BooksOfTheMoon

Dark Fire (Shardlake Series)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s 1540 and Matthew Shardlake finds himself defending a teenage girl accused of the murder of her young cousin. This act brings him back to the attention of Thomas Cromwell, who commissions Shardlake to find two missing men, who claim to have the secret of Greek Fire (an ancient incendiary weapon used by the Byzantines; something like napalm), before a promised demonstration before the king in a fortnight. As Shardlake delves into the matter, he finds himself getting tangled deeper into a conspiracy that leads to the highest levels of society.

When we first met Matthew Shardlake, in Dissolution, he was fervent reformer (sorry, Reformer), with the zeal of breaking away from the Catholic church running through him. The events of that book got shot of that and while he doesn’t wish for a return to Rome, he sees the terrible things that Cromwell has done in the name of Reform and finds it wanting.

I was hoping that the theological arguments would have been left behind in the first book, but they weren’t. For all that the theology is conjoined with politics (when is it not?), I find it a fundamentally uninteresting discussion – the more so when it so deeply affects people. Shardlake’s friend and fellow barrister loses his job because he disagrees with the currently ascendant Duke of Norfolk on the matter, and he got off lightly: others are burned at the stake.

I kept wondering why I didn’t find this as annoying when I read the Baroque Cycle a few months ago, and although the faith of the monarch was pivotal to events there, it didn’t drive the rest of the plot. Also, at that point, state killing over theology was mostly done. It was pure politics and machinations, whereas in this period, a hundred years before the Enlightenment, a difference of theology leads directly to barbaric deaths. I just find that distasteful, and not something I want to read about, even indirectly.

The plot regarding Greek Fire is quite interesting although since we know that Europeans didn’t have it, we know it’s somehow going to not be a thing. The solution to that is pretty neat and works well. The other plot, with the accused girl, is also pretty interesting. Once again, we’re reminded about how bad prison conditions were, and how badly people with mental health problems were treated in the period.

After being abandoned by his assistant in the last book, this time Shardlake is saddled with one – Cromwell has Jack Barak work on the case with Shardlake. And Barak is not an easy character to like. He’s rude, opinionated and often ill-informed. But the author goes to lengths to soften those edges, pointing out that his bluster is often to hide his feelings. Maybe, but he’s still very often, as he likes to call almost everyone he meets, an arsehole.

So an overall good mystery, and I did learn something I hadn’t known before about the Duke of Norfolk and his manipulation of the king into marrying Catherine Howard. Since I was finding myself checking how much more book I still had to go, I still don’t think I’ll read any more of the series though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781743030875

Snuff (Discworld, #39)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

At the insistence of his wife, Commander Vimes reluctantly agrees to take a holiday with his family to the country. Of course, as everyone knows, a policeman can’t get his suitcase unpacked before there’s a crime that demands to be solved. And the crimes here are so big that the law can’t keep up.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve not been hugely fond of the later Discworld books, but this one was remarkably fun. Vimes might be getting on a bit, but he’s still practically vibrating with righteous anger. He’s very different from the Vimes we met way back in Guards! Guards!, and now struggles to find somewhere to point his class angst, given that he’s joined the very class that he once railed against. He has, to some degree, come to terms with the fact that he now moves in vaulted circles and his word causes tremors in the money markets as much as to the criminal classes.

It’s fun watching Vimes be Vimes, running around being cleverer than his enemies think he is, but his utter confidence, and, I suppose, that of the author, in the police and the law, is… well, a bit less self-evident than once it was. And he spends a lot of time bullying and steamrollering people around him, leveraging his position and his wealth to do so. And yet, when the crime is as awful as what goes on here, you’re cheering Vimes on all the way.

The goblins are interesting as well. Even in a city as diverse as Ankh-Morpork, they’re vilified, and as for the country, where They Do Things Differently, well, let’s just say that Vimes is justified in getting angry. In the city, when Angua and Carrot find a goblin to talk to, they find an eager second generation immigrant, wanting nothing more than to put his own heritage behind him in the name of fitting in and making his way in the world as it is. That’s sad, but also something that I can sympathise with, and relate to.

