Read Recently — November 2016 — Bros before Zombies

The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

Spoiler warning: the beginning of this novel spoils the end of the last Cabal novel, Johannes Cabal: the Fear Institute, as well as the end of the first novel. If you have not read them and intend to, go do so before you read this review. You have been warned

When last we saw Johannes Cabal, he was making his way home from the Dreamlands via an ingenious, albeit complicated, method. Arriving at his own front gate he found himself dying and unable to make it to the door, never mind get inside and brew up the cure for his condition. At the last moment he is rescued by a mysterious figure who takes him inside (confounding Cabal’s carnivorous front-yard guardians) and nurses him back to health. The last words of the novel were Cabal at last awakening, seeing his rescuer, and reacting with shocked recognition.

This book starts with a prologue that goes back to the point of Cabal’s arrival at the house and his subsequent collapse and rescue. And after a couple of pages of mystery, we meet his rescuer: Johannes’ brother, Horst Cabal. Readers of the first book (which I hope includes all of you, as I am about to spoil its climax) will recall that Horst was turned into a vampire while helping Johannes fight one such undead, and that at the climax of that book he stepped out and faced the dawn in an ultimately successful attempt to force his brother to do good rather than evil. Horst spends the first part of the novel telling his brother how it is that he once more walks the earth, rather than drifting in the wind as a handful of ashes.

It seems that he was raised from the dead by a group of what at first seem to be cultists: robed men (and three women in particular, brought to provide Horst with a post-resurrection meal and the traditional three vampire brides afterward. Horst, being Horst, doesn’t realise what’s intended, refuses to murder the women, and takes a small amount from each of the group). They refer to him as the Lord of the Dead, and have an airship to transport him to an unnamed city. In the course of the journey, Horst learns that he was chosen particularly for a group called “the Ministerium” by the specific orders of a queen. They were expecting someone more, well, bloodthirsty.

Arriving at a suitably spooky castle, Horst learns that the Ministerium Tenebrae has gathered a suitable collection of monsters: in addition to himself, the Lord of the Dead, there is Misericorde, Lady of the Risen (a necromancer) and Devlin, Lord of the Transfigured (a werewolf, and leader of a community of lycanthropes (including a comically-encountered werebadger; Horst is forced to kill him when he leaves the castle and frankly regards it as a mercy killing)); under the leadership of the Red Queen (whom Horst does not meet) they intend to create a land of monsters to stand against the forces that otherwise hunt and kill vampires, lycanthropes and necromancers (there is one more Lord: the Lord of Powers, who has not yet arrived and whose role is not clearly defined). The main leaders of the Ministerium are a rather mundane lot, whose role is to supply (and eventually receive) money.

Horst, of courst (sorry) wants no part of all this and, with the help of the maid who has been assigned to his quarters and is, in fact, a trained spy currently working for the Dee Society, an occult group fighting against the type of monsters such as Horst, escapes. Horst proves to be as charming to the Dee Society as he does to the reader and they form an unlikely alliance (soon to include a train full of women barnstormers) and, confronted by the unexpectedly dangerous spells of the at-last-arrived Lord of Powers, flee the country. Horst decides that he needs the help of a powerful figure, an intelligent and sidewise thinker: his brother. Which brings us back to the beginning of the book.

Johannes proves to be exactly what the anti-Ministerium forces need, though his plan does involve at one point the line, “this is the part where most of you will die”. However, two very important questions remain as they close in on the castle: who and what is the Lord of Powers? And who and what is the Red Queen? Did they choose Horst Cabal as their Lord of the Dead exactly so that he would involve Johannes? And where will the story go from here?

Highly recommended, but only if you’ve read the rest of the series first.

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Read Recently — October 2016 — And the rest

A Mind To Murder by P. D. James

My second James “Dalgliesh” mystery is the second Dalgliesh mystery. The private psychiatric clinic known as the Steen Clinic is run by a totally disfunctional-family-esque group of doctors and staff. When administrative officer Miss Bolam is found murdered in the basement, Dalgleish must investigate. We get to spend more time with Dalgleish in this one, rather than spending most of our time with the suspects, which was my main complaint about the first one (Cover Her Face). The mystery is a decent one, less of a “locked-room” than a “locked-building” and Dalgleish doesn’t gather all the suspects for the big reveal. All things considered, the series moves forward nicely. Recommended, and you don’t need to have read the first one for this to make sense.

