Another gem from the steampunk canon (cannon? heh heh oh forget it), George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge is a rather full-throttle Victorian potboiler of a murder mystery, set in a world of airships and brass automatons, clockwork technology and steam-powered road ‘trains’, all tied together rather neatly and gruesomely… and with a very effective twist at the end that I probably should have seen coming, and didn’t.

It follows a case — rather, two cases initially seeming quite separate — being investigated by Sir Maurice Newbury, former soldier in the British Army (and, incidentally, the only man known to have survived a bite from a particularly virulent Indian plague which turns people into flesh-craving revenants) and current antiquities expert-cum-investigator-cum-occultist, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, a surprisingly forthright and capable woman whose actions and abilities scene-set the coming of the suffragettes. Allied with Newbury’s oldest friend, Chief Inspector Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard, they become involved in the issues of a string of murders perpetrated in Whitechapel by a glowing spectral policeman and an airship crash in the middle of London from which the pilot has mysteriously vanished. The latter case has an added complication: Queen Victoria herself (who continues to live and breathe somewhat past her prime via huge, hulking, steam-bellowing machines infibulated into her body) has asked that Newbury investigate it, with potentially serious political ramifications.

What follows is pure adventure, mixed with a very healthy dollop of violence and a fascinatingly realised world where the expected and the unexpected alike blur like the septic fog that perpetually clouds the Londons streets. A spreading plague of bloodthirsty dead Victorian workers, clockwork automata rewired as killing machines, lightning weapons and gruesome vivisection are only some of the treats you’re in store for in this tale: there’s much more packed in this compact little hardcover, and once you crack the cover you’ll be reading it ’til the wee hours, unable to pull away.

Mann’s writing style has been criticised a little for being plain and unadventurous; I didn’t mind it in the least and found it suited the breakneck pace of the story — I certainly couldn’t fault his sense of description which, whilst minimalist on occasion, eerily evoked the world and characters he was building and put across faultlessly some gruesome, evocative and fantastical scenes. This isn’t childrens’ literature though, unlike the previous post: although there’s no sex the violence is, on occasion, quite brutal and detailed.

If you’re fascinated with this particular genre or just want a phantasmagorical adventure story, you can’t go wrong with this one. Very recommended, and I’m now impatiently waiting for the next one

 

I’m in childrens’ books territory at the moment, and loving it.

Philip Reeve’s Larklight — and its sequels Starcross and Mothstorm — are a chaotic and wonderful mishmash of genre that collectively add up to wonderful entertainment. Part steampunk, part boys-own-adventure, part science-fiction/fantasy and part-WTF, this is the story of 12-year-old Art Mumby and his very strange family, who live in the floating Victoriana-goth household of Larklight which, thanks to its aether engines and some unusual, ancient enhancements, floats serenely through the asteroid belt (where Art’s father, a distinguished Victorian gentleman, is endlessly cataloguing asteroid ‘fish’ for his mindnumbingly dull treatises for the Royal Xenological Institute).

It’s all set in a retro-future solar system wherein, as per the best tenets of steampunk, the British Empire never decayed but flourished and conquered the stars by means of brass engines, clockwork, steam power and Good Old British Pluck (Huzzah!). In this brilliantly realised world, aliens and humans alike wear top hats and conform to strict British etiquette, Queen Victoria never died, monstrous bowler-hatted carnivorous intelligent spiders inhabit the rings of Saturn, you can talk to the sentient storm of Jupiter, wooden sailing ships sail the (thinly breathable) heavens on winged engines whilst the asteroids are linked by railway lines and dastardly plots hatch and abound everywhere.

Almost every page is richly illustrated by Reeve’s collaborator David Wyatt in a rich, luscious Victorian style, rendering such gems as the Pudding Worm, battleship-sized interstellar moths (obvious enemies of the gnome-like Threls, whose civilization is currently engaged in the Brobdingnagian task of knitting a tea cosy to cover their entire world), translucent and highly carnivorous sun dogs and rampaging glass buildings to perfection, greatly enhancing the astonishing mental feats that the author constantly bombards us with. There’s a new and splendid idea on every page (yep, the Britishisms are catching [huzzah!]) and the adventure is both endless and often hilarious.

I love these to death, and am both saddened by the fact that it is obviously a trilogy (with a little scope for continuation) and heartened by its perfection as such. Buy the hardcovers if you can: they’re beautiful little books with glorious endpapers in the Victorian style, full of advertisements for patent zero gravity moustache waxes, brass exoskeleta (for those intrepid explorers) and suchlike.  But whichever version you get, I guarantee you’ll fall in love… or you’ve got brass cogs for a heart and a Moob for a brain. 🙂

 

The Necronomicon

December 1, 2008

 

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

 

Weird, yes. Weird that I’ve never read him before, and I consider myself fairly well read in the horror genre. And yet for some reason I kept bypassing the acknowledged master and trailblazer of the field, and I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought he’d be tedious reading: after all, his canon comes from the late 1800s to the 1920s, and under the thin, hideous guise of ‘literature’ I’ve read some horrendous ‘great works’ (including Henry James: sorry, not a fan) that have had all the appeal of urethral surgery sans anaesthetic. (I’m staring grimly at some of you, Dickens, and just about all of you, Brontë)

But then along came Gollancz’s reissue of, effectively, the best of H P Lovecraft’s stories in a leatherbound, gilt-embossed edition (for astonishingly less than £20.00 for nearly 900 pages as well), and, after reading all that Lumley, I thought I’d give ye olde hoary master a shot.

