Monday, June 30, 2014

An honest man in Parliament

Paul Cornell's follow up to London Falling is one wild ride with a few surprises I wasn't expecting.

The Severed Streets brings us back to Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross (and in a more prominent role, their direct supervisor, Lofthouse), the detectives who have the "Sight", the ability to see quite a bit more of London than the average person. Things like demons, hell, spectres... you know, the invisible things trying very hard to kill everyone. At the end of the last book, we found out bits and pieces of an organization not there anymore that helped police the supernatural world, and were lead to assume that the fab 4 here (and Lofthouse) might become that group again.

Which doesn't exactly happen in this book. We do get some new concepts (the last book focused on "Remembering", this book focuses on "Ostentation"), we also get what I thought was a cameo by Neil Gaimen, who instead turns into a fairly major supporting player. (We'll come back to that here in a minute.)

The books opens with the British equivalent of Anonymous here in the States (in here, Toffs... I'm kind of wondering about the Toff masks, since Anonymous here wear Guy Fawkes masks. I'm curious what the Brits would wear... Nixon masks?) protesting outside Parliament While a Liberal Democrat MP tries to get through the crowd. We get a bit of his thoughts on compromise with the Tories (I had to look up a bit about them, since Tory here in the states usually connects with the Loyalists who didn't support the Revolutionaries), and then our PM encounters a Toff who somehow manages to get in the car without opening the door. Said Toff proceeds to butcher the MP in the backseat while the chauffeur sees about what Rod saw in the original Nightmare on Elm Street when Tina dies. (Which is to say, seeing the murder, but not the entity doing the murdering.)

This of course leads to Quill's team getting involved, which is made more difficult by rising austerity measures and cuts to public funding starting talk of a Police strike.

We find out Lofthouse knows some of what's going on, but doesn't have the Sight. She does, however, have a key charm on her bracelet that's implied to have something to do with her knowledge.

Quill's team's investigation takes them to a gathering of the Sighted, which reveals a split among interested parties. Seems two young bucks on the block (The Keel Brothers) are working on opening up the occult community to more people, and getting rid of the barter system in favor of money. (IE buying an object for Pounds sterling instead of a pint of blood.) It's here that Gaimen makes his first appearance, talking about how he was given the Sight by a fan.

Gaimen appears a few more times, explaining Ostentation (the idea that things have their own momentum... like protests getting bigger because of one or two Twitter posts entering the collective unconscious of the Toffs) and pointing out how his sight lead to the huge difference between the original BBC Neverwhere and the book that followed. (And if you haven't read the book, go do so now. I'll wait.)

Anyway, as the killer strikes a few more times, it gets wrapped into Jack the Ripper mythology (Without spoiling anything, Cornell does reveal his pick for the real Ripper in later chapters.), only this ripper strikes at rich white men.

The last third of the book plays around with time to a very large degree, as chapters go back a day or two at a time, revealing bits of story that need unveiled slowly.

We get much character development in here, from Ross (the only female on the team trying to find a way to free her father from Hell), to Costain (trying to find a way to avoid Hell), to Sefton (gay, and dating a nice, normal man), to Quill (who's wife's newspaper gets bought by a Rupert Murdoch type magnate. Or Randolph Hurst. More Murdoch though. His back story is very similar.) We also get a new character, The Rat King, who finds things lost in London who takes a bit of a shine to Sefton.

A few notes here: This setting is kind of like Lovecraft writing Narnia books. You can tell Gaimen influenced the writing here, and a note at the end does acknowledge Gaimen's approval. (Which is good, since Gaimen the character is kind of shady in a few spots.) Also, even though The Smiling Man (a shadowy antagonist from the first book) is in here, he's even more in the background in this one. He's quite a bit like the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X Files

Really good read, and much more cohesive than the last book.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

He should have called it Reservoir Wizards....

I'm a bit behind on posting this, but it's been a very busy week.

So, Skin Game, Jim Butcher's newest installment in the ever expanding Dresden Files, has our wizard narrator and Winter Knight, Harry Dresden, working with old foe Nicodemus.

Due to Mab owing Nic a favor, Harry gets dragged into the heist from Hell. Almost literally. The book jacket gives away as much, Nicodemus needs Dresden's help to spring the Holy Grail from Hades' vault. (Yes, THAT Hades. Whose brief appearance is still better than Disney's portrayal. And includes yet another take on Persephone.)

But, before any of that happens, we have almost 2/3 of the book just preparing for the heist. Given that the team is made of several amoral to downright evil people, there gets to be much moral ambiguity in people's actions here. Which I assume helps bring out Harry's struggle with Winter's Mantle, but really just made me wish they'd hurry up and break into the vault. (I mean, it's good reading, but many of the conversations during downtime seem to be Waldo Butters and Karrin Murphy discussing whether or not Harry is the same man he was prior to dying and coming back. That and a few dream sequences.

But once they actually get to the vault, the pace picks up and the entire thing goes off the rails in ways that only Butcher seems to be able to pull off. (Simon R. Green does similar, but he starts off the rails and the question becomes where is this train going to land?)

