Book review: The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen

18 10 2017

Antti Tuomainen is a Finnish crime novelist and former copywriter. He’s written seven novels to date, each one (so far as I know) a standalone, and has won the Clue award for Best Finnish Crime Novel as well as shortlistings for the Petrona and Glass Key Awards. Four of his novels have been translated into English: I’ve reviewed the other three of these (The Healer, The Mine, and Dark As My Heart) previously.

TheManWhoDied

In The Man Who Died (Mies joka kuoli, 2016, translated by David Hackston), Jaakko Kaunismaa (the somewhat misleadingly-identified titular character) has a few problems. He’s been poisoned; his wife Taina is cheating on him with Petri, the family firm’s driver and apprentice; and his go-ahead little matsutake export business is about to face some seriously well-resourced and criminally-aggressive competition from the Hamina Mushroom Company, which turns out to be a consortium of former sportsmen and convicted murderers whose combined knowledge of the mushroom-harvesting business would not suffice to deface a postage stamp. But in the days that remain for Jaakko to put his affairs in order before irreversible organ failure puts a stop to him, he’s determined at least to find out who his killer is, and to discover, if possible, what’s at the root of all this sudden industrial espionage.

Now, the above could all be the recipe for a perfectly straight-sided and dark little tale, and Tuomainen is certainly capable of handing in such a novel. He’s chosen, though, to balance the mordant grimness of Jaakko’s predicament with a biting whimsicality, as Jaakko, freed by his impending demise of many of the mores and strictures of conventionally civilised society, sets to on the task of putting things right while he still has time to do so. Of course, deciding on the best course of action isn’t straightforward: he can’t trust his wife, he can’t trust his new business rivals, he dare not go to the police following an unfortunate misunderstanding over a katana. And he certainly can’t trust the delivery boy who can’t keep it in his pants. But there aren’t that many other people in his immediate circle, and he must work with what he’s got … even when what he’s got is incurable poisoning and a group of people who, for one reason or another, want him out of the way.

The mix of high drama and black comedy is a difficult one to pull off, but Tuomainen manages admirably. There are scenes in the book that definitely and unforcedly provoke laughter, without the humour of the situation dulling the tension in any way, and the dialogue is a blend of bluntly plain speaking, heavily-guarded doublespeak, and wonderfully mixed message. It’s a different style of levity than that found in Raymond Chandler’s ‘Philip Marlowe’ novels, but the author has, I think, Chandler’s sense of timing and a clear precision with language. It helps, too, that Jaakko is such an appealing and relatable character. All up, The Man Who Died is a somewhat surprising but well-executed departure from Tuomainen’s previous style, and it’ll be fascinating to see what he does next.

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Book review: Undercity, by Catherine Asaro

16 10 2017

Catherine Asaro is an American teacher, dancer, and science fiction writer who has received multiple Nebula and Hugo nominations, and has won the Nebula Award and many other awards. She’s best known for her series of novels on the Skolian Empire, the first of which, Primary Inversion, I’ve previously reviewed here.

Undercity

Undercity is set in and beneath the city of Cries, a long-established enclave on the desert planet of Raylicon. Its protagonist and narrator is Bhaajan, former military officer, now PI, who’s hired by the royal (and strictly matriarchal) House of Majda to find, and hopefully rescue, a kidnapped prince, Dayjarind. Bhaajan’s military chops are one reason she’s been given the high-stakes assignment; her reputation for discretion is another. The principal reason she’s hired by the Majda, though, is her upbringing as an orphan within the subterranean slums and catacombs which those of Cries’ above-ground citizenry know only as a refuge for thieves and bandits.