And all was Good.

This is a man with an imagination way before his time. His horrific worlds are fantastically detailed, and the (only slightly) old-fashioned language is quickly swept away from perception in a fountain of perfect — and often harrowing — descriptiveness. His crumbling, decaying rooftop worlds of New England resonate perfectly with a horror that is often completely alien to anything before it… or often since. Lovecraft eschewed the vampire and the werewolf, common staples of the time, in creating fantastical new mythologies of dispassionate Elder Gods and monstrosities from outside time and space, profusely detailed and profliglately chaotic. From blood and guts horror (‘Herbert West — Reanimator’ [incidentally a very, very good film]) through alien civilizations that may not yet be dead (‘At The Mountains Of Madness’) to the terrors of what lies parallel with us, crammed into the very air surrounding (‘From Beyond’ — and that film wasn’t bad either), his is a skewed and violently twisted, utterly original worldview that is very much worth the immersion.

Lovecraft gets a bit of stick these days for racism, elitism and a little misogyny and, yes, I can see that in his writing. And that’s fine. His writing is a product of the times he lived in, and I’m happily aware of, and content with, that. It’s not excessive and, were he writing today, it probably wouldn’t be there. However, to those people saying he should be written to get rid of the above elements (Lovecraft was apparently personally terrified of Negroes, for one thing), I’d say: get a life. We need that sort of literary alteration the way we need Big Ears to no longer be sleeping in the same bed as Noddy or the Fat Controller being renamed the Horizontally-Challenged-But-More-Than-Capable-Civil-Servant. Sigh.

The book itself is a beautiful thing, worthy of the many evil old tomes Lovecraft himself references throughout his exhaustively complete worldbuilding: black leather, ridged spine, inlaid with gilt and filled with pen and ink drawings of squid-like Cthulhu, faceless night-gaunts, crumbling manuscripts and lurking evils (in one of those interesting cyclic connection things that is no doubt me reaching for connections that aren’t there, it’s illustrated by Les Edwards who, under the name Edward Miller, produced the covers for China Miéville’s early novels… which owe a great deal in terms of descriptive style and visions of urban decay to Lovecraft!). Well worth picking up for the presentation alone… but then you’ll be sucked in to a new kind of strange hell by the contents, and you won’t want to leave.

Superb. Totally recommended. Delve back to the uneasy beginnings of the twentieth century, and find a tarnished, blood-spattered, horrifying treasure transcending time, space and your perceptions of horror…

PLTTFUTV, by Simon Logan

Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void, by Simon Logan.

It’s like mixing a cocktail of some dubious chemical, wearing welder’s goggles and with the acid burn of your ingredients slowing searing its way up your arms. Take one drachm Brian Wood’s DMZ and Channel Zero, a hundred cc’s of Kathe Koja’s Skin and strip back the oxides off some of Simon’s own Rohypnol Brides and Nothing Is Inflammable, and you have this: a nightmare near-future chemical-fetish world where everything is rubble and broken and rusted, populated by the razor fringes of society and constantly reinventing itself in a nihilistic, furious shriek of death and anger.

The prose and descriptions are barbed wire around your throat. Some elements of the story were genuinely uncomfortable to read, so far off the track of what, in these terrorism-defined days, is socially acceptable, and that’s a good thing — if ever there was a book to tear you out of your comfort zone and make you question the validity of your ideals and your conceptions of art, it’s this one.

From the insanity of the train-riders (hanging onto the outside of a massive toxic waste carrier at 100mph, with death inches over your head, simply for the thrill of it) to junk-city galleries, burned and collapsed and seething with struggling, broken artists and their equally insane, focative art; from the burning, war-torn city streets where SWAT choppers shoot on sight and the taggers and boarders scuttle like cockroaches in the shadows of their wake to the sundered warehouses and the data-pirates, hackers and purveyors; from Elisabeth Afterlife’s hell of self-denial and subsequent journey towards something that might be hope (if that’s what you can call it) to the inimical, monstrous and brutally compelling Shiva (whose rationale makes a hideous kind of sense, which is just one of the reasons you’ll come out of this book feeling as filth-stained as the oil- and rust-choked streets and buildings)… it’s a ride into a world you didn’t know existed, but which is right beneath your fingertips, as cracked and bloody and torn as they might be.

It has the intensity of an acid burn and the cold, jittering brilliance of oxyacetylene. Industrial fiction doesn’t get much better than this.