Ellis' eccentricities are well known, showcased in Transmetropolitan especially; Crooked Little Vein is in many ways an extension of Transmet, albeit with the savvy Spider Jerusalem replaced with the rather less cool-with-it-all private detective and shit-magnet Mike McGill and his assistant/lover Trix (noticing some similarities already, I presume) navigating through present-day America at the behest of the Chief of Staff of the White House.

The plot is a simple detective story; McGill is hired by the Chief of Staff to find the "secret Constitution", a document written by the Founding Fathers that will reset America's morality and wipe out the "perversions" (and this book does have some seriously strange ideas in - some really weird sexual acts especially) that have sprung up during the 20th and 21st century.  Ellis takes us across America, a "crooked little vein" of a journey as it is referred to at one point, in the company of McGill, and we're treated to a demonstration of his miraculous powers as a shit-magnet: the strange and weird are attracted to him, so over the course Crooked Little Vein we meet serial killers, sexual perverts, prostitutes, porn-theatre runners, a pre-WikiLeaks prediction of Julian Assange, and more; the rich and powerful are at least as evil and twisted as the poor in the country, and have greater access to their strange tastes to boot, through money.  Ellis is not an optimist about human nature, it's certainly safe to say, and there doesn't appear to be anything sacred or taboo to his mind.  The plot works very well, though, driving forward with the little asides of shit-magnetism nicely included and integrated; and there is a fantastic subplot running underneath the search for the book of the growing romance between Trix and McGill.  Each is suspicious of the other, and Ellis manages to strike the right balance between having them fight and having them act as a couple; there are some sly little tricks sprinkled throughout the novel which really sell the pair as a couple.

The characters of Crooked Little Vein are also excellent.  McGill, as a private investigator, is well portrayed as a man in over his head, who has seen and heard too much and yet continues to be confused and disgusted by what happens in the world, and especially around him; he's believably squeamish, and believably scared by the original appearance in his office of the (terrifying) Chief of Staff.  There's a sense of humanity about McGill that many of the other characters, intentional caricatures, don't have, but there's also a sense of Everyman about him; we can all identify, because to some extent we are McGill, although without the skills, since unlike many PIs in fiction he is undoubtedly an excellent detective.  Trix is similarly effective; a polyamorous student studying sexual perversions and subcultures, she acts very much as a foil to McGill, fascinated where he is disgusted, naive where he is jaundiced, and experienced where he is naive.  This contrast acts very effectively in the novel as we follow the pair of them, as Ellis can show the reactions of each and let the reader find where they themselves lie on the scale, without didactically preaching to us.

Crooked Little Vein is a strange little novel, and a very eye-opening one, especially given that apparently very little of the content was invented by Ellis; the writing is punchy and pacy, the plot effective and unbelievable in an enjoyably Dan Brown kind of way (but, naturally, much better); and the characters believable, sympathetic and interesting.  I'd really recommend this.
Richard Morgan's Market Forces is unlike his further-future, planet-hopping and body-swapping Takeshi Kovacs novels and equally unlike his Land Fit For Heroes epic fantasies; indeed, in a moment towards the end of Market Forces, Chris Faulkner even seems to draw the distinction between himself and Kovacs, the reader told that he couldn't identify with a precis of Kovacs novels.  Rather, Market Forces is a near-future, 1980s-inspired dystopia; a neoliberal, Thatcherite grinding-mill, dark and deeply political, whilst also being deeply personal.

Market Forces is an odd genre novel; most are, whilst having strong characters, plot-driven all the same, with the characters being secondary to the events of the novel.  This is as true in fantasy (what would The Steel Remains if Ringil was a different character? Now, how much more different would it be if the plot structure was changed?) as it is in science fiction (change Kovacs, and Altered Carbon is still basically the same; change the underlying thriller components, or the worldbuilding ideas, and it is a radically different nove); it isn't a bug, but rather a feature, of the majority of genre fiction, neither positive or negative, but simply a difference of emphasis.  The Complaints, a crime/thriller novel, was equally concerned with character and plot; change Fox or change the plot, and things are very different; but the character could be changed without changing the plot, and vice versa.  Market Forces is very different proposition; changing the plot wouldn't change the novel, although changing the worldbuilding would, but largely that because of the real heart of the novel: the character of Chris Faulkner.  Chris stands at the centre of this novel, with the plot, other characters, and to some extent worldbuilding moving behind him, influencing and being influenced by him; the maelstrom of Market Forces' fast-paced, anti-Thatcherite concept and plot exist to give us Chris, rather than Chris existing as a way to tell the plot (as in much fiction, good and bad).

