessarily define them or show their true feelings. At one point, Phillips knows that

[s]he wasn’t crazy. She was just acting crazy. He understood the things in your own mind that could make you push the world away, flailing.

It’s a nice change from those horrible misunderstandings that are usually farmed for melodrama in romance.

On the downside, I felt that the relationship developed too quickly. On day one, they haven’t seen each other for four years, and she’s resentful and suspicious of him. The next day they’re holding hands. Phillips might be a little awkward at times, but he’s also quick to stroke Miranda’s cheek and brush her hair back. It takes them a lot longer to actually kiss, but I was surprised at how quickly they progressed to these little physical intimacies. However, I can accept that this is a consequence of recent events and of the plot. A lot happens in a short time, pushing the two characters closer. The entire plot takes place over a few days, so Gwenda Bond also has to work fast. The smooth course of their rapidly growing affections does get a bit [fantastical] after a while, but it’s also quite sweet.

I like how Bond weaves a lot of pop culture references into the narrative to define the characters, both of whom are geeks. Miranda likes to say “frak” instead of ‘fuck’ because she’s a Battlestar Galactica fan. Phillips finds this very cute, and when she accidentally says ‘fuck’, he knows it’s because she’s really shaken. He also teases her for watching The Vampire Diaries (although she’s quick to point out that he’s obviously seen it too) and he compares the small town of the show to their own. Miranda named her dog ‘Sidekick’, because sidekicks are her favourite characters. Phillips knows some odd things, leading Miranda to give him the nickname “Random Fact Boy” based on the idea that his general knowledge is a superpower, with the implication that he’s her hero.

Unfortunately the other aspects of the book aren’t quite as compelling as Miranda and Phillips’ relationship. I don’t really understand Phillips’ ability to hear the voices of the dead. Why are they talking to him? Why does he only hear them on the island? Why did his father think that he could use this ability to help the island? It’s not a ‘power’; it’s more like a disability. He has to make a constant effort to ignore the voices, and when they become too noisy he’s too weak to leave his bed. Why though, has he never tried to talk to them, to ask why they’re there and what they want? Doesn’t he wonder if they could be used to some purpose?

Bond’s take on the Lost Colony mystery is ok, but I wasn’t really all that interested in it. It felt more like a backdrop to the main characters’ relationship. I thought it had a couple of plot holes, but to avoid spoilers I won’t discuss them. They aren’t too bad anyway; the main problem is just that it’s all a bit lacklustre. I think part of the problem (for me at least) is that the reveals don’t have enough shock and drama, which is what you want when learning the truth of an old mystery like this, especially if the truth is supernatural. There is also a lack of clarity about certain issues, and I tend to lose interest when I don’t have enough details (or enough intriguing details).

Despite my feelings about the Lost Colony mystery though, I have to admit that it puts the characters in some very tense situations. It all adds danger and adventure to what is already a strong relationship-driven narrative, balancing out the less exciting aspects.  Overall it’s a quick, pleasing read that I I think will appeal to many YA fans, and a good novel for new YA publisher Strange Chemistry to kick off with.

Buy a copy of Blackwood from The Book Depository

Review of Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth

Title: Cape of Slaves
Series: Time Twisters #1
Author: Sam Roth (pseudonym of Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden)
Published: March 2012
Publisher: Puffin South Africa
Genre: science fantasy, historical children’s fiction, YA
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

In the year 2099, a glowing, green, time-travelling dust escapes into an air vent and travels “through time and space, searching for human skin with which it could connect”.

In present day Johannesburg, the glowing dust finds 12-year-old Sarah, and some of it seeps into her skin. At school the next day, Sarah is inexplicably drawn towards a book entitled Europe in the Middle Ages. When she examines one of the pictures she is pulled into the scene, travelling to the time in which it occurred. Sarah returns moments later, and decides that she needs to find others who have been touched by the dust.

She places a cryptic ad in the personal columns of a local teen newspaper, and that’s how she meets Toby, a street-smart boy from a dodgy neighbourhood, and Bonisile ‘Bones’ Tau (rhymes with ‘cow’), a super-nerdy genius. Toby shows them a newspaper clipping about a girl named Miriam who disappeared from the Cape of Slaves exhibition at a local art gallery. Toby is convinced that Miriam travelled through a portal in one of the paintings and could not get back. Bones and Sarah agree to join Toby on a rescue mission to save Miriam, but when they go through the painting to land in Cape Town, 1825, they do so without an inkling of what kind of society awaits them.


