Hurdy Gurdy

Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson

Brother Diggory, a young monk in the minor Order of Saint Odo of Whye, is continually visited in his dreams by some kind of succubus ‘come to steal his innocence and the seed of his generation’. But his troubles, and his sinful thoughts, are only just beginning – soon, the much-rumoured Black Death reaches the monastery, and all but wipes out the brotherhood. Diggory is forced to leave behind everything he has known and make his way in the big, bad world of 14th century England, at which point he renames himself Jack Fox, ‘so I rhyme, face and arse, with the Black Pox’. His wanderings see him duped by a Simon Mostly, a one-handed, one-legged bandit, acquainted with the fairer sex (and, predictably, bonked senseless), and accused of colluding with a Satanic pig. Amongst other adventures.

Much of the humour in Hurdy Gurdy stems from Diggory’s twisted logic, such as his reasoning that the deadly pox prefers to travel north, or the many deceptively pious excuses he comes up with for his newly rampant libido. When he’s left to fill a mass grave, he typically overthinks and arranges the bodies according to Pythagoras’ theorem, to economise on space.

Another seam of jokes is St Odo’s The Great Unhappened, an absurdly prophetic tome that foresees a future age of ‘giant metal birds that held people in their bowels’ and ‘icy cold drinks, in small squat suits of armour, bursting with bubbles that prickled your tongue’. These tangents recall Blackadder and Upstart Crow, even though the historical setting is quite different to those sitcoms.

With its slimness and episodic nature, Hurdy Gurdy is a bawdy, breezy blast to read, so it hits the spot during this grim winter we find ourselves in. Though it was written before the current pandemic, of course it can’t help but invite parallels. Most of the alleged cures for the bubonic plague that pop up – e.g. consuming crushed emeralds or ten-year-old fermented treacle, or smearing the skin with excrement – are about as ridiculous and dangerous as injecting oneself with disinfectant or blasting diseased bodies with ultraviolet light (both helpfully suggested by the leader of free world in April 2020).

Dead Man in a Ditch

Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Following on from The Last Smile In Sunder City, private detective Fetch Phillips continues to navigate the turbulent post-magical era known as ‘the Coda’. This time he must make sense of a brazen murder in a human-only bar that can only have been inflicted by supposedly impossible means – a point-blank fireball to the face.

The Last Smile had an instantly likeable style, cribbing from Terry Pratchett and Raymond Chandler, but transcending pastiche. Occasionally it laboured its scene-setting and backstory enough that the pace dragged – probably a common pitfall in fantasy debuts. Arnold has no such problem here. Even as he reveals dozens of imaginative new locations and characters, and ties up many of the most intriguing loose ends from the first book, he keeps the action going at a confident, rapid clip.

We got to know the squalid, sprawling Sunder City pretty well in the first book, but a flurry of new cases takes Fetch into surprising new corners of town, including the daunting gambling district The Sickle, a defunct ceramics factory and a swanky hat shop. Fetch even finds himself travelling beyond city limits for the first time, leading to enjoyable widescreen glimpses of the greater Archetellos continent.

Without giving away the elaborate final third of the book, there’s nothing timid about Arnold’s plotting – no sense that he wants to tidy up and simply reset the stage for another stock mystery next time around. When we visit Sunder City again, it may be a very different place, but still home to the lovably glum ‘man for fire’ Fetch – and still a delight to spend time in.

Tomten Tales

Tomten Tales by Astrid Lindgren and Harald Wiberg

For her 1960 story The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren drew on Scandinavian folklore and the poetry of Viktor Rydberg to create a classic picture book, following it up five years later with The Tomten and the Fox – both tales are collected here in a handsome hardback from Floris Books. They are about a little gnome who is devoted to a particular farm but never seen by its people. In the first story he tiptoes around in the dead of night, in the middle of winter, reassuring the animals that warmer weather is on the way and otherwise helping them through the cold snap. In the sequel, he skilfully saves the hens from a prowling fox.

Harald Wiberg’s paintings of the piled-up moonlit snow, the gloomy hayloft, the crowded sheep barn, the cosy farmhouse and so on are very atmospheric and will have me expecting to spot a tomten out of the corner of my eye all winter.

