Book From A Library: London Falling

Written by Paul Cornell

The concept of police investigating magical-related crime in London is not without precedent – I’m a big fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s Folly series – but it’s way that the story is told that makes it different. Cornell, in addition to his comic-book writing, has written for television (Doctor Who, Primeval, Robin Hood) and this book has a televisual feel (SFX glibly describes it as Buffy meets The Sweeney but they have a point) – in the acknowledgements, Cornell admits that the story was originally created as a television series pitch, something that is evident in the story and the collection of characters, but doesn’t detract from the originality and enjoyment of the book.

Detective Inspector Quill, undercover policemen Costain and Sefton, and analyst Lisa Ross are part of an operation to bring down Toshack, the boss of the largest organised criminal network in London. However, when they capture him, he is murdered in police custody by an unseen assailant; while investigating, our four leads are ‘gifted’ with The Sight, which allows them to see the occult underbelly of London, the things which normal people can’t see, including the entity responsible for the murder of Toshack and his enemies before that, and who is now killing in order to stay in existence. Quill and his team are the only people who can figure it out and who have any chance of stopping the killings, while coping with the effects of the developing The Sight and the dark, strange places it takes them.

The book works because Cornell has grounded the story in reality so that the supernatural element has solid grounding from which to work and contrast. The sense of ‘policeness’ is evident throughout the book – Cornell has obviously researched this thoroughly and the reality of police work shows – and the feel of London permeates the book; West Ham United football club and its grounds in the east of London play a big part in the story (although Cornell always uses the nickname of The Irons for the club, whereas I have only ever heard The Hammers used), and he uses London connections to keep the story linked to the area through history in an engaging way. For a chap from Wiltshire, he has a nice handle on London dialogue, albeit one heavily influenced by television instead of reality, but it works in the context of the book. The story is gripping – there is a sense of pace and urgency to proceedings that forces you to turn the page – and the four lead characters are interesting and well rounded, even if there is a slight touch of central casting (for example, Quill feels a bit like John Thaw’s Jack Regan from The Sweeney).

If there is one slight problem, it’s in the prose, which I didn’t expect from Cornell. The first chapter has some horrible expository dialogue during an undercover scene in the first chapter (Quill: ‘Do you know how long it has been for us on Operation Goodfellow? Four years now, from you first getting in with Pa Toil’s gang.’; ‘The top brass are pushing Superintendent Lofthouse to end this right now, understand? Right now, you are the lead UC in the least successful operation SCD 10 has ever mounted in the capital …’ [there is a glossary at the back for abbreviations and slang terms, which I think takes away from the enjoyment]), which is perhaps understandable but it makes the first chapter tough going, and doesn’t reflect the rest of the book. The other aspect is the prose itself, infused with the same London edge as the dialogue, which is a strange authorial choice – the dialogue is supposed to be where the colour is supposed to be; having it in the prose takes away something from the storytelling. Having a character ‘go for a butcher’s’ doesn’t feel right when being told this by the author; the line ‘the mob ripped her fucking heart out’ is supposed to be something that somebody says, not what the omniscient narrator uses to describe a scene. It might be just me, but it was a slight distancing effect in reading an otherwise entertaining read.

The book is open ended, as would be expected from an original television pitch – the idea is to set up a special division within the London police to investigate the crimes that normal police force cannot, a unit that might have historical precedent within the world of the story. I’m fine with that because Cornell has created a perfect vehicle to do that – London Falling isn’t perfect, but it’s a great introduction to the Shadow Police and I’ll be reading future instalments.

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Notes On A Book: The Name Of The Wind

Book One of The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

The paperback edition that I read is 662 pages of small print text. It’s a big book. Yet I raced through it in a euphoric rush as I devoured this book (not literally; that would be hideous, to steal a line from Alan Partridge), because the prose is so well written and the story is so engaging. I couldn’t stop and enjoyed it from start to finish, and I need to have the rest of the story NOW because I need to know everything that happens. I think you can call that a recommendation.

We are introduced to Kote, an innkeeper of a hardly used inn of a small out-of-the way town, living a quiet life. However, it turns out that he is actually Kvothe, a legendary hero in hiding, and his assistant, Bast, is his student and also a prince from the mystical Fae. Kvothe saves Chronicler, a travelling scribe, on the road to the town; Chronicler recognises him (in fact, he’s been looking for him) and asks to record his story. Kvothe decides to recount his life story, and the book then turns into a first-person account of Kvothe’s early days.

