‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch


As a born-and-bred northerner, I’ll admit I had doubts about how much I’d enjoy a book based entirely around the life and culture of London . . . but against all my natural instincts I found myself completely charmed by Rivers of London.

Rivers of London (Peter Grant #1) by Ben AaronovitchActually, perhaps ‘charmed’ isn’t quite the right word; rather, being whisked along on this peculiar journey down unfamiliar streets left me blinking and befuddled – in a good way! Rivers of London is refreshing in that it never pretends to be anything other than it is: a shamelessly daft, irreverent and slightly ridiculous story told through a funny and engaging first person narrator.

Peter Grant is a regular dogsbody in the London Met until, in the face of all probability, he’s informed that “yer a wizard, ‘arry!” and is roped into joining the hidden arm of the police that deals with cases of supernatural lawbreaking. Grant’s first case as a ‘real’ copper is to find out who – or what – is snatching bodies and forcing innocent people to do unspeakable things. Readers should consider themselves warned: Aaronovitch doesn’t shy away from violence and swearing!

Rivers of London’s plot is enjoyably bizarre and very entertaining. There are moments of disjointedness where it feels as though the story may be losing its thread, but it always picks up again and for the most part skips along smoothly. The novel’s irreverent tone and down-to-earth characters go a long way towards combating stereotypes, as does the author’s self-awareness of the clichés he is drawing on (cue sarcastic comments and humorous Harry Potter references).

To his credit, though, Aaronovitch mostly steers clear of clichés and tends instead to go for the unexpected. Ghosts? Yep, they’re real, only they’re a lot chattier and, well, cockney-er than you’ve ever seen them before. The goddess of the river Thames? She’s a Nigerian woman with a huge family and a fondness for custard creams. And the villain? Well, I won’t say anything about them, except that I never saw THAT coming. The way the protagonist just goes along with it all, resigning himself to his fate with a sigh, actually makes the magical aspects feel normal and totally credible: every time something new happens, be it a nest of vampires or a time-travelling ghost, instead of rolling their eyes the reader just shrugs and thinks, ‘oh, okay, cool.’

Rivers of London is a LOT of fun (did I mention that already?). I get the impression that I’ve barely scratched the surface of Aaronovitch’s crazy world, and I look forward to the day the stars align and I finally have time to read book two, Moon Over Soho.lauramhughes-sig

‘Hogfather’ by Terry Pratchett


‘On the second day of Hogswatch I . . . sent my true love back,

A nasty little letter, hah, yes indeed, and a partridge in a pear tree—’

Of the quarter or so of the Discworld I’ve explored, Hogfather is my favourite. Vadim Jean’s TV adaptation is superb: I watch it religiously every Christmas, struck each time by Hogfather by Terry Pratchettjust how much of it – dialogue, stage directions, settings, narration, everything – is lifted directly from the source material. This should tell you much about the quality of the book itself, for rare indeed is an original story ‘adapted’ for the screen with so few alterations.

For me, reading Terry Pratchett’s work is not only a joy but an indulgence, too. Sir Terry is one of my major influences. Those books of his I’ve read, I’ve re-read again and again, taking the time to savour the deliciousness of the prose, the wryness of tone, the trademark humour that is at once delightful and poignant.

Universally beloved as it may be, the Discworld series is notoriously uneven. However, one of the more consistent aspects of the books is the narrative voice. Pratchett tells his tales using an omniscient narrator, and there’s no doubt that this voice belongs to no character but Pratchett himself.

At the far end of the corridor was one of the very tall, very thin windows. It looked out on to the black gardens. Black bushes, black grass, black trees. Skeletal fish cruising in the black waters of a pool, under black water lilies. There was colour, in a sense, but it was the kind of colour you’d get if you could shine a beam of black through a prism. There were hints of tints, here and there a black you might persuade yourself was a very deep purple or a midnight blue. But it was basically black, under a black sky, because this was the world belonging to Death and that was all there was to it.

The colloquialism of Pratchett’s narrative voice is one of many things that makes the story come alive. More, the chatty – almost confiding – tone is inescapably full of vibrant humanity that makes the reader feel at once complicit and (to an extent) sympathetic with whomever (or whatever) is being described.

The shape of Death was the shape people had created for him, over the centuries. Why bony? Because bones were associated with death. He’d got a scythe because agricultural people could spot a decent metaphor. And he lived in a sombre land because the human imagination would be rather stretched to let him live somewhere nice with flowers. People like Death lived in the human imagination, and got their shape there, too. He wasn’t the only one . . . 

