Bryant & May Mysteries – ‘The Water Room’ by Christopher Fowler

29 09 2010

'The Water Room' by Christopher Fowler, 432pp, Bantam, ISBN: 0553815539

Reviewed by Sharon Ring.

Onwards with book two in the Bryant & May Mysteries, The Water Room. When last we met the detecting duo we had a glimpse into the modern day Peculiar Crimes Unit and also learned of how the Unit was formed. In the second novel, we’re back to the present day with the octogenarian detectives both unofficially taking on cases as favours for old friends. Bryant begins looking into the seemingly innocent death of an old lady, the sister of Bryant’s friend Benjamin Singh. Discovered in the basement bathroom of her Kentish Town home it looks, at first glance, as though Ruth may have died a peaceful death. Nothing is that simple though, especially not in the crazy world of Arthur Bryant. Ruth’s body is fully dressed as if to go out and a post-mortem examination of Ruth’s body uncovers traces of stagnant Thames water in her mouth. An open verdict is placed on Ruth’s death but Bryant is far from satisfied and it’s only a matter of time before he’s allowed to plunge back into the investigation.

May’s favour for a friend comes in the form of a plea for help from an old flame, Monica Greenwood. Monica is convinced her academic husband, Gareth, is involved in something shady: it’s happened before, a taint on Gareth’s employment record and a second mistake could be the end of his career, so Monica turns to May for assistance in discovering just what her husband is getting up to. Early investigations point towards Greenwood’s involvement in a search for some forgotten piece of Egyptian treasure, a search which takes him, and the detectives, deep underground through London’s lost rivers.

Meanwhile, back in Balaklava Street, Kentish Town Benjamin Singh has fought off the bullying tactics of property developers Garrett and Moss to sell his sister’s house to a young woman called Kallie Owen. Kallie moves in with her boyfriend Paul and is immediately beset with the kind of problems faced by any first-time owner of a fixer-upper – electrics, plumbing – everything needs Kallie’s attention. The most troubling part of the house is the basement bathroom where Ruth’s body was discovered by Benjamin. Plagued by spiders and an increasingly present sound of rushing water, Kallie is wary of spending any more time in there than is absolutely necessary.

Inevitably, Bryant and May’s separate investigations converge and move back in on Balaklava Street. The detectives are faced with more deaths; more inexplicable connections and a street full of uncooperative suburbanites. The residents of Balaklava Street are about as suburban as you can get. Crumbling marriages hidden behind twitching nets, unhappy kids with pushy parents, elderly neighbours left uncared for and a little too much social climbing for life to ever be just right for more than one of the street’s residents.

With the heavens opening and London’s rivers rising, much of the Unit’s time is spent getting drenched. Fowler captures a damp and dark London as the city scurries out of a late September heatwave and into a rain-soaked October. The monsoon-like weather is put to excellent use, both helping and hindering the detectives in their quest to unravel the twin mysteries.

The Water Room is as well-plotted and delivered a novel as the first book in the series, Full Dark House. Having given us a thorough grounding in the creation of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, introducing us to the eccentricities of how the team works and the tangents at which an investigation more often than not takes, Fowler launches the reader into the fascinating world of London’s almost forgotten underground river system. And this, as with Full Dark House, is the crux on which much of the excellence of these books rests, London.

London is one those cities which people tend to love or hate. There’s rarely a middle ground and it’s unlikely you’ll find someone who’s just indifferent about the place. For me, London has always been synonymous with grime, oppression, hostility and arrogance. I pass through on my way to somewhere more inviting; I nip in for an occasional book signing and museum visit. It’s all very quick and mostly seen through the windows of coaches, trains and buses, and the endless corridors of tube stations. Seeing the city through Fowler’s born and bred Londoner’s eye, I’m beginning to see a different city: the city lived in and loved by all those people who rush through its streets at all hours, the pubs I’ll probably never visit, the foibles and quirks of a place I will never quite understand.

London becomes, within the pages of the Bryant and May Mysteries, a place of wonder; a place quite removed from my own long-held prejudices. If you take a look around Christopher Fowler’s website, it’s possible to check out some of the locations from each of the stories, a particularly nice touch and one which brings out my inner geek, tempting me to spend a weekend in London walking the Bryant & May trail. I may yet do it!

The next book in the series is Seventy-Seven Clocks which I’ll be reviewing in due course, along with a few thoughts on Christopher Fowler and why reading these books is akin to the putting on of the most comfortable shoes you’ll ever wear.

So, until next time, farewell!

‘The Beautiful Room’ by RB Russell

21 09 2010

'The Beautiful Room' by RB Russell, 12pp, Nightjar Press, ISBN: 978-1-907341-04-5, £3.00

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

As in my previous review (of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, also from Nightjar Press), this eight-page story is a masterpiece of understated and compact tale-weaving. Superficially, it’s about a dream becoming a nightmare, but there are layers and subtexts here that add up to a dissertation on the complex interactions implicit in any relationship – and being able to negotiate those complexities fluently (or otherwise) can either make or break that relationship.

