Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Fallen Blade (2011)

Jon Courtenay Grimwood made his name as a science fiction novelist; now, for his eleventh book (and first in five years), he’s turned to fantasy, beginning his ‘Assassini’ sequence. The 15th-century Venice of The Fallen Blade is ruled by a dynasty founded by Marco Polo, with a certain rivalry between the Regent Alonzo and his sister-in-law Alexa, mother of the imbecilic Duke Marco IV. As the novel begins, a mysterious silver-haired boy is found captive aboard a Mamluk ship; given the name Tycho, he has no memory of how he came to be there, but hungers for blood and possesses preternatural reflexes, which latter catch the eye of Venice’s chief assassin, Atilo, who has it in mind to train the boy to become his heir. Elsewhere, the planned strategic marriage of the Duke’s cousin, Lady Giulietta, is derailed when the Mamluks kidnap her in revenge for the attack on their ship – and the intrigues only continue…

Grimwood brings his Venice to life well, in both its atmosphere (squalid and smelly) and the complexity of its political and social codes (for example, a soldier’s instinctive action to save a noble’s life may be tantamount to choosing factions). The action sequences are involving, and Grimwood also evokes the conflicting senses of reluctance and desire felt by both Tycho as he discovers more of who (or what) he is, and Giulietta as she becomes attracted to him. The deployment of the supernatural is strikingly low-key: the word ‘vampire’ is not in the novel’s vocabulary (nor does Tycho quite fit that mould); and, on the occasions when characters do use magic, there’s nothing flashy about it – it comes across as just another tool to be used.

At the same time, it can be difficult to fully engage with The Fallen Blade. Many of the characters commit violent and abhorrent acts (as befits their society and their positions within it), and don’t always have enough charisma in the reader’s eyes to balance that out, even in the case of Tycho, the book’s de facto ‘hero’. Nor is the novel always sufficiently clear on the status of its various political intrigues. Still, The Fallen Blade is a good start to its series, and carries the promise of revelations and complex plots aplenty to come.

This review was first published on Fiction Uncovered.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus (2011)

Jonathan Trigell is best known for Boy A, his debut about a young offender trying to reintegrate into society after spending most of his life in prison. For his third novel, however, Trigell has turned his hand to science fiction. In a future London stifled by a series of wars and unchanging government, advances in genetic technology mean that perfection is available to anyone who can afford it. Those who can’t, the ‘Unimproved’, end up somewhere like The Kross (King’s Cross as was). Genus follows a number of characters living in and around The Kross, mostly notably Holman, the disfigured son of the last natural beauty queen; and Günther Bonnet, the cop with ‘the best set of genes on the force’, who has a series of murders to investigate.

The actual plot of Genus, the mystery around those deaths, is relatively straightforward, and not the novel’s main point of interest. Where the book rerally succeeds is the way Trigell depicts his future, world; our perspective is firmly rooted on the inside, to an almost suffocating degree. We barely see anything of life outside The Kross, never mind outside of London; and it’s difficult to get a real handle on how this world developed and how it operates – we understand to an extent, yes, but a full picture of the world is as distant from us as it is from the inhabitants of The Kross; they just have to get on as best they can, and that’s what Trigell makes his readers do. There’s also some nicely effective prose in Genus; I wasn’t too keen on the use of alliteration, but the jerky, rapid-fire sentences of Günther’s scenes do much to convey his character, and Trigell frequently juxtaposes different senses of the same word or phrase to great effect. I’ll certainly be reading more of Trigell’s work after this.

Cate Gardner, ‘Nowhere Hall’ (2011)

The latest chapbook from Spectral Press is the story of Ron Spence, a man who’s had all the hope and colour wrung out of him, and contemplates stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. But instead of actually doing so, Ron goes into a nearby hotel, which may be opulent, or derelict, or both at once. He wanders through its rooms, where nothing quite makes sense, but there’s a vaguely familiar mannequin that seems strangely alive.

A story like this really stands or falls on the atmosphere it creates, and ‘Nowhere Hall’ does well on that score. Cate Gardner uses recurring images, such as dust and umbrellas, to build up the sense of a web tightening around her protagonist; and Ron’s sense of the hotel’s rooms having a distorted familiarity further increases the tension. I don’t think I grasped everything that was going on in ‘Nowhere Hall’, but what I particularly appreciate is the way Gardner suggests that the world outside the hotel is just as strange as the one inside it – so maybe there’s not much of an escape for Ron after all.