AFTER THE END by Bonnie Dee

18 12 2014

After the End coverI have read several books (and seen several films) which really were set in the post-apocalyptic world evoked by this title, After the EndAfter the End itself, however, is set at the end rather than after it, yet is none the worse for that. On the contrary, although there is nothing very original about the epidemic, the revenants (those who died of the A7 virus and rose again as zombies), and the zombies created when the revenants attacked and bit people, this is not a story of zombies. It is a novel about people, people suddenly thrust into a horrifying situation, and as such is almost entirely character-driven.

After a perhaps unnecessary Prologue consisting of a gruesome scene extracted from somewhere in the middle of the story, we go back ten days and in Chapter One meet the people we shall follow and come to know intimately as they face catastrophe together. A random group who just happen to be in the same compartment on the subway at that moment on that day, and who would under normal circumstances have hardly noticed each other, but in these circumstances become so close that they are ‘family’ by the end of the book.

Lila, the student trying to read a textbook on World Religions as the train hurtles through the tunnel, I identfied with at once. She keeps glancing, surreptitiously, at the young soldier sitting opposite her, wondering why he is wearing uniform, and thinking, sneeringly, that he must be proud of the “fascist military look”. But when, minutes later, the group start looking to him as the natural leader, she is honest enough to tell herself ironically that “When it came down to it, survivalist nature beat out pacifist ideals.”

Great characters, some of whom we come to love and will always remember, and as gripping a story of a disparate group of people living out a nightmare together as I have ever read.





SUNFALL by James Austin McCormick

1 12 2014

Sunfall coverThe Prologue sets the scene for this SF novella (100 pages)

Fire raged across the molten surface of the increasingly volatile star. Flames rose incredible distances, breaking free as solar winds before light speeding their way through space.

For the small, airless ball of rock that was Mercury and the cloud covered furnace that was Venus it was little cause for concern. Even the inhabitants of Earth, with their twin shields of ozone and magnetism, had little reason to fear the storm.

Yet for Mars, the fourth planet in the system, and its last surviving colonists, it was a grave matter indeed

A means of saving the planet’s colonists has been invented but the directors of the DAX corp, who own the mines, prefer to seize the opportunity to rid themselves of the rebellious colonists. After a series of murders on Earth, only Sana, the teenage daughter of the inventor of the device which could save the colonists, and Zac, a boy on his own with his dead father’s battered old spaceship, can get the device to Mars in time. But Tanaka, the CEO of DAX sends a raijin, an indestructible cyborg, to kill them and prevent the device from ever getting to Mars.

It needs a bit of editing and there are probably too many switches of PoV for such short read, but the story gets told and the excitement builds up. And I liked the two main characters –would like to see more of them, in a full length novel.





DEJA VU by Ian Hocking

27 10 2014

Deja Vu cover

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

The story opens with Saskia Brandt arriving at the EU Federal Office of Investigation building close by the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin in September 2023 after returning by Eurostar from a trip to London where she broke up with her English boyfriend Simon.

(There is no guarantee that Eurostar will still be running – the tunnel seems to me an easy target for terrorists – or that the Brandenberg Gate – or even Berlin – will still be there in 2023, but they probably will, for 2023 is not far away. Which leads me to wonder about the wisdom of setting a futuristic piece in so near a future. I hope I shall still be writing this blog in and after September 2023, and I can imagine avid readers coming upon this post in, say, September 2024 and failing to realise that this story was set in the future. Think “1984” etc. So let me just point out that I am writing this review in October 2014.)

But back to the – (I almost wrote “the Future” there instead of “the grindstone”. It may have been a dream I had last night. I never remember my dreams but know I have been dreaming and often suspect that the contents or setting of a dream are lingering in my subconscious. Who knows what dreams may return to haunt our troubled musings?)

But now, seriously, back to the review.

So, Saskia returns from England to find her secretary dead and stuffed into the refrigerator.

