Book Review – Warlock Holmes: A Study In Brimstone

Warlock Holmes: A Study In Brimstone cover

Written by GS Denning
Published by Titan Books

The extent to which you will enjoy this book depends on how much you smile when you read the title. I’m amazed nobody has come up with that play on words before – I’m genuinely jealous. The opening lines of the book set the tone:
“The dominion of man is drawing to a close. The age of demons is upon us. This, I recognize, is largely my fault and let me take just a moment to apologize for my part in it. I am very sorry I doomed the world. Really, just … absolutely, horribly sorry.”

The narrator is Dr John Watson – a doctor retired from the army after being shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan – who is introduced to Warlock Holmes, repeatedly striking a corpse with a cricket bat in the morgue of St Bart’s Hospital, as someone in need of a man for shared lodgings. Together they move into 221B Baker Street, with their landlady Mrs Hudson. Despite the similarities, things are different – Warlock is no master of deduction (that role belongs to Watson, in keeping with the real-life inspiration for Doyle in the original Sherlock Holmes stories); Lestrade is Detective Inspector Vladislav Lestrade, a nihilist vampire; the other detective inspector friendly to Warlock is Torg Grogsson, an ogre; and Warlock has the spirit of Moriarty trapped in his head. Warlock acts as a consulting detective for Lestrade and Grogsson, not for fame or money, but to keep the supernatural hidden from the public so that his own peculiar abilities with the supernatural are never revealed.

Continue Reading

Book Review – Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim

Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim cover

Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Kleid

I remember the excitement back in 2000 around the arrival of Powers the comic book, co-created by Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming – Bendis was a rising star of indie crime comics and the book seemed to be a perfect fusion of his noir approach and superheroes. Fortunately, the excitement was justified – Powers was a great comic book from the start, about detectives in the Chicago Powers Homicide Division, a book filled with sex and violence and swearing and death, but also infused with love for the genres and a serious sensibility in Oeming’s moody art. Powers also introduced two great lead characters: Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim. Walker’s long history was examined in the comic book in the infamous ‘monkey-sex’ issues (and I love that a comic book with shagging monkeys has been adapted into a live-action television series, even if we’ll never see that incident on the show …), but Pilgrim’s history was not. Until now.

Continue Reading

Book Review: All The Birds In The Sky

All The Birds In The Sky book cover

All The Birds In The Sky
Written by Charlie Jane Anders

The near future. Patricia is 6 years old when she helps a sparrow with a wounded wing, who tells her to take her to the Parliament of Birds in the nearby forest to fix him. The sparrow tells her she’s a witch, if she can talk to animals. Laurence (definitely not Larry) is a smart 6-year-old kid who doesn’t like doing stuff that Gets Him Out Of The House, who makes a Two-Second Time Machine from schematics he finds on the internet. He decides to go to Boston to watch the launch of a prototype rocket, which he doesn’t see but he does meet all the engineers who made it because of the Two-Second Time Machine he made.

Continue Reading

Book Review: An Ancient Peace

An Ancient Peace

An Ancient Peace (A Peacekeeper Novel)
Written by Tanya Huff
Published by Titan Books

I haven’t read the five-book Confederation series that follows the exploits of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr in a universe-spanning alien war (although I have read The Enchantment Emporium by Huff, which I enjoyed). The only problem with reading this enjoyable, well-written, captivating book is that it takes place after the events of that series, so I know what happens in those previous books and so would lose some of the tension in what must have been equally entertaining books.

In An Ancient Peace, we meet Torin and her team when they are on a freelance mission for the Justice Department, taking down a dangerous group of radicals (Human’s First – the erroneous apostrophe is the source of much derision) on a space station. Her team is made up of Werst (a male Krai ex-Marine), Ressk (a male Harask), Binti (a female human ex-Marine), Alamber (a male di’Taykan) and Craig (a male human and Kerr’s lover). I presume that this collection of characters has accreted over the course of the previous series, because they are clearly defined, three-dimensional and an interesting bunch of people.

After the successful completion of the mission, the team is called into a meeting – which turns out to be with military intelligence Chief of Staff, with a secret mission. The H’san are the eldest of the Elder Races, and were originally very violent. After a long and destructive war, they achieved enlightenment, pledged themselves to peace, founded the Confederation and turned their destroyed planet into a memorial/cemetery. Recently, H’san grave goods have been purchased by collectors; however, H’san do not sell grave goods. These items were looted, which indicates that someone is looking for the weapons buried by the H’san on that planet. If they found them, it would be evidence for Parliament that the Younger Races are not ready for civilised society and should be restricted to their own sectors of space. However, the military cannot be involved with this because if it leaks, it would lead to an investigation, and they can’t do it publicly because it would require a battle plan being filed with Parliament and all files made available to the press. The military needs deniability and a team that works freelance contracts for the Justice Department as a cover. The mission: find the H’san planet, the coordinates of which are secret, stop grave robbers from discovering terrifyingly powerful ancient weapons, and prevent a potential civil war …

