This Magnificent Desolation

Thomas O’Malley is an Irish writer living and working in America.  It’s hard to say how much my perception of his writing is coloured by his name and Irishness, but the book, it has to be said, does seem to have some definite, if ineffable, Irishness to it, in style if not in setting.

The story is set in the early to mid 80s, at first in Minnesotta and later San Francisco, tracking the life of yound Duncan.  When we meet him first, he is at an orphanage staffed by a bunch of Franciscans.  He is a child beset by otherworldly convictions and memories, coloured by the religious context of his upbringing.  He recalls his birth, where God spoke to him, with perfect clarity.  Angels are a fact of life, curiously syncretised with astronauts (those same astronauts — Aldrin, Armstrong, and the often forgotten [but fabulously Irishly named] Michael Collins — who visited the moon, that magnificent desolation).  He is a disturbed, stolidly unhappy child who finds it difficult to reconcile his own idiosyncratic, even delusory, beliefs and perceptions of the world with those of the people around him.  He is lonely and isolated and sees no reason why this situation would ever change.

This changes when he is readopted by his mother, Maggie, an extravangantly colourful drunk.  The most talented opera singer of her generation fallen to singing in dusky dives and prostitution.  A surrogate father also appears. Joshua is an African American, a Harvard graduate and a vietnam vet.  He suffers from some sort of PTSD and depersonalisation, made worse by his work in a hellish tunnel being bored under the SF Bay. These two characters are horribly doomed and self-destructive.  She tries and fails to quit the drink and to be a good mother.  Instead, Duncan seems to have to play the role of parent more often than not.  Joshua attempts to exert control over his anomic existence by joining an underground fight club.  Gruesomely battered night after night, he nonetheless continues to drift away from Duncan and from Maggie.

What plot there is, is slow, but the chapters are even shorter than those of Dan Brown and I fairly flew through the book.  The language is rich and poetic, dense and dreamy, filled with religious imagery and imbued with an Irish cadence.  Even the mechanics of dialogue support this dreamy atmosphere; O’Malley does away with quotation marks, making speech and non-speech an inseparable organic gestalt. It’s depressing stuff though.  The three of them lead exquisitely miserable lives, interspersed with moments of gentle happiness, until, eventually, Duncan, at the close of the novel, is left alone once more.

