Nemesis by Alex Lamb (Roboteer 2)

Nemesis | Alex Lamb | 2016 | Gollanc | 551p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nemesis by Alex LambNemesis is the sequel to last year’s superb debut novel by Alex Lamb, Roboteer. This depicted the conflict between the people of Earth and the genetically-modified settlers of its remote and often illegal colonies by focusing on one extraordinary and gifted individual, the Roboteer Will Kuno-Monet. Nemesis takes place thirty years or so after the conclusion of Roboteer and so you could start here – enough has changed or is explained to make it perfectly accessible. But I think that to pass over Roboteer would be a shame – it is a wonderful, fun and exciting piece of science fiction that provides so much food for thought, not to mention a great story and an intriguing, unusual bunch of characters. The first book also helps explain the nature of a Roboteer. These pilots or engineers have the technology inside their brains that enables them to move into a different, micro world, which can take any shape they wish, almost becoming the robot they control, seeing what it sees, escaping the limitations of human life. Will Kuno-Monet is the best of them all.

The review below assumes you’ve read Roboteer.

Much has changed over the last thirty years. The interstellar war between Earth and the colonies has come to an end, leaving many people dead, including a fair few people that we remember from The Roboteer. Will is now the most powerful human alive, if he can be called human. He has been utterly changed by his discoveries. He has faced the biggest threat facing humanity, he has looked it in the eye, and his one aim is to deter mankind from doing anything that might jolt that threat into action. He is a leading figure in IPSO, the peacekeeping force that keeps an eye on all the planets. But after thirty years many people choose to believe that the threat has gone away and, yet again, tensions rise between the planets. Earth is in its last phase of being able to care for life. Its inhabitants want to get off. And the best way of doing that is by joining one of the many religious sects that dominate Earth. Herded to other worlds like cattle, they become pawns in struggles for power. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

And then there’s the force of greed. Out there on the colonised planets, now accessible to humans thanks to alien technology, are the tantalising, advanced remains of the Fecund, an alien race destroyed millions of years ago. It’s no wonder that IPSO, treated with suspicion from all sides, can no longer keep the peace. Nor do they always notice when distant colonies are obliterated. But when a far planet is destroyed by an unknown astonishingly powerful weapon, the IPSO and Will cannot stand by. Three teams, one including Will, are sent to investigate. One fear is that a faction is trying to stir up both sides to trigger another war. The other fear, a fear that is almost too appalling to consider, is that mankind’s behaviour has triggered another alien threat, one even worse than the one they all still dread.

Just like Roboteer, Nemesis moves its perspective between a number of key characters, notably Will, younger Roboteers Mark and Ash, and Ann, a captain of one of the other vessels sent to investigate. Others among the expedition are also given their chapters, each with a distinct perspective and every one with their own agenda. In this universe, trust has long been blown away. Propaganda and false information has distorted truth. Nobody understands Will, including, probably, Will, and everyone has suffered damage from the events of the last thirty years. This mission gives several of the characters the chance to mend bridges. It’s all too likely, though, that other bridges will be destroyed.

The narrative structure works very well dramatically in terms of pace but it is also a huge help in enabling the reader to keep track of the opposing sides in a situation that has got out of control. At the beginning, the plot is not straightforward and I did have to re-read bits and pieces to get a handle on some of the allegiances. It’s not surprising considering the levels of suspicion and paranoia.

Although there are baddies and goodies, and some truly horrific nightmarish behaviour goes on, this is not a simple story of good versus evil. There is good and bad on both sides, and it’s not easy to determine whose side we should be on – Earthers or colonists – or neither. The intolerance of some worlds towards other colonists and the religious distortions of Earth are both extremely ugly. And then there are the aliens. Is it right to blame them?