Huff does a very good job of condensing the back story of the previous books, which involves Elder Races, the Confederation’s war with the Primacy, a sentient, polynumerous molecular polyhydroxide alcoholydes – hive-mind organic plastic – manipulating the Confederation and the Primacy into a centuries-long war, and the fact that Torin had seen a lot during her time in the Marines and had been pivotal in many famous events (as detailed in the previous books) and was responsible for the end of the war. This is tough to do at the best of times, let alone trying to set up a new spin-off series and making it sound natural. The ease with which she pulls it off means that you know you’re in the hands of an accomplished storyteller.

Another aspect of the book are the interesting details that Huff fills the book with regarding the various alien species and worlds she has created for the sake of her story. The di’Taykans have pheromones that work on all mammals and non-mammals more powerfully than on other di’Taykans, so they believe that this means that the universe wants them to have sex with everything (they are a tactile species who need touch as a basic part of their physiology); therefore, Parliament created maskers for the di’Taykans so that the rest of the universe would only do it by consent. Other Races include Trun, Niln, Rakva, Mictok, Ciptran, and Katrien, and Huff distinguishes each so that they stand out from each other. She does this in various ways to demonstrate the alien nature, such as in narrative/dialogue when referring to male and female Trun – Zi/Zir for he/she and his/her. There are insectoid aliens, water planets, arboreal planets, prehensile tails, hair that reflects the emotional state of the alien species, nasal ridges instead of noses, aliens who talk in a present participle tense (odd reading that first time) – these details make for a rich reading experience and a fully realised universe.

Huff is very good with characters and dialogue. In The Enchantment Emporium, she was able to use pop culture references for her humour, something she doesn’t have in this future sci-fi story; there isn’t much futurism to the dialogue, although there are occasional deliberate references to ‘oldEarth’ idioms picked up from a former platoon member, but she can still turn a line that will make me laugh out loud (“You can assume they fart rainbows, I don’t care.”) and this is a boon in a book that is definitely based around the characters. Torin Kerr is not the only interesting character, but she is the lead and deservedly so: she is a female character who can handle herself, but that is only a small aspect; she is driven, focused, detail-orientated, very capable at her job (as a Gunnery Sergeant, her task was to follow orders but also to get her marines back home again, something she maintains as an ex-Marine) but still haunted by the deaths she couldn’t prevent – she has to see a military psychiatrist as part of her continuing work with the Justice Department. She is also concerned with moral choices and the moral choices of others, which makes for conflict when she is used to acting on those decisions with guns and the authority of the military behind her. It’s easy to see why Huff has continued to write Torin’s adventures, and I hope this is the first in many Peacekeeper novels.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
Continue Reading

Book Review – Harry Potter: The Character Vault

Harry Potter: The Character Vault

Written by Jody Revenson
Published by Titan Books
RRP £24.99

If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, there is no such thing as enough information about the world of Harry Potter. This book is made with love and care for fans of JK Rowling’s creation, and it is a treasure trove of beautiful photographs, concept art and lovely details from behind the scenes that infuse appreciation for the amount of hard work that went into the making of the films. You need to have this handsome book on your shelves if you are into Harry Potter (which includes me, as can be evidenced by the Harry Potter tag on this blog).

Continue Reading

Book Review: Hallow Point

Hallow Point

Hallow Point
Written by Ari Marmell
Published by Titan Books

I really enjoyed Hot Lead, Cold Iron, the first Mick Oberon job, so I was delighted to get a chance to review the second book, Hallow Point. Oberon is a private detective in 1930s Chicago, except that he’s not a normal bloke: he’s a former prince of the Fae (the aes sidhe) who left it all behind and came to live in our world; the presence of so much iron is unpleasant, but he puts up with it because he doesn’t want to be back in Elphame, in the Otherworld Chicago that exists there. He has his wand, with which he can steal luck and transfer pain, the Fae ability to enforce his will on humans, and little need for sleep or food (except for warm milk, with the occasional bit of cream as a treat).

We meet him this time round on a missing person case, when his cop buddy Pete comes to him for help (Oberon helps out Pete since Pete was bitten by a werewolf, so has to stay locked up for three nights every month): there’s been a break-in at the Fields Museum of Natural History. However, nothing seems to be have been stolen; instead, something seems to have been left hidden among the other artefacts. When they arrive, at a scene that was a simple break through a window with no alarms triggered), they discover that the new artefact has been stolen, and then Oberon comes into contact with Herne the Hunter, an encounter that leaves him the worse for wear and warned off the search for this new artefact, an Iron Age spear of some sort.

