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Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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Near-future Britain is not just a nation under surveillance but one built on it: a radical experiment in personal transparency and ambient direct democracy. Every action is seen, every word is recorded.

Diana Hunter is a refusenik, a has-been cult novelist who lives in a house with its own Faraday cage: no electronic signals can enter or leave. She runs a lending library and conducts business by barter. She is off the grid in a society where the grid is everything. Denounced, arrested, and interrogated by a machine that reads your life history from your brain, she dies in custody.

Mielikki Neith is the investigator charged with discovering how this tragedy occurred. Neith is Hunter’s opposite. She is a woman in her prime, a stalwart advocate of the System. It is the most democratic of governments, and Neith will protect it with her life.

When Neith opens the record of the interrogation, she finds not Hunter’s mind but four others, none of which can possibly be there: the banker Constantine Kyriakos, pursued by a ghostly shark that eats corporations; the alchemist Athenais Karthagonensis, jilted lover of St Augustine of Hippo and mother to his dead son, kidnapped and required to perform a miracle; Berihun Bekele, artist and grandfather, who must escape an arson fire by walking through walls – if only he can remember how; and Gnomon, a sociopathic human intelligence from a distant future, falling backwards in time to conduct four assassinations.

Aided – or perhaps opposed – by the pale and paradoxical Regno Lönnrot, Neith must work her way through the puzzles of her case and find the meaning of these impossible lives. Hunter has left her a message, but is it one she should heed, or a lie to lead her into catastrophe? And as the stories combine and the secrets and encryptions of Gnomon are revealed, the question becomes the most fundamental of all: who will live, and who will die?
~~~~~
Nick Harkaway has always straddled the line between literary fiction and science fiction, whether it be in his post-apocalyptic The Gone-Away World or the superhero-meets-colonialism of Tigerman. The question this begs for each new work is, which side of the line does it favour…?

Gnomon is a complex book, to the point of being difficult to review; the question of where to begin so as not to get bogged down in one aspect and neglect others is a difficult one, because it is so dense. Harkaway’s worldbuilding is incredible; he’s not only written a near-future London whose transport infrastructure feels intensely real, but whose political infrastructure also feels all too plausible. Gnomon is set in a Britain that has embraced a system that combines direct democracy with a panopticon surveillance society, overseen by the computer algorithm known as the System; in everyday life, that manifests as the System being a personal assistant like a Siri that can predict your wants and almost read your mind… and that perhaps functions at times like a nudge unit. The impact of this is part of the conflict at the heart of the novel; what it means for individual privacy and freedom isn’t given a simple answer. If a crime is committed, it is investigated by the humans who make up the Witness, combining human insight with the non-intelligent technology of the System; and people’s minds can be mapped and read to establish innocence or guilt – or conspiracy.

Nominally, Gnomon follows the investigation of Mielikki Neith, inspector of the Witness, into a mind-mapping operation on Diana Hunter which went wrong and led to her death… and to the information the mapping was meant to discover. Inevitably, for something which combines thriller with science fiction, this leads Mielikki to a greater conspiracy; but it is also how Harkaway brings in a number of secondary narratives, shells Diana used to hide herself from the brain mapping by giving it false personas and histories to read. Each of these narratives within the central narrative of Mielikki’s investigation is as brilliantly written and complex, and fully peopled, as the main narrative itself; Gnomon essentially has five different narratives, four of them shell games around the fifth central one, each of which has clues to what is going on in the others and what they mean. The way Harkaway weaves these different narratives together, and draws different points and keys out of them, and links them in to each other symbolically and literally, is beautifully done, albeit weaving the kind of web across nearly 700 pages that it can be hard for the reader to keep track of.

One of the things Harkaway uses to help with this is excellent characterisation. Gnomon is one of the most interestingly peopled novels I’ve read in a long time, and with one of the most unusual approach to personhood; not only does the text demand the reader interrogate the idea of the individual, but the text itself does. The cast includes ancient alchemists from the time of Augustine (Athenais, fictionalised mistress of the real Augustine before his conversion and mother of his son) to present-day Greek bankers playing the markets and playing gods (Constantine Kyriarkos, whose name alone is suggestive), an immigrant Ethiopian exile and extraordinary artist (Berihun Bekele, who Harkaway uses to talk about the history of colonialism and interrogate online racism, right up to a direct albeit not-by-name engagement with the hate campaign that is GamerGate), and a multiply-embodied far-future post-human engaged in a war with entropy (Gnomon’s sections are by far the strangest). Most of these characters are as powerfully fleshed out as those in the real world of the novel, with their own lives and relationships; Gnomon goes in deep on the granularity of individuality. The one character Harkaway falls down on is Gnomon themself; the multi-bodied post-human being seems rather two-dimensional, and their thoughts rather too human, while also being at the same time a little too simplistic and, compared to the other narratives of the novel, essentially uninteresting.

The strongest point of Gnomon is perhaps its unexpected ending; Harkaway goes to his most literary at the close of the novel, with an ending that is simultaneously cliche and utterly new, and wholly unexpected. Each character’s narrative is beautifully and powerfully resolved, although not necessarily closed off; people don’t necessarily get what they deserve. Hints and clues which have been dropped throughout the narrative suddenly become obvious in hindsight, and the whole shape of Gnomon is shifted into a new format.

If there’s one drawback, it’s that it takes nearly 700 pages to get there; at times, Gnomon feels like it is dragging, drawn out for the sake of it. Harkaway has certain moments and character motifs that repeat endlessly, as if to drive the point home; over the course of the full novel, these can become wearing, and the lack of obvious links between the narratives and Mielikki’s actual investigation, and the things going on in the background, can all become a little frustratingly obscure as Harkaway layers up the puzzle pieces that will eventually all fall into place together to create the final picture.

In the end, though, Gnomon is definitely worth it; another monumental, brilliant, brain-bending piece of literary science fiction from Nick Harkaway.

Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy requested from and provided by the publisher, William Heinemann, for review.

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Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

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When anything can be owned, how can we be free

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
~~~~~
Autonomous is one of those books which seems to be everywhere on social media, getting buzz and hype from everyone; Annalee Newitz herself was the founding editor of io9, so knows her geek culture, and is now tech-culture editor at Ars Technica, so she knows her science geek culture at that. But does she know about writing a novel…?