How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog by Chad Orzel

Chad Orzel is a physics prof, and he really does have a dog, named Emmy. I doubt, however, that she really talks, though I am willing to believe that if she did she would be totally ready to consider how quantum uncertainly applies to the issue of catching squirrels.

So yes, this is a good basic intro to quantum physics; I suggest that rather than trying to teach your dog you use it to teach any humans around you who might not be as smart as the dog is.

Recommended.

War Factory: Transformation, book two by Neal Asher

Sequel to Dark Intelligence.

Thorvald Spear continues to pursue the rogue AI Penny Royal, which may itself be seeking redemption. With Spear goes the depressed war drone Riss and eventually Trent Sobel, former lieutenant of Isobel Satomi, formerly a crime-lord and for a brief period of time a hooder. With Penny Royal goes Captain Blite and the crew of his trading ship, the Rose. They had spent most of the last book ferrying Penny Royal around, and had rather hoped they were done with that. Also pursuing Penny Royal is the rogue Prador Sverl, who underwent some uncomfortable changes due to the AI. Pursuing Sverl is Cvorn, another rogue Prador who was once a colleague of Sverl but now objects to how the other has changed. Penny Royal leads them, and the forces of the Prador King, who wants to eliminate Sverl in the interests of racial purity. All of these forces are being led to the place where things began, War Factory Room 101, a free-floating deep space facility that, at the time of the Prador War created a number of AI weapons (including Riss and Penny Royal itself) before going mad and shutting down.

For a series seemingly about redemption, this is fairly grim. A lot of people die in horrible ways, particularely once the story introduces the Brockle, a forensic AI that can thoroughly strip a mind down to its basics in order to get all available information from it and which, since it is in fact an insane sadist, is given those with death sentences on them: once it has gotten the information needed it is free to kill the subject in whatever horrible way it chooses. As an insane sadist, the Brockle is kept locked up but, having learned about Penny Royal from some characters from the last book — including some people we had cause to give a damn about — it decides that Penny Royal is a worse monster and decides to join the general pursuit (however, the Brockle spends most of this volume torturing, killing, and planning its escape). This suggests that the third volume of what is probably a trilogy will contain some more unpleasant scenes.

Of course, if you’ve been reading Asher before you are probably aware that this is a thing he does. Horrible deaths ‘r’ us, you might say. And of course if you’ve read the first book in this series and enjoyed it you are certainly going to go on. However, if you haven’t, you shouldn’t start this one until you do. Mildly recommended for those encountering Asher for the first time (until they read Dark Intelligence); recommended for Asher fans.

Read Recently — October 2016 — Magickal Girls

From A High Tower: the Elemental Masters, book ten by Mercedes Lackey

Trigger warnings for attempted sexual assault.

If the title doesn’t make it clear, the opening chapter does: this is Lackey’s Elemental Masters version of Rapunzel. Like Blood Red, this one is set in Germany, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century, though as usual it is difficult to tell exactly when. About the only thing I can say for sure is that WWI is not raging, as it was in the last couple of British-set books. Would it kill Lackey to have someone think of the year once?

Anyway, in a brief prologue, Friedrich Schnittel, whose family lives in dire poverty in Freiburg, discovers (in the course of scouring the town for edible food waste he can still feed to his family) a walled garden mysteriously flourishing with vegetables (including Rampion, a vegetable for which his pregnant wife is craving (rampion is the English name for rapunzel, after which the eponymous heroine of the story was named)). He raids the garden over several nights, but at last is caught by its owner, a fierce woman with some fiercer dogs. She agrees to let him feed the family from her garden in exchange for the upcoming child. As this will be child nine, and Friedrich is having enough difficulty feeding the eight, he reluctantly agrees. When the child (a girl, of course) is born, the woman appears and takes her away. Friedrich and family wind up moving into the house attached to the garden, the woman and her dogs having disappeared as mysteriously as they came.

We then leap several years forward, to Giselle (the child from the prologue, of course) living in the tower room of an old abbey in the forest. The mysterious woman, whom she calls Mother, is an Earth master, which is how she was able to get a garden to bloom in the winter) and Giselle, it turns out, is an air master. Which is why she lives in the tower, with windows open to all sides and all winds. Giselle’s hair grows unnaturally fast, though neither she nor Mother knows why. While Mother is away to Freiburg on a shopping trip and looking in on Giselle’s old family, Giselle encounters a handsome hunter, who converses with her from the ground for several days until he convinces her to let him into the tower, at which point he attacks her. Fortunately, Mother returns, with dogs in tow, and the hunter takes an unplanned trip out the window (the rope he had used to climb up and presumably had meant to climb down with has mysteriously gone missing). His body is never found (cue ominous music). Blaming herself for not having trained Giselle to defend herself, Mother brings in a pair of the Bruderschaft, the Hunters of the Black Forest,who we met in the last book as well, to train her.

