Book Reviews


Photo by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash

Anthology #7

Three Debts Paid, by Anne Perry

This is a decent enough story, but in my humble opinion, the author takes an excruciatingly long time to reach the dénouement, sending two of the main characters round in unnecessary circles, and asking the same questions more than once, both of themselves, and others whom they need to or want to question. There are two main threads happening: the first, a series of brutal & violent murders, in which the victims are stabbed & slashed, then an index finger segment removed post mortem; apart from the latter detail, the only other common aspect is that they all occur in pouring rain on the streets of London in the February of 1912. The second is a legal case of plagiarism, which is complicated by a charge of assault against the defendant. The main characters all know each other: Inspector Ian Frobisher is investigating the murders, and he was at Cambridge with Daniel Pitt, the barrister who is recommended by Frobisher to the defendant, Professor Nicholas Wolford, who taught Pitt, whose father just happens to be head of Special Branch. There is also a potential love interest, between Daniel and Miriam fford Croft, who has recently qualified as a pathologist, but she had to do this in Amsterdam, as the facility was not available in Britain; she also happens to be somewhat older than Daniel. The murderer is not too difficult to identify, but this takes around 300 pages! The court case near the end is rather messily terminated, and I didn’t think clients were able to instruct barristers directly, as is the case here. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-7527-1.

This is the Night They Come for You, by Robert Goddard

At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this story, but it didn’t take me long to decide that I definitely would! Also, the author’s name seems familiar, but if I have read another of his books, I can’t find a review for it; he has written twenty-nine other books, according to the flyleaf of this one. The story revolves around the politics of Algeria, a country about which I know very little; there are also associated threads in England & France. It is set in the present day, and Covid has left its mark on Algiers, but lurking in the background, there is the spectre of the revolutions and tragic bloodshed which have riven the country since the War of Independence, whose true horror was exemplified in the massacre of Algerian protestors by the Paris police on the night of 17 October 1961. An Algiers police superintendent is charged with bringing a high-level embezzler to justice, and he is obliged to work with a rare female security service operative. A French woman has been offered a written confession made by her English father, who ran a bookshop in Algiers, before he was murdered, apparently by moslem extremists. An English man is also interested in the Algerian embezzler, because he is convinced that the latter murdered his sister, who was the bookshop owner’s girlfriend in Paris. The threads are very cleverly woven together, and they build to a dramatic climax, so I can recommend this book. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Penguin [Bantam Press], London, ISBN 978-0-5521-7847-1.

Until the Last of Me, by Sylvain Neuvel

This author, as his name suggests, has French ancestry, but is a native of Québec. The book being reviewed is [again!] the second of a prospective trilogy, classified under the title of Take them to the Stars, and it is a type of alternative history science fiction; it is also, for me anyway, an allegory of the seemingly eternal, sadly, struggle of the female gender to overcome the at best dismissal, and at worst outright violence of the patriarchy. This should not spoil the plot, but the theme is only barely disguised. The plot is that a race of humanoid extraterrestrials, known as Kibsu, have lived among us for 3000 years, and for only vaguely explained reasons have “shaped Earth’s history to push humanity to the stars”, by using their skill with mathematics & astronomy to assist our technological development. Somewhat implausibly, they are all female, only using indigenous males for procreation; to complicate matters, however, the women are hunted, and regularly eliminated [but not enough for the race to die out completely] by the Tracker, a lineage of males, whose purpose seems to be simply to prevent the Kibsu from achieving their goal. The dénouement of this story is climactic, but not sufficiently to prevent the plausibility of a conclusionary sequel; I did enjoy it in the end, but it took a while before I was sure. The hardback I read was published in 2022, by Michael Joseph [Tom Doherty Associates], ISBN 978-0-2414-4514-3.

The Locked Room, by Elly Griffiths

It is now February 2020, and Covid is starting to bite; although, not as hard as it would, as we now know with hindsight. Dr. Ruth Galloway, the head of the Archaeology Department at the University of North Norfolk, is enjoying some quality time with her illicit, and only barely concealed lover, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, because his wife, Michelle, is isolating in Blackpool with their son and Harry’s mother. Harry and his team are investigating a series of apparent suicides of elderly people, but they are having to operate a skeleton staff in the office because of safety requirements. Ruth has just cleared her recently deceased mother’s house in London, and discovered a photograph which shows her cottage taken before she moved in, with the caption “Dawn, 1963” on the back; meanwhile, she has a new neighbour, a nurse by the name of Zoe, but she seems strangely familiar… Two students at the university go missing, then Ruth’s neighbour also does. There is also a significant scare [including for regular readers of this series] when one of the least likely main characters is struck down by Covid. At the end of the book [but not the end of the series: the next instalment is previewed here] Ruth has two very significant decisions to make: both of which have been forced upon her, and neither of which she is enthusiastic about having to make. Another very enjoyable instalment! The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-5294-0967-3.

