Genre Fiction


Book Reviews

Book Review: The Talisman by Jonathan Aycliffe

The TalismanThe Talisman by Jonathan Aycliffe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some writers who can consistently give me the creeps. Ramsey Campbell is one. And Jonathan Aycliffe is another, in NIAOMI’S ROOM, THE MATRIX and his other great ghost stories of the ’80s and ’90s.

THE TALISMAN proved to be no exception, although it’s not a ghost story as such. This is more along the lines of THE OMEN or THE EXORCIST, and has echoes of both amid its depiction of an ancient evil brought out of the Middle East. Where this surpasses genre conventions is in the background; Aycliffe is an expert on the history of the region, and it shows in the accumuation of small but significant details that are slowly built up, layer upon layer, until the full extent of the evil is revealed.

It’s a strangely old-fashioned book though. It’s twenty years old now, but feels even older, and reads like a throwback to those aforementioned classics of the ’70s. That’s no bad thing though, and I had a great time with it.

It’s taken me a long time to get round to it; I have the Ash Tree Press limited edition hardcover, and it’s been on my shelves all these years unread. I’m glad I finally got to it, and it’s given me an urge to revisit his other works again, which is no bad thing.

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Book Review: THE ANUBIS GATES by Tim Powers

Anubis GatesAnubis Gates by Tim Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Time travel, body swapping, Ancient Egyptian blood magic, lycanthropy, mutant beings in the sewers of early 19th C London, and a meeting with Coleridge. Yep, it was Tim Powers time again, and a reread of his classic THE ANUBIS GATES.

The Powers imagination is on full throttle in this one right from the start, and it’s a wild ride through the aforementioned tropes, with Powers juggling a variety of characters, plots, sub-plots and timelines in a riotously entertaining romp.

He keeps everything just on the cusp of falling apart into incoherence, driving set piece after set piece at you until you give in, go with the flow and get carried along by the sheer manic exuberance of the thing.

It’s a wonderful feat of imagination, a wonderful bit of writing and, in the Zeisling Press hardcover I’ve got, a wonderfully presented package all round, with an intro by Ramsey Campbell for good measure.

It’s a favorite thing of mine, and one I recommend to everyone who asks what I think they should read. So, go and read it if you haven’t. It’s truly magical.

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Book Review: The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

The Drawing of the DarkThe Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THE DRAWING OF THE DARK is Tim Powers at his most playful.

Sure, he drags a whole bevvy of archetypes on stage as is his wont, with Fisher Kings and wise men to the fore. But we also get drunk Vikings, enchanted swords, wild journeys with high magic through the mountains, more beer, and large-scale battle scenes.

The plot revolves around the secret history of Europe, and a brewery that conjures up the stuff that champions are made of. It’s fantasy, Jim, but not as we know it.

It’s early Powers, so it’s not as intricate or tight as his later work, and not as densely lyrical. But it’s an awful lot of fun, especially after the Vikings turn up and the mayhem proper gets under way.

And did I mention that Merlin is in there too? And that he has a fondness for smoking dried snakes?

Powers invention is fully to the fore in this one, and also his way with a set piece, with the aforementioned trip through the mountains being a highlight, along with a descent deep into the bowels under the brewery with Merlin, where much that is hidden is revealed and the plot, and the beer, thickens.

A fantasy novel about beer, and Arthurian archetypes by one of the greatest novelists of our time? That’ll do for me.

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Book Review: CAST A COLD EYE by Alan Ryan

Cast A Cold EyeCast A Cold Eye by Alan Ryan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

CAST A COLD EYE preys on my mind. I first read it from our local library when it came out and it gave me nightmares. Then I found a 1st Edition hardcover of it in a book shop in Inverness, where it was stacked by accident in a shelf of Scottish hardcover crime books. I bought it, read it again, and got more nightmares.

There’s something going on in these pages that keys directly into my psyche. I think it’s a Celtic thing, and small towns where old men mutter secrets to each other in smoky bars while someone in the background sings the old songs. I know a bit about that kind of place. And so did Alan Ryan, a wonderful writer taken from us too soon.

He spoke in interviews of how he didn’t spend much time on research, but went for feel and gut instinct in writing it, and in doing so, I think he too tapped into something primal about blood, and kin, and community.

It’s a book with heart and soul, wearing both on its sleeve. Sure, it gets melodramatic in places, but in others there’s a deft handling of creeping dread, and of how the supernatural might creep into a world view otherwise inimical to it.

I’ve found that not many of my supernatural fiction writing buddies have read this one — it seems to have gone under the radar back in the day, and been largely ignored. Which is a great shame, as it’s a great ghost story, a fine piece of writing, and a lovely examination of a way of life that’s disappearing fast. Hopefully the recent Valancourt edition means more people are finding it.

I love it…even if it still gives me nightmares.

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Book Review: THE CEREMONIES by T.E.D. Klein

The CeremoniesThe Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dread is a word you don’t see used much in association with horror fiction any more. And it’s a shame, because used properly, slow building dread can be more horrific than any gore or bloodletting.