Before we go any further, Autonomous deserves praise for the style in which Newitz wrote it. This is cyberpunk thriller written for the 21st century; it’s driving, pacey, but not affectless or baroque, with emotionality bleeding through the text. The novel contains serial worldbuilding sections, but none too lengthy, and they all feel well integrated into the text; at times a little heavy-handed and a little too detailed, but on the whole, supporting the plot rather than being supported by it. Autonomous is written in close-third person, from a number of different perspectives, and each one is distinct and different, with different motivators; there is a slightly flat Americanness to all of them, but they are least easily distinguished.

Having said that, Autonomous is far from perfect. The plot is rather conventional thriller territory, right down to the ending, which one can see from rather far away; the race between heavy-handed state investigators and plucky infopirates to release information damaging to government-affiliated megacorporations isn’t exactly innovative. Nor, for that matter, are the subplots; Newitz writes with sympathy about the bot Paladin gaining a sense of self and others, but it’s again, not breaking new ground, and nor do the rather heavy-handed messages about out-of-control capitalism.

The characters are similarly drawn from previous works; Autonomous trades on pre-existing archetypes quite solidly, from the repressed Eastern European former Catholic Eliasz, now an agent of the IPC, to the pirate Jack with her heart of gold and desire to help other people. These characters are undoubtedly well drawn and written in a sympathetic way, but they’re nothing new to the reader; Newitz has less revitalised an old formula than simply regurgitated it.

This falls flattest around the questions raised by the novel’s title, Autonomous. It’s the characters whose actions are most obviously limited by questions of autonomy who are simultaneously the most new, and the least so. Paladin, for instance, the military spec robot, reads like virtually every other sentience coming into themselves; that she chooses to use a feminine pronoun rather than a neutral one, despite actively thinking about the fact robots don’t really have gender, is rather less interesting or exciting than Newitz seems to think. Threezed is at least a little more interesting, with his bitterness at the system and actions almost programmed; Autonomous gives, towards the end of the book, his perspective on events that transpired with Jack early in the book, and the contrast is quite fascinating, if also very incongruous.