Book Reviews

Photo by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash

Anthology #3

Fall, by John Preston

This book is subtitled The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, and is described on the front cover, by no less a reviewer as Robert Harris, as “… the best biography yet of the media magnate”: despite not having read any of its predecessors, I am very happy to accept that assessment. It is difficult not to stray into hyperbole when describing this repugnant man, who was a consummate con-artist, notwithstanding his tough & demanding background of poverty in Czechoslovakia, before reinventing himself as many times as was necessary to enable him to achieve almost unimaginable [although perhaps not by current Bezos/Musk standards] wealth & social standing, before it all came crashing down, when the extent of his deception was revealed. The main question, which [spoiler] the book doesn’t conclusively reveal, is whether he took his own life, was murdered, or died as a result of an accident aboard his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine: whose name also has a current resonance, which is touched upon briefly at the end of the book. Perhaps his criminal activity has taught the high-flying financial world a well-deserved lesson, but I am prepared to believe that it didn’t, when the lure of financial gain is too strong to resist. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Penguin Books, [Viking], Random House UK, ISBN 978-0-2413-8868-6.

Capture or Kill, by Tom Marcus

This is the first novel by “Tom Marcus”, a pseudonym “to keep his identity hidden” [at the insistence of MI5] “to ensure he stays safe”, given that “it’s the first true ground-level account [of “the real story of the fight on our streets”] ever to be told”; that might or might not be true: it all sounds a bit ‘boys’ own’ to me, and the writing style used in the first-person narrative is a bit rough around the edges, including some basic spelling mistakes & grammatical errors which the editors should have picked up, but that could be deliberate, to convey that the author “grew up on the streets in the North of England … [and] left the Security Service recently, after a decade on the frontline protecting his country due to being diagnosed with PTSD.” The protagonist, Logan, is personally selected by the DG of MI5 to join an ultra-secret, deniable action agency called Blindeye, to identify and, if necessary [it generally is, apparently] eliminate threats to the safety of this blessed realm. He is weighing up if this should be his future when a tragedy occurs, which decides the question; before long, however, he discovers that all is not what it was supposed to be, so drastic action is called for…. If the covert activities presented here are true, it could be ammunition for both conspiracy theorists & civil rights activists, but ultimately, there is no way for Joe Public to know the truth [and survive]. The way is left open at the end for a sequel, so its appearance can be more or less guaranteed. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Pan Books [Macmillan], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-6359-4.

The Bourne Initiative, by Eric van Lustbader

Aside from the exotic, film-staresque sound of the name of the author, who is continuing the highly successful series originated by the late Robert Ludlum, this is one of the latest novels featuring this by now almost mythic freelance operative, who freed himself of the shackles of his Treadstone background some years before. As usual, he is trying to live a quiet life, whilst being only too aware of diverse threats to his existence, and in this story, he is dragged into a chase to discover the whereabouts of the eponymous Initiative, which turns out to be, ostensibly, a highly dangerous tranche of computer code, created at the behest of his erstwhile, now dead, Russian compatriot, General Boris Karpov. In the course of the narrative, during which, as ever, so it would seem, Bourne doesn’t know whom to trust [but that’s espionage for you, I guess], he is forced to accept at least one potentially life-threatening collaboration. The action is virtually non-stop and, apart from the slightly unrealistic capacity Bourne has for absorbing physical punishment and quickly recovering therefrom, the progress to the dénouement is reasonably plausible, so if you like fast-paced spy thrillers, this is one I can recommend. The paperback I read was published in 2017, by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7866-9425-6.