Kvothe grew up as a child of the Edema Ruh, a respected troupe of travelling performers (his parents are the leaders), where he learnt many things, including playing the lute; he learnt even more when the troupe picked up an arcanist (a sort of magician) called Abenthy, a graduate of the University, who teaches Kvothe about science and ‘sympathy’ (the type of magic in this world – Rothfuss has created a very scientific approach to the concept of magic in this sympathy, connected to quantum energy and control of the mind and knowledge in general), which Kvothe shows aptitude for because he is very intelligent and learns incredibly quickly. Kvothe also learns about the nature of the true names of things and the power that this knowledge can bring (which the title of the book refers to: Kvothe witnesses Abenthy using the name of the wind, and this ignites his quest for knowledge, particularly of true names).

Kvothe’s world is shattered when his parents and the entire troupe is killed by Chandrian, mythical evil creatures, who killed the troupe for singing songs about the Chandrian, and he escapes to live for several years as a street urchin in the city of Tarbean, surviving by his wits. His life is changed when he hears a song in a tavern about the Chandrian, and their enemies the Amyr, making him realise that what he saw when his parents were killed was real and that he must attend the University in order to learn all he can about them before trying to exact revenge. The rest of the book is about Kvothe’s adventures at the University, where his life is hard because he is very poor but his intelligence and skills make a name for himself when he becomes an official student so quickly and the troubles with an entitled student who hates him and his talent with a lute at the local famous musical tavern and his infatuation with a beautiful young woman he met while travelling to the University.

This book uses some classic tropes of fantasy stories, such as the mentor figure and the magical school, but Rothfuss has a way of making you see them in a new and fresh way, reminding you why they are such standards in the genre. He has created a rich and detailed world, with the excellent system of magic and science as the basis for fantasy angle. There is a lovely sense of storytelling, both in the narration of the story and the way that storytelling itself plays a part in the book, from the performances of the Edema Ruh and the stories that contain mix fact and legend, and the use of language (both English and invented) that demonstrates an accomplished ease of communicating an old idea in a beautiful way, resonating with truth and the idea behind the truth. He also has a knack for making this an engaging story, which can have only a certain level of danger because the hero is narrating, and telling a story about an incredibly talented individual (intelligence, music, performance, magic, bravery, honour) without making it sound over the top – I hate stories where they tell you the lead character is ‘the best of the best’ in whatever field, and that never happens here.

There is only one tiny flaw in the book: the piece of plotting that leads to Kvothe being banned from the University’s Archives (nearly a million books of incredible knowledge), which had me groaning with the inevitability of proceedings, but it is a momentary blip on an absorbing read from start to finish. The book is filled with great characters throughout (from members of the troupe to Kvothe’s friends at the University to the Masters of the different academic fields), with great names for people and places, and a great sense of reality in an unreal world. I was amazed at how quickly I got through this book, but that’s a testament to Rothfuss’s great writing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book (although, like the many other admirers of the books, I’ve got a long wait for the final book in the trilogy). I’m happy that the books have been optioned for television (even if I can’t quite work out how they’ll tell the story when the older and younger Kvothes are very different, from a casting perspective), if just for the money that Rothfuss received. If you like fantasy books, do yourself a favour and read this book. You won’t regret it.

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From A Library: World War Z

An Oral History Of The Zombie War by Max Brooks

The great thing about this book is the scale – this is a book about what happens to the whole world during a zombie epidemic, instead of the small stories that tend to focus on a group of people in a small area. China, Israel, India, Russia, South Africa, Europe, South Korea, Japan, Cuba, the oceans, even the space station – there is a real attempt to imagine the disaster on a worldwide scale, the implications to different societies based on politics, religion or historical attitudes, and eventual return to something resembling normality (that’s not a spoiler warning – there can only be an oral history if people survive).

The story is presented as the unexpurgated interviews by a UN reporter called Max Brooks, which he recorded when producing his Postwar Commission Report – the final document had the non-essential facts removed (‘the human factor’), so this book was written to give the full story, as it were. In making the report, he has visited many survivors and got them to tell him their stories – what they saw, what they did, what the world was like when the world was overcome by a zombie outbreak. It gives a vivid description of the different experiences and the different responses, or lack of responses by certain governments and the way people reacted.

I liked the different viewpoints – the book is fairly America-centric, focusing on how the US responded, how they reacted, how amazing the president was, but the experiences of other countries shows a wider perspective. The way that Europe was grateful for its castles, which acted as defensible strongholds; the way that Russia became a religious empire in response to the outbreak; the way Israel quarantined itself as its response; the way that Cuba survived and then thrived after the war – it’s a fascinating ‘What If …?’ scenario and an impressive piece of thinking and researching of different geopolitical systems. I particularly liked the inclusion of the space station and its role in the post-war recovery. It certainly helps to overcome the heroics of the American bias, even if the author doesn’t quite have the level of detail correct in everything – he has a British survivor helpfully use the word ‘wanker’ to identify him as British, but then has him use the phrase ‘tax dollars’, something a British person would never say.