A wonderful seasonal picture book that doesn’t mention Christmas — so a perfect one to share during a snowy January.

Light of the Jedi

Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule

Over the past five years, Star Wars books and comics have rarely strayed far from the timeline of the main films, specialising in origin stories and narratives that run parallel with, or spin off from, the Skywalker saga. Authors have been allowed to fill in whatever gaps remained in a slightly controlled, timid fashion, and were only occasionally allowed to introduce a major new character like Doctor Aphra.

All of that changes now, as the publishing arm of Lucasfilm has dreamed up whole new era of galactic history, hundreds of years before even The Phantom MenaceThe High Republic, under which umbrella a whole stack of books will be come out over the next few years. It’s a prosperous, peaceful period, when the benevolent Chancellor Lina Soh expands her utopian vision to new planets and systems, and a legion of valiant Jedi Knights maintain order at the frontiers. Crucially, The High Republic is also a blank slate – a huge sandbox for Star Wars authors to play in, with only a handful of known characters even remotely connected to it.

Ushering in The High Republic and its limitless possibilities is Light of the Jedi, by Charles Soule. Soule is a fixture in recent Star Wars comics (his Lando being among the best) but less established as novelist.

Light of the Jedi kicks off with a grisly hyperspace disaster, described from many different perspectives as it unfolds and snuffs out billions of lives. The rest of the book follows terrified Republic officials and concerned Jedi Knights as they scramble to understand how such a thing could have happened, while another group of Jedi attend to a seemingly unrelated kidnapping on the mineral-rich planet of Elphrona. Unbeknownst to any of them, in an unreachable corner of space-time, a gang of opportunistic marauders called the Nihil are plotting how to use the ongoing crisis to their advantage.

The problems with Light of the Jedi are typified by the first third, with its staccato chapters offering glimpses of the lightspeed cataclysm – fragments of a big picture. It’s a great idea, which ought to allow the reader to quickly grasp the state of the galaxy, and get to know several of the main characters.

Instead, Soule is repeatedly bogged down in pedantic, overly technical descriptions of vessels and locations, while his characters are left as mere sketches with no spark. Unfortunately, that habit persists throughout the novel. Soule puts inordinate energy put into explaining what surfaces are made of – ‘durasteel’ and ‘transparisteel’ occur far too often – but rarely develops much sense of place. He sabotages what should be a gripping action scene, told from the perspective of a farmer terrified for her family’s lives, with this clunker to describe a hurrying steelee (a horse-like creature): ‘their duralloy hooves locking into the ground with the organomagnetic field that allowed them to climb even the steepest of Elphrona’s mountains’. This laboured science fiction prose doesn’t really feel like Star Wars, and it doesn’t feel sensitively voiced.

Also disappointing are the Nihil, the horde of hyperspace-abusing raiders that will become a thorn in the side of the Jedi. Reading about their biker gang appearance, with their armoured leathers and spooky steampunk masks, we sense that they’ve probably seen Mad Max: Fury Road. That they are ‘unified by a desire to take and kill and eat‘ rings alarms bells that they may be an overly simplistic foil for the Jedi. When we later find them guzzling a drug called ‘smash’ and listening to nasty, industrial music called ‘wreckpunk’, it’s hard to see them as much more than Saturday morning cartoon villains. After The Last Jedi has shown us more morally complicated characters, the Nihil, at first blush, seem like a missed opportunity. But their mysterious, scheming navigator Marchion Ro turns out to be much more intriguing that his fellow criminals, and could yet evolve into a compelling enemy as these books continue.

Soule has a lot to juggle throughout, and that accounts for how uneven Light of the Jedi feels. From a diffuse cast who are often hard to keep track of, certain characters and relationships do come into their own in the back half of the novel. For me, Porter Engle, a semi-retired Jedi Master and talented cook (he specialises in a ‘Nine-Egg Stew’) was a favourite, and the partnership between Avar Kriss and Elzar Mann neatly sets up some later conflict between duty and romance.