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The Furies of Calderon

I read Jim Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel, Stormfront, some time ago.  It wasn’t to my taste.  It was urban fantasy cum hard-boiled detective story, but didn’t have the mythological power of the best urban fantasy.  Nor, to my mind, did it have a properly despondent noir atmosphere.  I didn’t like the world; I didn’t like the writing.  The popularity of the series is beyond me entirely.  No one-trick pony, Jim, though — he also has a six-volume epic fantasy series, the Codex Alera.  What, then, would I make of the first novel from this series, The Furies of Calderon? On the plus side, the world-building is pretty decent.  It’s clearly largely inspired by the Roman Empire, but in a fantasy market where feudal mediaevalism is the norm, even a bit of derivative antiquity can feel like a breath of fresh air. At the periphery of this empire lie clusters of autocratic steadholds.  The protagonist of the novel, Tavi, is a gormless teen boy in one such holding, located in the strategically important land bridge connecting Alera with an adjoining continent.  Tavi has a problem.  Everyone else has a connection with an elemental familiar (or fury — either wood, earth, metal, wind, water, or fire) that gives them a portfolio of rather impressive magical skills.  Tavi, however, doesn’t. (Don’t worry though, reader. What he’s missing in magical powers is more than made up for in mysterious past and looming destiny). Fury-crafting humanity is surrounded by perils on all sides. The story opens as one such peril stirs.  The Marat (noble savage types), who generally hang out on the other side of the land bridge, have their eyes on Alera, and aren’t afraid to kill a lot of people to get their hands on it.  These guys are pretty broad.  There are some good savages (such as Tavi’s love interest) who end up becoming loyal allies of the Empire (it’s all a bit colonial wet dream) and some bad savages who unreasonably want to destroy the empire (reclaiming their ancestral lands) and just generally kill and eat people. The Marat are being aided by some rebellious Aleran elements who want to see the current emperor, childless and aged Gaius, knocked from his perch.  Here we get to see some other aspects of Aleran citizenry: decadent nobles and messenger spies (called cursors).  One of the central conflicts in the novel is between the jaded old pro spy who sees the managed usurpation of the Emperor as the way to best minimise chaos and bloodshed (the ironically named Fidelias), and his idealistic padawan (Amara) who rejects his stance and runs to align herself with Gaius.  Fidelias and his two lieutenants (a mad water witch and a bad ass swordsman — very reminiscent of Drusilla and Spike) wander about the place wrecking havoc and trying to support the Marat invasion.  They are thwarted by the interventions of Amara, Tavi, and various of Tavi’s allies (including his guardians at the steadhold who turn out to be fairly bad ass fury crafters themselves).  The whole thing comes to a head with a big siege set piece that feels distinctly underwhelming compared to some of the great siege scenes I’ve come across.  By and large, though, the action scenes are pretty good. Butcher’s clearly thought about the capacities and limits of a fury’s power.  One of the great things about Avatar (an obvious comparison when thinking about element-linked abilities) is the ingenious ways the characters use their bending powers; there’s quite a lot of that here, too. The main problem, apart from the fact that it’s far too long and not written particularly well, is that the good guys are bland and unsympathetic.  It’s not that they’re unpleasant, it’s just that I couldn’t care less about them.  The bad guys, on the other hand are pretty good.  I liked Fidelias.  I have a lot more respect for him than his snot-nosed apprentice.  I really liked “Drusilla” and “Spike” too.  They have a lovely relationship, rich (though largely unexplored) back stories, and a great line in villainous banter. So, a pretty good world (orientalist othering aside), but pretty bad everything else.  Can I recommend that you read it? Well, unless you like going “For Fuck’s sake, will this fucking thing never end?”, then, no, definitely not.

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Shards of Honour

…or, if you like, Shards of Honor, is the first novel published in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.  I’d come across her name several times on the Science Fiction Mistressworks blog, and seen that she’s won a Hugo award an outrageous four times. Apart from that, though, I knew nothing about her or her works.

So, what’s going on with Shards of Honour? (Spoilers follow, if you’re concerned about that sort of thing.) At the outset, Cordelia Naismith, head of a survey expedition from Beta Colony (a liberal democracy), is stranded on an otherwise uninhabited planet when the rest of her expedition is attacked.  Uninhabited, that is, but for those that did the attacking — a troop of Barrayarans (a militaristic empire).  She winds up joining forces with a lone Barrayaran — Aral Vorkosigan — and they work together to cross the dangerous terrain back to the Barrayaran base.  This plot, and the militaristic-exploratory world it is set in, seemed to me like something straight out of a Star Trek screenplay.

She helps Aral wrest his command back from some treasonous officers, is proposed to (there’s nothing like fighting off alien spiders together to forge a close bond between people quickly, I guess), gleans a bit of useful information about Barrayaran military objectives, and skedaddles back to Betan space in no time flat.

In the second section of the book, set months later, Cordelia leads a sneaky one-way mission past Barrayaran picket lines to get essential tide-turning technology to the besieged planet of Escobar.  Why a survey officer should be the one to lead a military expedition is not clear, but it does get her back into the hands of Aral.  While a prisoner on the Barrayaran flagship she manages (with a little help) to defeat a rather broadly drawn de Sade-type commander (why is an interest in S&M so often shorthand for villainous?), then waits with Aral while she and he watch the mission of conquest fall apart following the succesful delivery of the technological assets.

