In Walton’s alternate history , 1949 sees the ruling Conservative Party dominated by the “Farthing Set”, a clique of high Tories credited with negotiating “Peace with Honour” between the Third Reich and the British Empire in response to Hess’ overture on behalf of Hitler in 1941. On the eve of an important vote in Commons, the Farthing Set is gathered at the house after which it is named, the country seat of Viscount Eversley, when Sir James Thirkie, chief negotiator of the peace, is murdered.
From this premise Walton builds a story that uses the solidly-decent meme of an English Country House murder (à la Sayers or Christie) to expose the fascist underbelly of the British Empire, built on anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and an entrenched class system that places the powerful above the law.
Walton tells the story through the eyes of two protagonists, Lucy Eversley Kahn, daughter of Viscount Eversley and Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard. These characters are inspired choices that humanize what might have turned into a political rant, give an insight into the choices made by “decent” people confronted with Fascism at home, and make the world that Walton has drawn, much more chilling by being much more credible.
One cannot help but like Lucy. She is the acceptable face of the English aristocracy: a kind, intelligent, self-deprecating, independent woman, who loves her father and survived the disdain verging on hatred of her mother and who has sacrificed her privileged position in society to marry and English Jew. As the story unfolds and the true nature of the evil that is behind Thirkie’s death is understand, Lucy leads us from shock through revulsion and on to pragmatic action and a search for hope.
In another world, our world perhaps, Inspector Carmichael, with his sharp mind and his need to find the truth would be righting wrongs and improving the capabilities of the Metropolitan Police. In this world, it quickly becomes clear that he is more vulnerable than powerful and that “doing the right thing” may not be a choice that is available to him.
I admire Walton’s ability to show what Fascism really does to freedom by showing the damage it does to those who our laws and our democracy ought to make safe.
I find her alternate history very credible. In my view, modern Britain was fundamentally shaped by the decision of the British people in the “Khaki Election” of 1945, the first election in ten years, held on the heels of Victory in Europe Day, to put their trust in Labour Party, rather than the Conservatives, to rebuild Britain. By imagining a Britain in which this choice was never made and where Fascism in Europe was colluded with rather than challenged and defeated, Walton reminds us that the freedoms we enjoy today were hard-won and could be easily lost.
I listened to the audio version of this book. Bianca Amato, who reads the chapters written from Lucy’s point of view, does an excellent job. Her accent is perfect as is her finely nuanced use of emotion. John Keating reads the chapters written Peter Carmichael’s point of view. He does a fine job of the voices of most of the characters but I thought the voice he used for Peter was a little off. His accent was too working class for someone educated at a minor public school. Nevertheless he was easy to listen to and handled both emotion and factual exposition well.
I recommend this book both as a good read, it is an excellent murder mystery, and as a reminder of the sources of power Fascism draws upon.
"Magic Burns" does exactly what book two in a series should do, it delivers even more impact that book one: "Magic Bites"
In "Magic Burns" Ilona Andrews moves her focus from the creating an alternative Atalanta, devastated by waves of magic that neutralize tech and strengthen the powers of magical creatures, to developing her main character, Kate Daniels.
The picture of Kate that emerges is a compelling mixture of aggression, vulnerability, deeply rooted ethics, ferocity, loneliness, empathy, isolation and a dark, intoxicating, power that could save or destroy her.
In other words, Kate is someone you want to know more about, who is likely to surprise you, but who doesn't walk through the world unscathed, killing those who piss her off.
"Magic Burns" starts small with Kate trying to capture a crazy arsonist using a magical salamander to burn things down and escalates through encounters with a Celtic warrior, to a Fomorian controlling Wraiths, to a full-scale battle between the Weres and a demonic army.
Along the way we learn a lot more about how Were society functions, including a fascinating visit to the Hyena Clan that gave an original and plausible view of their... proclivities and lifestyle choices. We see Kate adopting a surrogate mother role to an abandoned child, working closely with an Order member with a secret, and slowly starting to understand the meaning of Curran's behaviour towards her. I know that the Kate/Curran love interest attracts a lot of attention but I don't see it as central to the series in terms of being a romantic interest. For me, it is more about showing that both Kate and Curran need to constantly to exert control to remain who they want to be and not be overwhelmed by what their power might make them.