And again we jump forward in time. At the start of the third chapter, Giselle is a grown woman and Mother is dead. While Giselle still has the abbey, in order to get money to keep it working she disguises herself as a boy and enters shooting contests during local fairs. She’s a good marksperson, and as an Air Master she can get elementals to direct her shots if she has to. However, this time it is being disguised as a boy that causes the problem: her pretend identity isn’t listed for conscription and a sadistic local officer decides to grab her on the spot. Then he dies of a heart attack while interrogating her in his locked office and she flees. She gets away safely, but that stream of revenue is closed to her.

Fortunately, thanks to hack novelist Karl May (real guy; Lackey discusses him in the foreword), Germany is enthralled with the Wild West and several Wild West shows are touring the countryside. One such smaller show, having lost their female sharpshooter, is looking for a replacement. They choose Giselle because their leader, Captain Cody, has a small talent for fire magic, and the leader of their small group of Pawnee Native Americans, Leading Fox, is basically an air master (though there are some slight differences in how his magic works). Giselle is joined by Rosamund, the Huntress from the last book, and the rest is a series of seemingly-unconnected adventures, until the troupe, looking for a place to overwinter, decides to join Giselle at the Abbey. Where the question of a certain hunter, whose body was never found, comes up again. Could he have been more than he appeared to be? Could he have had allies? Might he return?

Lackey continues to do the usual good work she has been doing with this series. The decision to relocate the series temporarily to Germany pays off with the Karl May/Wild West Show stuff, and though I can’t speak to how accurate Lackey’s characterization of the Pawnee is she is at least as usual sympathetic to them. While it helps to have read Blood Red so as to understand Where Rosamund is coming from, it isn’t necessary to have read any of the other Elemental Masters books at all to read this one. One thing that might irritate some people is that Cody speaks in a broad “western” dialect (and so do several other performers) and Lackey spells it out phonetically (“Missy, I don’t know what spooks you Germans, but us Americans ain’t afeard of no ghosties.”). Caveat emptor, and all that. Recommended.

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

One of the leading types of fantasy for children is what’s called “portal fantasy”: someone from our world finds (or is found by) a doorway to another world, usually a magic world where the child is someone special, someone chosen to save everyone from great evil. Then they usually get sent back to the mundane world and it is a rare example of the breed in which the author devotes much space to what happens to the child afterwards. It certainly can’t be easy to readjust to the world as it is when you are aware of the world plus magic, magic which you may never be able to have again . . .

Eleanor West runs a boarding school that helps just such children. Disguised as a home for troubled children, which in a way it is, it is staffed by former portal fantasy heroes including Miss West herself. To the school comes Nancy, who went to Halls of the Dead and is having some trouble re-acclimating herself to the ways of life. She rooms with Sumi, who went to a candy world and is rather annoying, especially to someone who is used to spending 18 hours a day standing still and eating nothing but pomegranate juice (if we’re in allegorical territory, and one often is in portal fantasies, Nancy’s dietary limitations might be an allegory for eating disorders). Still, Nancy wouldn’t murder Sumi and steal her hands . . . but someone did and Nancy, with the help of a few others who might be friends if they can learn to trust each other (if they in fact can trust each other; someone is after all killing students and stealing parts of their bodies), has to find out who, and why. And stop them.

This is, in its way, a beautiful story, but it’s also a rather dark story, as murder mysteries are liable to be. It’s also a rather short story, classified as a novella or a novelette, I am not sure which and anyway, I don’t know what the difference is (I’m not sure anyone knows, except that one is best served with a red wine and the other with a white). Like all of McGuire’s work, there is much that is interesting here, including that many of the kids (most of whome are teens) are of alternate sexualities (Nancy is asexual; Kade is transgendered). On the other hand, it certainly isn’t for everyone. Sequels are alleged, and I don’t know if I, personally, will read them. Still, this is cautiously recommended.