Before I go any further, I should put in a disclaimer. The protagonists are 12 and 13 years old, and according to Puffin’s press release for this Cape of Slaves, the target audience is 8-years old and up. I know nothing about the intellectual capabilities or reading preferences of this age group, so I’m reviewing this primarily for older teenagers and adults who read YA. Younger readers are no doubt less demanding and wouldn’t be bothered by the many shortcomings in this novel, but I thought the authors could have been more rigorous, regardless of the fact that they were writing for children. YA and children’s fiction shouldn’t be sub-standard fiction.

The bit of plot I described above already raises a lot of questions and issues for me. I think it’s unlikely that a personal ad in a local youth newspaper would catch the attention of the very few people who were touched by the dust. Who reads those newspapers anyway? Then Toby assumes that Miriam has time-travelled, based on nothing but a newspaper article claiming she “disappeared without a trace” (24). Sarah and Bones accept his assumption without question and agree to join him on a rescue mission, even though these three met each other less than an hour before. They all act as if time travelling is old hat for them, even though they’ve only had one experience with it so far and don’t really know how it works.

When they go to the museum to find the right painting and travel through it, none of them thinks to dress the part, so they all travel 187 years into the past looking like modern kids. What’s worse is that none of them give a single thought to the fact that they’re going to a time of slavery, and the issue of skin colour only comes up once they’ve gone through.

I could, reluctantly, suspend my disbelief to accept that Sarah is capable of this. She lives a life of privilege, where her daily problems involve her stepdad driving her to school in a huge, embarrassing Hummer, walking her to class, and searching her room for sweets and chocolates because he’s a health freak. Because she’s white, discrimination has probably never been an issue for her and 1825 will be far less dangerous for her than for Toby or Bones, so maybe – just maybe – she hasn’t considered the slavery issue.

Toby on the other hand, is coloured and comes from an impoverished background that has made him acutely aware of the racism and discrimination in present-day South Africa. In 1825, he knows full well that his skin colour puts him in danger, so why didn’t he mention it before? Bones, being a genius who attends one of the poshest schools in the country, has actually memorised a historical timeline from 1652 to 1902, so he definitely knows all about slavery. Nevertheless, he arrives at the gallery an hour early and goes through alone, all because he wants “to be the boy who came back from the past, told the world, and won prizes for it”. Of course, he ends up being the boy who is assumed to be a slave because of his skin colour.

Childish optimism aside, are 12-year olds really this dof? Or so ignorant of their history? Did schools stop teaching kids about slavery? Even if that’s the case, or if these three haven’t had those classes yet, then an art exhibition named “Cape of Slaves” and a room full of pictures depicting slavery should have been a giant, screaming clue. Certainly more noticeable than a cryptic ad in the personals column of a youth newspaper.

Perhaps the protagonists’ ignorance is meant to set the stage for an educational experience, since education is presumably one of the purposes of this novel, at least for those who don’t know about slavery or the fact that it was practised in South Africa. Since I already knew the basics, Cape of Slaves wasn’t informative or immersive. The depiction of slavery felt thin, like an impression gleaned from novels and movies on the subject. The authors (or publishers/editors) appear to have favoured ease of reading over historical accuracy in many instances. Sometimes this is understandable. For example, the violence in the novel is mild, to better suit the young audience, and we mostly see the cruelty of slavery in the way black people are treated like domestic animals.  But too often it felt like the novel just glossed over difficulties in a way that felt unnecessarily childish and unrealistic.

Almost all the characters speak perfect English, so the protagonists have no difficulty communicating. There’s only a smattering of Dutch or Afrikaans, and I don’t recall any African languages being used. No one makes a big deal about the kids’ modern clothing, speech or mannerisms. Many people marvel at how well educated Bones is, as if he were a monkey who’d learned to speak, but none of the slave owners find this threatening or even suspicious, and no one asks how or why he was educated. At one point, a slave boy named Elijah runs away from his farm in an attempt to help Bones, and they both end up getting sold at a slave market in the nearby town. Surprisingly, Elijah’s owners don’t ever come looking for him – quite convenient in terms of plot, but I can’t imagine that runaway slaves were treated so casually.

The characters are just as thin and uninteresting as the historical setting. Sarah is a garden variety shy, insecure girl, who gets jealous easily and finds it difficult to think of Toby without some kind of romantic overtone. Bones is a hollow nerd cliché – he’s physically weak, troubled by allergies, dresses like Steve Urkel, and likes to read about “rocket science and global warming” (46). What vague tastes. Poor Elijah, the only slave with a major role, is little more than a plot device put in place to help the readers and characters find their way. Toby, at least, is a little more appealing, probably because he’s the boldest, most socially conscious, and most adaptable of the three time travellers. He’s the streetwise “cool dude” with a sensitive side, but sadly this comes off as a bit of a cliché too. There’s an odd lack of slang in the characters’ speech, and they don’t really sound like kids most of the time, even if they act as such. There’s no real variation in the way they speak either, and this can be confusing, because the narrative switches between first-person narrators every two or three chapters, and it’s only the context that enables you to identify who is speaking.

