Book Review: Sirens

SirensAs part of my recently-concluded Creative Writing degree course I had the opportunity to briefly study Crime fiction, which proved an enjoyable divergence from my recent reading. Indeed, this lead onto a conversation with a friend of mine who’s been urging me to dip my toe into noir crime fiction for as long as I can recall; serendipitously, Sirens happened to be on sale on Amazon and, after a little prod from my noir-aficionado friend, it ended up sitting on my bedside table not very long after.

From the off, I recognised a lot of traits in Sirens that I had identified as part of my studies, in particular in relation to the set text I examined and enjoyed for the Crime strand of the module, Shut Eye by Adam Baron. There are some flawed, morally-ambiguous characters, a seedy, gritty underbelly and the usage of the city, in the case of Sirens, Manchester, becomes a character in itself. Reflecting on my studies, Sirens was making, well, all the right noises.

The book has a gritty, bleak tone that is exemplified by the deliberate choice of setting and time: Manchester in November. Even as someone that is not familiar with Manchester at all (indeed I’m a Londoner) that alone does a great deal to set a mood and tone that the book keeps going all the way through. The presentation of Manchester is vivid in accentuating that sense of tone, even when the action and story move across distinctly disparate areas of the city – abandoned industrial areas to exclusive penthouses to what amounts to the epitome of suburbia are all facades that contain the overarching mood. It’s deeply atmospheric and engrossing, the city itself drawing me in as a reader.

The characters, too, are equally atmospheric; they all occupy shades of grey in terms of morality that are reflected in the bleak winter skies that permeate the Manchester in Sirens. It’s an effective mix, the sensation of not knowing who can be trusted, and certainly having ideas of who is bad and who is good upended and subverted just aided in my immersion. Like Shut Eye, there’s a corrosive, and compelling mix of corruption, vice and politics. Better, none of it is presented in a polemic way; if anything, it’s presented in a realistic, gritty stance. As nice as the reader may consider themselves, they can’t help but relate to how real this all could be, behind the façade of closed doors.

The protagonist, Aidan Waits, is perhaps initially a little cliched, the down-on-his-luck detective caught with his hands in the till but the journey he embarks on allows exploration of the character’s depth – who is he working for? Is it ultimately himself? Overall the protagonist is engaging and effective – both as a character and at his job, so there’s something to relate to beneath the multi-faceted surface. He’s an engaging protagonist and the ambiguity over his end goals is another point that propels the reader to finish the book; now he’s waist-deep in this mess, how is he going to get out of it? Or, more to the point we’re led to question, can he?

Being fairly new to the genre of crime thrillers, I’d cut my teeth on pacey books such as the Jack Reacher books from Lee Child. These are action-oriented and, most pleasing for me, unpretentious and accessible. Approaching Sirens I was a little concerned that, being a more serious, “noir” story, it might not quite live up that accessibility. These concerns were for naught; Sirens has a breathless pace that, while perhaps not as unrelenting as Lee Child’s works, which became a reference, still allows for a great deal of immersion into the atmosphere and world created, but it doesn’t linger too long to outstay its welcome. It strikes what I would say is a very good balance. There’s a lot going on that we experience as a reader throughout the first two-thirds of the book that immerses us in the world; details begin to stick out and make us ask questions. It is these questions that propel us, the reader, into the final third of the book where the threads we’ve been wrapped around begin to unravel. This was very satisfying, and Sirens sets up and ending and then delightfully subverts it; the payoff for persevering through the bleak and brutal landscape of Manchester that is portrayed is very satisfying.

I can only wonder how much more concentrated this would be to someone familiar with Manchester; however, this prior knowledge is not essential and this does well to not impede the accessibility of Sirens as a book; as before, Manchester becomes but another character in the story. It’s refreshing, too; while the story briefly touches the classical setting of noir, London, it purposefully doesn’t linger. If anything, London feels an alien landscape from the familiarity of Manchester. This is an effective subversion of the genre, and I feel choosing a setting the author is clearly familiar with, and isn’t London or Edinburgh helps set it apart. There’s no reason these s orts of urban crime stories couldn’t take place in any large metropolitan area, and again the fact that Manchester becomes its own character in the story helps justify that choice.

All this is pulled together with Joseph Knox’s immersive, haunting and evocative prose. It isn’t flowery by any stretch, but neither is it utilitarian. The sparse, pointed and precise construction of the prose is something I appreciated; it lacks pretention, but it doesn’t lack style. It propels the reader through the story but doesn’t linger for self-indulgent reasons, which is why I burned through the book so quickly once it had bitten into me. This is certainly a characteristic it shares with Lee Child’s work which is a major factor in my enjoyment of those books and the writing fits the mood an accentuates it effectively.