It’s nice to read a book where the police are the good guys, always standing up for justice, without being beholden to power or money. I guess that’s one of the points of fiction – to show us a better world. Maybe one day, our real-world police forces, whether that’s in London, Minneapolis or Glasgow will be equal to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552166751
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2012

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s a time of turmoil in England, as Henry VIII has declared himself absolute head of the Church, and his minister Thomas Cromwell wields much power. One of his commissioners, sent to a monastery, is murdered and Cromwell sends the lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.

The author has impeccable historical credentials, and the world that he creates is very believable. The people live in fear as Reform is in full swing and they are afraid of saying the wrong thing in sight of the wrong person. Matthew is an idealist, and a bit of a zealot, believing full well in the new ways. His investigations, however, reveal more than he would like, and his journey is very much the core of the book. The murder mystery is interesting; in many ways a classic format, as the monastery is isolated, and it’s midwinter, meaning that it must have been someone from the inside that carried it out, and Shardlake has to investigate the histories of all the senior monks, many of whom have their own secrets to hide. Shardlake’s assistant, the young Mark Poer, is as idealistic as his master, but in a different way. He sees the corruption at the heart of the regime, and despises it, leading to conflict between the two men.

The weakest part of the book for me were the religious aspects. As someone who isn’t a believer, and who never grew up in the Christian tradition, the question around the English Reformation has always seemed to me to be more about Henry’s desire to chase some flesh than anything substantial in doctrine. I found the arguments between Shardlake and the monks tedious, and the former mostly seemed to use his position as Cromwell’s commissioner to bully and harass the monks with, not that I had much sympathy for many of them – the corruption of the monasteries was no myth.

The most sympathetic of the inhabitants of the monastery are the outsiders: Brother Guy, the Spanish Moor who is their physician; his assistant Alice, a young women among men whose vow of chastity isn’t as always strong as it should be; and Brother Gabriel, a gay man who finds his passions hard to control. I was also surprised by how accepting the others were about that last. Don’t get me wrong, they thought it was awful, but also that it was something that just happened, sometimes.

So overall, a well-written, and well-researched historical crime story. The resolution to the mystery did depend on knowledge that was hidden from the reader, I’m not sure if we could have guessed it before the reveal, or if that’s just my inability to spot a twist coming. I wasn’t a fan of the religious aspects, but I liked both the history and the crime aspects of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330450799
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2007

False Value (Rivers of London #8)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

Following the dramatic events at the end of the last book, Peter is nominally still suspended, but with fatherhood impending, he needs a job, so he joins security for the Serious Cybernetics Corporation, a new startup by one of the less-flashy silicon valley tech bros. Peter settles down fairly quickly, but soon realises that there’s something strange, and possibly magical, going on up on the top floor of the building.

It’s odd seeing Peter outwith the support network of the Met, but he’s still got his informal network to rely on, and he’s now moved in with Beverley. The police are still very much involved, and Nightingale, Guleed et al make their appearances.

Spoiler
And, of course, it only lasts long enough to tell us that Peter’s currently working under cover.

As others have noted, there’s an awful lot of Hitchhikers’ references in this book, but while others found it irritating, it seems to me that it’s appropriately over the top for a silicon valley tech startup that’s wanting to appear to be “hip” and “cool” (for nerdy values of “hip” and “cool”).

This book finds Peter more aware of Beverley’s status as a goddess, and getting a bit worried by things that happen around her, and the actions that she feels she needs to take. Maksim, for example, until now, has mostly been played for humour, but Peter’s now worrying about free will and whether it’s ethical for Bev to put her influence over him, and others she comes into contact with. It’s not easy dating a deity, and it’ll be interesting to see where this goes in future volumes.

