Review: The Basilisk Murders by Andrew Hickey

As premises go, ‘stranded on an island with the alt-right’ is surely one of the most nightmarish in recent memory. The Basilisk Murders, the new (ish – this review being a bit fashionably late) novel by Andrew Hickey, makes a savvy move in playing this premise for sick comedy more than outright horror. The alt-right, Lesswrong, techno-libertarians and their assorted fellow-travellers comprise a fundamentally ridiculous ideology, and Hickey mercilessly skewers them over the course of this murder-mystery-cum-satire. The result is a fun book, one that intelligently breaks the mould in key places, but which may not play to people who aren’t aware of why the title image is so funny.

The plot starts out conventional enough – our hero, freelance journalist Sarah Turner, receives an invite to a conference on a remote island, of which she is at first apprehensive, but accepts out of sheer curiosity. What’s less conventional is that she is entirely right to be apprehensive, even before the murders begin. The invite is to “the 1st International Conference on Controlling Existential Threat Through Humane Artificial Intelligence”. Organised by “The Safe Singularity Foundation”, and guaranteed to be swarming with neoreactionaries, it is an environment unlikely to welcome a self-described “bi poly woman” with no regard for ethics in games journalism. Sarah is the ideal character with which to explore the basic bigotry of this ideology, but the scenes of her being condescended to, and at one point even sexually assaulted by one of the conference speakers emphasise the very real danger Sarah is putting herself in by even attending. Sarah’s narration is intelligent and droll, allowing Hickey to entertain the various obsessions of neoreactionism (immortal AIs, matriarchy, “race realism”) without coming close to endorsing them, and this dynamic of exploring a toxic ideology from a radically different perspective is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Another of its great strengths is humour. Hickey is not shy about the ludicrousness of the psuedo-intellectual right, and gets in some hilarious swipes at silicon-valley libertarianism in particular. A personal favourite moment comes in chapter three, as Sarah attempts to check in to her hotel room:

“I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that the gated community where we were staying would be full of the kind of nerd who wants to make things more difficult for everyone else, and not just for himself. […]

A man (of course) a few years younger than me – I’d guess twenty-four – with a trimmed goatee beard, round little glasses, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with white writing on it saying “The singularity is my retirement pan” was in front of me. This man had a point to make, and was going to continue making it no matter how futile his attempts were or how much inconvenience it was causing anyone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t accept bitcoin?””

This passage is particularly cathartic if, like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of Bitcoin/Blockchain hype in your line of work, and the book is full of delightfully sardonic asides about the foibles of neoreactionism. (Another highlight is when Sarah attends the “AI vs SJW” panel, “in which various people discussed how to make sure that if they created a machine god it would be just as racist and sexist as them”).

Most of the jokes work well, and anyone familiar with this vile little subculture will probably get a kick out of them. But I do wonder how much of the novel will even be comprehensible to people who don’t at least have a basic grasp of the various alt-right movements. The book assumes a certain level of knowledge about LessWrong, Peter Thiel, Reddit, and Roko’s Basilisk, at least enough that the reader can grasp what it’s parodying in any given scene. I already knew far too much about this subculture from reading Philip Sandifer’s work, and even I felt there were one or two references I wasn’t quite getting. The book is an effective piece of satire, but in getting as specific as it does, it may have blunted its broader appeal.

Absent the satire, the novel falls back on its murder-mystery mechanics, which are something of a mixed bag. The structure feels arbitrary, with sections set over individual days sometimes blurring into one another, and the pacing meanders a bit in the middle. Some of the supporting cast feel interchangeable (one of the problems with having so many of them be white male alt-righters) and there were a couple of murder revelations that made me go ‘which one was he again?’ It’s a shame, because the final reveal of whodunnit is rather clever, hinging on one of the most memorable parts of the book so far, and the villain’s motive is literally chilling. There’s also a fantastic twist to Sarah’s family-drama subplot, and some clever little details to the investigation itself. Moments like receiving a red herring death threat from a Tumblr Anon, or Sarah tweeting out the killer’s identity as she tries to escape give a pleasing ‘of the moment’ vibe to the more Agatha Christie-ish parts of the plot.

