Reads, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

51bb55p3dklReads is really three stories. There are two long text pieces we will come back to, but the one most germane to the overall storyline is the continuation of the confrontation between Cerebus, Cirin, Po and Astoria that closed out the last volume. Po is firmly in control here, keeping the other aardvarks on a firm leash as he expounds on the emptiness of power. He is humble, measured, certain and wise. Once he has said his piece, he walks out of the throne room and indeed out of the story. The only one who takes any heed of his words is Astoria. She renounces the chase for power, and opts to seek a quieter, meditative life amongst nature. Her decision is beautiful, one I’m envious of. Of course, Astoria being Astoria, she can’t resist one last quip. That final pause, smile, and suggestion are one of my favourite things in the whole book. And then she’s gone as well, leaving Cerebus and Cirin to duke it out in an epic, gruelling, very physical fight scene that lasts for dozens of pages. They take chunks out of each other, Cirin cuts off Cerebus’ ear, both are drenched in blood. It seems clear that the fight can end in nothing but death for one of them, until – something fell – the walls of the throne room fall away, and the throne itself, with the two rival aardvarks clinging on, starts rising and accelerating away from Iest and out into space. The end. This whole section is amazingly choreographed and drawn, with Gerhard once again excelling at creating a solid three dimensional space for the characters to move around. Paired with the dialogue and four way interaction in the earlier part of the book, this is some of the best Cerebus yet. But it’s only a third of the book.

Like I said, there are two long text pieces running alongside the comics action. Throughout the first half we learn about the misadventures of Victor Reid, a writer of “reads”, penny dreadfuls of the kind we previously saw Oscar writing about Jaka. It’s a roman a clef based on the early 90s comics scene with plenty of recognisable characters. This means that it is hopelessly dated, but it’s interesting in as much as it is a robust defence of Sim’s attitude to publishing and creativity – do it yourself, maintain control, be beholden to no one. Cerebus was of course a self published work throughout its entire run, and this is basically Dave explaining why. But if that wasn’t metafictional enough for you, the second text segment (I say segment, these are more like long essays), opens with a drawing of someone who looks an awful lot like Dave turning from a drawing board on which we can see the pages we’ve just read being created. It’s time to meet Victor Davis. He wants to talk to you.

And talk he does. From here, we are off into something very like the Mind Games from earlier volumes. Victor Davis is addressing someone labelled “the reader”, leading them on, tricking them (I vividly remember my reaction to the issue 200 fakeout when I read it for the first time), and controlling them. It’s interesting stuff, with cameos from Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Davis then switches to telling the reader how (he believes) the world works, an arrangement of Lights, strong, creative, dynamic leaders, and Voids, empty leeches that feed off them and pull them down. Not so controversial in itself – I’ve met plenty of Voids and Lights in my own life – but Davis goes on to divide these qualities along gender lines. Women are Voids, who literally eat the brains of their male partners. Unsurprisingly, this is where a large chunk of the audience got off the bus. This is the part of the series that has led to Cerebus being excoriated online and Dave Sim dismissed as a wacko nutjob (mind you, as far as Dave’s unusual beliefs go, you ain’t seen nothing yet), and that’s before you get onto the Death vs Life spiel after the attacks on feminism. There are points that might be interesting in here, but the presentation of the ideas is let down by hamfisted hyperbole. The writing is incredibly verbose – the Merged Permanence argument Dave spends pages and pages outlining is far better described in Cyril Connolly’s famous one sentence quote about the pram in the hall. Once you wade through it, however, there is much to chew on throughout this whole piece. To what degree are we supposed to equate Victor Davis with Dave Sim? The repeated refrain of “all stories are true” stacked against the way the Big Bang here is exactly the opposite of what Dave showed us at the end of Church & State? How the idea of Merged Permanence is given dramatic life in the hermaphrodite Cerebus, constantly chasing power and wealth but never finding satisfaction? But the burning question, of course, is is Cerebus misogynist?.

I can’t answer that. I’ve turned it over in my head for years, and I’ve never definitively come down on one side of the fence or the other. Some of the statements in Women are highly contentious (“women rape minds….”). Victor Davis’ screeds don’t make for pleasant or sensible reading. And yet, and yet…in just this volume, we’ve seen Milieu’s diligence and passion in the Victor Reid story being thwarted by a lazy indolent man too weak to stand up for himself. We’ve had Astoria, the prototypical modern feminist, as the most sympathetic character, the only one who can recognise wisdom when it is shared with her, and one of the few characters in the whole work who is given a satisfactory character arc (and she has a great exit). Elsewhere in the series, the relationship between the workshy parasite Rick and the artistically committed Jaka is exactly that of a Void and a Light, yet the genders are opposite to Davis’ proclamations.