Overall as an introduction to potentially wider reading of noir fiction, Sirens was a strong candidate. Gritty, arresting and immersive; I’d highly recommend it! On the back of Sirens I’m certainly looking forward to reading both more of Joseph Knox’s work and more noir crime as a genre!

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DNF: Children of Time

Children_of_TimeI tried, I tried, I tried.

It’s always disappointing to have a book recommended, and gifted, by a good friend and just not one to get on with, but Children of Time is certainly a book that fits into that esoteric category. But, importantly, it’s a book that I recognised the good of but was unable to finish because that good couldn’t compensate for some other foibles that, ultimately, lost my interest.

I managed just about half of Children of Time before I felt the narrative had run out of steam, and assumed a stall from which it could not recover.

There are two parallel narratives that Children of Time alternates between: that of the results of Dr Kern’s experiment to “uplift” monkeys in an auspicious terraforming project (which naturally goes awry at the last moment) and that of the last of humanity’s journey aboard the ark ship Gilgamesh. Ultimately, these two narratives didn’t seem to mesh together particularly well and that was the main cause of chagrin for me with Children of Time.

Out of the two parallel narratives, the spider chapters – a mild spoiler, but the nanovirus intended to uplift the monkeys to sentience and intelligence inadvertently takes hold in the planet’s spider population – were more interesting to me as it explored how the spiders came to terms with their sentience, and explored interesting themes around genetic memories; the spiders passing Understandings down to their descendants. These are two very cool themes to go for – the uplift of another species to human-like intelligence and the notion of inheritable genetic memory – and I felt the spider chapters did progress these themes fairly efficiently.

That’s not to say the spider chapters of Children of Time were by any means perfect; indeed, the high-concept ideas behind the spider civilization, and particular some choices made by Tchaikovsky, made them less comprehensible than they could’ve been.

But the “human” chapters were just insufferable, near the point where I stopped reading.

If all the last vestiges of humanity can think to do on their ark ship is bicker then does our species not deserve to continue existing?

I did find myself losing patience with the humans in Children of Time; they simply bickered and bickered, seemingly endlessly, at the expense of any action. And quite frankly, the characterisation was pretty flat, too – I didn’t feel for any of the human characters, and they all felt quite interchangeable. That’s not to say the humans were truly flawed; indeed, just before I decided to shelve the book there was a nugget of interesting plot coming into focus – the self-appointed and mentally-unstable (though that’s just because the other characters kept saying what a terrible character he was) decides to attempt to meld with the Gilgamesh’s AI system to become some kind of immortal computer lifeform – interesting but the point at which this was coming was far too late; I’d already mentally checked out and, quite honestly, didn’t care what happened to the humans either way.

The main issue with Children of Time, though, for me, was two-fold:

  • There’s a disconcerting disconnect between the timelines of the “human” chapters (where the colonists drop in and out of hibernation as many of us would go to the shop to buy milk and bread, sometimes for centuries which pass in the blink of an eye; whereas generations of uplifted spiders can pass in months. This two-speed timeline to the alternating narratives just felt confusing and ultimately disconcerting.
  • The pacing of the narratives was way, way off; I gave up on Children of Time about halfway in, where I feel the human and spider storylines should be about to meet and set the dynamic for the rest of the book. This wasn’t happening; indeed, Children of Time was trying its best to stop that from happening. A small group of humans landed on Kern’s World, that of the uplifted spiders and the narrative goes to some effort to get those humans off the world and that was disappointing; I wanted the story to progress forward with these distinct groups interacting and conflicting and it seemed like the narrative just didn’t want that to happen, not until the humans had bickered a bit more.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the concepts of Children of Time that turned me off, but rather the narrative execution was lacking. Easily, 200 pages could’ve been cut from the middle of the book to no real loss of the overarching narrative arc. The prose itself, chapter-by-chapter, was approachable and not pretentious which is a deft skill; however, the fatal flaw for Children of Time was one that serves well as a cautionary tale to writers – let the middle sag at your peril.

I awarded Children of Time a rating of 2 stars on Goodreads; books I am unable to finish will not score higher than that. Thusly, because Children of Time was my first experience of work by Adrian Tchaikovsky and scored less than 3 stars I will not be looking to read any more of this author’s work.

Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

Girl_with_GiftsI’m reviewing The Girl with All the Gifts finally after a long absence – I read this book for the first time last February and I re-read it recently a few days ago. Re-reading it affirmed that it is almost certainly one of my favourite entries into post-apocalyptic fiction I have encountered so far.