The Basilisk Murders is a cathartic little romp, provided at least some awareness of what it’s sending up, and feels like a natural response to the world of 2017. An interesting companion piece might be Sarah Pinsker’s And The There Were (N-One), a more overt Christie pastiche about a conference of all the multiversal versions of a single woman. The basic image, of being surrounded by strangers, any one of whom may wish death upon you for largely inscrutable reasons, feels rather appropriate for this particular cultural moment.

The Basilisk Murders is available to buy on Amazon, RRP £3.77, or free via Kindle Unlimited.

Advertisements

Review: Now We Are Six Hundred by James Goss and Russell T Davies

This article first appeared on DoWntime on 14 September 2017.

It’s a fair question why this book exists. With Doctor Who off the air until Christmas and Jodie Whittaker on the horizon, the decision to release a poetry collection, of all things, is  inscrutable. Its author, James Goss, has been writing Doctor Who spinoff material for more than a decade, and its illustrator is Russell T Davies, who famously revived the series in 2005. The result is a book that feels stuck in the past, and its overall tone is wildly confused. It’s hard not to be disappointed, as a fan of both Doctor Who and poetry in general. Now We Are Six Hundred is a wasted opportunity, a funny little footnote on the way to better things.

Of course, it’s the illustrator who is the real draw here. The reasons for this are obvious, but Davies does demonstrate some real artistic talent. His style is somewhere between Martin Brown and Pete McKee, with a scratchy line and exaggerated facial features, which help create a sense of playfulness. As on television, he has a solid line in visual gags, with highlights including K9 sitting on Snoopy’s kennel, and Four using his scarf as a lasso. But he also manages to inject some real pathos. His illustrations of a lonely and abandoned Sarah Jane, or a nostalgic yet forgetful Donna Noble are genuinely moving, and demonstrate real emotional range. Judged solely as a vehicle for Davies’s illustrations, Now We Are Six Hundred is a fabulous success.

Unfortunately, the accompanying poems are uniformly dreadful. Goss bases many of them on the work of A.A. Milne (the title refers to Milne’s Now We Are Six) placing the book firmly in the realm of children’s literature. But there’s very little sense that Goss has engaged with children’s poetry, or indeed poetry in general, beyond 1927. His attention to metre is sloppy at best, and he has a knack for ear-scraping forced rhymes.

Take the poem ‘Absences’, about schoolteacher Clara Oswald disappearing for an adventure, and then reappearing to the consternation of her class. This is prime subject matter for children’s poetry – one can imagine Michael Rosen or Andy Tooze writing something very witty in exactly this vein – but Goss squanders the premise with this final stanza:

“Miss Clara

Slipped back in the

Middle of a lesson. “Now, where were we?”

Where were you?!?” “What’s the hurry?

I’ve been in space, met Ghandhi for curry,

Saved the human race, s’okay don’t worry

And no, don’t thank me.”

Oh Miss Clara

Miss, this time

You’ve gone too far-er.”

Setting aside the appalling last line, the misspelling of Gandhi’s name, and indeed the crassness of ‘meeting him for curry’, what’s most annoying about this poem is the disservice it does to Clara as a character. Throughout the series Clara is framed in terms of both literature and childhood; she’s an English teacher, she refers to ‘basic storytelling’ in explaining things to the Doctor, and her second story involves her literally taking a leaf out of a children’s book. This makes her perfect for a poem like this. But she’s also defined as “a bossy control freak” with a pathological need to keep things in order. So when Goss has her casually disappear for weeks in the first stanza (“Miss Clara?/ Where are yer?”) it simply doesn’t wash. The tension between Clara’s desire for adventure and her need to maintain responsibility is what drives her relationship with the Doctor, and indeed Doctor Who. To have her carelessly swanning off is not just out of character, it misunderstands what makes her character interesting.

This tendency to ignore thematic depth in favour of shallow blandishments is best exemplified in the climactic poem ‘Friend Ship’. It attempts to pay tribute to the Doctor’s companions over the last fifty years, and it does this by simply listing their first names:

“Rose, Jack and Jackie

Martha, (horse) and Mickey.

