Tuesday, January 27, 2009

“Palace Council”, by Stephen L. Carter (Jonathan Cape/Random House)


A slow-burning, decade spanning political thriller

Carter’s novels take place in the legal and political worlds, paying particular attention to the African-American elite, and the black upper class – a section of American society not often the focus of fiction, referring to African-American society in the United States, through all his novels, as “the darker nation”.

The main protagonist of Palace Council is Eddie Wesley, a young star of fiction in New York. In 1954, after a swanky engagement party, Wesley stumbles over (literally) the body of white lawyer, Republican party fundraiser, and adviser to President Eisenhower, Phil Castle. It becomes apparent that Castle was a member of what can only be described as an underground government of the United States. Wesley is drawn into a conspiracy aimed at changing or toppling the upper levels of the US government. Through diligent digging (aided by his former lover, Aurelia), Wesley is able to unravel the conspiracy (though it does take 20 years).

Unlike some political thriller writers, Carter draws on real events and real people to flesh out his novels. Richard Nixon, for example, makes an appearance, as do Langston Hughes, J Edgar Hoover and JFK. His attention to period detail is assured and interesting, adding another difference to the current crop of high-tech thrillers from the likes of Brad Thor, Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy (where has he gone, recently, anyway?). Despite this eye for detail, Carter does shift certain events to suit his plot (which he admits in the afterword). Regardless, his novel manages to convey an authenticity in its underlying descriptions and portrayal of the important struggles of the time – race, politics, Vietnam, and so forth.

While the historical setting might intrigue some, Carter’s prose are rather slow and methodical, making this a rather acquired taste – some might consider it measured and concise, while others will merely think it plods along. At times, it can feel like a struggle, trying to get to something interesting or exciting – especially given the author’s penchant for foreshadowing major events well in advance of them taking place. Within mere pages we are informed that Wesley will “help to topple a president”, but it takes a long time before it happens, or before it’s really intimated just how he might be involved in such an endeavour. This will infuriate some, but hook others.

While there is no doubt that this is a well written and plotted novel, its pace was a little too slow for me. Maybe this is just due to my taste in the aforementioned, faster-paced and more modern thriller writers. This is a rewarding read, but the reward at the end is diminished by the sometimes arduous journey taken to get there. I couldn’t help but wonder what this would have been like had it been written by someone with a faster writing and plotting style.

A rather wary recommendation.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

“Cybele’s Secret”, Juliet Marillier (Tor)

Marillier-Cybel'sSecret An ancient artefact… A perilous quest… A trail of magical signs… A startling love triangle…

At seventeen, scholarly Paula embarks on an adventure - a trip to Istanbul with her merchant father, to purchase an ancient artefact known as “Cybele’s Gift”. Paula’s fervent desire to return to the mysterious and magical Other Kingdom she knew as a child has been replaced by the more practical ambition of becoming a trader herself. But clues and whispers soon convince Paula that she has been set a magical quest, one that may lead to her lost sister Tati.

Competition for Cybele’s Gift is fierce, and Paula soon finds herself in danger in the great Ottoman city. Their hired guard and protector has secrets of his own, and what interest could the pirate Duarte possibly have in Paula? The hunt for the artefact is on! Riddles and tests of courage and strength lie before them, and the price of failure is death…

Perhaps best known for her popular Sevenwaters trilogy, Juliet Marillier delights with a fantasy novel set between the Istanbul of the early Ottoman period, and the mysterious Other Kingdom. Cybele’s Secret has some similarities with Sevenwaters: a strong heroine, mysterious clues, strange otherworldly creatures and their penchant for testing mortals. Marillier brings Istanbul vividly to life, with all its sights and sounds, the food, clothes, bathhouses, bazaars, and of course libraries of the ancient city.

The story is well-paced, driven by the bidding contest for Cybele’s Gift and Paula’s quest, with plenty of romantic interest and intrigue surrounding Paula and the unscrupulous Duarte, and Paula’s shy bodyguard, Stoyan. Marillier’s characters always seem to grow in maturity throughout her novels, and it’s a pleasure to travel with them as they do so. The tantalising clues and the mission Paula is entrusted with all keep the plot moving, and I found it an enjoyable read.

However, the emphasis for most of Cybele’s Secret is on the world of Istanbul, rather than the Other Kingdom, and perhaps for this reason there were moments when the two seemed to jar. For example, the clues that Paula follows up the mountainside seemed a little contrived and it was easy to sympathise with Duarte’s incredulity. Yet at other moments, such as when a woman who might be Paula’s lost sister Tati appeared standing high on the mast of a ship, the juxtaposition of the two worlds worked brilliantly.

Marillier is an accomplished writer whose characters always ring true, and whose fantasy worlds always enchant. Here, the world of Ottoman Istanbul is painstakingly and vividly recreated, but after the world of Sevenwaters, Cybele’s Secret left me wanting a bit more magic and a bit less detective work.

