Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alex E. Harrow

Orbit | 2019 (12 September) | 384p | Bought copy | Buy the book

In the early years of the 20th century the young girl January Scaller lives in a mansion filled with a collector’s curiosities. Parentless, or so it is suspected, she is raised by the wealthy Mr Locke as his ward. But really January feels herself to be part of his collection. With her dark skin and exotic heritage, she is a prized specimen to him and to his scientific society. They almost expect to have a savage in their midst but January is a source of constant surprise and wonder to them. And so she is kept in her gilded cage.

But there comes a day when January finds a strange book in one of the mansion’s odder rooms. It is called ‘The Ten Thousand Doors: Being a Comparative Study of Passages, Portals and Entryways in World Mythology’. Its author is Yule Ian Scholar and it was written in the City of Nin in the year 6908. This peculiar book should puzzle January but instead in it she finds confirmation of something she has already discovered – that there are doors to be found, strange doors, which open into other worlds and January has the power to not only open these special doors but also to open any door. She holds the key to her freedom, if only she can find the right door to open.

I have heard so many wonderful things about The Ten Thousand Doors of January and I couldn’t wait to read it for myself. I’m not generally a reader of fantasy but there’s something about this book that really appealed to me (quite apart from its stunning cover and beautiful writing) – it feels like a mix of historical fiction and science fiction, with an Edwardian girl opening doors into worlds of other possibilities. But not just any Edwardian girl, but one who is vulnerable, regarded as different and exotic, without parental care, virtually a prisoner, in real danger of being considered mad. She is also enchanting.

This is a beautiful novel, beautifully written. The gorgeous cover hints at wonders beneath and it delivers. The book moves between January’s world and the chapters of the book she has discovered. At the beginning it all seems mysterious but the chapters soon seem to make sense to January and through them she is empowered. The descriptions of the doors and the other worlds are stunning and so inviting. You must discover them for yourself.

The novel transcends time and genre as we and January, as well as the author of the strange book, undergo a quest. It is also a love story and it’s a lovely one, painfully sad at times. But this is also a horror novel – a tale of good versus evil. It’s chilling and frightening. What January and her faithful dog Bad must endure is terrifying.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a novel full of ideas and richly layered. It is deeply symbolic and nothing is more symbolic than the door. Each brings with it so many possibilities and openings, although a door can also bring closure and imprisonment. January views these doors in a multitude of ways and it’s a privilege and joy to see them, and the life beyond, through her eyes. To step through one of these doors one must be brave and January is very brave indeed.

January is an outstanding creation. I adored her. So much of the novel is told with her voice and it is dedicated to her. This is January’s journey and, although there are monsters to be encountered along the way, there are also angels. With no doubt at all, this extraordinary novel, Alix E Harrow’s debut, is a book of the year for me and no doubt for many others who have had the pleasure of stepping inside its pages.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Harvill Secker | 2018 (25 January) | 488p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1785 and merchant Jonah Hancock has to cope with the news that one of his captains has just sold his ship in exchange for what appears to be a little mermaid. It’s dead, hardly attractive, but when news of it flies around London society, Mr Hancock realises that here is the chance to recoup his losses. And when Mrs Chappell, the ‘abbess’ of a fashionable ‘nunnery’, gives him a great deal of money to display his mermaid at her infamous parties for a week, Mr Hancock not only has his eyes opened, he also gets a little more than he bargained for.

Angelica Neal is quite possibly London’s most beautiful courtesan and she is newly unleashed on London once more (now that her Duke has died, conveniently in time for the season). Mrs Neal must look to her future and that means she must marry. That’s easier said and done for one in her position. Mrs Chappell is keen for Angelica to return to her nunnery but Angelica has grander plans. She also wants a mermaid of her own, and not some dead ugly little thing on the mantelpiece. And Mr Hancock will do everything in his power to give Angelica her wish.

This remarkable debut brings Georgian London alive, or at least those parts of it that make their living, or take their pleasure, in its fashionable ‘nunneries’ or brothels. Its is gorgeously written, filled with all those little luxurious details about such things as clothing, furnishings, objects – from stockings and stays to chairs, wallpaper, gardens and grottoes. Everything is so vibrant and rich. And the wit with which the inhabitants of these spectacular dresses and parlours speak is delightful.