It all starts innocently enough. A couple, John and Maria, are out property-hunting, and have found a beautiful room suffused with light filtered through muslin curtains. Maria wants to take the room, situated in a house in the country; John prefers the flat in the city. Naturally, in as fraught a pursuit as looking for somewhere to live, nerves get frayed and an argument bubbles up. Soon, however, the pair are distracted by scufflings and scrabblings coming from within the walls. Maria wants to rescue the birds she feels are trapped within the walls; John just wants to get out and get back to the city. It is at this point that the tensions, and the noise, are ramped up in volume.

A simple premise, but nothing more than a mask disguising some complex emotions and relationship dynamics. The tensions were already there to start with, of course: tiny hints are dropped that this is a way of life for the couple, that unresolved and simmering conflicts lie just below the surface. Here, at this intersection of time, the room and the events act as both a focal point and as a pivotal moment: choices need to be made, either through accident or by design.

The moment the birds start flapping about inside the walls is the moment when the fuse has been lit. Maria desperately wants to rescue the birds she thinks are there (and which can be seen as being symbolic of the relationship itself) but John is reluctant; in other words, John just wants things left to work themselves out whilst Maria wants to actively tackle the problems. In fact, one gets the feeling that John’s instinct is to run away and ignore the underlying problems. However, the noise multiplies as soon as John does try to help and the static between the two increases (in the form of an increase in noise and activity from the birds), in effect blocking (or at least garbling) communication between the two. The noise of the flapping increases to such a level that neither can hear the other and a point of no return has been reached, signalling that neither is prepared to listen to the other. Additionally, even when the pair separately yell out the window for help when their only exit gets stuck, there’s no-one out there to respond. The issues have to be faced and resolved by them, and them alone.

Revealing any more would spoil this beautiful story for any potential reader, but suffice to say that the ending is somehow inevitable. Russell has a deft, airy touch and the tale starts lightly and brightly; this is a young couple, forging ahead career-wise and grabbing every opportunity presented. It comes as something of a surprise, then, when we learn that a subtle darkness exists between them, a darkness that doesn’t need much to overwhelm and drive the pair apart. John is an angry and somewhat selfish man, pointing out that he expects Maria to support him in his new job and all that the move to the new country entails, and to put aside her needs and wants in the process. There is also the hint that the city represents order and security to his mind. Conversely, Maria is much more in tune with the freedom and spaciousness that the rural life symbolises – once more we are reminded that divisions, apparently irreparable ones, eat away at the heart of the relationship. Those divisions are only emphasised by the pandemonium created by the birds, both when trapped within the walls and when John eventually releases them. And, like I said, that situation only has only one ending.

The best writing works on many levels simultaneously, as The Beautiful Room does. As brightly as the story starts, it doesn’t take long for the rot at the core of John and Maria’s relationship to make itself known, albeit unfolding subtly and very gradually. And even when the chaos starts we’re not entirely sure whether the tensions are just the result of the present situation. However, it isn’t long before the reader realises that here is something a lot deeper than just two lovers having a disagreement – it becomes obvious that there’s something fundamentally fractured (and fracturing) between them. And that perhaps the widening chasm that has steadily been growing in their relationship has got to the point of being too big to be bridged.

But the thing that strikes most of all is Russell’s writing. It isn’t direct, in the way some writers are, but is oblique, effectively masking (in the case of this particular story) the deeper undercurrents that bubble just underneath the illusorily calm surface, which are only revealed very gradually and piecemeal. With a few deft strokes of the pen, Russell opens up the festering wounds that exist between John and Maria but without ever losing that lightness. It’s that sharp contrast that helps to underscore the horror of the situation, both in the pandemonium instigated by the birds and the state of the relations between the couple. We ARE horrified, once we realise just what is going on, that they have let things get this far without attempting anything like a form of reconciliation. However, learning about John also, paradoxically, leaves us with hope that maybe Maria will find her own path, and be allowed to soar on her own terms.

What more can I say? Simply that, in my opinion, this is a stunning little story, simply and understatedly, as well as artfully, told. I find myself wishing that I’d heard about these little Nightjar Press chapbook gems a lot earlier – admittedly they haven’t been around for very long, so far only releasing four others (Michael Marshall-Smith’s What Happens When you Wake up in the Night (which won a BfS Award this last weekend), Tom Fletcher’s The Safe Children, Alison Moore’s When the Door Closed, it Was Dark and Joel Lane’s Black Country – watch out for reviews of the last two very soon) and all issued in the same format and in signed limited editions of just 200. More importantly, it bodes extremely well for the future of genre writing in the UK, as well as the health of the independent presses. At just £3.00 apiece, this represents a very high quality bargain – and I would venture to say that you should miss them (and future releases) at your peril. So what are you waiting for?

‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ by Mark Valentine

21 09 2010

'A Revelation of Cormorants' by Mark Valentine, 16pp, Nightjar Press, ISBN: 978-1-907341-05-2, £3.00

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Fiction in the short form, in the mainstream at least, has of recent times seen very lean returns – a state of affairs that this reviewer finds somewhat of a mystery. Apparently, according to the big publishing houses, short story collections just aren’t profitable: novels are the thing. However, there’s one area where the short form is very much alive and kicking, and which is where I rediscovered my love of this type of fiction – the independent press. Presses such as Ash-Tree, PS Publishing, and Gray Friar, to name just a few, regularly put out quality books of collections and anthologies, by writers who understand the inherent advantage of the shorter story over the novel. Telling a tale in less than 5000 words, for instance, takes skill and art; unnecessary fluffing out is completely anathema and compactness is absolutely paramount.