Where the book falls down hardest, though, is its treatment of violence. Autonomous treats its first instances of violence very heavily and seriously; they are meaningful and important, and feel weighty, having continuing impacts on both plot and characters as the novel goes on. However, future violent outbursts seem far less impactful; there are multiple instances when characters torture others for information, and Newitz treats this incredibly lightly, with no seeming impact on those doing the torture, no second thoughts, or alternative paths seen as options. In the hands of a writer more prepared to engage with what that might imply, this could have been interesting; as it was, it just frustrated.

In sum, while Autonomous is intensely readable, and while the worldbuilding is detailed and fascinating, the actual novel, as a plot and set of characters, is distinctly lacking.

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You Should Have Left. by Daniel Kehlmann, trans Ross Benjamin

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On retreat in the wintry Alps with his family, a writer is optimistic about completing the sequel to his breakthrough film. Nothing to disturb him except the wind whispering around their glassy house. The perfect place to focus.

Intruding on that peace of mind, the demands of his four-year-old daughter splinter open long-simmering arguments with his wife. I love her, he writes in the notebook intended for his script. Why do we fight all the time?

Guilt and expectation strain at his concentration, and strain, too, at the walls of the house. They warp under his watch; at night, looking through the window, he sees impossible reflections on the snow outside.

Then the words start to appear in his notebook; the words he didn’t write.

Familiar and forbidding by turns, this is an electrifying experiment in form by one of Europe’s boldest writers. The ordinary struggles of a marriage transform, in Kehlmann’s hands, into a twisted fable that stays darkly in the mind.
~~~~~
Literary turns at horror are an interesting beast; some people, like Michelle Paver, get it absolutely right, whereas others end up writing subpar horror and subpar literature at the same time. So with the imprimatur of authors like Jonathan Franzen behind it, and a brilliantly simple cover, I was curious to see what the German novella You Should Have Left. would be like…

At the start of the book, Kahlmann proceeds as if this were just ordinary literary fiction; a blocked screenwriter and his former actress wife take their four year old daughter to a lodge in the mountains to retreat from the distractions of life while he writes a new screenplay. The book itself is the notes, a mixture of diary and screenplay, the nameless husband is making. The domestic tensions are all there, from the disinterest of the wife and the little squabbles between the spouses to the frustration of trying to care for a child; You Should Have Left starts in a very mundane way, leavened more than anything else by the snatches of screenplay we see, which look like a fascinating what-next romcom sequel about growing up and domestic dissatisfaction.

However, Kahlmann slowly builds up the weirder elements; from the odd warnings villagers the nameless narrator encounters, to the dreamlike nightmares and visions of the narrator, You Should Have Left leaves the realm of the mimetic and enters a slightly sidewards realm, with the cliches of horror the signposts to what is to come. What raises the book above those cliches at this stage is the way the writing breaks up, at moments; things like “Get away” are interspersed in ordinary narrative, and the writer of the book keeps breaking off the narrative only to return and explain the odd event that caused him to stop writing mid-sentence. It’s very artistically done, and does create a kind of mingling of reality and unreality; none of the events at this stage are necessarily external to the narrator’s own mind, after all.

When it ramps up the horror is when Kahlmann is perhaps weakest, although also most innovative. You Should Have Left bends and plays with reality, and the way the characters are trapped in the rented lodge is dark and powerful; however, the constant seeking for a cosmic metaphor, or one based in quantum physics, for the entrapment feels forced and unnatural from the narrator. Furthermore, Kahlmann can’t quite seem to decide if the ennui of the fear or actual terror at the impossibilities going on are the emotion he wants to convey and make readers feel; at times it seems almost like he thinks one leads to the other, and thus neither really lands.

You Should Have Left. is an interesting little book, and a good approach to melding literary and horror fictions, but in the end, Kahlmann is far better at the literary than the horror, and leans too much on the latter for the former to really shine.

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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, trans Sian Reynolds

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Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of all this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects found within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.
~~~~~
Crime novels usually work to a formula of death; and detectives, increasingly, fall into one of a few archetypes – the Sherlock Holmes derived one, say, or the Rebus derived one. The Chalk Circle Man intriguingly suggests, in its blurb, that it falls into neither of these formulae; so, to test that, I picked a copy up…

