Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

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Shadow and Bone: The Grisha Book 1 by Leigh Bardugo, Indigo, 308 pgs, £6.99 paperback, 2013

I must admit, I sometimes get a little leery of debut novels, that wariness mostly to do with the inevitable hyperbole which surrounds the book’s release. Just occasionally, however, along comes a debut that really does justify the fanfare, and Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone is one of those.

The circumstances of life can turn on the simplest of occurrences; for Alina, an apprentice cartographer, that point happens when, sand-skiffing through the Shadow Fold, her conveyance is attacked by strange airborne creatures inhabiting this smoky, insubstantial region. In saving her childhood friend Mal, a tracker in the army, she inadvertently unleashes a power that could save her world – but at what cost?

That, in essence, is the premise of this eminently accomplished first novel. It’s a beautifully-written and –realised tale of one girl growing up in a world that is far more complicated and dangerous than she gives it credit for. It’s also a tale of how even the humblest of mortals, blessed with something miraculous, can rise above unpromising beginnings and soar to the heights. More importantly perhaps, it doesn’t shy away from warning us that even the most precious of gifts can be nothing more than double-edged swords, simultaneously both a blessing and a curse. It’s this that strikes at the very heart of this novel.

Alina and Mal are orphans, taken in by Duke Keramzov and brought up accordingly by the harsh Ana Kuya. At a certain age, both are tested to gauge whether either of them are potential Grisha, an order of what are, to all intents and purposes, magic workers or, more appropriately perhaps, element manipulators. Some of these Grisha are fire wielders or wind-callers, or work wonders with materials or are healers – there’s even a type of ‘plastic surgeon’. Each branch of manipulator is arranged into orders, and all are ultimately subordinated to the Darkling, a handsome, dangerous black-clad leader of men, who in turn answers to a largely ineffectual, louche King. When Alina and Mal are tested, however, they are found to be unremarkable and so are eventually conscripted into the army, to become a cartographer and a tracker respectively.

The power Alina unintentionally unleashes on the sand skiff turns out to be utterly singular – she’s that rarest of creatures and talents, a Sun Summoner. The Darkling, whose somewhat malign reputation places him at a considerable distance above the heads of ordinary folk in the thunderclouds of suspicion and dread, becomes interested in what her power portends. Subsequently, he tells Alina that, with her power the Shadow Fold and all that lies within it can be destroyed, freeing the land and returning the world to how it once was. The Darkling’s motives appear benign; after all, everything covered by the Shadow Fold has been laid to waste and filled with creatures inimical to humans, making crossing it a hazardous enterprise. It was an ancestor of the Darkling’s, the Black Heretic, who brought the Fold into being several hundred years previously: the Darkling wishes to right the wrong, but he needs what Alina possesses in order to accomplish it. The question is, can she afford to trust him?

Alina, as portrayed by Bardugo, is, for all her humble beginnings, a remarkable girl. Despite being scrawny and a little weak, she holds within her slight frame a strong streak of toughness. She’s the one who instinctively springs into action when Mal is hurt on the skiff during their journey through the Fold, selflessly throwing herself on his prone body to protect him from the predations of the Volcra. Even when she’s taken back to the Little Palace, the Darkling’s stronghold in the capital Os Alta, she finds the environment and training challenging and intimidating, but nevertheless she toughs it out and, under the guidance of her tutors, learns to accept and control the mighty power she holds within her.

It is here, though, within the confines of the Palace, that she truly begins to grow as a person. Her previous circumstances have meant that she could only do one thing: be a survivor, disdaining frivolity and idleness, and eschewing any kind of luxury. Taken under the Darkling’s wing, her situation changes dramatically: Alina learns that much depends on her ability to harness her power, and that doubt and uncertainty make for dangerous enemies at crucial moments. Additionally, through the help of Genya (maidservant to the somewhat haughty Queen) she learns how to become a woman, ultimately revelling in the minutiae of femininity she denied herself as being alien to her nature. Genya’s gift is to teach her to see herself through new eyes and in doing so to gain the confidence she lacks, helping her to mature in both physical and metal terms.

Likewise, the supporting characters of the Grisha residing in the Little Palace inadvertently teach her about her own inner strength, even people like the empty-headed Nadia and Marie as well as the conceited and ultimately jealous Zoya. This is one of Bardugo’s strengths: she has a knack of drawing detailed and entirely believable portraits with broad brushstrokes and few words – likewise the world in which they and Alina have their being. Apart from the elements of ‘magic’ (or Small Science, as it’s termed here), the world described in Shadow and Bone is not so different from how our world would have looked just a few centuries ago.