I thought the most memorable relationship in the book was between Kate and the Celtic Berserker. As Kate spends time with him, she sees that he is not really human any more. Perhaps he never was. He has spent centuries in the service of God, killing her enemies and counting his success by the number of enemy heads he has stored in his home. He has no contact with people, no understanding of how to talk to women, no concept of right and wrong. In seeking to become the ultimate warrior he has allowed himself to become his God's attack-dog. This by itself is an interesting idea. I used to be fascinated by the unromantic brutality of "Slaine", the Celtic Berserker in "2000AD". Ilona Andrews takes that brutality to it's logical conclusion. What lifts the encounter is that Kate, who could so easily become a modern, wittier, sexier version of the hollow-souled Berserker, feels empathy with the warrior and engages with him in a way that, by the end of the book, enables the warrior to reclaim some of his humanity.
It is the thought that sits behind this kind of plot-line that makes this series so strong... together with witty dialogue Curran to Kate “You don't cause problems. You cause catastrophes.” , Kate's bravado - using a vampire's fangs as a hole punch, great action scenes from one-on-one combat to full-scale battles, constant playful (I think) disrespect for the ability of males to think and a pace that is perfectly judged.
That's the second five-star read in the series. I may have to invent a whole new rating just to deal with what happens when this series gets even better.
If "The Hard Way" has been my first Jack Reacher book, I might not have read a second. This is a puzzle book, spiced with graphic violence but lacking in any real emotional engagement.
I quite liked the start, Reacher, minding his own business in NYC gets pulled into the affairs of a group of mercenaries that even he can see are ethically challenged. The first third of the book was entertaining, the usual Reacher-Figures-It-Out stuff, focused around whether or not there was a kidnapping and if there was, who the bad guy was. The only departure from previous books was that the beautiful woman Reacher sets out to rescue appears only as a photograph.
For me, things started to go wrong when Reacher discovered a former member of the mercenary team who was left behind in Africa, imprisoned and mutilated. I'm sure the details of this are not an exaggeration of what happens in Africa and it was central to the plot and motivated some of Reacher's subsequent actions but it was so long and so detailed and so repulsive that it felt like a kind of pornography.
By the second half of the book, Reacher has acquired a female partner, an attractive (of course) older woman that he spends time with. Sadly, she remained primarily a plot device to gain access to information and contacts that Reacher couldn't have achieved alone.
The second half of the book is set in England. It was fun to see how Lee Child, an English writer, would present England through the eyes of his all-American hero. I thought it was a good effort, accurate but seen from a distance. Unfortunately, Dick Hill, the audiobook narrator, struggles to do any kind of English accent and definitely can't muster a Norfolk dialect. He was bad enough to be quite distracting.
The big reveal in the second half of the book is so heavily foreshadowed that I became impatient with it. I thought the image of Reacher tearing around the Norfolk countryside in a Mini was fun but I couldn't understand why he didn't buy or hire a GPS system. The book was published in 2006, so it pre-dates the iPhone but I was already using a portable TomTom satnav by then. Of course Reacher also needed to have the concept of a Text Message explained to him so perhaps he's just too much of a dinosaur. He occasionally comes across as aging and out of touch in this book. His Army days are getting further and further behind him and he seems to be losing context.
The denouement wasn't very satisfying. The baddy was too gaga and sadistic to be convincing. Reacher saved the day all by himself but I didn't quite believe it. And what was with recurring statements like: "Reacher alone in the dark - invincible". Are they an attempt at humour? If Reacher was a different guy I'd suspect self-mockery but Jack Reacher wouldn't see the point.
In this book, Reacher is a puzzle-solving killing machine whose only real challenge was in deciding who he should be killing this time. Lee Child seemed to be trying to offset the lack of emotional engagement with any of the characters in the book by scaling up the violence, real and threatened, with all the subtlety of a "SAW" movie. Not a book I'd recommend to a friend.
"Hunter's Trail", is the final book (for now) in the Scarlett Bernard series that started with "Dead Spots" and went on to "Trail of Dead" .
"Hunter's Trail" is written with the confidence of an author who knows the world she's created and has developed the characters who live in it. The plot deals with the consequences of Scarlett's actions after the killings in The Hair Of The Dog in "Trail of Dead."
I liked to the fact that what seemed such a good and kind thing to do in "Trail of Dead" has some very bad, impossible to foresee, consequences in "Hunter's Trail" a few weeks later.