Manchester’s Nightjar Press specialises in publishing short stories, but in an even more condensed and concise form still – the chapbook. Nicholas Royle and John Oakey, publisher and designer at Nightjar respectively, issue superb quality, single story pamphlets (for want of a better word), and amounting to less than 20 pages in length. This is my first encounter with their books, and I have to say I am highly impressed.

Mystery and a hidden yearning are at the heart of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, one of the latest Nightjar releases. William Utter has isolated himself in Galloway, after being commissioned to compile a book of pithy and apposite quotations concerning the myths, legends and literature surrounding the native birds of Britain. Indeed, the very place where he has sequestered himself, in a little whitewashed cottage on the coast, is itself haunted by those most inscrutable of sea-birds, cormorants. While engaged in his (faux) literary endeavours, he decides to head off to the shore to watch the sea-birds in their natural environment, at the suggestion of the cottage’s caretaker.

It may only be a short tale, but even within its eleven pages of story there are meditations on time and nature, and how the cormorants themselves appear to embody the deeper mysteries to be found there and in nature itself. It’s a journey of discovery, of revelation at the very point of crisis, and along the way explores the relationships between natural, geologic timelessness and the finite culture of mankind (as represented through the written word, spanning the lost scripts of ancient civilisations, and right on up to his own collating of the quotes of literary worthies). The tale itself is timeless, its only grounding being the location, and even then there’s no specificity as to where the action is unfurling. Neither do you get any sense of when it all takes place, although, for whatever reason, I kept imagining sometime from early to mid-twentieth century, mainly I think because there was a certain hint of an archaic timelessness threading itself through the language (entirely in keeping with the nature of the story). The tension between the meditations on the time that nature experiences and the timelessness of the story drives it along.

The language of the story is full of references to birds and flight, a symbol perhaps of an unacknowledged yearning to be free. Utter is a compiler, not a writer; a gatherer-together of other people’s insights. That’s a restriction right there; maybe there’s a part of him that wishes otherwise. Going to watch the cormorants dipping and diving over the sea is almost a declaration of independence from the confines of the cottage. It’s that action that marks the beginning of the journey for our erstwhile compiler/narrator, in both a physical and metaphysical sense. There are also constant allusions to the written word (not surprising, given Utter’s chosen profession), tied in to concepts of both the unimaginably long epochs of geological timescales and the relatively shorter ones of mankind’s impact on the world. A deeper thread runs through even this: the idea that nature is itself still an inscrutable mystery despite all our investigation of the world and its phenomena. The cormorant itself is symbolic of that; its black feathers concealing a malachite green tint on its body covering (only seen in certain lights), and its eyes being deeply and unreadably black, almost void-like. Perhaps, then, it’s only at the end, when the narrator is facing death and danger, that the mystery allows itself to be unfolded.

All this exploration of deep themes and ideas, crammed into just eleven pages of tale. THAT’S the art of the short story writer. Mark Valentine manages to condense quite broad and, in some ways, complex, concepts in just that space. Moreover, these are exposited as subtle subtexts, rather than overt ruminations. The ideas contained herein tickle the mind as you’re reading it and automatically trip convoys of thoughts. It almost invites the reader to meditate on what’s been written. There’s no dense questioning, just finely-wrought prose.

This, in other words, is writing of the highest order and all wrapped in a beautifully designed and executed production.

‘Never Again’ edited by Joel Lane and Allyson Bird

20 09 2010

'Never Again' edited by Allyson Bird & Joel Lane, 294pp, Gray Friar Press, ISBN: 978-1-906331-18-4, £10.00UK/$18.00US

Reviewed by Peter G. Bell

I tend to be cautious when it comes to stories with a cause. Not that they can’t be brilliant – To Kill A Mockingbird, The Colour Purple and A Clockwork Orange spring instantly to mind – but writers too readily trip themselves up by focussing on their message, rather than the means by which that message is conveyed. Without due care and attention, the writer simply creates a soapbox from which to preach an agenda. At best, such tales are little more than sermons for the converted. At their worst, they come across as smug and self-congratulatory. So it was with mixed feelings that I approached Never Again, the new anthology of short fiction from Gray Friar Press.

The book describes itself as “an attempt to voice the collective revulsion of writers in the weird fiction genre against political attitudes that stifle compassion and deny our collective human inheritance.” In more concrete terms, it gathers together stories with anti-fascist and anti-racist themes. While this is certainly a worthy cause, the lengthy introduction probably overstates its case a little; can there be many writers (or readers) of fantastic fiction who support fascism and racism? There must be, somewhere, although they’re surely in the minority.

But what of the stories themselves? Editors Joel Lane and Allyson Bird have succeeded in compiling an extremely strong list of talent; any anthology that includes work by such figures as Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Volk, Gary McMahon and Rob Shearman is not to be sniffed at.

Unsurprisingly, many of the tales draw on the Holocaust for inspiration, choosing to present fascism in its most overt and organised form. There are a couple of stand-out stories in this category: Nina Allan’s Feet of Clay provides a subtle and haunting opening to the book. Matt Joiner’s South of Autumn takes the unexpected step of weaving folkloric fantasy through the familiar tropes of barbed wire, tattoos and gas chambers, resulting in a satisfying blend of the romantic and melancholic.