Elsewhere, by Dean Koontz

I don’t remember if I’ve ever read any work by this author before, or whether the subject matter is exemplary of his normal output, but suffice to say that I was easily drawn in by the topic of parallel universes: another branch of the ‘what if’ scenario, although I was occasionally slightly irritated by the apparent stupidity of the protagonists by their actions in stressful situations; that is possibly presumptuous, however, because I’m not an eleven-year old girl, or a somewhat naïve American man who has suffered a trauma in his marriage. Jeffery [aka Jeffy] Coltrane is entrusted with a cardboard box by an eccentric, but presentable vagrant with whom he has struck up a relaxed friendship, and exhorted to not open the box under any circumstances, but to keep it safe. Of course, circumstances dictate that the box is opened, initiating a series of breathtaking & [in the ‘normal’ world] barely believable events. Jeffy’s daughter Amity proves to be mature beyond her years, but not strong enough on her own to defeat the forces of evil with apparent government backing who are seeking to destroy both them and the wonder which has fallen into their hands. This is a real page-turner if you like this sort of fantasy fiction, so it comes highly recommended, even if the dénouement is perhaps just a tad too ‘pat’ for credibility. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020, Thomas & Mercer, Seattle] by HarperCollinsPublishers, London, ISBN 978-0-0082-9127-3.

Have a go!

Have you ever thought about sharing ideas with your friends, but you find platforms like Facebook & Twitter, etc. intimidating? Why not start a WordPress blog: it’s easy! Click the link to read the post. There are plenty of different templates to choose from, and if you have something to promote, there’s nothing to stop you; for example, I use my blog to promote the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon: Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, which can be bought direct from my own website (follow the link, and don’t be put off by any browser warnings: the site is perfectly safe—it just means I haven’t converted it to https yet, but it’s coming soon 🙂 ), but I also like to share reviews of books I’ve read, and other things related to books & publishing, so it’s not just a hard sell. Even if you only post now & again, it’s rewarding being able to share your thoughts with other people; check out the blogs I follow, from the links on the right, as well: there are some lovely, friendly people out there. As they say on The Prisoner [one for the teenagers!]: Be seeing you!

Book Review

Photo by Ebun Oluwole on Unsplash

The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont

This author is American, and is a newcomer to speculation about the Agatha Christie ‘disappearance’ mythology: it “began in 2015 when she first learned about the famous author’s eleven-day disappearance. Christie’s refusal to ever speak about this episode particularly intrigued Nina, who loves the fact that someone who unravelled mysteries for a living managed to keep her own intact. The Christie Affair is her fourth novel.” I’m not sure if saying Christie “unravelled mysteries” is entirely accurate, because since she created them in the first place, and required them to be plausible, they wouldn’t have required unravelling by her, would they? That could safely be left to her readers. It’s possible that the author didn’t write her own bio, of course. This story is loosely based upon the facts as we know them, according to Christie’s Wikipedia page; some names have been changed, for obvious reasons; but this narrative falls into the ‘what if’ category, rather than a parallel universe scenario: the author describes it as “an imaginative history of sorts”.

As the narrative progressed, I was wondering why so much space was being given over to the backstory of the narrator, Nan O’Dea, who is this story’s substitute for Archie Christie’s real mistress, Nancy Neele, but the reason for that eventually became clear, and that is the subtext of this narrative: forced adoption of babies by the Catholic church in Ireland. I can’t reveal the reason for that, because the plot revolves around it, but it is a major element of this story. In fact, very little more of the plot can be revealed, but the major aspects of it conform to the real story, whereby Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale after a disagreement with her husband, in early December 1926, and after eleven days she was located at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate; although a different name for the hotel is used in the story. The period atmosphere is quite nicely realised so, apart from a few unfortunate Americanisms, which is understandable, given the author’s nationality, the story is a pleasant, undemanding read, even is some of the events do seem a touch implausible: given that this is fiction, I suppose that is forgivable.

It is difficult to speculate as to this book’s target readership, but Christie connoisseurs might enjoy it; as a thriller, it is very lightweight; it probably falls more comfortably into the romantic fiction category; but as stated above, it is undemanding, so it should be possible for different categories of reader to enjoy it. The paperback I read was published in 2022 by Pan Books [Mantle], an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-5419-4.

