I thought I would flag this because here is a rare thing: a book that will be found on the crowded table at your local bookseller reserved for humorous stocking fillers that is actually very funny.
It follows the “Ladybird Book of…” series that revisits childhood favourites in a format similar to the original publishing templates, including fonts and images taken from the originals.
Here The Famous Five get a makeover, given contemporary first world problems and put in a lot of situations of current relevance, such as Brexit, modern parenting dilemmas, and here a work strategy away day.
The humour is well observed and works perfectly. Anyone who has been on such an away day will cringe with recognition. It undercuts all the pretension perfectly, as it does the stereotypes of the original, e.g the bossy leader of the gang, the Tomboy, and so on. There’s a rivalry with Secret Seven going on which I presume runs through the other books. The use of line drawings from the originals but relabelled with a line from the new story is also very funny.
Both of these short stories, set in Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series “The Riyria Chronicles,” are available separately and are currently free on Audible UK.
They are both gems, and they compelled me after listening to buy the first volume of the Riyria Chronicles.
‘The Thief’ is a fantasy archetype used in fantasy literature and gaming. Their skill-set usually includes stealth and lock-picking, usually framed in a rouge’s exterior but (sometimes) grounded nevertheless with a moral sense.
Here all of the above would be true, but from these two short stories I felt I got to know the characters very well, as they are so well drawn. It helps that there is a lot of humour, fresh, funny, character driven and enriching to the story, but not the familiar satire you would expect from Terry Pratchett (God rest his soul) and his imitators.
The protagonists are Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, a team of two thieves for hire in a world of traps, dungeons, treachery, and feuding lords and kingdoms. In “The Jester” we are introduced to our heroes and other protagonists in mid plummet as they find themselves on the wrong end of a trap. It’s a wonderful opening. With a cowardly pig farmer and the determined candle maker who hired them, they must solve the mystery of missing map pieces that may or may not lead to treasure, the quest having been set by the titular Jester. They find themselves in a sealed flooded room, with an angry monster on the other side of one door, and possible traps leading from a lever, another door, and a treasure chest. They must activate or go through one of these to get out of the chamber. Only one will lead to freedom (a previous wrong choice led them to the opening plummet) but which?
The story is told rapidly in flashback, or rather the key bits of it we need to know. It’s a good way of quickly filling in the backdrop for this short story. The humour is in the bickering and interplay between these very different characters.
A 40 minute listen that got me hooked to the characters, their world and the narrative style, this is testament to the writers skill.
I followed this up with “Professional Integrity.” This is an ingenious mystery of the “locked box in a room” variety. Hired by a naive young woman to arrange her own kidnapping to attract the attentions of a suitor who she presumes will come to the rescue, Royce and Hadrian are intrigued, especially when the girl explains that she is locked in a box by a father when this beau comes to visit. Things soon, of course, escalate and unravel in highly entertaining and unexpected directions.
Lovely stuff, and looking forward to exploring this world more.
Good, clear, characterful narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds.
My feelings are indeed mixed. On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.
Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe. In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham. Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in. N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day. Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…
Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood. Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood. Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels. The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.” And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.
So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew. What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E. Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas. He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress. Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.
The baddies are hugely entertaining too. Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage. There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more. Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining. At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.
What I found problematic are found in the following strands:
Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book. Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values. Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror. Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there. This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.
This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”
In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology. The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful. His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging. And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence. It’s nothing if not audacious.
Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.
To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.
Horror writer David Moody runs “Infected Books,” a publishing company devoted to horror fiction. Infected Books are roughly half way through a year long monthly series of novellas of zombie fiction by different horror writers. “Killchain” is Adam Baker’s contribution.
Adam Baker has written a four book series of novels that tell the story of an infection that literally falls in to Earth from the stars, and spawns a change in people transmitted through scratch or bite. They become a host to a mutagen that shoots tendrils, spikes and tumorous growths, all metallic in nature and appearance, through the human body, whilst the personality is destroyed and the creature becomes part of a hive mind and a ravaging, snarling inhuman killer. Book one, “Outpost,” is set on an oil rig in the Arctic as the infection hits civilisation, it is followed by “Juggernaut,” a prequel of sorts set in Iraq as a group of CIA hired mercenaries are tasked unwittingly to investigate one of the ground zero’s of the infection, Book three, “Terminus,” is set in an irradiated New York as a military hired rescue team go deep into the subway system to find a Doctor who just mind have found a cure to the infection, and “Impact” sees the crew of a downed military flight try to survive both the desert and the infected. For more on the books see the author’s website “Dark Outpost.”
There is little sign of hope that humanity will beat the infection in Baker’s stories. They are incredibly bleak in tone, in that you feel it is a given that the cockroaches are humanity’s successor. His lead character’s are usually female and they offer a tough goodness that offers some redemption as a testament to humanity, but it is a testament that is doomed not to be heard or remembered.
His prose style follows James Ellroy’s clipped staccato style. The invention, gore and nature of the monsters are all a cut above and reference the Thing, the ‘fast’ undead of World War Z/ 28 Days Later, and David Cronenberg style body horror.
In his contribution to “Year of the Zombie,” Adam Baker sets his story in another of his infection’s Ground Zeros, where the infection has fallen to earth from downed satellites and space stations, this time in Mogadishu. We begin in the home of a local resident, Daniel, who learns that quarantined infected has broken out of a stadium where they were being held, and the city is close being overrun. But before he can flee he is faced with the sudden intrusion of the CIA into his home in the form of agent Eliza, part of a kill-team tasked with eliminating a Russian Official, and her “Mechanic,” a mercenary named Ben. They are later joined by Sanjeev, an “asset” brainwashed into martyrdom through carrying out a human bomb mission against said Russian official.
The story of the infection in the city is the background to the story of Sanjeev’s mission, told in a tense POV from his hidden earpiece camera, watched carefully and guided by radio by Eliza. Then there are the bluffs and betrayals the trio in the room play on each other. As the situation in the city deteriorates, so does the situation between them in the room.
It’s a strong, black espresso of a horror story, gripping and bleak. A recommended read, but I would say for genre fans only.