I did have a couple of issues. I didn’t find the motivations of some of the characters believable and, unfortunately, this was the basis for much of the plot during the first half of the book. It all seemed extremely convoluted and unlikely. Also, without giving anything away, some characters are not as they seem but I can see no reason why it took Will thirty years to work this out. The gap in years between the events in the novels works well. We hear bits and pieces about what went on during that time. But I also wished for more. This would have helped me to understand the characters of Mark and Ash a little better.

Above all else, Nemesis is a very entertaining action novel with some great science fiction. I loved the concept of the Roboteer in the previous novel and I still do here. There is some really intriguing science to go with the action, as well as some well-drawn characters, some great spaceships and some very memorable habitats and aliens. I want wonder from science fiction and this novel provides it, as well as a fair bit of horror, but most of all it is fun and put me on the edge of my seat. It is also a great size! I love a science fiction brickbook that I can lose myself in for a few days and when I finished Nemesis I was more than ready for part three.

Other review
The Roboteer

Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir

Katherine of Aragon | Alison Weir | 2016 (5 May) | Headline Review | 609p | Review copy | Buy the book

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon by Alison WeirIn 1501, aged just sixteen, Princess Catalina of Spain arrives at Plymouth, on firm ground at last after days of storms at sea. With just a few servants and missing her parents, likely never to see them again, Catalina is determined to fulfil her destiny – to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII, and provide the new Tudor dynasty with a full nursery of sons. She doesn’t even retain her own name. From now on, she will be Katherine, Princess of Wales. History tells us that Katherine’s marriage was shortlived, Arthur dying just months later. His death was followed by years of limbo for Katherine, a negotiating tool between Henry VII and her Spanish parents. Yet, though her fortunes wavered through these dark years, Arthur’s young brother Henry fell in love with his lonely sister-in-law and, as soon as he could after becoming king, Henry VIII made Katherine his queen. A fairy tale ending to a dramatic story.

The marriage between Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII has always been overshadowed by Anne Boleyn but in this magnificent novel Alison Weir shows us that there is far more to the marriage than its end. These were the glory years of Henry’s court, dominated by an athletic, handsome, charismatic young king and his happy queen who loved to dance. The marriage was marred by tragedy – all those pregnancies which came to nothing but grief; one daughter, Mary, surviving. But Henry stayed in love, still writing songs for his beloved wife. Katherine never stopped loving Henry and it is that love which dominates this wonderful novel.

The novel, the first in an ambitious series to chronicle all of Henry’s marriages, queen by queen, is no romance. Historical authenticity is what matters here. Alison Weir, a well-known historian, gives us the detail of Tudor royal life. The palaces and their rooms are vividly described, the etiquette of court, the roles of the servants and nobles who kept it moving, and, increasingly, the men of power, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Katherine’s position at the centre of the court is slowly marginalised as Anne Boleyn is sensed in the wings. This is a novel from Katherine’s perspective. As is so often the case, she is the last to know.

But before the novel gives us the King’s Great Matter, so fascinating and yet so clinically cold, we are shown Katherine’s earlier time of torment when she was so dependent on Henry VII for even the money to eat and dress herself. These years of Katherine’s life are so rarely looked at and yet they provide an intriguing glimpse into the character of Henry VII, a king so often overshadowed by Henry VIII, just as Katherine is so often overshadowed by Anne Boleyn. Because we’re used to seeing Katherine towards the end of her marriage to Henry, it’s easy to forget that this time was preceded by years of marriage, during which Henry established himself as King, Warrior, Renaissance Prince, and Katherine was there to support him.

Henry VIII has yet to become the monster that we’re so familiar with but, as we watch him change through the novel, it’s hard not to feel the utmost sympathy for Katherine who always believes that his love will return. But there are painful times ahead as Katherine ages and becomes ugly in the eyes of the fastidious Henry. There are some stark passages in the novel that really made me ache for Katherine, now so humiliated. The court case, the devotion between Katherine and her daughter Mary, the neglect that Mary endures because of her loyalty to her mother, this is all brought to life here and I could not have put this book down if I tried. But quite aside from Henry and Katherine we are given other strong personalities, especially Sir Thomas More – it is impossible to look away as their fates unravel.

