There’s a long tradition among Western writers of lionising ancient ways of life, as if there’s something better about giving up all the trappings of modernity and wallowing about in the pain and dirt. The myth of the noble savage is responsible for such idiotic beliefs as the power of alternative medicine and the idea that anything that refutes the scientific process is necessarily true. Worst of all, it gave us Avatar – a movie that makes Smurfs 3D look like Citizen Kane.
Reign of the Nightmare Prince is just like Avatar – noble savages in tune with nature are attacked by evil technologists who want to take their resources – but differs in one respect; you care what happens. The story’s told from the point of view of one of the alien natives who’s returning from their version of Walkabout to find out monsters are killing off the rest of his people, and follows his attempts to muster a defence in the face of impossible odds.
Although it’s an entertaining and fun read, it’s not explained why the aboriginal population of an alien planet feels so human and a lot of the non-native attackers are almost as one-dimensional as Jake “I see you” Sully. Also, the end was so abrupt it felt like a sixth grader who’s suddenly reached the word limit on an English essay but don’t let that put you off.
Pet Noir is a collection of short stories by Pati Nagle, all based around the adventures of a genetically modified tabby cat working as a detective on a space station, and it sounded like it could be different. Unfortunately not. Sure, the trappings of science fiction are there – animal uplift, a space station, cloning – but if you scratch the surface all that’s left is a set of fairly standard cop stories.
The cat in question feels no more than a human pretending to be a cat and the other animals turn out to be mere ciphers, the universe is barely sketched out and the much more interesting story of how human (and animal) society has coped with the massive changes brought about by space travel, new sentient species, and future technologies has been completely ignored.
This time, the future’s so bright, it feels like 1980.
One of the more fun stories from The Shadow Conspiracy II was Chris Dolley‘s Wodehousian pastiche, What Ho! Automaton – which detailed the rescue of steam-powered valet Reeves by the hapless buffoon Reginald Worcester and their bonding while foiling the plans of evil aunts. Collected here, along with a new novel length story (Something Rummy this way Comes), the parody is accurate and entertaining. And while the story is never going to change worlds, it’s still a jolly good romp.
Reeves and Worcester share the same universe as the rest of the Shadow Conspiracy collections, but abandon any of the more ominous aspects in favour of a lighter style that is more like Wodehouse fan fiction than scifi. The original short (for which the book is named) deals with our heroes’ meeting and adventures while trying to figure out what’s amiss with his cousin’s new fiancée.
The meat of the book, Something Rummy this way Comes, is a romp through the balls, debutantes, and vaguries of late-Victorian British Society. Reggie’s aunts (who are more viscious than veloceraptors) have had enough of his caddish ways and demand he tours the ball circuit to find a wife. Unfortunately all the available debutantes are disappearing and it’s up to Reggie (aided by the super steam brain of Reeves) to find out where to. On the way he meets spirited Emeline who, like her namesake, will chain herself to a railing in a heartbeat and tries to find the ape or eunuch he is sure is to blame.
This is such a fun book that it’s impossible to find anything wrong with it. Yes, it is a little rough around the edges, but the voicing is pitched perfectly – to the point where I can only imagine Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as the main characters (take note movie adaptors – start saving now). Some nice comic touches reflect the differences between this and the world of Jeeves and Wooster (Queen Victoria’s been saved by replacing her legs with steam-driven ones) and the whole tale hangs together nicely.
Even better, it costs less than £2. Perfect for reading at your gentlemans’ club.
Could I have approached a book with more trepidation? From a publishing house that seems to specialise in Buddhist philosophy, I expected to be lectured at for the three hundred odd pages, but this autobiographical account of the eponymous odd boy turned out to be more charming than banal.
Set in the south of England in the late fifties and early sixties, an odd boy describes the journey from childhood to adolescence of a boy that’s different from all of his peers and will strike a chord with anyone who has felt like they didn’t belong. The narrative is told through his twin obsessions of blues music and art, it describes a cold upbringing tempered by the friends and delta blues musicians who became his real family.
It’s far from perfect, however, the author seems to obsess about explaining every minute detail through a use of footnotes that the late Flann O’Brien savaged in The Third Policeman. Nothing is left to the reader, with the narrative rudely interrupted to explain such esoterica as the BBC or skiffle. We have Wikipedia, we don’t need to understand every detail.
But apart from that, the first volume in what I suspect will be a long series is an interesting, if light, diversion. Perfect for lying on a rock beach during the Easter heatwave.
Anthologies are, by their nature, hit-and-miss affairs, but even the worst of the stories here are pretty decent, if forgettable, yarns. Standing out are Kimbriel’s Abide with Me – a tale of parental loss and hope – and Nagle’s Claire de Lune, which pits Vodon against a moustache-twirling villain.
While soul-transfer provides a pretty decent MacGuffin, there’s very little sign of any conspiracy (shadowy or otherwise) and any real future plot advancement will likely never happen. Not to worry, it took six seasons of Lost before the audience realised it, so they should be able to push out another four volumes.
These types of work have a habit of trying to be too clever and, without a ruthless editor, usually end up being awful but Radford and Bohnhoff did a good job of keeping any amateurish edges hidden. It’s not much more than the price of a pint, so you can do worse than picking up a copy.