So, did I enjoy Reads? Pfffft. The Victor Reid section is superfluous and forgettable. The Cerebus stuff is brilliant. The Victor Davis part is alternatively intriguing and infuriating, thought provoking and ridiculous. Ultimately, Reads is what it is. To a significant proportion of that part of the public which cares about comics, it’s come to define Cerebus, although of all the volumes in the series it’s the one that has least to do with Cerebus the character or Cerebus the story. Reads is what you get when you turn away from the Victor Reid route. It’s not edited, it’s not focus grouped, it’s not smoothed down or made palatable. I’m not sure if I like it, but I admire the tenacity, the unyielding vision, the individualism that forced it into being.

Shine on, you crazy diamond.

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Women, by Dave Sim & Gerhard

women

It’s taken me a while to get to writing this one up, maybe because it’s the first volume of this reread that I’ve come away from with a slight feeling of disappointment. In memory it was really exciting, as the four main characters (Cerebus, Cirin, Astoria and Po) embark on individual courses that finally bring them to the great throne room, and the promise of confrontation and the Final Ascension. That does all happen, and the convergence in the final pages is expertly handled, but it’s only about the final twenty per cent or so of the book. Most of the rest is taken up with lengthy dream sequences. While this fits well with the Roach’s latest incarnation as a Sandman parody, such sequences have never been my favourite part of Cerebus. Of course, without the dreams we wouldn’t have as many wanking jokes – the bit where dream Cirin is chastising Swoon / the Roach is laugh out loud funny – so I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice.

As befits a book called Women, the main focus characters here are Astoria and Cirin. This is where Dave really expounds on their political movements. Throughout the book there are facing text pages from each’s manifesto, spelling out the Cirinist and Kevillist viewpoints on all kinds of subjects. Up to now we’ve seen Astoria as a very clever arch manipulator, but we’ve never really known what such manipulation was in aid of. It’s interesting to learn in and of itself, but it also indicates just how much effort Dave had put into the building of Estarcion, and how much work lies under the surface of the story, like an iceberg of fictional history and politics.

While it’s still brilliantly done (really, at this point I’m taking the fantastic art, lettering, dialogue, page construction, etc as a given, which is probably unfair), I don’t think there’s enough differentiation from Flight to merit it being a separate volume. The next two parts of Mothers & Daughters have very individual and distinct feel and this just doesn’t. Furthermore, it doesn’t do enough to advance the storyline – by the end, essentially all that’s happened is that some characters already in Iest have gone somewhere else in Iest. I wouldn’t be complaining if this had been substantially trimmed and rolled into Flight at the planning stage (although that would break the nice correspondence of the four volumes of M&D to the first four storylines).

So, as I say, a slight disappointment. It’s in no way bad, I just don’t think it sustains the achievements of the previous books as well as it could. Oh well, onwards to Reads. That’ll put the cat amongst the pigeons.

The usual random observations:

Astoria’s “go away” is exactly what Cerebus did to her in C&S, likewise just before an ascension. More recurrences and echoes.

I was also sure that this book had the reveal of exactly who the old woman in the cottage that Cerebus crashes into is, but I was wrong about that as well. Trust me, it’s worth waiting for. A comment of hers (“Trust me, all women read minds, with very few exceptions”) also contributes to the title – I just don’t think Dave could resist the idea of four consecutive spines spelling out Women Read(s) Minds(,) Guys(!).

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

28962452Alastair Reynolds is one of my favourite SF writers, so I was very happy to receive a copy of his new novel via NetGalley. But once I started reading it, a few things didn’t quite add up. The lead characters were a pair of teenage girls just finding their way in the universe, there was a description early on of something simple like how acceleration affected gravity…hang on, this is a YA book! I wasn’t best pleased with that realisation.

That was stupid of me.