I also like that Scarlett spent the entire book walking with a stick because of the injuries she received in "Trail of Dead". It made the whole thing more convincing and provided a good reason for her having to have help whether she liked it or not.
In "Hunter's Trail" I felt I was finally starting to get a clear picture of how the cultures of the Vampires, Wolves and Witches are. For me the Wolves, haunted as they are, come out of it best. I admire their constant struggle for control and their willingness to help each other. The Vampires are much more alien and frightening than the "Twilight" versions: amoral, immortal, apex predators who ALWAYS put their own needs first and the Witches who have they have the same failings as the rest of us but have far more power to make mistakes with.
The insight into the supernatural communities comes partly from the nature of the new threats in "Hunter's Trail" - a Nova werewolf killing innocents and a European witch sect exterminating werewolves both highlight what the LA "Old World" communities have struggled not to be.
Scarlett started to take control of her life in "Trail of Dead" in "Hunter's Trail" she finally realizes her own worth makes herself a player in the "Old World". This, together with her FINALLY choosing between the two males in her life (and she chose the right one - I was surprised to find I cared about that) , rounded off the "trilogy" nicely, while leaving the door open for Scarlett to return.
Melissa Olsen has started a new series, set in the same world but with a different main character - get ready to smile - Lex Luther - no not a bald guy from Smallville but a former US Army Sergeant named Allison "Lex" Luther. It comes out on audible on May 1st and is currently on sale for $5.24 here - and no, I don't get paid for saying that.
A Grave Denied"A Grave Denied" is not quite as light-hearted as "Breakup" was (duh! It has the word Grave in the title) but it is more upbeat than any book from "Hunter's Moon" onwards.
Kate is no longer lost. She is coming back to herself and coming home. Of course, this being a Kate Shugak book, that turns out to have a great deal of trauma and risk associated with it.
The story revolves around the discovery that someone has shot dead a local handy man and hidden his body in a glacier. At the overworked Jim Chopin's request, Kate gets involved in the investigation of the murder. This quickly becomes personal and puts her and those around her at risk. The plot is a bit spookier than most Kate Shugak books, more like the things Liam Campbell deals with, it's complicated and unpleasant and has quite a slow reveal.
The murder investigation is an enabler in the novel, not the heart of it. What I particularly liked about this Kate Shugak novel is that it is an ensemble piece, with all the major characters playing a part and almost everyone else getting at least a cameo. Johnny Morgan is growing up and his Journal entry opens the book and other entries give his perspective on what living with Kate it like. Bobby faces his own problems with the family he left behind and broke contact with when he came to Alaska, Dinah shows her metal as a wife and mother and a staunch friend, and Jim Chopin get's more from Kate than he expected from her and is scared silly by it. Kate's life IS the people she loves, as much as it is the place she lives in. This book makes that clear in a very dramatic and emotionally moving way.
There were three things I liked about Kate in this book. The first was her confrontation with Johnny Morgan's mother. Kate is direct, forceful, ruthless and fearless - and not above fighting dirty if that's what it takes. This is the Kate Shugak that has the Park's respect. It was fun to watch. The second was the pleasure Kate takes in her new-found power over Jim Chopin. It was wicked, and funny and I hope to see a lot more of it. The third was Kate's recognition of her own roots in the house her father built. We've heard relatively little about her parents. It was good to see her attached to positive memories.
It was much harder to watch Kate's shock after the ultimate "involuntary Potlatch", it was like watching a great forest burn, it may bring renewal but while its happening it feels like a tragic end, not a new beginning. Watching Kate's friends responded was a welcome relief that lifted my mood.
Despite the threats to Kate and Mutt, despite the unpleasant motivations of the various parties involved in the crime, this feels like a book of healing: taking Kate back to a new beginning from which she can thrive.
I finished "The Girl With All The Gifts" today, with that mixture of regret and deep satisfaction that only comes from reading a book that is so masterfully crafted that you don't notice how it works because you're too tied up in the emotions, the action, your deepening understanding of the people and their situation, the shock of the amoral inevitability of the scientific reality and the strong, REALLY strong need to know what happens next.
I'm not going to tell you what happens. I hate reviews with spoilers.
I'm just going to tell you how it made me feel.