So the first thing to discuss in the context of reviewing Market Forces is Chris' character.  He's not a hero, by any means; a product of his world, over the course of the novel Chris develops and changes very effectively.  Starting the novel, he is the new man in Shorn's Conflict Investment arm - Shorn being a financial investment powerhouse, CI being the branch which deals with international politics, ensuring power goes to whoever will make it most profitable in the sort of conflicts that are said to be endemic to places like Colombia.  He's got a rep as a cold, hard business man, ruthless but with humanity; and it's that humanity that's seen as a downside.  Over the course of Market Forces, Chris changes Shorn - or at least people in it - with his own ethos, which tends to the less lethal (promotion and tender are by fights to the death); but at the same time, Shorn - and forces within Shorn, naturally - changes Chris.  His humanity is slowly destroyed (the motif of his changing relationship with his non-corporate wife, Carla, is the best demonstration of this; as his humanity waxes and wanes, their relationship strengthens or collapses), and his compassion, ideals and personality are slowly broken down to be less human and more like a hyena (a motif that comes up a few times in the novel in regard to his character).  Chris sometimes knows that it's happening, and sometimes doesn't, and it's a brilliantly dark, painful and horrific portrayal of a person destroyed by achieving his aims and not knowing what to do next; though what those aims truly are is revealed as a late-game thing in the novel, powerfully and effectively.

The plot of Market Forces is a complex, and rather, strange one, which requires a bit of understanding of the worldbuilding.  Essentially, Morgan is positing the ultimate in Darwinian Thatcherite economics; the state has contracted almost completely, with healthcare privatised beyond even American levels, and the police run by corporations, and corporations are able to involve themselves in sponsoring regimes for financial payoffs - thus, in a more obvious and direct way than is presently the case, dictators are toppled not by their subjects but by their corporate sponsor, or propped up by them. In those corporations, it's a cut-throat world; to win a promotion, you have to kill (in a ritualised combat - Britain uses road-wars, with the intention to kill the opposing executive, Latin America seems to use knife-fights), and the same applies, against rival corporations' executives, in order to win contracts out to tender.  Into this world steps Chris Faulkner, and he's made friends and enemies in Shorn, shaking things up merely by his presence; but he's also having to deal with his actual job at Shorn, despite what seem to be attempts to sabotage him from above.  The plot is fast-paced, effectively and tightly written in a manner that takes us all over this post-Thatcherite dystopian London, from the estates - where the government contains lawlessness, rather than trying to fight it - to the heart of capitalism in the City.  The mix of corporate politics and Top Gear-style driving madness is really well handled, with the parallels between the two effectively drawn, and the fast-paced writing of the novel really adds to everything; but the brutality of those road scenes really works well, Morgan as normal not pulling punches but instead placing them well into the gut.  The development of the plot, as Chris is drawn deeper into the morally dark world of Conflict Investment and the (at times lethal) office politicking around him, and as he becomes more the hyena, abandoning his moral compass, is really well handled, without being either too clear or too mysterious; hints are given, but Morgan doesn't spell it out until the right moment at the very end.

All in all, Market Forces is a brilliant novel, and a fantastic, horrific character study of a person having to live in the Thatcherite paradise; very ideologically driven, but very well written, and very dark.  I really can't recommend it highly enough.
Ian Rankin's crime novels have always been intimately concerned with Edinburgh and its environs, normally through the eyes of his most famous creation, DI Rebus. In the wake of Rebus' retirement, Rankin has created another cop, another member of Lothian and Borders - Colin Fox; but rather than a rule-bender, Fox is one of The Complaints: the men who guard the guards and keep the other cops in line.  This isn't a crime novel, or at any rate, that's only part of the point of The Complaints - that, and not to be Rebus, of course; it's other life is as a thriller, and it works beautifully as both.