The Chalk Circle Man is an odd novel; it starts off in a very low key way, with portraits of its different viewpoint characters, each of whom doesn’t quite fit into society or their role in it in the expected way. Commissionaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is the principal investigator of the novel, but he’s a rather unusual character: not the driven, hard-bitten officer you expect, but quite a vague, unfocused, gently meandering person. He tends to be late, and do unexpected things, and Vargas doesn’t try to make that seem like part of a process, but instead makes it clear how little process he has – but how much his subconscious works away anyway; he’s a rather beautiful riposte to the focused detectives who know exactly what they’re doing of much contemporary fiction. The Chalk Circle Man gives us a contrast to this approach to policework; Danglard, alcoholic single parent to five children who look after him as he looks after them, is a wonderfully sympathetically written character, incredibly sharp and intelligent but at the same time far more wary of supposition in a way that stops him making intuitive leaps.

Outside the police force, the principal character is Mathilde Forestier, piscine scientist. She has a different odd take on the world, and doesn’t feel at peace with it or a part of it; her way of dealing with humanity is to stand outside it and observe, and thus she is drawn into a complex tangled web of people who all connect, in various strange ways, to the chalk circle man himself. Charles Reyer, her boarder who flirts with her, is one of the most interesting portrayals by a sighted person of a blind character I’ve ever read; The Chalk Circle Man isn’t sympathetic to him, because he doesn’t need or want sympathy, but expresses his anger at the rest of the world brilliantly, and the way he relates to people through the prism of his loss of sight as an adult.

This is a very tightly focused novel, in terms of characters; The Chalk Circle Man takes place in Paris, but apart from the four viewpoint characters, there are a handful of police, a couple of witnesses, and a few other incidental characters who make up the entire cast. It’s a very dense book in the way characters cross over with each other, and the secondary cast are rounded out with little details; Vargas never lets the reader forget that it isn’t the person the reader knows, only the person filtered through the perspective of whoever we’re following in close third at that moment.

A crime novel has to be more than just a cast. The Chalk Circle Man is perhaps at its best before any murders have happened; the weirdness of the chalk circles make an intriguing and strange plot, as their nonsensical nature and the apparently unfounded interest Adamsberg takes in them – and thus requires his team to take in them – create only more confusion. The lack of a focal point for every character at once, and the different reactions of the characters to events whose interpretation can vary so widely, are brilliant. When the murders start, Vargas loses much of the almost listless focuslessness of the early novel, a kind of drift through events that was beautiful to read and experience; now, things are more focused, and the characters stop being able to simply interact, everything happening through the specific focus of the murders.

The resolution of the plot, the identity of the murderer, is one of the least convincing parts of the book. While Vargas laid down her clues throughout The Chalk Circle Man, and puts them together in a very formulaic way, it is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion, taking the strangeness and existential weirdness and lack of focus of the rest of the novel and suddenly grounding it. Everything suddenly shifts to be much more quotidian, and much less interesting; the meandering, while all making sense in a different light, becomes all much more pointed and purposeful in retrospect.

The Chalk Circle Man is beautiful, and strange; I just wish Vargas hadn’t wanted to write something with a resolution like any other crime novel, because the gentleness and almost-ennui of the start were what really made this stand head and shoulders above most of the genre.

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Hadriana In All My Dreams by René Depestre, trans. Kaiama L. Glover

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Hadriana in All My Dreams, winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, takes place primarily during Carnival in 1938 in the Haitian village of Jacmel. A beautiful young French woman, Hadriana, is about to marry a Haitian boy from a prominent family. But on the morning of the wedding, Hadriana drinks a mysterious potion and collapses at the altar. Transformed into a zombie, her wedding becomes her funeral. She is buried by the town, revived by an evil sorcerer, then disappears into popular legend.