Others are less successful. Volk, by rj krijnen-kemp, succeeds in building an oppressive atmosphere but left me confused and searching for any real meaning in its structure. And Lisa Tuttle’s In the Arcade starts promisingly but feels too hurried, never quite giving its engaging central character enough room to breathe.

The anthology spreads its wings as it progresses, encompassing more liberal interpretations of the central themes. Consequently, we’re treated to the wry bizarro fiction of Rediffusion by Rhys Hughes, who has obviously had a run-in with the TV Licensing Authority at some point in the not too distant past.  Alison Littlewood’s In On the Tide is a powerful, sometimes uncomfortable demonstration of the deep hurt that casual racism and the thoughtless inaction of those in a position to help, can cause. And Simon Kurt Unsworth manages to create one of the most profoundly discomforting stories I’ve ever read, without leaving the confines of a modern British café, in A Place for Feeding, my pick of the bunch.

But what good is raising awareness if it doesn’t lead to action? On this front, Never Again puts its money where its mouth is, with profits going to a trio of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. The book also contains contact details for a diverse number of anti-fascist and human rights groups, allowing readers to take the next step under their own steam.

While a few tales do fall into the trap of letting the story serve the theme, and although I would have enjoyed just a little more variety in tone and setting, Never Again is a thoughtful reflection on one of the world’s most enduring social spectres. Its most affecting stories are those that move beyond the idea of fascism as an external force imposed on us by others, and focus instead on the grubbier aspects of human nature that, when left unchecked, give rise to oppression, fear and hatred.

It has made me realise how lucky I am to live in the time and place that I do. And that, I think, can be counted a success.

‘The Places Between’ by Terry Grimwood

13 09 2010

'The Places Between' by Terry Grimwood, 120pp, Pendragon Press, ISBN: 978-1-906864-2-00, £7.99

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

There are some writers who like to let the horror and suspense build slowly and gradually, emphasising the ordinary vs the phenomenal in the story they’re telling. Not so Terry Grimwood in The Places Between, his latest novella from Pendragon Press – right from the outset, we’re plunged into a world of extraordinary possibilities, dangerous otherwordly creatures from who knows where, exotic characters, blundering headlong flight and an unsuspected truth behind the reality we know. From the very first word the pace is relentless, breathless and breakneck, leaving us little time to ponder just what is happening and with no space to take a much needed breath – our only concern, as it is Rebecca Ann Samuels’, is to survive the mad drive to the forest to bury the body of her husband, Dr. David Samuels, who she has just recently beaten to death with a hammer.

And that’s how it starts, with a rollercoaster ride of a car journey, a dead body bouncing around in the boot and a panic-stricken wife driving through dark country lanes. And from here on in everything gets slippery, both plot- and character-wise, as explanations are presented and then snatched away, as paranoia starts to mount, madness beckons and distorted creatures from myth stride into her life. Rebecca knows she has claw-hammered her husband’s skull in, killing him in a welter of blood, knows she has driven pell-mell at night into the local woods, knows she has dug a shallow grave and then dumped his body in it; that is her version of how things are. Yet, she feels like she’s being watched. Also, that something isn’t quite right, that something wrong is happening and causing reality to shift. A feeling which is emphatically underlined when, just as she confides in her best friend Lynne to the killing of her husband, he walks through the door as if her world hadn’t gone disastrously wrong. So who is this Dr David Samuels? Is he the real one? Did she really kill him? Is he even human?

The beauty of this novella is that it keeps the reader constantly guessing as to what is going on; it’s a series of layered puzzles, enigmas that, even when solved, become nothing more than the most tenuous of mists and fogs. Through the semi-opacity you can sometimes catch glimpses of further secrets and mysteries awaiting, shifting and moving, and also hear the tinkling of laughter beckoning you in deeper. Ultimately, the novella is about that thin veil that exists between possibilities and other places, other times and other existences. How easily the human species ignores those very possibilities, or how we as a species have effectively pushed them away from us, simply because our worldview has been moulded in ways markedly different to that of our ancestors’ perceptions.

It’s also about the equally thin barrier between sanity and madness, at least in the early part of the book; that the reality Rebecca had cocooned herself in is slowly dissolving through the twin agencies of encroaching paranoia and insanity, as well as the physical existence of the police closing in on her. Suffocating claustrophobia is ever-present within the narrative, both when Rebecca’s attempting to deal with her guilt and its aftermath, and when she finally accepts the reality that’s been thrust upon her. Perhaps she has succumbed to madness, after all, and this is either her punishment or, at the very least, that it has skewed her relationship with the world that you and I live in.

It’s a difficult novella to pin down precisely, and not just because of the slipperiness of the narrative and plot. Elements of horror, contemporary fantasy and even a light touch of steampunk are mixed up with borrowings from traditional folklore. Perhaps my only criticism, a minor one at that, is the sheer rapidity and breathlessness of the telling of it. I read it in a single sitting, it being only 112 pages long, but I felt exhausted and drained after putting it down. There were dips in the pace, yes, but even so, I felt like I’d been whisked away by a whirlwind and summarily dumped when it was all over.