What is especially appealing is the distance between the assumed elegance and refinement of Mrs Chappell’s brothel and the reality of what actually goes on within its perfumed rooms. The girls are all taught manners, languages, needlework and music, as if they are all in training to be perfect ladies of society. And yet these are girls who are owned, who rarely meet other women apart from themselves. They exist in a beautiful bubble for the enjoyment of men. At times this is brought home, particularly in the character of Polly, who, as a black young woman, is an exotic object of curiosity and lust, little more than that. Little different are the black footmen with their powdered hair. There is a dark side to this world, fed upon by hypocritical, lecherous men, controlled by pandering painted grotesque women and permitted by corrupt officials. There is suffering.

Angelica Neal is such a fascinating character. At times she may seem shallow and grasping, but how could she be anything else? Her story demonstrates just how vulnerable women like this can be, while a friend demonstrates how far a few, but just a few, can rise. There is a goal but not many at all can achieve it. I felt such empathy for Angelica, such warmth. Her character evolves through the novel and it’s shown so beautifully by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

Polly is somebody I would have liked to have seen much more of. She is brilliantly drawn and her story has such potential. I could easily read a novel just about Polly, if written as well as this. As for Mr Hancock, he is rather overshadowed by the novel’s astonishing women, but there is something so poignant about his belief that somewhere, in a parallel universe maybe, still lives his son who was born dead. He imagines the boy growing to manhood near him, like a shadow, by his side. Mrs Chappell is a glorious scene stealer. I loved the descriptions of her. She is truly revolting, with her cauliflower flesh, feeding on her girls.

This is historical fiction but, as you might expect in a novel with mermaids, there is a fantasy element but it is delicately done. The final third of the book takes us further into strangeness than the rest and I must admit that I preferred the preceding two thirds, but there is a real beauty about what happens. We can be in no doubt, though, that the true mermaids are the human sirens who move through this novel, bewitching men and being betrayed by men. Angelica Neal is the subject of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and she is enchanting, as is this whole marvellous, witty and elegant novel. Do not miss it. The hardback is itself a thing of great beauty.

Year One by Nora Roberts

Piatkus | 2017 (5 December) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

Year One by Nora RobertsWhen Ross MacLeod shoots a pheasant dead and its body falls to the ground in the centre of an ancient stone circle in Dumfries in Scotland, he has no way of knowing that he has sealed the fate of not just himself but of billions of people around the world. He and his brother and cousin are with their wives in a farmhouse miles from their homes in New York City, celebrating the New Year in fine and traditional fashion. But when Ross and Angie fly home to the States they carry with them an illness that the world will soon know as the Doom. It is merciless in its greed and ferocity.

But not everybody dies. As the world collapses around them, a few live on and they are helped in their survival by new and strange abilities. Some when they touch another person can sense their future, some can fly, some can move objects, some can create power and light. But there are others who have the power of darkness. Magic has returned to the land and with it hope but also danger.

Year One is a bewitching novel in so many ways. On one level it is a very good apocalyptic tale and, even though it is caused by disease, as one character declares, this is no zombie apocalypse. Phew! The chapters that describe the world’s descent into this chaos of death and fear are superb. It’s not only engrossing, it’s also emotional. We meet a great many characters in this novel and all of them have a tale of tragedy to tell. Surviving an apocalypse is as hard as succumbing to it.

There is a strong magic element and I thought that this might be a hurdle I couldn’t overcome. I’m not a reader of fantasy and I particularly don’t read novels about magic, fairies and elves. But it’s integrated so well into what feels like reality that I found myself accepting every word of it. The magic doesn’t take over and generally it feels like another symptom of the disease and not otherworldly. Nevertheless there is something unworldly here but I loved how it’s done. It’s also fascinating to listen in to the discussions on how this came about. While one person might argue that the rest of the population were wiped out as a kind of cleansing and these new superhuman beings were born as a result, another believes that these new superhuman beings have been created as a source of hope for the continued survival of humanity. This element of hope is such a critical part of the mood of Year One. There is a sense that mankind is inherently good while it is clear that a few human beings are wrapped in sin.

I love the cast of Year One. We follow several small groups of people as they make their way to a safe place in the United States. The journeys are arduous, harrowing and packed with adventure. They’re so compelling. You have to keep your wits about you to remember who is in which group but so many of these people are three-dimensional with an interesting tale to tell. And the relationships between them are enthralling and moving.

Year One is the first novel in a new series – Chronicles of the One – and this did lead to my one issue with the novel. The ending, without giving anything away, wasn’t entirely satisfactory due to the number of loose ends that are left untied, the people that we leave in the lurch, as the focus narrows to follow just one person. I’m hoping that the answers will be provided in the next novel in the series. I’m so desperate to know.

But, above all else, Year One is an engrossing and original apocalyptic vision that takes an intriguing look into the future of a new form of humanity. I haven’t read any Nora Roberts’ novels before and I understand that this one is a little different from her usual fare. It certainly has me hooked.