Like so many of Pratchett’s novels, Hogfather revolves heavily around the power of imagination. The human mind is a wonderful thing, a tool of creation or one’s own worst enemy. In the Discworld, anything is possible . . .

. . . which isn’t always a good thing.

You see, strange things can happen when our imaginations are permitted to run amok. In Hogfather’s case, a sudden unexpected surplus of spare belief creates all kinds of bizarre possibilities when, in the absence of one huge anthropomorphic personification (think Easter bunny, Father Christmas, Cupid – that sort of thing), springs up lots of little ones. A single moment of spontaneous speculation – about the existence of, say, the Verruca Gnome, or the Eater of Socks, or the Stealer of Pencils – brings even the most bizarre ideas into being with a glingleglingleglingle of tinkling bells.

‘Careful!’ said Ridcully. ‘Careless talk creates lives!’

As you can imagine, chaos ensues. And when Death himself begins acting suspiciously, his adopted granddaughter Susan decides to investigate, assisted by a raven, the Death of Rats . . . and the ever-helpful Oh-God of Hangovers.

Would you be any good in a fight?’

‘Yes. I could be sick on people.’

Susan is mortified to find out that, in the absence of the Hogfather, Death has taken it upon himself to get the job done; and that, being somewhat out of touch with the laws of humanity (and physics), his disregard for the ‘rules’ soon causes quite a stir.

The mother took a deep breath. ‘You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’

IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.

‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.

IT’S EDUCATIONAL.

‘What if she cuts herself?’

THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.

Naturally, this leads to all sorts of hilarity. But when Death starts to learn that not everyone can (or should) get what they want for Hogswatch, his new understanding of life leaves him outraged.

IT IS HOGSWATCH, said Death, AND PEOPLE DIE ON THE STREETS. PEOPLE FEAST BEHIND LIGHTED WINDOWS AND OTHER PEOPLE HAVE NO HOMES. IS THIS FAIR?

The irony of Death being the only one to recognise the inequity among the living will not, I imagine, be lost on anyone. This theme is continued throughout the book in the enlightening exchanges between old man Albert and the naïve, uncomprehending Death.

Meanwhile, in the streets below, a nefarious plot unfolds among a group of criminal masterminds . . .

The other men looked at Medium Dave. He was known to Ankh-Morpork’s professional underclass as a thoughtful, patient man, and considered something of an intellectual because some of his tattoos were spelled right.

Medium Dave; Banjo Lilywhite; Mr Brown the locksmith; Chickenwire; Catseye; and Mr Sideney the wizard (he’s incognito!): a rough bunch for sure. But all pale in comparison with their employer, the terrifying Mister Teatime.

‘I want to be quite certain about this, Mister Teatime. You . . . have . . . applied . . . yourself to a study of ways of killing Death?’

‘Only as a hobby, sir.’

Mister Teatime (it’s pronounced teh-ah-tahm-eh) is, of course, an Assassin (the capital letter is important). With his unnerving glass eye and his penchant for unwarranted brutality, Teatime has surprisingly few friends . . . though, on the other hand, he doesn’t seem to have any enemies at all.

‘I know people say I’d kill them as soon as look at them,’ whispered Teatime. ‘And in fact I’d much rather kill you than look at you.’

Teatime’s twisted ambitions and childlike cruelty threaten to jeopardise all of Death’s hard work; but Pratchett’s brilliant narrative voice brings out the humanity in everyone (and every thing), and coaxes out sympathy for even the most despicable of characters in the smallest and unlikeliest ways.

Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant mind, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvellous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that was broken.

When the narrator’s voice takes over, it fluctuates between wry observation and sad, frank, simple statements. Quite often, these contrast with the way his characters view things, which leaves the reader somewhat conflicted.

Teatime was OK. True, after a few minutes talking to him your eyes began to water and you felt you needed to scrub your skin even on the inside, but no one was perfect, were they?

An omniscient narrative voice – especially one that addresses the reader directly – can easily come across as pretentious; not so with Pratchett. A continual undercurrent of irreverence keeps the story relatable, rising frequently to the surface as bizarre juxtaposition and hilarious bathos with the intention of reversing conventions and shattering tropes.

But mostly? It just sounds bloody beautiful.