Despite this linguistic oversight, I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it’s smart, exciting, interesting and thought-provoking. It certainly got me thinking about what would be needed in the event of an apocalypse: get to a castle because it’s a powerful stronghold; thinking about water purification and developing medicine; old weapons that are sharp are definitely good; head north because the zombies will freeze (I know zombies aren’t real – I just thought that was a good piece of thinking). It also doesn’t explain the zombie outbreak: there is a ‘patient zero’ in China, then there are illegal organs sold to South America from China, then ‘The Panic’. I really like this as a book, and I can’t see how it will work as a film (the trailer for the film looks like it is nothing like the book – the zombies are fast in the film, whereas the ‘Zacks’ in this book are the traditional slow variety), but at least the book will always exist in its correct form.

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Book Review – Girl Genius: Agatha H And The Airship City

By Phil and Kaja Foglio
Published by Titan Books

Girl Genius is a comic book series turned online webcomic written by the Foglios and drawn by Phil, and this book is a novelisation of the first storyline. It has a steampunk setting with an alternative world history but the authors additionally describe it as ‘gaslamp fantasy’ to differentiate it because of the other elements in the story – Frankensteinian resurrectionism, soldier monsters, a talking cat – which differentiate it from the relatively straightforward steampunk trappings.

Warfare has nearly destroyed the world after the Industrial Revolution, but Europa is now controlled by tyrannical Sparks – mad scientists who rule through their clockwork armies and bizarre inventions. One man has taken charge: Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, one of his generation’s greatest Spark and friend to the Heterodyne Brothers, the famous Spark adventurers who disappeared and their stories turned to folklore; the Baron has created a ‘peace’ of sorts, the Pax Transylvania, with his Jägermonsters and clanks (steampunk-styled robots) removing aggressors and enforcing the rule of ‘no more fighting’.

Agatha Clay is a student at the Transylvania Prognostic University, working as a lab assistant for Dr Beetle, the Tyrant of Beetleburg. She is a frustrated builder of machines, which are prone to disaster and causes her to have headaches when she tries, and things don’t look good for her future. However, things change when Baron Wulfenbach comes to Beetleburg and Dr Beetle is revealed to have been hiding something he shouldn’t have, and Agatha finds herself on Castle Wulfenbach, the massive airship city that is the floating capital of the Wulfenbach empire, and she starts to discover not only a much larger world than she’s known but things about herself that alter the world around her.

This book is the origin story for our lead character and, as such, has a lot of ground to cover and facts to download. This perhaps explains the sluggishness of the prologue chapter and the first half of the first chapter – it’s slow and feels disconnected from the rest of the book, and I had to re-read them after finishing the novel because they seemed so disparate. However, after the story has got underway, it finds its feet and doesn’t let up.

We are introduced to an interesting and enjoyable world – the Foglios have created a diverse and fascinating little universe, which mixes steampunk with supernatural elements and a good dose of humour: Agatha’s foster parents are called Adam and Lilith, the Jägermonsters speak with a comedy accent (‘Oh vell, he’s a schmot guy’, ‘Iz you okeh?’, ‘Dis is a varning!’), there’s a running joke about Agatha always ending up in her undergarments in front of other people, the son of Klaus Wulfenbach is called Gilgamesh, who has a butler called Wooster and a little clank called Zoing, there is a condition called Post-Revivification Trauma in people who are returned from the dead into constructs, there is a man who fights against the Baron who actually introduces himself as ‘I am Othar Tryggvasen – Gentleman Adventurer!’ (with emphasis on the exclamation point), and the chapters start with fun asides such as the traditional folk saying, ‘When the lightning hits the keep the wise man does not sleep’.

Agatha herself is a very intriguing character, and it’s good to read a strong female character who is all about her brain. It’s a delight to see her come into her inheritance and her developing relationship with Gilgamesh. The Foglios are really good with their characters – they should be used to them after making the webcomic for so long – and they are an interesting cast of people, from the youngsters Agatha is kept imprisoned with to the assortment of monsters and constructs who come in and out of the story.