On the whole, Cape of Slaves has the quality of a made-for-TV kids’ movie, like the ones that M-Net used to play for the two-hour Disney family time on Sunday afternoons. I remember liking those movies, but even then I knew that their stories were kept smooth and simple – sometimes ridiculously so – in order to keep kids happy. Similarly, this could be a good read for pre-teens and younger teens – it’s short and fairly easy to read, has a bit of adventure, and some educational value. For the many adults who read YA though, I would not recommend this.

Buy a copy of Cape of Slaves


Review of God Save the Queen by Kate Locke

Title: God Save the Queen
Series: The Immortal Empire #1
Author: Kate Locke (pseudonym for Kathryn Smith)
Published: 03 July 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, urban fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

It’s the present day in an alternative vision of our world. History took a different turn in the 19th century when a mutation of the bubonic plague – known as the Prometheus Plague – turned Britain’s aristocrats into vampires, werewolves and goblins. Apparently they really did have better blood, because the rest of the human population died by the thousands. Society is now divided according to the level of plague in your blood – there are the aristos (fully plagued), the halvies (half-plagued hybrids born of human mothers and vamp or were fathers), and humans. Queen Victoria, a vampire, is about to celebrate 175 years ruling the still-powerful British Empire.

At both the top and the very bottom of the social ladder are the goblins. Technically they’re the most ‘aristocratic’, since they’re the most plagued, but as the most bestial of the races they’re hated and feared by all. They live underground and feed on any flesh, be it aristo, halvie or human.

Alexandra (Xandra) Varden is a member of the prestigious Royal Guard, a security force sworn to protect the aristos. Like most halvies, she was trained to fight in order to provide security services to the aristos, and Xandra was at the very top of her class. She’s an ass-kicking, corset-wearing, vampire halvie with hair as red as blood. Her father is a duke, and she’s unquestioningly loyal to queen and country. Her comfortable view of English society begins to crack and crumble when Xandra learns that her sister Drusilla (Dede) committed suicide after being sent to Bedlam, a notorious insane asylum. Refusing to believe that Dede would do such a thing, Xandra investigates the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding her ‘death’.

Nothing she finds puts her mind at ease. Conspiracies roil beneath the surface of British society, implicating the aristos in horrific crimes that Xandra cannot believe them capable of committing. A rebel group fights for democracy, denouncing the superiority of any race, calling the aristocracy a dictatorship. Such treasonous ideas go against everything Xandra believes, but in her stubbourn search for the truth she’s slowly forced to rethink her view of the people she loves, the races she’s judged and the ideals she’s based her life upon. She runs headlong into danger, romance, and an unbelievable new life.

With its cute, bold cover and enticing blurb, God Save the Queen gives a good impression of being loads of fun and just really cool. And when you read it you can’t help but imagine how awesome it would look as a movie because it really is full of cool, fun stuff. Xandra is a very sexy heroine with great hair (one of the advantages of being a halvie or aristo) in a rare, bright red colour (all halvies have colourful hair – indigo, pink, blue, etc.). She can rock a corset and kick ass in an evening gown. With a talent for violence and a wicked temper, she’s always getting herself into action scenes, often with a frock coat swirling stylishly around her. And speaking of action and style, Xandra also hooks up with Vex McLaughlin, the ultra-sexy Scottish alpha werewolf, who I imagined being played by Joe Manganiello (Alcide from True Blood) in a gorgeous tailored suit. Yum. God Save the Queen hits plenty of the right buttons with a bit of sex, lots of violence, alternate history, vampires, werewolves, corsets and really awesome hair, so it would have been a really great novel if it wasn’t so damn sloppy.

My first issue – it’s supposed to be very English, but it feels very American. It might take place in London in a world where the sun hasn’t set on the British Empire and an iconic English queen holds the throne, but it reads like it was written by an American, for other Americans, based on an American idea of England (although apparently the author is Canadian). Xandra uses words like “bollocks”, “knickers” and “fag” (as in cigarette), but it’s not going to fool anyone when ‘lieutenant’ is spelt “leftenant”, presumably to force American readers to use the English pronunciation. I think it’s weird to say “leftenant” too, but that just made me cringe. The novel lacks the right feels for its setting, and it doesn’t help that Xandra keeps making comparisons with American things (action movies, their eagle), as if to help US readers relate to this foreign fantasy setting. Is that necessary? And why would Xandra’s character be thinking of America? In this world, the British Empire reigns supreme; it can’t be assumed that the USA would have the same cultural dominance that it has in our world.