Turns out Revenger is one of Alastair Reynolds’ very best books. We’re in the far far future. Civilisations have risen and fallen many times, alien interventions have been weathered, and humanity is spread amongst the stars. Sisters Arafura and Adrana have led a sheltered and privileged life on a backwater planet. That’s not enough for them, and, having discovered a talent for bone reading (a mysterious tech that allows for cross space communication), they sign on with Captain Rackamore and his crew to hunt baubles, tiny worldlets that are protected and booby trapped but which can contain lost and very valuable technology inside (this idea of searching through ancient relics to subsist while hoping for a life changing score put me in mind of Gateway, which is not bad company for any SF novel). As you might have guessed from the title of the book, things go badly wrong. Arafura barely survives a bloody encounter outside one bauble, and finds herself alone, left on mission and revenge….

This is an exciting, involving and very fast moving story. Arafura’s consuming need to right wrongs is at the forefront, driving her story forward with the propulsion of a supersonic jet. There are many shades of grey throughout the book. Arafura has to make some hard decisions and do some unpleasant things to further her goal. Come the end, even the villain is perhaps not the vicious psychopath she appeared to be initially. YA or not, it’s also a very violent book, with a high body count and no flinching from blood and gore. It’s never gratuitous though, just a natural extension of the dark and chaotic universe Arafura finds herself in. Space here is hostile and uncaring, and Arafura has to make herself that way to survive.

There’s some lovely writing throughout, especially this passage when Arafura finds herself in space for the first time:

…it was a hazy circle of shimmering, scintillating light, with the Old Sun at its focus, masked and gauzed by all the intervening worlds, so that the Old Sun’s weary light was filtered by its passage through the skyshells of sphereworlds, the glassy windows of tubeworlds, the photon- shifting fields of baubles themselves, sometimes pushing that light from red to blue, sometimes from blue to red. And I’d go on to say the cumulative effect of all those worlds floating between us and the Old Sun was to create a constant twinkling granularity, an unending dance of glints, from ruby-red to white, from white to indigo, and an almost impossibly deep purple-blue.

If that doesn’t thrill you just a little bit, then you have no business reading science fiction. Throw in an ending that goes up and on and out in the best SF tradition, and you have an excellent book. I don’t know if Reynolds intends to return to this universe or not, but I’ll be first in the queue if he does.

Oh, and at the very end, when you realise exactly what you’ve been reading…well, a Kindle suddenly seems a lot more attractive.

Certain Dark Things, by Silvia Garcia-Moreno

Certain-Dark-Things-632x960I really enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s previous novel, Signal To Noise, so I had high expectations of this one. Once again, it is set in contemporary(ish) Mexico, but the previous book’s empathetic descriptions of adolescent first love and attendant heartbreak have been replaced by something far darker. This is a world where vampires are real. In Mexico they run the drug cartels, and are violent, lawless criminals, much feared across the country. Mexico City itself is protected by walls and checkpoints. It is supposedly a vampire-free zone, but practice is far slipperier than theory….

The main viewpoint character is Domingo, a teenage street kid who supports himself by picking litter. He encounters the glamourous Atl, a vampire on the run but bent on revenge, and falls under her spell. The book charts their relationship as they struggle to escape the city and avoid the frankly nasty Nick Godoy, a vampire of a different subspecies who is obsessed with catching Atl.

There’s a lot to like in this book. The sense of place is outstanding, and the atmosphere of Mexico City is very well rendered. The vampire taxonomy is interesting, with plenty of opportunity to explore further should Ms Garcia-Moreno write any more books in this milieu.
Domingo is a very sympathetic character, naive and likeable, and pleasingly upbeat despite the crappy hand life has dealt him. I did think that sometimes the reality of exactly what Atl really is was glossed over. She is by no means an out and out good guy (not least because she’s not a guy at all, but you know what I mean), but looking at her through Domingo’s starstruck eyes we have to put that together ourselves. That said, her transgressions are hugely overshadowed by the psychopathic sadism of Nick, the real villain. Make no mistake, this is a very violent book, but it’s also a gripping noir thriller with an exciting climax in a location I don’t think I’ve ever seen used this way before. It’s a fresh and original take on the vampire genre, and well worth a read.