Read Recently — October 2016 — Cabal

Johannes Cabal The Detective: a novel by Jonathan L Howard

The second Cabal novel begins in media res, with Johannes Cabal in a cell beneath Harslaus Castle in the nation of Mirkarvia, somewhere in Eastern Europe (I found myself wondering, when reading the first book as to whether Cabal’s world was meant to be our history or another world, rather like ours, but with some important differences. This volume makes it clear that Cabal’s world is not ours. Oh, the Ruritanianity of Mirkarvia is no proof; such pretend countries have often been intended by their authors to be taken as some small country that the reader just doesn’t recognise (though it is amusing to note that Mirkarvia is not only like Ruritania, it has actually at one point in its history gone to war with her!), but the technology used by the flying machines we are exposed to in this novel and going forward is not that of our world, and the difference is a spectacular one. More on this anon). Cabal was attempting to borrow a book on necromancy from the local university library. Since he intended the loan to be of a permanent nature, the librarians were not pleased when he was caught, and since he is, after all, a necromancer, he is now awaiting execution.

Fortunately, the Mirkarvian emperor had the bad taste to drop dead just a week before he was due to give an important speech, which would allow Count Marechal, an important figure in the military, to begin plans to invade the country’s neighbours and restore the empire, otherwise lost to history. What good luck, then, that a necromancer has dropped right into his lap! Cabal can go ahead and get executed, or he can raise the emperor at least long enough to make the speech and then go free (with his book, though Cabal correctly suspects that Marechal intends to kill him whether he succeeds or not). Fortunately, Cabal is up to the challenge, gets the emperor up long enough to make the speech (though things at the end go rather . . . off, and then, adopting the identity of Gerhard Meissner, a minor civil servant who he slightly resembles, makes his escape on the airship Princess Hortense, a luxury ship on her maiden cruise.

This airship is no dirigible or blimp; “rather [she] nullified [her] weight with banks of Laithwaite gyroscopic levitators and pulled [herself] through the air using magneto-etheric line guides that located and attached the vessel to the earth’s own magnetic fields.” Cabal joins the company aboard, one of whom unfortunately is the young Englishwoman Leonie Barrow, who was present at the climax of the first book and who, thus, knows and, as a law-abiding woman, loathes Cabal. She does not, however, give him away, because Mirkarvia has the death penalty for necromancy and she disapproves of the death penalty. However, neighbouring Senza only goes in for life imprisonment, and as they will be stopping off in Senza (Senza loathes and mistrusts Mirkarvia, for good historical reasons, and won’t allow any Mirkarvian aircraft, even civilian ones like this one, pass through without a thorough customs inspection), she will denounce him there.

Fortunately for Cabal, the man in the cabin next to his vanishes in the night, seemingly having thrown himself from his cabin window. Only Cabal and Miss Barrow believe it to be murder, so they are forced to work together to investigate. There is at least one attempt on Cabal’s life, though I think it is non-spoilerous to say that he survives, there being at least three more books in the series. After the main book ends there is appended a short story, “The Tomb of Umtak Ktharl”, that tells, in the form of a story told in a club, some of what happened the Cabal afterwards.

Johannes Cabal: the Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard

Cabal is visited at his home by Messrs Shadrach, Corde, and Bose (pronounced Bo-see), who represent the titular Institute. They intend to seek out the embodiment of fear and destory it, arguing, not without some cause, that fear is the one thing that holds humanity back. This is not the sort of thing that is easy to do, and while Cabal approves of the idea it’s not really his sort of thing. But the Institute believes that they can find the avatar of fear in the Dreamlands (made famous by H P Lovecraft) and if Cabal leads them (he has never been there, but he can do the research and prepare; he has connections to do that sort of thing and of course is very hard to scare) and in return they’ll give him the Silver Key which will allow him to reenter the Dreamlands physically as often as he wishes.

Cabal agrees, and leads the group to Arkham, Mass., where he expects to find the gate of the Silver Key, allowing them to enter the Dreamlands. Almost before they get there, though, they face opposition that they don’t expect. And once in the Dreamlands, they discover that they may have come to the attention of Nyarlathotep, a god whose, well, attention is never a good thing. Will the members of the Institute actually capture the avatar of fear and dispose of it? Don’t be silly. Will Cabal actually escape the Dreamlands, get home alive, and actually make it through his own front door? That might also be pushing it.

This series is, in general, darkly humorous. It doesn’t do to get too attached to any character not named Cabal (and be cautious even there–remember Horst?),but Johannes’ newly returned conscience won’t let him run away from someone innocent in danger as quickly as he used to. In my opinion, each volume gets better than the ones before it, and you could probably get away with not reading the earlier ones and still understand the later ones. On the other hand, if you like these then reading the earlier ones would enhance your enjoyment of these, and if you don’t enjoy them (there is that whole “sense of humour” thing to take into account) then reading the earlier ones would warn you to skip these. So, while both these volumes are recommended, I’d suggest starting out with the first volume and going on from there.