This brings me to my next issue – world-building with an alternate history. There are many interesting if awkward info dumps to explain how this science fantasy version of London came about – the biology of the plague, significant historical events, contemporary social structures, law, tech, etc. – but it’s not thorough enough. Locke devotes about half a paragraph to mentioning how the rest of the world looks, although Africa is entirely forgotten. Rather odd, since Britain has kept most of its colonies, but apparently a few extra decades of British imperialism and slavery aren’t worth any ink. London appears to be a multi-species but mono-cultural city where the aristocracy are so old-fashioned they hold balls every week and use horse-drawn carriages. Not that there’s any shortage of modern technology; humans and halvies use all the conveniences we’re used to – cellphones, cars, computers, tracking devices, DVDs. These things have different names and aren’t quite as slick as our own, but it’s hardly worthy of the term ‘steampunk’. Neither of the two World Wars happened, so why has technology advanced as if they did, especially when many aristos shun such things?

Look closely, or just attentively at God Save the Queen and you’ll notice that it’s rife with holes, inconsistencies and absurdities. How does Xandra ride a motorbike while wearing an evening gown with her hair pinned up? How does she manage to be stealthy with that striking red hair? If halvies and aristos age very slowly, then why have all the halvies in the novel aged like normal human beings?

Locke also commits many mystery-plot sins, making her characters ignore the obvious or suspicious, avoid pressing questions, withhold information or suddenly turn into morons, all to prolong the suspense. In the first chapter, Xandra goes to the goblin prince for information about her sister, because somehow the goblins know about everything that happens topside. If the novel stuck to that premise, it could have been a lot shorter. Dede commits suicide by setting herself on fire, which is such a dumbass way of killing yourself that I couldn’t believe Xandra was the only one to consider the possibility that her death was faked and a body burned to make identification difficult. Their brother Val is an investigator for Scotland Yard, but he just runs with the theory that Dede was “hatters”.

Xandra is right, of course, but she’s not always that sharp. Like when she sees a woman who looks exactly like her, but just can’t put her finger on why she looks so very familiar. Yes, really.

The novel seems to improve in the second half, perhaps because some secrets are revealed so there are fewer investigative shortcomings. Once the plot gets going there’s less opportunity to dwell on problems in world-building, and it probably helps that there’s lots of action and that Vex is so incredibly hot.

I also appreciated Xandra’s character, to an extent. OK, she’s a temperamental bitch, but intentionally so, and she has to deal with some major life changes. At the beginning she’s blindly patriotic and openly, unabashedly prejudiced. She tends to jump to conclusions and cling to them, so on the whole she’s rather close-minded. She’s clearly being set up to have her mindset challenged if not bludgeoned, and it’s pleasing to see that happen. She’s still a bitch at the end, but that’s ok. Good girls are overrated.

If you can avoid being fussy or demanding, God Save the Queen is a decent entertaining read. It’s annoying at the start, but it gets better and there’s a wonderfully satisfying demise for one of the villains. I like the ideas at the core of the novel, I just wish they’d been properly fleshed out. And yeah, I’d read the sequel, The Queen is Dead, due out in 2013. I like a good American action movie as much as the next person.

Buy a copy of God Save the Queen at The Book Depository.

Review of The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Title: The Peculiars
Author: Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Published: 1 May 2012
Publisher: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS Books
Genre: YA, adventure, steampunk, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Since she was a child, Lena Mattacascar has been called Peculiar. She has unusually long hands and feet, and each of her fingers has an extra knuckle. “[S]igns of goblinism”, the doctor said, and her grandmother never hesitated to tell her what a no-good goblin criminal her father was (he left home when Lena was five). Lena tries to pass her strange appendages off as “birth defects” but she’s desperate to know the truth about her father and her own genetics.

On her 18th birthday, Lena’s mother gives her two gifts left by her father – a small inheritance, and a letter. Motivated by her father’s words to her, Lena decides to use the money to travel to Scree, the supposed land of the Peculiars. She takes a train to the town of Knob Knoster, on the border of Scree, where she will need to buy supplies and find someone to guide her through the wilderness. One man who could help her is Tobias Beasley, an inventor and historian.