The Girl with All the Gifts is at its root a very simple story. Humanity has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns host humans into mindless zombies. We meet Melanie, a young girl who seems, at first glance, to just be going to school in this weird, destroyed shadow of society… but there’s something not quite right about this “school” and the students within. She waits for “school” by waiting in her cell; she’s strapped to a wheelchair for “class” and is treated as a mixture between an unexploded bomb and an abomination by the “school’s” military garrison.

The first quarter of The Girl with All the Gifts does an impeccable, wonderful job of building up that everything is not as it seems with Melanie and her classmates. They’re not normal children but something much worse that everyone should be fearful of. Over the course of the first quarter of the book we notice some things that are off, and not quite right. It’s not a school but a military base – what purpose does this base serve? And where are the children going?

It’s atmospheric, ominous and it draws you in to find out why. That is why I consider The Girl with All the Gifts to be a brilliantly written book – M. R. Carey’s prose is taut but not cold with clinical distance, but maintains a sense of warmth and foreboding that draws the reader in. I found it to be a very, very readable book – on my recent re-read I managed 100 pages in about 40 minutes. Then there’s genuine tension and horror as the reader travel outside of the base, through some thrilling and visceral action, throughout the ruined United Kingdom, to apparent salvation.

When I read this book last year I read it immediately after The Day of the Triffids, and there’s a lot of similarities – nature reclaiming the world after an ecological, civilization-ending event, with redoubts of humanity scattered. The fungal-based “hungries” are pretty analogous to Triffids too, at least that was my interpretation, especially hungries progressed to the end-state, and those that progress to a something akin living plant, where the Ophiocordyceps has totally hotwired the host’s mental functions. The victims stop acting like people but rather shells of people infested and animated by the desires – basest and simplistic as they are – of the Ophiocordyceps, with nothing human remaining.

The story itself, once we break out of the base, remains tight.  There’s only a small repertoire of characters we experience Carey’s ruined world from the perspective of, and it’s just about right. Melanie is a special case, of course – she’s a “hungry”, as victims of the Ophiocordyceps fungus are termed, but one that has retained her mental faculties. She’s of prime importance to the voice of cold, clinical science, Dr Caldwell and forms a warm, emotional bond with her teacher, Helen Justineau. Melanie’s relationships with Justineau and Caldwell underpin a significant difference in how she and her fellow kind, mentally-cognitive hungries, are perceived: while science classifies them as dead, for the fungus has permeated the nervous system, Justineau relates on an emotional level to Melanie’s exhibition of characteristics that remain human in appearance.

That, I feel, is the main point of The Girl with All the Gifts – what really is humanity? How can humanity process a change of the nature the fungal outbreak to the very fabric of the species? The tussle between Justineau and Caldwell, and the schools of thought they represent, leaves a longing impact in the reader’s mind – at least, it certainly did for me.

And The Girl with All the Gifts uses a foe that is both novel to zombie fiction but also terrifying – a fungal outbreak. This is a welcome change from the “escaped bioweapon” or “extra-terrestrial invasion” that can be played a bit thin for the premises of post-apocalyptic fiction. The fungal infection is a totally natural occurrence and one humans have no defence against, ultimately. And Carey’s inspiration comes from a terrifying extrapolation of a fungus, the Ophiocordyceps, that already exists and just asks one question: what if this fungus attacked humanity? This clip from Planet Earth is widely reported to be the direct inspiration for The Girl with All the Gifts; it’s even referenced in the text:

The Girl with All the Gifts is not perfect, but it’s close to. The journey to Beacon, humanity’s last, apparent, refuge, is ultimately a trip in vain – is there even a Beacon to to return to? But the ending of The Girl with All the Gifts reflects that – the group’s journey to Beacon reflects humanity’s journey against Ophiocordyceps. And I wish The Girl with All the Gifts expanded a little more into this universe that’s created as I feel it’s so rich and ripe for exploration.

Girl_with_Gifts_FTICharacter-wise, the narrative focuses on two, maybe three, of the main characters to which we join upon the journey, with the rest less fleshed out. Dr Caldwell is “cold science” to Helen Justineau’s “hot emotion”, and the conflict between over Melanie is palpable – again, it’s easy to see both sides, but it’s a square impossible to circle. I feel some of the other characters – Sgt Parks and Gallagher – are less well-definied, almost empty stereotypes, and the attempts to develop their stories is impeded by a break-neck plot; The Girl with All the Gifts takes place over several days, once the first act is broken out of. Does this change of pace fit well? Not perfectly, no.