I fell in love with the enigmatic Melanie, long before I knew who she was; in fact from the moment that she told me that she, with her very pale skin, shouldn't be called Melanie, because it means dark, and wants to be called Pandora because it means the girl with all the gifts and because the real Pandora was hard-wired to follow her curiosity wherever it took her, regardless of the consequences. I'm a man who owns three etymological dictionaries. How can I not love a ten year-old girl who is fascinated with the origins of words?
As I started, slowly and stupidly but with great pleasure, (which is why there are no spoilers here) to understand Melanie and her situation, these words came back to me. She is Pandora, the girl with all the gifts: extraordinary, life-affirming, joyous gifts. She is also Melanie, filled with a darkness that belies her pale skin and which can never leave her.
This book is like that. Words have a meaning when you read them, then another meaning when you find out what happens next, and another meaning when you finish the book. That, by itself, is worthy of applause in any novel.
The early part of the book, when the larger context is obscured, and I had no more knowledge of the world than Melanie has in her windowless bunker, is deeply compelling and more than a little horrifying. It is entirely plausible, which is what makes it so disturbing. I was focused on Melanie, fascinated by her, horrified by the adults around her, willing her to survive their plans for her.
The surprising thing was that, when the context changes and the wider world is explored, the book gets better. Carey doesn't indulge in cardboard-cutout evil baddies. The evil in his book is inherently human, committed by people who are doing what they must or even what they believe they should.
I enjoyed the fact that the focus didn't stay entirely on Melanie. I got to see the world through the eyes of each of the four main characters who surround her and the view from each of them was fascinating.
The pace of the book is perfect: keeping me on edge while giving me time to think through and speculate about the ideas and letting me get to know the characters better - making my experience mirror that of the people in the story.
"The Girl With All The Gifts" is packed with action and violence and gruesome, hard-to-forget details of cruelty and pain both sophisticated and barbaric. It has all the ingredients of an action-blockbuster but uses them as seasoning rather than the main meal. The meat of the book lies in the reactions of the adults to Melanie and, eventually, in Melanie's reaction to them. That takes this book from a blockbuster to something far more interesting.
The science is beautifully done. No dumbing-down but no worshiping at the altar of Popperian method either. Science is not a prop here - like a sonic screwdriver - infinitely useful and totally unexplained. In this book, science is literally knowledge of the truth. As such, it is completely indifferent to our hopes and our nightmares. It made me think that perhaps Truth was what the insatiably curious Pandora of the myth let out of the box. Which was why there was such a need for hope to be released into the world. It also made me recognize that I can only take so much truth. I KNOW that all of human history is a blip on the life of the planet but I can't/won't integrate that truth into my daily life - it does too much to take away meaning from my actions. This book shows how hard we work at denying the truth and how difficult it is to shape our lives around the truths we've learned.
The strongest impression that "The Girl With All The Gifts" left on me was that we are not defined by our birth or our knowledge or even our darkest actions, but by how we love. If Truth is the evil that Pandora released into the world, then Love is what keeps our hope alive.
"A Monstrous Regiment Of Woman" is well written, skillfully narrated, filled with memorable characters, and spiced with discussions of challenging ideas on religion and on the role of women.
In the first book, "The Beekeeper's Apprentice", Mary Russell was an "apprentice" to the Master Craftsman of detection, Sherlock Holmes. She was as young and as impressionable as she was passionate and talented.
In "A Monstrous Regiment Of Women" she comes into her majority in every way. She inherits her fortune, establishes her own household, prepares prestigious academic papers and gets her own "case" to pursue.
Holmes plays an important role in the book, Russell's relationship to him defines a great deal about her, but it Russell who is central. Her mind, her passions, her religious views, shape the events in this story and give it meaning.
One of the strengths of "A Monstrous Regiment Of Women" is how embedded it is in the period without being buried in historical detail. The book opens at Christmas 1920, when men, many of them damaged, had returned from the Great War to a land that was not "fit for heroes", when woman were being displaced from the jobs they performed while the men were at war and when the "doomed generation" haunted by death, and stalked by mental instability, sought relief in through sex and drugs and jazz music. The book captures the restless, fragmented spirit of the time beautifully by focusing on events around Margery Childe, a charismatic "Minister" who uses the bible to preach love and demonstrate the value of women while promoting pragmatic philanthropy. This opens up discussions on poverty, social inequity, misogyny, theology and mysticism.