The story is essentially the first chapter in the ongoing Agatha saga, but it does have its own beginning, middle and end, so you get narrative satisfaction from reading the novelisation, as well as a desire to read the further adventures of the Girl Genius. It also provides a deeper characterisation of the world and everyone involved than can be afforded by the webcomic. This is a funny, charming, exciting, ideas-filled ‘gaslamp fantasy’ that is an enjoyable read, once you’ve got past that prologue and the first chapter.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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From A Library: Temeraire

By Naomi Novik

I have to credit Helen O’Hara, Deputy Editor of Empire Online, for her recommendation of this book; on the Empire podcast, when answering readers’ questions about what good books haven’t been adapted into film, she mentioned this book (with a description of ‘Napoleonic wars with dragons’) and because she is smart and cultural person, I knew I had to read it. And I’m very glad I did because it is a great and enjoyable read.

It is the early 19th century, and Will Laurence is a captain in the Royal Navy. His ship captures a French frigate, only to discover a most unusual prize below decks: a dragon’s egg. Because this is a world in which dragons of many different types exist and they are bred and used for fighting battles. Laurence’s ship is far out at sea but the egg is near to hatching – normally, dragons are hatched on land with trained aviators nearby to handle them – and so it is that the dragon hatches and chooses Laurence; Laurence names him Temeraire after a magnificent captured French vessel (it is the French word for ‘daring’), unaware that other aviators name their dragons with grand Latin names. And so Laurence’s life is changed forever by duty – no longer can he stay in the navy, the world he has known all his life, for he is now an aviator in the Royal Aerial Corps, a world considered unsuitable for a gentleman. The book then follows Laurence, an outsider, and Temeraire, a rare Chinese dragon, as they start their training and enter the war.

This is a really enjoyable read, not only for the novel story idea, but also because of the style of the prose: it is written in a style echoing the times, as does the dialogue and the manners which dictate society of the time. Laurence is son of a lord and has been raised accordingly, and is used to the strict code of etiquette and discipline of the navy, and the ways of a gentleman in polite company. His world is one of rules and conduct, of gentlemen being dressed properly, of women having no place in war; Novik elegantly portrays this society and the differences therein, in a well-researched book that really puts the reader in the historical context of the time. The grounding of the book in the reality of the Navy (I’ve never read the Master and Commander books by Patrick O’Brian – I’ve only seen the film, but I could hear that voice in this book when I was reading) allows the book to blossom into the fantastical without any loss of believability, an impressive feat for a debut novel.

I really liked this book – the world of dragons is so three-dimensional, with the different types (Regal Coppers, Longwings, Winchesters, Yellow Reapers) and the extravagant names given to them by their handlers, the characters (both human and dragon) are vividly drawn and interesting, and the setting is a perfect one for introducing fighting with flying (the battle scenes are dynamic and thrilling) when the world was about to be dominated by the power of the Navy. I’ve got lots of catching up to do – there will be nine books in total in this series (the ninth to be published this year) – and I’m going to enjoy the task.

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Book Review – Foundation: The Collegium Chronicles Book I and Intrigues: The Collegium Chronicles Book II

By Mercedes Lackey

I like to think that I’m fairly well read, or at least read enough about the areas I’m interested to have some knowledge of a wide variety of different genre-related materials, so it’s slightly embarrassing to admit that, before reading these books, I had never heard of Mercedes Lackey, despite the fact that she is a best-selling author of dozens of books. I never said I was omniscient …

The majority of Lackey’s stories are set in the country of Valdemar on the planet Velgarth, where she has created an engrossing society and populated with a variety of character types tinged with elements of magic and psychic powers. However, you wouldn’t know this from the thirty pages of the first book: we are introduced to Mags (short for his nickname, Magpie), an orphan working in a gemstone mine with other orphans, all treated appallingly by the mine owner. We are shown his horrible day-to-day existence, which feels pretty gruelling to read and makes you wonder why you are bothering to continue. Then the whole book changes: Mags is freed from the mine by a Herald and is Chosen by a Companion, an intelligent magical creature that looks like a white horse with silver hooves and blue eyes, with whom Mags is now bonded and taken to Haven, the capital of Valdemar, to be inducted as a Trainee Herald at the Collegium and introduced to a world that he never knew existed outside the mine (and also to introduce us to this world as well).

Knowing nothing about the Valdemar stories helped me to enjoy this introduction to Lackey’s world. I was pleasantly surprised by the shift from the misery of the mine to the society filled with Healers and Bards and the Heralds (who act as arbiters and soldiers and peace-keepers in Valdemar, under the leadership of the King of Valdemar, who is also a Herald) and the psychic gifts such as Mindspeech and the ability to heal and the concept of the Companion (which is similar to the concept of the Dragons of Pern, with the special bond between dragon and rider, as well as the ability to psychically communicate). It was a great reveal, something that might not be the same for long-term fans of the Valdemar novels. Another factor that was enjoyable was the love of storytelling in the prose: there is a quote on the back from Stephen King – ‘She’ll keep you up long past your bedtime’ – which is quite true because I found I couldn’t stop once I started. The story keeps drawing you through, as you get to know the characters and this new world and the fantastical elements involved. Lackey has also done a great job of world-building; I particularly liked the details of the Midwinter Festival and the ceremony of Midwinter Eve, which was quite touching. A more personal reaction occurred in a passage where Mags has a discussion about his belief in doing what is right and his moral centre, despite being treated so badly his entire life (he had been effectively a slave since he was born), which resonated very strongly, something I wasn’t expecting.