Where Bardugo excels is in the storytelling. The pace is never forced but races along at a fair pace, the main thrust of the narrative delineating the necessary points of action without any extraneous fluff. And where the action slows down, Bardugo fills out the character of Alina through her own thoughts and concerns. Alina possesses a good bit of insight into her own being, but also manages to draw on her inner strength to do what’s necessary to move forward. A particularly good example of this is when she goes through an epiphany regarding her unrequited feelings for her childhood companion Mal: it’s those feelings which have held her back so that, in order to evolve, she must let go of them. It’s a great piece of writing – the shedding of that weight, both emotionally and metaphysically, attests to the maturing and tempering of Alina’s character through the difficult situation she finds herself in. Over and above that, there’s a bit of everything here: action, comedy, danger, frivolity and romance, but all of it is as essential to the plot as oxygen is to breathing. No word is wasted, and the language flows beautifully, never once betraying it as a YA novel – this is a book that treats its readers as people capable of understanding what’s going on without the need for condescending explanation.

Many debut authors are touted as having promise: while I can’t vouch for others I can say that Leigh Bardugo, if she carries on writing books of this calibre, definitely has a great deal of promise and potential. I felt myself being immersed completely into Alina’s world from the opening lines, and I did indeed find it difficult to surface into the real world when I was required to. I suspect that the appeal will be much broader than just the usual fantasy readership: above that, reading this would also serve as a useful primer on how to write that first novel, in terms of pacing, characterisation, dialogue, and structure. There are a lot of good writers out there, of whom Leigh Bardugo is undoubtedly one – but she also has the potential to go even further than just being a good writer. Recommended reading.

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The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher

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The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher, Jo Fletcher Books, 308 pages, £7.99 paperback, 2012

Some stories are rawer than others. Tom Fletcher’s The Ravenglass Eye is one such story that’s rawer than most: here we have people who are damaged in some way, damaged by nature, event or circumstance. And yet, for all that, these are ordinary people, living lives that aren’t in any way different to those of others in other places. However, in some senses it’s where these people have their existence that makes them who and what they are, as well the events depicted here.

So, what’s the story? Ravenglass is a village near the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Plant in Cumbria (North West England, just below the border with Scotland). Edie Grace is the dreadlocked chef at the local pub called The Tup and she occasionally has visions which have turned out to be true. On a visit with a friend to a stone circle tucked away in the hills near the Sellafield plant, a minor earthquake strikes as she touches one of the stones and subsequently the visions intensify as well as bringing with it something not altogether pleasant. From that point on the world changes and not just for her but for everybody else too, in ways that no one could have ever have thought possible. These changes are anything but benign: death and decay follow in their wake,  the agent a malignancy that is as old as time.

Fletcher uses landscape and incident well – in just the opening chapter one is made aware of the isolation of the fells and hills in which the village of Ravenglass finds itself, and that this place holds secrets from the long ago. Every sentence practically breathes eerie mystery: right from the very beginning it’s apparent that the location of the story is entwined with strangeness and a subsurface disquiet, an ever-present feeling that amidst the beauty of the place’s environs there’s a disturbing presence that has seeped into the very bones of the land. It is an old landscape, after all. That acute sense of isolation and oddity is reflected in the characters that people this almost untouched landscape: Edie has always been set apart not just by the fact of her living alone in her caravan behind the pub where she works but also by her talent (though she was not quite aware of the extent of it); Maria, the Polish pub landlord, and her son Gabe, a heavy-metal loving teenager in a dull village where nothing exciting ever happens and so is an easy target; Don, whose wife Mags is in the thrall of dementia, who waters the pub’s plants daily and eats his supper there, apparently preferring the company of anyone other than his lost wife; John Platt senior and junior, who are both seemingly adrift, the older one because he’s lost his wife to cancer and his son unsure of where he fits into the world; and Phillip the curmudgeonly cynic, unable or unwilling to see anything but darkness in others, a man who harbours insalubrious secrets of his own and is a thoroughly unpleasant and bigoted man into the bargain. The latter is aided and abetted by an equally filthy specimen of humanity, Keith, a reporter.

At base, this story isn’t merely about the shade of a long-dead king of an ancient tribe (whom Edie refers to as The Candle) being resurrected and reclaiming the land he once ruled. It raises questions about what the terms ‘land’ and ‘country’ actually mean, and the kind of people who dwell within it. Phillip sees his ‘country’ as being sundered by incoming hordes of foreigners, and by youth who dress strangely and listen to ‘satanic’ music. It’s the typical strategy of scapegoating the vulnerable and the ‘other’, the ones who don’t fit into their standards of normal. The Candle sees the land around the stone circle at Greycoft as his by right, so he’s merely taking what’s his – killing or subverting those who now inhabit it is a secondary consideration. The point is, I feel, that land remains whatever it’s meant to be, regardless of whose feet walk upon it, and that the idea of ‘country’ being a certain thing and nothing else is vacuous and empty at its core. It is mere concept, forced upon something which is at once beyond unforgiving solidity and simultaneously malleable, a quality which can be bent to purpose. In other words, meaning is in the mind of the beholder – the land itself is a static quality and cannot articulate meaning, so it has to be imposed from the outside.

