The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison (Books 2020, 19)

I read about this in a article about the use of Jack the Ripper in fiction. It’s a story set in Victorian times, about two men living Baker Street in London; one a detective, the other a doctor.

But the detective is an angel, called Crow; and the doctor is JH Doyle, recently back from Afghanistan, where he was injured in an encounter with one of the Fallen. And someone is murdering women in Whitechapel.

In other words, it’s an interesting riff on the Sherlock Holmes stories. The hunt for the Ripper is spread through the whole book, while some of the well-known cases have versions interspersed. The Sign of the Four appears, Baskerville Hall is visited. When someone dies and the only visible wound is twin puncture marks, was it a snake, as in ‘The Speckled Band,’ or a vampire?

Because most of the creatures of myth and legend exist in this London, often with an unusual twist. James Moriarty can’t enter your home unless you invite him. But werewolves are respected landlords.

Vampires can enter public buildings, of course: “Any building with an angel.” Angels only have consciousness and names – names are important – if they are attached to a public building. Churches and synagogues have their angels, obviously; but so too do pubs, hotels, and stations. The angel of King’s Cross makes an appearance.

But not the angel I was half expecting. The Angel, Islington is a pub,1 and we’d have to refer to its angel as ‘The Angel of the Angel, Islington,’ which would be weird and unwieldy.

Speaking of language, the Victorianism is handled pretty well, I think, but the author is American, and it shows where a few terms creep in. ‘Sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’; ‘baseboard’ instead of ‘skirting board.’ ‘Row houses’ where we would say ‘terraced houses.’ ‘Sundown.’ ‘Paper folded into fourths’; a British writer would say ‘quarters.’

These are mildly jarring, but not that important. Certainly not enough to detract from the fun of the story overall.

  1. Sadly now a Wetherspoons. #NeverSpoons↩︎

Gilded Cage, Tarnished City, and Bright Ruin by Vic James (Books 2018, 21, 22, 23)

Also known as the Dark Gifts trilogy. I bought the first while at the recent BSFA meeting where Vic James and Lucy Hounsom, another fantasy author, interviewed each other. I enjoyed their conversation so much that I bought the first book in each of their trilogies.

I don’t read fantasy much, and I don’t really care for dystopias in SF, as I’ve mentioned before. So this being a fantasy dystopia, it shouldn’t really appeal to me.

But it turns out it’s great.

Apparently it was pitched in jest as ‘Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones in a world where Voldemort won.’ And… yeah, I guess. I haven’t read or seen Game of Thrones, and the time period is more-or-less present day. And none of the magical people (or Skilled ‘Equals’) is as out-and-out evil as Voldemort. But it’s not a bad description of the setup.

The idea is that there are people with magical abilities — referred to as ‘Skill’ — and they are the aristocracy and rule the country. Or at least they have been since Charles the First and Last was killed by one of the Skilled, and they — also known as ‘Equals,’ ironically — took over running the country. Britain is an ‘Equal Republic.’ One thing that annoyed me at first is that there is no mention of what happened to Scotland. It appears to be part of Britain in the present day, but Charles the First (in our reality) was before the Acts of Union. Although not before the Union of the Crowns, so I suppose the Equals just took over Scotland too, by getting rid of the monarchy.1

Anyway, the worst part about the rule of these magical Equals is ‘Slavedays,’ wherein everyone is required to spend ten years of their lives as slaves. They get some choice in when they do it, but while you’re doing it you’re a slave, with everything that implies.

I found it hard to cope with the idea that people would just quietly accept this state of affairs. But I suppose if it’s been that way all your life, and it’s the law of the land… But I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t people revolt against it?

Not surprisingly, of course, a trilogy like this is not about the maintenance of the status quo.

It’s really good. Well worth a read.

  1. Something of which under normal circumstances I would heartily approve, of course. But not the way it’s described here. ↩︎

Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (Books 2018, 9)

The book that I got at the British Library event last week. It’s short stories by Niffenegger, illustrated and/or converted into comics by Campbell. Some of them very good, and the collection as a whole is well worth a look.

Themes include cats, angels, fairies, and more. Worth a look.

The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and others (Books 2016, 12)

Gaiman returns to the character and story that made him famous (and wins the graphic story Hugo award by doing so).

This is a prequel to the original story. In that, you’ll recall (or if you don’t you should go and read them), Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, starts by being captured by a wizard as he returns exhausted from an earlier adventure.

This is that earlier adventure. And it’s right up there with the rest of the Sandman stories. Highly recommended.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? by Paul Cornell (Books 2016, 7

Some books take weeks or even months to read. Others slip down in just a few days. This was the latter kind.

Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series is part of a thriving subgenre now. He and Ben Aaronovitch started out at a similar time, I guess, and they’re friends, so I don’t know if they came up with the idea together, or what. Maybe it was just steam-train time. But London cops who deal with the magical, occult side of the city’s problems are very much of today.1

This latest volume picks up not long after The Severed Streets finished, and our characters are in some dark places personally and professionally. But then the ghost of Sherlock Holmes is found murdered at the Holmes museum, and a serial killer starts murdering people in ways inspired by the Holmes stories. The game is afoot, obviously, and our heroes must take part.

