A Wilful March to the Cemetery

A massive work of fantasy/sf, a terrific debut thriller, and some classic non-fiction made up my reading this time

Issue #51, Sunday 24 September 2023

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Interesting comparison to last issue, when I could only talk about a single book. This time there are no less than five books I finished reading.

The Will of the Many by James Islington

My thanks to Text Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.

James Islington is an Australian author who has apparently had a fair bit of success with a previous fantasy series called The Licanius Trilogy, which I haven’t read. This book, The Will of the Many is the start of a new series.

I have to confess that I found reading this a bit daunting, as it is just so long. It’s 625 pages of fairly small type. I estimate that it must be at least 250,000 words, more likely 300,000 words. Now, I’m not put off by long books in general: I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for example, and that’s nearly 800 pages. However, I found The Will of the Many much more difficult to get through, perhaps because it’s not a kind of story I’m particularly fond of. The blame is mine, though, and not the author’s. I’m sure there are many readers who will love this book and its forthcoming sequels.

Anyway, setting its length aside, what is the book about?

It’s something of a coming-of-age story, with a clever bit of world- and society-building behind it. I’m unsure whether to call it fantasy or science fiction, always bearing in mind Arthur C. Clarke’s admonition that any sufficiently advanced technology is going to seem like magic. Here the “technology” is a means of gathering and harnessing the will of many people so that it can be directed by the elite few in the top ranks of the hierarchy that makes up the society in the Catenian Empire. The people of the lowest level of society, the Octavii, can “voluntarily” cede some of their willpower to their masters in the next level up, the Septimii, and so on up to the top. This gathered willpower can indeed be wielded like powerful magic to do all kinds of things. Below even the Octavii are prisoners who are shackled to Sappers—devices which sap all of their willpower, leaving them helpless and barely alive. The Catenian society, which has developed since some vague Cataclysm which destroyed the previous civilisation, is heavily based on the old Roman empire, complete with senators and gladiator-like contests in huge amphitheatres.

At the start of the book we are introduced to young Vis, the first-person protagonist. As the story opens, he is living in an orphanage and working in a prison, tending to the prisoners shackled to the Sapper devices, who can do nothing for themselves. Vis has a secret, though. He’s actually a prince, the sole remaining member of the royal family of an island which was invaded by the Catenians. If he is identified, he will be immediately executed. While he is working in the prison he comes in contact with a visitor who turns out to be a Quintus—able to harness the willpower of thousands of underlings. This man, Ulcisor, sees something useful in Vis and recruits Vis to help him investigate goings on in the Empire’s Academy. Ulcisor’s brother, a student there, died mysteriously the year before.

To cut a very long story short, Vis, now Ulcisor’s adopted son, ends up as a student at the Academy, where he must rise through the ranks as well as investigating the death of Ulcisor’s brother. Oh, I shouldn’t forget to mention that before he gets there, Vis has single-handedly stopped the massacre of thousands of people in an amphitheatre by a group of resistance fighters. Not before many thousands are gruesomely murdered, though. I found this whole passage very hard to take, to be honest, it’s just thrown off without any real emotional impact of the loss of this many lives. It’s as though 9/11 had happened and everyone just shrugged it off.

A complicating factor is that Vis has been secretly contacted by the resistance group, who are trying to recruit him. He naturally sympathises with their goal, since he hates the Empire which invaded his land and killed off his whole family. But he objects to their methods (such as murdering thousands of innocent people).

Dealing with all of these conflicting demands is extremely difficult for him, but as this book comes to an end, Vis has indeed risen to the top rank in the Academy, won the prize for completing a dangerous quest, uncovered very mysterious doings, and fallen in love. A great deal remains unexplained and there are many loose threads left deliberately dangling. No doubt you’ll need to read the second and third books in the series to work out what has really been going on.

Look, this was well-enough written, it has a very clever concept, there are some interesting ideas, and once the story gets going, it is quite engaging. The right audience for it will doubtless love it and eagerly await the following books. But I won’t be among them, I’m afraid.

Down Cemetery Road by Mick Herron

Mick Herron is of course the author of the Slough House series of spy thrillers now made into a memorable television series starring Gary Oldman. I’ve certainly enjoyed both the books and the TV shows so far.

So I was interested to look at this book, Down Cemetery Road, which is Herron’s debut novel. He certainly seems to have come galloping out of the gate, because I thought it was excellent, foreshadowing much of the fast pacing and sardonical humour of the Slough House books.

We start with a prologue, which is essential reading (I do not understand people who say they won’t read prologues). A man, who appears to be an ex-soldier, is in some kind of hospital, but he has an ankle chain keeping him locked to the bed, in a windowless room, being treated or at least investigated, for some kind of event which happened in a desert. He has no idea where he is: he assumes he’s a prisoner of war somewhere in the Middle East. By accident, however, he discovers that he’s somewhere very different right at the end of the prologue.

As the story proper opens, it’s a very domestic scene. We’re introduced to Sarah Trafford, née Tucker, in her early thirties, living in Oxford. She’s in the middle of setting up a dinner party she’s been really pushed to put together at very short notice by her husband to entertain one of his husband’s clients. Her husband, Mark, is an investment banker.