Set against a backdrop of magic and eroticism, and recounted with delirious humor, the novel raises universal questions about race and sexuality. The reader comes away enchanted by the marvelous reality of Haiti’s Vodou culture and convinced of Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings—even the undead ones—have a right to happiness and true love.
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I learned about Hadriana In All My Dreams from the wonderful Bogi Takács; eir monthly Diverse Book Highlights on eir blog and Patreon are incredibly useful, and e brings to my attention all kinds of books I wouldn’t otherwise find out about – including, much earlier this year, this particular Haitian text, translated into English almost thirty years after its original French publication.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a novel in three parts, and each part has a different narratorial voice and approach, but they combine to a whole. The first part is the story, told by Patrick Altamont from his perspective as a child, of Hadriana’s wedding day and funeral. It has a childlike innocence to it, although there is still an eroticism and sexuality shot through the celebrations; but its the eroticism of a person who hasn’t had sex, who idealises it without really understanding it. Depestre’s use of stories in this section is especially fascinating; as well as telling a chronological story, there are nested stories told by other characters to Patrick and to each other, which explain in mythological terms the events being witnessed or that contextualise things in historical terms. The fact that the stories have a different narrative voice to Patrick’s in this first section is powerful, and really shows them as recounted from the voices of others.

The second, brief section of Hadriana In All My Dreams is of an older Patrick, looking back on the suppressed memory of Hadriana’s death and apparent zombification; this is the most varied section in terms of style. Depestre includes an academic argument, albeit with vulgar language, a newspaper report in the style of a travel puff piece, and an imagined interview with a journalist, as well as more traditional narrative forms; the mingling of these registers serves as a fantastic bridge away from the simple narrative of the first half, centring external perceptions of what happened to Hadriana, even while trying to fit them into theory. This is also the part which is most referential; authorities from Levi-Strauss to Fanon and de Beauvoir are quoted, although there is also a sardonic undercutting of the theoretical, as Depestre’s narrator wonders where the place of an individual is in the midst of theoretical discourse.

The final section is where we see a real shift in Hadriana In All My Dreams, from Patrick’s narrative to Hadriana’s own. Depestre moves us from an external experience of zombification, and of the funereal rites, to an internal one; from a participant and celebrant to an unparticipating focus. This subjective shift is achieved with fantastic style, and comes with a slightly more free-ranging narrative; built into this section are dreams and recollections, telling stories within stories and contradicting the stories others are telling about Hadriana. There is also an interesting shift of sexuality; whereas Patrick’s sexuality in the first two sections is essentially adolescent, Hadriana’s is much more adult, although largely unexpressed apart from gropings and one particular encounter with another woman.

The way Depestre, and in her translation Kaiama L. Glover, use language is incredibly effective. Each section has a slightly different dialect and voice, and they’re consistent with their sections, calling to mind a slightly different image of the narrator; and Hadriana In All My Dreams flows incredibly well, with an attention to important details that really vividly bring Jacmel to life and the characters of the book to a loud reality. The one place where Glover, perhaps reflecting Depestre, hits some strange snags is in the approach to genitalia; this feels clunky in its figurativeness, and the language used trips the mind up rather than flowing as part of the text, in a strange way.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is an interesting novel, and unusually resonant for a zombie novel. Zombies are, of course, famously versatile metaphors, whether for consumerism or faceless foreign immigrants one is allowed to kill; here, though, zombification isn’t a metaphor, but a literal truth, around which other things are thrown into focus. Depestre doesn’t write about zombies with horror but rather with a kind of wistfulness for the impact of the zombification; Jacmel is changed utterly by Hadriana’s story, as social divisions over religion, race, and culture are thrown into stark contrast, and that is where the interest of the narrative lies.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a beautiful, elegaic novel full of life; a zombie novel, but not like any other zombie novel I’ve read. It’s good to see Depestre’s brilliant book has finally made it into English, and I hope it’ll lead to more translations to come.