All the characters, barring those of Phillip, Keith and The Candle, are likeable enough; even so, there’s a strong ambiguity pervading their personalities. It’s difficult to pin down, but at the same time making them essentially very human. This is particularly true of Edie: ignoring the fact that she has visions, she is very much detached from the majority of humanity, refusing to live by perceived norms. This detachment manifests itself quite strongly in the middle third of the book, the point where the scenario begins to play out.  On the other hand, Phillip (and people like him) feels quite strongly in his convictions, despite his limited experience of anything outside Ravenglass allied to a very narrow worldview. Fletcher’s ability to draw characters so sharply stems not so much from physical description, but from their actions – this gives them all a heightened solidity and believability. These are real people, with real lives and real concerns.

Ravenglass and its surrounding environs exist within a timeless neverwhere, a place where the old ways were never quite suppressed and are merely hibernating, waiting for a chance to re-emerge. Even the familiar things of the everyday sit uncomfortably within the landscape: the land merely tolerates our presence and allows us to live within its embrace, while simultaneously allowing our illusion of conquering it. Fletcher is a dab hand at creating that disturbing and unsettling atmosphere of a place not quite belonging, even if the elements of that place are of the everyday variety. It’s the seamless juxtaposition of the ordinary with hints of the extraordinary that particularly works well in The Ravenglass Eye: nothing is as it seems, and the very essence of the landscape itself gives one the unshakeable feeling that reality is plastic, or that the nature of its solidity is fleeting from moment to moment. See that standing stone? Walk behind it and meet a creature from dream. Cross that boundary and gaze upon alien vistas of marvellous beauty. That’s the kind of place Fletcher has written about here.

Indeed, for the time I was reading this I felt almost adrift, that I was floating in some dimension other than this one. The temporal and spatial dislocation was quite unnerving at times: one parallel reality bleeding into another. Very few books I have read have managed this: Tom Fletcher’s fluid handling of his subject and the atmosphere he’s imbued it with is magnificent. I can only end this review by saying that he is to be commended for this, and that you should go out and add this to your collection. Thoroughly recommended.

Path of Needles by Alison Littlewood

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Path of Needles by Alison Littlewood, Jo Fletcher Books, 390 pages, £7.99 paperback, 2013

Have you ever met Alison Littlewood? If you’ve been lucky enough to do so, then you’ll know she is one of the sweetest, most approachable people you’re ever likely to encounter, graced with one of the cheekiest grins. Then you read one of her books, and the cognitive dissonance starts to short-circuit your neural pathways, threatening to fry the synapses irrevocably and leave you a drooling idiot. How can such a lovely young woman write stuff like THIS, you ask yourself wonderingly?

This reviewer is one man who is insanely glad that she does. Going straight from reading Seth Patrick’s Reviver, a flawed and contrived thriller that ultimately left me a little frustrated, to Alison’s latest novel, Path of Needles, the contrast between the two couldn’t be more sharply delineated. Instantly, one is aware that one is reading an assured writer, confident in her ability to tell a story that draws the reader in relentlessly from the very start, and that it will refuse to let go until the last word has been absorbed. It pulls no punches either in its telling: grief, anger, bafflement, and confusion laid bare, emotion in the raw, and just like nature red in tooth and claw.

Cate Corbin is your average community police officer, dealing with the usual, humdrum neighbourly disputes, cases of theft and other minor misdemeanours, but she does have ambitions to move beyond the parochial and into something more substantial and meaningful. Her chance comes, unexpectedly, in the form of the body of a young girl found strangely posed in woodland near her home. Looking at the scene, she realises that there’s a reason why the corpse has been positioned in the way it has: in death, the girl has taken on the attributes of a character in a fairy tale, specifically Snow White. Her colleagues, in particular the Senior Investigating Officer Heath, dismiss the theory as being fanciful and clutching at straws.

Luckily, Alice Hyland is a lecturer in literature at a nearby university and she specialises in fairy tales. She confirms that yes, the way the body of the young girl was posed when found is suggestive of the Snow White tale but, to complicate the matter, it isn’t just the familiar tale we all know but a particular variant of the tale originating in Italy. This means that the perpetrator appears to be an expert in folklore themselves, having gone to extreme lengths to stage that precise tableaux. Cate’s theory is further backed up when a second carefully-posed body is found in the same woodland: this time it’s Little Red Riding Hood who takes centre stage.

Threading through the story is a disturbing sense of reality being severely out of kilter, and this is broadcast not just through the bloody re-enactments of old tales from European folklore but also in the presence of a strange blue bird flitting around the woodland centred on Alice’s cottage. Initially, we’re not quite sure whether it’s real: when other characters start reporting seeing it then we know that it isn’t a figment of Alice’s imagination. Alice herself is almost a character from a story-book – a fay, sylphlike presence, seemingly more connected to her beloved fairy tales than to the real world. Certainly she moves through the woodlands surrounding her cottage as if she isn’t actually anchored to anything real, or that the existence she inhabits is beyond the reach of normal humans.