I do feel the ending does come together in a more reflective and conceptual way than the rest of the book perhaps leads into, but it does leave the reader pondering. Like a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction there is no “magic bullet” to save humanity, and to its credit The Girl with All the Gifts ratchets that emotional impact up to the fore in the ending, presenting a genuine choice for humanity: wither and die or embrace the inevitable. For its first act alone, The Girl with All the Gifts is rightly lauded, but the book as a whole remains a thought-provoking and deeply memorable read.

Oh, and no, I’d not played The Last of Us before reading this book, and likely won’t.

Book Review: Metro 2033

Metro 2033 von Dmitry GlukhovskyOne of the most satisfying things I can say I’ve done recently is go bookshopping with a friend – bouncing ideas off each other for books to read is a great feeling. My wallet? Less enthusiastic but book shopping is always a worthy cause to empty one’s vaults on.

I digress: Metro 2033 was a punt that I decided upon in the raw heat of the moment, browsing the Waterstones shelves. I’d heard vague hints that it was a good book, good enough to spawn a series of acclaimed video game adaptations, which, alas, I have not played.

Right from the start, Metro 2033 throws us into the fascinating and well-realised world of the Moscow Metro, roughly 30 years after a nuclear Armageddon wiped the surface clean of conventional life and left the survivors huddled in underground stations.

First thing that I liked? That in itself is a very believable setting and premise, that survivors would use underground railway stations as bomb shelters. There’s a historical precedent for it – London in the 1940s, so why not Moscow in the early 2000s?

Second thing I liked – this story is set in Moscow, and written by a Russian author. Already these are two fairly innovative steps in terms of post-apocalyptic fiction, which largely centres around the United States. Seeing the apocalypse from a different perspective – Russia, in this case – was a welcome change to the usual fare.

So already we’ve a good start with Metro 2033. It continues to get better with the steady revelation of the internal machinations and politics of the metro, which becomes a contained microcosm of the society that fled into the tunnels as the bombs fell. There’s the communist Red Line faction, the fascist Fourth Reich, and other factions and, indeed, independent stations to no faction they belong. This shrunken, cramped analogue for real society was compelling and engaging – it was also a very human and plausible thing to portray – each station became a nation-state or a vassal in an alliance, and they battled, as “real” nations would, over resources and ideology.

And then there’s the protagonist, Artyom, who is given a quest that feeds into his sense of adventure and takes him all around the metro itself, and this is how we explore the system and discover the intricacies of the settlements and factions contained within. It’s a nice way of doing it.

Metro 2033 was translated from Russian to English so I made a conscious effort to read the book carefully. Yes, the translated prose was a little heavy in places, but strangely I felt compelled to read on because the setting, story was so gripping. I do feel that some of the action was a little fuzzy and lacked a bit of clarity, but that’s not to say it didn’t make a hearty attempt at being atmospheric – whether this is an issue intrinsic in the source Russian text and exemplified a tad by the translation is another matter, but while the prose was a little meandering in a few places, that almost helped the mood the book was trying to portray.

The quest Artyom undertakes seems simple enough – take a message of impending catastrophe for the metro from his home station, VDNKh, to the political centre point of the metro system, Polis, in search of aid. And the quest branches nicely, and we’re introduced to many interesting characters and situations that really showcase the diversity of the metro system. And the twist at the end, realised when Artyom is powerless to prevent the course of events he has worked to start, was a wonderful surprise that twists the horror aspects of the story right around. The way Artyom becomes homesick for VDNKh, after his time adventuring the metro, is relatable and well-realised.

The book is refreshingly self-aware, too. Artyom becomes aware toward the midpoint of proceedings that he has an intangible “shield” around him that protects him from the course of events – events that, by all rights, should’ve killed him but through happy co-incidence, don’t. That’s a neat way of the author acknowledging that without the protagonist, and if they did come to a sticky end as in several instances they really should, there would be no story to tell.

And Artyom is also mindful of the fact that many of his companions who join him end up dead as a result of their accompanying him, which allays a criticism I had to start with that a lot of the ancillary characters Artyom meets seem to be fairly transient. But that’s also fine – they serve a purpose for the story and the quest and my criticism was allayed by Artyom’s recognition of this. It serves the book well.

So overall, Metro 2033 was a thrilling and atmospheric read that I found thought-provoking and expectedly deep. It’s certainly a title I feel would benefit from a re-read in the future but overall a definite innovation and classy entry into the post-apocalyptic lexicon. I’m excited for the rest of the series now!