Between every rational moment were a billion irrational ones. Somewhere behind the hours there was a place where the Hogfather rode, the tooth fairies climbed their ladders, Jack Frost drew his pictures, the Soul Cake Duck laid her chocolate eggs. In the endless spaces between the clumsy seconds Death moved like a witch dancing through raindrops, never getting wet.

Poeticism aside, Pratchett weaves a captivating tale without ever sacrificing that down-to-earth British humour that is so integral to the Discworld, and which makes everything somehow less and more grand simultaneously. Whether it’s the ageing wizards not allowed new pencils without presenting the stubs of the old ones, or Death eating a biscuit, or the Tooth Fairy lamenting the fact that she has to pay for her own tooth-collecting equipment – little things like that make them more relatable, more realistic, and thus, more real.

He raised his hands, and seemed to grow. Light flared in his eye sockets. When he spoke next, avalanches fell in the mountains. HAVE YOU BEEN NAUGHTY . . . OR NICE?

At first glance, Hogfather is a silly story; a fantastical take on our own seasonal traditions. But it’s also a subtle expose of the ridiculousness of real life – which, as we know, is often stranger (and far more ridiculous) than fiction. Beneath every laugh-out-loud pun (or ‘pune’) and slapstick scenario lies a point waiting to be driven home to the reader; and if anyone knows how to drive a point home, it’s Sir Terry.

Pratchett delivers his message like the conductor of an orchestra. Fully in control, he uses words to nudge and guide and pluck our humours, finally wielding the moral in a hammering crescendo and striking deep some profound insight about humanity.

The omnipotent eyesight of various supernatural entities is often remarked upon. It is said they can see the fall of every sparrow. And this may be true. But there is only one who is always there when it hits the ground.

The author’s message is hidden in plain sight, like the ubiquitous floating logs in cartoons that you only realise are crocodiles when you’re already standing on them (and by which point, you’re screwed). Witty, sharp and achingly simple – Pratchett’s genius lies in his ability to seamlessly blend moments of fragile beauty with piss-yourself-laughing comedy. What’s *not* to love about his unique Christmas story?

Ho. Ho. Ho.


This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 23rd December 2016.

‘The Slow Regard of Silent Things’ by Patrick Rothfuss


Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a 150-page adventure with Auri, a minor character from the as-yet-unfinished Kingkiller Chronicles. Rothfuss has (so far) told us relatively little about her in the main series – aside from the fact that she’s been lurking in the tunnels beneath the university (which she refers to as the ‘Underthing’) for years and that she refuses to speak to anyone, or even let them approach her. From what little we see of her it’s clear that she is fragile and broken and ephemeral and unique. She is one of the series’ greatest mysteries, and it’s exciting to finally get to know a little bit more about her.

'The Slow Regard of Silent Things' by Patrick RothfussAt its heart, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a sweet narrative that gives great insight into the way in which Auri’s mind works. To Auri, everything is alive, and throughout the novella we see how she personifies her entire world. For instance, there’s Foxen, the tiny brave alchemical light who is her oldest friend; Fulcrum, a newly-acquired brass gear which is brazen yet full of love; the ungrateful blanket, who is afraid of the floor; and more, too many to name. This, along with Auri’s half-invented names for the places she visits – such as Tumbrel, Ninewise, Mantle, Crumbledon, Annulet, Billows and Tenance – is thoroughly, delightfully enchanting. As an added bonus the sketchy illustrations complement the story nicely; despite their simplicity their black silhouette-ish style really conveys a sense of the darkness and claustrophobia of the Underthing.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is strange in that there isn’t really a plot. The entire novella is, essentially, a week in the life of Auri as she wanders the Underthing, picking things up and putting them down again in different places. I have to admit that this does get just the tiniest bit tedious towards the end, but the book is short enough and the writing beautiful enough that I poured through most of the story before I even began to think, “Wait – what story?”

There are very few authors whose work I’d buy simply because it has their name on the front cover, but Rothfuss is definitely one of them. His prose flows like poetry; his ability to make even the most trivial of things sound magical and exciting is probably the only reason this novella works as well as it does. It’s easy to see why the book has so many one-star ratings, but it’s just as easy to see why it has so many five-star reviews from others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a case of ‘love it or hate it’ . . . but it’s certainly one of the strangest, most exquisite and oddly hypnotizing stories I’ve ever read.

It’s lovely, it really is.

Hola, October!


Signed and Cactigraphed Books by Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie

Guys – it’s October already! September flew by so quickly, probably because it was even more spiffing than August.