In the third section, after being welcomed home as a hero following the collapse of the Barrayaran offensive, Cordelia suffers from some psychological ill effects from her time as a prisoner of war.  She rapidly alienates the Betan authorities, which includes kicking the Betan president — Steady Freddy — in the balls. (In a recurring joke, every character who mentions the president quickly claims that, “Well, I didn’t vote for him!”) Her superiors learn of her relationship with Aral, and come to the conclusion that she must be a subconsciously programmed sleeper agent working for the Barrayarans. Though short, I thought this was the strongest section of the book.  It reminded my of the hopelessness and unreason of Kafka and the surreal paranoia of Philip K. Dick.  Cordelia’s mental state deteriorates as every claim she makes that she wasn’t brainwashed seems only to make the authorities more convinced that she was.  She eventually escapes, and finagles a ride to Barrayara, where she (her PTSD miraculously disappeared) and Aral live happily ever after (…or so we would be content to assume if there weren’t a whole series of books telling us what happened next).

I enjoyed this book quite a lot and read it over just two days.  The universe isn’t particularly evocative, but the different factions are as effective as they are in, say, Star Trek at allowing the writer to describe archetypal social/philosophical positions and present conflict between them.  The intrigue and political side of things is done very well, and the action in the book is pretty decent too.  The prose is generally plain, but is leavened by the occasional bit of humour, some bright metaphors, and the odd phrase or old saying that is slighly off the beaten track.  The characters too, particularly the two protagonists, are well drawn.  However, while Cordelia is smart, proactive, and kick-ass she’s nowhere near as compelling as Aral Vorkosigan, who is a powerful miltary commander and a strategic genius; an amazingly wealthy aristocrat with a little bit of angst and a tortured past.  Actually, though the trembling heart stuff is kept to an admirable minimum, this conjunction between relative Plain Jane and slightly-damaged, but oh-so-desirable aristocrat reminded me slightly of Twilight (I guess this is a standard romance trope, but Twilight is the current cultural touchstone for romance, so that’s what I thought of).  Don’t let that comparison put you off though!  Yes, it’s a bit fairy tale, but the love stuff here was done relatively reasonably, with a light touch, and, importantly for those wanting their fix of SF, was very definitely secondary to a tale of swashbuckling interstellar conflict and intrigue.

Final rating (out of 5)? On the classics/important reads side of things, it’s a 3, but on the potboiler/enjoyable reads side, it’s a 5.  That said, I don’t think you would ever try to read this novel as a stand-alone classic — instead it provides insight into an author (perhaps slightly less well known now than in her heydey) whose overall oeuvre may one day be considered “important”.  Certainly, as one of relatively few women authors of SF, and one who’s won four Hugos at that, I’m hopeful that this will turn out to be the case.

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A Madness of Angels

When someone in my book group mooted Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, my immediate reaction was skepticism. “Didn’t we already read something by her?” I thought, “and wasn’t it terrible?”. It turned out that, no, what we’d read was Cold Magic by a different Kate (Elliott). While glad to have been mistaken I suspect that, on some autonomic level, that skepticism persisted — I was unconsciously primed not to like this book.

I suppose the most notable thing about this book is its genre — (London-based) urban fantasy. It’s no Neverwhere, but it sits very comfortably amongst the books of the more successful practitioners of the genre. I would probably rate it on a par with the (ingenious but flawed) London-based urban fantasy of China Miéville and the (likable but pedestrian) books of Ben Aaronovitch. I liked it a good bit more than the one Jim Butcher book I read. If you’d never read an urban fantasy book before you would probably be blown away. If you’ve read a few, then you’ll see much that is familiar. You’ll also know that the low-hanging fruit of the genre has already been picked. Authors have to work a bit harder to come up with interesting urban myths and magics to weave into their stories. How does Griffin do? Well enough I suppose. The starting point for the book involves a mysteriously-killed sorcerer (the protagonist — Matthew Swift) being brought back to life by the intervention of the blue electric angels. These angels, synthesised bits of anima snatched from electronic communications, are pretty good. They seem like a perfect fit for an urban fantasy universe and have great character — fey, innocent, violent, and hedonistic. The fact that they share Matthew’s post-resurrection body, his psyche and theirs imperfectly integrated, gives Griffin an opportunity to engage in some rather ingenious pronoun play too — sentences that start in first person singular imperceptibly shift to plural by the end. Other little world building gimmicks are less successful. For example, I disliked the taxonomy of magic users Griffin uses: wizard, sorcerer, warlock, necromancer. These are well-worn terms, and their use here seemed dull and artificial.