(Do you think there is any connection, causal or otherwise, between my reading about scenes like this in books like this – which I do all the time – and the dreams I imagine I have?)

She also very quickly finds that she herself is being framed for the murder.

But this is not your average straightforward murder story. It transpires that she never went to London at all, never had an English boyfriend called Simon, that all this was a “memory” planted in her mind by means of a microchip, and that she is not being framed at all. She was there. She committed the murder.

Beckmann, her immediate superior, says: “Oh, Frau Kommissarin. You are so worried about being caught for your secretary’s murder. You think they’ll wipe your brain. It’s too late. They already did.”

Then they convince her that she is – was – a convicted murderer whose brain was wiped and the persona of Saskia Brandt implanted to replace the original. The mind and memories of Saskia Brandt inhabit and control the body of the condemned woman.

She is now Saskia Brandt, and because of this staged murder, and because of the microchip in her head – which Beckmann has a remote control for and can operate, operating her – she has no choice but to obey.

Then she is sent on the mission to which all this has been a prelude. And that is fine, a great introduction to the story.

Problems arise, though, when we are presented with too many other relatively major characters, each with their own point of view, and what is in effect their own story, at least during the first half of the book until the various stories start coming together. And this is not helped by the fact that some of these stories are set in the past when Professor David Procter of Oxford University committed  a murder at a research facility in Scotland some twenty years earlier. Or is he, too, being framed for committing a murder he did in fact commit?

Or, in some cases, the stories are set in a present that was prearranged by people in the past, twenty years ago. Anything that happens may be happening because someone travelled forward through time twenty years ago and arranged for it to happen … Nothing in this book is what it seems.

But I am giving away too much.

Though difficult to follow at first due to the abrupt changes of setting and point of view, the story is well plotted, while the characters, if somewhat stereotyped, are rounded and convincing, especially in the case of Saskia, whom I identified with from the very first page. The body in the fridge shocked me almost as much as it did her!





THE ROSE OF HARLOW by M. B. Gilbride

3 09 2014

The Rose of Harlow coverApparently M.B. Gilbride first wrote The Rose of Harlow as a play. Then one day found it and read it and decided to rewrite it.

The rewrite has produced, instead of a play, a very original dramatic novella.

The reader identifies completely with Gerda (I always love losing myself in a character) as she is carried helplessly from a Teacher Training College (she is expelled) to a Realignment Office (she is glamourised) to a Ministry (she is fired after offending the Prime Minister) to the Inner City (and hanging about, unemployed) to the Forest (and living out) to Glastonbury (and a group of feminist New-Agers) to Prison, to a Research Lab (where we see her as a mermaid – yes!) to a Doggy Club (like a nasty Bunny Club) to a cheap brothel (Upstairs at the Doggy Club), from where she – she … read it and see.

But I must mention some of the characters! Her friend Penny (the political activist), Professor Mandril (the baboon on a white charger, her first and only verray parfait gentil knyght), Father Figure (who regrets the passing of the Inquisition), Billy (the ageing SF writer for whom she models), Homo mensuralis and Homo sensibilis (both of whom wish to change her), Woolly-hat, Bowler, Skinhead (who takes her to the Harlow Rose Show, and absconds with the prize-money when she wins), Estelle de Miel, Dicky (the bird-watcher who spots her in the Forest), the Bag-lady, the Faw-Paw-String-Man, the Curate (the world is a curate’s egg), and many others.

It is a weird masterpiece. Gilbride’s slant-eyed view of the eighties and his unique way of seeing all things through the eye of the mermaid – literary impressionism – what more can you ask? You need a brain to read The Rose of Harlow – don’t get it if you’re just looking for another shot of soft porn – but if you’ve got a brain and a sense of humour, then give it a go. As I say, weird, but totally unforgettable.





VIRTUAL GIRL by Amy Thomson

11 06 2014

Virtual Girl coverThis book was published in 1993. In the last twenty years, the world of Artificial Intelligence has without doubt made advances that would have seemed unimaginable then, but that is not the point. The technological side of this story, like that of many of the best SF books (call them Speculative Fantasy rather than pure Science Fiction) is simply a prop on which the human story is based. And of course even the purists rarely, if ever, get their future science right.