However, Beasley is rumoured to be an eccentric who might be involved in strange dealings with Peculiars. A young but determined federal marshal named Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on him and report anything incriminating. Lena agrees, and gets a job in Beasley’s library, working alongside Jimson Quigley, a young man she met on the train. It’s a pleasant, fulfilling life, but Lena finds some suspicious things in Beasley’s home, leading her to make decisions that put the people she cares about in danger.

The Peculiars is a steampunk-ish coming-of-age novel about how difference breeds prejudice. The people who believe in Peculiars see them as sub-human, morally decrepit freaks. Scree has a dubious reputation as “the place where they send criminals. They say the forests are filled with hideous things”. “No one’s there but misfits, political enemies, and aliens”, Lena is told. It’s no surprise then, that all Peculiars are lumped together with thieves, murderers and anyone considered socially undesirable. The government uses this for political gain. Scree is rich in mineral resources, and by stating that Peculiars are non-human and playing into people’s fears and about them, the government is then able to declare Scree terra nullius – “a ‘land belonging to no one’”. It makes it easy for them to justify their actions there – stealing the land from the indigenous people and exploiting them as slave labour. It’s essentially the story of European colonialism. Scree is a metaphor for Africa or Australia, and the Peculiars represent the indigenous people of those lands.

It’s quite a while before you really see any of this in action though. The majority of the novel is set in Knob Knoster where Lena is trying to prepare for her Scree journey. As a result many reviewers have complained about the slow pace of this book. The blurb gives the impression that this is an action-adventure novel set in Scree, but in fact Lena doesn’t even get there until the last quarter of the novel. You also don’t get to see nearly as many Peculiars as you would expect – their very existence is portrayed as something of a myth for a while, although it’s obvious to the reader that they’re real.

Luckily, this didn’t bother me. I don’t trust blurbs, and in general I’m fine with slow-moving plots. I would have liked the Peculiars to play a larger part, but at least they’re intertwined with the politics and social views of the time. What really, really bothered me though, was Lena. She’s such a weak, thoughtless girl that she essentially spoiled the novel for me.

Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on Mr Beasley for him. In exchange he promises to provide her with a guide to Scree and since he’ll be focusing on Beasley, he’ll take his attention off Lena’s father, Saltre’s other most wanted criminal. Plus, Lena will be helping her country. Lena agrees, although there’s absolutely no good reason for her to do so at this point. She doesn’t need Saltre’s guide if Beasley will help her (which he immediately agrees to do). Saltre didn’t promise to leave her father alone, just that he would ignore him for a bit. It doesn’t even occur to Lena that Saltre could later use her to lead him straight to her father. And since when does Lena care about her country? The government is opposed to Peculiars, and she’s clearly a Peculiar.

It gets worse once she meets Beasley. She’s welcomed into his home, given a tour of his magnificent library, and invited to lunch. Beasley instantly agrees to be her Scree guide, and to help her pay for the expedition he offers her a job in his library and a place to stay in his lovely home. She accepts, and basically begins an ideal life for a young woman in her society. She has a respectable job doing fulfilling work, she has the independence that comes with making your own money, she lives in a beautiful, stately home, all meals are cooked by the housekeeper, and there’s the potential for a bit of romance with her colleague Jimson. On top of that, Beasley has offered to help her achieve her goal of travelling into Scree and finding her father. Beasley has basically given Lena everything she could want at this point. And still the stupid bitch goes running to Saltre with any information she can find to betray Beasley.

Lena actually carries around a notebook and pen just in case she learns something incriminating, and at one point she endures physical pain and great anxiety to go creeping around Beasley’s house in the middle of the night and steal one of his books. Why? Partly because she has a crush on the handsome Saltre, and partly because Lena is easily duped by authority. Saltre is a marshal, and she believes everything he says. The government says Peculiars are bad, therefore they must be bad (even though that implies that Lena is bad too, since she’s obviously Peculiar). If Beasley is breaking the law he must be stopped, even if he is good and the law is designed to exploit people. Lena is such a twit; it takes quite a while for her to think outside the lines.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the reader had more of a chance to empathise with her, if we could see things the way she seems to see them. For example, if it looked like Saltre might actually have feelings for her, or if there was something potentially sinister about Mr Beasley. But no – while she’s blindly making the wrong decisions, it’s crystal clear to the reader what’s really going on. It’s so obvious that Saltre is a villainous government agent manipulating a vulnerable young woman to get what he wants. He’s going to turn on her the moment she ceases to be useful. It’s so obvious that Mr Beasley, on the other hand, is a good, kind man, and Lena is making a colossal mistake by betraying him. I know Lena is naive, but I just couldn’t take her side when people like Jimson and Beasley are so much more likeable.