Another notable feature of the book: in short, its long. Too long. I guess world-building takes some time, and there are rather a lot of factions that become embroiled in the action, all of whom need their own bit of time in the sun. However, there really isn’t very much to the plot. Swift comes back to life with a thirst for resolution and revenge. He quickly pins the act on his old teacher, and must then make his way through a series of sub-bosses to get to him. On the plus side, these fights, when they eventually arrive, are vigorous, exciting, and rather cleverly put together (I particularly liked the tattoo stuff in the first big fight). However, I’m not sure that the story overall quite warranted the leisurely half-a-thousand pages it was given.

Griffin’s use of language is also notable. The prose is often on the poetical side of things, and she has a keen sense for descriptive metaphors. Sometimes this works well, but other times things get out of hand. For example, I started off rather liking this description of the magical vibe of different cities:

“In New York, the air is so full of static you almost spark when you move; in Madrid the shadows are waiting at every corner to whisper their histories in your ear when you walk at night. In Berlin the power is clean, silken, like walking through an invisible, body-temperature waterfall in a dark cave; in Beijing the sense of it was a pricking heat on the skin, like the wind had been broken down into a thousand pieces, and each part carried some warmth from another place and brushed against your skin, like a furry cat calling for your attention.”

Really? The magic aura of Beijing is like a furry cat? There were other problems, too — even on the first page: “I said blink, and my eyes were two half-sucked toffees, uneven, sticky, heavy, pushing back against the passage of my eyelids like I was trying to lift weights before a marathon”. Okay — it’s a bit overwrought, but I get it — your eyelids felt sticky and hard to open. But why should it be harder to lift weights before a marathon than any other time? It makes no sense! If anything, people who are fit enough to run a marathon would probably find it easier to lift weights. I can only assume she meant “after a marathon”, but the fact that this fairly obvious mistake is happening on just the eighth line of the book doesn’t say much for the rigour of the editing process. There were some other editing slip ups too — clumsy repetitions of words or phrases.

So. Did I enjoy it? Yes! (unexpectedly). Is it great? Umm, not really. I often use the sequel test to think about how much I rate the books I read. Can I be bothered to go on reading a series based on its first book. Here we have a borderline pass — the sequels are not high on my agenda, but I think I could be persuaded.

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Viriconium

I read M. John Harrison’s Light a while ago. It was a bit overwhelming in various ways, but, by and large, I enjoyed it. More recently, I picked up a copy of the Fantasy Masterworks edition of Viriconium. This volume contains three short novels (The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, and In Viriconium), and the contents of a collection of short stories (Viriconium Knights).

These stories are told in a far-flung future Dying Earth. Following the vibrant excesses of the Morning cultures and the mature puissance of the Afternoon cultures, humanity has entered its twilight years. It is now an Evening culture, and has largely regressed to a generic fantasy state of low-technology and mediaevally feudalism. At the centre of this world, lies Viriconium — every city and no city. It is a patchwork of loci where a short walk can take you from the Proton Circuit, to Margarethestrasse, to the Bistro Californium.