Cate on the other hand, becomes the intermediary between the unworldly university lecturer and the SIO, Heath. He’s the complete opposite: firmly rooted in the ‘real’ world, preferring to be dictated to by facts and evidence. Cate is somewhere in between – reacting to intuition and hunches but also looking for the evidence to back those nebulous assertions up. She’s also portrayed as a career woman, someone who would like to climb the promotional ladder and get involved in something less provincial – she refuses to set down roots, so that when the time arrives there’s nothing to hold her back. The series of bizarre occurrences upsetting the local community provide her with ample opportunity to push those boundaries.

Trotting out the cliché of this being a rollercoaster ride seems like it would be a terrible disservice to the author, but there really isn’t any other way to describe it. The set-up takes its time without being overlong in doing so, after which the plot suddenly rushes headlong into a breathless careening from revelation to revelation. There are suspects aplenty, and we are given reasons galore as to why it could be any of them. Everything seems to slot neatly into place and then, just when it all seems settled and we have our perpetrator, another layer of the story is revealed that throws all into doubt, and we are left having to tie all the disparate strands together again.

As I averred above, this is a writer at her most confident. Mixing reality with the fantastical is a difficult juggling act at the best of times: it’s easy enough introducing such elements into a real world narrative but doing so seamlessly is where the true art lies. Littlewood, I can say unhesitatingly, manages it admirably. The prose is sharp, drawing the reader in from the opening paragraphs with a practised ease that’s almost enviable in its effortlessness. I read this in two sittings – it would have been a single session had I not started reading the book late in the day. This is one of those novels that really does grab you by the lapels and then proceeds to hurl you into the maelstrom, not even allowing you to surface for air.

I referred to fairy tales a couple of reviews ago when I talked about Sarah Pinborough’s Poison. In it, I mentioned that the true origins of the fairy tale were in our deep and dark past, their content reflecting the nastiness and brutishness of life back then. Path of Needles brings that home painfully and graphically. And let me just say that the murders aren’t in the least pleasant, in their unflinching depiction or in their implications for the victims. It’s a closely observed story, weaving fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, story and academic interpretation in a clever way, and then wrapping it up in a package of police procedural. After you put the book down, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t be able to look at the fairy tale in quite the same way. I can also say these folktales have regained what the Victorian compilers took away from them. This is one book you should immediately go out and grab.

Reviver by Seth Patrick

Reviver, Seth Patrick

Reviver by Seth Patrick, Macmillan, 409 pages, £12.99 Royal Hardback, 2013

We’ve all seen the new wave of police/detective procedural programmes coming out of America over the last couple of decades or so, the CSIs, the NCISs, the Law & Orders and the Criminal Minds. The ones where tireless and relentless detectives, armed with the latest in forensics hardware and software, persuade the silent dead to speak and to point the finger of accusation. Reviver, the debut novel from Seth Patrick, takes this idea one step further: the dead do in fact speak and finger the perpetrators themselves.

To wit, Jonah Miller is one such reviver, an ex-member of a revival research group called Baseline and now a man employed by the state law enforcement authorities to briefly bring the recently deceased back to life so they can tell the living exactly who it was who murdered them. The pivot around which the plot revolves involves Daniel Harker, the journalist who broke the story of the very first reviver (Eleanor Preston) to the world and paved the way for its acceptance by the general public, whose badly decomposing body is found in a basement after having gone missing. Everything points to an organisation calling itself Afterlifers, which believes that revivals are wrong and should be stopped entirely: however, after the practise has proved of immense value in identifying killers and thence bringing them to justice, public opposition quietens dramatically which leaves the group isolated. Jonah is called in to perform a revival, to find out whether Daniel’s murder was simply the actions of some extremists or if there is a lot more to it than that, something deeper and altogether more sinister…

Let me just say here that crime and thriller fiction aren’t within my normal reading parameters, although those crime series mentioned in the opening paragraph have all been in my radar at one time or another. In other words, this review is based entirely on a personal reading of this book, based on nothing more than a subjective but self-contained reaction to the story. It helps, of course (for this old horrorhead, at least), that a series of fantastical paranormal elements form the backbone of the plot, elements that add spice to a story that, it has to be said, is fairly straightforward. In that sense, there isn’t anything new here to shout about, apart from the macabre side-story involving the revivers.