I was fascinated by the effect that Childe had on Russell. Russel is a theological scholar, passionately devoted to studying the Jewish and Christian religious texts to learn their history and unravel the meaning their writers intended to convey. Childe is aware only of the St Jame's version of the Bible. She reads it to understand what God intends for the world. Russel's understanding of the text is superior to Childe's in every way except that Childe has the gift of deep, all-absorbing belief. Russell is suspicious of Childe. She is reluctant to accept that what she is seeing is a woman channeling God's grace. It is easier for her to believe that she is seeing a woman seeking power and perhaps wealth. Unfortunately for Russell she is too honest and her mind is too subtle to stop there. She has to confront the contrast between strength of Childe's belief and the depth of her own knowledge and wonder which of them is the poorer.
Childe's "sermons" are wonderful. Although I learned nothing new about the scriptures, I could feel the tug of her passion, the undertow of her belief. I understood the appeal of surrendering myself to it rather than swimming against that tide. That Russell did not surrender tells me a great deal about her.
One of the most memorable things about the book was the misogynistic quotes that open each chapter. King doesn't comment on them. She doesn't have to. Each one is breathtakingly appalling in its bigotry and anger. That these quotes come from educated men who were leaders in their time is astonishing. I have become so used to the aspiration on gender equality, no matter how seldom it is achieved, that I had allowed myself to forget the centuries of male thought and teaching that declared women to be less than fully human.
The quotes took the violence against the women in the book, especially Childe and Russell, and defined it not as some extraordinary melodramatic device but as part of the day to day world, an interpretation that is much more chilling.
I continued to enjoy the contrapuntal nature of the relationship between Russell and Holmes. She is a child of the twentieth century, a woman in a society where the old certainties on gender are starting to erode, a jew studying chemistry and theology with the same intellectual curiosity. He was raised to be a Victorian Gentleman, with all the advantages of gender and class on his side, has almost retreated from public life, has a passion for science but has no noticeable inclination towards theism. What binds them together is that they both see the world in a fundamentally analytical way, that allows them a clear view of the people around them while placing them at a distance from them. They both carry scars and guilt and both choose to retain their individuality even at the cost of living outside the bounds of respectability.
I'm hooked on this series now that it is clear that Russell is not the new Watson. I'm looking forward to the rest of the books.
"Midnight Come Again" opens like a Tom Clancy novel with a rogue Russian military unit killing people in an armed robbery in Moscow.
It was well written and intriguing but it left me with one big question: where is Kate Shugak?
I'm fairly sure this is the reaction that Dana Stabenow expected me to have as this is the question the whole novel sets out to answer.
The events in most of this novel are not seen from Kate's point of view but from Jim Chopin's. Jim has been asking around the Park to see if anyone knows where Kate is. No-one has any information for him but they all expect him to bring her back. Jim's search is cut short when he is sent undercover, working with the FBI to try and find a high-profile Russian crime boss who is thought to be in port. By chance, his assignment brings him face to face with Kate.
The Kate he meets is not the Kate Shugak I knew in the first nine books. She has literally vanished. Kate cannot or will not face that she is alive and Jack Morgan is dead. She has left her home, her friends and even her name behind. She is lost in guilt and grief and anger. Yet she does not curl up in a corner or dive into a bottle. She works, hard and long, mastering new tasks running an air-taxi/freight service. Kate shapes how the world she works in is organized because she doesn't know how NOT to do that. She works because work is better than having time to think and much, much better than having time to feel. Kate has a job but she doesn't really have a life. This seems to have been her goal: to be "the working dead".
Her meeting with Jim Chopin begins events that will force her out of the Hide she has built for herself. She becomes embroiled in the case and she becomes angry at Jim. It seemed to me that she rages at him because he is full of life and he will not let her deny her own life.
The plot in "Midnight Come Again" is strong, relatively complex and darker than some of the other books. I was struck by the contrast between Kate's drinking session with Russian seamen in this book and her session with the Russian sailors in "Dead In The Water." In "Dead In The Water" the session was lightly flirtatious, Kate was in control and there was nothing more sinister in the room than an exuberant excess of testosterone. In "Midnight Come Again" the drinking session has an undercurrent of threat, Kate is damaged and vulnerable, and there is serious cause to worry about her.
Kate is dragged back to herself, not just by Jim Chopin but through contact with an old school friend and her family. Kate is given a context for how she is seen by others, learns new things about her grandmother and incurs a moral debt towards a young girl.
The emerging dynamic between Kate and Jim injects fresh emotional conflict while also dealing realistically with reactions to grief. Not just Kate's grief for Jack Morgan, but Jim's grief for seeming to lose the woman Kate used to be.
This book is a good stand-alone thriller. It is also a very skillful bridge between the Kate we knew before the events of "Hunter's Moon" and the Kate who is finding her way after it. The emotional tone is perfect and made "Midnight Come Again" a very satisfying read.
The title sounded like a quote but I wasn't familiar with the source. An Internet search suggested that it might be from Theodore Roethke's poem "A Dark Time." The tone seems right. It's a good poem. Go HERE to read it for yourself
I almost didn't find this book because it has been relisted as "Jack Reacher: One Shot", linking it to the movie "Jack Reacher"
Don't let that put you off. The book is better than the movie if only because I didn't have to watch 5'7" Cruise playing 6'5" Jack Reacher.
This book starts a sniper killing people in a public square. The police do a thorough and efficient job and quickly find the killer. An absolute slam dunk. No doubt about it. Which immediately tells anyone who has read the other Reacher books that nothing is as it appears to be.
For once, Reacher is not pulled into the action by a damsel in distress but by a clever plot device that places him in am ambiguous position about wh0's side he's on and which undermines his credibility with the police.
Reacher's violent nature and huge size are used against him to force him into hiding. He then has to solve the case and kill the bad guys on his own. Except the plot doesn't quite allow for that so he recruits a temporary "Scoobie Gang" and takes them all with him to get the job done.
There are some good things in the this book: great exposition of the original police investigation, lot's of stuff on how to shoot with a long gun that's actually kept quite interesting, a fight staged like a ballet and a reasonably well-drawn set of characters.
Unfortunately the elaborate plot and the implausible violence of the denouement stretched my suspension of disbelief so far that it snapped and came back and hit me in the face before the end of the book.
"One Shot" is an enjoyable read but far from Lee Child's best.
It didn't help me that this Jack Reacher novel was narrated by Dick Hill who, to my ears, sounds too old to be Jack Reacher. I much prefer Jeff Harding.
I listened to the audiobook version of "Written In Red" in December 2013. I didn't write a review because I was so blown away all I'd have been able to say was: "Best fantasy novel I've read in a long, long time." I needed a bit of distance to get some perspective on what I enjoyed and why.
Last weekend, I was in "Forbidden Planet" in Liverpool and saw that the third book in the series, "Vision In Silver" had just been released in hardback. It was an instant and joyful buy. So I figured it was time to review the books that have brought me so much pleasure.
In my view "Written In Red" is closer to classic science fiction than it is to urban fantasy. Anne Bishop isn't writing about supernatural creatures roaming city streets. She's created an alternative reality, imagined the way good science fiction should be: starting with two small changes to our familiar reality - humans are not at the top of the food chain and shapeshifters are not only real but dominant - while keeping everything else the same and then working through the consequences. She then delivers complex, credible, I'm-hungry-to-know-more world-buidling in simple prose. But what makes this book unmissable is the way she made her world real to me by creating characters I cared about and putting them in peril.
The back story to Anne Bishop's alternative reality is that humans evolved and developed their civilization away from the wilderness that covers most of the planet. Then they came into contact with The Others - predatory shapeshifters and fierce elementals - who dominate the planet and to whom humans are "clever meat". The two cultures clashed. The humans lost, again and again, over centuries. Eventually the humans negotiated the right to specific pieces of land in exchange for services rendered.
At the time of the events of "Written In Red", humans are thriving on their "reservations" and are being supervised by Others living in Courtyards from which they observe what the clever meat is up to.
The Others in "Written In Red" can be described as werewolves or vampires or even werecrows but Anne Bishop only uses the familiar tropes to twist away from them. The Others are not humans who shift into wolves. They are wolves who occasionally choose to put on human skin. The Others are fundamentally alien. They literally eat humans that displease them. They are fiercely loyal to each other. They have a strong sense of pack or flock or hierarchy. They are civilized but they are not at all like us.
Into this world comes Meg Corbyn, a homeless waif with a secret. A Courtyard takes her in as their "Human Liaison" and the history of the world starts to pivot. Meg is engaging vulnerable, empathetic, curious, kind, and dutiful. Her innocence is explained by her sequestered life as a cassandra sangue, a woman who can see the future if her is skin is sliced. That she is kind and extremely likable is explained only by the fact that she is Meg.
The interaction between Meg and the Others is one of the most enjoyable things about the book. They laugh at her and puzzle over her but they also give her shelter. They declare her to "Our Meg" and protect her even though they are unaware of her background. She becomes, in effect, a valued pet human.
The treatment of the cassandra sangue by humans is far more monstrous than anything the Others do. When the Others sell human flesh as "Special Meat" it is an honest, malice-free act. When humans exploit the cassandra sangue, their actions are both fundamentaly inhumane and realistically human.
Anne Bishop's alternative reality is as dark and threatening as an ancient forest. Immediately after reading the book, I might have said that the darkness came from the constant threat the Others pose to humans, but the darkest image lingering in my imagination is Meg's razor: the one with her number on it, the one that was used to slice her skin to force her visions, the only thing she carried with her to her new freedom. The razor is a source pain and pleasure, a sign of slavery and a badge of honour, a bone-deep fear and a heart-felt desire. The razor and all it means, makes Meg Corbyn much darker than she first appears to be. In many ways it brings her closer to being one of the Others and makes her disturbing as well as engaging.
In "Written in Red", most humans who have power or are seeking it, are not mentally equipped to accept a status quo in which they are not at the top of the food chain. They are constantly plotting, looking for an edge that will enable them to become the apex predators. This seemed realistic to me, although I think the human evil-doers would have been more interesting if they had been a little less irredeemably venal.
Alexandra Harris does an excellent job as the narrator, particularly with the voice she uses for Meg.
"Written In Red" is original, rigorously thought through, passionate and written in deceptively simple prose. I believe it is the start of an outstanding series.
This is one of those books that it's easy to misrepresent. I've seen it described as a SF techno/polictical thriller about an ass-kicking, sexy, killer android. And it is. Except... it really isn't.
What keeps me reading these books is that it is not about how exciting it is to see a fembot in action. Cassandra Kresnov, who calls herself Sandy. is not human but she is a person, with emotions as well as an intellect, opinions and preferences as well as an accurate grasp of the data and in search of friendship and freedom and meaning rather than just personal survival.
The themes of the book are trust, loyalty, belonging, being loved, and what it means to be a person. The themes are explored against the background of a power struggle between competing ideologies carried out at the political and paramilitary level. No simple lines are drawn here. Sandy has to deal with the reality that politics are complex and many of the players are neither wholly good not wholly bad, that she is hated by many, marked for death by some and loved by a few people close to her. By the end of the novel she seems to have decided that what matters is who she loves and who she is loved by - not a classic fembot orientation.
Another deviation from the fembot stereotype comes when Sandy is asked to rescue a boy who is being held hostage by terrorists. Her reaction is one of regret. She is completely certain that, despite how impossible the task would be for a human, she can kill all three terrorist and save the child. She doesn't want to do this because, in her mind, the certainty of the deaths turns these kills into murder. Yet she kills the men and saves the boy because she can't see an alternative. In her mind, this means that she did something that was wrong because she decided that it was necessary. No excuses, just an evaluation of her own actions.
Joel Shepherd has given the book a good rhythm. It starts with action scenes: fast, graphic, lot's of explosions and gunfire and mayhem in public places; then moves on to personal reflection, usually by Sandy, on what the action meant; then he dives into complex and fascinating political intrigue, then dwells on the beauty of the city and the civilization it represents, before repeating the sequence from the top. He manages the rythm with skill and produces a much better book as a consequence of it.
"Breakaway" carries straight on from the first book, "Crossover" starting with one of what is to be many intense action scenes, chasing down bad guys bent on murder and mayhem. The person doing the chasing isn't Sandy but a new character, Ari Ruben, a hacker turned security guy who will give Sandy a lot to think about. Sandy will also be challenged by the political changes in The League, the alliance who created her and who she defected from in the first book. The political stress between Earth and its colonies continue to grow. Joel Shepherd has created fertile ground for a long series here.
Dina Pearlman, the narrator, continues to mangle the text with the use of random inflections that frequently slowed down my ability to process its meaning. She remains very good at dialogue and accents but I really wish they'd picked a different narrator for these books.
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