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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (titulus inscriptio)

This is Where the Title Goes

Library of the Sapphire Wind and Aurora Borealis Bridge are new novels by Jane Lindskold. Together the two books tell one continuous story – it has only been published in two volumes because of its length. Consequently, neither book stands alone. You really do need to read both of them, and you need to read them in the right order. Rest assured however, that if you do decide to settle down for a good long read with these books, you will not be at all disappointed. The story is enthralling.

Meg and Peg are ladies of a certain age who belong to a book discussion group. When Tessa joins the group they are both quite appalled at the prospect of having their name rhyming scheme destroyed, and so they immediately christen her Teg. The naming scheme is saved, what a relief! One particular Valentine’s Day the three ladies meet as usual to discuss a book when suddenly everything slides sideways and they find themselves magically transported to another world. Three young people in need of mentors have summoned the three ladies, and all six of them are equally horrified at what they see when the spell completes. Meg, Peg and Teg find themselves staring at three people who have the heads of animals while Xerak, Vereez, and Grunwold are quite sure that they have summoned monsters. Three people who have weirdly non-animalistic faces and features have appeared in the circle of Hettua Shrine. Who would ever have thought that such hideous creatures could possibly exist?

Xerak, Vereez, and Grunwold are faced with seemingly insurmountable problems. Xerak is a skilful wizard, but he is still learning his trade and the master with whom he is studying has disappeared. Nobody knows where he has gone and Xerak needs to find him, partly so that he can complete his studies, and partly because he is genuinely worried about the fate of his master. Vereez is looking for her young sister who has also disappeared in mysterious circumstances that her parents refuse to discuss, and Grunwold’s father is seriously ill. Grunwold is desperately searching to find a cure for his father’s illness before it is too late. None of them have had any success at all in their individual quests and so, in a last desperate attempt to get help, the three of them have summoned Meg, Peg and Teg in the hope that, in their role as mentors, the ladies will be able to solve their problems, or at least point them in the right direction. For their part, Meg, Peg and Teg, once they have recovered from the shock of their translation into this world of animal-headed people, soon come to realise that they do indeed have knowledge, skills and experience that will help the youngsters. And so the story proper begins...

At this point, most well-read fantasy fans will settle themselves down for a nice, familiar comfort read, absolutely certain that they know exactly what is going on in the story and what will happen to the protagonists on every page. There are three quests to sort out. There will be monsters to fight, plot coupons to gather and perhaps even a McGuffin to come to grips with. Everybody knows how the formula works.

But in this story absolutely nothing adheres to the formula. The rules have been thrown away and the story never goes in the direction that the reader expects it to go. The quests turn out to be nowhere near as superficial as they initially appeared to be and every problem that confronts the group is far more complex than it seems. The ramifications of this are profound. That’s the cleverness of the story, and that’s what kept me turning the pages. I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish the first book because I absolutely had to know how it ended. And as soon as I got up the following day I started reading the second book because I needed to know what happened next. That’s how addictive and immersing I found the world that Jane Lindskold has created in which to set her complex and utterly fascinating story.

Meg, Peg and Teg call the world that they’ve been summoned to Over Where, a play on the words of the popular first world war song Over There. They do a lot of this throughout the story – they are constantly coming across new (to them) things and of course they have to give them names. I was particularly fond of the Unique Monstrosity and a most ingenious creature that they refer to as Grace, after Grace Slick the singer with Jefferson Airplane. Once you’ve met Grace and discovered just what kind of creature she is, you will realise how appropriately the name fits her.

There’s a delicious humour apparent throughout the telling of this tale. Jane Lindskold has a delicate touch and even though much of the story is dramatic, sometimes tragic and is often filled with almost unbearable tension, the humour and the wit never go away (Teg is an archaeologist in her own world, and she has a t-shirt which displays the slogan "My Life is in Ruins" – I actually laughed out loud when I read that one).

The plot coupons and the McGuffin that the fantasy fan might expect to see certainly do exist in the story, but unlike those all too familiar tropes that are found in other fantasy stories, here in Over Where they are definitely not arbitrary constructs. They have very significant roles to play in advancing the plot, and every time the plot advances the story exposes another intricate layer and we learn more and more about the way that the world of Over Where works. I’m astonished that Jane Lindskold managed to hold a structure as complicated as this one in her head while she was writing it, and I’m impressed at the skilful way in which the twists and turns reveal themselves so gradually and yet so inexorably.

I think it's a very clever story, very witty, often funny and really rather subversive in the way in which it turns so many fantasy clichés on their heads.

And it does all this without ever becoming a trilogy. See? I told you it was subversive.

Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a novel about bioengineering and about the morality of turning animals into deadly fighting machines and then using such a bioengineered army to advance political and commercial concerns.

Rex is a Good Dog, and that’s all he ever aspires to be. The fact that he becomes a Good Dog by leading a platoon of fighters in a genocidal war is at best ambiguously moral, given that Rex has no real understanding of what he is doing. If he successfully kills his opponents then he’s a Good Dog. His Master tells him so, and that’s good enough for Rex.