Read Recently — October 2016 — Secret and Confidential Agents

From A Drood to a Kill: a Secret Histories novel by Simon R. Green

Eddie Drood is searching for his parents, missing since Casino Infernale (here). Though it really takes about half the book to get going, since first he and Molly have to break into the Drood manor and demand that the Droods help (as they promised to do some time ago) and then the Drood Armourer (Eddie’s favourite uncle) dies and he has to attend the funeral. Somewhere in there, Molly disappears. It turns out that, like Eddie’s parents, she has unwisely sold her soul perhaps one too many times and the debt has been, as it were, picked up by a group called “the Powers that Be”. And they, in their turn, have planned something called “The Big Game”. Eddie was not originally invited to play, he not having sold his soul, but he manages to break into the site for the game, and that gains him an in. Both of his parents and Molly are players by default, along with several others. But now that Eddie’s involved, the four of them have enough power that they should get through any kind of competition easily, right?

Of course not. The competition involves killing all the other players; only one can emerge (alive) victorious. Even if Eddie hadn’t decided not to kill anymore, three of the players are too precious to him to risk. And who, exactly, are the Powers That Be? Can Eddie face them down?

Green is up to his usual standard here, which is to say that this is a decent time-passer if you’ve read the rest of the series, and mildly recommended. If you haven’t read the rest, you want to start with The Man With The Golden Torc.

Garrett for Hire: Deadly Quicksilver Lies/Petty Pewter Gods/Faded Steel Heat by Glenn Cook

The third Garrett Omnibus edition brings on the next three books of the series (that is, books seven, eight and nine), and everyone’s favourite sex-obsessed high-fantasy detective continues getting into trouble.

In Deadly Quicksilver Lies, Garrett is approached by his “friend” Winger, who is currently working for a rich guy up on the Hill. Said rich guy thinks that Garrett is about to be hired by a woman named Maggie Jenn and he wants to know why. Winger being Winger, she decides to take the easy route and just let Garrett know so that when Jenn hires him, he can tell Winger and she can tell her boss. Moments later, Maggie Jenn does in fact, hire Garrett, or at least someone claiming to be her. Maggie was once the King’s mistress, a couple of Kings ago. She’s rarely in town these days, but now she wants Garrett to find her daughter, who is missing, probably run away. Seems simple enough.

Things get pretty deep before they get finished. Maggie Jenn has her secrets, and so does Winger’s employer, and those secrets may be related to each other — as may their keepers. There are books involved (as there are in all really good mysteries) and a lot of flamboyant characters. One name that gets dropped and returns in future volumes is Marengo North English, leader of a Racist group called “The Call” (it’s short for “the call to arms”). One thing about fantasy settings: as Terry Pratchett pointed out, racism doesn’t usually mean one set of humans against another. Why be upset about black humans when you’ve got elves to worry about?

However, if you’re going to skip any one Garrett book, you could safely skip this one. There’s a surprising amount of homophobia in it. I mean, okay, homophobia is likely in the best of societies, but I’d think a place like Tunfair, where Ogre-human crossbreeding happens often enough for them to have their own street gangs would be a little more liberal on how humans have sex with other humans. And even if it weren’t, I’d want better from Garrett himself.

Petty Pewter Gods has Garrett selected to help mediate a quarrel between two of the lowest-ranking pantheons on the Street of the Gods. There is only one temple left and whichever one of them finds the key gets to keep it; the loser must leave and have no temple, and soon thereafter probably no worshippers, at all. And what happens to them after that won’t be nice at all.

So it’s a full-fledged divine football game with Garrett as the ball and, of course, treachery at every turn. It is, all things considered, a lot of fun, and possibly the best book in this volume.

Faded Steel Heat has Tinnie Tate finally return, in the company of Alyx Weider, Daughter of Max Weider, the brewery-owner who keeps Garrett on a retainer for security reasons. Garrett thinks highly of Max, and is quite fond of Alyx, especially now that she’s grown up a bit. It seems that the Call have been trying to extort money from the rich families of Tunfaire, including the Weiders and the Tates, Tinnie’s family (there is no chance that the Call is tough enough to extort the Tates). Alyx would like Garrett to make the Call back off, especially since there is a big family wedding coming soon (no, not her: her older brother.

But there’s more going on than just racists running protection scams. There’s yet another force in Tunfaire, one with special needs that draw it to the Weider family, and will result in tragedy before Garrett and the Dead Man can draw it out into the open.