Katherine of Aragon, the Tudor Queen demonstrates so brilliantly that there is still so much to say about these most famous queens. There was a time when I thought I was Tudored out, that I couldn’t possibly read yet another fictional account of these people, but I have been proven wrong time and time again and now by Alison Weir. I know the history of Katherine of Aragon very well and it’s so good to see her allowed her voice, which has so often been eclipsed by Anne Boleyn, in fiction and in reality. Speaking of Anne Boleyn, I cannot wait for the next novel in the series because I suspect that Anne’s voice will be unfamiliar, original, and every bit as engrossing as Katherine’s.

Katherine of Aragon, the Tudor Queen is not only very well written, compelling and meticulously researched, it is also a thing of beauty in its own right. This is a gorgeous hardback. I can’t wait to have the full series on my shelves. I can only repeat myself – this book is magnificent.

The Ides of June by Rosemary Rowe

The Ides of June | Rosemary Rowe | 2016 (eBook 1 May) | Severn House | 224p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ides of June by Rosemary RoweThe Ides of March might have been unlucky for Julius Caesar but every good Roman knows that no day is more unlucky than the Ides of June. Best to shut up shop, lock the doors and stay inside. Unfortunately for Libertus – pavement-maker, freedman, Roman citizen and Celtic noble – unlucky day or not, he still has to drop everything and call on his patron Marcus Septimus when he wiggles his finger. Marcus is one of Roman Britain’s leading figures but all that could change in AD 193. The emperor Commodus has been assassinated and replaced by Pertinax, Marcus’s good friend. Unluckily, Pertinax’s own rapid assassination and replacement by his enemy Didius Julianus means that Marcus is in serious danger of elimination. Roman Britain might be a long way away from Rome but when it comes to Roman politics it can never be far enough. When Marcus receives anonymous letters threatening himself and his young wife and two small children he refuses to run but he tasks Libertus, a man who has served him faultlessly over the years, with saving his wife Julia and their children. No pressure at all, then.

But it’s not just Marcus who is receiving hate mail. When Libertus heads into Glevum (Gloucester) where his mosaic workshop is based, he encounters another magistrate who looks ready to flee for his life. It is possible that yet another leading figure in the town, Varus, has also received letters and the fact that Varus and most of his household is in bed with suspected poisoning does little to lighten the worries of Libertus and his patron. Time is of the essence and so, while Roman Britain, like the rest of the empire, waits to hear news from Rome, Libertus and his wife smuggle Julia and her children out of Glevum towards hopeful safety in Aquae Sulis (Bath). If only it would prove to be that simple.

I’ve been a fan of Rosemary Rowe’s Libertus series for many years and The Ides of June, the sixteenth, does not disappoint. They can all be read on their own or as part of a series. They are meticulously researched mysteries, focused on a small area of Roman Britain that is vividly brought to life through the author’s eye for detail and a strong sense of what life would have been like in Britain for non-Romans such as Libertus who knew how to adapt. Libertus has finally achieved the status of Citizen. He has married a freed slave and they have an adopted son who has now given them adored grandchildren. But Libertus lives in a roundhouse, he still worships Celtic gods, he reveres his culture’s past, whereas his patron Marcus lives in a grand villa, treats Libertus as a servant and expects reverence. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the expectation of imminent disgrace and catastrophe to level things out, and Marcus’s wife Julia has much to learn when she flees for her life in the care of Libertus and his wife.

These are elegant, refined (no swearing, little violence) mysteries and The Ides of June is no different. The mystery itself is secondary to the fascinating depiction of Roman Britain that contains it but this novel is of particular interest because it looks at the impact of politics, far far away in Rome on its most northern outpost. We see alarmed Romans, legions prepared to evacuate major centres such as Glevum, and Britons who continue to plod on as freedmen or women or as slaves. The wealth of the Roman overlords contrasts strongly with the poverty of the local people – slavery is commonplace (and not a Roman invention) but in these days it isn’t uncommon for a free family to sell its children into slavery, just for the meagre price of a chance at survival.