I said “a human story” and it is a very human story, but it is also the story of a humanoid. For the question posed here is: when (not if) we can make computers, Artificial Intelligences, conscious and self-aware, will they be “people” in their own right? Will owning them be tantamount to slavery.

But let me be quite clear about this: Virtual Girl is not the story of a machine, it is the story of a girl who at one year old, has suddenly to become a young woman and take control of her own life, albeit life on the street. In many ways the ultimate outsider, for AI has been banned and she has been created illegally by an MIT drop-out, a loner who wants the perfect companion, she proves to be the most human person in the dystopian world of this book.

SF at its very best.





THE COURT OF THE MIDNIGHT KING by Freda Warrington

1 05 2014

King Richard III

Having always been one for the bad guy, I found Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time not only to my taste but totally convincing. It was the first book on this subject that I read. Tey’s police inspector, Alan Grant, laid up in bed, becomes intrigued by the anomalies in the received version of the murder of the princes in the Tower at the hands of their uncle, Richard III, and proceeds to investigate. Her title comes from the saying “Truth is the daughter of time,” and indeed it does seem to be.

Next, I came across Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason, a romantic novel based on the life of Richard and his relationship with the original Nut-Brown Maiden, the girl who becomes the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet.

Midnight King

This may seem irrelevant in a review of a book by Freda Warrington, but these three writers have a great deal in common – a fact that Freda Warrington seems to acknowledge when she quotes Rosemary Hawley Jarman at the front of her book: “Richard is gone from us, yet his name fascinates every tongue.”

The Court of the Midnight King is the alternative universe version of the Richard III story. Here in the fifteenth century things are not what they were in our fifteenth century; almost, but not quite. For a start, the Old Religion, the religion of the Earth Mother, is flourishing and still generally accepted. They even have a motherlodge in London, though the Church is at war with it and hopes (in return for giving its support – God’s support – to the Lancastrian faction) to have goddess-worship outlawed as soon as the Lancastrians reclaim the throne. But this hatred is not reciprocated: for the daughters of Auset there is Blue Mother Mary as well as Dark Mother Auset, the Blue Virgin as well as the Dark Mother.

Our heroine, Katherine (Kate), is born into the thick of this. Eleanor, Lady Lytton, her mother, is a priestess and keeper of a shrine, and later becomes Mater Superior. Here is Kate’s initiation:

The celebrants danced in a slow circle, parting to let Eleanor and Martha through. Together they led Katherine into Briganta’s cave: the Caudron Hollow.

The night became a blue funnel, turning slowly about them. Inside the cave, they knelt before the statue, the weather-worn and primal form of the Black Mother. There Eleanor offered up perfumed oil for blessing. She slipped Kate’s gown from her shoulders, dipped her finger and annointed Katherine upon her forehead, palms and breast. A cross contained within a circle, for the elements. A serpent crowned with a crescent, for the Goddess. A pentagram, the footprint of the Queen of Sheba, for wisdom.

‘Great Mother of Darkness, we call your blessing upon Katherine our daughter. Let her go out into the world in safety. Let her walk in wisdom. Pour over her the light of your protection. Open to her your mysteries.’

This too is a love story, the story of Kate and Richard, played out not only against the background of the machinations of Warwick the Kingmaker and the Woodville clan, the tragedy of Edward IV (“The Sun In Splendour”) and the princes in the Tower, all so familiar to us, but more importantly against a background of nature-myticism and earth-magic which may have been there, but if it was has been written out of history, like the good side of Richard of Gloucester, Richard III.

Both these authors (and perhaps all three) seem to have fallen in love with their protagonist.

