The most satisfying recent book I’ve read was Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett. I’m so incredibly bored of conventional fantasy novels, but I’m not particularly interested in most “urban fantasy” either. I can pretty much begin and end my interest in the genre with Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels, in fact. So I was glad to stumble across the Angry Robot Books dump recently, because an entire publishing line of idiosyncratic fantasy and sci-fi novels is extremely welcome at the moment. Abnett’s book is essentially an alternate history fantasy, taking as its departure point the unification of the British and Spanish Empires during the Elizabethan age, which coincidentally led to the adoption of magic as the fundamental technology of the empire. This combination of factors has led to a social stagnation, so that even though the book takes place in 2010, politically, culturally and scientifically the world is still rooted in the Renaissance. Except for Australia, which developed a scientifically advanced society thanks to remaining undiscovered until just recently. The discoverer of Australia is Rupert Triumff, rogue and adventurer, who has returned to England determined to keep Australia undisturbed from the unified forces of the English army and church and finds himself caught up in a plot to assassinate the Queen and restore Spain to independence.
Abnett’s writing is fast-paced and engaging, and funny when it needs to be. The lead is entertaining and likable, but still has enough flaws to be believable as a somewhat disreputable figure. There are points where the plot meanders a bit, focusing on secondary characters that don’t contribute much to the story, and this may be explained by the strong suggestion late in the book that this is the first of an intended series. Despite that, though, it’s fun, and a welcome change from the overwhelming sameness dominating the shelves in the fantasy sections.
I also read the latest Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth book in the cycle of stories focusing on apprentice witch Tiffany Aching. It’s a more or less satisfying conclusion to Tiffany’s story, with all the major plot threads from previous books tied up, but there’s something slightly frustrating about it. A recurring theme of Pratchett’s witch books is that people are, fundamentally, stupid, and this is a root cause of most evil. The villain here is that human stupidity both writ large and personified in a disembodied spirit known as the Cunning Man, a sort of antithesis to Pratchett’s witches. It’s a largely passive villain, and as a consequence the anti-witch feelings he stirs up feel too artificial a threat to be any real danger to Tiffany or the other witches. Tiffany’s triumph over him should be more thrilling than it is. But in the end, everyone gets what they need, if not what they deserve, and for long-time Discworld readers at least one long-standing, unresolved thread, the “whatever happened to Esk anyway” question, gets answered, in what feels like the obligatory suggestion of a coming novel’s plot.
I also read the first two novels in Christopher Fowler’s “Peculiar Crimes Unit” series, which were recommended to me on the strength of being locked-room, fair-play mysteries with, well, downright peculiar plots. Full Dark House is an entertaining riff on The Phantom of the Opera that bounces back and forth between murders in a theater during the height of the Blitz and an investigation into what appears to be a terrorist bombing in modern London that might be related. The characters are unique while still filling recognizable types for detective fiction, and the mystery unfolds in a precise way. The Water Room focuses on a street in modern London undergoing gentrification and the ritualistic murders of the yuppies who live on it. The characters from the first book are mostly side-lined, and the characters introduced here, well…you don’t particularly mind them getting killed off. Full Dark House I enjoyed a lot. The Water Room…I was disappointed by. Fowler is a very good writer, and his mysteries are inventive and original, so I suspect I’ll continue on with at least the next book in the series after I clear my back-log a bit.
Currently I’m mostly back on fantasy, and am in the midst of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, which, I won’t lie, I only picked up because I found it listed as a fantasy book with a gay lead character. It’s firmly in the tradition of modern low fantasy, such as the “Song of Fire and Ice”, with far more time spent on world-building and the political state of the world than in heroic figures going off to fight monsters. The characters are deeply, deeply flawed, and even the supposed heroes are more dark and brutish than some of the alleged villains. The lead, Ringil, is a strongly compelling protagonist, a one-time war hero slowly going to seed from lack of challenge, called back to the city he once saved by his noble family to rescue a cousin sold into slavery. That he’s gay is as much of his character as his cynicism and deeply felt guilt, but it’s not the defining aspect of his character the way it sometimes feels in books specifically aimed at gay readers. It’s a realistic portrayal, and the social complications it causes in his repressive and somewhat fascist society are handled believably. As I say, I’m in the midst of it, with frequent breaks because Morgan’s style is somewhat more dry than I prefer in my casual reading and I can already see the warning signs of “first in a series” with the secondary characters. But I’m enjoying it all the same.