The plots of the two books don’t have well-defined plots driving the narrative – the novels are more about the introduction of Mags to this world and the characters he meets, with a background element about sinister foreigners which comes to fruition at the end of each book in a relatively small way. This is not to the detriment of the books, which I found absorbing and entertaining, but more to do with the strange parallels I found with the Harry Potter novels (each of which has a main plot device driving each book). Both feature an orphan who is rescued from a life of misery, taken to a special school where they find that, in addition to the magical elements that makes them special, they have a gift for some element of that world (for Harry it was Quidditch and riding a broom; for Mags, it’s riding despite never having ridden a horse before); both have no previous knowledge of the world into which they are thrust, and both characters become friends with a girl and a boy (Mags befriends Lena, a Bardic Trainee, and Bear, a Healer Trainee) who become part of their adventures and who seem to be on the path to a romantic relationship; both have a senior figure take a special interest in their development (Mags is taken under the wing of Herald Nikolas, a King’s Own Herald, who teaches him extracurricular lessons to do with spying). The second book sees even more bizarre parallels: Mags becomes a team member for the new sport in the Collegium, called Kirball, which involves strange rules (although perhaps not as strange as Quidditch), and becomes a star player in his first game; like Harry being seen as a danger because he speaks Parseltongue in The Chamber Of Secrets, Mags is seen as a danger because he discovers that his parents were foreigners (FarSeers, sort of more accurate fortune tellers, have seen the King with blood on his hands in the presence of a ‘foreigner’), which sees him isolated from his support network of friends. I know these are not deliberate, and similarities between stories can be seen anywhere if you look hard enough; it’s probably because I’m a big fan of Harry Potter that I noticed these when reading. However, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment from these two novels and the character of Mags. I want to know what happens in the next books and I want to read more about the world of Valdemar – which is going to be a task in itself, considering how many books Lackey has written …

Disclosure: these books were provided for review purposes.

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Book Review – Anno Dracula: Dracula Cha Cha Cha

By Kim Newman

I have thoroughly enjoyed Kim Newman’s alternative world vampire stories, with their wonderful blending of history and characters from literature and film, so I was looking forward to sampling the next instalment. Dracula Cha Cha Cha is another delightful addition to his ongoing storyline and it continues to combine his overwhelming love for and knowledge of genre pop culture with a clean prose style and a cheeky sense of humour.

It is 1959, and Count Dracula is to be married to Asa Vadja, Princess of Moldavia in Italy, and it will be the social occasion of the season. Vampire Kate Reed (a recurring character in the series) is a journalist who arrives into Rome to cover the wedding; on the plane, she meets an elder and his ‘niece’ (an actress much loved by the paparazzi, who will be starring in a film version of Jason and the Argonauts in Cinecitta), with whom Kate is taken on whirlwind tour of Rome (along with journalist Marcello, from La Dolce Vita). Unfortunately, the night ends with the ‘true’ deaths of the count and his ‘niece’ at the Trevi Fountain at the hands of mysterious Crimson Executioner (Part One of the book is called ‘Three Corpses In A Fountain’). These are not the first vampire elders killed by the Crimson Executioner, and they will not be the last …

Also in Rome are the heroes of Anno Dracula, Charles Beauregard, 105, and Geneviève, a vampire elder of a different line to Dracula; she is looking after him in his old age, kept alive longer by Geneviève feeding off him over the years (in a consensual loving relationship), as he still keeps watch over Dracula. He is sent a visitor from the Diogenes Club who is also interested in the Cold War implications of Dracula’s wedding – Commander Hamish Bond, by far the most fun interjection into the novel. He is obviously Sean Connery (to begin with), with references to the films, such as when spies are following him are ‘as unobtrusive as a Korean wrestler in an English golf clubhouse’ and his talk about draining the blood of ‘Chinese doctor and the Jamaican voodoo master’ – he was also made a vampire through a blood transfusion from Sgt Dravot of the Diogenes Club, the character from the Rudyard Kipling story The Man Who Would Be King played by Connery in the film.