So we’re in the middle of this dinner party, and Sarah is really seething with annoyance about having had to put it on. She’s invited along an old hippie friend who calls herself “Wigwam” and her lackadaisical new husband Rufus, to make up the numbers.

The client, one Gerard Inchon, a very rich potential investor, is being an absolute sarcastic arsehole, to Sarah and the other guests. There’s more than a hint of the Jackson Lamb character from the Slough House series in this. Among other barbs, Gerard tells Sarah she is suffering from BHS—Bored Housewife Syndrome, which she finds infuriating. Sarah, though, can and does give as good as she gets, something which definitely upsets Mark, who is trying to woo Gerard to invest with his firm.

This rather toxic domestic scene comes to a close, however, when the house blows up. Well, not the house where the dinner party is being held. that's a bit of a trick by the author here as it ends the chapter. Then you get to the next chapter and it’s not Sarah’s house which has blown up, but a house further down the street. So they all go out to try to work out what’s going on. And this house has indeed blown up and is collapsing into a nearby canal. Was it a gas explosion, as the authorities later insist, or a bomb, as Gerard Inchon suggests?

This incident is the trigger for all the rest of the novel. Two people were killed in the explosion, but a four-year-old child, Dinah, miraculously survived.

After a week, the story has dropped out of the newspapers, but Sarah, who is at the moment indeed a bored—but very intelligent and resourceful—housewife, can’t stop wondering about what happened to the child when there’s no further mention of her in the press. Where did this child go? Was she taken to grandparents, what's the story? Sarah becomes determined to find out. Indeed she actually eventually hires a private investigator to help, but then he is murdered in his office, though it’s made to look like suicide.

Sara’s fixation eventually leads her into a morass of mystery, espionage and violence and indeed ultimately upturns her entire life.

There’s a lot of interesting backstory and depth to Sarah’s character, and of course we also eventually find out what really went on with the house blowing up (spoiler: it wasn’t a gas explosion).

We’re also introduced to officials of a secret government department, in the form of Howard, a largely ineffectual senior manager and two field agents, brothers Amos and Axel Crane. The elder brother Amos is running an operation and his brother Axel (“a barking mad killer”) is out in the field somewhere. They are trying to track down an ex-soldier called Michael Downey, who is on the loose, apparently looking for revenge for what has been done to him and his best friend during their military service. Downey obviously has secrets that they don't want to come out

I found this to be a real page-turner, hard to put down, with a story which heads in some very unexpected directions and keeps on building in tension all the way through. I particularly liked the fact that as it ends it doesn’t tie off every loose end, but leaves you pondering.

Really liked it. There are a total of four Mick Herron novels set in the same location in Oxford and featuring Zoë Boehm, one of the lesser characters from the first novel, though not, I think, Sarah Trafford. I’ll definitely be following those up.

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

This was a production I did for Standard Ebooks.

In 1831, the twenty-two-year old Charles Darwin embarked on the Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Beagle as it set off on what was to be a five-year-long surveying expedition around South America and across the Pacific. Darwin was employed officially as a naturalist and geologist to assist in the survey, but unofficially as a companion to the captain, Robert Fitz Roy.

Darwin was a keen and intelligent observer, and made a number of discoveries on the journey, including the observations at the Galapagos Archipelago which eventually led him to his theory of evolution (later outlined in The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection). His voyage across the Pacific also led him to propose a now largely-accepted theory of the formation of coral atolls.

Darwin submitted his journal and notes as part of the official report of the expedition, but in 1839 he published a more readable account of his experiences in this book, initially titled Journal of Researches Into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World Under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. The book quickly became very popular, and the publisher had to release a second edition later the same year. The revised and much simpler title The Voyage of the Beagle was only given to the work in 1905.

There are some beautiful pieces of writing in the book. Here, for example, is Darwin talking about the view from a peak in the Andes:

When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms: the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow, all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah.

Adding to the interest of Darwin’s detailed and thorough observations of nature and geology are his deeply critical remarks on the institution of slavery, which he witnessed during his time in Brazil:

Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children⁠—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own⁠—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

This of course was three decades before the Civil War in the United States which was fought over that issue.

I really enjoyed working on this book and reading it through. You can get hold of a free, beautifully formatted ebook of it here.

The Sisters by Dervla McTiernan

This is another audiobook from Audible, only of novella length. I think I've seen that the three novellas McTiernan has done so far for Audible have now all been released as a one-volume paperback, so if you're not into audiobooks, that would be worth looking out for.

I enjoyed McTiernan’s first three novels set in Galway, Ireland featuring her detective Cormac Reilly. I think The Sisters is meant to be set rather earlier than those novels.

This one is set in Dublin, and is told from the point of view of two sisters: Ailfric, who is a freshly-qualified barrister, and her sister Carrie, who is trying to advance in the Garda, Ireland's police force, but meeting a good deal of misogyny which is holding her back.