However, the ending is perfect – that despite all the horror and the dread, the potential for everything to repeat itself endlessly and uselessly, there are still choices to be made. Choices that very much shape the outcomes of what happens next, or whether that repetition occurs or not. That, perhaps, nothing is ever completely graven into stone, and that we all need to consider our choices carefully; VERY carefully, in fact. Because when all is said and done, unlike David and Rebecca, we very often don’t get second chances in this life.

The Places Between will be launched at FantasyCon 2010 and is available for pre-order at a special price from Pendragon Press.

Women Who Write Science Fiction – Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

9 09 2010

No. 1 in the Women Who Write Science Fiction series by M.E. Staton

Born in 1929 in Colorado, Sheri S. Tepper did not begin to receive much notice or acclaim until she retired from her position as Director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in the early nineteen-eighties.  Before her retirement, she had published some short children’s stories.  Her first full length published works were the True Game YA fantasy series. After her retirement in 1986 she published several science fiction novels. She has also published horror and mysteries under several pseudonyms including E.E. Horlak and B.J. Oliphant. In 1991 she won the Locus magazine Best Fantasy Novel for Beauty.

Tepper is best known for her eco-feminist tales that are often a mix of both fantasy and science fiction, putting her in the socio-political category of SF. In the 1998 Locus Magazine interview entitled Sheri S. Tepper, Speaking To the Universe she said “To me, fantasy has always been the genre of escape, science fiction the genre of ideas. So if you can escape and have a little idea as well, maybe you have some kind of a cross-breed between the two.” This philosophy is borne out by her writing style.

'Grass' by Sheri S Tepper, 544pp, Gollancz SF Masterworks, ISBN: 1-85798-798-5, £8.99

Published in 1989 Grass is the first in the Arbai trilogy. It was both a Hugo and Locus award nominee. The story centres on the character of Marjory Yrarier né Westriding and her family’s settlement on the mysterious planet of Grass. Marjory and her husband Rigo are from Earth. They are ‘Old Catholics’. The society within which they live is ruled by the laws and the religion known as Sanctity, a mix of dogmatic Christianity and science worship.  Earth is crowded and deprived of resources.  Its people live under strict procreation laws and its children are often forced into servitude among the sanctified from which the only escape is a penal colony or service among the Green Brothers upon Grass.

Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy; however, growth has long since been stagnant due to economic depression, the stifling of human expansion by Sanctuary, and a plague that seems to affect every world that man inhabits other than Grass. In the hopes that they can find the scientific answer to plague, Rigo is sent as the Ambassador at the behest of his uncle who is the head of Sanctity.  Along with Marjory and their two teenage children they journey to this little known outpost.

Grass is a planet made almost entirely of grasses; with the exception of a few swamp forests, small copses of trees, and outcropping of rocks there are no other topographical landmarks. The ‘bons’ are the ruling class. In their huge estates known as ‘estancias’ they spend most of their time at the hunt. With native fauna consisting of the Hippae as the mounts, a terrible almost dinosaur like creature, those only known as hounds who are similar to the Hippae but smaller and usually run on all fours, and the foxen who are barely glimpsed by most humans. Though the bons consider themselves the rulers of Grass they produce little from their great estates and are blissfully unaware of the thriving commerce that takes places in ‘Commons’, the large settlement of workers and merchants within which the space port is located.

The bons live in a by-gone era. With little education and almost no knowledge of technological developments their time is spent either at the hunt–which cycles through each estancia on a regular basis–or at political scheming among themselves. They are distrustful of strangers and outsiders. Marjory and Rigo must try to ingratiate themselves to this close-knit family based hierarchy so that they might discover the secrets of plague immunity. Through their own love of riding they try to develop a rapport with the bons. It isn’t until they witness a hunt for themselves are they made painfully aware of the sinister manipulations of the Hippae and their malevolent hold over the bons. When their daughter mysteriously disappears on a hunt Marjory and Rigo are thrown into conflict with the bons, but it is Marjory who seeks to know the darkest secrets of the Hippae.  With aid from the wise Brother Mainoa—a Green Brother archaeologist working on the ruins left by the extinct Arbai–she will ultimately discover how and why the Hippae control the world of Grass.  She will also discover how the Arbai, who once thrived on every world now inhabited by humans, suddenly became extinct.

Grass itself is a beautiful if intimidating place. With its vast prairies of grass in different lengths, widths and colours, the landscape is not an endless wheat field, but an array of sculpted planes that shift and change with the seasons. The people of Grass are both in love with the planet and yet live in constant fear of the dangers that lurk beyond their seeing. Man has conquered many places, but he cannot conquer Grass.

In many ways this story is far more fantasy than science fiction. The descriptions of the people and the places are almost Steampunk. The world of grass is populated by ornate flying machines and air balloons. There is a distinctly Victorian feel to the dress, attitudes and the grand homes of the bons. Science is a thing that is very far away. The Green Brothers—a sect of the Sanctified living on Grass—live in a monastery made entirely of grasses. Beyond God and the harvesting of grass their only occupation is the archaeological pursuits of the Arbai city. Technology is used sparingly. It is not machines that will thwart the machinations of the Hippae but cunning.