While I’ve been very excited to dig into a whole new seam of Star Wars fiction, Light of the Jedi fell short of expectations, and seemed sadly compromised by having to raise the curtain on a whole range of publishing – a double-edged sword that Charles Soule could perhaps have handled with more care. Now that that’s out of the way, I’m still keen to see what other stories can be told in this new setting and will probably pick up Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm later this year.

The Last Smile in Sunder City

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

A detective yarn set in an irresistible once-magical world, where the various species – Banshees, Wizards, Elves, Werewolves, and so on – are still adjusting to the abrupt extinction of the supernatural force that sustained almost everything they knew. Six years into this uncertain era known as ‘the Coda’, our anti-hero, human ‘man for fire’ Fetch Phillips, lands a new job. Fetch must track down a missing person: a mild-mannered vampire called Edmund Rye, who is no longer immortal but had seemed to be just about coping with his weakened state when he vanished.

From the off, Fetch seem very much the archetypal P.I. – glum, guarded, low in self-esteem and high in blood-alcohol content, but blessed with a quick wit and a couple of well-placed old friends. If all that sounds rather unoriginal, Fetch’s adoptive hometown more than makes up for it.

If you tried to list all the dangers in Sunder City, it would take you a year, and someone would likely stab you in the back and steal your pencil before you were done.

Sunder City has been deservedly compared to Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. But whereas the Discworld’s similarly squalid metropolis seemed to grow organically over a string of freewheeling, genre-busting novels, Arnold seems anxious to nail down as much of the history, geography, politics and culture of Sunder as he can in one volume – laying the foundations for what he clearly plans to be a long-running series.

For the most part this exposition is blended in with the atmospheric descriptions, peppered with Chanderlesque dry wit. An early passage cleverly establishes the wider Archetelos landmass by describing how an official map (which arrogantly fudges the geography to have Sunder at its very centre) is routinely put to use as a dartboard.

The Dwarven Mountains that border the north are worth twenty but they guard the way to the Ragged Plains and if you land in those you lose five points.

Occasionally, the effortful world-building is overdone. Fetch’s investigations naturally take him into every stinky corner of the city, but around the halfway point, just as the plot builds up a head of steam, yet another long scene-setting description for yet another new neighbourhood risks grinding things to a halt.

The solution to the central mystery here is rewarding, with just enough clues dropped throughout the book, and it raises new questions about the complex, febrile world that Luke Arnold has conjured. Ultimately, I was left feeling very fond of both Fetch and Sunder, and keen to see where this series goes next.

Such A Fun Age

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

In the opening pages of Kiley Reid’s debut, Emira, a 26-year-old African American woman and regular babysitter to toddler Briar, is summoned by Briar’s parents at short notice. They’re having a stressful evening involving a broken window and need their curious daughter out of the way. When Emira whisks Briar off to what is later referred to as ‘the whitest grocery store in Philadelphia’ to kill time, she’s accused of kidnapping by the security guard. From that moment, things escalate in all manner of unexpected ways.

The novel settles into an addictive structure, alternating chapters between Emira, who begins seeing a man who filmed the stand-off on his phone, and Briar’s mother Alix, a blogger, influencer and champion of ambitious professional women, who is all for ‘lawyering up’ to resolve the ugly matter. When it becomes clear Emira wants to put it all behind her, Alix channels masses of energy into seeking Emira’s approval and friendship (in between pretending to write a book and courting the 2016 Clinton campaign). Soon, Alix’s initial well-meaning instincts are mingled with uglier motives and tainted by her messy past. In her self-consciously progressive way, she’s almost blind to the genuine plight of Emira, who looks at her diverse peers and feels that one racist security guard is nothing compared to the real problems of a woman like her navigating her mid-20s.

Via a simple plot that hinges on a couple of just-about-believable coincidences, Kiley Reid finds so much to say about class dynamics and white privilege – not just in the broad strokes of the story, or how the different perspectives cast those events in different light, but also in overheard snatches of conversation, extracts from group text chats, and precise environmental details. It’s a witty and illuminating book that will lend it brilliantly to the inevitable TV adaptation.

Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom pops out to get some cigarettes, but on a selfish whim he abandons his pregnant wife and their son. Updike follows the shirker over the next several months as he conducts a shabby affair, sparking concern and fuelling gossip around the painfully typical American town of Brewer, Pennsylvania.