The Complaints is defined equally by plot and characters, so we'll cover the latter first, to mix things up a little.  Our primary character is DI Colin Fox, one of the Lothian and Borders PSU; straight up the line, very much a man of the rule-book, Fox over the course of the novel is put through the ringer.  A little bit of a coward at the start, but good with his team, he turns into a man who has to force issues and bring himself to be brave; moving through the plot, Fox becomes a more interesting and more rounded character as he resists his impulses (as a recovering alcoholic) and has to act in ways alien to his character.  The other characters are all equally well fleshed out; they sometimes seem to be rather basic but, as the novel developes, even the simplest characters become more interesting and more rounded, their motives becoming more interesting.  This really does drive the novel well and make it readable...

The complaint about The Complaints is also its greatest strength; it doesn't pull punches.  The Complaints is a dark, grim novel, which really does take on and deal with at full force the corruption of the police, the organised crime in Scotland, and indeed the links between the two; it also doesn't avoid one of the biggest stories of its time of writing (and, for that matter, now) - the beginning of the financial crisis, as banks started to teeter and topple (ironic moments when RBS is referred to, though!).  The plot of the novel begins with Fox being asked to put another police officer under surveillance under suspicion of accessing child pornography, but the real plot is concerned with Fox's sister's boyfriend being murdered.... and Fox is under suspicion, and increasingly a target of his own tactics and team.  The whole plot is brilliantly written, and Rankin creates a complex, incredibly dark world in Edinburgh.

All in all, the crime novel-cum-thriller that is The Complaints is fantastic; Ian Rankin really has created a new character with the potential to be as popular as Rebus himself, and a dark world for him to inhabit.
Deadline is the sequel to Feed, and the second novel in Mira Grant's Newsflesh zombie-thriller trilogy.  It also suffers a little from being the second book of a trilogy; but not too heavily, since many of the excellent elements in Feed are carried over here.  However, due to some late-game huge events in Feed, this review has no choice but to spoiler that book, and will thus be hidden behind a cut.  Venture behind at your peril!

Overall, Deadline manages to be an effective novel, but it isn't up to the standard of the first novel in the series in any department; as the middle novel of a trilogy, this is perhaps an inevitability, but it is an unfortunate one.  I'll still be picking up Blackout when it comes out, no doubt about that, but I'm a little more wary of it.  Feed, however, remains a stunningly excellent novel, so if you haven't, go and pick it up!
Given the slim nature of this book, it is surprising it has taken me so long to read it; this is less a reflection of Last Days, which is disturbing and excellent, and more on my current university life.  Evenson's novel is utterly uncategorisable, the ultimate in slipstream; unsettling and strange, I've read it as a part of my Halloween horror focus, and it certainly is, in a stunningly dark way, a horror novel.

The whole setting of Last Days is a mundane, real-world one, although it's never quite located, and that nebulous location adds to the unreal atmosphere of the whole thing.  The novel starts off in a city, and most of the action takes place either in this city or in a cult compound outside the city; the two settings are never really fleshed out to any great extent, but they do give us a sense of place and of the world, since they're both slightly nebulous and unsettling, whilst at the same time rooted in the normal and everyday life of the world.

Our sole real character is Kline, who starts the novel as an ex-policeman who has lost a hand, and killed the man who did it.  Across the course of Last Days, Kline comes to terms with the loss of his hand, and also becomes ever stranger.  Kline is more and more divorced from his humanity and his past as the novel goes on, and he becomes a strange other, with whom we are intimately familiar and yet whom we are utterly apart from, because of the alienness of his experiences and emotions.  That Evenson achieves this without a single overt supernatural occurrence is fantastic, and the imagination applied to the rest of the cast wonderful, even if they do deserve a little more fleshing out as full characters, rather than simply basic figures.