When Oberon returns home, he receives a visit from an officer of the Seelie Court (the court that rules Elphame), asking him the whereabouts of the missing item, indicating how important it is. Then he receives a visit from a woman, Ramona Webb, who is having troubles with her ex-boyfriend and a cousin and money they owed to various bad people. She needs Oberon to find them and to protect her. Also in the mix is a strange southern lawman who is following Oberon, someone who can make Oberon feel like prey, overcoming his own emotions (something very difficult to do to a Fae). Then things get even worse, as Oberon is forcibly invited to a meeting with the Unseelie boss, Lady Eudeagh, who controls the Fae equivalent of the mob – she uses the marker acquired from Oberon in the previous book to get Oberon to bring her the spear (bring, not just find it), leaving him with a bunch of nasty redcaps and a boggart to keep tabs on him back in our world. Things do not look good for Oberon, but he’s a private detective – it goes with the territory.

Oberon has to run down leads (a dvergr fence called Hruotlundt, a low-level leprechaun called Franky Four-Leaf, the gangster family he helped out in the last book) while avoiding the other supernatural creatures in town because of the spear (bagienniks, River Fae from Eastern Europe; a rusulka, a river nymph/siren/mermaid creature; the southern lawman who is part of the Wild Hunt, which destroys areas during its hunt; a bean sidhe, a banshee who is an official emissary of the Seelie Court disguised as a high-ranking federal agent) and with Ramona in tow because it’s the only way she’ll let him protect her. All because he can’t renege on his marker: if he did, he would lose all Fae protection for a year and a day, meaning anyone could do anything to him with no legal repercussions, plus losing all his mystical ability with luck and becoming a beacon to bad guys who want to destroy a vulnerable aes sidhe. When he discovers that item he’s looking for is a powerful spear that was one of the four hallows of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the original lords of the Fae, and whoever gets it will be unbeatable in battle, he finds himself in a real pickle …

Marmell has found a good seam to mine in a Fae private detective set in the recent past: it allows for the full realm of folklore characters to inhabit the book, which contrasts with the not completely mundane world of Chicago in the 1930s. The mix works well, as does the comparison between the legal and criminal enterprises on both sides of the divide. Plus, there are mythical creatures. Marmell leans into the hard-boiled narration, making the prose style sound like someone from the era: ‘She stole into my office like a snake in a fox fur-and-human stole, dress of forest green rustling and sliding as if it couldn’t wait to be shed … I always did wanna start a sentence like that.’; ‘Can I tell you, again, how swell it is not to sweat?’; ‘Well, you remember my place well enough, year?’. And he also makes a point of saying that the missing person case is completely incidental to the main story and that you shouldn’t expect it to tie into events, which is very unlike the traditional pattern of private eye stories. The narration also deliberately hides elements so that the reveal can be more dramatic – which sounds about right for the Fae.

The story has a sufficiently dramatic and exciting resolution, with twists and turns you would hope for, and it also sets up events for future books, providing plenty of scope for the interaction of all manner of creatures in both realms. Marmell has written another enjoyable read – sharp, enjoyable, intriguing, colourful – and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Continue Reading

Book Review: Dark Detectives

Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries

Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries
Edited by Stephen Jones
Illustrations by Randy Broecker
Published by Titan Books

I’m a big fan of the investigator of the supernatural element – see my previous blog posts about Mike Carey’s Felix Castor and Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt – so I was delighted to get the chance to read an anthology dedicated to the concept. In the extensive introduction by editor Stephen Jones, in which he details the origins of the dark detectives (from Dupin and Holmes through the psychic and occult investigators, including the wonderfully named Dr Silence), he doesn’t mention Castor or Pitt but he does list a bunch of stories that I now want to read, among them Simon Ark, a 2,000-year-old Coptic priest cursed at Christ’s crucifixion, and Lord Darcy, Investigator-in-Chief for the court of good King John and assisted by a forensic sorcerer. Fortunately, he does mention John Constantine, so I can forgive him. Jones also gets bonus points for including a primer on each character for every short story in the book, so you can jump in and not feel lost.