Fortunately, there are writers who understand this, and one of the best examples can be found in THE CEREMONIES, which starts slow, gets slower, but accumulates dread along the way like a wool suit collecting cat hairs. And it’s a marvel of timing, precision and skill, with its cast of great characters all circling around the central motifs, each of them catching glimpses of the whole but none completely understanding what they are being shown, or why.

It’s also a remarkably timeless book. It was written before laptops, before cellphones and email, but by setting it mostly in a remote rural farmscape, it feels older still, and its throwbacks to genre giants like Lovecraft and Machen in particular seem to root it even farther back in time again.

The slow build, taking care and attention to let us get to know, if not like, the main characters, gives their respective fates at the climax emotional resonance, and a depth thats often lacking in fiction in the field.

The writing itself is rich and lyrical, the handling of viewpoint and control of pacing is expertly done, and the book is one of the wonders of modern weird fiction.

It’s a shame Klein hasn’t produced more over the years, but kudos to PS Publishing for the fine new paperback edition I read this in, which is a lovely piece of packaging for a book that deserves to be showcased.

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Book Review: 5 of 5 stars to The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

The Stress of Her RegardThe Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favorite Powers books, and that’s saying something, this ranks up there with THE ANUBIS GATES and LAST CALL in the pantheon of greatness.

Again, it’s a simple enough idea — what if the muses of the great Romantic poets were actual supernatural beings, a kind of psychic vampire? From that Powers imagination takes flight and we get Nephilim, Byron, Shelley, Keats and all manner of innocent bystanders pulled under the influence of ancient creatures, Lamia, trying to find a foothold again in the world.

As ever with Powers the language is lyrical, the imagery is staggeringly well conceived and the characters meticulously drawn. There are majestic supernatural set pieces high in the Alps and in the narrow canals and palaces of Venice, musings on the nature of reality, and tying it all together a fractured love story that starts, and ends, in an English pub garden.

It’s such a beautifully put together novel. I’m in envy of the man’s talent.

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Book Review: 5 of 5 stars to Three Days to Never by Tim Powers

Three Days to NeverThree Days to Never by Tim Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do love Tim Powers’ writing. THREE DAYS TO NEVER marks me catching up completely, and finishing reading all of his novels, and they’ve all been brilliant in their own way. A couple haven’t quite grabbed me as much as others, but this one has time travel, remote sensing, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and a great cast of characters tightly bound in an intricate plot. I was hooked from the start.

I’ve been away for two days in Powers’ head, held by his way of taking a weird idea, such as Einstein inventing a time machine, then filtering it through a world view that contains ghosts, ESP and all manner of psychic phenomena. Anybody who has read Powers in recent years knows all his tics and enthusiasms, and they’re here in full, but this is tighter, more controlled than the frenzy of, say, Earthquake Weather, and all the better for it.

There are moments of brilliance here too, in descriptions of how a blind woman can live by seeing through others’ eyes, of swooping travels in the astral planes, and a climactic sequence as tense as any thriller.

But at heart, it’s a story of a broken family, working together for each other against heavy odds, and it’s often rather touching and tender. And funny too, with a comedic touch that’s sometimes absent from Powers’ books.

I’m sorry I took so long getting to this one.

It’s another winner.

And I’m also sorry that there’s no more new Powers books for me to read now. I’ll be waiting impatiently for his next one.

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Book Review: 5/5 stars to Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd

Dan Leno and the Limehouse GolemDan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The play’s the thing.

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for Victorian London fiction, whether it be fiction written at the time by Conan Doyle or Robert Louis Stevenson, or modern takes on it by the likes of Tim Powers, Dan Simmons, Kim Newman or, in this case, Peter Ackroyd.

As in all Ackroyd books, the city itself is a character, and in this one the cast and crew enact a drama while their lives and fortunes intertwine over a period of years. As ever Ackroyd’s literary mechanics are flawless, switching between voices seamlessly, whether it be in the form of trial transcripts, diary entries, or the over-arching, all seeing eye of the city itself. The plot moves along equally seamlessly, each cog in the clockwork moving as it must. At times I was greatly reminded of The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr Hyde in the way matters unfolded.

Reality and fiction are both at play, and they too are intertwined, as bloody murder is mimicked on pantomine stages, and grotesque pantomine is played out in the streets of Limehouse when the Golem walks abroad.

It’s a tour-de-force throughout, and Ackroyd keeps all his balls juggling in the air like one of his music hall performers.

A fine addition to the ranks of Victoriana. I loved it.

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Our Lady Of DarknessOur Lady Of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OUR LADY OF DARKNESS isn’t an exciting read. It’s a slow burner, a mass of details, all seeming inconsequential at first, that build and grow into something that is ultimately rich and strange and terrifying.

There’s a lot going on here, in the range and depth of characters that remind me of some of Raymond Chandler’s or Ross MacDonald’s lost people in California, in the details of the occult nature of city building, and in the secret pasts of famous genre writers such as Jack London and Clark Ashton Smith among others.

It’s all wrapped up in a mystery being solved by a broken man, trying to put a jigsaw of pieces back into some kind of order that might make sense to him.

It’s compelling stuff, and the denouement is the stuff of nightmares for bibliophiles.

One of the great works of modern supernatural literature, it deserves to be much better known than it is.

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