At the start of the story, Ailfric, who as a junior is struggling to be assigned to cases within her law firm, is unexpectedly handed a case one morning when the head of her chambers is absent due to him being under the weather due to excessive drinking the night before. So she gets handed this particular case. It's a murder charge, but the paperwork Ailfric is given consists only of a single sheet of paper. So she looks at this and there’s nothing to work on. But she has to front a judge at a hearing later that morning. So she has to endure a tongue-lashing from the judge for being under-prepared, and has to scramble to find out more. Anyway the case turns out to be a young man called Robert Collins, who is now Ailfric’s client. Robert has been accused of murdering his girlfriend Laura after an argument in a pub. The evidence against him is largely circumstantial, and hangs largely on the testimony of Sheila Carmody, a young woman who says she was Laura's best friend, and that she had confided that she was afraid of Robert, and that he could be very violent. Robert's roomate also fails to corroborate Robert's story that he came straight home after the argument in the pub.

However, Ailfric is told there's no money for much in the way of an investigation by the defence, so she has to make do with what she can do herself. As part of this, she manages to interest her sister Carrie in the case. On her own initiative, Carrie interviews Sheila Carmody and starts to doubt her testimony. But this rather backfires on Carrie when her supervisor finds out what she's done and tears her to shreds over it. It looks as though Carrie's career is over almost before it has begun.

As you can imagine, though, in the end Ailfric and Carrie are able to get to the heart of the case and free Ailfric's client.

I thought this was an interesting-enough story, though short and a little predictable. The characters are interesting and the relationship between the sisters is well depicted. And the story has a fair bit to say about how the legal and policing systems really work in practice, which is not how they ought to work.

Among Others by Jo Walton

I read this book specifically because it won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 2012, beating Embassytown by China Miéville, which I feel is one of the best works of science fiction I’ve read. So Among Others must have been damn good, I thought, and decided that I really had to read it.

It’s a very strange book in some ways. While I enjoyed aspects of it, other parts of it were extremely irritating. So far as I can see the reason it won the awards it did was that it plays very much to science fiction fans, with heaps of references to works of sf and fantasy, and even to science fiction fandom. I really can’t imagine, however, that it would appeal to anyone not already a dyed-in-the-wool sf/fantasy fan (not simply a reader, but a fan).

Lest I seem to be being too negative, I repeat that I did definitely enjoy aspects of it. So let’s see what they are.

Most of all, Among Others is a coming-of-age story of a 14-year-old Welsh girl, Morwenna Markova (though she prefers to call herself “Mori Phelps”, and even that may not be her real name for reasons we discover much later). The story is all told in the first person in the form of her diary entries, from September 1979 through to February 1980.

It’s clear from Walton’s own background that the book is largely autobiographical, with some additional fantasy and fictional plot elements. Simply as a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, I found the book quite enjoyable and interesting.

The overarching scenario is that the narrator has abruptly run away from home because of a bitter conflict with her mother, who is described as being both completely mad, and (here is the fantasy element) an evil witch. As she is under age, the authorities send her off to live in Shropshire with her father, who is a complete stranger to her, having left the narrator’s mother when Morwenna and her identical twin Morgana were only babies.

We also discover that a year previous to the start of the main story the twin girls were involved in some kind of car accident which killed one of them and left the survivor badly damaged. Mori has to walk with a stick and has on-going pain in one leg. For quite a long while, this is all very confusing, because the narrator refers to her dead sister simply as “Mor” and occasionally hints that the two sisters were a single person.

Then there are the fairies. The narrator can see them, and as a child spoke to the fairies near to her home in Wales, in Welsh, of course. They play an ongoing part in the narrator’s life. I did like the author’s spin on these creatures, the way they speak, and the way magic actually works, all of these insights being original and fresh.

The book as a whole is a homage to the joys of reading and the redemptive power of books. The narrator is only able to connect with her estranged father through their mutual love of books, and science fiction in particular. She buys books both new and second-hand as often as she can afford them (which seems to be unrealistically often), and borrows stacks of books from the library in the town nearest her boarding school. I’m really not sure where she is able to store this many books while she’s living in a shared dormitory, nor how she is able to read so many while still studying, but let that go. At the library she is also eventually able to join a weekly sf/fantasy book club, which becomes the centre of her interest, and where she is able to make friends.

What is really very irritating, though, is the too-frequent references to particular works of sf and fantasy, and the author’s apparent assumption that her readers have read and remembered them all. Given that Among Others was released in 2011, she’s asking her readers to be familiar in detail with dozens of books published more than 30 years previously. The occasional such reference can be ignored, but if you haven’t (for example) read Triton by Samuel R. Delany and thoroughly understood the plot and remembered the names of the main characters, well good luck to you. Even the very last sentence of the book is a throw-away reference to a book which I haven’t read, completely letting down what I thought was a really moving concluding passage about the narrator’s plans for her future. Wrecked the emotional feeling completely.

So was this a better book than Embassytown? Well, it’s a very, very different kind of book, so it’s not a fair comparison. All I can say is that if I’d been voting in the Hugos that year, there’s no way my vote would have gone to Among Others rather than Embassytown.

Currently Reading

Waiting on the Shelf


And that’s it for this issue. See you next time!


Footnotes
  1. “Free” in the sense that if you have a current Audible subscription, you don’t have to pay extra credits for it.

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