The stories in this anthology are presented in a loose chronology, so Jones advises not dipping in and out, especially with Kim Newman’s multi-part story written especially for the anthology, Seven Stars, which weaves in and out of the other stories at the appropriate era. The prologue starts in Egypt, with a real historical figure called Pai-net’em during the 10 biblical curses and the Jewel of the Seven Stars (a novel by Bram Stoker, from which Newman has borrowed bits, as he did more famously in the excellent Anno Dracula with Stoker’s more famous novel). Each successive story develops the narrative at different junctures in time and with a different character as the focus. The Mummy’s Heart is the next part of the story, starring Charles Beauregard (also in Anno Dracula, but this is a different timeline), a gentleman who works for the Diogenes Club; he is in the British Museum because of the Jewel of the Seven Stars, discovered in the Valley of the Sorcerer in the mummy of Pai-net’em the previous year but nine men have died since in connection with it. Now it has been stolen, and Mycroft Holmes has asked Beauregard to investigate. The next part of the story is The Magician and the Matinee Idol, a tale of Edwin Winthrop and Catriona Kaye (the former the lead character in The Bloody Red Baron), who have been employed by Beauregard to ensure that all traces of the Diogenes Club are expunged from the ‘photoplay’ of Sherlock Holmes being filmed in London and starring John Barrymore, by acting as ‘advisers’ to the film company. (Mycroft wasn’t happy that Watson had mentioned the club in print) In The Trouble with Barrymore, the third episode, our narrator is a nameless private investigator who is visited by Peter Lorre with a case involving John Barrymore’s corpse, which is now missing; others are after it, including Edwin Thorp and Geneviève Dieudonné, in a tale involving a prophecy of Nostradamus, zombies and a ritual involving ‘the White House’ (the reveal of the last made me laugh out loud in the middle of a commuter train). The fourth episode is The Biafran Bank Manager, a Richard Jeperson story – he’s a tall, thin, bony amnesiac in multi-coloured outfits who investigates the strange and the bizarre for the Diogenes Club. Jeperson is called to the West Country to see Edwin Winthrop, who is in trouble (Jeperson had been an assistant to Winthrop, who has retired from the ruling cabal), called by Catriona Kaye. There is a black human shape moving under the carpets of their home, and it is related to Winthrop’s use of the jewel to stop the War (the occult war that had used the Second World War for its own purpose) and the ramifications of that decision. Episode five is Mimsy, a Sally Rhodes story, who is a private investigator of darker worlds, tasked with finding Mimsy, who took the Seven Stars with her when she disappeared. The Dog Story is the sixth part, starring Jerome Rhodes, son of Sally, and set in 2026 (with some very interesting futuristic language – monad, stay-at-homes, meat-lives, gunmints, piedater), with Jerome being asked to find a ghost, specifically the terrorist-corps called Seven Stars, while dogs go crazy and attacking owners leading to an official cull … The final part is The Duel of Seven Stars, starring Geneviève Dieudonné (with a different surname to the equivalent in Newman’s Anno Dracula series), where the world has changed (The Plagues, The Wars, The Collapse, the boiling point of water is now 78°C, monsters coming from the sea, the end of electronic communications), and can only be saved by seven lives twice-lost …

The other short stories vary in length and style. Our Lady of Death by Peter Tremayne is about Sister Fidelma, the youngest daughter of the King of Ireland and a member of the Celtic church, who stops at a hostel due to a severe snowstorm where the innkeepers believe they are haunted by the ghost of the woman’s first husband. The story is easy to work out, and there are lots of Gaelic words and phrases that are then immediately explained, which is an odd way to imbue Irish language in the prose, and Fidelma is not an overly warm character, but it is an interesting tale.

The Horse of the Invisible by William Hope Hodgson is a Carnacki story about his visit to the Hisgins family in East Lancashire and the family legend where, if the first child is a girl, she would be haunted by a horse during her courtship. It’s a strange narrative, which tries to have its cake and eat it when it comes to the question of the supernatural, so comes off as a riff on Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Adventure of the Crawley Horror by Basil Cooper is a story of Solar Pons, the second most famous consulting detective in London, based in 7B Praed Street, with his chronicler Dr Lynden Parker and landlady Mrs Johnson; he has run-ins with Inspector Jamison of the Yard and with his brother Bancroft. If this sounds strangely familiar, then it’s because the Pons stories were written by August Derleth, a student at the University of Wisconsin who asked Conan Doyle if he could write Sherlock Holmes stories; Conan Doyle said no, so Derleth created his own pastiche, writing 68 stories in the process. In the late 1970s, Cooper was asked to revise the books, spending two years to fix the >3,000 factual and procedural errors, before being invited to continue Pons’ exploits. This means that the narrative follows the established formula – a letter, a visit to the detective, telling the reason for the visit (in this case, a ‘corpse figure’ coming from the Marsh around the rich miser’s manor, burning with a bluish fire). There’s a niece, a doctor, a drunk, a guest, a family secret, and a resolution – Copper writes in a clear, detailed style reminiscent of Conan Doyle but with humour as well.

Rouse Him Not by Manly Wade Wellman (a great name) is a John Thunstone story in which he investigates a circle in a yard with no grass in the back of beyond, linked to the Crett Marrowby sorcery case 200 years previously. Thunstone is an interesting character, with a silver blade forged a millennia ago by St Dunstan, and an old-fashioned chap.