Like any good heist, there are crosses and double crosses, and not everyone is who they seem to be. There's a large twist towards the end which pretty much comes off as Deus ex Machinae, but even that doesn't really make it a bad read. Like most of the Dresden Files, it's not exactly undying prose, but Butcher spins a good and entertaining yarn that makes for a good few days of reading.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

God save the King of N'awlins

Zoë Norris has issues. Most of which stem from the events of her debut in Mur Lafferty's  The Shambling Guide to New York City (reviewed here). Her boyfriend is slowly becoming a zombie, her best friend is missing, she can't get a grip on her new powers...oh, and she has to take the new ghost train overnight from New York to New Orleans to get started on the next Shambling Guide, this one focused on New Orleans, natch.

The trip gets off to a rocky start, mainly because non-human coterie members are the only ones allowed in first class. Zoëtists, thralls, and other humans (coterie or not), have to sit in coach. And unlike the non-humans, the club car only serves a few varieties of soft drinks. Her subordinates therefore are sitting in first class, while Zoë and Arthur (the boyfriend, along for the ride because his sister destroyed his supply of "prevent me from becoming a zombie" herbs thinking they were marijuana, and therefore he needs to go find his supplier's supplier, the Doyenne) are sitting in less wonderful seats. Arthur, of course, takes Benedryll and sleeps through Reynard (another city talker) making strange conversation with Zoë, a little girls zoëtist playing with her golems, and a ghost train robbery attempted by real ghosts. Real ghosts who died during a corporate training event that left them dressed as cowboys for all eternity.  Since ghosts can be corporeal on ghost trains, this gets problematic when the guns start going off.

Things keep escalating in the Big Easy. At least two characters have connection to Freyja, who went missing in NOLA a few centuries ago. Japanese demons attack the party. A god of disease shows up. (He's actually one of the best new characters in this.)

Really, this one is an improvement over the first one, which got bogged down in the climatic battle of New York. (It was till a heck of a lot of fun.) The characters have some room to grow, a larger plot is being hinted at, geekery is on display (Zoë plays in a D&D 3.5 campaign based out of North Carolina via Skype), and best of all, Zoë so far has managed to escape from some of the worst romantic tropes that tend to infect Urban Fantasy.

I really look forward to the next one, hinted around as being London.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

There's a plot in there somewhere...

I have yet to figure out why the blurb on the library suggestion list drew me to Simon Morden's Arcanum. It's alternate history, it involves Middle Ages Germanic peoples, and has bunches of Norse mythology at its core.

The setting itself is interesting. We're in Carinthia, a southern German country backed up on the Alps in the south, Bavaria to the North and East, and the protectorate of Wien North and West of Carinthia. The Romans never converted to Christianity (For all practical purposes, Christianity never happened. The author notes that to keep it fair, in this time line, a prophet never appeared in Arabia in the 900's to found another Abrahamic faith. Given a bit of discussion is glossed over about control of Jerusalem between the Arabs, the Byzantines, and Rome.... I think that would be a much more interesting book to read. Without religuion fueling it, why fight over the city?), and therefore our German speaking characters are worshiping Wotan, Thor, and the rest of the Norse pantheon. Carinthians rely on the Hexmasters of the White Tower to destroy enemies with magic. Therefore, taxes get split 50/50 between the Hexmasters and the Throne. Jews exist in this timeline, and start out in the book living in Jews Alley in the principle town of Juvavum.

The book starts with one Peter Büber, Huntmaster for Prince Gerhard V, checking the passes to see if the snow has melted enough to allow overland trade. While it's close, and should be open by the time he returns to Juvavum, he still has to fight off giants that came down to attack a trade delegation from the Doge of Venizia. Thus begins our tale, with giants. Upon his return to Juvavum, Büber meets with apprentice librarian Frederik Thaler, mainly to drop off a contraband magic item. Namely, a unicorn horn. Thaler has his own concerns, namely a missing book of Euclid's that one Aaron Morgenstern bought, but did not receive. Morgenstern's daughter, Sophia, has her own role to play in all of this, but that all comes later in the book.

See, we find out a few chapters in that Ragnarok has evidently occurred, because magic no longer works. There are exactly 2 folks who seem to retain magic, one by sacrificing children and the other through pure talent. None of which save Prince Gerhard from death fighting off Teutons, who's glorious leader he had pressed. Which leaves his 13 year old son, Felix on the throne, and being advised by a Machiavellian Swordmaster from Milano named Allegretti.

Every section of the book is a war, as folks try to figure out how to do things without magic and prevent invasion from other sources. As magic goes away, the Dwarfs grow into human size and the giants shrink.

And no where in here is a cohesive plot. Yeah, we get scenes of various conflicts, but it never really gels into a compelling narrative. It's a bit like an episode of ER where the ER shuts down due to plague quarentine and the staff outside continue surgery in the parking lot. While related, there's no real compelling cohesion among the elements.

While the characters are mostly likeable and well fleshed out, it's hard to find an emotional attachment with any of them, particularly since the narrative keeps switching between them every chapter.

At 735 pages, it's also a bit bloated. It's a good read that will hold attention, but the flavors never mesh well, leaving the palette craving something more...