 

Donna, Donna, Donnaaaa!

(Never forgetting her)

 

Amy, Winston, Rory

River (that’s another story).”

The problem with this list is twofold. First, it relies entirely on the reader knowing who all these characters are, and in quite a lot of detail. We need, for instance, to remember that Donna’s final story involved having her memory wiped, that Winston Churchill appeared in two episodes nearly seven years ago, and that a horse appeared in a single episode more than eleven years ago. No problem for the dedicated adult fan, but surely baffling for the children this book is ostensibly aimed at. But this list also fails by the standards of the continuity-minded adult fan, who will instantly point out that Winston wasn’t ‘really’ a companion, and that the horse’s name was Arthur. Goss has failed to think through his readers’ experience here, and so the book ends up feeling vapid and cynical to an older fan, and likely confusing to a younger one.

But even worse is the poem’s final couplet:

“Then Nardole, Bill and River too

And,

MOST IMPORTANTLY

There’s

YOU.”

This is not just trite and unimaginative, it actively talks down to its supposed audience, something Doctor Who never did under Russell T Davies (or for that matter Steven Moffat). The worst that can be said of Now We Are Six Hundred is that in its fealty to the letter of Doctor Who, it is almost antithetical to its spirit.

The sad thing is, this project could so easily have been better. There are surely dozens of published poets who would love to play with the wealth of concepts (and the wide audience) Doctor Who has to offer. Hell, there are hundreds of writers and artists online doing exactly that, mostly for free. So instead of wasting a tenner on this book, I recommend you go and follow some of them. Particularly good are unknown-companion-poems, Johannesviii, James Wylder, and Jonne Bartelds, all of whose work is far more stylish, and far more deserving of support than Goss and Davies’s efforts. At the end of the day, the value proposition of this book is far less than that of simply opening a Tumblr account.

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses industrial and animal abuse, as well as detailed descriptions of cancer symptoms. It also discusses the book’s ending, if spoilers are a big deal for you.

Science fiction these days seems to be intractably stuck in both the past and the future. Which is to say, the present. Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, embodies this generic mandate. Set in both the past and the near future, it nonetheless speaks to our chaotic cultural moment. While the execution occasionally falls short, the book is most fearsome, and most timely, in its depiction of solidarity among the oppressed, even as it is unflinching about the reality of that oppression.

The novella reworks the historical stories of both Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls, respectively an elephant publicly executed on Coney Island and a group of women systemically poisoned in an effort to save money. This does involve fudging the dates slightly Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, while the Orange New Jersey factory opened in 1917, yet the novella depicts these events as happening simultaneously. This allows Bolander to create a general commentary on the early twentieth century, and her version of events, in which Topsy’s electrocution causes a nuclear explosion off the coast of New York, is open about the cruelty and exploitation on which modernity was founded.

The narrative shifts between multiple protagonists, both before after the Topsy disaster, as well as media cuttings, commemorative songs, and a Kipling-inspired fable about an ancient mother elephant. This might sound like information overload, and the cacophony of voices is very much part of the novella’s effect, but Bolander manages her transitions impeccably. Every narrative jump feels natural, and each one either helps the story progress, or injects fresh perspective on what has come before. Pacing overall is absolutely flawless; the book is precisely the length is needs to be, building ruthlessly to a telegraphed ending that still manages to shock.

The book in general is long on horror, as befits its heavy subject matter. The novella opens with a description of a mountain contaminated by nuclear waste, long after humanity’s extinction, and the irradiated elephants who live there.

“At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.”

The problem of nuclear waste lasting longer than human civilisation is a real and terrifying thing, but this abstracted horror soon gives way to more visceral nastiness, as we meet the character of Regan, an elephant handler poisoned by radium paint. Regan spends most of the novella slowly dying, and Bolander describes this in agonising detail:

“The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.

These metaphors may feel overwrought at first, but they effectively convey Regan’s overwhelming pain, the sentences carefully modulated so that they never feel monotonous. The subtle, jerking moves this paragraph makes towards describing Regan’s interactions with Topsy help convey the conscious effort Regan is making to concentrate on her work. Her pain may be enormous, but she literally cannot afford to dwell on it.