No Lesley May in this one, but the magical world has been expanded again, this time with more details of American magic, and especially the Librarians (no, not those Librarians). There’s also been some seeds planted for the future, and possibly a new nemesis coming up.

All in all, a worthy entry to the canon. But you can’t just drop in the suggestion that the London Underground possible has its own genius loci and then walk away like that. I’m outraged. Outraged, I tell you!

Book details

ISBN: 9781473229761

Grandville Force Majeure (Grandville, #5)

By Bryan Talbot

Rating: 4 stars

The fifth, and final, instalment in DI LeBrock’s adventures is a bit of a corker. Framed for murder and on the run from his colleagues, he’s got to solve the murder, deal with the gangster Tiberius Koenig, who wants to bring London into his criminal empire, and save his family, all while being pursued by his own mentor, the Holmesian retired DCI Stamford Hawksmoor.

The story trots along at a good pace, and although the last quarter or so is wrapped in plastic, as an anti-spoiler mechanism, I figured out most of the big twists in advance (and on that, in my considered opinion, the idea of Roderick Ratzi selling out LeBrock is the most unbelievable thing in the whole series. And this is a series with steampunk Zeppelins, crazy red dinosaurs, and sexy anthropomorphic prostitute badgers) but it was still fun taking the journey. There are some great one-liners and mad mob-boss Koenig steals every scene he’s in.

The art is, once again, amazing. Talbot goes into the process a little in his piece at the end of the book, and part of the explanation as to why this is will be the last Grandville book is that each page would take 3-4 days to complete, which just isn’t long term commercially viable. The usual warning regarding the art applies though. Although it’s quite cartoony looking, and there are talking animals, this is a violent book, with adult themes that is very definitely not suitable for children.

At some point now, I think I need to go back and re-read the whole series in quick succession, to get a clearer feel for the characters and the overall plot, but this was a highly enjoyable conclusion to a highly enjoyable series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910702246
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year of publication: 2017

Rule 34 (Halting State, #2)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 3 stars

DI Liz Kavanaugh is head of the Rule 34 squad, a sort of punishment for something that went wrong several years ago. It’s up to her and hers to police internet porn in an independent Scotland. Anwar Hussein was a small-time Internet fraudster who’s spent time behind bars and is trying to go straight, for the sake of his family. The Toymaker is wondering who’s killing all the folk he’s trying to recruit to his large scale organised crime Operation.

Like its predecessor, Halting State this book is told entirely in the second person, a technique that I’ve never been very fond of, but there are solid reasons for that in this book, as Stross sets out in the crib sheet for the book on his blog (note: obviously spoilers at that link!). And I got used to it as well; I think it feels most icky when we’re in the head of the gangster, the Toymaker, who’s creepy as all hell.

For me, this book is at its strongest when it’s doing the police procedural thing, with lots of cool future-tech extrapolated from the early 21st century. At times, though, the pace of new ideas being thrown at you gets a little overwhelming (it feels a bit like Cory Doctorow at times) when the ideas outpace the story. Mostly, though, Stross keeps a handle on that and the book is certainly thought-provoking, not least in its ideas on different kinds of AI.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841497730
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2011

The Tea Master and the Detective

By Aliette de Bodard

Rating: 4 stars

I’d heard a lot of good things about this gender-swapped Holmes and Watson in space. However, in amongst that, nobody thought to mention that “Watson” is actually a mindship; a biological person, but wrapped into a starship shell close to birth and genetically engineered to live longer and fit into that system. It sort of reminded me of Anne McCaffrey’s Brain/Brawn books. Like Watson, The Shadow’s Child is traumatised, although moreso than Watson ever was, and Long Chau, the consulting detective that she partners with, is more abrasive (and drug addicted) than Holmes (even the Benedict Cumberbatch version) ever was.

I enjoyed the story a lot. I’ve read other short fiction set in the same universe, but this grabbed me more than any of them. While I found Long Chau extremely irritating, as a character she’s marvellous, and I really want to read more about her and about The Shadow’s Child. The universe is very interesting as well, and although I didn’t really understand the “deep space” that left The Shadow’s Child so traumatised, I want to find out more.