The Pastel City, reminiscent of both Elric and Hawkmoon, is the clearest link between Harrison and Moorcock and New Worlds magazine. A band of heroes, led by the recluctant swordsman, tegeus-Cromis, must traverse landscapes, getting into colourful scraps along the way, in order to defeat some bad guys. In this case, the bad guys are remnants from one of the Afternoon Cultures, the Geteit Chemosit, nigh unstoppable killing automata awakened by the barbarous Northern Queen, Canna Moidart, to help her conquer Viriconium.

Superficially similar in plot, A Storm of Wings likewise involves a group of people (less unambiguously heroic) going on a quest to counter some world-ending peril. In this case, the protagonist is Galen Hornwrack, a hero come to nought — armour gone rusty, snotty-nosed, half-mad, and utterly defeated. The peril too is of a different nature — a more metaphysical threat than that posed by an army of killer cyborgs. An insectoid race has breached its way into our universe, supplanting our own laws of nature with those from their own dimension. Solidity and sense are supplanted by madness and a “landscape that heaves and humps itself into shapes nascent and organic”. This transgression has echoes even outside of its immediate (gradually expanding) area of influence. In Viriconium, the city suffers under the Sign of the Locust and men go hollow-eyed, nihilistic, and murderous. “A dreadful sense of immanence beset the city. ‘Life is a blasphemy,’ announced the Sign. ‘Procreation is a blasphemy, for it replicates and fosters the human view of the universe’.” (I found this reminiscent of the claim by Borges’ Heresiarchs of Uqbar that mirrors and copulation are abominable because they both increase the number of men.)

In Viriconium dispenses with any sword and sorcery trappings. It is set in the artistic cliques of Viriconium’s Upper City. There the poets and playwrights ply their bohemian trade while the plague-wracked Lower City sickens and dies. Ashlyme the portrait painter makes illicit forays into the Lower City to meet up with the afflicted Audsley King. He has a plan to spirit her from there to the relative safety of the Upper City. His efforts limp along in fits and starts, aided and undone by various colourful denizens. Most memorable for me were the Barley Brothers — a pair of idiots who fart and gurn and pratfall their way to celebrity.

The short stories of Viriconium Knights are less stories than expressionistic glimpses of the city. I won’t discuss them here, other than to say that they are opaque and diverse. They are compelling reads, but their true value is in their contribution to the gestalt. The volume as a whole is fractured. Each story is distinct in plot, character, place, theme, and language and even the name of the city changes from time to time. The kaleidoscopic sum of these perspectives gives us the best indication of Viriconium’s nature — ever-changing and eternal.

Recurrent through all of these stories is, of course, the obligatory mari lwyd — that horse skull motif that pervades Harrison’s fiction. In fact, I had forgotten I had read Light until the appearance of a mari lwyd (“a face, brown and bony-looking like the stripped and varnished skull of a horse into which had been inserted two half pomengranates for eyes”) triggered some dusty neuronal connections.

Some reviewers read the relatively approachable The Pastel City and enjoy it but then feel bamboozled, bored, and even betrayed by the dense unforgiving prose and surrealist plotting of Harrison’s later Viriconium writings. It’s true that this is no pot-boiler. Reading this is a pleasure, but one that doesn’t come easily. Personally, I love the prose. I found myself compelled to read it aloud to myself so that I could hear the cadence and rolling rhythms with my own ears. For example:

“In the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminium and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reeds and tall black grasses. The twisted, smooth barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light. At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi. Charcoal grey frogs with viridescent eyes croaked as the column floundered between the pools. Beneath the greasy surface of the water unidentifiable reptiles moved slowly and sinuously. Dragonflies whoe webby wings spanned a foot or more hummed and hovered between the sedges: their long, wicked bodies glittered bold green and ultramarine; they took their prey on the wing, pouncing with an audible snap of jaws on whining ephemeral mosquitoes and fluttering moths of april blue and chevrolet cerise.”

He’s a man that likes colour. Later we see “a sunset of mazarine and cochineal”.