Book Review

Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

This is a book narrated, unusually [but probably not uniquely], by a dog: specifically, the eponymous dog of the book’s title. It might seem like an unusual name for a dog, but it is very significant for the dog’s owner, Valentyne, and the book’s premise is depicted quite clearly on its cover, with a handsome & intelligent looking dog lower centre, and surrounded by images suggesting his & his owner’s travels, and a pocket watch to signify the passage of time: a lot of it, in fact, and this is also suggested by a broad ribbon which crisscrosses the cover from top to bottom, whose colour progresses from pale at the top, to dark at the bottom. Valentyne is immortal; so is Tomorrow; but they are no super-heroes: Valentyne discovered a method whereby a fluid carefully & painstakingly distilled from a rare mineral could be injected into a specific place in the body, and repeated several times, until a living stone grows to cease the ageing process, so he bestowed this gift upon his beloved companion, as well as himself. This being the case, they have lived several lives [Tomorrow arguably many more], Valentine’s including physician, philosopher & soldier.

Valentyne is imbued, perhaps as a result of his immortality [which can only be terminated similarly to the premise of the Highlander stories, by hanging or decapitation], with a seemingly insatiable wanderlust, which takes him from his home, of which he never speaks to Tomorrow, to Venice, London, and Denmark: specifically, Elsinore Palace, in 1602, by which time he is already over a hundred years old. Unfortunately, he has a nemesis whose name, we learn, is Vilder, and the peripatetic pair seem to be forever trying to stay at least one step ahead of him, for reasons which are not, initially, specified; although, when they do happen to meet, early in the narrative, Tomorrow cannot help but feel the magnetic power of the man. It might seem strange for a dog to be so apparently eloquent, but that is a plot device which must be accepted with a suspension of disbelief; his conversations with other dogs are helpfully translated for us; although I am of the opinion that the occasional grammatical errors which crop up are human, not inserted deliberately to make the dog seem less than intelligent.

Inevitably, both man & dog have romantic relationships which are inherently doomed, because of the disparity in their respective species’ lifespans, so this is a major element of pathos in the narrative, and both Valentyne & Tomorrow have to learn to accommodate this inevitability; of the two, Tomorrow seems to be the more philosophical, although the death of his one love does affect him deeply, and he also mourns the loss of a true friend, acquired against his better judgment at the time. Despite Valentyne’s constant avoidance of Vilder, or perhaps because of the need for it, Valentyne takes on a mission in life, to be a peripatetic battlefield physician, following military adventures over a wide geographical area, with no obvious partisan loyalties save the relieving of suffering, for which his apparently magical elixir, which he calls jhyr, is occasionally but sparingly put to use. Unsurprisingly, after Valentyne goes missing in Venice, and Tomorrow waits for him for over one hundred years, there is a confrontation & a reckoning between Valentyne & Vilder; before this, Tomorrow, with his travelling companion, Sporco, is abducted by Vilder, and he learns that Valentyne was imprisoned in the same building: it had once been a sumptuous mansion, but it was now a prison by any other name.

I make no secret of the fact that I generally enjoy stories which use the concept of time as their theme; this is only time travel inasmuch as the direction is exclusively forwards, but it does allow the protagonists to experience different periods, with their individual fashions, mores, and personalities, and there is also the slightly furtive frisson to be enjoyed from being aware that the protagonists know something that their contemporaries don’t, provided they are discreet, which these are, of necessity; apart from one confession to an empathetic clergyman in the Carpathian mountains which, luckily, doesn’t put Valentyne in any additional jeopardy. The dénouement is not entirely unexpected, and its message of forgiveness is worthy; whether it is plausible depends upon one’s view of human nature. This book appears to be a one-off, but the author has written another book, which was set for publication in 2020, so it should be available now; that one is set in Renaissance Venice [so he seems to have a penchant for this city, as it features heavily in Tomorrow], and is about how far artists were prepared to go to discover new colours [when they weren’t available in millions, simply by using the correct combination of pixellated pigments]: “Think Perfume, for pigment.”  The paperback I read was published in 2019 [2018, Michael Joseph], by Penguin Books, part of the Penguin Random House group of companies, ISBN 978-1-4059-2578-5.

Book Review

Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash

The Furthest Station, by Ben Aaronovitch

DISCLAIMER: This is not a Harry Potter story!* This is a small, and relatively short book; indeed, the final 18 [unnumbered] pages are devoted to an interview with the author by Paul Stark from [the publisher] “Orion’s audio team”, although, to be fair, this is quite instructive within the context of the subject matter, and the author’s views on it; so, at only 118 pages, it could probably more accurately be described as a novella; but whatever, it is self-contained, and perfectly able to stand on its own, as part of the PC Peter Grant series. It is something of a Curate’s Egg for me: I was attracted to it partly by the cover, which is quirkily eye-catching, but also because it includes the London Underground in its locations, and at least one of the characters is an employee of this august workhorse of an organisation.