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A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

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I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.
~~~~~
Folklore and mythology have always been fertile ground for genre fiction; Joanne Harris herself, with an added Iain Banks-style M., has previously touched on the Norse sagas in novels like Runelight and The Gospel of Loki. Now, though, she’s turned her sights to a mythology far more rarely treated in fiction: that of the Child Ballads, in this case, specifically Child Ballad 295…

Harris’ novella retelling the story of that Ballad is focused, as is the ballad itself, on the wronged woman at its heart; the “brown girl” of the title. In A Pocketful of Crows, Harris makes this titular woman a witch, a member of the “travelling folk” who can take on the form of animals and do certain magic. She falls in love with a local lord’s son, William McCormac. This fall is precipitous and extreme; Harris writes sympathetically and with a lot of heart about the way our protagonist slowly realises how deep her attachment to William is, and the way her denial of it slowly falls away, over the course of a series of months; and the way he slowly accepts her and draws her in, tempting her into the human society he is a part of and naming her Malmuira. As a result of this, she loses her powers, and Harris writes about the trade off of magic for love with a real beauty; it’s heart-wrenching but worthwhile for the protagonist, even as she regrets the loss.

Of course, this can’t continue; A Pocketful of Crows isn’t a romance, after all. Instead, William casts aside Malmuira on the orders of his father, as an unsuitable partner; at which point Harris’ narrative takes on a colder, crueler turn, as she seeks to regain her old powers and freedoms. This takes up the latter two thirds of the book, as the woman who was nameless then named Malmuira frees herself from the tangle of human concerns involved in loving William; it’s a dark series of events, and Harris revels in that darkness, really giving it weight and heft. However, A Pocketful of Crows doesn’t just delve into the darkness; it contrasts that with the way its protagonist finds her freedom through this darkness, and how she returns to herself rather than the person tangled up with William. The way Harris ties these two narratives strands together, and then slips a third brilliant twist in right at the close of the novella, is absolutely brilliantly crafted.

This section, the latter two thirds of the novella, contains both the most beautiful writing in A Pocketful of Crows, and also some of the least effective. The darkness and frustration of the protagonist is powerfully evocative, and the way Harris calls the passing seasons and changing world to mind brilliantly and with a real sensorium. However, it can also drags a little; scenes feel repetitive as nothing happens or changes, and as we experience slight variations on the same events time and again, losing some of the edge of the book.

Throughout the story is a theme of identity as mediated not by the individual, but by the way the individual is perceived; as Malmuira’s identity in the public perception shifts and warps from William’s bit on the side to an evil witch, the character herself finds herself freer of human society and the constraints it imposed on her powers. A Pocketful of Crows is deeply concerned with the idea of the mutability of stories; the way Christianity is overlaid on old folk beliefs, the way fear of witches can develop and be fostered, and the way stories change are all things that Harris doesn’t foreground so much as allow the reader to glimpse the importance of as she tells this dark tale.

The big flaw in the novella is the way it carries certain racist tropes from its inspiration. A Pocketful of Crows is based on a Child Ballad, which carried tropes about mystical Travellers and magical dark skinned people. While Harris makes her brown girl into a non-human being, solitary and isolated, a truly magical witch rather than a Romani person, there is still a hint of the way much Western literature caricatures the Romani people in there, perhaps inescapably.

In the end, though, A Pocketful of Crows is a dark tale, and a savage one, and a beautiful one; Harris really shows what she can do with the short form in this little novella.

Disclaimer: Joanne Harris is a friend. This review was based an ARC, without illustrations, provided by the publisher, Gollancz. An event to launch the novella will be held at Waterstones Argyle Street, my place of work, on October 18th.

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Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone

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The God Wars destroyed the city of Alikand. Agdel Lex has risen in its place. Dead deities litter the surrounding desert and a squidlike tower dominates the skyline—while treasure seekers, criminals, angels, demons, dispossessed knights, grad students, and other fools gather in its ever-changing alleys, hungry for the next big score.

Kai Pohala (last seen in Full Fathom Five) finds her estranged sister, Ley, at the center of a shadowy and rapidly unravelling business deal. When Ley goes on the run, wanted for a crime she most definitely committed, Kai races against time to track her down. But Ley has her own plans, involving her ex-girlfriend, a daring heist out in the god-haunted desert, and, perhaps, freedom for an occupied city.
~~~~~
The Craft Sequence was nominated for the Hugo Awards for Best Series in 2017, for the nonchronological block of five novels that came out between 2012 and 2016. Now, dumping the numerical titles and for the first time releasing a book in immediate chronological succession from that which came before, Max Gladstone returns with Ruin of Angels