The plot is a very strange one, involving cults, a very Lovecraftian feel, and the numinous.  Last Days takes the idea of mutilation as sacred rite (for historical precedent see, for instance, The Galli of Rome) and makes it even more strange and alien, as well as extreme; the realisation of religious mutilation and religious fervour surrounding the mutilations is fantastically portrayed, with some excellently sympathetic and yet utterly other writing really working its way into the reader's head in a deeply unsettling manner.  The increasing darkness and horror of the novel, as the extremity and ultimate ends of the cult begin to become clear and additional players enter the cultic politics of Last Days, each with their own claim on Kline, really work well as they turn up the pressure and strangeness; and Evenson handles a complex plot excellently.  The writing style, simple, readable, and elegant, adds to this, as the reader is drawn in and on through the novel, not wanting to put it down as the model of a thriller is adopted; indeed, in many ways Last Days is a horrific subversion of the thriller genre, incredibly effectively written.

Last Days has to be one of the most unsettling novels I have ever read, and Evenson is to be complimented for that, as well as his refusal to fall into simple categories; indeed, this is also one of the least categorisable novels I have ever read.  What it certainly won't do is leave me for some time to come.
Williams' novel, sequel to This Is Not A Game, relies significantly on the events of the first book - unfortunately, since I haven't read it - but also has the problem of having been overtaken by current events; as Williams recognises in this post on Whatever, recent events in Tunisia and Egypt - and through "revolution creep", sweeping across the whole MIddle East - have rather overtaken the premise and brought to life. I do have a reservation on that score, but we'll get to it later.

The characters in this novel are fantastic; Lincoln, Tuna, Richard "the Assassin", Ismet, but most of all Dagmar.  The female hero of the novel, suffering PTSD in a very dramatic and well-drawn, sympathetic, powerful way integrated brilliantly into the story and the writing, she's a damaged and strange character about whom much is, I presume, told in the first book; but through this book we get an image of a woman trying to be strong and damaged by her past, which has been - to say the least - traumatic.  Ismet has a similarly interesting character, passionate and powerful as it is; indeed, the whole cast have a really wonderful sense of the tragic about them, each individually having their own motives and needs.

The plot is brilliant.  True to life, to some degree, it looks at the progression of a revolution, and - given that it must have been written some time before the Egyptian situation took off - really wonderful in its predictive powers, the setting of Turkey aside (a near-future Turkey, post-military coup, in the throes of a military dictatorship; not Turkey as secular democracy), it looks at how a revolution could take place peacefully through collective action.  It has a fantastic series of twists, and whilst some of the technology is just silly - High Zap, ineffectual and unnecessary as events in Egypt proved, for instance - the majority of it works well, and is reminiscent of Stross' near-future tech of Halting State, although the wedge-shaped flying drones of the revolutionaries break out from this somewhat.

My one problem with the novel is its orientalism; it requires Western people, like Dagmar and Lincoln, to mastermind and set off the revolution in Turkey, and to realise the potential of the internet for subversive social change.  As we know, in Egypt and Tunisia, it was ordinary Egyptians and Tunisians who did this; the CIA and America weren't required, and indeed, didn't really seem to know how to react to events on the ground, as opposed to the support and set-off Williams presents. This Westocentrism is really problematic, to my mind; it creates a vision of the world that has a major flaw in it.

Overall, then, whilst Deep State is a wonderful story, and with great characters, it's been overtaken by events, and is flawed by Williams' own theories of the world, and their disconnect from what actually happened on the ground...
King's novel is a sort of crazed urban fantasy thriller, with Biblical overtones and a very odd underlying philosophy of really mixed dualism.  Death's Disciples is very much a novel of the post-9/11 world in some respects whilst also completely rejecting and ignoring it in others; which of these impulses is stronger varies across the novel, as does the level of spy-versus-spy style plotting.