Overall, though, this is well worth reading. But, if you’re looking for an emphasis on Marillier’s magical Other Kingdom, it might be best to start with the Sevenwaters trilogy (Daughters of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, and Child of the Prophecy) and also the Sevenwaters stand-alone novel, Heir to Sevenwaters.

In addition to this, I would also recommend another couple of detective novel set in Istanbul: Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red and Jason Goodwin’s The Snake Stone (along with the rest of the Yashim the Eunuch Series).

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

“Wicked Gentlemen”, by Ginn Hale (Blind Eye Books)

Hale-WickedGentlemen Belimai Sykes is many things: a Prodigal, the descendant of ancient demons, a creature of dark temptations and rare powers. He is also a man with a brutal past and a dangerous addiction.

Belimai Sykes is also the only man Captain William Harper can turn to when faced with a series of grisly murders.

But Mr Sykes does not work for free, and the price of Belimai’s company will cost Captain Harper far more than his reputation.

From the ornate mansions of noblemen, where vivisection and sorcery are hidden beneath a veneer of gold, to the steaming slums of Hells Below, Captain Harper must fight for justice and for his life. His enemies are many and his only ally is a devil he knows too well. Such are the dangers of dealing with the wicked.

This, apparently, is Ginn Hale’s first book. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next! The concept of Wicked Gentlemen is pretty simple: Think Dickensian London, complete with gaslights and smog. Add the Inquisition, who wear a dapper cross between military uniform and a priest’s dog-collar, and are armed with holy water, prayer-engines (devious torture instruments) and pistols. Oh, and the Prodigals, descendants of ancient demons, who now live in the ghetto of Hells Below, persecuted by the rest of the population. Troubled Belimai Sykes is a Prodigal and occasional investigator, and Sykes is the devil that Inquisition Captain William Harper makes a deal with when his sister disappears. Their search for Joan will take them to prison cells, grand houses, and even into the slums of Hells Below on the trail of dark forces, as their own relationship develops into something more precious, but potentially more dangerous for both of them.

Belimai reminds me of Sherlock Holmes at his darkest moments, but without Holmes’ superior know-it-all attitude. Belimai has attitude, certainly, but it’s of the more sarcastic variety. The first part of the novel is told from his point of view, while the rest is from Harper’s, which works brilliantly and gives real insight into Belimai’s character. Hale’s strengths include an assured plot, beautifully crafted images such as “The night hung in tatters”, and characters we actually care about. Part steam-punk crime thriller, part romance, Belimai and Harper’s relationship unfolds passionately and movingly as they delve deeper into the underworld to find who is behind the series of grisly murders.

Utterly gripping and beautifully written. Not that one should judge a book thus, it has an attractive and unusual cover, too. Hale is currently working on a sequel, Lord Foster’s Devils.

For a quick taste of Ginn Hale’s work, try the short-story collection, Hell Cop, and she has made a short story available, here. (PDF)

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Friday, January 16, 2009

“The Brutal Art”, by Jesse Kellerman (Sphere)


A truly stunning, perhaps peerless thriller

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Jesse Kellerman, and it will certainly not be the last. I don’t think I’ve ever taken to a new author so quickly. From the opening paragraph until the final sentence, this book had be hooked and engaged, unwilling to let me go, keeping me up well into the wee hours of the morning.

The story is narrated by Ethan Muller, successful 30-ish art dealer based in New York. Ethan is not the most pleasant of people – he’s self-aware, arrogant, and somewhat pretentious. But, in the same way that you like Hugh Laurie’s House, you will immediately be taken with Ethan’s honesty and dry wit. This wit is particularly on display when he turns his hand to social commentary, and especially when he’s critiquing those who inhabit the art world with him (pretentious, impressionable, absurd, with a sheep-like herd mentality) and those who think that buying a piece of expensive art makes them a patron of the arts, when really they just have far too much money.

Through a contact of his father’s, Ethan discovers a massive trove of art by a missing and mysterious artist, Victor Cracke. The art is brutish, disturbing, and horrific, yet beautiful and beguiling at the same time. What is more, the drawings are all connected, creating a huge piece, mind-boggling in size, scale and design (135,000 or so pictures make up the entire collection). What follows is first Ethan’s success at displaying and marketing his new find, followed by some revelations about figures in the first, central panel. It turns out, Cracke might be intimately involved in a series of murders that occurred in the 1960s, and Ethan finds himself reeled in to the world of cold cases, which might have repercussions far closer to home than he originally believes. Teaming up first with retired cop Lee McGrath, and later his daughter, Samantha, Ethan is driven to distraction by his need to solve the riddle contained within the drawings.

All the while, Ethan’s relationships – with his father, with the mature dame of the art scene Marilyn, and Samantha – intrude on his life, for good and ill. At the end, things take a decidedly dark, almost tragic turn, as the past catches up with the present in a twist I didn't see coming.