This is really, really, good, and highly recommended. Though if you haven’t read them yet, start at the beginning with London Falling.

  1. Though I can’t help but wonder if Charlie Stross started it all. His Laundry Files series is about secret agents with occult dealings, rather than police, but there are obvious similarities. ↩︎

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Books 2015, 4)

I won this in the raffle at a BSFA meeting several months ago (actually over a year: October 2013), when Mary Robinette Kowal was the guest. From her talk, it sounded like it would be a lot of fun, and now that I get round to reading it, it lives up to that expectation.

We are in Regency times, except this is not exactly the Regency of our own past; in this one, magic exists. At least in a limited form: “Glamour” allows people to form illusions by manipulating folds of the ether. Most people can do this to some degree, and well-brought-up young ladies are taught the art along with music and painting. But there are those who are more talented.

Our heroine, Jane, is one such. But as the novel opens, and for most of it, she is more concerned about the fact that, unmarried at 28, she seems destined to become (or already is) an “old maid”. Her prettier sister, Melody, is more likely to make a good “match”.

There are, of course, balls, officers, heartbreaks, and more. If you enjoy Austen, and fantasy, you’ll like this, I predict. It’s the first in a series, and I look forward to reading more.

One thing slightly puzzled me. When Kowal was at the BSFA meeting, I recall her saying that she is a Doctor Who fan, and that she likes to slip a mysterious traveller into each of her books. If she slipped him into this one, she did it so subtly that I didn’t notice it, even though I was expecting him. There is a brief appearance from the local surgeon, a Dr Smythe, so I guess that’s him. Oh yes. In fact, she says in that piece, “if you [notice him], then I’ve done it wrong.” So, nicely done.

But anyway, well worth a read, though I daresay the purist would say you should read all of Austen first (which I haven’t; only Pride and Prejudice).

Book Notes 25: The Family Trade, by Charles Stross

Charlie shows that he can write heroic fantasy as well as everything else. Except, of course, it isn't really fantasy. When your hero discovers she can switch at will (or "world walk") between the "real" world (present-day America) and an alternative world (geographically similar, inhabited, but never had industrialisation) then what you are dealing with seems a lot more like SF to me.

Of course, the alternative world works on a feudal system, and weapons are mediaeval (apart from ones that have been carried over from “our” world). So it has some of the tropes of fantasy, and more may develop. But it looks like there won’t be any magic other than the world-walking ability.

The main fault with it is that it shows its history as the first part of a much longer book which the publishers decided should be split in two. So just as it’s starting to get really interesting, it ends.

Oh well, I look forward to reading the second part, and its sequels.

Book Notes 14: Viriconium, by M John Harrison

This is a reissue in the Fantasy Masterworks series, of all - or nearly all - of Harrison's 'Viriconium' stories. Four of the collected works are novels (though short ones) and the rest short stories. I had read only one of them before, the last-written and last presented here: 'A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium' appeared in Interzone a long time ago. I don't think I understood it then, though: it doesn't really make much sense out of context.

Though as it happens, the context of that one story is different from that of all the others. The others are all set in Viriconium, or in the lands that surround it. This final one is set in our world; it tells the tale of some people who dream of Viriconium, who believe that it is real, who believe that they might be able to reach it one day.

Whether anyone would actually want to get to Viriconium if they could is another matter. It is a sort of dream city at the end of time. It has a constant feeling that the world has run down, that time is running out. Humanity has fallen from the great technological highs of the ‘Afternoon Cultures’, and now survives on scavenged technology - machines so advanced that they are still running after millennia - and on traditional crafts.

So most of the weaponry, for example, consists of swords, but there are a few prized energy blades, or baans. People travel on horseback, or walk, to get around, especially after the last few aircars are destroyed in the War of the Two Queens, which is part of the subject matter of ‘The Pastel City’.

Did I mention that this doesn’t belong in the Fantasy Masterworks line? Just because people fight with swords, and the technology is advanced beyond their understanding into Clarke’s (Third) Law territory, doesn’t make a book sword & sorcery. This is science fiction, where the science is breaking down; or at least, the knowledge of it is.

Despite all the stories having been published before, there are copyright dates for only a few of them, and previous-publication details for none. Which to my mind detracts slightly from the collection.

Also, the first story is listed as ‘Viriconium Knights’ in the contents and on its own title page, but as Viriconium Nights" (which is the title I recall having heard of before) on the copyright page. This could, of course, be deliberate, as I have a vague recollection of having heard that this is not a simple collection and republication, but that there has also been some reworking.

It is not easy reading: it is a 500-page book, and it took me over a month to read it. Now, I’m not that fast a reader these days, but that is slow. But at no point was I thinking, “This is heavy going,” or, “I can’t be bothered with this.” Rather, it’s just that some prose styles are denser than others, and Harrison’s is dense. In a good way. Highly recommended.