PC Peter Grant is an officer in the Special Assessment Unit; otherwise known as the Folly; presumably a section of the Metropolitan Police [although that isn’t specified], and his superior is Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, who appears to be some type of wizard; or else, a normal human who has become adept at magic, whose existence in this alternate reality is a given. Grant is able to perform minor magic, such as non-physical personal defence, and conjuring what is known as a werelight, which appears to have magical properties over & above simple illumination; he has been called in by his friend & colleague Sergeant Jaget Kumar of the London Underground division of the British Transport Police, and technically, the latter works directly for the Chief Constable as a troubleshooter and “go-to problem solver, but really he was there to deal with the weird shit on the Underground.” Kumar had been given a file of complaints handled by Project Guardian, “a joint BTP/Met/Transport for London/City Police initiative to deal with sexual assaults and offensive behaviour on the transport system.”

They had received a cluster of complaints about assaults on Underground trains using the Metropolitan Line by a ‘man who wasn’t there’, but when the complainants were questioned, their memories of the events, if it was immediately following, were sketchy, although that isn’t unusual for such cases, but if some time subsequently had elapsed, they denied all knowledge of the assaults. Hence Kumar & Grant’s involvement. The scenario does involves some acceptance of the fantasy element, but it is not so far removed from many people’s belief in the possibility of the existence of the paranormal, and phenomena such as ghosts, so it is not too fantastical, and there is some humour in it as well, which leavens the drama. *Many readers might see some similarities, in the magical knowledge & experience possessed & demonstrated by Grant & Nightingale, with the almost improbably famous Harry Potter stories, but I don’t think that this story and, presumably, others in the series, are a serious attempt to emulate them, and they should be read as such.

What brought me to the Curate’s Egg assessment was the colloquial language employed by the protagonist; I readily admit that I am pedantic with regard to the use of the English language, especially written, where preselection is not only implied, but expected, and I happily concede that PC Grant is not the most erudite of policemen, notwithstanding his relative youth, and [whatever his ethnicity] he is not going to think or speak the language as correctly as an English professor at one of our revered universities should [verb chosen advisedly], but it goes against the grain to read the prime example of this where he says, more than once in his first-person narration, “… me and [A N Other]” instead of “[A N Other] and I …”. I’m not sure what the reason for this might be: is it to make our hero seem ‘street-smart’, or is it to appeal to what I fear is a predominantly young[er than I], linguistically challenged audience; or both? Either way, and I make no excuses, but I just don’t like it, and its use grated on me. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book as a whole, and the dénouement was satisfying. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4732-2243-4.

Book Review

Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

If this book, and the previous one by the same author which I have read, Cryptonomicon,  [albeit a much later book in his canon] are representative, then they are all [13] very long indeed; this one runs to 697 [!] pages, and the font used for the text is small—possibly 12pt—but I can genuinely say that this was a book I really didn’t want to end. It will probably be classified as SciFi but, given that it has been written within the last couple of years, on recent evidence, I would describe it as prescient, because IMHO one doesn’t have to be a tree-hugging, panicking environmentalist to discern that the scenario presented here is all too plausible; even possible—I hope against hope it is not probable. It is the near future; although the exact year is not specified, but COVID-27 is mentioned [subsequent to COVID-23 and our by-now familiar COVID-19], so it could be in the region of ten years hence, at least, and the climate has significantly worsened. The explanation for the book’s title will follow some further background information.

There are several different strands to the narrative, starting in different locations, but the reason for that will soon become clear. I had to put my republican sentiments into suspended animation for the duration of this story but, thankfully, that wasn’t too difficult, despite one of the main characters being the fictitious queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilda Louisa Saskia, although the Dutch ‘royal’ family is famously low-maintenance; Saskia, as she prefers to be known by those close to her, is also a likeable person [but that has no bearing on my principles, as in the British situation]. A Texan billionaire, T.R. Schmidt [aka McHooligan, the publicly marketed persona for his chain of truck stops] has invited a somewhat disparate group of prominent persons to a conference in Houston, to discuss the climate crisis, and Saskia is one of these; although her constitutional inability to act directly & unilaterally is explained in great detail [as is much else: one of the commendable aspects of Stephenson’s narratives]. Unfortunately, her incoming self-piloted jet aeroplane crashes on landing at Waco airport; Houston being unavailable as a result of the intense heat; but she, and her minimal entourage survive, albeit with a few non life-threatening injuries, to continue the journey, and during her rescue from the cause of the crash, feral swine [and, randomly, although not much more, an alligator], she encounters another main character in the story: Rufus [Red] Grant, a self-employed operator trading under the name FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES.

