fantasy

Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets

Cover of Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets

If you, like me, are lucky enough to find Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets in your local library, grab it and run to the issue desk. Edited by David Thomas Moore, it’s an anthology of fourteen reimaginings of Holmes and Watson across time, space and gender, and it’s almost entirely brilliant.

I came to Sherlock Holmes in the eighties via my dad and Jeremy Brett but I’m not precious about the characters so a ‘based on’ or a ‘reworking of’ is fine by me as long as it’s done well. In this collection there are stories set in America, England, Australia, even a high fantasy universe (courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky). There’s a female Watson with a male Holmes, and vice versa, there are pre-Victorian stories, present-day stories, one set in the future, even a couple of stories where the main characters are not called John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. And yet in each one the essence is there, some riff on the famous partnership, a recognisably Holmesian character who always puts facts before feelings. There is also, naturally, Mrs Hudson.

I only recognised one of the names on the author list and I’d never even read any of his work – I borrowed this book on the strength of its Sherlock Holmes connection. I’m glad I did, as I’ve now found a few new names to look out for. Two-thirds of the way through the book, as I finished another story and declared how much I loved it, OneMonkey pointed out that I’d said that after every one so far. Some work better than others in terms of mystery or solving a puzzle, but there’s plenty in the collection for any Sherlock Holmes fan with a predilection for alternative history or SF.

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In which I share my enthusiasm for Neil Gaiman

My well-thumbed copy of Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

Despite loathing English literature as a school subject I have written an actual essay about a couple of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, with quotes and everything. The lovely people at Thresholds, the home of everything short story, have published it so you can read it on their website. It’s called A Kind of Magic, and I’ve been intermittently singing the relevant Queen song all week.

If you’ve been around for a while you know I love comic fantasy (and Douglas Adams, and indeed Neil Gaiman) so it’s not surprising that both stories are in that genre. I am still writing the stuff, it’s just that with such luminaries to compare myself to I rarely find my own work up to my required standard. I had a comic fantasy story published in Bards and Sages Quarterly a few (seven!) years ago, so you could buy a copy if you want to know what mine looks like when it hits the target.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow (free e-book)

Cover of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

This is an odd book, there’s no denying it, but it’s a good one if you take it on its own terms. At its simplest it’s an urban fantasy set in Toronto in the early 2000s. Middle-aged former shopkeeper Alan refurbishes a house in the bohemian area of Kensington Market, befriends his student/drop-out neighbours (one of whom has wings) and gets involved in a community project to deliver free local wi-fi. Much of the book is taken up with the day to day goings on around all that. However, (and here’s where you have to like a particular sort of oddness) Alan’s father is a mountain, his mother is a washing-machine, and three of his six brothers are nested like Russian dolls and can’t exist without each other. The innermost nested brother goes missing, the other two turn to Alan for help and it looks like their brother Davey, who they all killed years ago, has returned for revenge.

Full of interesting characters and with some affecting flashbacks to Alan’s childhood, I thought there was a good undercurrent of living with secrets and fitting in, getting on, being normal – whatever that means. It gets pretty dark at times but it has its lighter moments and some beautiful imagery. I have only two minor quibbles with the novel: names and chronology. Though Alan is mainly referred to as Alan, he is for no particular reason I could fathom also referred to by any other name beginning with A, similarly with his brothers B, C, D, E, F, G so that sometimes they change name within a paragraph, and Andrew and Drew refer to two different people (Alan and Davey). Mainly the book is in the here and now in Toronto, or Alan’s childhood further north, but occasionally there’s a flashback to earlier in Toronto that isn’t clearly a flashback (confused me anyway), and it’s not always clear how much time has passed between events (or how old Alan is, but that may be deliberate).

If you enjoyed, or think you might enjoy the superbly odd graphic novel The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis you’ll probably love this Cory Doctorow novel. And, because he like me is into the Creative Commons stuff and sharing art, you can even download it as an e-book for free so what have you got to lose?

