Tag Archives: Urban Fantasy

‘Bound’ Review

Disclosure: I met Alan Baxter once, briefly, at Genrecon. He seemed like a great guy, and since then I’ve been following him on Twitter and FB and reading some of his short fiction. He’s a writer I admire, a local writer too. He’s always been generous with advice and with sharing his experiences of being a writer, and I’ve learnt a lot from him. He’s given me a very valuable perspective of what being a writer entails. I was really happy to hear that he got the book deal, and I was looking forward to reading about Alex Caine.

Review:

‘Bound’ drops us straight into the action. We’re in Caine’s head and he’s in a fight, an illegal MMA match somewhere in Sydney’s underworld. We are quickly introduced to Caine’s ability – to see the ‘shades’ of his opponent’s intent. It makes him a formidable fighter, so much so that he attracts the unwanted attention of an organised crime boss. When a mysterious Englishman arrives who recognises Caine’s powers, and offers to teach him more about himself, the fighter reluctantly follows his new mentor’s call. Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure of rapidly escalating magic and quests to find ancient objects of great power.

This is Urban Fantasy with a magical bent and lashings of sex and violence. If you like ancient prophecies and street fights and magic and shadowy organisations in the wainscoting of normal life, try this book.

There are possible spoilers from here on, but if you want to know more, and are prepared to risk spoilers, read on.

Photo courtesy of author's website

Photo courtesy of author’s website

There are some very cool concepts here. I haven’t read Baxter’s original – self-published – novels, but their titles echo here. Some characters sit meaningfully at the edges of Caine’s story and I suspect they’d be even more meaningful to readers familiar with Baxter’s earlier work. The magesign to which Caine is so perceptive is a great idea. Other elements are from more familiar tropes: elemental control, warlocks, grimoires, gargoyles, faeries, ancient demi-gods, shape-shifters. Baxter has thrown them all into a blender of his own design though, and they each come out with some new twist. It’s in combining these elements that Baxter is at his best.

I also really enjoyed the globe-trotting. Australia, England, Iceland, Canada, Italy, Scotland… it was like Bond, if Bond was a magically empowered brawler. Baxter evokes each location in his writing and the shifting geography, the litany of airports, adds a layer of the familiar and mundane over which the supernatural elements can rise.

As we become more familiar with Caine’s growing confidence in his own powers, we are shown the even greater forces opposing him. It’s a steep incline and Baxter drives us forward relentlessly, ever-changing, ever-escalating. The consequence of this is that the stakes quickly become very high indeed, perhaps too quickly. Caine’s transition from neophyte to dominance is even quicker. I found that he lost me a little somewhere on the climb. The Caine of the early chapters was a guy I could relate to. By the latter half of the book this was no longer the case. The previously engaging fight scenes lost their fizz when the outcome was no longer in doubt. A fighter out of his depth fighting for his life against two gargoyles is tense. An invincible superpower tearing through powerful opponents with ease, less so. I also struggled to maintain my sympathy for the character after his decision to take a life, even if that was a decision influenced by a force at that point uncontrolled. Another review I read suggested that Caine was an author-surrogate, and though I wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment, I can see where it comes from.

The antagonists are varied. The sub-contractor was probably the most interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. The Weird Sisters were also strong. Their introduction was one of the best scenes in the book, clearly the darkest and most horrific. I’m not easily put-off by horror, but that scene in a Scottish hotel required a pause for recovery. Again they were perhaps under-utilised. Other antagonists came and went.

Mr Hood and Miss Sparks are the most enduring, and ultimately the truest antagonists of the novel (other than the force behind the grimoire). I felt Miss Sparks was one of the more interesting POV characters. There seemed to be more to her than was revealed. Perhaps this waits for me in the second and third volumes of the series. Mr Hood was menacing and confident and a good counter-point to Caine. The Sparks/Hood relationship was repulsive and fascinating, even though the sexual elements of it sometimes dropped in with a thud. I have no qualms about the sexual content, and even as it is Baxter is never overly explicit with it, but there were some instances that felt gratuitous.

Which brings me to Silhouette. I didn’t like Silhouette. I understand how she was necessary to the narrative and how Caine couldn’t have achieved what he did without her. I understood why he went from Welby to Silhouette, why he came to depend on her, and then she on him. I didn’t feel that the emotional connection really evolved naturally, but that wasn’t really a problem – emotional connections can be unexpected and inexplicable. I just didn’t like her, as a character. She promised to become quite interesting, briefly, or to reveal a side of herself to which Caine was unaware, but it never really happened. As Caine’s power grew her independence and agency seemed to contract accordingly. A shame, because she entered with a certain sense of self that seemed by the end to have been diminished. Her (many) sex scenes with Caine were unsexy, probably deliberately so, and some of them deeply discomforting – for much the same reasons as with Hood/Sparks.

‘Bound’ kept me hooked throughout. I finished the whole thing in a week, and there’s plenty in it to keep you wanting to turn the next page (or swipe the screen in my case). It’s the novel of a writer who knows his craft and can deliver on a promise. I’ll read the others in the series too, at least because I’m interested in where Baxter goes from here. With such a powerful protagonist, and such powerful enemies already defeated, I’m sure there’ll be something even bigger to come.