Another character, who initially also seems like a rather random inclusion, is a young Canadian man by the name of Deep, although he generally goes by the nickname of Laks, which is derived from the salmon he catches for a living; when he can’t do that in his native British Columbia, out of season, he works as a welder. Initially, these aspects of his character, in addition to his high level of fitness and toned physique, and the traditional Indian martial arts he enjoys practising because of his Indian heritage, don’t seem to connect with the rest of the narrative, but slowly & surely, through the literal, as well as emotional journey he undertakes, the author draws these loose strands together, and they later connect very satisfactorily.

Schmidt’s proposal, which is demonstrated after all the scrupulously polite & accommodating preliminaries, is to spread the sulphur which he has available in vast quantities into the upper atmosphere, providing a global reflective blanket to mitigate the greenhouse effect of the sun, which has been exacerbated by human-produced carbon dioxide. He is going to do this unilaterally and, it transpires, has already started doing it [the technical details are quite involved, so better absorbed from the narrative]; he hopes to also encourage other strategically placed nations to do the same, hence the conference, although the invitees are not necessarily the most geographically, or politically, obvious. Hence the jeopardy in the story: a scheme such as this has been proposed in similar forms previously, but a scientific consensus was never reached so, with a nod to his location, Schmidt decided that he must take the metaphorical bull by the horns and use his money for humanity’s benefit. Unfortunately, not all of humanity would be similarly benefited, and nations such as China & India, which were not invited, are significantly concerned, for political as well as geo-climatic reasons.

The title is the name of what is generally reckoned [using the climatic data currently available to the scientists] will happen if climate-mitigating measures, such as that proposed, and already put into action by Schmidt, are precipitately terminated: the climate would go into a sort of shock, from which it might never recover; or, at least, not in a way which would be conducive to long-term survival of the human race. For several different reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: whether it would convince waverers, or hardline climate change sceptics, of the need for rapid & decisive climate mitigating action is debatable, but aside from the politics, it’s a damn good and well-written story—I would also recommend Cryptonomicon, if you have any interest at all in cryptography, but the history aspect of it is also illuminating, and written in a very approachable way. The [large!] paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by the Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-0440-6.

Book Review

Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash

Over A Torrent Sea, by Christopher L. Bennett

This story is one of the multitudinous episodes in book form in the Star Trek canon, and this particular one is an adventure of the Star Ship Titan; although I wasn’t familiar with this ship, or the events which precede this story, the fact that I know the captain, William Riker, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, means that I felt comfortable reading it, without a steep learning curve required to acquaint myself with a lot of new characters [although there are quite a few]. I’ve never been able to understand how the Stardate system works, but at the beginning of the story, we are given an equivalence between Stardate 58126.3 & 2381 in the current western system: no doubt I could look it up online, if I could be bothered….. There must have been a series of books preceding this one, entitled Star Trek: Destiny, detailing “devastating events”, according to the book’s cover, presumably involving The Federation’s arch-enemies, the Borg, who have, also presumably, been defeated, enabling “Captain William Riker and the crew of the U.S.S. Titan … to resume their deep-space assignment, reaffirming Starfleet’s core principles of peaceful exploration.”

They encounter a very unusual planet, one consisting of a global ocean, with no apparent solid land to be seen anywhere. They [as in, the English-speaking ones] name the planet Droplet and, initially, it appears that it is devoid of any life, sentient or otherwise, but luckily, there is in the crew an aquatic lifeform, Aili Lavena, who is able to explore the oceans freely [and joyfully], unencumbered by the life-support suit she is obliged to wear in gaseous atmospheres; she has also, because her species is unashamedly promiscuous at a specific period in their life-cycles, enjoyed a brief but rewarding liaison with Will Riker, which will become a matter of some embarrassment for him as the story unfolds, especially as he is now in a serious relationship with the ship’s Counsellor, the Betazoid empath Deanna Troi, who must have moved with him from Enterprise, for that very reason: she is in the late stage of pregnancy, having tragically lost a previous baby by miscarriage.