Tepper writes an entirely engaging mystery and adventure full of metaphor. On the one hand it is a treatise on human expansion and colonisation, not among the stars but on our own planet. Instead of man dominating the landscape, the landscape dominates man. The animals are no longer the victim, but the persecutor.

It is also a story about classism. The bons look down on pretty much everyone else. They tolerate the ‘commoners’ more than they do Marjory and her family because the Yrariers are intruders, or ‘fragras’ as they are called. However, the bons power is superficial. The commoners have a thriving community and do very well in trade with the rest of human civilization. They are not as ignorant of technology and medicine as the bons are. Though the bons see them only as servants, the commoners are in fact far freer to seek their own happiness than their masters.

There are many threads woven in and out of the story beyond the larger concepts of ecology, human expansion, and classism.  This story is also about evolution both in the natural world and in human civilisation. It is about the place of religion and belief in a society full of scientific advancement,  and a world filled with natural forces beyond the control and remit of religious institutions, or power.

Tepper uses her knowledge and experience – no doubt gained in her many years at Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood – of class struggle, poverty and religion to weave a well-rounded, if sometimes disturbing, view of a possible future. The human society we enter through the characters in the story is dystopian in its restrictive and punitive view of itself.  Yet the beautiful world of Grass is as equally dystopian; though it promises freedom to those who wish to rise from the oppression of Sanctity, they must pay a terrible price for that freedom by sacrificing either their will or their lives to the Hippae.

What comes across most acutely is man’s ability to learn, to share, and to adapt.  Grass is a forbidding place because of the sinister secret it hides, yet men have come and carved from it their own society despite the treachery of nature all around them.  Within the story, Marjory finds herself as a person separate from her husband and her children.  She finds the truth through the darkness and guides others toward a collaborative and sustainable future.

This is not a dark tale of struggle and ultimate self-destruction, or apocalyptic annihilation.  It is not only a tale of warning against the human presumption over the natural world and over each other; it is, in fact, a story of hope.  It is about man’s ability to change, to ascend and become something better.

Tepper is one of the great minds of socio-political science fiction. She is also a consummate story-teller. Her descriptive style is infused with thought-provoking narrative. Her characters are well-rounded and full of conflict and personal struggle. Her story is full of action and is well paced. There is both beauty and horror in every aspect of the universe she has devised.

Though she sometimes takes some unusual liberties with narrative style, it is amazing how she can make certain technical flaws work where lesser authors would fail.  In the family tree of great women writers of Science Fiction, Sheri S. Tepper is undoubtedly a descendant of Mary Shelly.

‘The Girl with No Hands’ by Angela Slatter

5 09 2010

'The Girl with No Hands' by Angela Slatter, 210pp, Ticonderoga Publications, ISBN: 978-0-9806288-7-6 (ltd. hc)/978-0-9806200-8-3 (pbk), $75AU/$25AU

[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]

Angela Slatter writes fairy-tales for adults, but not just any fairy-tales. They are not just ribald retellings, or tales which have been subverted merely for the sake of it. No, Ms Slatter delves much deeper than that, pile-driving her way to the core of the traditional fairy-tale, the type that we know so well courtesy of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. As Jack Dann notes in his introduction (Caressing with Razors), many of these ‘traditional’ tales were themselves subverted to fit a patriarchal agenda, to shape the gender roles so beloved of the society prevailing at the time. Times have changed, but more often than not those traditional tales haven’t, and they are retold countless times preserving the original intent of the ‘retellers’.

In The Girl with No Hands, Slatter hauls some familiar tropes, willingly or not, into the 21st century. Her women, for instance, no longer bow to the patriarchal ‘head of the family’, the type of man who insists on carving the roast every Sunday and presiding at the top of the table. Instead, the females are liberated in every sense; mentally, psychologically and sexually. They know themselves and they know exactly what it is they want. Like the young girl in Red Skein, a riff on Little Red Riding Hood, who not only knows she’s different, but positively revels in that very difference from the others of her village. She isn’t afraid to show those around her exactly who she is, and also why her mother is wrong in attempting to stifle it. Then there’s the woman in The Little Match Girl, stoically unrepentant and in the end deciding her own fate, irrespective of the one handed down to her by male authority.

Power, and freedom, is vested in the hands of women to take control of their own lives, a point wonderfully made in the absolutely beautifully-wrought The Living Book. The female narrator is, quite literally, just that; a living book, with words flashing across her skin for all to read. She is made, ultimately, through nothing more than the pride of a male creator, (a point which can be read on so many different levels), and the denouément comes as the result of absorbing the ethics and ideas of the modern world. The female writer in Words knowingly has both power and freedom as well, a point she forcefully makes when her neighbours and compatriots cause her grief for expressing herself and wilfully defying the conventions and diktat of so-called ‘societal norms’.

Many of the men in Slatter’s stories appear weak, greedy and very flawed. Davide in Bluebeard is one such; he desires Lilly’s mother greatly, but there’s more than a hint he also desires the child’s flesh just as much as her mother’s. The same can be said of Master Justin De Freitas in Dresses, Three, inappropriately desiring above all else his beautiful niece Aurora. Then there’s the greedy, avaricious king looking to refill his impoverished coffers in Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope, a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, as well as the titular character being much nastier and sleazier than the original fairy-tale.