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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I kept seeing this book advertised with a cover that looked like it should be speculative fiction, and noting it was described as historical, and passing over it. Eventually I read the synopsis, decided it sounded intriguing anyway and got it out of the library (from the general fiction shelves, not SF). It does have a historical setting but I don’t see how the main point of the book, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for future readers, could be anything other than fantasy fiction. Besides which it contains a physics student and some ornate clockwork – if you’re at all of a fantasy bent and you like a Victorian setting I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not particularly of a fantasy bent but you enjoyed The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester you’ll probably love it.

A dull civil servant who didn’t particularly mean for his life to turn out that way inexplicably finds a gold pocket watch on his bed one day. Months later it saves him from an Irish bomb in Whitehall (Clan na Gael, this is the 1880s not the 1970s) and he tries to find out where it came from. Meeting the strange, lonely Japanese watchmaker changes his life. Meanwhile a young woman with a Japanese friend is finishing her undergraduate studies in physics and is desperate to finish her experiments on the ether before her parents can marry her off. All these lives eventually collide with fascinating consequences.

I can’t quite explain why but it felt like a delicate book, perhaps it was the intricacies of the plot (the clockwork theme, cogs, wheels within wheels are echoed through everything) or the descriptions of tiny pieces of machinery, hair-thin wires, fine Japanese porcelain. It made me feel as though I was holding my breath, and as though I was right there with the characters (even if where they were didn’t feel like an absolutely historically accurate Victorian London). There’s a lot about love and duty in it, and the idea of lives turning on the tiniest event which might seem inconsequential at the time. It was intriguing, beautifully written, and I thought it was refreshingly original in a nicely thought-out setting. I’m glad I finally picked it up.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

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As soon as I stopped looking for female-authored SF to review I read a cracking fantasy novel which would have counted. Not that I knew the author was a woman until I looked online to see if this was part of a series, and saw her referred to as Victoria. The same article also informed me that she’s American, which explains the sudden mention of ‘tight pants’ which jarred me out of the story for a moment…

This is the story of not just one London but four, one of them being our own eighteenth century version, which is a bit quiet on the magic front compared with the others. Kell is unusual in that he can travel in a carefully controlled way between three of the different Londons, as a kind of diplomatic courier. He’s from Red London, the one with the most fairytale kingdom feeling to it, but there’s also White London which is downright bloodthirsty and dangerous. Hang on – didn’t we say four Londons? As is the way of these things, there’s a London we don’t talk about, a London that collapsed under its own excesses so long ago it’s become a myth. Black London is real though, and it might not be as firmly sealed in the past as was generally believed.

It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but there is a strong female character, nicely complex, and a pretty-boy prince who I found kind of irritating but since I find plenty of real people irritating that didn’t disturb me too much. There’s tension, excitement, natty dressing, magic, and I didn’t once contemplate throwing the book across the room for crimes of mushiness or sentimentality.

Although this is the first in a series, it didn’t feel incomplete as some fantasy series novels do, rather it felt that there was scope for further adventures if we cared to know about them. I liked the world and the main characters so I think I’ll be going back for more via A Gathering of Shadows.

Reading my way through 2016

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As far as number of books goes, my reading hit a bit of a dip in 2016 and most of those books I read because of writing. There’s the how-to books about writing, of which I read two this year and re-read a third. Then there’s the nine books Sue at the Bookbag kindly posted to me, to read and review. All of them this year I think were previously unknown to me before I picked them from a list of available books, so in that sense they were read for writing purposes (for the most part I’m very glad I did read them and as a whole batch I enjoyed them enormously, all I mean is that at the outset they were on my reading pile for a reason). I read two history books as background to my contribution to the Dangerous Women Project and another non-fiction book that I’m not sure how to categorise (environmental mindfulness?), as background for a potential future project with Alice Courvoisier. And I read four novels, and abandoned a few others partway through, so I could review female-authored SF for Luna Station Quarterly.

When I first signed up for reviewing at LSQ I did notice that I hadn’t read much female-authored SF in the previous couple of years, but I thought apart from anything it would be a useful way to redress the balance. How hard can it be to find four SF books a year written by women, when you have the whole of the local library and charity shops to go at? Maybe it’s the skew of the collection in my local library (and maybe this is why I hadn’t read much female-authored SF for a while) but I found myself pulling book after book off the shelf and dismissing it. Teenage vampires. Cliché-ridden steampunk. Sounds OK but it’s book 4 of the series. It got so that every time I went to the library I was scouring the fantasy and sci-fi shelves for female authors rather than books that grabbed my attention, and I started reading quite a few that sounded ok but were quickly abandoned when it became clear this was yet another book with a main character who was ‘feisty’ (incredibly feminine but with laddish behaviour as a way of proving something tiresome) or, particularly in urban fantasy ‘quirky’ (hey I have green hair and I might kiss other girls) and that was its main point.