These lengthy, painful descriptions are a clear, and even affecting, part of the book’s point, but there are moments which risk tipping over into simply aestheticising that pain. Worse, though, is the occasionally crass depiction of Regan’s fellow workers. There’s a rather clumsy attempt to sympathetically characterise her abusive foreman, and at one point Regan receives a letter from fellow Radium Girl Jodie that feels a little patronising in its efforts to demonstrate how these women have been denied education.

“Regan,

Just want you to no, aint no hard feeling about the way things paned out. You all did best you cood lookin out for me like blood kin when you no I never had no body since Mama past away. Even yor own mama used to give me a seat at the tabell when holy fokes sooner feed scraps to a stray tomcat than a big uglee plain mannerd girl like me.”

Jodie clearly *can* write she is not illiterate ­ so to have her misspell every other word like this seems like overkill, and the sentences are a bit too lucid to suggest the misspellings are a result of mental deterioration. It’s a small slip, but it is a shame, especially given the novella’s overall success in depicting the humanity of these workers who have effectively been poisoned for profit.

It’s also odd given the savviness of the book’s politics overall. Bolander is heartbreaking in her portrayal of reckless industrial and political elites. Particularly striking are Regan’s long, awkward confrontation with her boss in Part Two, and an early scene where political negotiator Kat realises she is effectively asking a group of elephants to do something for nothing, because it simply had not occurred to her to offer them anything.

“The translator stares at Kat for a little longer than is necessary. She glances back over her shoulder at the matriarch, then back at Kat.

“I just want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly before I translate,” she says, in a lower register. “Did you seriously just show up to what is basically a diplomatic meeting with no bargaining chips whatsoever?””

Moments like these are subtle, yet savage in their portrayal of a system which would not only allow, but encourage this disregard for marginalised groups.

But it’s the ending which takes The Only Harmless Great Thing from savvy and well-crafted story to essential-feeling political statement. Topsy is being marched to her public execution, with both the reader and the main characters knowing it will result in nuclear disaster. At first, she refuses to move. “She smells her ending, and her feet plant themselves, bending-parts senselessly locking.” But then Regan emerges:

“Another human pushes out of the mass the dead girl, still moving, still somehow on her feet when every part of her stinks of corruption. […] She turns, asking in the language of twisted trunk-paws: Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.

And even this much We is enough to drive the fear back into the high grass. Her mind stills. Her legs unstiffen. Together they cross the overwater, men flytrailing behind. Together they go to sing the song of their undoing, the joining, teaching, come-together song.”

This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available to preorder from Tor.com, in ebook and paperback editions.

Review: The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler

A secret lake, containing a beast known only to myth. A species made of smoke and shadow, capable of following you wherever you go. An orphan on the run from fate itself. Whatever its faults, The Kraken Sea can hardly be said to be short on ideas. It’s a rapid-fire story with the guts to be weird, almost every chapter introducing a strange new concept. Sadly, concepts alone do not a good story make, and Tobler’s prose and sense of pacing leave more than a bit to be desired.

The story centres on Jackson, a mysterious orphan taken in by a Catholic order in late-1800s New York. The novella opens with him on a train to his new adoptive home in San Francisco, but a stopover at a sinister carnival unleashes a disturbing secret. Jackson is not truly human, but is in fact a tentacular monster struggling to maintain a human form, watched over by a Sister who may be a literal embodiment of Fate. Once he arrives in San Francisco he finds himself embroiled in a turf war between two rival gangs, with mysterious creatures lurking beneath the streets.

The novella’s key strength is that it manages to make Jackson sympathetic without being heroic as such. He’s broadly relatable, asking mostly the same questions as the reader at any given moment, but occasional glimpses of his childhood reveal a much less human side to him. We’re told throughout that he bullied his fellow orphans, and at one point it’s revealed that he ate a largely unthreatening child, “broke him and swallowed him because he could”. Moments like this are genuinely chilling, and create an interesting tension over what, exactly, Jackson will become at the end of the story.