The fact that it’s a novella means that the story is pared back, and I would love to see a longer piece, to let the protagonists just be for a bit, and give a bit of space to the background as well. (Also, being a novella, the paper versions are priced around the same as a full-length novel, although the ebook version is cheaper).

So can we get a full-length novel? Pretty please? With sugar on top?

Book details

Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency
Year of publication: 2018

Lies Sleeping (Peter Grant, #7)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

Martin Chorley, aka the Faceless Man, has been unmasked and is on the run, with the full force of the Metropolitan Police bearing down on him. But he still dreams big and Peter Grant and the team have to bring him down before his plans, somehow involving the malevolent spirit Mr Punch, come to fruition.

Blimey, I missed Peter Grant! I know I always go on in my reviews of the comics about how much I miss Peter’s narrative voice, but I’d forgotten just how much I’d missed it until I got a full length novel again. And what a novel. The momentum behind the Faceless Man plot has been building for some time, and this is the payoff. Aaronovitch balances action and character very well as we get reacquainted with old friends (Nightingale, Guleed, Molly all present and correct) as well as new ones. Abigail is getting more screen time as she’s becoming the Folly’s resident archivist and librarian. Peter and Nightingale are keeping her out of the front line for now, but it’s only a matter of time before she gets in over her head (and I can’t wait to see how she gets herself out of it!).

There’s a good depth of research that’s gone into this, mixing up Saxon, Roman and ancient British history and myth and pulling them together into a cohesive story that’s a lot of fun to read. The various relationships all rub along nicely. Nightingale and Peter; Peter and Beverly; and, of course, Peter and Lesley. Their frenemy relationship has felt like the core of the books for some time now and this volume just adds more depth and complexity. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go from here.

My edition also came with the short story Favourite Uncle at the end. This is a fun little story, narrated by Abigail, set at Christmas about some of those activities on the side that she doesn’t tell Peter and Nightingale about.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473207813
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2018

Peril at End House (Hercule Poirot #8)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 3 stars

A retired Hercule Poirot is on holiday with his faithful friend Captain Hastings when he makes the acquaintance of a young lady whose accidents around the town seem to be more than just accidents.

It seems to me that Christie was having some fun at the expense of M. Poirot in this novel. She pokes sly fun at his vanity and arrogance, but with a fondness that I found quite endearing. Despite his high opinion of himself, he’s often confused and stumped, and more than once is set on the right track by his faithful Hastings.

It was an interesting choice at the end to have Poirot guess that Nick intends to kill herself but to make no move to stop it. He plays fast and loose like this in other books too and it’s a reminder that he’s definitely not the police but a private individual with his own moral code. I sort of hope that the young Mr Vyse who leaves in a hurry at the end is off to go and stop her.

I always gamely try to figure out whodunnit and I rarely get it. This time was no exception. Right up to the end, I had no clue, although once it’s revealed, the clues were all there. There’s a lot of clever misdirection going on that totally threw me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006138938
Publisher: Fontana
Year of publication: 1932

The Furthest Station (Peter Grant, #5.5)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 3 stars

While I’ve been wanting more written Peter Grant for a while now, and while this novella was fun, it didn’t entirely fill the gap. It’s a story about ghosts on the Underground, ghosts whose message may be a matter of life and death. But it just felt a little slight to me. This could have been expanded to be a whole novel, there’s plenty of ideas here, and the compressed format didn’t really give Peter a chance to shine.

I’m moaning here, but it was still fun. Peter’s voice is still there and is still a lot of fun. Perhaps a bit lighter on the pop culture references than of late, and lacking the acerbic wit of DC Guleed to bounce off, but still there and still Peter. I’ll be interested to see what happens with Abigail, who’s already an intern at the Folly here, and it looks like she may become more later.

Book details

Publisher: Orion
Year of publication: 2017

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