This is one of those books I discovered back in the old days when I was a sixteen year old checkout chick at Woolies and grocery stores used to have remainder bins (do not denigrate the remainder bin, many’s the reader who’s found new authors there and then spent years tracking All Of The Books and buying them at full price). I picked up Night’s Master based on the rather gorgeous cover, and took it home (I also subsequently found Delusion’s Master there, but alas never Delirium’s Mistress nor Death’s Master), and was immediately hooked.
This was Lee’s first book in her Flat Earth series, and it was as if the Thousand and One Nights had a one night stand with all of Greek mythology, and produced a very beautiful, very disturbing baby. It’s got a mosaic structure, each story somehow linking to the others so that at the end everything comes together to make a greater, more complex whole. It’s not really a novel, not really (yes, there will be a fight in the alleyway for anyone who wants to argue later). And I’ve just realised why I’m so damned fond of the mosaic structure in my own work. Huh!
The book is populated by mortals foolish enough who think they can get away with loving − or refusing to love − a demon lord. There are broken princesses made whole and dangerous, monstrous bridegrooms, split souls, vainglorious kings, scheming djinn with their own agendas, and above it all rules Azhrarn, Prince of Demons, who likes to mess with humans. Sometimes he loves them, sometimes he hates them, but it invariably ends badly for the humans. It’s an intoxicating read, delivered like all her work via exquisitely quicksilver language.
(Daw Books, 1978)
Fia the Storygiver wanders, attaching herself to travelling shows and caravans, etching out a living for herself and her small son. She conjures tiny theatrics between her hands after drinking special potions, but Fia’s honest about her abilities: she’s not even a second-rate storygiver. She didn’t finish her training, and the simple tales she tells do best in backwater kingdoms lacking the sophistication of the big cities. But when she arrives in Veliano − as backwater as they come − Fia finds more than she bargained for in the forms of an old (and bitter) lover, a king and queen at odds, an ambitious royal mistress, and a search for the mysterious white pipes which might either build or break a realm.
One of the things I loved about this book was Fia herself. She’s got none of the glamour that attaches to “chosen one” characters, and indeed she’s not chosen! She just happens to be on-the-spot and whatever she does, she does to survive and keep her son safe. She’s unlikely in all senses; she’s fearful and humble, she’s a thief and liar if it means safety, she’s not afraid to be a coward, but she pushes against that when she must. She’s ordinary but she does extraordinary things, taking on a malign queen, a frightened kingdom, and a whole host of enemies both expected and otherwise all to find the white pipes.
How to even begin to describe Barker’s doorstopper of a genius book?
Okay, there’s this carpet, see, and it’s magic: it’s got a whole world wrapped in its warp and weft where the Seerkind are sleeping until their guardian thinks it’s safe for them to come out − until the Scourge that hunted them is gone. Except Mimi, the Custodian, is grown very old and she dies; the carpet is inherited by her granddaughter Suzanna, who doesn’t know anything about the Fugue, which is the land in the carpet, nor her own true blood. There’s the Salesman, Shadwell, who’ll sell anything and everything and accompanies the Incantatrix, Immacolata, who is still hunting Seerkind in order to punish them ... except she’s not the only one still pursuing them. And then there’s Cal, a mortal, a Cuckoo who, having glimpsed the Fugue, basically falls in love with it and determines it must be saved.
I love everything about this book. Everything. I think I was about twenty when I read it and thought “I could never write anything like but, gods, I wish I could!” It is luscious and daring, baroque and terrifying, awful and wonderful and beautiful. I still cannot get the image out of my head of the Rake, a would-be suitor of Immacolata’s on whom she turned the tables, filleting him and making him one of her tame assassins. It’s Barker at his best (for my money and tastes, entirely personal opinion, not one for folk to take as a challenge!); it’s the peak of world-building and reader engagement/bewitchment. It is breath-taking and heart-stopping and I’ll never ceased to yearn to write a villain as achingly wonderful, as lovingly flawed, as determinedly wicked as Immacolata.
Okay, so when your housemate owns a bookstore you basically have a walk-in pantry filled with books. Yes, I am the proverbial fat kid at the dessert table with no one to say “No.” Fellside was one of the books I picked up in my end of 2016 binge (I’ve not read The Girl with All the Gifts as yet because I just wanted to read this one that’s not had all the hype and expectation). I was not disappointed.
Jess Moulson is a drug addict who’s tried and convicted for the manslaughter of her young neighbour Alex − the ten-year-old burned in the fire Jess apparently set to their apartment building on a drug-fuelled bender. She’s sent to Fellside prison to serve her sentence and, convinced of her own guilt, decides that’s not enough: to properly atone for what she’s done, she should die. So Jess goes on a hunger strike. But Fellside is a strange place, neither here nor there and Jess, who’d been clinically dead, is a similar kind of creature. Something resonates between the two, and allows the things that inhabit the prison’s dark corners and grim corridors to manifest − including Alex’s ghost, who haunts her in the gentlest of fashions. Life has not yet let go of Jess Moulson, and she tries to discover who was hurting Alex before the fire − however, the ghost doesn’t remember much of its life and sometimes Jess not entirely sure it’s Alex at all ...
Jess’s investigation sets her against the true and corrupt powers that rule the prison from the shadows.
Fellside’s almost got a Weaveworld feel to it, the sense of a weird mix of the everyday and the eldritch, a strange magic that allows the walls between reality and the other side to become increasingly porous − and you’re not quite sure what might make it way through next. There are a lot of characters and a lot of plot threads, yet all are deftly woven together for a heart-breaking finale.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked for a solicitor in the nice little Brisbane suburb of Moorooka, and one of the joys of my life was the newsagent’s shop a couple of doors up from my office. This was in the days when newsagents stocked books, like proper actual books, rows and rows of them, not just a few on a drunk-looking rotating metal stand to hide the skin mags. And this place used to let me run a tab until pay day: yeah, that’s right. I’m so bad-ass that I put books on my tab, not booze.
Immortal Blood (also published as Those Who Hunt the Night) was one of the books purchased on that very tab. When Oxford academic, folklorist, and spy for Her Majesty Queen Victoria arrives home one evening it’s to find his wife Lydia and their servants all in a deep, unnatural sleep. In the house is an uninvited guest, a young Spaniard Don Simon Ysidro, who claims not only to be a vampire, but also the oldest vampire in the UK. Ysidro has tracked James down (apparently his secret identity as a spy of great ability is less secret than he’d like) and wants to employ him to discover who is murdering the vampires of London. James Asher really has no choice about whether he accepts: Lydia’s life as well as his own are at stake. As Asher and Ysidro take their investigation to the dangerous, grimy, night-time streets of Victorian London, James finds himself conflicted: Ysidro is becoming a friend, though he’s a murderer a thousand times over.
I loved the language of this book, the pace, the recreation of a period in time by which I remain fascinated, and the drawing out of the characters and all their many layers. Imagine my happiness when Hambly continued the James Asher series (of which there are now six books, with a seventh coming out in April this year). Immortal Blood is a fascinating look at Victorian London and a delightful addition to the vampire canon.
Enter the treasure chest that is Angela Slatter's magnificent mind!