For starters, I attended my FIRST EVER SIGNING (!!!), a Gollancz event at my local Waterstones on which I wrote up an excitable little piece earlier this week. Basically I got giddy at meeting the Bear and co., and for the rest of the evening it was subliminal selfies (copyright: Steven Poore) and happy cactigraphs all round.

The entire evening reinforced my determination to join a traditionally-published (and fun!) team such as Gollancz

… a determination which was bolstered by yet another handful of amazingly kind reviews on Goodreads! I published Danse Macabre in October 2015, and the reviews it’s acquired over the last twelve months have been unanimously positive. As you might imagine, this has done wonders for my confidence in my own writing ability; self-publishing my first ever finished piece of fiction is perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Danse Macabre by Laura M Hughes

Speaking of self-publishing: the #SPFBO is nearing the end of its first round! Four of the ten participating blogs have announced their finalists, with more soon to follow.

Over on Fantasy-Faction we eliminated another two entries. I wrote a fond review of Off Leash by Daniel Potter, which you should definitely check out along with A.F.E. Smith’s fantastic review of A Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope.

Our remaining three semi-finalists are Dyrk Ashton (Paternus), Amy Rose Davis (Ravenmarked) and Aderyn Wood (The Raven). We’ve actually picked our finalist… but aren’t quite ready to announce them yet. 😉

SPFBO Semi-Finalists: Fantasy-Faction's remaining three

It isn’t just SPFBO stuff I’ve been covering for Fantasy-Faction. In last month’s round-up, I shared my excitement at receiving an ARC of Red Tide by one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Marc Turner. The book was amazing (as if that was ever in doubt), and as well as reviewing it I also had the opportunity to interview Marc as well!

And that’s not all! Earlier in the month, Tor.com published an article I wrote about The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

My First Article for Tor.com

The article – which marks my first ever piece of paid AND solicited non-fiction writing! – is essentially a rundown of the major characters introduced in Gardens of the Moon, and seems to have received a very positive response on the whole. (Better yet, I have at least four more articles for Tor.com lined up over the next six months or so. Watch this space!)

The gorgeous illustrations in the GotM article are all provided by the talented Chisomo Phiri (aka. Shadaan). You should definitely check out his spectacular portfolio on DeviantArt!

'Blacksword Visits' - Malazan Art by Shadaan

artwork by Shadaan

In other news, I’m currently working on a short story, which I intend to submit to Ragnarok’s upcoming Hath No Fury anthology.  But more on that next month . . .

Happy October!

Giggles & Gollancz: a subliminal evening (feat. cactigraphs)


Last week I went to my first ever (EVER!) author signing. In case you missed my over-excited social media posts on the subject, the event in question was a celebration of three awesome authors – specifically, the tenth anniversary of their debut novels from Gollancz.

In case you missed my overexcited social media posts...

Gillian Redfearn (who, by the way, is just lovely) shepherded Gollancz authors Tom Lloyd (The Stormcaller, Moon’s Artifice, Stranger of Tempest), Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora) and Joe Abercrombie (First Law, Shattered Sea) into Waterstones in Manchester, where fellow SFF author Elizabeth Bear (Range of Ghosts, Karen Memory) chaired a discussion panel.

“My name’s Elizabeth Bear… and they gave me wine.”

The Bear set the tone for the entire evening: her questions brimmed with intelligence, articulacy and humour in a way that ensured every minute of the discussion was lively and engaging.

Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear

If I’m honest, I was surprised (and delighted) by how relaxed and entertaining the panel actually was. Not only was it interesting, but it also made me laugh (a lot): the camaraderie and gentle ribbing between the Bear and the boys was just perfect, as were the self-deprecating comments about the role of writers.

“We’re like batman, but  sad and immobile” – Scott Lynch

Now, in the past friends have assured me that Abercrombie is a cool guy. But there’s no way of properly appreciating the bloke’s natural charisma (or physical height!) until you’ve met him in person.

The Abercrombie-Hughes Special Edition Subliminal Selfie

The same goes for the others. While I’d enjoyed one or two brief Twitter conversations with Tom Lloyd in the past, it turns out that talking pendulous tangerine testicles is even more fun when accompanied by real-life sniggering.

Tom Lloyd

The panel taught me plenty of new things about the authors and their books. For instance, did you know that Tom Lloyd originally began writing a novel in order to prove that he could do it better than a friend? Or that Scott Lynch intended for Jean (Tannen, of the Gentleman Bastards series) to be pronounced the French-sounding way?