So far (and I put my hand up here willingly), what I have written appears to paint Ms. Slatter in a very heavy-handed feminist light. This is very far from the truth. There are good men here, as well as bad women. In The Girl with No Hands, although the girl’s father is depicted in a less than flattering way, the king is the very opposite, and is the epitome of the kindly, doting husband and father. Even the kingly character in the Rumpelstiltskin retelling becomes a model man once his fortunes have been restored. In Skin, the shortest and quite possibly the finest tale on offer here, the human husband of the Selkie girl is the most loving man that any woman can want. Slatter is also well aware that women are human, and therefore subject to the same species of frailties and evils as all people are. Not all of them are heroines; the mother in Frozen, who leaves her little son to freeze to death outside the bingo hall where she’s enjoying herself, is anything but. Neither is the Second Wife in The Juniper Tree, whose weakness is jealousy and whose subsequent companion is regret.

What I am trying to get at here, is the raw humanity of the panoply of people who live in Slatter’s tales. These are real people, with real emotions and real desires, real strengths and real weaknesses: a microcosm of the real world. Thus, whoever they are and however they behave, we empathise with them fully, both the good and the bad. Slatter has distilled that humanity into beautifully-written and brightly poetic tales, stories that sing out and resonate with our own experiences of the Big, Bad World. In the same fashion that the fairy-tales originally collected and reworked by Andersen and Joseph & Wilhelm Grimm closely mirrored the type of society and world they moved in, so do Slatter’s updated retellings reflect the world as it is now.

Above all, these stories sparkle and shine. It would have been far too easy to produce pastiches of traditional fairy-stories, just in order to put a point across. Slatter wants to redress the imbalances of the older iterations of the tales, and she succeeds in doing so by weaving her words with subtlety and finesse, rather than by being blunt. Just like, in fact, the originals defined the roles of children and gender without being explicit. This is what happens when these primal and powerful archetypes in prose are freed from the constraints of a world-view that no longer holds true. Their true power as purveyors of basic truths cannot be denied. More to the point here, Slatter has done so admirably, achieving a marriage that partners wonder with the prevailing zeitgeist of the early 21st century. On that basis alone, I heartily recommend that this book be sought out and digested – Slatter’s star is surely rising and it would be a shame to miss out on the celestial spectacle.

‘Fungus of the Heart’ by Jeremy C. Shipp

4 09 2010

'Fungus of the Heart' by Jeremy C. Shipp, 158pp, Raw Dog Screaming Press, 978-1-935738-00-8 (hc)/978-1-935738-01-5 (pbk), $24.95/$13.95

[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]

There are times when I can liken writing to the fine art of crafting a wine. There will be some writers who, in order to get their point across, will serve up a cheap commercial variety, with a blunt, unsubtle palette. Its purpose is simply to bludgeon, and isn’t afraid to show its true colours from the off. Then there are those writers who want their words to be appreciated and mulled over, and so consequently craft their stories exactingly and with attention to the minutest detail. Nuances are allowed to reveal themselves slowly, almost shyly. There are layers upon layers of ideas and images, and each time you reread them new ones show themselves. There are times when complexity disguises itself as simplicity, those very qualities concatenating unexpectedly into a sensation that is at once surprising and delightful. These stories are not meant to be read just the once or casually imbibed without regard; they have been lovingly created to be savoured.

So, if the metaphor holds, then Jeremy C. Shipp’s tales are amongst the finest of vintages indeed. Each of the thirteen stories contained within this collection are rich, exotic, and rare nectars, culled from all the far-flung corners of Shipp’s imagination. However, just like those long ago days of the Age of Exploration, as rich and exotic as those corners are, seen from the outside they’re dark and sometimes dimly lit, full of mystery and hidden dangers. The people, places and situations are as familiar to us as daylight, yet there is an edginess and darkness to them that warns us to keep ourselves at arm’s length. And this is the central core of Shipp’s art; that he is able to twist and subvert the stuff of the everyday and make it somehow menacing and threatening, whilst simultaneously emphasising just how extraordinary and wonderful it all is.

Superficially, like the best of the vintner’s artistry, the tales are delicately and minimally spun, slippery, elusive and fragile, brightly absurdist and dizzyingly surreal, transporting us to other places and other times. Don’t let that fool you, however, because running underneath the seeming fragility are hints of darkly delicious and sinister flavours of terror and malignancy. These tales are exactly like the delicately scented wine that, upon tasting, proves to have a surprisingly strong backbone and can more than hold its own.

Here, the fragility extends to the people who inhabit the tales; the fragility of relationships, how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we relate to each other, as well as the brittleness of ideas. Like the ‘war’ hero in The Escapist, where the idea of the heroic man (or Gnome, in this case) as a symbol of hope in a time of war is easily shattered by the onslaught of the realities of conflict, and the atrocities it inspires in otherwise ordinary folk. Or, perhaps, the eggshell thin psyche of the father in Kingdom Come, a man whose reality breaks when the truth intrudes on his seemingly idyllic life. Or how the ‘ghost’ in Haunted House is just as fragile and fractured as the girl he’s trying to help: in bringing suppressed memories to the surface it triggers some of his own. Or maybe we should ponder on the fragility of both love and memories, as exemplified in the eponymous story, Fungus of the Heart. Human frailty is found even in the midst of strength and purpose, and love lurks where it is least expected. And sometimes relationships, once strong, shatter and change irrevocably through simple words, as in the beautifully and strangely simplistic Just Another Vampire Story.