But the rest of the characters are nowhere near as interesting. The supporting cast features a generic femme fatale, a generic sinister nun, a generic female gang boss who doubles as a femme fatale, a largely mute henchman and a few more femme fatales to make up the numbers. There’s a late subplot about Jackson trying and failing to fall in love with an ordinary human, but it’s under-developed and goes nowhere. The overall structure is a bit of a mess; the novella feels like a string of barely-connected episodes, oscillating between tedious over-explanation and cratering leaps in time and logic. The last third of the novella jumps from a normal encounter between Jackson and his girlfriend to all-out apocalyptic war, with absolutely no explanation for how we got there. It’s a jarring transition, and Tobler provides almost nothing in the way of buildup.

On top of that, the basic prose style is mediocre at best. Tone wavers all over the place, right down to individual sentences, such as this late moment where the Kraken emerges: “There was a curiosity, perhaps a respect, which sent a chill down Jackson’s spine. The kraken knew what the man was about and weren’t intelligent monsters the worst?” The text is also riddled with typos, and cringeworthy similes abound, my personal favourite being “It was clumsy the kiss, like learning to tie his shoes, like riding a bike down a steep hill, like throwing himself into boiling ice water.” Weird fiction can often get away with clunky wording in the name of creating an uncanny style, but this goes beyond alienating into actively sloppy. While the ideas here are frequently interesting, the execution is extremely sub-par. Tobler’s novella is daring and ambitious, but feels at least four or five drafts away from the finished product.

Review: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 7 May 2016.

Imagine a fairy tale written by Samuel Beckett. Dense, dark, and utterly mesmerising, This Census-Taker is in some ways typical of China Miéville. A leading light of the New Weird (think H.P. Lovecraft minus the racism and with added Marxism), one of Miéville’s favourite themes is the inadequacy of language in describing the bizarre and the profound, expounded in such novels as Embassytown and The City and the City, as well as his superlative short fiction. The entire novella is shrouded in mystery — almost no-one has a name, and there is a sense of several narratives going on just outside the reader’s field of view. The story operates on the margins, its meaning never quite made clear, the reader left to puzzle it out for themselves. It’s quintessentially Miéville, but with a level of precision and depth he’s never quite achieved before, and therefore perfect for the curious reader new to his work.

The tone throughout is one of unease, reflected in the ever-shifting prose. The novella opens with the line “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. That boy was I.” That sense of dissociative fear is key to the book’s technique. When the boy reaches the town at the foot of the hill, he blurts out that “My mother killed my father!”, but after a few minutes’ confusion this is revised to his father having killed his mother. The haziness of details like these is endemic to the book, as the limits of both language and memory impede our perception of events. We are repeatedly told that English is not the narrator’s first language, and that “He was nine years old, I think”; details are fuzzy and adults uncommunicative. This extends to the nature of the setting – there are several details which could be read as supernatural, but could just as easily be childish fantasy. The narrator tells us that “Our house was at the same level of the slope as those of a few weather-watchers and hermits and witches”, but it’s hard to tell whether this is a case of genuine magic or local superstition. Similarly, we’re told the boy’s father makes keys, not for locks, but for “love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly”. Again, is the father genuinely some sort of magical locksmith, or is the boy simply misunderstanding his father’s real profession? Contradictions abound — the boy says his father’s clients are never seen again, then offhandedly mentions conversations with them, the father is estranged from the town and then accepted again without explanation, and the nature of the mother’s disappearance is constantly elided. The novella provides multiple answers to the many questions raised, but refuses to settle on any one of them. Even the main character remains an enigma — at one point he confesses that his identity is a “mystery story” even to himself.

In the hands of a lesser writer this would be infuriating, but Miéville creates a setting that is richly textured as well as oblique. It’s a world in which street children fish for bats over abandoned bridges, in which giant lizards are kept in too-small jars, and when the narrator asks how this is possible he’s told simply “Magic, mate”. The titular census-taker cuts an intriguing figure; absent for three quarters of the book, he ends up as a kind of bureaucratic fairy godmother, listening to the boy where other grown-ups have written him off. It’s implied that he’s somehow broken away from his fellow bureaucrats when towards the end the father yells: “They were recalled! Why’s this one still counting? This man thinks he knows what I’ve done? When? Always?” The idea of a data-gatherer gone rogue is an appealing one, and apposite for a novella in which all information seems elusive and suspect.