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon

Angry Robot | 2017 (3 August) | 384p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

A Man of Shadows by Jeff NoonWithin the world lies a very strange city indeed, concealed by a dome. Almost half of it is called Dayzone, where endless bright lamps reproduce hot sunlight for every hour of the day. Connected to it by train is its opposite – the endless night of Nocturna. But, to travel between the two, the train must pass through an area of fog and permanent gloom called Dusk and therein lives the unexplained and the terrifying. As if all of this weren’t strange enough, the whole city has turned its back on the linear time of the outside world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of timelines co-exist, many available to be bought, and they mean that the inhabitants of Dayzone and Nocturna move from timeline to timeline, often obsessed with their watches and clocks. Never has the question ‘what’s the time?’ seemed so vital and yet also such a waste of time.

Moving between the timelines is a feared killer called Quicksilver, managing to commit murder in broad faked daylight, sometimes in front of an unsuspecting audience. Private detective John Nyquist has taken on the case of a runaway wealthy young woman Eleanor but he’s soon sure that there are links with Quicksilver. His pursuit of Eleanor takes him not only across Dayzone and Nocturna but also into the place he dreads the most, Dusk, and even to the very edges of his sanity. And all the time, all of the times, he has that feeling that he’s being watched and judged.

A Man of Shadows is a quite extraordinary novel. Its world building is absolutely fantastic – intricate, complex, moody and disturbingly real. The movement between timelines means that John Nyquist rarely sleeps and you can strongly sense his extreme fatigue as the hours pass. People who become too time-obsessed almost literally lose their minds and you know that Nyquist is well on the way to this state. It gives his task an extra urgency and desperation.

Dayzone and Nocturna are brilliantly visualised and would have been sufficiently impressive on their own but the skill of Jeff Noon astounds even further with his treatment of time. I found myself wondering why anybody would chose to live such an existence, what its appeal might be. Many of the inhabitants of this city have almost a euphoria about them as they defy the restrictions of a conventional life but others are clearly damaged by it. This is a book that makes you think as you read it. It is extremely clever.

We never see the world beyond the city, although occasionally characters are nostalgic for a sight of the real sun or the real stars. The city itself has a 1950s’ feel to it, just as the mystery element of the novel is detective noir. Now and again we’re given extracts from guidebooks which tell us a little of the background to Dayzone, Nocturna and Dusk, but generally we experience it all through the increasingly fraught mind of John Nyquist. This can be claustrophobic at times and there is also chaos and confusion. It is certainly atmospheric.

In the final third of the novel, the mystery inevitably takes us into Dusk, and what a frightening place this is. I must admit that I did become a little lost during this section as it becomes increasingly surreal and fantastical. Throw in some mind bending drugs and you get an idea of the state of Nyquist’s mind during this phase of his hunt. It’s hugely disturbing. Personally, and this is probably because I’m more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, I enjoyed more the majority of the novel which portrays so brilliantly life in a world of endless day or endless night, in which time is a force to be controlled, manipulated and even sold. And all the time, outside the city lies the ‘real’ world, out of reach in so many ways to a man such as John Nyquist.

I was completely absorbed by A Man of Shadows and deeply impressed by the skill and imagination of this author. This is the first novel I’ve read by Jeff Noon and I’m not sure why that is – there are such big ideas here that provide an unusual and quirky perspective on our own lives. I love a book that makes me think while also entertaining me and A Man of Shadows does just that.

I love the cover – it really contributes to the mood of 1940s’ and 1950s’ detective noir in an extraordinary environment.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Borough Press | 2017 (15 June) | 752p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole GallandMelisande Stokes is a lecturer in ancient and classical languages at Harvard University when she is offered a curious job by government secret agency operative Tristan Lyons. It’s likely that Mel would have taken the job anyway thanks to her patronising, arrogant and irritating boss, but it turns out to be simply perfect. Mel is given a number of ancient and more recent documents to translate as part of a test. The texts come from all six continents and from every era and they all attest to one thing – that magic is real. Or rather magic used to be real. The documents also reveal that magic died in the summer of 1851, killed by the Great Exhibition of London.

