Book Review

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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

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!