It is discovered that there are, in fact, lifeforms in the ocean, capable of living at great depths, but it isn’t clear whether they are sentient, or simply ‘animal’; because they look like an amalgam of a whale & a squid, they are called squales. The question of sentience is almost resolved when Lavena is rescued from a predator, and it is confirmed when the squales destroy probes which have been submerged to warn them away from an area which would be dangerous for them, as a result of an underwater tsunami; also, Lavena has been able to establish primitive communication with them, as her own language bears some basic similarities, so she learns that technology appears to frighten them. Inevitably, the Federation’s Prime Directive has to be considered when a rogue asteroid appears to be on course for the planet, and Riker has to decide whether they can reveal their extraterrestrial origin, something which has thus far been carefully concealed. Revealing any more would probably spoil the plot which, if you enjoy science fiction in general, and the Star Trek canon specifically, is exemplary of the Star Trek ethos; in particular, how all life, in its great diversity, is precious, and that difference in all forms should be respected, and not feared. The paperback I read should still be available, but it might necessitate some effort in locating: I like to think that effort will be rewarded. It was published in 2009 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., under exclusive licence from CBS Studios, Inc., ISBN 978-1-4165-9497-0.

Book Review

Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash

The War in the Dark, by Nick Setchfield

This is the author’s first novel, but it is a very accomplished introduction; he is no stranger to writing, as he is a writer & features editor for a “best-selling magazine of genre entertainment in film, TV and books [SFX].” This background shouldn’t automatically suggest an inspiration for the subject matter of this story, but he has evidently embraced it enthusiastically. Christopher Winter thinks he knows how the world works, at the beginning of the narrative, but he is very quickly disabused of that notion. It is October 1963, and he is an MI6 assassin, who can kill spies & traitors, seemingly without compunction, at the behest of his masters. His latest contract, a priest who is suspected of selling state secrets to the Russians, presents him with a worrying development; for a start, he doesn’t just accept his fate, like the majority of Winters’s victims, but when Winters does kill the man, after a fight in which Winters is knifed in the arm, the priest dissolves into something altogether unholy as he dies.

Thereafter, the plot becomes increasingly gothic. According to Christopher’s erstwhile mentor, and now MI6 colleague, Malcolm Hands, the priest was trading not state secrets to the Russians, but esoteric runes: apparently, secrets more powerful than the atomic bomb, and his cutout is a third man in Vienna. Sound familiar? I prefer to interpret this as a reverential ‘borrow’, rather than a lazy ‘steal’: it is a fact that Vienna was a seething hub of espionage in the cold war years, so this is not an implausible plot device. Things take a distinct turn for the weird when Winters’s ‘echo man’ [field backup] is murdered, but then his corpse appears to be still alive, and intent on killing his colleague! To add to this catalogue of calamity, Hands is ritualistically murdered, but as Christopher hopes, he must have anticipated this turn of events, and has left a clue to a dead letter drop for Winters to collect. While he is doing this, he thinks he spots his wife, Joyce, observing him, but there is something about her that also seems wrong; this disquiet is amplified exponentially when Joyce subsequently tries to kill him!

This isn’t a ‘Steampunk’ world per se, but the gothic aspects of the story do suggest some sort of overlap; as mentioned, this is effectively the real world, but the story asks the question: do we really know the world, or is there much that remains just out of sight, but lurking in wait for the unsuspecting? Chris’s world is undoubtedly falling apart, and it is morphing into something demonic. Into this mix is thrown a character known only as Hart, but in a slightly earlier time period: he is a warlock, who seems to be obsessively searching for something, and he is also disturbingly capable of killing to facilitate his quest, using bone and blood magic. There are also, probably unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, references to Elizabeth the first’s spymaster, Walsingham, his alchemist associate Dr John Dee, and Sir Edward Kelly, who was employed for the ability to scry beyond the material curtain, a facility which was, frustratingly, unavailable to Dee. A supernatural being known as the Widow of Kursk is introduced, and she seems to know Christopher, calling him Tobias: how can this be? Winter also encounters an exotic [of course!] female spy by the name of Karina, and this proves to be a fateful connection for him.

Revealing any more would undoubtedly spoil a somewhat convoluted, but nevertheless enjoyable plot, which can be a refreshing alternative to perhaps more mundane spy thrillers & police procedurals; there is also the distinct possibility that this narrative could be continued in a further story, although that is not explicitly stated. If you enjoy a dark read, which might even be ever so slightly frightening, I can recommend this book: with the special effects available to the film industry today, I think it could also make a decent film, given all the appropriate prerequisites: good casting, production, and direction. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-785-65709-2.