The Ides of June is an entertaining, informative read. It’s always good to spend time with Libertus and his wife Gwellia and their little slaves who are their children in all but name. In this novel Libertus has less time to spend on his characteristic investigating. His journey leading his own and Marcus’s family into hiding comprises much of the book and it’s a good read. But mysteries have a way of finding Libertus and, as they continue on their journey, pursued by events thousands of miles away, there is another one, with its roots in the past, lying in wait. These are short novels. I always wish they were longer and I always enjoy them.

Other reviews
Dark Omens
The Fateful Day

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Hex | Thomas Olde Heuvelt | 2016 (28 April) | Hodder & Stoughton | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hex by Thomas Olde HeuveltBlack Spring has much to recommend it. Surrounded by countryside but close to major cities, it’s a secluded and picturesque small town that houses a close-knit community. It must be good because, after all, nobody ever seems to leave. One might have a few nights away every so often, for Christmas or a short holiday, but everyone always returns to Black Spring. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants do their best to keep hopeful incomers from settling in Black Spring. It’s better to keep the town for the families who have lived in it for years, never needing to lock their doors, comfortably knowing everybody else’s business. But should a family be resolute in its mission to buy a house in Black Spring, then the townspeople will happily pull together to tell their new neighbours exactly what is going on in the town and then, when the newcomers try to flee, sit them down and let them know exactly why they will never be able to leave again.

Katherine van Wyler is Black Spring’s secret. She is also their witch. With her eyelids and lips sewn shut, she wanders the streets of the town, following a predictable pattern that she has followed for years but regularly breaking it to visit her neighbours. The townspeople have grown used to turning round in their houses only to see Katherine standing in the corner of a room, or standing outside the window staring in. She can stand still for days and nobody wants a witch standing still for days in their bedroom or living room but that’s the way it is. Katherine’s movements are monitored in regimental fashion. The local council always know where she is. Cameras seek out every dark place, every sighting is reported in. Nobody is allowed to let the outside world know what is going on. The internet is strictly controlled as is so much of life, and punishment, in Black Spring.

That’s all well and good for the older generations but the youngsters who go to school outside and experience reality beyond the confines of the bewitched town want to be free. They resent Katherine. They resent the elders who confine them. Legend reports that the stitches on Katherine’s lips and eyes must never be removed. There is good reason. But the youngsters have had enough.

I love a good horror story but I’ve read so few that have truly frightened me and haunted my dreams. I want them to frighten me and when they don’t I’m so disappointed. Hex did all that I hoped. It did scare me but in a much more satisfying way than I expected. This is because Katherine is not as straightforward a witch as I had thought. There is something terrifying in the idea of a curse so strong that it can drive people to suicide if they leave the town for longer than they should. This soul devouring evil manifests itself in so many ways throughout the novel. But one of the most scary aspects of the story is the fact that Katherine can just turn up in your house and she can stay there for days. She moves into the normal and possesses it. She is so much a part of life in Black Spring that the residents are almost fond of her. Some do their best to stay on her good side – if a witch has a good side – but most are accustomed to her sudden appearances and deal with it in amusing ways – a teatowel over her head for example. When the town is open to tourists – for Halloween appropriately enough – the town goes to the most elaborate lengths to disguise Katherine from outsiders. The way that Thomas Ode Heuvelt handles this is ingenious and very funny.

There is much in Hex about the nature of evil and the force of despair. This leads us in all kinds of surprising directions and it is not at all as one might have thought. In fact, it is the town’s residents who fall under the most scrutiny. It is their behaviour that must be judged. The rigid control that the council enforces is Draconian. It is clear that matters are reaching a head. A witch is much harder to hide in this day and age but the fault for that does not lie with the witch.

