“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Fantasy Reading, 2019

This is the second in a series of posts commenting on books I read during 2019. The series is as follows:

I have always thought of myself as primarily a reader of science fiction. If it has some or all of: space travel, time travel, aliens and largely futuristic settings, it’s probably something I’ll take a look at. I have always read some books within the broader genre of speculative fiction, though: both books like The Traveller in Black and Black Easter from authors who are better known for their science fiction, but also from authors like Terry Pratchett who are known primarily for their fantasy works.

I have divided this year’s speculative fiction reading up into “fantasy” and “science fiction” based on publisher categories to keep the posts down to a reasonable size. There’s enough overlap between the categories that in many cases it’s an arbitrary and even perverse distinction. Trying to fit the complexity of the real world into a limited set of rigid boxes often works out like that.

The Invisible Library

Not one but two Invisible Library books this year. The Mortal Word is a murder mystery based around a fractious diplomatic conference while The Secret Chapter is an unashamed heist movie. Both provide some additional insight into the underlying cosmology, but I’m still waiting for the big reveal. Perhaps next time?

Tristopolis

When three of the authors I follow on social media all broadcast their delight that Tristopolis Requiem had been released as the long-awaited sequel to Bone Song and Dark Blood, I knew I had to run off and buy all four books right away.

It was definitely the right decision. These are action-packed page turners, set in a world with other-worldly technology and enough non-humans around to keep you guessing. There are certainly science fictional elements, but this is mainly pretty dark fantasy with some shading into horror, not a genre I normally have any interest in. They are also detective novels: the protagonist is a policeman in the city of Tristopolis, although his, um, status changes significantly at the end of the first book. No spoilers.

Spanish Mission

Other than Stoneskin (which I read last year) most of K. B. Spangler’s work is set in the universe of A Girl and her Fed, an online graphic novel she has been writing and drawing since 2007. That’s a hard universe to describe or categorise: it has cyborgs and cops, and recognisable technology (it’s essentially our world plus a specific conspiracy) but it also has talking koalas (well, one talking koala) and ghosts.

There are several related series of books based around characters from the comic. The Rachel Peng books, for example, are pretty hard science fiction: Rachel is a blind cyborg cop who isn’t aware of the ghosts at all (at that point in the timeline, anyway). Spanish Mission is the second of the Hope Blackwell series: Hope is a friend of the aforementioned koala and some of the ghosts (the ones who happen to be the founding fathers of the United States) and has a completely different viewpoint. How do you assign categories to something like this?

Spanish Mission has a necromancer, ghosts, ancient civilisations, pirates (in the desert) and Chupacabras, so I’m going with fantasy for now. Your mileage may vary.

Hope is quite a character: frenetic, determined, sometimes violent, often crude but frequently hilarious. There are enough footnotes to help provide background, but I’d recommend reading at least some of A Girl and her Fed to get some idea of who the characters are. There’s a handy introduction if you’re in a hurry.

Sandman Slim

I first read Sandman Slim six or seven years ago, enjoyed it, then forgot about it. The next time I looked, there were ten more books and a potential TV series. Time to take another peek…

James Stark, who is known by some as Sandman Slim, was a promising young magician before a betrayal resulted in his spending a decade in gladiatorial combat in Hell before escaping to Los Angeles in search of revenge.

As you might imagine, someone who has survived this experience is formidable indeed, and a certain amount of death and destruction follow his return. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer (including the humour) but as a noir B-movie directed by Tarantino.

I got a lot more out of Sandman Slim on a second reading: there’s stuff going on underneath the mayhem that I didn’t notice the first time round. Young James is not who or what he initially appears to be, and neither is anyone else. There’s plenty of character development, even for the several characters who end up dead.

Kill the Dead brings us vampires; many, many zombies (one with a taste for jelly beans); and Lucifer… who’s in town (Los Angeles, remember?) to make his biopic. Even better, there is more here than an episodic gore-fest, enjoyable though that might be: there’s a clear forward direction that makes me want to pick up some more in the series.

The Laundry Files

Stross’ Laundry Files series started as a comparatively light mash-up between H. P. Lovecraft and Bond movies, the premise being that magic is a mathematical construct and we have machines for that these days. Our protagonist therefore starts out in IT support for the UK government’s secret occult intelligence agency, acquires some field experience, defeats the tentacled horrors from beyond space, etc.

Fast-forward to books eight and nine, and things have got a lot worse. The characters we’ve been introduced to are more experienced, more capable, but also living with more scar tissue. We care about them a lot more than we did, but the series has become a lot darker: the end of the world, or at least humanity, is coming into view. There’s still humour — a lot of humour — but it’s become more wry and fatalistic. There are some not very veiled references to current politics which I’m sad to say fit in quite well with this tone.

A recent entry on Stross’ blog suggests that there are no more than a couple more books in this story arc. I’m not exactly looking forward to the end of The Laundry Files as it has been a great ride, but I do see the logic. When a story is done, it should be The End.

As to these particular episodes, I found them very enjoyable: in The Delirium Brief we get to see a bit more of Bob Howard, our original nerd-turned-spy, and to get a better understanding of what he has become and what it has cost him. The Labyrinth Index leaves Bob behind again for some of the other, more recently introduced, characters in the ensemble as they engage in a daring covert operation deep into enemy territory.

I don’t think these are stand-alone novels; you need to have read several of the previous books in the series to make much sense of them. They are must-reads for fans of the series, though.

Early Riser

If you’ve read any of Fforde’s previous work (The Eyre Affair, etc.) you know a lot about Early Riser already: there’s a terrific MacGuffin, cleverly named characters, many puns and other plays on words, and a lot of laughs.

In Early Riser the premise is that the human race, like almost all other animals, hibernates during the winter. This has always been the case. It’s because of the severity of the Welsh winter, which is more of a Game of Thrones “Winter is Coming” unsurvivable frozen wilderness than the one you and I are familiar with. This is why the majority of the population overwinter in special nuclear-heated Dormitoria while the Winter Consuls stand guard. A helpful pamphlet called Handbook of Winterology is available for the curious.

Our protagonist is Charlie Worthing, one of those brave men — or women, it’s (presumably intentionally) never made quite clear — a first-time Consul who uncovers a conspiracy involving the nature of dreams, an abandoned Buick and the Gower Peninsula.

Like his earlier work, Early Riser is dense, stuffed full of well thought through if completely ridiculous details. I’m sure it will repay a second reading.

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