De Marigny’s Clock by Brian Lumley is a Titus Crow story, who worked in the War Department to stop the occult forces of Hitler and then became an acknowledged expert on magics, antiquities, mythology and many other areas. This story sees his home invaded by two burglars in the middle of the night, who get more than they bargained for …

Someone Is Dead by R Chetwynt Hayes is a story about Francis St Clare and Frederica Masters – the world’s only practising psychic detective and his assistant, a gifted materialistic medium – in their first story, from 1974, a mix of horror and humour as they are called to a haunted home that was built on the site of a 17th-century prison …

Vultures Gather by Brian Mooney is a Reuben Calloway and Roderick Shea story – the former worked in the British Intelligence Corps and now investigates the occult while a university lecturer; the latter is an Irish priest with some psychic gifts. Calloway relates the time he visited the Yorkshire mansion on millionaire Sir Isaac Price, who asked Calloway for help – when Price dies, Calloway should investigate because Price believes he will be murdered. Twenty years later, Calloway and Shea return to the mansion after Price calls them; the next night, Price dies. Calloway doesn’t believe it was suicide …

Lost Souls by Clive Barker is a very short story about Harry Amour, New York private investigator of the occult who fights a war against demons, set at Christmas and involving a search for a demon, a pregnant woman and a theological assassin called Davrieux Marchetti.

The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence by Jay Russell is a Marty Burns story – Burns was a child actor in a biggish sitcom before becoming a minor heartthrob teen-idol, but bad films led to him becoming a low-rent private investigator in LA. It’s great opening line sums up the fun tale: ‘It started with a friendly game of strip Ouija; it ended in massive head trauma, a moderately broken heart and the pink taffeta dress that John Wayne was buried in.’

Bay Wolf by Neil Gaiman is a prose poem with a pun title (the main character is Laurence Talbot – the name of Lon Chaney’s Wolfman in the films – a lycanthropic PI) about a mythological monster, a creature calling itself Grand Al, eating beautiful young people on the beach in LA …

As with any anthology, this book is a mix of quality, style and content, but this is a very enjoyable collection with a clearly defined focus that allows for a range of adventures. The sign of a good anthology is wanting to read more stories by these authors in this genre: Dark Detectives succeeds on that measure and more. The diversity is rich, the styles are enjoyable, the characters are interesting and the narratives entertaining. Recommended.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Continue Reading

Book Review: Ghosts Of Manhattan

Written by George Mann

New York. November 1927. A man in a fedora, trench coat and red goggles stops a bank heist, in a violent fashion: throwing a man through a holographic statue of Pegasus, firing steel flechettes from a weapon concealed in his arm, burning the face off a robber with the rockets in his shoes, decapitating another robber with a metal disk after the robber killed a hostage. He is the Ghost, fighting a one-man war against crime.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Cross is a wealthy thirty-something, the toast of New York society, known for his fabulous parties. The only person he cares about is Celeste Parker, a jazz singer at a club in downtown Manhattan. He fought during the First World War, saw horrors he doesn’t want to remember and tries to forget it in parties. Felix Donovan is a police inspector, called out to Grammercy Park Hotel where a senator has been killed, found in a compromising position (illegal booze, a dead prostitute beside him) and with two Roman coins (originals, genuine 2000-year-old coins but in perfect condition, as if pressed yesterday) on his eyelids. It is the third murder in as many weeks, all with the same coin-on-the-eyes calling card of the Roman, a gangster who came from nowhere to become one of the most powerful mob bosses in the city, who has never been seen by anyone.

When the Ghost (who was coincidentally also a soldier/engineer/pilot in the war, haunted by what he saw in France) tries to stop two goons beating up a shopkeeper, two giant creatures come out of the goons’ truck: golems, out to kill the Ghost and virtually unstoppable; he barely escapes with his life. Donovan is approached by Gideon Reece, a lackey of the Roman, trying to bribe Donovan into becoming one of the Roman’s accessories, but Donovan isn’t interested. The Roman is a wiry, muscular man in his mid-50s, with a room full of old paintings, antique books, statues and other assorted riches; in his basement, he has Dr Spectorius creating his moss golems (the Roman is looking for a girl hidden by the Sisterhood; Reece has a lead about a singer in a jazz club …)

Gabriel visits the Sensation Club, a jazz club for the rich, where Celeste is singing, when Reece turns up and the shooting starts; Gabriel escapes with Celeste through a trapdoor. It turns out that Celeste is part of the Sisterhood, a group dedicated to stopping the Roman performing a ceremony that will summon a creature to this world. The Ghost investigates the Roman, arriving too late at the house of a doctor who has been murdered and staged like all the killings by the Roman’s gang, but it leads to the Ghost and Donovan working out that they’re on the same side, and that both are looking for Gideon Reece.