This level of pop culture mixing is the added charm to the novel – other characters include Tom Ripley (from Patricia Highsmith’s novels), ‘the avant garde painter Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock’ (from the film The Rebel), The ‘Milanese Nightingale’ is Bianca Castafiore from Tintin, Mr and Mrs Addams (from the television series of the time), and a farm-bred Kansas quarterback called Kent who is playing Hercules in a The Argonauts, filming in Cinecitta. There’s a reference to a French policeman who was helping with the Crimson Executioner case – “the Surete sent one of their best men, and he spent most of his time falling down” – and the guests at Dracula’s party include Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Senator John Kennedy, Orson Welles in fat incarnation, Errol Flynn and Private Elvis Presley, plus a certain olive oil tycoon called Michael Corleone. I find it utterly charming.

The story uses the films of the time as a backdrop, with the feel of the Italian movies that era providing the inspiration, with the giallo horror films acting as a prominent cultural touchstone. I am not an expert on these films, unlike Newman, so I don’t get all the references (he provides an incomplete annotations at the back of the book), but you don’t need to in order to enjoy the story. Newman weaves a tale of three women in the midst of events that are changing the vampire world in the middle of a city that has a long history of its own and an ability to defend itself.

Included in the book is the novella Aquarius 1968, about Kate Reed in London in 1968 and the murder of humans by vampires. This story has a great sense of time mixed with fiction: MP Enoch Powell’s speech about ‘Carpathian immigrants’ and ‘rivers of blood’ is a reference to the real-life equivalent ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech about Commonwealth immigration; the phrase ‘Drakky bashing’ echoing ‘Paki bashing’, and nice touches such as Kate working for New Worlds magazine, edited by Michael Moorcock. Like the main story, this is tale with great pop culture references: there is a vampire policeman called Herrick (from the BBC3 television series Being Human), as well as (vampire) policemen Jack Regan from The Sweeney and George Dixon from Dixon Of Dock Green; Withnail is a vampire student; reference to Doctor Who: ‘the vanishing policebox’ when discussing ‘nonsensical beliefs’; Jerry Cornelius is busted for drug use but got off by Horace Rumpole; Kate uses the line ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’ and Dixon gets to say ‘Hello, hello, what’s going on here then?’.

Newman has written another enjoyable entry in his series, with a light touch and a solid story. I am still pleasantly surprised at the excellence of his novels after knowing him only from his (also excellent) film criticism – as long as he keeps up both, I’ll keep being happy.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Notes On A Book: Patient Zero

By Jonathan Maberry

When I was recently lavishing praise on Gorlan Parlov’s art in Marvel Universe Vs Punisher, I didn’t talk too much about the writing, which is unusual for me. When looking for some information about Maberry, I discovered his website and that he is an award-winning novelist: in addition to the Pine Deep Trilogy and the Benny Imura series, he has written five books in the Joe Ledger series, the first book of which is Patient Zero from 2009. So, when I saw it in my local library, I judged it a sign that I should read it.

Patient Zero introduces us to Joe Ledger (also the name of Doctor Spectrum from Squadron Supreme – this geek reference is actually mentioned in the book, and there are several other geeky references, particularly to Marvel books, which might have been just an inside joke but might have been a calling card to Marvel, for whom he now writes comic books); Ledger is a Baltimore detective and former army man who is assigned to a Homeland Security counterterrorism taskforce. On an assignment to raid a house with known terrorists, he shoots a strange-looking man who has tried to bite him; several days later, he is driven to a location where he is put in the room with the same man he shot, who seems to be alive as well as very strong, immune to pain and with a taste for human flesh. This is his introduction to the DMS (the Department of Military Science) and its head, Mr Church, and the fight against terrorists who have weaponised zombies.

As a fan of genre mixing, I like the idea of zombies being used as terror weapons and the concept of a government branch to deal with such problems. Maberry does a good job of setting up the concept of his ‘techno-thriller’ – it’s obviously not real but it is based in real science – and a world where a zombie terror attack is believable. He has created an interesting character in Ledger, a man who has in him the natural instincts of a warrior but with the capacity of a detective from his years on the force. Maberry almost trips over into the territory of describing Ledger as the greatest character, the best of the best, something that really annoys me in bad thrillers, but he always manages to pull back and humanise Ledger with his humour.

The book really works as a pacey thriller – Maberry also wrote martial arts books in his early career and he is an 8th degree black belt in jujitsu, which means that he provides authenticity in the brutal fight scenes, and he creates great tension, meaning that there were sections of the book where I was barely keeping up with my reading speed to discover what happens next. He has a strange stylistic choice for separating his chapters, with a change in scene from heroes to villains (or even heroes to heroes) causing a new chapter, meaning that there are over a hundred chapters (each with a character/location/timestamp), some less than a page in length, but it’s quick to adapt. I really enjoyed the book, which portrayed fantastical elements within a believable structure, and it made me want to read the further adventures of Joe Ledger.