***Alan Baxter will be in Melbourne this Friday (26th Sept) and will be signing books. Check out his website – http://www.alanbaxteronline.com – or follow him on twitter – @AlanBaxter – for details.***

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The City & The City Review

I’ve decided to shift some reviews I wrote on another blog and have them up here as well. The first of those is of Miéville’s “The City & The City”, which I read last April. More to come.
(Minor warning on the potential for spoilers, but I think I’ve avoided any obvious ones).

China Miéville has always been an author with an ambiguous relationship to genre. He is often to be found in the Fantasy sections of the bookstore (where they still have bookstores), but this isn’t an exact fit. (His most famous ‘Fantasy’ novel – “Perdido St Station” – has a scientist as its protagonist.) He is also an author far more comfortable with urban environments than the bucolic pastoralism of more traditional Epic Fantasy (in the Tolkein tradition). The first question one may ask of “The City & The City” is then which genre it belongs to. It’s an answer I’m not sure I can give.

The title refers to Beszal and Ul Qoma, cities which, for reasons never fully explored or explained, share the same physical space. These two separate political, judicial and social entities overlap and intersect each other, the citizenry of each share physical spaces, streets, parks, weather, even traffic, but they are distinct. They have different laws, authorities, governments, bureaucracies, airports… To call a house physically next door but existentially in the other city would require international calling codes. To pass from one to the other requires a passport and visa. Through an ingrained psychological process of ‘unseeing’ they have learnt to disregard each other and the city they should not be in. This ‘unseeing’ is enforced by the mysterious power of ‘Breach’, but presents obvious difficulties for tourists and the foreign academics coming to study the unique archaeology of the area.  In this element you might suggest that “The City & The City” is a Fantasy, but the label doesn’t really fit. Both Beszal and Ul Qoma are very definitely in our world, even if it is an alternative version. They are located somewhere in Eastern Europe, or perhaps the Balkans, and interact with neighbours as well as with Canada and the US. While the setting feels fantastical there’re no definite indications that the separation between Beszal and Ul Qoma is anything other than a human social construct. Some technologies exist which seem difficult to understand, but whether this is Science-Fiction or Futurism is again ambiguous.

Being a China Miéville novel there is inevitably a political aspect to the sociology of these cities. Both Beszal and Ul Qoma have Nationalists who are prepared to fight to keep their city separate from its spatial twin. Likewise there are Unificationists fermenting a rebellion that will see Besz and Ul Qoma made one. Economically, and in terms of foreign policy, the two cities are diverging and the influence of extra-national forces is felt by both populations. Readers of Political Thrillers will be familiar with the subplots of multi-national corporations and foreign ambassadors. Miéville is explicit in denying that this is a simple allegory of any existing or historical city (Borlú specifically states that this is not like Jerusalem or Berlin), nor is this an easy dichotomy of Capitalism/Communism or East/West. More than political allegory the division between the distinct citizens is a metaphor for almost any major city in the modern world, where our physical space is distinct from our social space, and where we may live next to the same person for decades without having a conversation, but have a close relationship with someone who lives suburbs away. In this way Miéville’s metaphor seems to be for the manner of modern urban socialisation, though he actively discourages any limited reading of meaning in the text.

At its heart though “The City & The City” is a detective story in a highly unusual setting. The narrative follows the investigation of Inspector Borlú of the Beszian Extreme Crime Squad. A body has been found dumped: a Jane Doe. Quickly Borlú’s investigation begins to hint at a larger conspiracy. Mysterious and anonymous tip-offs are phoned in, slim leads are followed, forensic tests are done on the body. In many ways the narrative has all the features of Crime Fiction, perhaps with a Noir element. Borlú runs in to the jurisdictional problems which are a familiar trope of this genre, but with significantly different challenges. His investigation uncovers more possible victims, and perhaps evidence that would call in the absolute powers of Breach. Borlú’s own understanding of his world, his city, Ul Qoma and the unique relationship they share is challenged, and the novel invites you to keep turning pages as the narrative twists and reverses and opens up to an extraordinary denouement.

Miéville channels the earlier Detective SciFi of Philip K Dick, the political fear of George Orwell, the hard-boiled detective of Raymond Chandler, and the Noir imagery of “The Third Man”. Although the publishers (and The Times) make a comparison to Kafka this is not absurdism. The concept of Beszal and Ul Qoma seem surreal, but it is really an exaggeration: a hyperbole of our border jurisdictions and the real examples we can find in places such as StansteadCoolangatta, or  Baarle-Hertog.

Miéville is an obviously intelligent writer, and though his vocabulary here is far more accessible than in some of his other work, his ideas and imagination are evidence of this great intelligence. In lesser hands the conceit of this setting would be fragile, or slippery, of overwhelming. In “The City & The City” it is none of these things. Miéville handles the subject matter with confident assurance and never loses control of the beast he has created. The narrative itself is weaker and at times takes a second place to the setting, and the characters, while well drawn, are simplistic.

His greatest ability though is to present us with the utterly implausible and make us believe it. He brings us along with him as we tour the streets of the preposterous cities, and we go along without objection, accepting and enjoying the world as he gives it to us.

Highly Recommended