The Ghost visits his only friend is Arthur Wolfe, an Englishman in New York (no longer welcome in the US but tolerated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for his expertise on European history), to see him about the Roman’s coins he acquired from the corpse. In return, Arthur tells the Ghost about an Italian man who wanted to buy a mysterious artefact, a large ring with unidentifiable symbols on it, and who got angry when he couldn’t get it. The adventure continues with rescues, escapes, dogfights over Manhattan, a battle in a power station and final confrontations during a strange ceremony …

The prose has unusual instances of fruity language – ‘lipstick all over his prick’, ‘He’d fucked her that night’ – as if the author felt obliged to use it because it is expected of the genre, but it jibes with the rest of the book, which is a sedate, clear unfussy prose with normal, clean language. There isn’t any real sense of time or place in the dialogue, and the third-person narrative means that there isn’t any flavour in the narration. The book has hints of the otherness of the world created for story (hologram tubes for phones, pneumatic trains, steam-powered cars, the moss golems) and the alternate history (Queen Alberta I is on the British throne – when the war started, there was an uneasy alliance with America; but when the British won the war with their great weapon, the Behemoth Land Crawler, the alliance faltered. Alberta is not keen on her mother’s former allies, calling them ‘upstart colonists’ and believes that the British Empire needs to reclaim its former glories, leading to a cold war) but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it or why the world it is the way it is. It’s almost as if it’s just there to distinguish this book from the pulps that are the genetic antecedents (The Shadow, The Spider, Batman), but throwing it into the mix and then leaving it there without extrapolation or exploration. The story has some clichés (the Ghost staying too long at a murder scene so that the police shoot at him), the reason for the Roman’s plans feels out of place instead of a surprising reveal, and I disliked the fate of one of the characters. All this means that I can’t recommend Ghosts of Manhattan, despite my enthusiasm for the DNA of the contents.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Continue Reading

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War

Written by James Lovegrove

Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War finds Doctor Watson writing this story in 1923 about events in September 1913: Holmes has been retired for 10 years in the village of East Dean in Sussex, looking after bees and writing monographs (Mycroft has died by this point, from a ruptured stomach ulcer). Holmes is just shy of his 60th birthday, Watson two years older, and Watson has come down by train to Eastbourne to holiday with Holmes, only for Holmes to drag him off on an urgent summons he received an hour before meeting Watson, to a jeweller’s on the main thoroughfare. It has been robbed of everything – all of the merchandise, stored in the cellar in quality safes. The junior employee is missing, thereby incriminating himself, but Holmes has other ideas; there is a circus just outside town …

After solving the case, Holmes and Watson return to Holmes’ cottage, which is a mile from the coast, and notice a biplane flying 30 feet overhead; it is the passion of a local bigwig, Craig Mallinson, who lives nearby, a self-made man with a fortune made in mining and importing, who usually flies around on the weekends. But this is not in his usual pattern, as if he is searching for something … Out walking along the coast, Holmes and Watson come across a group of locals on the beach, who are gathered around the corpse of a man. They make a cursory inspection before the arrival of Inspector George Trasker of the local constabulary (who thinks Holmes is a ‘prying busybody’), who gets them to leave but not before Holmes overhears that the body is Patrick Mallinson, son of the wealthy amateur aviator. The suspicion is suicide, but Holmes suspects foul play due to the specific type of mud on the body …

Holmes and Watson are visited in the cottage by Trasker and the bigwig, Craig Mallinson – Patrick had been missing but this was not uncommon, although the father was worried because Patrick had deferred going to Cambridge University that year to study Classics. The father believes it was due to a girl, although the girl had called it off last week. Mallinson wants employ Holmes to prove that Patrick committed suicide and that there was nothing untoward about his death.

Holmes and Watson travel to Eastbourne, to Tripp’s costumier, owned by Miss Elizabeth Vandenburg, the former paramour of Patrick; she came back to England a year ago after several years in Mysore in southern India, where she was a lady’s companion (all this deduced by Holmes) – she also learned a martial art and sword from a local man, son of a nawab, with whom she had a relationship that could have developed until her employer found out and sent her home. She met Patrick a few months previously – he had come to her shop for a Horus costume and a relationship developed. But then he didn’t turn up to some of their meetings and wouldn’t say why and would get angry when Elizabeth asked questions. The father visited her to request that she stop it but she didn’t; only when she’d had enough of the secrecy did she lay down an ultimatum – she still loved Patrick but she needed him to be honest (for example, his lie about a faded hieroglyph mark on his body). Holmes suspects a link to religious sect, like Aleister Crowley, but Trasker doesn’t know of anything in the area.