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From A Library – Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula is a wonderful novel blending fiction and history, with characters appropriated from novels and films, into an alternative timeline (in which Dracula wasn’t killed but has become consort to Queen Victoria and brought vampires into English society) detective story about a Jack the Ripper killing vampire prostitutes. I enjoyed it, so I was glad that the book was republished recently, perhaps due to the recent popularity of vampire-related material, which has also led to the republishing of the other books in the series. Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron is the first sequel, set in 1918, thirty years after the first novel. After the events of Anno Dracula, Dracula has become the head of the Central Powers, and the First World War has occurred more or less as in history, but with vampires fighting alongside warm (non-vampire) soldiers, meaning that silver was the metal most donated from houses for bullets to kill vampires.

The focus of the story is the battles between fliers: on the German side, the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richtofen and his squadron, Jagdgeschwader 1 (also known as the Flying Circus), and on the Allies side, the Cundall Condors; Edwin Winthrop is a warm man put in charge of the Condors and the task of discovering the secrets of JG1 at the Chateau du Malinbois (later named Schloss Adler, the castle in Where Eagles Dare), where scientists such as Doctor Caligari, Doctor Mabuse and Professor ten Brincken are performing experiments. Edgar Poe (he has ditched his stepfather’s name), a new-born vampire, has been assigned to ghostwrite the autobiography of von Richtofen (to be used as propaganda for the war); Kate Reed, a journalist (and new-born vampire from Anno Dracula), is also trying to find out more about the Chateau, as she continues her crusade to reveal truths about the war – she made a name for herself revealing the ineptness of the French General Mireau (who is the character from the Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film, Paths of Glory); and Winthrop’s disastrous first flight leads him on a dangerous and obsessive quest.

The book is well written and well researched, with the feeling of authentic details grounding the fantasy in a reality that puts the reader in the war. The First World War was a horrific war of attrition, as millions died in trenches for no reason, so there is a rather sad element to the book that sometimes stopped me from enjoying some aspects. Also, Winthrop’s obsession is one of the main elements of the story, an unsympathetic aspect that I found distancing on occasion. Far more enjoyable are the interactions between Poe and Richtofen (I completely missed the great Peanuts joke the first time) and the flashes of humour that Newman laces throughout the book: for example, the Dracula double who is a Hungarian matinee idol from Lugos.

There is great fun in seeing real people used in this story with aspects of history: Herman Goring is present (a veteran air fighter pilot in the First World War, he was the real last commander of JG1); Winston Churchill is a new-born vampire who is part of Lord Ruthven’s government (Churchill was part of the government during the war, becoming Minister for Munitions in 1917); von Richthofen had a brother Lothar, also in the book, and Manfred had silver cups made to mark his victories in the air; Mata Hari is seen as a spy executed in France (although know she is a vampire, so she is killed with silver bullets). However, the real fun is in the use of fictional characters from books, film and television (and I didn’t recognise them all – you need the list at Wikipedia to help): some I recognise – such as the American pilot called Allard with a maniacal laugh, who is The Shadow; the English pilot Bigglesworth and his chums Algie and Ginger (I’ve never read the Biggles stories, but all British people grow up knowing about the character from all the various parodies); Doctor Moreau and Doctor Caligari – but most I didn’t and I was glad for the annotations because the book is full of characters from a variety of different material. For example, I was delighted to discover that Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, the German officer who befriends Poe at the Chateau, is the sympathetic German officer from the excellent The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. Newman has a love for vampire stories and an encyclopaedic knowledge (Mark Kermode tells an anecdote in his book about how he uses Newman as an unofficial reference back-up when he needs to know something about a particular film), but he is also a very entertaining writer as well, so spot-the-reference is an amusing side game, instead of being the sole reason for the book’s existence.

The book also contains a novella: Vampire Romance, set in 1923, starring Geneviève Dieudonné (from Anno Dracula, an elder with a different line from Dracula) and Winthrop, which is a ‘1920s Old Dark House weekend mystery’, as Newman calls it, drawing on the works of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse – the plot involves a gathering of elder vampires at Mildew Manor, the home of ‘Aunt Agatha’ (from the Jeeves and Wooster stories), to select a new ‘King’ of vampires to replace Dracula. It also includes other characters from the previous books, such as Dravot and General Karnstein, as well as amusing world-building touches, such as the fact that Charlie Chaplin is the world’s most famous film star due to his character, the Little Vamp. It is a charming little murder mystery tale, told in chapters alternating from the point of view of Geneviève and Lydia, Agatha’s niece, who desperately wants to become a vampire at the hands (or teeth) or a dashing, brooding vampire, and has a very nice reveal (all good murder mysteries should have a good surprise in the reveal), which left me with a smile on my face. Two great stories in one book, which also contains some annotations from Newman and a treatment for a film that was inspired by the book, mean that this is highly recommended.

