Tuesday 14 April 2015

Plague Land - S.D Sykes

I'm a sucker for a bit of a medieval mystery, they tend to play into my macabre interest in faith, death and a society that is so startlingly different from our own. So a murder mystery which draws so strongly on medieval superstition as well as the changing attitudes towards death brought about by the trauma of the Great Mortality would seem to be right up my street. Not to mention that this is simply a great debut novel. 

This is a well plotted and nicely written historical murder mystery set in 1349. Our narrator is Oswald de Lacey, a young lord who has been called back from his monastery to take up responsibility for his manor following the deaths of his father and two brothers. In fact he has returned, in a totally unprepared state, to a demesne that has been ravaged by the Great Mortality. His tenant, villein and cottager population has been decimated by the plague, and he has been left with a manor where he does not know if his rents will cover his obligations to his Earl. On top of this there is friction within his own household from his quite batty Mother and frustrated, bitter Sister. His situation is made worse when two of his remaining tenants are murdered.
The story follows his attempts to prove that the murderer is human and not a cynocephali, a dog-headed demon beast. His adversaries include the illiterate pardoner come parish priest and his neighbouring lord who covets the de Lacey land and workers. 

The social and economic status of the whole country is falling apart and this is really well entwined with the murder mystery. We have some great social agitation from John of Cornwall, the parish priest. This is a man who is only barely qualified for his role as spiritual guide for the community, unable to speak or read Latin and concocting the words of the Mass as he goes along; however with all the 'good' priests dead of plague men like John are all the church has left to offer. His removal of the worker's from de Lacey in search of higher wages is historically accurate in it's essence. People did go seeking higher wages and better conditions in a market where labour was suddenly short. The author has managed to create a situation though, where despite our knowledge that serfdom is basically wrong, we are rooting for the peasants to return to Oswald. The manipulation of the peasants and their insistence that cynocephali are real contrasts nicely with Oswald's rational and educated stance on the subject, although Sykes has not given him attitudes that are out of place in the mid 14th century setting. Oswald is quite capable of believing in things that seem bizarre to modern sensibilities.  The author has included a good few twists and turns, some well written characters and some really good period detail as well as a nice bit of wry wit to create a really enjoyable story.  The final twist is simply great and leaves us wondering just what actually happened in the Scarecrow's cottage, a nicely inconclusive ending that keeps the reader thinking after the story is done. I managed to read the whole thing in one day, pretty much because I didn't want to put the book down.

Monday 13 April 2015

After the Crash - Michel Bussi

Ok so I actually really enjoyed this book, not that it was what I was expecting. The book has been billed as the new Girl with a Dragon Tattoo; it's really really not. If you go into this, as I did, expecting dark European noir then you won't get it here. In fact this is much more like a French Dan Brown. On the surface of it this is a good basic story, a mystery about the identity of the only survivor from a plane crash. There is a ridiculously convoluted plot line, a collection of crazy and rather stereotypical characters (the haughty religious grand dame, the crazed psycho, and the perfect golden girl), we have plots within plots, as well as a somewhat bizarre obsession with minor details of the case; all set against a blatant ignoring of the facts that have been used to set up the whole plot. This all combines to create the same feel as you get from a reading one of Dan Brown's books. It's an enjoyable ride so long as you take it 100% at face value and don't choose to look too deeply at the glaring inconsistencies. The fact that everything is neatly tied off, with seemingly few consequences for anyone is both amusing and annoying in equal parts.
Here there are some very silly moments indeed, the interaction between several of the characters is idiotic in the extreme, the big reveal is obvious from about a third of the way in and you are left continuing to read mainly just to confirm that you are indeed correct in your assumption.
So all very silly, rather predictable, full of plot holes, but at the same time a really entertaining bit of 'thriller fluff'.

Saturday 11 April 2015

A Darker Shade of Magic - V E Schwab

A nice twist on the alternate reality plot line, this novel takes the concept of an alternate London and stretches it as far as possible. Here we have four Londons all inter linked and all with varying degrees of magic within them. At the boring end of the spectrum we have 'Grey London' here it's 1818, George III is still the king and people live without magic in their lives. In 'Red London' magic exists within most people to varying degrees and the city is ruled by a benevolent dynasty, albeit one that isn't above 'owning' people. 'White London' is a world at war with itself, continual coups and outbreaks of magic have leeched the life out of the people and their world. Only the strongest and most cruel can survive here, and it is ruled by twin despots. 'Black London' has been swallowed by the excessive magic that destroyed the balance between magic and humanity. Only very special magicians are able to travel between these worlds, and at the time of this story only two are alive. One serving White London and one Red. The story follows an attempt by White London to break down the walls that exist between the worlds. It is a tightly woven and well thought out story, with a consistent plot and no blatant loopholes. The characters are believable and interact well together and the action is exciting. There are also a few threads left nicely open at the end, leaving room for further exploration in book two. Delilah's eye is one plot line that I would want explored in the second instalment. In the strictest sense real world London only plays a very minor role in the story unlike in the Aaranovitch Rivers of London or Guy Adams Clown service books, but it is still a nice touch and grounds the book in some basis of reality, allowing the fantastical elements to stand out all the more. The storyline is a tiny bit teeny at times, with the few romantic scenes seeming to be written for a younger audience maybe. However this does not detract from the overall effect.

Friday 3 April 2015

The Ballad of a Small Player - Lawrence Osborne

This was one of those books where was very excited when I saw it, but when I read the blurb I quickly became less so, and decided to leave it on the tbr heap for a little while. In fact I had it buried away on the heap for almost a year, until finally I saw that it was listed as one of the up coming Waterstones book club titles, and I decided I really should get on with it. This delay on my part did this book a massive disservice, because it is really rather brilliant; understated but brilliant.
The initial premise is simple, a corrupt lawyer embezzles money from his small town clients and runs off with it to the gambling dens and casinos of Macau to see how long his ill-gotten gains will last him if he settles down to a life as a high-roller in these former colonial outposts. I think it was this basic outline that put me off, when I initially received the book, that and the comparison that someone made to me with James Bond. I rather enjoy reading Fleming's originals, they are such cult classics of their genre, but the sections in Bond where half the novel is spent dissecting a hand of cards in minute detail make me want to scream. However having read Small Player I see why the comparison was made. There is a louche, faded glamour to the writing. A definite feel of having gone to seed that often lurks away in the background of Fleming's books. Couple that with the setting; a far east Casino and the images that came to mind were certainly Bondesque- all very Skyfall.
Bubbling away underneath the story of an immoral man on a losing streak is something a little more sinister, something supernatural maybe. This is never made explicit, although this is certainly what out Small Player believes. Having met, and had a short affair with a local prostitute, a poor girl from one of the villages he runs off with her life savings and starts to gamble again. The inevitability of this theft is obvious, all parties know this. However after the event, Doyle's guilt starts to play tricks on him. Is his new found luck natural, or has Dao-Ming's influence taken over. The lack of clarity about a possible malign influence is genuinely creepy, and the sense of unease grows right up to the climax of the novel.
The combination of sinister spirits and gambling make the genre of this novel a little hard to pin down. It's not horror and certainly isn't a thriller; there is far too little 'action' for that, however anyone who is interested in an intelligent and dark little read should give this one a try.