The next stop for Holmes and Watson is a midnight trip to Settleholm Manor, Mallinson’s estate, specifically the barn with plane (Holmes thinks Patrick might have been thrown out of the plane); they get caught by Jenks the gamekeeper, who takes them to the manor; where Holmes has to apologise to Mallinson, who is being visited by his friend, the eminent steel millionaire Sir Josiah Partlin-Grey, who has come to give comfort to Mallinson. The reason for the midnight visit was to inspect the plane – Holmes thinks Patrick might have been thrown out of the plane while being flown over the sea. Plenty more happens: Watson is tipped into the sea from the pier at Eastbourne, suggesting the investigation is having an effect; Holmes goes on one of his disappearance expeditions; Miss Vandenburg’s shop is burned down; Holmes does a disguise; there is a pursuit over rivers and up cliffs; secrets are revealed and the mystery solved.

The enjoyment of this story is the details that Lovegrove puts into it. There is a passing reference to Auguste Dupin and the Rue Morgue case – Holmes mentions meeting him in later life but didn’t like his personality. There is a passing reference to an untold Holmes adventure with John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. There are historical mentions for Henry Ford and HG Wells, and Watson reads The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, thinking that Dennis Nayland Smith relied on his fists and luck too much, and his colleague Dr Petri was colourless. I also particularly liked the lovely language used: horripilation, ‘the capacity to subluxate joints voluntarily’ [when describing Marfan syndrome], gibbous, nostrum, absquatulation, gallimaufry, lacuna, amanuensis. It speaks of a different age when writing used this vocabulary without a second thought, and I appreciated it.

The story is enjoyable and you feel like you’re reading an undiscovered Sherlock Holmes adventure; the mystery and investigation is perhaps more satisfying than the resolution, but that is true of a lot of stories. Lovegrove has the right voice for the book and Sherlock Holmes Gods Of War fits comfortably in the library of non-Conan Doyle stories.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Continue Reading

Book Review – Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West

Edited by John Joseph Adams
Published by Titan Books

This anthology of twenty-three stories has tales that mix the Old West with fantastical elements; each one has the name, author and the location/year (such as East Texas, 1880, or Colorado Territory, 1868). As is usual with anthologies, the selection is wide and the quality varies, but the overall level is high and the diversity of material is very interesting.

Appropriately, the first story is The Red-Headed Dead (a Reverend Jebediah Mercer tale) by Joe R Lansdale (who the editor claims helped define the genre with the Rev. Mercer novel, Dead In The West, back in 1986), in which Rev. Mercer (who believes that God sends him to do this work) comes across a creature who had been contained by an iron bar with Latin writing on, a creature that is a progeny of Judas …

The Old Man And His Gold Gun From Space by Ben H Winters is about two unsuccessful prospectors who receive a visit from an old man who claims he is from the dark side of Neptune and has a proposition for them, and a gun that finds gold – an intriguing tale with a nice twist. Hellfire On The High Frontier by David Farland concerns Morgan Grey and the mission given him by The Stranger, to find and kill a clockwork gambler, a former soldier called Hellfire, who is killing people every four months. Clockworks are hard to kill, deadly accurate, and Hellfire is a Sharp model, the top of the line, leading to a trip on an airship to High Frontier – a magical place, nestled in the clouds, only reachable at sunset, a city of silver spires and coloured glass windows – and a strangely wistful story.

The Hell-bound Stagecoach by Mike Resnick is about four passengers on a stagecoach who all realise that they are dead, but force the driver (who calls himself Scratch, and has horns on his head) to alter their fate. Stingers And Strangers by Seanan McGuire see Jonathan Healy, a college professor type, and Frances Brom, who looks like a farmhand, dealing with Apraxis wasps (the size of a show with human intelligence), who steal the memories of the hosts they kill and infect, and there is a swarm in Colorado, which can only mean that there is something even nastier out there scaring the wasps, in a world with Aeslin mice (who can talk) and dragon princesses …

Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger by Charles Yu is a story with an ambiguous ending about a narrator who seems to be an amazing gunslinger without any of the requisite skills. It does have a great line in it: ‘Can I say de facto in this kind of story?’ Holy Jingle (A Mad Amos Malone Tale) by Alan Dean Foster is about the worldly, travelled, well read and scruffy Amos Malone and his decision to help someone based on a Chinese prostitute keeping someone captive who can only say ‘Holy Jingle’, which is a very interesting tale and I can see why Foster has written so many stories about the character.

The Man With No Heart by Beth Revis involves Ray Malcolm and his search for meaning, which leads to mechanical spiders and Big Canyon and the birthplace of the four worlds … Wrecking Party by Alastair Reynolds is an interesting twist on the perils of technology, which starts with a man wrecking a horseless carriage, links to wrecking parties (exhibitions of trains being wrecked for money) and ‘machine intelligences’. Hell From The East by Hugh Howey is an odd tale about a soldier going mad and the investigation into what looks like an Arapaho sun hut.