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Book Review: Turbulence

Turbulence by Samit Basu, Titan Books. Published 7 July (£7.99).

Basu is not an author I was aware of before I read this novel, but he’s not a novice writer: he published the first book of his fantasy series, The Gameworld Trilogy, at 23 and has also worked on comic books – he wrote Devi for Virgin Comics and co-wrote the graphic novel Untouchable with Mike Carey. In Turbulence, he has combined these two elements to write the first in a trilogy about super-powered individuals in the real world.

This is a book that populates our world with the craziness of comic book abilities: there is a man who can surf the internet and control computers with his mind; there is a woman who can duplicate many copies of herself, including copies of whatever she’s holding; there are individuals with invulnerability, healing, invisibility, teleportation, the power to shape-shift, the power to grow very large, the power to animate the dead; there is an individual who can turn into a tiger-man, and another who can turn into an anime character with anime-style weapons.

Basu knows comic books: there are references to Superman, the Justice League, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, the X-Men (there’s even a reference to Multiple Man). The big fight scene set in London has echoes of Miracleman, and there’s a reference to Watchmen in the line, ‘Superman exists, and he’s not American’. And he is soaked in pop culture: there are references to Kill Bill, The Matrix, Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa. Notably, he doesn’t reference the one thing to which it is similar: the television series Heroes (in the sense of ordinary people discovering they have super powers and the formation of groups), but that was probably deliberate.

The set-up is straightforward: the passengers on a flight from London to Delhi arrive in London to discover that they have super powers that are related to their needs/desires. An air force pilot can now fly without the plane; a physicist can now invent futuristic machines; a woman who wants to be a Bollywood star finds that everyone likes her and wants to help her; a wife who has so many demands on her life can create copies of herself; a cricketer can now see slightly in the future so he can hit sixes every ball. However, some of the people on the flight have gone missing, and Aman, a young man who can now control electronic communications with his thoughts, and who has read enough comic books to know what has happened and that there will be good guys and bad guys, is gathering people to help them survive. In his group is Tia, the duplicator; Bob, who can control the weather in his vicinity; the Scientist, who makes the crazy inventions in his sleep. They share a house in Mumbai while they try to figure out what to do. They intercept Uzma, the would-be Bollywood star, and bring her back to the house to help her and explain the situation; shortly after, events start getting stranger when crowds suddenly turn into angry mobs trying to kill specific people (such as the cricketer at a cricket match); also, Vir, the flying fighter pilot, contacts the group and Aman warns him about his team leader Jai, who has plans to use the super-powered individuals to make India a superpower again.

Setting the novel in India is the distinguishing feature here, providing an interesting flavour to proceedings, and sort of makes sense when you consider the pantheon of Hindu gods. Basu, who was born and raised in India and partly educated in England, gives you the sense and feeling of his Mumbai settings, from the coffee shops to the cricket grounds to the busy streets, with an authenticity and colour that makes the places come alive. He also knows London, even if the locations he uses in the book are perhaps a bit more tourist-centric (St Paul’s, the Millennium Bridge, Oxford Street, Hamley’s), and this adds to the multicultural dimension of the book.

There is a question on the blurb on the back cover which asks about the book: ‘Will it end … in a meaningless, explosive slugfest?’, which suggests that the novel will have a different approach to the traditional comic book altercation. However, the set-up and mystery are more interesting than the resolution, which does end in the big fight between super-powered people; the rest of the book suggests that the author has avoided the usual trappings and was taking his story in a different direction. Basu has obviously read lots of superhero comic books and thought about a novel angle to examine some aspects of super-powered people in the ‘real’ world – you could even say that the Aman character, the pop-culture-soaked young man who is the person who tries to do something for the benefit of humanity with his powers without resorting to hitting people, is a stand-in for the author as he talks about the concepts of heroes and villains and the nature of paranormal ability. I don’t think he has quite achieved all his goals; the resolution doesn’t completely satisfy (and not just because it is left open-ended for the sequel) and his prose isn’t as scintillating as some of the really good authors in comic books – he uses pop culture references as a shorthand instead of using his own words to express himself. However, in Turbulence, Basu has created an interesting world with intriguing characters plucked from comic books and told an enjoyable tale.

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