His prose is the prose of the New Weird. To take one sentence: “The violation, if there was one, was hieratic, notional.” Stripped of context, this sentence could as easily have come from the pen of Chine Miéville as Harrison’s. Miéville also shares Harrison’s love for investigating the darker and dustier gennels of the dictionary. I’ve already mentioned several gems, but there were many more, including: catafalque, stridulation, muculent, hetaerae, and, my favorite, theopnustia. (10 points if you know the meaning of all of these…)

Can I recommend it? Possibly. It’s about as far from Robert Jordan as it’s possible to get, but if the works of both Miéville and Moorcock hold central positions on your bookshelves (as they do on mine) I think this is a must read.

Viriconium!

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The Windup Girl

Every now and again, it’s my turn to suggest something for my book group (which tends to alternate between fantasy and sci-fi reads). How do I choose? Simple — I just look at Hugo and Nebula award winners (well, I guess there’s a further process of winnowing that happens afterwards, but that’s my starting point). Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl won the Nebula in 2010 and was joint winner of the Hugo (alongside Miéville’s The City and the City — which I very much liked and which I have recalled several times over the last few months after visiting the Korean DMZ and seeing wreckage of the Wall in Berlin). Badabing, badaboom — choice made.

An immediate point of comparison (assuming you’ve read him) is Ian McDonald, who’s done rather a good job of setting post-cyberpunk (genepunk) sci-fi stories in places that are typically off the radar for sci-fi authors. River of Gods was set in India and The Dervish House (recommended) in Istanbul. Here, the story is set in Thailand, some time after a fragile status quo has emerged following a world-wide environmental catastrophe.

At the root of this catastrophe is hubris and greed — exactly that same hubris and greed that humankind currently suffers from. Some time in the future global warming has caused the oceans to rise, and Bangkok is spanned by an enormous sea-wall. Oil and coal are a memory for most people. In their place are wind-powered sailing cargo ships, zeppelins, gigantic genetically-engineered mammoths (replacing the pre-industrial horse), and exotic spring technology (replacing the battery). These are all sensible solutions (well, as sensible as gigantic mammoths and zeppelins get) to the problems that emerge when one extrapolates from current trends towards a hotter Earth and inevitable carbon poverty. However, the most original, compelling, and horrifying aspect of the book is the consequences of agricultural genehacking. American biotech firms have unleashed genetic plagues that have wiped out the vast majority of Earth’s biodiversity. Only their own commercial seed stocks are immune to these viruses, which must then be bought by countries lest they starve. As a further kick in the teeth, these seeds are sterile, which means they must be bought year after year (see the wikipedia page on the banal sounding “genetic use restriction technology“).

However, virus mutation means that even these seed stocks are immune for only so long. As a result, “calorie men”, amoral spies and agents of the American biotech firms, must scour the globe looking for fresh genetic material to fuel their research. This same mutation has also led to plant diseases spreading to humans. Many of the characters have family members who have died of blister rust, cibiscosis, or genehack weevil. Between starvation, disease, and nationalistic slaughter, there is a lot of death in this book.

There are a few protagonists: Anderson, the despicable calorie man who wants to plunder the secret Thai seedbank; Emiko, the eponymous windup girl, a high-end genetically-engineered courtesan; Jaidee and Kanya, two principled soldiers in the Thai Environment Ministry; and Hock Seng, an entirely unprincipled Malaysian-Chinese immigrant who works for Anderson and will do anything to claw his way back to a position of power. Hock Seng was probably my favourite character. He is tremendously flawed, greedy and selfish, but has endured so much and is so driven that it’s hard not to root for him.

The plot likewise has a few strands: Anderson and Emiko forming a relationship, Emiko trying to escape her horrendous existence in a brothel, Hock Seng attempting to sell Anderson’s tech to the local criminal head. All of this occurs in a city and country where it seems that phenomenal violence could break out at any minute (as happened in neighbouring Malaysia), not least due to the constant tension between the powerful and autonomous Trade and Environment Ministries. The former courts international contact, while the latter has an isolationist agenda.