The ‘safety net’ of the family and community around Rabbit and Brewer is among the most engrossing features of this first of the Rabbit novels, published in 1960. There’s the pitiful figure of his erstwhile basketball coach and biggest fan Marty Tothero, the well-meaning meddler Reverend Eccles, kind old Mrs. Smith, and Rabbit’s own parents and in-laws. None of them are quite prepared to disavow Rabbit as a pariah in the way he expects, with most of them attempting in their own way to nudge him back towards his wife Janice, son Nelson and an unborn child.

Rabbit himself is impossible to like – he reminds us that he’s a self-absorbed lech every couple of pages. Even walking down a hospital corridor to meet his second child for the very first time, he’s distracted by the swing of a nurse’s haunches. His new squeeze Ruth is eventually revolted by his ‘touch of death’, but many, many readers are driven to toss Rabbit, Run across the room long before that – long before he makes his very worst decisions. Unfortunately, they’ll miss the way Rabbit animates all the supporting characters as he muddles through life.

The other thing that makes this slowly plotted novel sing is its intensely observant voice. It revels in a kind of hyper-detail, zooming in on everyday objects, subtle body language, and rare bursts of cataclysmic action with a kind of even, careful interest in it all – the ‘rusty tears’ of a hot tap in a grotty toilet, a gas station window ‘stained green by stacked cans of liquid wax’, the way Ruth reads paperbacks without cracking the spine. And Lucy Eccles’ raging eyes with ‘the little speckled section of her green irises like torn tissue-paper around the black pupil-dots’.

Many writers reach for the present tense to give their work an immediacy, only to end up with a flat screenplay texture to much of their prose. Updike, who must have popularised (if not pioneered) this stylistic choice, is the absolute master of it. It allows him to dart between moment and memory, the warp and weft of Rabbit’s chaotic life, in sustained interior monologues. So many of these impressive (occasionally confusing) passages serve to expose Rabbit’s slippery grip on reality and responsibility. He clings to his glory days as the high-school basketball star, defining his mid-20s against his footloose former self, so it never takes much for him end up adrift on memory or lost in lust.

“I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate.”

I’ve tried a couple of Updike’s later novels before now, but Angstrom has always been a great gap in my reading. I’m looking forward to diving into the sequels, each of them supposedly decade-defining, soon.

The Honoured Society

The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed by Norman Lewis

As absorbing as Naples ’44 (Lewis’ memoirs from newly Allied-occupied Campania) but less of a travelogue, more a meticulous history. In explaining the Mafia’s grip on Sicily up to the 1960s, Lewis discovers an island with one foot still planted in the feudal era, a people with a uniquely stubborn yet defeatist moral compass, and a catalogue of violence so appalling and so frequent that only a May Day peasant massacre can trigger any prolonged outrage.

Reading about the near-endless clan vendettas (omertá), and the tight-lipped ordinary folk whose lives were all touched by their murderous spiral, you can sense the frustration of the island’s carabinieri growing with every page turn. It’s especially heartbreaking to read about good men like Placido Rizzotto who tried to bring change. When Sicily is dragged into the twentieth century, it’s on the Mafia’s own terms – corrupt construction contracts and the conversion of Lebanon’s opium into heroin to ship to the Americas.

Although he finds the landscapes so morose and un-Mediterranean, Lewis has a brilliant facility for describing them. Here is a choice paragraph describing the brooding atmosphere of a town whose name Mario Puzo later borrowed for The Godfather:

Corleone is built under a lugubrious backdrop of mountains the colour of lead, and its seedy houses are wound round a strange black rocky outcrop jutting up from the middle of the town. Upon this pigmy mesa is built the town lockup, and from its summit the crows launch themselves in search of urban carrion. Behind the cliff-shadowed menaced streets of Corleone stretches a savage entranced landscape of rock and grizzled pasture, for centuries the setting of a bloody routine of feuds and ambuscades. A few miles away is the famous wood of Ficuzza, a place of ghosts and legends, over possession of which the two families of Barbaccia and Lorello have been slowly destroying one another since 1918.