The Craft sequence has always been concerned with economics, with poverty, with religion, with imperialism and empire, with ideas of reality. Ruin of Angels engages with those concepts once again, fiercely; recalling the issues at the centre of Last First Snow, Gladstone draws the reader once again into a world where two different conceptions of reality and how the world should be are locked in a cold war, and something is about to give… Unlike that earlier novel, here, there literally are multiple layers of city; Ruin of Angels recalls China Mieville’s The City and the City, where the practice of knowing which city one inhabits is intensely political. The imperial authority of the Iskari believes in a specific kind of city, Agdel Lex, orderly, regimented, a planned urban metropolis of grids and wide roads, bordering a desert; and in the chaos of the God Wars, it implemented this vision on top of the city of Alikand, leaving that more organically evolved city of libraries in a kind of limbo between existence and not. The way Gladstone plays with these levels of realities, and the way the Iskari use the Rectification Authority (or Wreckers) to enforce their view of the city, feels almost Lovecraftian; certainly the tentacular symbiotes have something of that in their DNA.

Which city you inhabit at any time, which city you believe in, is a political act, and slipping between the realities of the two is a useful criminal survival skill; Ruin of Angels is in many ways a heist novel, or rather a series-of-heists novels, as various characters, most notably Ley and Kai, get in each others’ ways and ruin each others’ plans with the best of intentions. Indeed, Gladstone really captures the sibling rivalry between the two; the relationship between the sisters is at the core of much of what propels and prolongs the plot, as personal and political get entangled and miscommunication and noncommunication lead to disaster. That isn’t to say the plot is necessarily overlong; the way Gladstone propels it, with all its twists and turns, keeps the reader thoroughly engaged in Ruin of Angels, and wondering what happens, although perhaps with a few too many novel-prolonging jumps of point of view and obstacles thrown in. The biggest flaw it suffers comes from Ley’s character; like all heists, it relies on sleight of hand, the problem being that what Ley conceals from those around her, and Gladstone from the reader, raises the stakes of the novel dramatically as it draws to its close and seems to come slightly from nowhere.

Gladstone is always a fantastic character writer, and Ruin of Angels is no exception; that’s the greatest strength of the book, in fact. Kai, who we have met before in Full Fathom Five, sees her character fleshed out more, her realisation of her privileged background really being driven home and the trauma of the events of that novel driven home; Tara likewise continues her development from the hard, cold Craftswoman to someone who really cares and is engaged in a project of improving the world.

The rest of the cast are new, and make a fantastic set of points of view; Ley’s utter determination and refusal to open up to anyone else, to make herself vulnerable, are shown as both strength and weakness, and not the full extent of her character, while her former lover Zeddig is a brilliant, sharp, witty, committed woman who isn’t sure how to feel about her old partner, and gets caught up anyway. Relationships and their complexities are one of the hearts of Ruin of Angels; the way Gal and Raymet dance around their feelings is almost soap operatic in the way it is prolonged, and the way Gladstone uses their contrasting personalities to set up a beautiful romance pays off fantastically. Even the lesser characters who people Ruin of Angels are vividly written, from the vile agent of the Iskari, Bescond, to the perpetually high investments manager Fontaine, through the trans space-start-up ultra-rich visionary futurist (yes, Gladstone put Elon Musk in his novel… and made him trans); more than just broad brushstrokes, Gladstone gives them full personalities, in part by hinting at them around the edges of those strokes.

This number of characters introduces another innovation for the Craft Sequence to Ruin of Angels; in a book of less than six hundred pages, there are nearly eighty chapters, and each one is from the point of view of a different character, in some cases multiple characters. This is vitally important in giving us different perspectives on the events of the novel, and indeed the characters, at earlier stages; seeing how Kai and Zeddig see each other, for instance, is a wonderful piece of writing. However, especially as the action gets faster and Ruin of Angels moves towards its climax, it gets rather choppy and draws out the action and cliffhangers in a way that moves from powerful towards frustrating as Gladstone barely gives full scenes before cutting away.

Ruin of Angels marks something of a break for the Craft Sequence: less economic in scope, more concerned with naked power; more head-hopping and with a larger cast. But it still has the same essentially hopeful tone, the same flashes of brilliant humour, and the same excellence as ever; I highly commend Max Gladstone’s work to you, and think this continues the series in exceptional form.

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