This Census-Taker is by no means an easy read. It’s a frequently beautiful, occasionally maddening exercise in uncertainty, and the sense of a truth always just out of reach may alienate some readers. But for those prepared to go with it, it’s a fascinating labyrinth to get lost in. Its short length (at only 206 pages) means it’s tight and focused as well as dense, and it will surely reward repeat engagements. The book is itself a kind of census-taker; you must, eventually, scrape together answers to the questions it poses. But you know full well it will be back before long, and your answers will have changed in the interim.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Let’s make one thing clear: Every Heart a Doorway has an absolutely fabulous premise. Its central idea – a boarding school/rehab clinic for children who have returned from Narnia-style excursions to other worlds – is one of the best concepts in recent memory. It’s also perfect for the ‘Young Adult’ demographic the novella is pitched at. Tales of adolescent angst are much improved by unicorns, mad scientists and the occasional vampire, and McGuire makes her characters feel like real teenagers as well as exiles from otherworldly dimensions. But while the setting and characters are intriguing and well-observed, the novella’s mechanics leave a bit to be desired. Pacing and structural problems abound, and while the book’s light touch and short length make it inoffensive, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wasted potential. Every Heart a Doorway is ultimately a better premise than it is a book.

The novella opens with the arrival of main character Nancy, fresh from an extended jaunt in the Halls of the Dead. We follow her as she is introduced to the school and her fellow pupils, all outcasts from various magical realms, alienated from the real world. The early chapters outline the characters’ sense of not belonging in touching and subtle ways, like the moment where Nancy realises her parents have packed bright clothes for her instead of the dark ones she is used to: “How could she wear any of these things? Those were daylight colours, meant for people who moved in the sun, who were hot, and fast, and unwelcome in the Halls of the Dead”. The book shines in these quiet moments of dejection, as well as those where the differing nature of each kid’s fantasy world affects their interactions. Some have returned from Carrollesque nonsense worlds, others from lands more akin to the Hammer Horror films, and those differences lead to tensions between pupils. The decision to effectively organise high school cliques along genre lines is inspired.

Nancy herself is an interesting heroine, more inclined to observe than actively interfere, which makes her the perfect point of view character to establish a fairly complex setting. This is very much a novella in the post-Gaiman tradition of tell-don’t-show metafictional commentary. This can be terribly effective, such as when Nancy’s teacher explains why more girls go missing than boys: “We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women”. But too often it feels like McGuire is simply delivering characterisation via overlong info-dumps, like the moment Nancy reflects on her asexuality: “She didn’t mind flirting. Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realising that there was anything strange about her. She could have flirted forever. It was just the things that came after flirting that she had no interest in”. McGuire too often dwells on superfluous details, using two dozen words where one would do.

That sense of sloppiness is matched elsewhere in the book. After a leisurely-paced opening the second half is preoccupied by a murder mystery, but the pace remains too slow to be effective, with characters simply dawdling around having un-tense conversations while the body count steadily grows. The culprit is obvious from the get-go, and at one point the book’s cleverest character is required to act like an idiot so as not to solve things too early. Even worse, after all that faffing about the plot climaxes in the most abrupt and hackneyed way possible, with a confrontation in the school attic and an honest-to-God damsel in distress. It gets at a larger problem with the book; having established an ingenious premise allowing for all sorts of interesting commentary, McGuire instead opts to put her characters through the most bog-standard plot imaginable.

Every Heart a Doorway is not a bad book. Its short length minimises its pacing problems, and the characters are likeable and well-rounded enough to keep you interested. But given the nature of its premise, it’s a surprisingly unambitious one. The muddled and unsatisfying nature of the central mystery is ultimately less frustrating than the decision to have a central mystery at all. It displays a disappointing lack of faith in what should have been a world-beating concept. McGuire begins by breaking every rule in the book, but she ends by conforming to every single one.