I was gripped by Hex. I found it deliciously chilling and utterly engrossing. I was fascinated by Katherine and her story. I pitied her much more than I thought I would whereas the behaviour of the people horrified me. There are moments of sheer terror and, as the novel moves from the ‘normal’ to the very definitely not normal, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen. I was frightened. I did expect to see shadows in the corner when I turned off the light. Hex is such a creepy tale, relishing and playing with people’s expectations of witches and curses, while also demonstrating so effectively that the real horror may actually lie within. I loved this book and I am so happy to be able to say that.

The novel is translated – very well indeed – by Nancy Forest-Flier.

Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing

The Last of Us | Rob Ewing | 2016 (21 April) | The Borough Press | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last of us by Rob EwingRona is the eight-year-old daughter of the island postwoman. She attends the local school where she is learning to speak Gaelic among lots of other things. Everyone knows everyone on this Scottish island, particularly Rona’s mother who visits every house to collect letters as well as deliver them. The signs of Christmas are everywhere. The trees have just gone up. But all that was a few weeks ago. It is now early spring. Rona bears the scars of the virus that killed her mother, that killed every adult and most of the children on the island and, for all anybody knows, everyone in the world. But Rona and the other few children have to live in hope, casting their message bottles into the sea, checking the radios daily for more than static, that someday someone will come for them.

Elizabeth is the leader of the small group of children, barely older than Rona and the rest. Elizabeth is a doctor’s daughter with a strong will to care for others, especially little Alex who has diabetes and such little insulin left to inject. Elizabeth writes lots of lists, all meant to help them survive alone without adults. She leads their ‘shopping’ trips, both ‘old’ shopping (in the abandoned shops) and ‘new’ shopping (in the empty houses). These little children know all about the smells of dead bodies, human and animal. They leave flowers by some. They know so much that they shouldn’t have to. They have both the real and the unreal to be frightened of. They’re scared of zombies. They’ve learned to fear flies. In the group are two brothers, struggling to cope with what has happened. Conflict becomes inevitable as their trauma fills the boys with rage. And all the time Rona observes and tells us what is happening, describing the daily struggle, remembering what happened when the world grew afraid and began to empty.

The Last of Us is such an emotionally involving read. Comparisons with Lord of the Flies are inevitable and are being made but I found The Last of Us to be very different. I think it’s misleading to focus on the conflict within the group of children because this is actually quite a small part of the story even if it does have significant consequences. Instead, we have Rona’s brave, honest narration. It’s hard to imagine caring more for a character than I did for Rona. What this poor child has endured and continues to endure… Elizabeth’s character is also striking. This little girl who can’t cry, can’t rage, because she has to be stronger for the even younger ones. The effort that she puts in to helping Alex is touching in the extreme. As for Alex, I cried for him. All of these children are grieving. Yet they also have to deal with the daily horror of death, isolation, hunger, fear.

At times Rona’s mind wanders. She can’t always deal well with what is happening. Rob Ewing has done an incredible job in creating Rona’s voice. The sections in which Rona remembers the last days when the world was normal and the first when it fell apart are wonderful and all the more frightening because this is a child who is only given glimpses of the descending darkness. She only knows what her mother tells her. The world beyond the sea that encloses the island remains mysterious but that sea that separates them is not benign. Nature itself confronts these children. It doesn’t matter how many stray dogs they befriend, at any time there may be that one that they can’t.

The novel is relatively short at just over 300 pages and it left me wanting much, much more, wishing that certain sections could have been developed further. What there is, though, is so well done. The scenery of the island is wonderfully evoked, its stark winter setting working well as a backdrop to the apocalypse. The little pieces of Gaelic scattered throughout are also put to good use. There are times in The Last of Us when I was shocked by what happens. That doesn’t happen often in my reading – moments when I couldn’t believe what I’d just read. The children’s nature gives the novel an air of hope, an optimism, which the rest of the book does its best to destroy. It’s a powerful contrast and it strongly contributes to this moving, memorable novel.