I’m as happy as the next curmudgeon for there to be a romantic sub-plot to an epic fantasy (Tad Williams throws them in as main plots, for heaven’s sake – look at Bobby Dollar) but I don’t like mushy and I don’t like sentimental. I also don’t think female characters are shocking or even particularly interesting just because they don’t fit some kind of narrow old-fashioned ideal of heterosexual womanhood (meek and weak, with a skirt, a handbag, make-up and a glossy pony-tail). Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh seem to have cottoned onto that a generation ago, so I’m not sure what went wrong since. Like I said, maybe we just don’t get much good stuff round here. Anyway, I quit reviewing for LSQ a couple of months ago.

I did read some fabulous books in 2016, including a couple more in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (police procedurals in a fantasy-overlaid London) and some Anthony Trollope novels, after my self-imposed Trollope fast in 2015. A few I read out of curiosity and was surprised at my immense enjoyment:  Morrissey’s autobiography for instance, as well as the slightly cynical fantasy novel The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey (which I haven’t posted the review of yet – keep your eyes peeled) and The Blackbird Singularity the breathtaking debut from Matt Wilven in which a man full of grief and hope loses his mind. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was every bit as fabulous a fantasy novel as it sounded and The Devil’s Feast by MJ Carter was a richly imagined historical crime novel with real chef Alexis Soyer as one of the main characters.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my reading year, but I’d love to hear what anyone else has enjoyed reading in 2016, or if you agree/disagree with any of my comments.

Bradford, City of Film

Continuing the Bradford theme (I know, such an unusual topic for me), I ran across a story I wrote a few years ago but never found the right place to submit. Reading through it this week I found I still liked the concept and was pleased with how I’d done it but (thankfully) it’s a bit outdated now. Bradford’s picking up again, as I said in a recent post about the literature festival. They’ve even moved the central library. So, have this (magic realism?) story on me, constructive feedback and comments welcome as always.

Bradford, City of Film by JY Saville

Chris drove past the shining new signposts heralding his return to the city of his birth: Bradford, City of Film. He smiled to himself and shook his head. They were grasping at straws, he thought; it was hardly the new Cannes, not even Edinburgh but if it helped, where was the harm. That it had helped was obvious as soon as he dropped down into the city centre. He parked behind the library and stood looking around at the surroundings. Everything looked smart and new, there was even a bayonet in the war memorial statue – Chris had never seen one in place except when Tom Courtenay saluted it in the film Billy Liar. Rumour had it that the council had given up replacing it after it had been stolen so many times, but other rumour had it that it unlocked a secret tunnel under the neighbouring Alhambra theatre. Chris laughed out loud as he strode down the hill, glad to be back, revelling in memories.

Chris Thompson had left university with ambition; once upon a time that ambition could have been fulfilled in Bradford, a bright young lad could have gone far, learned languages, travelled the empire, all in the service of worsted. Chris knew what worsted was but that was as far as it went; his kind of ambition needed a modern city like Leeds to thrive. And since you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb he’d left the county altogether and moved to London. Once there, he’d dusted off his middle name – Pyrah, Bradford to the core – and attached it to his surname. Now Chris Pyrah-Thompson was home.

He kept walking, never getting closer to his fellow citizens than the glimpse of a turned-up raincoat collar or a flat cap rounding a corner. Not many people out so late; maybe those that weren’t at home were at the cinema, helping the city earn its new title. Chris himself would head off soon but it had been a long drive so the brief diversion on foot was welcome; for the moment the glow of the sodium lamp over the familiar streets drew him on. He hadn’t realised it was so late and dark when he’d arrived. And suddenly quiet, too.