Second Hand (A Card Sharp Story) by Rajan Khana is a nice little tale with an interesting premise for the magical power of playing cards – people who are Card Sharps because of the power of the Deck and the Cards and the magic that can be done with them (defensive/offensive power, healing, heightening senses). Alvin And The Apple Tree (A Tale Of Alvin Maker) by Orson Scott Card is the weirdest (and not in a good way) of the bunch, about Christian people feeling guilty all the time due to a man calling himself John Appleseed creating apples that makes them that way. Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle by Elizabeth Bear is a strange story which feels like the first chapter in a book – there’s no real ending or point, and there’s only a hint of steampunk to suggest ‘Weird West’.

Strong Medicine by Tad Williams was one of my favourites, involving a character called Custos protecting the town of Medicine Dance on Midsummer’s Day every 39 years due to the fact that it sits ‘very lightly in time’ – the last time the trouble happened, it brought snow and mammoths and dire wolves. This time, the mesa is replaced with an ocean and then the dinosaurs arrive … Red Dreams by Jonathan Maberry is about McCall, the only survivor of a massacre of 16 of his men and 34 Cheyenne, who then sees the ghost of Walking Bear, the man he’d been hunting and had just killed. An interesting meditation on death and the afterlife.

Bamboozled by Kelley Armstrong was another of my favourites, about Lilly and Nate who lead a group that plays a scam in towns to lure in a mark to rob. However, this is a cover for Lily and Nate’s other work: bounty on demons, witches, vampires, werewolves … Bamboozled was a good story, good characters, with turns well hidden, and I would read more adventures of Lilly and Nate, supernatural bounty hunters. Another story that I enjoyed so much that I would read more of was Sundown by Tobias S Buckell, about Willie Kennard, a ‘negro marshal’, and Frederick Douglas (a black abolitionist), appointed marshal by President Hayes to investigate the disappearance of an army airship sent to Alaska, last seen at a crater, full of space creatures that Kennard had been tracking and who are now coming to America and must be stopped …

La Madre Del Oro by Jeffrey Ford is a slender tale with little substance about a posse in New Mexico going out to apprehend George Slattern, aka Bastard George, for murder and cannibalism, heading into blisteringly hot Trail of Death where the posse ends up in the goldmine of the title and things go bad. What I Assume You Shall Assume by Ken Liu is about Amos Tuner and his horse Mustard trailing through a forest and Yun, a Hakka girl from Taiping but now a gold miner with a legal claim to a mine, but who has been attacked and now has to defend herself with her ability to work magic of words on paper, with the help of Amos.

The Devil’s Jack (A Story Of The Devil’s West) by Laura Anne Gilman is a strange tale about a man who is bound to the devil but trying to avoid him, helping out a town disrupted by a magician and demons who live nearby, but told in a slightly elliptical way. A more straightforward and rip-roaring adventure is The Golden Age by Walter Jon Williams, which is romp that seems to be about the beginnings of pulp heroes and villains in the west, with a former English sailor leading a gang of criminals stealing gold from miners being stopped by a costumed vigilante (who calls himself the Condor), so he becomes a pirate on a steamboat on the Delta and calls himself the Commodore, which seems to be the start of other colourful characters appearing on the scene: the Haunt, the Highwayman, the Sagamore [an Indian], the Masked Hidalgo [Mexican], Shanghai Susie [Chinese], Aero Lad, the Mad Emperor. But things turn dark after a while with the arrival of Professor Mitternacht, killing a third of San Francisco and claiming it for the Austrian Empire

My absolute favourite story in the book was Neversleeps by Fred Van Lente, which is set 120 years after ‘The Awakening’: the world of spirits and spells returned to the world after the Age of Reason, and the world is completely different. Trains are pulled by dragons, the most wanted Science Criminal by the Bureau of Animist Affairs is Nicola Tesla, great grandniece of Nikola Tesla, who was burned at the stake for not recanting Science, unlike Edison, who did recant to save his own life and then went onto found White City, which is run by atomists to create things that can fight back against the scriveners and diviners and necromancers of the governments who want to stay in power, such as the Chrysalis Clockwork, a special suit that is immune to magic, currently in the possession of Simon Leslie, a former Pinkerton agent (nicknamed the Neversleeps), who is trying to save Nicola Tesla. It’s a cracking, well-told adventure, with lots of great details and a fantastic alternate universe, and it’s only the start of the rebellion of science against magic: more now, please.

Neversleeps would have been the best way to finish the anthology, but there is a very short epilogue, Dead Man’s Hand by Christie Yant, which is four variations of the Bill Hickock story about his death, which is about the association with the hand of cards he had when he was killed becoming called Dead Man’s Hand. I enjoyed this collection – the combination of western ideals with magical/supernatural/fantastical is a potent one that brings about some very interesting results. There are some duffers in the mix, but that’s inevitable; however, when there are stories that leave you wanting more, you can consider that a success.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 9