Jimson is the one who tells Lena that the government is using the Peculiars for political gain. Although he refuses to believe Peculiars exist, you know he’s right about the government. Lena is critical of Jimson for being too rational and scientific, but he usually comes off as a much smarter person in contrast to Lena’s tendency to dismiss evidence in favour of rumour, assumption, and arguments from authority. Jimson and Lena find things that cause them to be suspicious of Beasley, but Jimson takes into account the fact they’ve only ever seen Beasley act with kindness, so he suspends his judgement until they have the whole story and is careful not to do anything rash. Lena on the other hand, runs headlong into doing something rash. This puts everyone in danger, but she has the audacity to criticise Jimson for doing nothing while she took action!

The crap thing is that if it weren’t for Lena being so damn stupid and ungrateful, the story would stand still. It’s her weakness and poor decisions that jumpstart the plot and finally move it out of Knob Knoster and into Scree. It’s a much better book from that point on, but it’s only the last quarter or so. Lena still does some moronic things, but she at least seems to have learned a little from her mistakes and is able to stand up for herself. There’s more danger and adventure in Scree, and of course we learn more about the Peculiars and the government’s operations. Sadly, it’s a case of too little too late. There’s potential for a decent sequel, but The Peculiars is average at best.

Buy a copy of The Peculiars from The Book Depository

Review of Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Title: Westlake Soul
Author: Rio Youers
Published: 10 April 2012
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Genre: science fantasy, drama
Source: review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Westlake Soul used to be a surfing champion. He was tanned, toned and gorgeous. He and his beautiful girlfriend were in love. And then a surfing accident left him with crippling brain damage and for two years he’s been in a vegetative state, with his once athletic body turned to skin and bone.

On the positive side, the accident also turned him into a genius with remarkable mental abilities. Westlake can’t move his own limbs, but he can astral project, sending his soul out wherever he wants to go. He can explore his own psyche as he would a landscape, he can read minds, and exert minor mental influence on others. With all these abilities, he’s like a superhero.

However, none of his powers can give him the human interaction he longs for. He watches over his family like a ghost. He cannot hug his heartbroken parents or comfort his sister. He can’t move a muscle to give his girlfriend some sign that he’s still in there somewhere. He can’t show his caregivers how much he appreciates what they do for him. He can’t tell anyone that he feels and hears everything, even though the doctors said that this is impossible. The only creature Westlake is able to speak to is Hub, the family dog.

And if Westlake thinks of himself as a superhero, he certainly has a supervillian to fight – Dr Quietus, an incarnation of death. Westlake frequently battles him in short, violent confrontations, and so far he’s managed to cling to life. But everyone loses to Dr Quietus eventually, and if Westlake’s parents decide to remove his feeding tube and end his life, the battles will become infinitely harder and soon he will lose.

Westlake Soul is an ambitious project for a writer – a novel about a person who is unable to move or speak. It’s written in first person, from Westlake’s perspective, so the entire story rests on his fragile shoulders. The challenge, I’d say, is to make something interesting out of this limited position. I have to say kudos to author Rio Youers, because for the most part, I think he did a good job.

Westlake Soul has is often a very touching novel. The story sounds like it would be boring, but it’s driven by the emotional urgency that Westlake’s condition creates, both for him and his family, and even for the dog Hub, who cares deeply for them. Westlake’s soul often watches them around the house, and thus we get glimpses of their lives and feelings. There are many scenes depicting the pain that his parents and sister are suffering as a result of his condition, but also the love that they have for him. At first they were all optimistic that he would recover, despite what the doctors said. After two years of having to care for him while he wastes away, they’re losing hope, and feel horribly guilty for it.

Of course, there’s a great deal about Westlake’s suffering as well. He’s well aware of how disturbing it can be for friends and family to even look at him, and how caring for him can be disgusting. The novel doesn’t shy away from describing the gross realities of Westlake’s body. His very situation is a nightmare – he used to tame the waves, and now he’s totally paralysed and unable to communicate, while possessing a brilliant mind and the ability to feel, see and hear everything around him. Ironically, he’s observed doctors tell his parents that his brain is effectively dead, he can’t perceive anything at all, and that there’s no hope for his recovery. It’s a disturbing concept.

Fortunately, Youers has avoided making this a dreary book. Despite his struggles, Westlake has a casual, upbeat way of speaking, full of slang and pop culture references. The serious moments are balanced out by happiness and humour. This tone does a lot to keep you reading; if it were more sombre I think it would be a depressing slog.