Book Review


Photo by Marko Blažević on Unsplash

The Book of Dust, v2: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman

This is another heavy volume, weighing in at 687 pages; although, that said, the hardback version is printed using a decent size font—11.5pt New Baskerville Std [fractions of points seems unnecessary to me, but I’m no typographer]—with a good line spacing, so the pages are very easy on the eye, and easy to read quickly: I was surprised at how quickly I was able to progress through it. Unexpectedly, this trilogy sandwich-filling does not follow chronologically from the previous, first, volume, reviewed here: we have jumped forward in time, leap-frogging over the events of the His Dark Materials trilogy, to a point where Lyra is now using the surname Silvertongue, which was given to her ten years previously by the polar bear king, Iorek Byrnison, instead of her previous name Belacqua, although she also subsequently adopts other pseudonyms as circumstances demand. She is a young woman of twenty, a student at Oxford, where she lived in her childhood, but studying at St Sophia’s college, rather than Jordan, which gave her sanctuary as a baby. The hero of the previous story, Malcolm Polstead, is now a scholar with a Doctorate, who teaches at Durham college, after having matriculated at Jordan college.

Lyra is initially unaware of this history, and her limited encounters with Malcolm, in his teaching capacity, have not hitherto been instinctively comfortable for Lyra; she is also somewhat estranged from her dæmon, Pantaleimon, at the beginning of the story, for what appears to be a variety of reasons, although the primary, and obviously most physically & mentally hurtful of those appears to be “that abominable betrayal … on the shores of the world of the dead, when she had abandoned Pan to go in search of her friend Roger. The guilt and shame would still be as fresh in her heart on the day she died, no matter how far away that was.” At the beginning of the story, on one of his solo nocturnal local expeditions, predominantly to escape the oppressive atmosphere between them, Pan observes a murder which, along with the startling realisation that other human beings are able to voluntarily separate from their dæmons, sets in train a series of events which take Pan, Lyra and Malcolm on separate but almost equally perilous journeys to far-flung locations, trying to avoid not only death, but also capture by the ever-present, and increasingly powerful Magisterium.

The Secret Commonwealth of the book’s title is the liminal world of the imagination; a world which children can perceive or imagine, and which adults tend to forget or disregard as they mature, but the premise of the story is that it can exist if you believe it can: according to one of Lyra’s trusted friends, a Gyptian by the name of Giorgio Brabandt, it is “The world of the fairies, and the ghosts, and the jacky lanterns.” Imagination is one facility which Pan thinks Lyra has lost, mainly as a result of her recent reading of books which praise rationality above what cannot be proved scientifically, so his main purpose in journeying afar is to retrieve Lyra’s lost imagination, as if it is a faculty with a physical manifestation. The history of the Magisterium is also given in the book, and it bears similarities with the Christian religion as we know it, but it is also significantly different: it is as if The Inquisition was able to become permanently institutionalised, and The Magisterium is Pullman’s not-so-subtle allegory of The Inquisition, with all the iniquity it embodied.

As usual, Pullman demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge, but also his compassion for humanity, especially the plight of refugees—no less distressing now than it has ever been—and using Lyra’s inner voice, he says: “Aisha in the company of others like her, moving laboriously westwards in the hope of refuge, hungry, cold, robbed of the little she had. … being turned away from house after house, begging for shelter on a winter night. But people were better than that, surely? Wasn’t the human race better than that?” The acknowledgments at the end include, in addition to the usual thanks to the team members & friends who have helped in the realisation of the book, a touching mention of one of the characters in this story, whose name, Nur Huda el-Wahabi, is that of a real person, and is used as a memorial to his loss in the Grenfell Tower fire. The cliffhanger at the end of this volume is not unduly distressing, thankfully, but it it sufficiently intriguing to retain interest in the overall story arc [for this reader, anyway]; this is not a book for children, however: young adult at the very least. A quote from the dust-jacket of the book [no pun intended] is worth giving here, because I think it is accurate: “It is a powerful adventure and a thought-provoking look at what it is to understand yourself, to grow up and make sense of the world around you.” The hardback I read was published in 2019 by David Fickling Books, London, ISBN 978-0-241-37333-0. A trade paperback is also available: ISBN 978-0-241-37334-7.