Emiko is genetically programmed to be loyal and obedient, and to orgasm at the drop of a hat. This programming (plus the fact that she’s technically an illegal abomination who should be killed on sight) keeps her in her place in the brothel. Things start to come to a head in the novel when Emiko is raped (a depressingly repetitive event) for the last and most traumatic time. Essentially she unlocks her special powers and kills the defacto head of state. This idea, that rape turns you into a bad-ass superhero, seems a bit dodgy to me (and also something that only a man would come up with). It reminded me of a debate going on in comics at the moment about how necessary rape is as a plot device or a mechanism by which to develop characters (mostly it seems to be Grant Morrison having a go at Alan Moore). The general consensus seems to be that it is over-used, and I felt that to be the case here too.

The conclusion of the book, without giving too much away, involves some pleasingly poetic justice for Anderson, and a thoroughly hopeful trajectory for the much misused Emiko. But that’s rather beside the point. This isn’t a book that you read for the plot (which is solid), or the characters (who are almost uniformly unpleasant), but for the world building. It is an evil, how-to manual for Monsanto, plausible and terrifying. Let’s pray they never read it.

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Fatherland

I read Robert Harris’s Fatherland on my return from Germany. I spent the entirety of my stay there in Berlin, just south of the Reichstag, with a view over the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Memorial. Over the few days I was there, I became quite familiar with the streets heading south and north of Unter den Linden. This familiarity made Fatherland, which is set in Berlin, evocative in a way that Code Name Verity wasn’t.

Fatherland is a major landmark in alternative history fiction, but it was so popular when it came out that it occupied a similar space in my head as The DaVinci Code. In short, I was worried that it was going to be a bit trashy. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case (at least, I didn’t think so anyway). The book is, at its heart, a hard boiled detective procedural — the twist is that it is set in a Germany that essentially won World War Two.

At some point during WW2 events diverged from those in our own world. The key turning point seemed to be the success of the German offensive against Russia. Without strong resistance on the Eastern Front, Germany can turn its attentions fully on Britain, which is eventually starved into submission. The Reich becomes a bloated state streching far into the east, while the rest of Europe consists of puny vassal states. After the defeat of the Japanese via the bombing of Hiroshima, Germany too develops nuclear weaponry and a Cold War develops between America and Germany.

In 1964, detective Xavier March discovers a dead body apparently drowned in a wealthy suburb of Berlin. As his investigation develops, he gradually unravels a complex conspiracy that runs throughout the upper echelons of the Nazi regime. He’s an obsessive worker and a hard drinker, alienated from his party-line spouse and son by his sense of irony and stifled humanism (He jokes at one point when accused of working too hard that “Arbeit macht Frei”). Over the course of the novel he allies with a mouthy and brave American journalist, Charlie Maguire (the love interest), and comes into increasing conflict with the Gestapo who want the case closed.

In this world, three was no march west by Russians, and the mass graves of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were never discovered. What happened to those who were “sent east” is an uncomfortable mystery to the people of Germany and to the world at large. Instead, the great crime against humanity that came to light during and following WW2 is the vast number killed in Stalin’s purges. The novel’s central conspiracy concerns an attempt to conceal documentary proof of the Final Solution. The final few pages involve Xavier fleeing from the Gestapo, travelling to Auschwitz, now a razed ruin, recalling the Jews who have intersected with his life, only now fully realising the horror on which the Nazi state is built.

It’s a strange big reveal, since we in the real world are so familiar with these events. Nonetheless, I found these scenes to be highly affecting. Harris was working with powerful clay in crafting this book, but that alone wouldn’t have been sufficient. I finished the novel impressed with his writing. His characterisation, plotting, and prose are rarely exceptional, but demonstrate a consistent craftsmanship. In sum, it was a tight package wrapping up an intriguing tale that deals with the most momentous events of the 20th century from a novel and unique angle.

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