Mel’s job, should she choose to accept it, is to join a top secret government project, D.O.D.O., otherwise known as the Department of Diachronic Operations. It has one mission – to develop a device that will allow its operatives to travel back in time to save magic and alter history. After all, what government wouldn’t want to have magic at its beck and call? Unfortunately, meddling with the past can have a rather adverse and unpredictable effect on the present, especially when so much depends on MUONs – Multiple-Universe Operations Navigators, better known to you and me as witches.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is quite simply spectacular. It’s almost impossible to describe or to pin down. There’s a distinct science fiction feel to bits of it – it is, after all, a novel about time travel and the descriptions of how it works are both sciencey and deliciously unfathomable. That is indeed the point. This classified government agency likes to blind us by science at the same time as confounding us with acronyms. But the science is powered by magic which is also powered by science. There is a rational scientific explanation for everything. I think. Or maybe there isn’t. I’m not sure the witches care very much.

I’m not a reader of fantasy or anything to do with magic normally but this novel absolutely enchanted me, in the same way that The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter has done. It presents an incredible and seductive mingling of science and fantasy, of alternate universes, broken futures, impossible conundrums and, my favourite, the temporal paradox. All of this on top of some brilliantly visualised journeys into the past, especially late Elizabethan London and 13th-century Constantinople. These are places teeming with the most fascinating and intriguing personalities, notably the witches but there are also lots of others, and it’s particularly fun watching them deal with an unfamiliar future or past.

The missions into the past are fantastically complicated! This is not surprising considering the tangled knot of D.O.D.O. bureaucracy and it all adds up to a wonderfully elaborate and varied bunch of plots as different people pursue their different goals and get into all kinds of trouble. This adds drama and, now and again, tragedy but it also adds a great deal of humour. The humour of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is lightly done, often the result of the absolute absurdity of a situation or the preposterousness of trying to impose officialdom on potential chaos. There is also a lesson to be learned – don’t underestimate people from the past. They might not know how to operate a mobile phone but they – and I include Vikings in this – are not stupid.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is over 740 pages long but not once did this feel like too much. On the contrary, it quite often felt like too little! There is so much going on. There is so much potential for more to go on. I loved the characters, especially Erszebet. And it is all written absolutely beautifully and in the most intriguing manner. It’s told in a multitude of ways – journal entries, letters, emails, government documents, memos – and they work together brilliantly. At the end is a very handy glossary of acronyms (as defined by POOJAC – the Policy on Official Jargon and Acronym Coinage). As for the premise of this fabulous, clever, witty book, it is ingenious and only equalled by its execution. Neal Stephenson’s previous novel Seveneves was one of my top reads of 2015. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (or TRAFODODO) will do at least as well in my 2017 list. Do not miss it!

Other reviews
Seveneves

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World | Eowyn Ivey | 2016, Pb 2017 | Tinder Press | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn IveyIt is 1885 and Colonel Allen Forrester, with such a small group of men, leaves Vancouver to embark on an expedition to explore the Wolverine River in Alaska. Recently relinquished by Russia, Alaska is now open for prospectors, the military, traders, hunters and the curious. Its resources are believed bountiful, its wildlife as beautiful as it can be dangerous, its Indians as useful as they are feared. Its majestic rivers are Alaska’s natural highways but they are only ice-free for brief months each year. The Wolverine River links the coast with a well-used river way to the north. Its exploration and mapping could prove key for the future settlement of Alaska. Allen Forrester and his men aim to be upon it as soon as it is released from winter’s grip and then they will travel for 1,000 miles, recording what they see, photographing it, trading with the Indians, introducing themselves, forging friendships. Trying to stay alive.

Colonel Forrester’s mind is not entirely on his mission. Recently married to Sophie, he has had to leave her behind in the barracks at Vancouver, with only the other officers’ wives and daughters for company. And Sophie has such an adventurous, independent spirit. She would far prefer to be exploring with her husband, capturing the images on a camera, seeing with her own eyes the wildlife of this remote region. But it is not to be and instead she must stay behind, missing her husband intensely, experiencing a personal journey of her own, every bit as hazardous as the one that her husband must face, fearing that he may never return, too distant for letters, her mind too alive to the risks ahead while doing all she can to combat them.

At the heart of To the Bright Edge of the World are the experiences of Allen and Sophie, told through their journals, alternating between them, covering the great distance between them. There are photographs, sketches, as both Allen and Sophie experience the world around them, from the great glaciers of Alaska to fish, birds, animal tracks and people. But there is also another strand weaving in and out of this novel. In the present day, the latest member of the Forrester family is trying to find a home for Allen and Sophie’s journals and artefacts in a museum by the side of the Wolverine River and this element is absolutely fascinating.

This is not an easy novel to review, largely because I don’t have a hope of doing it justice. To the Bright Edge of the World held me mesmerised. I could not get enough of it, barely putting it down, as I read it in just one day and what a day’s reading it was. I knew this book would be good. I adored The Snow Child, it continues to be one of my very favourite novels, and I knew that Eowyn Ivey’s writing, imagination and deep, penetrating insight into, and empathy with, her own Alaska could not fail. However, I was not expecting To the Bright Edge of the World to exceed The Snow Child but that is exactly what it does.