There were too many inconsistencies in the book for me to thoroughly enjoy the book. It certainly isn’t a bad book by any means: the story itself is decent enough, perfectly adequately written and paced. By the same token, it’s flawed in ways that perhaps a more experienced writer would have avoided. The explication at the beginning felt too prosaic, and the flat retelling of first this happened, then that, leading to the inevitable conclusion, was just too pat and, maybe, felt a little hurried in a kind of ‘let’s get this quickly out of the way’ manner. On top of that too many peculiarly British idioms turn up in what is ostensibly a story firmly based in the US. Never Geary, a technician and one of Jonah’s closest friends, uses the word mate (as in “I’m fine, mate”) and shag, which jarred me out of the flow on a regular basis. Nowhere was it mentioned that Geary was a British ex-pat, which would have explained the use of such a specifically alien idiom.

Additionally, I felt that the whole could have had a much firmer editorial hand applied to it. The rhythmic peaks and troughs that comprise any kind of book felt almost forced here, as if the slower portions were afterthoughts slotted in to conform to a rigid formula. Even allowing for a debut novel, I thought that much of the first third could have had a sizeable amount of text excised without affecting the story itself. Furthermore, although we guess from the start that the strands involving Jonah and Annabel will converge and intertwine it takes quite a while to get there (practically halfway through). There is obviously meant to be some sort of sexual friction between the two when they do meet, which partly explains the reappearance of Tess Neil, a woman the orphan Jonah met at Baseline when he was seventeen and lusted after without it ever being reciprocated, at his superior’s retirement party. The problem is that her return ultimately feels irrelevant and unnecessary, not really adding anything to the story – presumably then it is included as a means to bring closure to the episode in his younger days as well as some titillation. Over and above that, Tess showing up when she does seems too convenient and contrived.

This convenience happens on quite a few occasions – things needed to progress the story just seem to fall into Jonah and Annabel’s hands at precisely the right moment, plus Annabel’s habit of acquiring sensitive information just seems too good to be true (even though she’s a journalist with connections). Her ‘hacker guy in London’ seems too handy an excuse not to have to go into too much detail about her sources. If I’m honest, the narrative doesn’t ring true, as if the characters are merely acting out a carefully-scripted play.

I don’t like being negative about someone’s work, especially when it comes to sitting down to write a book and finishing it. Looking at it from the point of being an editor, however, I just felt that a lot more could have been done to bring it under control and to help shape it into something less contrived. There’s the core of a great story here, but I think the meeting of the two main characters could have happened sooner, a lot of the back-story could have been cut out or condensed into fewer pages: the flow was interrupted too many times. Plus a little less of events happening almost magically at the very instant they were needed would have gone a little way into making it more believable.

The central conceit, that of the revivers and the act of revival itself (as well as its potentially deleterious side effects), is something that, ignoring everything else I have said above, is well-handled and described. There is a particularly gruesome scene during Jonah’s revival of the decomposed body of Daniel Harker, which will truly make the squeamish squirm with its graphic description. What does come across well is the fact that, although revival has been enormously helpful in securing justice for those who are unable to speak for themselves, it’s a thoroughly unpleasant way of getting the necessary information. Certainly, as one gets further into the book, one wonders why people would even consider a career as a reviver.

Patrick definitely has potential: he can turn a fine phrase and his descriptive prowess is more than adequate. In my humble estimation, I think he just needs a better editor to take him in hand and work on cutting out unnecessary verbiage which isn’t needed. There’s a story desperately crying to get out here, but it’s drowned by an excess of words. Saying that, I would be interested to see where Patrick goes from here and how he develops as a writer.

Poison by Sarah Pinborough

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Poison by Sarah Pinborough, Gollancz, 200 pages, £12.99 hardback, 2013.

Fairy tales are as old as time, or so it appears. Certainly they’ve been around for untold centuries, educating, informing and entertaining generations of children (and adults, too). In times when literacy was a rarity, the telling of these tales was one way of disseminating cultural mores and promoting social cohesion amongst villagers. However, there’s one thing that perhaps a good number of people out there are unaware of: although the stories gradually evolved and changed in their telling (as all living stories do), collectors and compilers of the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen changed and bent them to their own agendas. The original, traditional fairy tale was an often dark and grim affair, and would surely be deemed unsuitable for today’s children: let’s not forget that back then they reflected life as it was, a time when life expectancy was short and many children never made it beyond their first five years. Much of their content was sanitised and moralised by the later editors, the stories being moulded to conform to Victorian notions of morality, propriety and gender roles. One could aver, then, that what we have today are bowdlerised redactions of the originals, which are missing most of their power and intent.

Writers such as the late Angela Carter and the very much alive Angela Slatter have reworked these stories for modern sensibilities, reinstating as far as is possible the subtexts they were initially meant to convey. And now, we can add another name and book to the roster: Sarah Pinborough, who has just released Poison, the first in a trilogy of reinterpretations of classic fairy tales. This slim volume takes the traditional Snow White story, and wrangles it into a version that would give Walt Disney several aneurysms with some grit and unabashed sexuality. The basic elements and characters are recognisably still there, of course: it wouldn’t be Snow White otherwise. It’s just that said elements and characters have been forced into disassembling themselves, only to be put back together into much more adult renditions.