The quotation from We Speak No Treason, above, continues: Richard is gone from us, yet his name fascinates every tongue. A thorn bush received his crown, and on a humble beast his corpse was carried, yet a beast as lowly bore Our Saviour into Jerusalem. Did they not think on this? When they flung my liege lord over his poor mount? […] O Richard, is there a place for me beside you, above the stars?

Oh indeed, indeed. This was no ordinary event. When Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd 1485, the great gate of time clanged shut on the Middle Ages.

And as for Freda Warrington, one of the peculiarities of The Court of the Midnight King is the present-day narrator who appears for a couple of pages as a kind of Greek Chorus or interlude every fifty pages or so: and this narrator actually begins to communicate with and meet face to face the characters who inhabit that alternative universe, that world she has created in her novel. Here is the first contact. She first quotes Shakespeare:

For never yet one hour in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep 

There’s no innocence about him. He looks fully self-aware, even self-mocking. He comes not to plead mitigation, but to challenge me. I can never truly know him, but he wants to watch me try, to watch me imagining I grasp the truth only to see it slide away again. I open my arms to the challenge, to him.

Without a word he kisses me, lies down and folds himself around me and into me, like a velvet cloak.

A character in search of an author – and he certainly found her.





SHADE by Emily Devenport

23 03 2014

Shade cover

Shade, the runaway daughter of a long-gone father and an absentee mother – Mom’s a concert pianist, one of the best on Earth – who stowed away on a spaceship in light-years-distant California two years ago and now survives among the other Deadtowners living out of garbage bins on the multi-cultural (hah!) planet of Z’taruh. Why “hah!”? There are various different intelligent species – the Q’rin, the Lirri, and the Aesopians, among others – but not much culture, unless you count combat sports like fighting to the death no-holds-barred, and rat-fights, like cock-fights or dog-fights, but between giant marsh-rats and again always to the death. Oh, and not much sign of intelligence, either.

The only ones she likes are the Aesopians.

Early in the book, she is with a mixed group of assorted humans and sub-humans when somebody calls the Aesopians “ugly bastards” and says they were “made out of household pets”.

‘The Aesopians made themselves,’ I said. God knows why I bothered.
He glared at me. ‘Shut up, bitch.’
‘No one knows what they originally looked like,’ I lectured. ‘They worshipped animals for thousands of years. When their technology was advanced enough, they started playing with their genes, trying to imitate the characteristics of their gods.’
‘Who the fuck cares?’
‘They were more successful than they could have dreamed. Soon the different animal-types could not interbreed. Powerful families began to gain control, and war broke out between the groups. Lion, bear, elephant and wolf stuck together against horse, eagle and cobra. The wars lasted hundreds of years and ravaged the planet. The survivors were thrown into a dark age.’
‘Jezus, somebody shut her up!’

But in Deadtown the mix is rather different. Babies, Scarbabies, Skids, Ragnir vets, G-workers, tinkers, dogs. One big, ugly family, all incestuous and diseased. But all better than the thing I was sitting next to.

The thing she was sitting next to was a Lirri.

Knossos, an Aesopian elephant man, and the only person on the planet – indeed in the entire universe – that she has any time for, tells her:

‘Listen. Whether someone is your friend or your enemy does not depend on the shape of his body or the place he was born.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I know.’
And I did. Wasn’t I standing there with the elephant man, respecting him more than I did myself and wishing I could follow him back into hiding?

The book is studded with one-liners you just want to quote, like:

Lately I got the feeling that the people I thought I knew never really existed.

and

‘How old did you think I was?’ she asked.
‘Eighteen. Nineteen.’
She hugged me like it was some big compliment. It wasn’t. Arrested development isn’t anything to be proud of.

and

Making music and painting pictures are two of the three things humans do best. Guess what the third is. No, I’m not telling you.

and, talking about war, Knossos tells her: ‘Where there is no conflict, there is no life.’

And what about this? She was looking for Snag, a Q’rin, so she went to the morning rat-fights … Sure enough, he was there by late morning, all bright-eyed about watching his favourite kind of meal hop around and bleed. Remind you of Spain?








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