Susan, our main and viewpoint character, is a strange figure; amnesiac at the start of the novel and therefore with an apparently new personality, we discover more about her past as the novel progresses, though one fact - a "twist" revealed about 2/3 of the way through the novel - is clear from the start; indeed, King really doesn't bother to conceal it in any serious way.  Sergeant Krupinski is equally anodyne as a character, just with one imperative and no real drives, and no proper humanity to him. There's one purpose to his character, and he fulfills it, I guess: he brings version 1 of Susan out of herself, and creates a space for the twist to be really shocking (which it is - but only because it's so utterly stupid and inconsistent in its execution, to be blunt).  The other characters and just 2D, pure and simple; I have no sympathy or care for any of them, the villains don't have a clear motivation or cohesion to them, the good guys are simply useless and ineffectual... leading the reader to just conclude that it's ridiculous.

And the plot doesn't do much to contradict that, on some levels.  It's a little - no, a lot - ridiculous and little cartoonish, with some really obvious moments and twists; the only problems with those twists are the extent to which they're foreshadowed... and yet still don't make sodding sense.  That's a real problem with King's novel, he's not got a consistent idea of character; and that affects so much of the plot that it makes it hard to believe in the characters or become sympathetic to them, as they do heel-face-turns with alarming regularity and alarming obliviousness to the complete change in behaviour.  What rescues the novel, then, is this: the concepts are brilliant.  The intermingling of Biblical prophecies and concepts, the use of Egyptian (and Masonic...) mythology in the conspiracy, the dualism/materialism combination that King has (I'll admit it's what causes some of the problems, but it is also rather interesting), and the brilliant ideas that come across in Death's Disciples really manages to save a huge amount of the novel.

It's also a decent read; fast-paced, actiony, without getting bogged down in discussion or philosophy despite being steeped in them, the vocabulary suits the characters and the moment, and the style is really well dealt with - King pulls off shifts of focus, scene, and time really well, and indeed manages to keep the reader interested despite the flaws of the novel because they want to know how it's all going to play out. This impulse becomes stronger towards the end of the novel as we see the plot revealed, but it's there at the beginning to, as things start to become complex.

In Death's Disciples, King has constructed a proper post-9/11 thriller. It's just a shame not also fantastically written, but overall, I think I'd recommend it - I certainly enjoyed reading it, and couldn't have stopped before that final page.

Based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books. Death's Disciples is out now in the UK, and from February in the US & Canada.
Lately, I've been watching the ABC television series Castle; when I discovered a tie-in novel had been released (not a novelisation, mind - not quite) I was interested enough to lay hands on it, and a worthwhile purchase it turns out to be.

Heat Wave is the novel that Rick Castle, the character played by Nathan Fillion, writes, starring Nikki Heat - based on Det. Beckett in the series - and Jameson Rook, based on the fictional character Castle.  Yes, it gets complicated; the layers are absolutely brilliant though.  For anyone watching the TV series, it's an excellent tie-in, since it incorporates many of the elements whilst staying true to what Castle's writing is described as; it's a pulpy cop thriller in a very specific way, with the characters so closely based on the "real" counterparts it's occasionally hard to distinguish them (the thin disguise of "Rook" doesn't help!) - but the wisecracks are absolutely stunning.

The plot's relatively straightforwardly pulp thriller with cops, crooks, lies and forgery - oh, and murder of course; formulaic, but that doesn't mean it isn't intensely enjoyable - the writing style doesn't take itself too seriously, and the plot is just about believable enough to work whilst being the right degree of unbelievable to keep it fun and light; it's easy, almost brainless reading but take your eye off the ball and it can become a little bit of a mindscrew.

It's also interesting in that it partially foreshadows, and reflects, events in the series - it's a really good tie-in in that regard, giving enough to non-watchers of Castle to keep it interesting, whilst also drawing them to the series, and rewarding actual viewers of the programme with something fresh and new.  This is tie-in fiction done well, and indeed innovatively, and studios should take note of it!

Recommended, albeit not as much as the TV series - especially episode 6 of series 2, what with it's utterly shameless Browncoat referencing!


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February 2012

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