Friday, 19 August 2011


Cherie Priest

Nurse Mercy Lynch is elbows deep in bloody laundry at a war hospital in Richmond, Virginia, when Clara Barton comes bearing bad news: Mercy's husband has died in a POW camp. On top of that, a telegram from the west coast declares that her estranged father is gravely injured, and he wishes to see her. Mercy sets out toward the Mississippi River. Once there, she'll catch a train over the Rockies and - if the telegram can be believed - be greeted in Washington Territory by the sheriff, who will take her to see her father in Seattle. Reaching the Mississippi is a harrowing adventure by dirigible and rail through war-torn border states. When Mercy finally arrives in St. Louis, the only Tacoma-bound train is pulled by a terrifying Union-operated steam engine called the DREADNOUGHT. Reluctantly, Mercy buys a ticket and climbs aboard. What ought to be a quiet trip turns deadly when the train is beset by bushwhackers, then vigorously attacked by a band of Rebel soldiers. The train is moving away from battle lines into the vast, unincorporated west, so Mercy can't imagine why they're so interested. Perhaps the mysterious cargo secreted in the second and last train cars has something to do with it? Mercy is just a frustrated nurse who wants to see her father before he dies. But she'll have to survive both Union intrigue and Confederate opposition if she wants to make it off the DREADNOUGHT alive.

Now that was tremendous! What a fabulous ride from beginning to end. This last year has put so many excellent books in front of me - Anno Dracula, the first Burton & Swineburne novel, to name just the first two that come to mind. This one carries on that winning streak.

This is my third visit to Priest's 'Clockwork Century' and whilst I very much enjoyed the other two this one was, for me, streets ahead. It's a romp of a book that never for a moment stands still. Mercy (a confederate nurse heading west to see her daddy in Seattle) leaves her job in a field hospital on her mammoth journey where via air, river and predominantly rail she experiences profound exposure to the politics, people and rigours of life on her continent.

She is an almost unlikely figure. A superheroine nurse unflappable and unstoppable yet as often being pulled along by the story she finds herself within as she is driving it. Her dynamism is nicely offset by the pragmatic cool of Texas Ranger Horatio Korman. A man made entirely out of glacial ice. Balancing these two is a supporting cast of well rounded and interesting individuals although the mad scientist was, maybe, a little cartoony.

The action scenes are both enormous fun and delightfully understated. They never feel heroic only futile, dirty and dangerous and you are never allowed to forget that they all have consequences.

The story is of course key and it's simplicity of purpose belies the complexity that is teased out over the course of it's 400 pages. The world Priest has created in the earlier tales is alive and impacting on her newer ones. The narrative rolls along and gathers momentum in most delightfully unexpected and appreciated ways .

I have been besotted by this book for the last few days and I've just emerged from it to discover that London is on fire with rioters looting all they can get. I'm too spaced to really focus and I have a warm fuzzy feeling that is probably not altogether appropriate given the news but that was a hell of a good book.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A Study in Emerald

Neil Gaiman

Now this is one of my favourite things. I first came across this in my copy of Fragile Things but the version here is the audiobook read by Gaiman.

The story re-imagines the Holmes universe in line with a Lovecraftian setting whereby the old ones have returned and have dominion over humanity. The story finds a returning soldier (from Afghanistan) take up lodgings with a 'consulting detective'. He becomes the detective's companion and they are soon embroiled in the investigation of a death of a member of the Bohemian royal family.

The story borrows strongly, liberally and enjoyably from the Holmes mythos to produce a tale that is a ridiculous amount of fun.

I'm having to go out of my way to avoid giving anything at all away here so you'll please excuse if this review is brief but because Mr. Gaiman is a gent the story is available as a pdf below.

Anno Dracula

Kim Newman
Titan Books

In an alternate history of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria has married Vlad Tepes, better known as Count Dracula, leading to a reign of terror, while, in Whitechapel, Silver Knife, a murderer of vampire girls, threatens the new regime.

Wow! Now that was a trip worth taking. Newman's reinvention of the Dracula mythos, indeed the whole vampire mythos, is a sumptuous and beautifully literate experience.

The basic conceit is simple. What if van Helsing and his followers had failed to stop the Count and he had fully implemented his plan to conquer and rule Britain? Here his marriage to Queen Victoria has brought all of the famous vampires out of hiding and has led to the adoption of vampirism by many within the country from politicians to beggars. Into this society comes the fear and outrage engendered by a spate of murders of vampire whores in Whitechapel by a killer christened first 'Silver Knife' and later, more famously (or infamously) 'Jack the Ripper'.

Newman makes no attempt to hide the identity of his ripper, it's one of the first things the book divulges and instead we are allowed to view, Columbo style, the slow advance of Charles Beauregard, agent of the Diogenes Club, as he investigates and eventually solves the crimes.

This is secondary however to the changes in both society and the individuals around Beauregard. The novel is bigger than a mere whodunnit. There is, in the great spirit of the Diogenes Club's most famous member (along with his brother and his author), a plan most devious, a plot most wonderful and a scheme most subtle that only the most indolent (no offense to Mr. Newman) could have conceived of it.

It's wonderfully written with subtle changes of pace and tone which carry you along as much as the plot. Newman's writing was only known to me through his articles in Empire and his excellent book on Apocalypse Movies so this was a real revelation.

A joy from start to finish. I'm very much looking forward to the second one now but that's not due until April 2012. in the meantime though (September) he's taking a crack at Moriarty which should be excellent fun.