It would be easy to stitch a number of adjectives together in order to describe this book (such as “evocative”, “atmospheric”, and “gothic”), but much as for the artwork described in the novel, they wouldn’t come close to doing it justice. Kellerman has a rare talent for writing. Whether it is description or dialogue, he composes such prose as to almost compel reading. Stitching historical interludes (spanning back to 1847, and progressively closer to the present day) with a contemporary setting, The Brutal Art is a masterpiece of intricate and well-paced plotting. It poses the best of dilemmas: you feel the need to find out how it all ends, but at the same time the quality of Kellerman's writing makes you want it to never finish.

An essential read for all, The Brutal Art is the best thriller I’ve read in years.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

“The Merchant Princes” Books #1, 2 & 3, by Charles Stross (Tor)

Stross-MP-FamilyTrade Stross-MP-HiddenFamily Stross-MP-ClanCorporate

Dimension-hopping corporate tycoons and assassins. Business journalist Miriam Beckstein’s life has just got rather more strange…

The first three installments of Charles Stross’ Saga of the Merchant Princes are a banquet of high-concept sci-fi.

In The Family Trade, we are introduced to Miriam Beckstein. A successful journalist for a tech magazine in Boston, she’s stumbled across a great scoop – international money laundering, goodfella-style goons, the works. Unfortunately, the article plays a little too close to home, and she is fired on the spot. After receiving a mysterious locket that used to belong to her long-dead mother, Miriam is entranced by the knot design on its inside. As she gazes into it, she’s been transported to a different world.

The Hidden Family. There are now three worlds that Miriam must navigate. Our own, the Gruinmarkt (the one her family’s actually from), and now a quasi-Victorian world (with steam cars and airships), home of the previously believed-lost Sixth Family. Miriam, taking up her rightful position as Countess Thorold-Hjorth continues to become increasingly ensnared in the politics and conspiracies of Gruinmarkt, and watches her back for any hostile move by that most dangerous of organisations: her Family. At the same time, she starts her own import-export business in this new world. This novel concludes with an explosive action-packed ending.

The Clan Corporate. A tentative cease-fire exists between the Gruinmarkt world and the third world Miriam discovered in book #2. Now, however, Miriam finds herself coming up against the various expectations of her new station. Confined largely to the Clan's holdings in the Gruinmarkt, Miriam/Helge does not travel as much in this novel as the previous two. Namely, that of marriage, as she is pushed towards the king’s brain-damaged son, or any number of other worthy nobles. All this, and the DEA and FBI have been turned on to the Clan’s activities, roping Miriam’s former husband into the mix, and the noose if closing…

While the first book feels very much like a first installment, rather than a stand-alone novel (there’s far too much exposition), it lays a solid foundation for the books to come. The pace and volume of information perfectly matches what I imagine Miriam is feeling when going through the transition from newly-unemployed journalist to über-wealthy scion of the Clan. She considers the situation strange and Mafia-esque: “what happens to business life when there’s no limit to liability and the only people you can work with are your blood relatives”. The new world she becomes a part of is like a collision between corporate America and a feudal, Medieval Europe. Each novel builds on our understanding of the worlds Stross has created, with the pace and plot twisting and tying together over the course of all three books. Reading these three novels is like reading one rather long one, and I’d recommend people did read these together, to keep the flow going. With each new volume, the series goes from strength to strength, adding more detail and intrigue, roping the reader in more and more into Stross’s worlds.

I took to Miriam far more quickly than I do to most female protagonists. This is mainly down to the fact that, for some reason, female characters are often written in a very formulaic way – they’re either tomboys or their waifs, prone to tears at the drop of a hat (this is especially true in crime and thriller fiction). Miriam, on the other hand, is a strong figure with not a few neuroses. (The fact that she talks to herself might be annoying to some, but I thought it added plenty of welcome humour and cynicism to her character.) Her can-do attitude is appealing but not overwhelming. The other main protagonists are equally appealing – especially Miriam’s hand-maiden Brill and fellow noblewoman Olga (both of whom have interests in court gossip, making a good marriage, banqueting, and high-tech automatic weapons). Despite the premise of the series, there’s a distinct level of realism throughout.

Charles Stross’s writing style is very accessible, and he has a gift for making seemingly every topic engaging – even economics, which plays a large part in this series. The premise for this series had the potential to be pretty boring – parallel worlds and the ability to move from one reality to another is one of the oldest sub-genres in sci-fi (just think of Narnia and the TV show Sliders as two examples). Thankfully, Stross has managed to take this world-hopping theme and make it wholly his own, applying his boundless inventiveness to this series, drawing us in through ever-greater reveals and hints as to the wider picture. Over these three novels, Stross blends brilliantly a number of elements from science fiction, history, and contemporary issues (there’s a rather Cold War-esque frisson to The Clan Corporate, between New England and the French Empire).

With realistic, well drawn characters, plenty of humour, and tight, expansive plotting, The Merchant Princes is easily one of the finest, most involved and inventive science-fiction series on the market. A very highly recommended series from a master storyteller.