Okay, before I go any further, let’s have a short recap of what’s going here. The King has gone off to war (again) and left his second wife, who he married after being widowed, in charge of the kingdom. The new Queen is intensely jealous of the natural beauty of her step-daughter and her consequent popularity: almost as soon as the King’s out the portcullis on his way to the new war, things begin to change in the kingdom, at the heart of it a desire to strike fear and suspicion in its citizens. In tandem with this is a ruse to mould her stepdaughter into a proper princess, so she can marry her off to some suitable eligible bachelor prince and thence get her out from the castle. The Queen’s inner bitterness eats at her and so she indulges in all manner of schemes to oust Snow White from her life, but somehow none of them come to fruition.

All the stock characters are present and accounted for: the Wicked Stepmother, the even Wickeder Step-grandmother, the Kindly King, the Seven Dwarves (including one called Bolshy!), The Huntsman and The Handsome Prince. However, they’re not quite as we’ve come to know them. The Snow White in this iteration is still vulnerable, but it’s allied to an unconscious sassiness and sensuality coupled with an untamed (and untameable) wildness and free spirit. She rides a horse like a man, laughs regularly with the simple joy of life itself, and can drink most other men under the table – traits one would think were totally unbecoming of royalty. The Queen, although icily beautiful in her own right, possesses an unconstrained jealousy of Snow White; the girl’s natural charms and unaffected manner, plus her famed beauty, reminding her of everything that she is not. A nasty piece of work, to be sure, but the motivation behind her ill-will is less to do with pure nastiness than insecurity and a sharp self-awareness of her precarious position. Additionally, she’s goaded by her grandmother who, despite the outward appearance of being a typically mild, crumpled and harmless elderly relative, bears a streak of calculated cruelty seven leagues wide. Furthermore, The Handsome Prince isn’t all he’s cracked up to be either, being something of a stick-in-the-mud beholden to his own princely perceptions. As light relief we have the Dwarves, who are as coarse and rough around the edges as the miners they are.

What Pinborough does here is to subvert so many of the nominal tropes of the fairy tale: it’s a deeply psychological novel, with accurately observed character portraits of the main players and why they act the way they do. There are complex interactions between all the characters and those actions are based on perfectly feasible and very human desires and motivations. Snow White just wishes to remain as wild and as free as she’s always been, while The Handsome Prince just wants a beautiful (but acquiescent) princess as his wife. The Queen, on the other hand, wants no other competition to get in the way of her schemes. As in real-life, things aren’t quite as easy as the fairy tales make them seem, and lines and boundaries of behaviour and social contexts aren’t quite as well-drawn as we seem to think they are. Add to that the fact that solid definitions of good versus evil and morality are incredibly nebulous and osmotic at the best of times, one bleeding into the other freely, and viewpoint is entirely dependent on personal perspective: one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and all that that implies.

For me, this briskly and breezily told tale wasn’t just about the story itself, but its subtext, whether intended or not. It appears to be saying that, despite what people tell you, we are all, whether rich or poor, destined to be left with disappointment in the end and that we will ultimately lose what we hold most dear. Life isn’t like it is in the fairy tales – it has an edge as sharp as any magical blade, one that will cut right through you. What one wishes for and what one gets are two completely different quantities.

On a more positive note, Miss Pinborough does a brilliant job of emphasising the ambiguity in what leads people to do what they do, especially in those who feel they have a natural entitlement to the reins of power. But, above all that is the stripping away of any notion of rigidly artificial codes of moral behaviour, to leave us the real person in its stead. Snow White is, after all, is something of an Earth Goddess, unafraid of who she is and completely unapologetic for all that. Tropes are wonderfully subverted in this tale, but to good ends. It shows how one utterly free and natural being is a threat to both men AND women, as well highlighting the nebulous reality of societal precepts. Nature has given us one thing and, instead of embracing it as it is, we have attempted to corral and control it. Snow White, in effect, is what unbridled nature wants, in fact needs, to be.

A highly recommended read and I am very much looking forward to catching up with the sequel volumes.

Emilie & the Hollow World by Martha Wells

Emilie & the Hollow World

Emilie & the Hollow World by Martha Wells, Strange Chemistry, 287 pages, £8.99 (B-format paperback), 2013

Literature is full of resourceful heroines, and Martha Wells’ Young Adult fantasy tale adds another name of such a one in the shape of Emilie (we don’t get to know her second name), a sixteen year-old girl who has managed to run away from her tyrannical uncle and aunt. It’s plain that Emilie exists in a world where womanhood is defined by feminine and domestic accomplishments, often ordained by the males. It’s implied that Emilie longs to see the outside world she’s read about in popular (and somewhat exaggerated) novels, to learn practical skills other than embroidery and homecraft, leading her to decide that she needs to be with her cousin, who helps out at the Karthea school, where such skills are taught. She intends to stow away on a boat at the docks, but there’s only one problem with the execution of the plan: due to bad luck intervening, she’s ended up not on the boat which would take her to Silk Harbor where said cousin resides, but on another vessel entirely. However, this particular ship isn’t headed to another port further up the coast, but somewhere entirely different: the world that exists at the very centre of the earth.