One of the things about the Garrett series is that things progress; the stories and setting don’t reset to zero at the end of each story, as they do in some series. Most mystery series work that way, of course, but not all fantasy series’ do. In addition you get Garrett himself, a hard-boiled detective of the old school, with the Dead Man as Nero Wolfe and Morely Dotes as Hawk. All three books are all right, though I could do without the homphobia in Lies.

All told, the omnibus in itself is recommended.

Read Recently — September 2016 — Big Finish: Ships Sink

Akira: book 6 by Katsuhiro Otomo

The American Commando team assaults the heart of the Great Tokyo Empire, hoping to snatch Akira. It is an action they soon have cause to regret, though at least not for long. We finally get to see a bit from the movie (when Tetsuo escapes from the hospital): where Tetsuo imagines, not a perfectly spherical cow, but rather a perfectly spherical American — not a condition suitable for a long and happy life. The American fleet bombards Neo-Tokyo and unleashes their own laser satellite, Floyd, on the city. This is about as effective in taking out Tetsuo as SOL was; and in fact Tetsuo drops Floyd on the flagship.

Of course, as far as Kaneda’s concerned this is all the sideshow; the real battle is between him and Tetsuo. And they are going to have it out this time. All the childhood friends gone wrong . . .

By this point in the series I don’t have to tell you whether to read this or not: if you’ve read the first five, you must read this one. The story remains sometimes opaque but you can figure things out if you pay attention and the art is superb from beginning to end. Highly Recommended.

Dead Wake: the last crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

A “Dead Wake” was the term used to describe the trail of bubbles left behind by a WWI U-boat torpedo. The bubbles were caused by compressed air, fired out the rear of the torpedo to turn the propellers. On Friday, May 7th, 1915, one such wake raced towards the Cunard Liner Lusitania, heading from the US to Liverpool. A few hours later, the ship was sunk, though fewer people died than you might expect. The sinking of the Lusitania is credited with bringing the US into the war, though of course as you might expect it’s a little more complicated than that. Larson, author of the excellent The Devil In The White City and Thunderstruck does his usual work, working from documents left behind by survivors of the ship, the Captain of the U-20, which sank her, and Woodrow Wilson, President of the US at the time, who would have to make the difficult decision as to whether to take the US into the War or not.

Overall, a fascinating book, well-written and illuminating about an event that even now people know about, but don’t necessarily understand. Highly recommended.

Read Recently — September 2016 — Fantasy

The Amazing Maurince and his Educated Rodents: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

So there’s this old story, you might have heard of it: there’s this village that is overrun by rats. They spoil the food and scare the people and nothing they do can drive them away. Then this guy shows up with a pipe (musical variety) and he plays music and the rats follow him out of town. Since the Discworld basically runs on narrative, this sort of thing happens all the time there. It particularely happens in towns visited by the titular characters.

Maurice isn’t some kind of ringmaster in a travelling show, he isn’t the guy with the pipe, and he isn’t one of the rats. He’s a cat.

Maurice and the rats are educated. They grew up in Ankh-Morpork, on the trash heap outside the Unseen University (Ankh-Morpork’s magic university) and the rats became intelligent and able to speak because they were eating the magickal waste. How Maurice became intelligent remains a mystery (though we do get a solution before the end of the book) as he certainly wasn’t eating magickal waste (he’s a cat, after all. Cats have standards). They also learned to read, which led to them naming themselves things like “Dangerous Beans” and “Hamnpork”.

Maurice supplied the piper; a stupid-looking kid who he calls “Stupid-looking Kid”, or “Kid” for short. And of course, Maurice came up with the scam. The rats are organized (they have squads that find and disarm traps, squads that steal food, squads that do synchronized swimming in the milk buckets; they have a visionary genius who is creating rat-writing (the above-mentioned Dangerous Beans) and they have a sort of religion with a giant rat underground and the Bone Rat, who comes for you when you die (that one happens to be true. We’ve met the Bone Rat; he is the Death of Rats, the only sub-death who didn’t get absorbed by the Discworld’s main Death at the end of Reaper Man. And we will see him, before the end of the book, when Maurice faces Death). They even have a sort-of-holy book, Mr. Bunnsy Has An Adventure.) And of course they have the start of a sense of ethics, which leads them to declare to Maurice, as they arrive at the start of book at the town called “Bad Blintz”, that this should be the last time that they run the scam. They’ll divide the money three ways (one to the rats, one to Maurice, and one to the kid — the rats want to find an island and create their own culture. The Kid doesn’t care what he does, as long as he gets to play music. Maurice . . . I think Maurice just wants to win; the money is a way of keeping score) and go their own ways. Maurice agrees (since he can’t talk them out of it) but says they should therefor make this one spectacular!