Every Heart a Doorway is published by tor.com and is available to buy in hardback and ebook format, RRP £12/£7.59.

Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 12 March 2016.

Charlie Jane Anders might actually be able to see the future. As co-founder and managing editor of io9.com, she’s one of the most insightful people writing about science fiction today, and those skills have carried over into writing science fiction itself. Her new novel, All the Birds in the Sky, feels like a bittersweet reworking of the legendary Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman collaboration Good Omens (1990). It similarly centres on a world-threatening conflict between two intractable ideologies, with an odd couple at risk of getting swept up in the chaos. However, this time the odd couple consists of a witch and a mad scientist rather than an angel and a demon, demonstrating a moral complexity which Good Omens lacks. Witty, heartfelt, and unerringly humane, it’s a tender and funny debut from an exciting literary talent, although its occasionally flabby structure means it stops just shy of being an instant classic.

We open with Patricia, the aforementioned witch, and her first encounter with the magical world at age six. After an unexpected conversation with an injured sparrow, she is led to the mysterious Parliament of Birds, only to be yanked away by her parents at the last minute. (This is the first of many references to classic fantasy, in this case C.S. Lewis’s Parliament of Owls.) As a teenager she meets a fellow social outcast, Laurence, who goes through a similar experience involving an abortive rocket launch, and who copes with his anxieties by developing a two-second time machine. From there we follow the two of them as they grow together, then apart, and finally together again, all the while dealing with deadly assassins, home-grown AIs, and the very real prospect of human extinction. It’s a dense and multi-layered plot, filled with narrative digressions, but what holds it all together is Anders’ deft characterisation and subtly elegant prose style.

This is an endlessly quotable novel; barely a chapter went by without something that I wanted to scribble down for future use. This is mostly down to the narrative style, which is one part Douglas Adams to two parts Rainbow Rowell, and full of great one-liners. Personal highlights include “Laurence felt like he’d grown an extra body part just in time to be punched in it”, and “One day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant. Probably not, though.” But as brilliant as the jokes are, this is a fundamentally character-driven story. Laurence and Patricia are one of the most interesting literary double acts in recent memory. At one point we’re told that “They knew almost all of each other’s secrets, and that gave them license to talk in crappy puns and quotes from old hip-hop songs and fake Prohibition bootlegger slang, to the point where nobody else could even stand to be around them.” The overwhelming sense is of two people completely at ease with one another, and markedly less so with the rest of the world.

The other characters are largely solid — while a few of the bit-part players boil down to conceptual gimmicks (a man who looks different every time you meet him, a wizard who turns everything he touches into plants), the main supporting cast are economically yet vividly characterised. The lack of an overt villain is particularly noteworthy. Everyone acts with the best of intentions, even the ruthless assassin of the book’s first half. This is particularly effective given that things get downright apocalyptic in the second half: everyone and no-one is to blame, and Anders effectively conveys a sense of ambiguity and chaos without getting into tedious moralising.

That sense of narrative chaos carries over into the book’s structure, which is unfortunately one of its main problems. Anders has been a luminary of the short fiction market for a few years now, and the transition to long form is not an easy one. While the novel has a pithy, to-the-point quality, there are a few too many narrative digressions, and Anders’ habit of revealing important bits of back-story out of order leads to a plot that occasionally feels meandering. There is a sense of a writer letting themselves off the leash, which is liberating, but also leaves the story feeling a bit cluttered. The individual episodes all work beautifully, but at least one or two could have been dropped to make for tighter pacing.

Although the novel’s structure is occasionally a little undisciplined, this does not detract from the discipline evidenced elsewhere. All the Birds in the Sky shifts effortlessly from fairy tale to romantic comedy to apocalyptic despair and back again, and the clash of elements never feels jarring. It’s a virtuoso performance from a fresh new literary voice, and well worth reading, even if it feels like Anders’ best work is still ahead of her.

All the Birds in the Sky is published by Titan Books and is available to buy in paperback, RRP £7.99.