The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka

The Flicker Men | Ted Kosmatka | 2015 | Michael Joseph | 340p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Flicker Men by Ted KosmatkaEric Argus is a quantum physicist, a genius, who has been beaten by life. An alcoholic with no belief in a future, Eric has been given his very last chance to redeem himself and his reputation. An old friend, Jeremy, offers Eric a job at Hansen Research in Massachusetts, a think tank that gives its employees four months to come up with something incredible, original and life-changing – a ‘Project’. During those four months, and once the Project has been approved, the scientists are amply rewarded with money, resources and lab space. If nothing else, Eric will be given the chance to get back on his feet with four months’ of salary.

As Eric watches his new colleagues, so quickly friends, especially Satvik, enthuse over their own projects, he can see no hope. The days pass by quickly, meaninglessly. Until one day Eric decides that, if he can do nothing groundbreaking himself, he can spend the remaining time replicating and observing ‘Feynman’s double slit wave-particle experiment’ which affects light and matter. In this experiment, humans are able to collapse the wave function (don’t ask me what that means) simply by looking at it. In other words, they are aware of it.

Now, while I do not have an inkling of what on earth this experiment is all about – it is explained in the novel but, really, my brain is not a natural receptacle for the principles of quantum physics – at this stage of the book this does not matter at all. Because the significance of the experiment, its philosophical resonance, is as clear as day. When Eric and his colleagues test the experiment on animals and find that they are not able to affect the wave, not even the primates most closely related to mankind, it is clear what conclusions are going to be drawn. The rest of the scientists and the powers behind Hansen Research drop everything else – it is as if the world takes a pause at the enormity of what Eric has proven. Human beings are alone. Nothing else has a soul.

But what does that mean?

When news of the experiment leaks and others seek to use the methodology on groups of humans, even on foetuses, pursuing the theory that it might not even be all human beings who have been ‘chosen’, everything begins to tumble for Eric and Satvik. To make matters worse, it is clear that there are forces in the world who want this experiment stopped. At some point, if he lives that long, Eric will have to meet the Flicker Men.

The Flicker Men is an extraordinary novel that combines truly jawdropping science with a pacey thriller and cat and mouse chase. There are moments when I was spellbound by some of the theories presented as well as some of the consequences. Ted Kosmatka, as shown in Prophet of Bones, has such a talent at writing thrillers fuelled by extreme science. I don’t know how else to describes these kind of scientific theories that have the potential to change the way the laws of physics, the planet and humankind is understood. Powerful stuff! It is extremely ambitious and, for the lay reader at least, feels true (although, to be fair, I wouldn’t have a clue if it is or not).

This is very much a novel of two halves and I preferred the first half which focuses on the scientific revelations and the characters of Eric, Satvik and the other scientists. There were so many possibilities to be explored, so many gobsmacking ways in which this revelation could be pursued, particularly once it is discovered that not all humans are able to affect the wave. The wonder and awe that the scientists feel at what they have discovered is catching. I was blown away by it. But then suddenly the novel went off in a different direction, becoming much more of a thriller on the run, and the fascinating ideas were mostly dropped. But more than that, in the second half I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Everyone was chasing everyone else but that’s about as much as I could glean. I was never able to work out properly who the Flicker Men were and the consequences of the experiment, distorted beyond all recognisable shape, became unfathomable.

My enjoyment in The Flicker Men never floundered but I would have appreciated it even more if the science hadn’t flown completely over my head. I understood the gist of it – and loved the premise – but during the second half there were sections when I might as well have been reading it with my eyes shut, my confusion compounded by the novel changing direction altogether. Nevertheless, from beginning to end, The Flicker Men is very hard to put down and confirmed me in my belief, established by the excellent Prophet of Bones, that I will always be fascinated to read any novel by Ted Kosmatka, even if I don’t quite understand it. I’m certainly more than willing to give it my best.