Most of the story is told by Rex himself, though some chapters are narrated by other characters, both human and bioengineered. Rex himself is the leader of a multi-form platoon. Other members of the group are Honey, a bioengineered bear, Dragon, a vaguely described reptile of some kind, and Bees, a distributed intelligence of augmented bees (one bee by itself does not amount to much either as a fighting machine or as an intelligent creature, but the hive mind that is Bees is both frighteningly intelligent and an efficient killer). His pack is run by the Redmark Corporation and when we first meet them, Redmark are using them to suppress an anarchist revolt in southern Mexico. Redmark is motivated by strict commercial concerns. The anarchistas are making them lose money, and that will never do. Commerce is all. Nothing else matters. Human lives must not be allowed to interfere with the making of a profit. Where have I heard that before?

At one point, Rex’s group loses communication with their controller and so Rex, as leader of the pack, now has to make independent decisions about how to proceed. He is not at all comfortable with this. Like most dogs he knows his place, and he needs orders to follow. Issuing his own orders feels wrong. However he soon comes to realize that both Honey and (to an extent) Bees know a lot more about what is going on than he does. Because of this he slowly learns to trust Honey and Bees. He starts to take their advice and incorporates it into his plans. Things begin to look up and Rex knows that he is a Good Dog again even though he no longer has a Master to tell him so. Throughout all this, Dragon just remains coldly lethal. He can’t think of much beyond killing everything in sight. That’s a reptile for you! Rex does not take any input from Dragon when he has decisions to make.

This change from being a loyal war dog who wants nothing more than to be told he’s a Good Dog by his Master into a fully realised personality in his own right who can make independent moral choices lies at the heart of this story. Rex’s transformation asks us to think about what counts as being human. Can an animal be a person? If Rex is a Good Dog who was just following orders (that old, invalid excuse), is he really a Good Dog if the orders were bad? Does that responsibility lie with Rex, or with his Master? These are not easy questions to answer, and Rex struggles with them (and so does the reader – both sides of the question are presented and debated at great length).

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s greatest strength has always been his ability to make non-human protagonists completely convincing to the reader. He does it time and time again in book after book. Consider the spiders in Children of Time and various other creatures in the Shadows of the Apt novels for example. Dogs of War works as well as it does because of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant presentation of Rex’s simple desire to be a Good Dog in conflict with his growing awareness of how the world really works. I found Rex completely convincing as a dog, and therefore equally convincing as something more than a dog as well. Time and again Rex’s reactions to situations were exactly what I would expect from my own dog and from other dogs that I know. Therefore I found it very easy (and mildly disturbing) to imagine my own dog becoming Rex if only he had the opportunity to do so with the appropriate bits of bioengineering implanted into him. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Adrian Tchaikovsky really understands dogs, and he’s pretty good at understanding human beings as well!

Simon Scarrow’s new novel Blackout is set in Berlin in 1939, just after the start of the second world war. The blackout of the title is, of course, a reference to the nightly blackouts designed to protect the city against enemy bombers, though at this early stage of the war, none have yet attacked the Reich.

Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is investigating the murder of the former film star Gerda Korzeny. The investigation is complicated by the fact that Gerda was married to a senior Nazi party official and consequently the higher ranks of the Reich have a vested interest in solving the crime.

Schenke himself comes from an aristocratic background which makes him a little bit of a square peg in a round political hole. He is a former racing driver who suffered a terrible accident that ended his racing career and left him with a permanent limp. However he remains a well known and popular figure among the German people. This affords him a certain degree of protection and safety. But nobody is ever completely safe in the police state that is the Third Reich...

Schenke has few illusions about the investigation or about his own vulnerability. For personal reasons he has consistently refused to join the SS and the party. This, taken together with his background, means that he is regarded with deep suspicion by the party elite. A Gestapo officer has been assigned to his investigative team and his every move is reported back to higher authorities. An added complication is that Schenke's girlfriend, the beautiful and outspoken Karin, is herself a vocal critic of the Reich. She gets away with this, to a certain extent, because her uncle is Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, a branch of German military intelligence. This affords her a certain security. But even Canaris is not all powerful, and as the investigation begins to suggest that someone on Canaris’ staff (and possibly even Canaris himself) might be involved in the murder, Schenke starts to have real fears for the safety of them both. If Canaris should be dethroned, the consequences don’t bear thinking about.

Another woman's body is discovered.  A retrospective hunt through the files turns up more suspicious deaths. And now Schenke is certain that he is looking for a serial killer.

Scarrow brilliantly portrays the darkness and the paranoid atmosphere of the period. The sense of time and place is perfectly evoked. Berlin is still a city of illicit Jazz clubs and drinking dens – the decadence of the pre-war years has not yet completely gone away and political debate has not yet been completely stifled, though the writing is on the wall. The heavy surveillance and the anti-Semitic rhetoric are starting to take their toll. Opposition to the policies of the Nazi party is increasingly seen as a probable death sentence. The political rivalry and conflict between the leading members of the party as they manoeuvre for advantage only exacerbates the paranoia among the rank and file. Everyone is expendable. The blackout is metaphorical as well as physical.