The strongest element of Shipp’s spare and minimalist writing is its deep humanity. Look beyond the strangeness and the fantastic, and you’ll find the entire panoply of human experience and emotion arrayed before you. Despite the weirdness you’ll meet people very much like the ones you know or have met. However, it’s those very elements of the outré and magical that draws the reader in, and enables them to hone in on the solid heart of the matter. They may delight, infuriate, frustrate and entertain, but they’re no mere baubles; look deeper and you’ll discover that here are parables for today. That, my friends, is the art and craft of the verbal vintner that is Jeremy C. Shipp.

‘The Reapers Are the Angels’ by Alden Bell

3 09 2010

'The Reapers Are The Angels' by Alden Bell, 304 pp, Tor, ISBN: 9780230748644

[Reviewed by Sharon Ring]

The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell is a novel aimed, in part, at the young adult market. Why, then, am I reviewing a book which would normally pass under my radar? Two reasons.

The first is zombies. Yes, I know they’re everywhere on screen and in movies right now. I love them – I can’t help it. Whether they are the slow, shuffling variety most favoured in literature and cinema or the fast-moving rabid zombies of movies like 28 Days Later, zombies are the wreakers of havoc. And where havoc is wreaked, I’ll be there: watching the movies and reading the books.

The second reason is post-apocalyptic, dystopian fiction. This sort of fiction is utterly fascinating. It may be dealing with the apocalyptic event itself and its immediate aftermath: it may leap into the future to the long-term consequences and mankind’s struggle to restructure some semblance of civilisation. No matter where it begins and in which direction it travels, fiction which describes a broken society and the people left behind excels at putting the human species under a microscope and showing us the very best and worst of ourselves.

The novel begins with a miracle. Temple, the protagonist, is living on a small island just off the coast of Florida. Its only building, a lighthouse, has been deserted for years and Temple is now leading a solitary existence. She has a simple routine, an order to her life which escape to the island has allowed her in recent weeks. The miracle happens at night, under a bright moon, when she’s down by the shore. Standing ankle-deep in the water, she spies tiny iridescent fish swimming around her feet. The bright moon and beautifully coloured fish create a moment of sheer magic for Temple who is, essentially, still very much a child despite being halfway through her teens.

The world changed and zombies, or meatskins, as they are called in this story came into existence before Temple was born and some years before the narrative begins. This is the only world she has ever known and, after bearing witness to a child-like Temple, someone who can take pure delight in the beauty of nature, we are drawn back into that world and begin to learn how Temple has managed to survive on her own for the past few years.

What follows is part road-trip, part coming-of-age tale and part examination of the human condition as seen through Temple’s eyes.

Three thoughts in particular arose from my reading of this book, three threads which not only hold the narrative together but also serve to make it stand out from the crowd in recent novels of a similar nature.

The first of these threads is the difference in how Temple views herself and how the reader actually sees her. Temple is tough, unforgiving and riddled with guilt. Glimpses into her past offer clues as to how this guilt came to form such an overriding part of her psychological make-up. She shuns the larger groups of survivors yet at the same time yearns for their company, never quite grasping what it means to belong and always assuming she’ll have to move on sooner or later. What the reader sees is a young woman who, denied a real childhood, has carved out an identity which remains largely impenetrable to anyone she encounters. She has witnessed, and been a victim of, sights and events to which no child should ever be subjected. Where Temple assigns herself guilt and shame, the reader can see all that Temple has endured and all she has had to do to survive: the shame and guilt are, perversely, a means of self-protection.

The second and third of these threads are more tightly connected. Throughout the novel Temple meets with many other survivors, sometimes as individuals, other times encountering larger communities. To me, each of these encounters have a double purpose. They are both a reflection of how the human race will constantly strive to form a coherent society, no matter how warped that society may seem from the outside looking in: they are also a strong reflection of all the potential carried by Temple herself, for both good and bad.

Two relationships in particular are forged and these serve as especially strong mirror images of Temple. In one large community, Temple is forced to kill a young man, Abraham, who attempts to rape her. She flees the community, pursued by Abraham’s older brother, Moses. He agrees with her during one encounter that she had to do what was necessary and that his brother had been a bad person but he is also honour-bound to avenge Abraham’s death, even if that means oblivion for himself. His pursuit is relentless, as is Temple’s desire to survive and it takes the entire novel for the two characters to eventually resolve the feud, one way or another. The other relationship is with a young man who Temple finds in a deserted town as he’s trying to carry his deceased grandmother away from the meatskins. He’s a mute and, although it’s never made completely clear to the reader, quite possibly autistic. Temple’s initial indecision about bringing him along on her journey crops up again throughout the narrative as she is often thinking about ways to dump him along the road. Her sense of responsibility keeps kicking in, however: she is as honour-bound as Moses to do what she feels is the right thing.

The Reapers Are The Angels is an exceptionally well-crafted novel. It has depth and beauty which is no easy task to convey in a zombie novel. Alden Bell has much to be proud of with this book.