That, indeed, is the basic premise of the novel: the ship that Emilie stows aboard is a marvellous ship of uncanny design called the Sovereign, and this is where her adventures in the inner world begin. The ship is a mixture of science and magic, a gleaming steampunk contraption powered by spells and aetheric currents abundant in the sea and air. Miss Marlende, whose father created the technology, is also aboard this wondrous conveyance, in the hopes of repatriating Marlende pater to the surface after his expedition to the Hollow World had got into difficulties and failed to return. Other expedition members include the wealthy Lord Engal, a gruff, blustery gentleman who appears to be the leader of the rescue mission, his assistant the distrustful (and somewhat murky) Dr. Barshion, and the reptilian humanoid Kenar, a Cirathi native of the inner earth. As in all good stories of this nature, there’s a dastardly antagonist who appears later on in the mix too: Lord Ivers, another wealthy aristocrat intent on using the science of aetherism to enrich himself but at Engal’s expense.

Perhaps it was just me, but it reminded me a tiny bit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here, and not just because Emilie falls down a hole in the ground (or a fissure at the bottom of the sea, in this case) or that she finds herself in a strange place quite unlike anything she’s known at the bottom of said hole. Like Alice, she’s practical, clever, and intelligent, plus she’s not averse to standing up for herself against adults and, although the Hollow World is a wholly unfamiliar place, she adapts to her predicament quickly. Additionally, she is anything but a shrinking violet: she is plucky enough to swing an axe at an invading sea creature early on in the book as well as effecting an escape from confinement by Lord Ivers, and in the process saving Kenar’s companion Rani.

This is a fabulously fulsome adventure, the pace cracking along breathlessly, the turns and heart-stopping moments piling on themselves while simultaneously revealing a world unlike, yet eerily similar to, our own. Double-crossing and deception are not confined to homo sapiens alone, it seems; neither are murky motives hidden behind offers of help. Emilie herself is an infinitely likeable character: sharp, able to think quickly on her feet and willing to take the odd risk here and there. Wells has erred on the right side in regards to her traits, however – she’s a very believable and very human girl, not some kind of invincible superheroine who escapes any kind of consequences. Miss Marlende is also likeable too – indeed she’s something of a cynical grown-up version of the main protagonist, but better armed and with more money. Lord Engal remains something of an unknown quantity right until just before the end and Lord Ivers is just the epitome of a complete cad, and an overbearingly arrogant one at that.

Apart from Emilie, the most detailed characters are those of Kenar and Rani, the Cirathi. Despite their alien nature, their human attributes are endearing: they care deeply for each other, they display their concern for their fellows openly and yet they are fearless when the need calls for it. These traits are in direct contrast to those of the merpeople, the beings whose territory encompasses the abandoned cities dotted around the seemingly endless seas of the inner earth. These beings are human in their own way too, I suppose, but tending to the less palatable aspects of the surface world dwellers. The landscape in which the drama is played out is fantastical yet utterly realistic for all that – one can imagine that such places are not outside the bounds of possibilities, and that the whole is somehow firmly rooted in the real world.

Finally, I have to note that, unlike some YA, Martha Wells’ prose refuses to adopt a condescending tone, assuming that its readership has more than a modicum of intelligence and is fully able to grasp concepts. It doesn’t quite broach adult subjects, mainly because they aren’t needed to bolster the story. Having said that, there are hints of a potential romance but we’re left to ponder that one as the book ends.

I loved this book, finding the heroine entirely believable and completely endearing. Emilie is not quite old enough to completely let go of the child within but yet not so young that she hasn’t developed a slightly cynical edge. In many respects she’s tantamount to being a great role model: assertive and self-confident but also aware of her limits. The tale itself is in the best tradition of the adventure story, reminding me somewhat of some of the material I used to read as a child – tomes by such luminaries as Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Yes, it’s escapism, but grounded in humanity and morality. You can’t really ask for more than that from a book.

(And what a stunning cover – sure to stand out in any bookshop display!)

The Emperor of all Things by Paul Witcover

Emperor-of-All-Things

The Emperor of all Things (Book 1 of The Productions of Time) by Paul Witcover, Bantam Press, 447 pages, £12.99 (tpb), 2013

I have come to a certain conclusion: reading a good book is like being in a time machine. Not just because of the period in which said book is set, but also in the way physical time appears to flow very differently. Such is the case in this particular instance, the first volume in The Productions of Time series, which is highly appropriate since its plot is based around time or, more specifically, timepieces. To be even narrower in specificity, Witcover’s tale revolves around a particularly wondrous timepiece, whose provenance is equally marvellous.