I like the science fantasy/superhero/supervillain thing, although it’s not quite what’s suggested by the blurb, and I think Youers could have done more with it. There’s a touch of science, such as the idea that the accident shut down the 10% of Westlake’s brain that allowed him to function as a normal human being, but awakened the 90% that most people never use, thereby giving him superpowers. The superhero thing, however, is more like a way of perceiving himself and his battle to stay alive. Since he cannot manipulate anything in the physical world and has only a tiny amount of mental influence over others (sort of like giving their minds a push) he can’t do anything you’d consider heroic. He claims that he’s not interested in saving the world anyway; he just wants to surf again. His fights with Dr Quietus, are only to save himself – he doesn’t stop anyone else from dying. Dr Quietus himself gets very little time on the page, and he has almost no lines.

I would have liked it if Youers gave Quietus more of a presence in the novel. There are some philosophical and spiritual musings, and Westlake and Quietus could have engaged in similar discussions. The battles between the two of them aren’t all that exciting and they feel out of place. Westlake and Quietus fight in locations like the skies over Tokyo or an abandoned factory. It feels like these scenes came straight out of an action movie. On the other hand, it makes sense that Westlake might see himself as a superhero fighting action-packed battles with a supervillain – after all he is a 23-year-old surfer. I just wish Youers had handled the concept differently.

This brings me to some of the other issues I had with the novel. I don’t think it was a good idea to make Westlake a genius. He doesn’t seem like a genius. He just seems like a guy with some amazing mental abilities. Although he’s more knowledgeable, he doesn’t show signs of being especially smart. You’d think that such a phenomenal change in intelligence would change the way Westlake thinks about the world, but his psychology seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from a 23-year old guy in this situation.

Then there’s the language. Like I said, the tone is essential to keeping the reader engaged, but Westlake’s speech is full of weird, dated slang and references. Like “too cool for school”. The novel is set in 2011 and there’s plenty of contemporary stuff about Facebook or the latest music, but there are also times when it sounds like Westlake is from the 60s or 70s. It’s weird.

Nevertheless these are flaws in what is, on the whole, a solid execution of a difficult idea. It’s not great, especially with Dr Quietus’s character being wasted, but it’s good. Youers keeps the story well-paced right up to the end, which is something many writers fail to do. The ending itself was nicely done. I’m not really sure who to recommend this to though. I think that anyone wwith a friend or relative in the same state as Westlake would find it extremely painful, especially with regards to the question of switching off life support. This story essentially describes a situation in which the doctors are almost completely wrong about the patient’s condition, most notably about his ability to feel pain or hear what’s being said about him. The very idea is something that I’m sure would cause torment to those who’ve been in the same situation as Westlake’s family. I still think it’s an interesting concept to read and write about though, and there’s a great deal in this novel that’s beautiful and heartwarming, so I’d say read it if you think it sounds intriguing, but perhaps not if it’s too close to home.

Buy a copy of Westlake Soul at The Book Depository

Review of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Title: The Rook
Daniel O’Malley
11 January 2012
 Little, Brown & Company, a division of The Hatchette Book Group
science fantasy, mystery, thriller
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

I was unsure about this at first, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted 🙂

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in the rain without a shred of memory. Around her are dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves. In her coat pocket is a letter from herself, written before her memory was wiped. The letter gives her some basic information, like what her name is and how to pronounce it (“Miff-unee” rhyming with Tiffany), as well as a few instructions. The first Myfanwy (from now on I’ll refer to this version of Myfanwy as ‘Thomas’) was warned that someone would consume her memories, so she made meticulous preparations for the person who would wake up in her body.

Thomas offers Myfanwy two options. She can change her name, flee the country, and live out the rest of her days drinking cocktails on some sunny beach. Or, she can stay, pretend to be Thomas and uncover the conspiracy that put her in this situation. Myfanwy is all for running away, but another attack from latex-gloved assassins gives her the determination to take the more dangerous option. To help her, Thomas wrote a series of numbered letters to Myfanwy, and put together a detailed research file containing the most important information for impersonating her previous self. Because if Myfanwy is going to find out what happened to her and why, she’s going to have to go back to  her extremely complex and demanding job and act like nothing is wrong.

