Friday, February 1, 2013

The Explorer and Between Two Thorns

HarperVoyager, £12.99
  Last October, I received an advance copy of James Smythe's 'The Explorer' from the very kind people at Harper Voyager. In what can only be explained as a relapse into a depressed sort of inactivity, I have only just managed to read it. It's not a huge book. It's not dense prose. I had only just finished Smythe's previous book 'The Testimony', so I had a very good idea of the style of the book before me, and I remained frozen. Well, it's now the New Year: the book is in the shops and resolutions have kicked in - I read it last week.
   It's a thrilling and unsettling read. Cormac Easton is a journalist who has been chosen to accompany a remarkable new expedition into space. As a precursor to a manned mission to Mars, the purpose of this expedition is simply to see how far into space it is possible for the current technology to get, and come back with lots of new data. In order to get as far into space as possible, new propulsion systems have been introduced to make the initial take-off many times faster and more powerful than any previous launch. The only way for the human body to withstand the pressure this creates is to place all of the crew into hypersleep for the launch. The first problems of the trip arise when the First Pilot fails to awaken from his hypersleep - he is dead, and has been for many days by the time the crew wake to find him. After that, and all in the first chapter, the rest of the crew follows 'one by one, falling off like there was a checklist', until only Cormac remains alive. What follows is a claustrophobic and suspenseful psychological portrait of a man driven to desperation by a terrifying sequence of events. The sparse prose perfectly suits the location, and the first-person narration (meaning that we only know as much as the main character - not very much) really contributed to the pervading sense of imminent doom and/or madness. 
HarperCollins, £7.99
   While I'm here, it's worth also recommending Smythe's first book 'The Testimony'. I read this in one sitting one surreal night last summer, feeling as if I was reading a news story instead of a novel. It seems to be due out in paperback this month. It has an fantastic concept - here's the blurb: 
   "What would you do if the world was brought to a standstill? If you heard deafening static followed by the words 'MY CHILDREN, DO NOT BE AFRAID'?
   Would you declare it an act of terrorism? Turn to God? Subscribe to the conspiracy theories? Or put your faith in science and a rational explanation?
   The lives of all twenty-six people in this account are affected by the message. Most because they heard it. Some because they didn't."
Angry Robot, £8.99
   My next read this week was Emma Newman's forthcoming 'Between Two Thorns', due in March from Angry Robot. The novel is set in a world where humans (mundanes) live unaware of a connected mirror world (the Nether), inhabited by immortals with the patronage of various Fae Lords, who live in Exilium. Catherine Papaver is a rebellious immortal who has run away from her life of privilege in the Nether to live as a student in Mundanus. The novel begins as she is tracked down by Lord Poppy, the patron of her family, and ordered to return to her life in the Nether to marry. However, she returns in time for some unexpected disruptions to the society calendar, and soon she is working alongside a sorcerer and an Arbiter to find her uncle, the Master of Ceremonies of Aquae Sulis, the mirror city of Bath where the story is set. 
   I was briefly unconvinced by the story at the very start as it seemed too similar to other stories I had read recently, but I was very quickly captivated by the brilliant characters and fast pace of the story. Cathy is a fantastic character to read as she contemplates her forced return from the freedom of Mundanus to the repressively old-fashioned society of the Nether. There were lots of really enjoyable touches (the Arbiter has a gargoyle containing his dislocated soul for a sidekick, Fae Lords are attended by tiny faeries with dragonfly wings, the impossibly long-limbed brothers Thorn) and I particularly loved the mysterious Shopkeeper, with his shop full of artefacts and charms - no two alike and not displayed in any obvious order. It's the first book in a planned series 'The Split Worlds', and my only (small) complaint about this one is about its ending, which I felt was not quite satisfying enough for a stand-alone novel. Luckily, the two sequels both have planned releases for this year, so it won't matter for long!
   I'm off now to read 'A Natural History of Dragons' (yay, dragons!) by Marie Brennan, and 'Bookplate Special' (Booktown Mysteries #3) by Lorna Barrett. I shall report back!

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