But there’s something going on in Bad Blintz; there’s supposedly already a rat problem so bad that the town keeps two rat catchers permanently employed, but the rats can’t find any native rats. There are lots of rat tunnels, filled with traps and poisons, but no rats except the recent arrivals. And there’s something else . . . something new, or very old. Something that lurks beneath the town. Something tha threatens humans and rats . . . and Maurice.

Pratchett has a way of taking what should be a light-hearted kids’ story and turning it into a lesson on philosophy and humanity at both its best and its worst. That’s what he’s done here, and by now we shouldn’t be surprised. The rats, for all that they often stand in for something human, are rats, and Maurice is a cat, not just a fast-talking con man (though he does struggle with what it means to be an intelligent cat, not just a bundle of instincts). There is of course the usual Pratchettian consideration of stories vs. life, particularely in the form of young Malicia Grim, the daughter of the Mayor of Bad Blintz and the descendent of the Grim Sisters, famous storytellers, who spends much of her time in the story trying to figure out what kind of story she is in.

Overall, a decent addition to the Discworld canon and a fun, thought-provoking story. What more could you ask for? Recommended.

Lovecraft Country: a novel by Matt Ruff

To begin with, let us note that this is not a novel per se; rather it is a single tale told in a collection of stories, all of which were written specially for this volume and not published separately before (and thus it is not a short-stoy collection, or anything of that sort), which involve a connected cast of characters. The episodic format was chosen deliberately because Ruff originally intended the book as a TV series (“monster of the week”). Ironically (or perhaps not) the book has since been optioned for TV production.

The protagonist of the first story, titled “Lovecraft Country”, is Atticus Turner, a recent US Army veteran mustered out after the Korean war. He makes his way from Jacksonville to Chicago, a journey not without risk for a black man in the 1950s, where he stays with his uncle George. George, the brother of Atticus’ father Montrose, and father to young Horace, who dreams of being a comic book artist. George also publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book which tells Black travelers what places will serve them (and, of course, that places not mentioned aren’t safe). It’s also worth mentioning that George, Horace and Atticus are all science fiction/fantasy readers.

Montrose isn’t around, but he has sent Atticus a letter, saying that he has tracked down Atticus’ late Mother’s heritage, which she was never interested in. He says that Atticus has a birthright. And he says that it’s in Arkham, Mass. Now, Atticus is well aware that Arkham is fictional. He read Lovecraft as a boy, and was a big fan until Montrose pointed out how Lovecraft would have regarded them. George takes a look at the letter and determines that what seems to be a ‘k’ is in fact a ‘d’. Atticus’ birthright is in fact in Ardham, a small town in Devon County, a place which the Safe Negro Travel Guide has determined is not safe for black people at all.

Once George finds a sitter for Horace he and Atticus take off to Ardham, with Atticus’ old friend Letitia making a place for herself on the trip (and very helpful she proves to be, too). What they find is a town devoted to the Braithwaite family, currently reduced to Samuel (the elder Braithwaite) and his son Caleb, who, like Atticus and Montrose, don’t get along. They lead an organization called “The Sons of Adam”, and need Atticus to make their (magickal (they call it “natural philosophy, but it’s magic)) ritual work, because only he can usefully read the “Language of Adam” (anyone can read it, but not everyone can make it do something) and complete the ritual. Doing what he’s asked to do will probably be dangerous to Atticus. Not doing it will certainly be dangerous, but not only to him. Can Atticus find a way out?

The second story, “Dreams of the Which House”, plays off the title of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”, which I haven’t reviewed yet but it will be coming up in November’s reviews. After getting back to Chicago from Ardham, Letitia comes into some money. Her late father apparently left an old debt uncollected; now the debtor intends to pay it off. Letitia’s sister, Ruby, doesn’t trust the money (their father was not always on the right side of the law), but Letitia has a dream: home ownership. Not just an apartment, but someplace with room for both her and Ruby, and their brother when he visits, and maybe some room for boarders . . . in order to get a place like that, she’s going to have to forcibly integrate a white neighbourhood. This will bring its own problems with angry neighbours and unhelpful police, but the house that Letitia ends up with throws her a new curve: the previous owner, though certified dead, has not left, and does not want to share his home with a bunch of . . . you know what. And he, like the Braithwaites, was a natural philosopher. Will Letitia be driven from her new home? Or can she find a solution to all her problems?

