Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Somnambulist

Jonathan Barnes

'Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.' So starts the extraordinary tale of Edward Moon, detective, his silent sidekick the Sonambulist and devilish plot to recreate the apocalyptic prophecies of William Blake and bring the British Empire crashing down. With a gallery of vividly grotesque characters, a richly evoked setting and a playful highly literate style this is an amazingly readable literary fantasy and a brilliant debut.

Perhaps more magical-realist Victoriana than steampunk this startling little novel about the exploits of a fading magician / detective and his gigantic, mute, milk drinking associate as he investigates a series of unlikely deaths is maybe not an absolute joy but is certainly an intriguing one.

Whilst occasionally straying into the psychogeographical realms of Iain Sinclair, Barnes' tale is a stirring tale of deduction and destruction. Holmes is the obvious reference point here but is only that as Moon has a fully developed quirky personality of his own that needs no counterpart. The Somnambulist himself (the above mentioned milk drinker) is very much a peripheral character with minimal effect on the proceedings which makes his role as the title character a little confusing but then again he does have a cool name so why not. The setting, London, is treated as as much of a character as the flesh and blood (or whatever it is The Somnambulist is made from) ones and there are a number of odd and unusual characters revolving around the core that it makes for interesting reading.

The Somnambulist (the book not the character) is an entertaining enough read. Steampunk purists should probably stay away but personally I enjoyed it. As a novel it was always reaching, it didn't quite make it to where it was going but it never stopped trying and that was good to see especially in a debut novel.

Saturday, 29 January 2011


Cherie Priest

At the start of the Civil War, a Russian mining company commissions a great machine to pave the way from Seattle to Alaska and speed up the gold rush that is beating a path to the frozen north. Inventor Leviticus Blue creates the machine, but on its first test run it malfunctions, decimating Seattle's banking district and uncovering a vein of Blight Gas that turns everyone who breathes it into the living dead. Sixteen years later Briar, Blue's widow, lives in the poor neighborhood outside the wall that s been built around the uninhabitable city. Life is tough with a ruined reputation, but she and her teenage son Ezekiel are surviving until Zeke impetuously decides that he must reclaim his father's name from the clutches of history.

Having cut her teeth on a series of southern gothic ghost stories (the Eden Moore trilogy) Priest here turns her attention towards a steamier, or in this case gassier, genre with fine results.

Briar Wilkes is just about subsisting through punishing manual work on the outside of the high-walled death trap that used to be Seattle. Her life and reputation in tatters following the calamitous actions of her husband Leviticus Blue which had released the Blight Gas onto the city and doomed many of it's inhabitants to a life of poverty and hardship but many more to an unlife as the living dead.

It is from this existence that Briar's (and Blue's) son Zeke wishes to escape and the only way he knows how is by clearing his dead fathers name and that means going into the city.

Briar is a wonderful creation. Her reactions to her son's less than rational excursion and her subsequent travails as she attempts to recover him are so beautifully human and real that one cannot help falling for her. She is a woman remade in her own image, undiminished by the hand she has been dealt and meeting life head on. Zeke on the other hand is too much of a teenaged cliche full of undirected angst and naive bravado.

Life inside (and outside) the city is beautifully sketched and the book is peopled with a fabulous array of characters including dirigible flying sky pirates, sinister gangsters and all the different flavours of human flotsam and jetsam you'd ever be likely to find.

The story isn't perfect, there aren't enough zombies by a long chalk and the final confrontation (between whom I'll not say) is very rushed but it is, in spite of these points, still rather wonderful.

Friday, 28 January 2011

The Martian War

Gabriel Mesta
Pocket Books

But what if the Martian invasion was not entirely the product of H. G. Wells's vivid imagination? What if Wells witnessed something that spurred him to write The War of the Worlds not as a form of entertainment -- but as a warning to the complacent people of Earth?

Mesta, or Kevin J Anderson as he's better known, here takes HG Wells and plunges him into the world of his very own fiction. He is plucked from obscurity and given a new role of utmost responsibility as an agent of a secret department with the British government.

Anderson attempts to weave a complex plot whereby Wells is brought into contact with Griffin (The Invisible Man) and Professor Cavor's miraculous Cavorite and informed of the imminent extraterrestrial invasion before being catapulted to the moon on a mission to liberate the Selenites from the invading martians. Whilst a concurrent story details the adventures of Dr. Moreau, and the non-fictional Percival Lowell, and their search to understand a captive martian.