Other review
Prophet of Bones

The Detective and the Devil by Lloyd Shepherd

The Detective and the Devil | Lloyd Shepherd | 2016 (21 April) | 328p | Simon and Schuster | Review copy | Buy the book

The Detective and the Devil by Lloyd ShepherdIn the centre of the City of London stands the edifice of a mighty ogre, the East India Company, which has a reach that stretches across seas to the far dominions of the British Empire. In 1815, Constable Charles Horton of London’s River Police is called to the house of an East India Company clerk, Benjamin Johnson. Johnson, his wife and daughter lie murdered, almost no distance at all from the scene of an earlier crime that Horton will never be able to forget. Horton’s search of the house reveals that items may have been stolen, the evidence pointing towards the Johnson’s maid but when she too is found dead, Horton can be in no doubt that there are some secrets, Company secrets, that someone, somewhere is determined to keep hidden. Whatever the cost.

And so begins an investigation that affects not just Horton but also his wife Abigail, a woman still recovering from an earlier ordeal who continues to find comfort in her pursuit of natural philosophy. Someone is following Horton, putting himself and Abigail at risk, and the only men who can protect him, such as his mentor the magistrate John Harriott, are reaching the ends of their careers, even their lives. When Horton finds a link between the murders and the British territory of St Helena, a remote Atlantic island of no value to anyone except the East India Company, it’s almost a relief for Horton and Abigail. It is time to make a journey, but who can predict if St Helena will be any safer than the claustrophic stinking streets of London’s East End?

The Detective and the Devil is the fourth novel in Lloyd Shepherd’s series to feature Constable Charles Horton and Abigail. The novel stands alone well and so there is no need to have read the earlier books first but without them it would be harder to understand exactly what the Hortons have endured over the last few years, especially Abigail. These two people have been altered by the past but, even more than that, the cases that Horton has investigated have made him – and us – re-evaluate the very shape of the natural world, a world that is being rapidly digested by a British Empire that has no understanding at all of what it is consuming. Spurred on by the discoveries of great sea voyages and colonists, scientific investigation is at its height but some of what is discovered is hard to comprehend. There’s a malignancy as nature itself seems to fight back against greedy conquest. A conquest that thrives on the monster of empire – slavery. Reading the earlier books makes the events of The Detective and Devil easier to accept on levels other than the straightforward. But if you haven’t read them, then you can still heartily enjoy The Detective and the Devil and hopefully it will inspire you to go back to the beginning, particularly as this, I believe, may be the last.

Lloyd Shepherd’s novels aren’t like any others I can think of. They take another time and place and add to it a mythology so organic and heady that it grows through the books. Although the stories deal with scientists and detectives, the investigation of murders and the discovery of new lands, peoples and plants, there is an earthiness and timelessness to this world that is actually intoxicating. Although at times it feels like anything is possible, it still has to happen for a reason. There is a moral code here that rules and, in some ways, Horton is its enforcer. Abigail’s position is more complicated, made even more so as there are moments when she fears she hovers on the edge of madness. Horror exists on the verge of this world, watching.

In 1815 England is under attack from France and Napoleon is viewed as the monster above and beyond anything else that preys on the English. As we remember the fate of Napoleon, it seems fitting that this novel’s focus is the very distant St Helena. Much of The Detective and the Devil, though, is set in London, providing such a vivid portrait of a city divided by class and money. Abigail has the charm to move between the classes, Horton doesn’t, but he is a useful tool. This is a dirty, stinking place and it clashes with the fresh air, sea breezes and seclusion of St Helena where the final third of the book is set. But the island is far from paradise – slavery has spoiled it. I enjoyed the depiction of St Helena enormously. It’s a place where good and evil can run rampant. It’s beautifully evoked, its danger and beauty – its spell – explored.

The Detective and the Devil, just like each of the other three books, is utterly engrossing. Lloyd Shepherd’s imagination is as powerful as his writing. I read the novel in one glorious sitting. I was transported from my armchair to another time and place, sometimes frightening and somehow magical, in which I was so happy to be lost.

Other reviews
The English Monster
The Poisoned Island
Savage Magic