[reviewed from an advance copy provided by NetGalley]

Fight Like A Girl, by many and various

fight-like-a-girl-v2-400ppiWomen in conflict is the theme of this anthology. Edited by Bristolians Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke, it features fifteen stories, all by female authors, spanning fantasy and SF. The overriding flavour is one of gritty combat. There’s no cheesecake fluff here – think Ellen Ripley, not a screaming 1970s Doctor Who companion. Of course, the nature of anthologies is that you’re going to like some stories more than others, but there are no real duffers here. I’ll highlight a few that stood out for me. My favourite was probably Lou Morgan‘s “Archer 57”, a tale of loss, revenge and desperation in a dystopian future. Joanne Hall‘s “Arrested Development” has a nasty sting in the tail that makes you reassess the protagonist and ponder the ethics of what she’s doing. KT Davies‘ “The Quality Of Light” is more a vignette than a full story, but it’s an evocative piece that conjures the sensations of medieval battle very effectively (like I would know). Danie Ware‘s “Unnatural History” is a bughunt, not a stand up fight, a gothic monster movie with hints of Lovecraft and Mieville. “Fire And Ash” by Gaie Sebold is rightly placed at the end of the book. It’s about aftermath, surviving the wars and what comes next.
Overall, it’s a good collection, with some really strong pieces in. My only caveat would be that reading all the stories in one splurge means the theme becomes a bit repetitive and restricting, but that’s an issue with all themed anthologies, and one easily avoided by pacing yourself (if you can) and parcelling the stories out. You can order it from the publisher: http://www.kristell-ink.com

A City Dreaming, by Daniel Polansky

city-dreaming-polansky-e1461348167145After five strong secondary world fantasy novels, this is a change of direction for Daniel Polansky. It’s firmly set in a modern New York of hipsters and craft beers, but also one where the supernatural is very real. There are pirates on the Gowanus Canal, a subway ride through the circles of Hell, and goblin markets where you can buy your heart’s desire. The sense of place is one of the strengths of the book. We see it all, from Wall Street financier luxury to grubby dive bars. Our hero is the almost nameless M, a magician without any visible means of support who nevertheless has a knack for navigating the city and its denizens to his advantage. If he’s between homes, an apartment sitting gig will open up, if he’s thirsty someone will buy him a drink. His insouciant cockiness puts me in mind of no one so much as John Constantine. In fact, there’s a vaguely edgy, vaguely hip quality to the whole book that’s reminiscent of mid 90s Vertigo comics.

It’s an engaging read, but it’s quite lightweight. I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it, but I’m not sure how long it will linger in the mind. The lack of gravity is emphasised by the structure. It’s more a series of vignettes, episodic adventures of M and his friends, than it is a complete novel. There is a loosely overarching story of two rival magical leaders, but it’s mostly background stuff until the end. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Polansky had been writing these stories as palate cleaning diversions between his other novels and has now lashed them together as his next book. That might be a good way to approach reading it, taking a couple of stories at a time and then breaking for something else before picking it up again.

A City Dreaming is a fun and enjoyable book, just don’t expect it to change your life.

Europe In Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

18143945Today seems like a good day to post this one…

Europe In Autumn is set in a near future Europe, where in the aftermath of pandemic and economic collapse nations are splitting and fracturing into smaller states and entities. Devolution is the order of the day, from a bunch of organised football hooligans who have commandeered an ageing tower block estate, to an entire transcontinental railway line that runs from Portugal to Siberia. As countries spin off ever more republics, duchies and polities, like glaciers calving icebergs, border crossings and controls have become very tightly enforced, which in turn leads to a black market in couriers who can transport data, documents and even people across lines the local authorities would prefer them not to. The lead players in this market are Les Coureurs Du Bois, a cloak and dagger organisation dedicated to an idealistic vision of a world without borders and complete freedom to move – the Schengen dream revived.

We are introduced to Les Coureurs through Rudi, an peripatetic Estonian chef working in a Krakow restaurant. An encounter with some drunken rowdy Hungarians ends with him being inducted into their ranks, and embarking on a series of training missions where we see him build his operational knowledge, from a bumbling beginner to someone who can assess a situation and work out all the angles in a matter of minutes. Ultimately things go catastrophically wrong, pitching him into an unknown world of shifting loyalties and double crosses straight out of the finest espionage fiction, as he travels across a fractured continent trying to discover exactly who wants him dead. The novel reads more like Le Carré than it does SF, along with a heavy dose of Kafka’s Eastern European paranoia, before it opens out in the final few chapters.

This is a tremendous novel. Hutchison‘s writing is deft enough to keep the pages turning no matter how complex the plot gets (and boy, does it get complex), the espionage tradecraft is fascinating, and the evocation of a broken Europe seething with thousands of different cultural grudges is outstanding. I’ve just finished reading it for a second time, and it’s still of the most invigorating, unputdownable books I’ve read in recent years.