The writing is breathlessly beautiful. The journal extracts bring the long dead characters of Allen and Sophie to life in such a meaningful, memorable way. They both lay themselves bare and it is hypnotic, a privilege to be allowed so deeply into their lives and thoughts. The illustrations work so well. This is such an attractive book even before you read its words! But what makes it truly astounding is its portrayal of the natural world, not just in Alaska but also in Vancouver. Nature is infused with magic and the imagination. Its wonders are ultimately unknowable despite mankind’s best efforts to record it and trap it, whether physically or through the lens of a camera. It is dangerous but it is also so beautiful. The indigenous tribes are shown to have a much closer connection to the environment they live in, which is hardly surprising, but both Sophie and Allen, as well as the people that Allen travels with, each makes their own meaningful relationships with the world around them and that changes how they interact with the men and women they spend time with.

This creates a haunting, atmospheric setting for this wonderful novel that is matched by the grandeur or simple beauty of its locations, the impact of its changing seasons, its merging of nature with mystery and magic, the contrast of masculine and feminine, fertility and decay, the mix of science with indigenous wisdom, where anything is possible, not only in the natural world but also within the minds of Sophie and Allen, as well as our contemporary protagonists who treasure the legacy of this husband and wife who lived so many years ago.

With no hesitation at all I state that if I read another novel this year that I love as much as this I will be entirely surprised. This is a very special book indeed and Eowyn Ivey is an incredibly gifted writer, bringing to us all the wonder, beautiful strangeness and fragility of the Alaska she loves.

Other review and feature
The Snow Child
An interview with Eowyn Ivey for The Snow Child

Fellside by M.R. Carey

Fellside | M.R. Carey | 2016 | Orbit | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fellside by M.R. CareyWhen Jess Moulson wakes in hospital she can remember very little about the reason for her terrible injuries, the burns that have remoulded her face. But so slowly, with her own memories resurfacing as well as the reaction of others towards her, she begins to remember and knows that she deserves Fellside. Fellside is a high security and privately-owned prison for women, located somewhere in the hills of northern England, a place to strike awe into those who see it emerging from the landscape but something very different indeed for the people who must endure its walls.

Inside Fellside, Jess must cope with more than her quiet, certain guilt. The prison is run not by the Governor but by one of its inmates, Harriet Grace, and this is a reign of terror. Everyone is expected to do Grace’s bidding, to find their place in her hierarchy of misery, but Jess is different. And one reason for this is the voices she hears in her head as well as an extraordinary ability to walk through people’s dreams. But Jess knows that this is the only freedom she deserves and, while her lawyers fight to prove her innocent, Jess is fully resigned to her fate within these terrible walls of Fellside.

But there is much more to Fellside – and the prison that gives the novel its name – than this and all I will say is that M.R. Carey expertly mixes a powerful, visceral prison drama with something supernatural and decidedly creepy. But the nature of this is only slowly revealed and it is riveting and at times disturbing and surprisingly emotional.

At the heart of Fellside is Jess Moulson, a wonderful figure, deeply traumatised and in need of help and yet held captive within the most horrendous environment. The other prisoners and the guards are also depicted in colourful, sharp portraits, with some verging on the grotesque and inhuman. This is a place that changes those unlucky enough to be confined within it. Fellside is also a violent and shocking novel. Sections of it did make me wince.

M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts was one of my favourite books of 2014 and, as a result, I have been longing to read Fellside. Fellside is, though, very different but both novels share the very distinct quality of playing with genre as well as our preconceptions and attitudes. They are also both extremely well-written and out of the ordinary.

I didn’t enjoy Fellside as much The Girl With All the Gifts, largely, I think, because I found Jess much harder to emphasise with than the astonishing Melanie. Melanie is one of my most loved figures in contemporary fiction – I think she’s nigh on impossible to match. There is also a point in the novel at which Jess makes a decision that absolutely infuriated me and from that point on I had some trouble. I also didn’t find the novel as scary as I’d hoped but the fault with that lies with my expectations, not the book.

Nevertheless, Fellside is an extraordinary novel, particularly its first half, and since finishing it I’ve found that it’s lingered in my mind. There are some fantastic characters among the inmates and they exist within a powerfully dense, rich and threatening atmosphere. The star of the novel, for me, is Fellside itself, a dark place where one can easily imagine evil plays.

Other review
The Girl With All the Gifts

Also reviewed at Blue Book Balloon