It is the mid-eighteenth century: location – London. England is at war with her nearest neighbour and eternal enemy France, but it isn’t going well for the former. Each side seeks to discover advantages over the other, thereby being assured of the final victory. To this end, the respective governments send out spies and agents provocateur to glean anything that might be useful in procuring that advantage. This is where Daniel Quare, a lowly journeyman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers (a shadowy organisation in its own right), comes in: he is tasked by his superior, Master Magnus, in procuring the rumoured timepiece, as its secrets will be extremely useful in besting France. It is known who has acquired it and Quare has been sent to retrieve it discreetly – but, of course, actually getting hold of it is anything but simple.

Ever taken the back off an analogue watch, to inspect the workings inside? And, once those workings have been revealed, have you ever marvelled at the intricacy of the engineering and precision that goes into creating such a clock or watch? Additionally, has your sense of awe ever increased exponentially as you realise that each component, every wheel, gear and cog, has been handcrafted to tolerances almost on the verge of being superhuman? The same could be said of this book.

Witcover’s plotting is every bit as complex as the inner mechanism of a finely crafted pocket-watch – gears within gears, as a chapter title appropriately proclaims. As one gets deeper into the novel, one realises that the larger picture, ie the gears and cogs immediately apparent to the naked eye, is only the beginning: look more closely and it’s clear that there’s a bewildering array of ever-smaller gears and cogs upon which the larger versions are dependent and without which the piece wouldn’t work. Just when one thinks that all has become sharply focused and straightforward, it’s abruptly discernible that there are even more layers of plot and action beneath.

Luckily, Witcover is in total command here – like the most skilled of horologists, every element carefully dovetails into the overall scheme and, while undoubtedly complex in ambition and effect, never overwhelms. The narrative clips along at a fair pace, the twists and turns arriving at almost regular intervals, like bells striking the hour. If that gives a potential reader the impression that the tale is one of predictable monotony, then be assured that that assessment is furthest from the truth – the plot is marvellously and cleverly constructed so that each new surprise is exactly that: a surprise. Additionally, as many of you should know by now, I have a fascination for lyrical language and prose, and this has it in abundance – Witcover has clearly researched his material closely and deeply, the overall effect being one of plunging the reader into the midst of the eighteenth century. The language employed is tightly controlled, with only the occasional lapse into a more modern idiom at the start – but, in all honesty, that’s an exceedingly minor quibble. The only other fault, if fault it can be called, is a slight winding down of pace in the central portion, where the action shifts both temporally and personally to Lord Wichcote and his stay (as a younger man) in the very odd little Alpine town of Märchen, which has its own horological secrets. However, the action and intrigue ramps up once more in the final third of the book.

The cast of characters are as varied as some of the automatons incorporated into a number of spectacular Continental town hall and cathedral clocks. To name just a few, there’s Quare himself, a headstrong youth who acts before he thinks; Master Magnus, the deformed man who has the air of the Other about him; Sir Thaddeus Wolfe, the scheming Grand Master of the Worshipful Company and his equally ruthless right hand man, Master Malrubius:  Aylesford, a tempestuous Scotsman, a man almost too handy with his sword; Lord Wichcote, a somewhat enigmatic collector of strange and bizarre timepieces: Inge Hubner, the large but sensuous landlady of the Hearth and Home, the only inn in Märchen; Corinna, the sole child of Herr Doppler, a fay sylphlike creature intent on becoming a master horologer herself. Each brings life, colour and depth to an already deeply philosophical and intellectual tale, investing the world which Witcover creates with sharply defined clarity and believability.

As to the device itself, it is a grotesquely sinister invention of the imagination, an artefact that itself holds secrets far vaster and more dangerous than any of the earthly protagonists either suspect or are even capable of coping with. Its origins are hinted at right at the very beginning, and its purpose is only gradually revealed as the narrative unfolds. Is it any wonder that emperors and kings are willing to sacrifice anything and everything to gain what it has to offer? The timepiece itself, however, might not be such a willing accomplice…

I sometimes find it difficult to get into a book straightaway, the premise and plot often revealing itself only gradually and painstakingly, but this was an exception. Like time itself, this one happily dragged me along from the very word go, and I dived headlong into Quare’s world gladly and more than enthusiastically. It’s a world where slights are rectified by the tip of a sword or a cowardly stab of a concealed weapon; a world as much beset by intrigue and corruption as our own; where industry, science and art are slowly combining to bring modern society into being, yet it is still a place where mystery prevails and clings to our own world in out of the way locations: it is also a world where magic is still somewhere just around the corner, in odd angles of time and environment, simultaneously enlightening and threatening. The Emperor of all Things is all this and more – I have to admit here that I am not overly keen on trilogies (as I assume The Productions of Time to be) but Witcover’s opening gambit here has more than whetted my appetite for the rest of the series. For that, the author is to be heartily congratulated.