The eerie silence solidified round the cathedral where the sound of trains should have been a periodic background thrum. Looking at the cathedral full-on it seemed real enough, but glance up Church Bank and he could see from the corner of his eye how grainy the edge of the churchyard was. He shook his head, looked away, looked back. Tired from the long drive, or had his Aunt Irene’s warnings of the effects of living in the South been justified? He looked down at his feet. The cobbles took over from tarmac a few feet away. He whirled round and a silent horse was ridden past jerkily at the top of the street in that characteristic stop-go of early cinema. City of film indeed.

It was convincing enough to fool a passing visitor, but how many of those were they expecting? As some fellow Bradfordian had once angrily informed him – and to be honest he’d never bothered to check if it was true – there were no signs pointing the way to Bradford, and the single junction of the M62 that hinted at its existence was rumoured to loop round and deposit the unwary motorist back on the carriageway pointing in the other direction. This was generally assumed to be part of the Great Conspiracy to Steal Bradford’s Thunder which, so the story went, the Leeds city fathers had been perpetrating since long before the advent of moving pictures.

For a son of Bradford, these images hinted at past glories and lost youth, presenting Bradford as the returning wanderer remembered it. And maybe that was the point. Though how many returning wanderers were there? How many of the people Chris had seen that night were real? Did anyone still live here?

He ran along cobbles, tarmac, packed dirt, through the early days of silence to the full colour noughties. Shifting, disconcerting visions of the city overlapped around him. Look from one angle and you could see the old market, go round the corner and instead of a rear view you might see the field it had been built on or the shopping centre that replaced it. The beck was underground or above ground, almost dry or overflowing. It was a real test of local knowledge and Chris didn’t feel up to the challenge. His shoes rang out on the solid surface of the streets; he had no doubt that if he fell in the beck he’d get wet. Or poisoned – he’d heard his grandad tell the old tales.

Rounding a corner in colour he saw a man locking up a shop. Chris didn’t pay too much attention to the details, just shouted to see if he could get the man’s attention, and to his relief he turned to face him, hand still on the door handle.

“Thank God,” panted Chris. “I think I might be going mad.”

“Evening,” smiled the shopkeeper.

“How long’s it been like this?” asked Chris, hoping the man didn’t ask what he meant. There was still a faint possibility that Chris was losing his grasp on reality.

“Well,” began the man, considering, “We’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to it, and I think folk are settling into it.”

“A couple of weeks? That might explain why no-one’s noticed yet. I mean, from the outside.”

“Aye,” agreed the shopkeeper, folding his arms, still smiling at Chris.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” asked Chris, aghast.

“I’m quite adaptable.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, wondering how adaptable a person would have to be to take something like this in their stride. He was about to say something when the shopkeeper said:

“It has caused a few problems, mainly with older people.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Chris. “If they weren’t confused before they will be now.”

“Well, they’re trying to convert everything as they go along, and the mental arithmetic’s not always up to it, you know how it is.” He smiled again and the penny – old or new – dropped. Chris remembered seeing this documentary about decimalisation at school; he remembered it because his gran’s neighbour was in the background halfway through, just after the adaptable smiling shopkeeper said his piece.

Chris wandered back through the variously dark, variously old streets, in silence or with accompanying traffic noise, none of it – as far as he could tell – real. Although the silence, when he thought about it, must be real. He hadn’t managed to track down a real live human being in half an hour of running after people and shouting. Though if someone who thought his home town had been replaced by a cinematic echo of its former self came running after Chris asking if he was real, he was fairly confident that he’d ignore them and walk faster. So what had he proved, after all?

Assuming he could leave the city on a real road that went somewhere, Chris wondered what his family would say if he asked them about the city’s transformation. Had they noticed? He wasn’t sure any of them went into the centre of Bradford any more, and that was undoubtedly the problem. As a child, Chris had been taken by his family to pantomimes each year at the Alhambra. One year it had been Peter Pan, and the part that had stayed with him for thirty years was the bit where you had to shout I believe in fairies because whenever someone says they don’t believe, a fairy dies. Was that what had happened? Belief in Bradford had evaporated as the last of the mills shut down, the big shops followed and investment dried up. One by one the streets had winked out of existence, eventually replaced by the captured dreams of days gone by – archive footage, lovingly stitched together by enthusiasts with European money.

“I believe in fairies!” Chris bellowed in the middle of Centenary Square, but not even the pigeons seemed to care.