“Abdullah’s Book” starts with George and Montrose going to the bank to retrieve from their Bank Deposit Box a book left to them by their Grandmother, who had been a slave. The book is, essentially, a ledger, keeping track of all the labour she did for her master, and every time he “insulted” her — whippings and such — and what she estimates he owed her for it. Every year at Thanksgiving her descendants bring the book out, calculate the new interest for the last year, and tell the story of how it came to be. But this year, the book’s not there. It has been removed by the police, agents of the organized crime squad, who left a note summoning them to a bar on the white side of town. In the bar, in addition to a trio of cops, are Atticus (in handcuffs; he’s supposed to be in Iowa) and Caleb Braithwaite.

Braithwaite is planning an alliance with the Chicago branch of the Order, whose leader is the Captain of the Organized Crime Squad (and whose former leader is someone we’ve sort of met) and to make things work they want a book found, a book written in the language of Adam, which is hidden in a secret room in the Museum of Natural History. Assuming, because the Captain doesn’t just march in and take it that there is some risk, Braithwaite intends to pass the risk off. The deal is, a book for a book. It’s basically a heist story.

“Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe” deals with Atticus’ Aunt Hippolyta, wife to George, mother to Horace, and a brilliant woman in her own right. From her childhood she wanted to be an astronomer, but a black woman in the first half of the 20th century has two strikes against her just in the question of getting the education, never mind the position. So she ends up as wife and mother, etc, though like all her family she runs missions for George, checking places out for the Guide. During a visit to Letitia’s house she finds a hidden drawer containing A Survey of Astronomical Observatories of North America with a new one to her added in in pencil, along with a set of odd numbers. Since Hippolyta has had some luck dropping in on observatories and getting good-hearted astronomers to let her look through the telescopes, she decides to give this one a look on her way home. But it turns out this place has no mere telescope, it has a gate. And using the code from the book she finds a habitable planet. And, in fact, it’s inhabited: an elderly black woman named Ida, who used to be a maid for the owner of the “observatory”. When one of the other maids ran off with the boss’ son, and none of the staff would tell him where they went, he brought rbs ..them to the observatory and exiled them to this planet of a distant galaxy. He said he would return in a few days to see if they were ready to cooperate, but he never did. Hippolyta must not only avoid the dangers of the new world and get home, but also avoid the perhaps greater risk back on Earth.

“Jekyll in Hyde Park” has Letitia’s sister Ruby get not only a new job, but a new lover. She only needs to make a couple of changes first . . .

“The Narrow House” has Braithwaite sending Montrose after the son mentioned in “Hippolyta Disturbs . . .”, and particularely some of his father’s notebooks, which he should have. But the son was killed in 1945, with his family. Of course, as we’ve already learned, being dead doesn’t keep someone out of this story . . .

“Horace and the Devil Doll” has Hippolyta and George’s son Horace come to the attention of the cops of the Organized Crime Squad, who suspect that his family is up to something with Braithwaite. They send something after Horace, something that is too cunning to let anyone else see it and too strong for Horace to defeat. And the curse won’t let him talk about it . . .

“The Mark of Cain” has Braithwaite make his final move against the Chicago branch of the Order, with the help of the Turners, et al. But while they can (maybe) get free of the Organized Crime Squad, can they get free of Braithwate? It’s another heist, basically.

This is a marvellous book, though it should carry trigger warnings for racism, violence, and child endangerment. But if I were to complain about anything (and would it be me if I didn’t complain about something?) it would be the title: we’re never really in Lovecraft Country, per se, other than the fact that Lovecraft was a racist. For that title, the story should be a reply to Lovecraft in some fashion, and other than the Turners et al being in fact people and not the subhumans that Lovecraft would have taken them for this doesn’t interact with Lovecraft at all. To expand a bit on this, in a “The Big Idea” on John Scalzi’s blog the Whatever, Ruff said, “In addition to occult forces, Atticus and his family have to deal with the more mundane terrors of American racism, such as sundown towns. Lovecraft Country’s title is a nod to this duality of horrors—H.P. Lovecraft being known for both his tales of cosmic dread and his embrace of white supremacy.” But the book doesn’t do cosmic horror at all, and without that it’s not addressing Lovecraft but, well, all of white America. But that’s just me being a nitpicky jerk and you shouldn’t let that stop you from picking this up.

Highly recommended.