As it turns out, Myfanwy Thomas is a Rook – one of the highest ranking members in a powerful secret organisation called The Checquy (pronounced “Sheck-Eh” or perhaps ‘Sheck-Ay’). The Checquy protects Britain from its many supernatural threats, and to do so it recruits and trains the ‘powered’ – people who have their own supernatural abilities. Myfanwy herself has an incredible ability, one that’s even more powerful than Thomas ever realised. And she’s certainly going to need it because the conspiracy that Thomas was investigating reaches to the highest levels of the Checquy, pitting Myfanwy against people with powers and resources more formidable than her own.


The Rook is one of those lovely books that has everything a novel needs to be both classy and loads of fun to read. It has great characters. It’s got a tense investigation to uncover a large-scale conspiracy. It’s got loads of action involving people with awesome supernatural powers. To top it all off, it’s full of wonderfully quirky humour. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll gnaw your fingernails.

The Checquy, its powered employees and the supernatural aspects of the world give O’Malley a chance to be really inventive, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. The institution as a whole is nicely fleshed out, so we get to see how it works, how the training facility operates and how it recruits the powered. Only a few of the powered have commonly used abilities – there’s a vampire, for example – but even these aren’t quite the same as the ones you usually find. Most of the other powered have more interesting abilities. There’s Gestalt, who was born with one mind but four bodies. The Checquy’s training gave Gestalt the ability to allow each body to act as if it were independent, so that it can actually do four different missions in different parts of the globe and yet be connected by its single mind.

Conrad Granchester “is able to manufacture a variety of chemical compounds inside his body and then vent them through his pores in the form of a fine mist”. He can emit anything from a deadly toxin to non-lethal tear gas. There’s Lady Linda Farrier, the ‘Queen’ of the Checquy Court, who Myfanwy first meets when Lady Farrier enters her dreams to have tea. The plot has room for lots of minor characters with unique powers as well, so there’s no shortage of clever fantasy content. This is approached in a sci fi manner though – the Checquy has a horde of scientists studying these abilities, and they’re spoken of in a scientific way, but remain very much supernatural, so I put this in the science fantasy genre.

The most interesting character is Myfanwy Thomas herself. She’s a wonderful, multi-layered character, not least of all because there are two versions of her. Thomas was almost pathologically shy and her life was consumed by work. Her home and wardrobe are the definition of wealth and quality, but lack any sense of personal style. Despite her deadly powers, Thomas’s personality (or lack thereof) made her so unsuitable in the field that she ended up in admin. Luckily, her organisational skills were so impressive that she earned a position in the Checquy’s Court, but even then, she’s so timid that she commands little respect.

Myfanwy on the other hand, shares her predecessor’s talents for processing information, but is much more open and assertive. She flexes her authority in situations when Thomas would have avoided eye contact while her peers walked all over her. She’s not afraid to use her powers or go out into the field, and she often expresses disappointment in the weaknesses of her previous self. Myfanwy is a stronger version who possesses the capabilities to dismantle the conspiracy that Thomas discovered, and build a life that involves more than work.

We can also thank Myfanwy Thomas for one of the novel’s best features – its humour. I don’t think this book would have been half as enjoyable if it weren’t so funny. In Thomas’s letters to Myfanwy, she reveals herself to be a witty, engaging writer so that even though the main purpose of the letters is exposition, they still manage to be entertaining. Her wit remained even after her memory was wiped, making Myfanwy an amusing character, especially as she struggles to impersonate Thomas at work.

On the more tragic side, are Thomas’s feelings about losing her memory, which she often expresses in her letters to Myfanwy. “The body you are wearing used to be mine” – her anger and sense of injustice comes across in her very first line, even as she’s helping the person who gets to take over her life. Having her memory wiped amounts to being murdered, because the person she is will cease to exist. This isn’t the kind of story where Myfanwy will eventually regain Thomas’s memories – there’re gone forever, along with the person who possessed them.

For the plot, this means that Myfanwy can’t hope for some cliché moment where she’ll get a flashback that will reveal the villain who attacked her. This mystery must be solved through a careful investigation. Thomas already did a lot of the work, but Myfanwy must finish the job with the constant awareness that her enemies are very close. To add to that, she has to do her regular job, some of which involves co-ordinating the teams that handle the supernatural threats around the country, giving us the chance to see the powered (almost all of whom have combat training) in action.

It all makes for thoroughly gripping reading, and I was enthralled. I loved almost everything about The Rook. My only criticisms are some nitpicking about bits where the narrative dragged a little, in contrast to its other amusing or thrilling parts. I devoured it and then longed for more. If could read books like this on a regular basis I’d never find myself in a reading rut. Fantasy thriller fans, don’t you dare miss out on this one.

Seriously, go and buy a copy of The Rook.