“Have a smile for breakfast, you’ll be shitting joy by lunch” – Joe Abercrombie

Once the panel was over, the queuing commenced. Tom’s queue was respectable, and Joe’s even more so, but Scott’s was just insane. After meeting Tom and Joe (and, of course, ensuring that they each drew their own version of a happy cactus whilst signing my books), I ventured to the booth behind them where the Bear was relaxing on her own (and heckling the others, naturally).

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I’d worried that bringing one of Elizabeth’s books to sign was a bit presumptuous… but she was delighted I’d asked, and we immediately got chatting about all kinds of geeky stuff. (She even complimented me on my tattoo!) After a little while, Tom came over to join us too, and my latte-laden self was ridiculously excited that it had inadvertently found itself in a sort of  SFF VIP lounge.

Bear-Lloyd-Hughes Subliminal Selfie

Then Joe came over too, and the four of us talked idly while we waited for Scott to work his way through the slowly-dwindling autograph line. When he was done, the Bear summoned him over (with all the teasing authority and mutual affection of a soon-to-be wife) to sign and cactigraph my Locke Lamora, which I think he (and the others) did a stellar job of.

Signed and Cactigraphed Books by Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie

Finally, we traipsed out into the night and waved goodbye, the experience having reinforced my pride at being part of the amazing SFF community.

The entire evening has inspired me in so many ways, and not least because everything I’ve seen of the Gollancz team is friendly and positive. These four authors in particular – Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie – have given me a lot to aspire to, and I’m more determined than ever to work my arse off and become a professionally-published writer of their calibre.


Thanks a million to my wonderful sister, Rebecca, for accompanying me. I’d almost certainly have chickened out if I’d planned to go alone. Love you, Poops! <3

Joe Abercrombie, ‘Best Served Cold’ (review)


Damn. I’d forgotten how good this book is. Darker, bloodier and even more entertaining than Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is the ultimate revenge story packed with pain, fury and absurdity from its spectacular opening sequence to its final poignant pages.
Joe Abercrombie, BEST SERVED COLD

The premise of Best Served Cold is simple: heroine is betrayed – heroine gets back up again – heroine sets out to get revenge. And at first it really is that simple. Monza Murcatto, the infamous Butcher of Caprile, sets her sights on seven enemies and vows to do anything she needs to in order to see them all dead. Recruiting a merry band of thugs – including a poisoner, a Northman and a torturer – she embarks on her glorious mission. But perhaps revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps the people she trusts are the ones holding the knives . . . and perhaps Monza herself isn’t quite everything she appears to be.

Knives

The tale is, of course, set in the world of First Law (though several years after the events of the original trilogy). Here we are introduced to the ‘exotic’ land of Styria: a fractured continent hosting a decades-long civil war at a time commonly referred to as the Years of Blood. Although Best Served Cold is technically classed as a standalone, the sheer amount of references to the original trilogy – not to mention cameo appearances from several characters – means that those already familiar with the events of First Law will likely enjoy it considerably more than those new to Abercrombie’s world.

Blood & revenge

Best Served Cold is Abercrombie’s absurd and bloody take on the standard revenge trope: absurd because of its eclectic mix of characters, and bloody because of the chaos they cause. But it’s also an insanely fun and entertaining journey, with the plot taking something of a backseat to colourful characters who gradually reveal themselves to be so much more than the exaggerated caricatures they first appear to be.

The world they live in is equally colourful, with vicious politics and treacherous leaders dangerously influencing critical events. The settings in particular are fantastically vivid and immersive: even now I can clearly visualise every bloody sunset, picture every pane of glass in the roof of the Banking House of Valint and Balk, startle at the canal boats looming out of the fog in gloomy Sipani and wonder at the majesty of impregnable Fontezarmo. Though Styria is certainly not a place anyone in their right mind would choose to live, I found I could picture its various regions just as vividly as if I’d actually been there.

Vicious and vivid

Although often dark and suffused with bleakness, Best Served Cold is also really, really bloody funny (particularly during Nicomo Cosca and Castor Morveer’s PoV chapters). Ironic observations, humorous dialogue, self-deprecating comments and hilariously inappropriate remarks are particular specialties of Abercrombie’s, and Best Served Cold abounds with all of them. Abercrombie cleverly blends brutality and gore with laughter and levity to create a perfectly dark, gritty tale of revenge and ruin. This is Abercrombie at his absolute best.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 22nd October 2015.)


Blurb

Springtime in Styria. And that means war.

There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.

War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.

Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started…

Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge.