Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Book Review | The End of the Day by Claire North

At the end of the day, Death visits everyone. Right before that, Charlie does. Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which.

You might meet him in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of a traffic accident. Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole—he gets everywhere, our Charlie.

Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says?


I've fallen for every one of Claire North's novels. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch and The Sudden Appearance of Hope have between them broken my heart and expanded my mind. They've thrilled me and they've chilled me. By way of them I've been exposed to new places, new ideas—new ways of being, even. But if I had to level a single criticism against her thoughtful body of work, it would have to be directed at its measure, because whilst her texts have tackled a great many meaningful themes, not least the array of ways we determine identity, I've found North's literary positions a little non-committal.

That's not the case in The End of the Day. This is a book with something to say; something important, if I may. It's slow to start, and oddly episodic even when the plot has picked up; its characters come and go with next to no notice; it's difficult, and confusing, and contradictory—but that's what life is like, right? And the messy, maddening, magical gift of life we've all been given, that's what The End of the Day deals in: not death... although its principal perspective is on her payroll.

Like North's other novels, The End of the Day is a high concept travelogue of sorts, but this fiction's frequent flier is Charlie, and Charlie just got hired! He's to be the Harbinger of the foremost of the apocryphal horsemen, of which singular position Death gives this description:
The Harbinger is a mortal, a bridge between this world and the next. In the old days I used eagles, but people stopped paying attention to them after a while—just birds in he sky—[so] I switched to humans a few thousand years ago. One must move with the times. (pp.12-13)
North doesn't waste any time reinventing the wheel here. Death appears in any number of forms over the course of the story. Sometimes he's male and sometimes she isn't; from time to time she has a scythe; here and there, horns protrude from his lumpen skull. "In all other respects he was the figure she had known would come, the god of the underworld, exactly as the stories said he would be." (p.14)

Charlie, on the other hand, is just a puny human.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Book Review | The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the great Houses of Paris, ruled by Fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital.

House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Phillippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic might be more than he can bear.

In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater dragon kingdom—and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear....

As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength—or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.


The second Dominion of the Fallen novel sees Aliette de Bodard return to the city of down-on-their-luck divinities she depicted so delicately in The House of Shattered Wings in the company of a cast of characters that were in the background of book one. In that sense it's a sequel, however The House of Binding Thorns stands as a striking example of a story that both stands alone and expands.

Welcome, then—or welcome back, perhaps—to the capital of France after the collapse. Some sixty years on from "the cataclysm that had devastated Paris, reducing monuments to blackened rubble, turning the Seine dark with the dangerous residues of spells, and leaving booby traps that still hadn't vanished," the angels who fell from heaven on that dark day have organised themselves into powerful houses, very much in the mode of the mafia. Indeed, de Bodard doubles down on that extended metaphor in The House of Binding Thorns, in that its narrative is driven by drug trafficking and an addict on the road to recovery is its principle perspective.

But the drug doing the damage in postwar Paris is no conventional concoction of chemicals. It is, instead, angel essence: the magic-amplifying fibre of the Fallen. It is "the promise of pleasure, of power," and power is what every mob boss wants, what every mob boss will do anything to get...

Asmodeus is just such a soul, as the head of House Hawthorn: a "brash statement of power" beside the "genteel, quiet, decaying thing" that is House Silverspires. "Silverspires had been Hawthorn's enemy," had kept it in check, "but the events of seven months ago"—so cannily chronicled in The House of Shattered Wings—"had left them bloodless and in ruins, barely capable of being a power in postwar Paris, much less a threat."

With Hawthorn high on its triumph, every other House is battening down the hatches. But though the ex-angel Asmodeus' organisation appears unequaled, in reality, it too is a ruin. "The House might look grand and magnificent, but it was like the rest of the city: barely hanging on to normality, struggling to maintain itself against decay." Mold and char and rot are rife in the Dominion of the Fallen novels, giving the series a certain sickening stench, as of something spoiled. That said, there are also heady hints of what was: a beautiful world, all orange blossom and eau de bergamot.

And as above, so below. Literally, in this instance, for under the River Seine, another kingdom cometh. "Legends had come to life in this city, in this place. Tales that had always been distant dreams," of angels, magic—and now dragons, or rather Rong.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Book Review | Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

A Dragon is dead.

Corta Helio, one of the five family corporations that rule the Moon, has fallen. Its riches are divided up among its many enemies, its survivors scattered. Eighteen months have passed.

The remaining Helio children, Lucasinho and Luna, are under the protection of the powerful Asamoahs, while Robson, still reeling from witnessing his parent's violent deaths, is now a ward—virtually a hostage—of Mackenzie Metals. And the last appointed heir, Lucas, has vanished of the surface of the moon.

Only Lady Sun, dowager of Taiyang, suspects that Lucas Corta is not dead, and more to the point—that he is still a major player in the game. After all, Lucas always was the Schemer, and even in death, he would go to any lengths to take back everything and build a new Corta Helio, more powerful than before. But Corta Helio needs allies, and to find them, the fleeing son undertakes an audacious, impossible journey—to Earth.

In an unstable lunar environment, the shifting loyalties and political machinations of each family reach the zenith of their most fertile plots as outright war erupts.


It says a lot that I look back on Luna: New Moon lovingly rather than remembering how maddening and demanding a novel it was. Outside of his exemplary young adult efforts, Ian McDonald has rarely been easy to read, but I found the first stretch of said text tremendously testing. Yet for every ounce of effort I expended, Luna: New Moon repaid in spades, much as the Mackenzies do with their debts.

The Mackenzies are but one of the five faithless families at the heart of the second part of McDonald's narrative: a surprisingly accessible successor assuming you've finished the book it builds on. And build it does, on much of the hard work of the first: on the harsh mistress of the moon that is its desperate setting, and on the very much in motion story, which focuses on the clashing clans whose mandate is to somehow succeed on that satellite.

One thing Luna: Wolf Moon doesn't share with McDonald's last is its massive cast. It can't, considering the catastrophic fall of the Cortas—though to call what befell them a fall isn't quite right. The Cortas, "the lucky, flashy Cortas," were decimated, deliberately and decisively. Like the Starks of A Song of Ice and Fire, which fantasy saga this complex and often shocking science fiction series is obviously modelled on, they had their head literally lopped off.

And they didn't just lose their leader: they also lost their source of income, their sense of security and their seat of power. But though the Cortas are definitely down, they're not out. The better to recover some measure of strength, the survivors of the disaster at Joao de Deus have scattered.

Like Arya, little Luna looks too young to represent any kind of threat, but she'll come into her own quickly. Robson is stronger than Luna as of the offing, but having been adopted—or taken hostage—by the Mackenzies, he's something of a pawn, and thus this saga's Sansa. Lucasinho of the "good sex and better baked goods" can be Bran, because his part in the plot hasn't really been revealed; legal eagle Ariel is reminiscent of Robb Stark in that she still holds some sway over the system that underpins everything; whilst Wagner, the wolf who has channeled his bipolar disorder into a powerful pack mentality, is, of course, the Jon Snow of McDonald's story.

Some of these similarities are slight, sure, but some are so on the nose that they must be by design, and I struggle to begrudge that, given the incredible recognition George R. R. Martin has received in recent years. As an author, Ian McDonald is from my perspective no less deserving, and if he has to follow in a footstep or two to achieve even a measure of the success Martin has, then I say okay. The Cortas aren't carbon copies in any case; it's only their respective roles in the whole that have me meandering about in memory lane. Well, it's that, and a line that goes something like this: if you play the game of Luna, "you either live or the moon kills you."