Having never tried any of Anderson's work before I was intrigued both by the premise and the author but truthfully neither lived up to my expectations. The book was almost entirely lacking in drama or pathos - I ended the novel truly not caring about any of the characters - and Anderson's writing is inconsistent with the pace of the book varying wildly throughout and is intermitently either dragging you along through overlong passages or is leaving you blinking in it's wake as it races along hardly giving you time to appreciate the view.

The main problem for the book however is that it plays the same game as Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neil's League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2 and comes out of it as very much the loser. If it comes down to a choice then you should always go with Moore but if you're just of a mood for a mildly entertaining spin through Wells' worlds then you may find something of interest here.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The War of the Worlds

Manly W. Wellman & Wade Wellman
Titan Books

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s timeless creation returns in a new series of handsomely designed, long out-of-print detective stories. From the earliest days of Holmes’ career to his astonishing encounters with Martian invaders, the Further Adventures series encapsulates the most varied and thrilling cases of the worlds’ greatest detective.
Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger and Dr. Watson meet their match when the streets of London are left decimated by a prolonged alien attack. Who could be responsible for such destruction? Sherlock Holmes is about to find out...
Manly and Wade Wellman’s novel takes H.G. Well’s classic story and throws Holmes into the mix, with surprising and unexpected results.

American father and son writing team conspire to mix the era's two greatest creations by setting Holmes, Watson and Professor Challenger (hero of Doyle's The Lost World) against those dastardly 'Martian' chappies.

The story is split into several parts with the perspective shifting throughout giving us tales of derring-do from Holmes, Challenger and then Watson for the last half of the novel at which point he takes over relating the tale.

It was solidly written and an enjoyable enough read. The characterisation of Holmes was way off portraying him as a friendly genius rather than the abrupt, rude and rather arrogant Holmes we know and love. He is however bursting with observations, intimations and deductions, as he should be. Challenger is the foil to this though as his egotism is so extraordinarily rampant that perhaps Holmes needed to be defanged. No point in defanging Challenger I suppose as readers are more likely to have Holmes as a reference point when venturing into these pages than the more obscure professor. Watson is very much in his bumbling persona here which is a shame as I always thought there was more to Watson than was often made of him in the non-canon or movie representations.

The one aspect of the book that I truly disliked though was the romance between Holmes and Mrs Hudson. I thought it was a nonsensical idea that only served to pad a thinly thought out plotline. Other than that a fun afternoon's read.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Pax Britannia: Unnatural History

Jonathan Green
Abaddon Books

In two scant months the nation, and all her colonies, will celebrate 160 years of Queen Victoria's glorious reign.
But all is not well at the heart of the empire of Magna Britannia. A chain of events is about to be set in motion that, if not stopped, could lead to a world-shattering conclusion.

It begins with a break-in at the Natural History Museum. A night watchman is murdered. An eminent Professor of Evolutionary Biology goes missing. Then a catastrophic Overground rail-crash unleashes the dinosaurs of London Zoo.

But how are all these events connected? Is it really the work of crazed revolutionaries, seeking the violent evolution of Magna Britannia? Or are there yet more sinister forces at work?
Enter Ulysses Quicksilver ­ dandy, rogue and agent of the throne ­ back from the dead. Aided by his ever faithful manservant Nimrod, it is up to this dashing soldier of fortune to solve the mystery and uncover the truth before London degenerates into primitive madness and a villainous mastermind brings about the unthinkable. The downfall of the British Empire!

Buckling his swash across this pulpiest of landscapes our hero, Ulysses Quicksilver, is a dashing young man of not inconsiderable daring do. He's equal part Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, d'Artagnan, Allan Quatermain and Batman (sans the gimp suit). Helping him serve Queen and Country is faithful family retainer, the improbably named, Nimrod.

It's quite hard to really find much to say about this book. For the most part it's world-building with a fairly obvious pulp adventure romp tacked onto it. It's enjoyable enough - Quicksilver is a personable enough hero without any real bite. The writing is solid - I've read a few of Green's Warhammer books and they were usually pretty readable (I thoroughly enjoyed the two Armageddon ones) - with some nice flourishes although the dialogue is knuckle bitingly cliched at points.

As a series it has promise and the world is an interesting setting with echoes of many pulp sci-fi tropes showing up with the promise of a fun ride ahead.