The novel is, at one and the same time, both a fascinating crime thriller and a warning about the dangers of authoritarianism and ethnic persecution. The obvious parallels to present day political developments are never overly emphasised – this is not a preachy novel. Though having said that, I should point out that Scarrow does take great delight in pointing out several times that Adolf Hitler was elected to office on a promise to "...Make Germany Great Again". The sub-text is clear. This is a very clever book on many levels.

James Hilton wrote two undeniable works of genius, Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon. I’ve read both of them many times over the years and I’ve always absolutely loved them. A new edition of Lost Horizon has just been published. Clearly someone was telling me to read the book again. So I did.

The book is almost a hundred years old now (a frightening thought) and, as far as I can tell, it has never been out of print. It’s a very old story and the author himself is long dead as well (he died in 1954) but the book lives on and parts of the story seem eerily modern. What goes around comes around, I suppose. At the start of the story the four major protagonists are in a plane which is flying out of Afghanistan where a civil war is raging. The plane is hijacked. Some things, it seems, never change...

The hijacker flies the plane to Tibet where it crashes high in the mountains. The hijacker dies of injuries sustained in the crash. The four passengers seem likely to die as well from exposure and starvation, but they are rescued by Chang, an old Chinese man who is travelling with a retinue of Tibetans. Hints that Chang drops suggest that he has been waiting for them to arrive, though they don’t find out just why he was waiting for them until much later on in the story. Chang escorts his rescued passengers across some terribly difficult terrain and eventually delivers them safely to a Buddhist monastery called Shangri-La. There they stay for some time and discuss philosophy and religion and the nature of time with the High Lama, a suspiciously European looking man. Great secrets are revealed. Hugh Conway, the major protagonist, returns to the world outside Tibet, but he is suffering from amnesia caused by the hardships of his journey. When his memory does eventually return, he tells his story to a friend and then (presumably – the ending is ambiguous) returns to Tibet to live out the rest of his life in the monastery of Shangri-La.

I’m going to reveal some spoilers now, but given how old the novel is and given that its plot, and the nature of Shangri-La itself are so well known as to be part of the folklore, I don’t think that is too great a sin.

The big secret of Shangri-La, of course, is that the people who live there live for a very long time. They are not immortal, but their lives are greatly extended. The downside of that is that if they leave Shangri-La and return to the world, their real age will catch up with them very quickly indeed and they will die very old. The High Lama himself has lived for more than 250 years. His name is Perrault, and he is a French priest who first came to the monastery in the eighteenth century and whose influence has guided it ever since. But it is the twentieth century now, and Father Perrault knows that he will die soon. He wants Conway to succeed him. Conway, however, remains ambivalent about the idea.

After the High Lama dies, Conway returns to the world taking with him a beautiful Mandarin Chinese woman called Lo-Tsen with whom he has fallen in love. We learn from others that after he left Shangri-La, Conway had received medical treatment in a French mission hospital in Chung-Kiang. Enquiries reveal that he had been brought there by an old woman, the oldest woman that the doctors had ever seen. Shortly after she brought Conway to the hospital, she herself died. The implication is, of course, that the woman was Lo-Tsen and her death was proof, if proof was needed, of the truth of everything that Conway had learned in Shangri-La.

Apart from the initial hijacking, very little happens in the novel. Most of it consists of little more than dialogue, inner thoughts and metaphysical speculations. Nevertheless there is something almost indefinable about it that grabs hold of you and simply won’t let you go. Partly it’s the granting of the wish-fulfillment of a greatly extended lifetime, of course, but that revelation does not come until quite late in the novel so that can’t be the whole story. There’s just something so perfect about Shangri-La, it’s like a paradise on Earth and the reactions of all four protagonists in general and of Conway in particular are very eye opening. It’s a quiet story that sneaks up on you when you aren’t looking. It soaks into your consciousness and it stays there forever. I first read it more than sixty years ago and I still remember the incredible feeling I got when Conway has a long discussion with the High Lama about the history of Shangri-La and the history of Perrault himself. Then Conway says, "...you are still alive, Father Perrault."

I will always remember the emotional roller-coaster ride of reading that that sentence for the first time when I was a young teenager. It shook me to my core, and it still affects me just as powerfully today when I’m old and cynical. I know perfectly well that the speech is coming – I’ve read the book so many times that the story has no secrets from me any more. Nevertheless that small speech of Conway’s always affects me, and it’s always the first thing that pops into my head whenever the novel is mentioned. Lost Horizon is one of the great books. It’s an absolute masterpieces. If you haven’t read it yet you owe it to yourself to sit down and read it immediately. Go ahead – it’s a very short book, barely a novella by modern standards. And not a word of it is wasted.


Jane Lindskold Library of the Sapphire Wind Baen
Jane Lindskold Aurora Borealis Bridge Baen
Adrian Tchaikovsky Dogs of War Head of Zeus
Simon Scarrow Blackout Headline
James Hilton Lost Horizon Open Road
     
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