Undercity is billed, on its back-cover blurb, as a SF detective novel, which is a bit misleading. Yes, it’s undeniably SF (my ongoing quibbles about Asaro’s treatment of psionic properties notwithstanding): the future history and technology of the Skolian Empire storyline is detailed and intriguing. Yes, Bhaajan (‘Bhaaj’ to her friends) is a detective, in the fearless charmed-life mould of someone who knows her military training, cybernetic enhancements, and gadgetry can extricate her from most predicaments (she also seems pretty good at talking her way out of a crisis, although she manages to talk herself into a few as well). And yes, she has a case to solve. But she solves it a third of the way through the book; the rest, in essence is cleanup. Which, counterintuitively, is the more interesting part of the novel, as Bhaaj turns from ‘detective’ to ‘troubleshooter’, seeking to avert or at least contain a brewing catastrophe set in motion by the plot she’s uncovered. This shift in roles is in some respects clumsy, and it seems to take the novel a couple of chapters to find its feet again after the resolution of the prince’s kidnapping. But in its later chapters especially, the book strikes an effective seam of Golden-Age-style storytelling, satisfyingly conveyed with pathos and emotional depth, as Asaro mines a strongly moving story from the hidden depths of her worldbuilding. In the final analysis, with its heroics, its big personalities and its dynasties, it’s more a work of hard(ish) space opera than anything else, less a tale of detection than of action and reflection.





Book review: Snare, by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

15 10 2017

Lilja Sigurðardóttir is an Icelandic crime novelist and playwright. (Note that the ‘Sigurðardóttir’ patronymic doesn’t imply any genealogical connection with fellow Icelandic crime novelist Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: it merely means their fathers had the same first name.) Of Lilja’s five novels to date, only one, Snare (the first volume, it seems, of her ‘Reykjavík Noir’ trilogy) has yet been translated into English.

Snare

Snare (Gildran, 2015, translated by Quentin Bates) opens with drug courier Sonja’s preparations for a flight from Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport to Keflavík in Iceland. Sonja’s done this—smuggled a kilo of cocaine—several times before: her approach to the task is professional, her appearance carefully groomed to ensure she doesn’t raise any flags with the customs officials. But it’s hardly her first choice of career; it’s something she’s taken on so as to be able to establish herself financially and, hopefully, to win sole custody of her young son Tómas following a bitter divorce triggered by her affair with Agla, a woman who used to hold an important position at the same bank that employed Adam, Sonja’s ex-husband.

Sonja, determined to wrest back control of her life and to escape the ‘snare’ of drug trafficking, is adamant that she will not be played. She’s being played. Agla, too, squeezed between the mistrust of former colleagues and a financial prosecutor looking for culprits in the aftermath of Iceland’s currency crisis, is also being played. The fraught, brittle, somehow enduring relationship between the two women—which, I suppose, I didn’t always find convincing in its mercuriality, though both characters are endearingly sympathetic—is as much at the novel’s heart as their separate and very different predicaments: while the reader’s interest is initially caught up in the desperation of Sonja’s plight, it becomes clear that there’s more at stake for several of the people around her. Looming as Sonja’s nemesis is the retirement-age customs inspector Bragi, who twigs that there’s something suspect about this impeccably-dressed frequent traveller; Agla’s fate is in the hands of the humourless Inspector Jón and his associate Maria, who show a tireless determination to root out her secrets. The characterisation is efficient, the tension well-maintained, the book’s diversions—some ominously inevitable, some mischieviously unexpected—effectively handled, and the descriptions of both drug-trafficking and banking cultures appear well-enough researched to be distinctly disquieting. This is a propulsive and rewarding introduction to Lilja’s writing, of which I hope we’ll see more in English.





Book review: Trees (vol. 1, ‘In Shadow’; vol. 2, ‘Two Forests’), by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

13 10 2017

Warren Ellis is an English novelist, screenwriter, and comic book writer; Jason Howard is a comic book artist. Trees is an unfolding story told in comic book / graphic novel form, exploring the slow invasion of Earth by ominously tall, mainly inert pillars (the ‘Trees’ of the title).

Trees_vol1

In Trees volume one (‘In Shadow’), the effect of the Trees’ proximity to several locations scrattered across the globe (Spitzbergen, Manhattan, Rio de Janiero, Shu, Cefalu, Mogadishu) is sketched in apparently-disparate storylines that each kick off without anything much by way of preliminary scene-setting. It’s established from the start that the towering Trees are indifferent to, perhaps even ignorant of, the existence of human settlements at the locations of their incursions: aside from occasionally shedding waste (in the form, it seems, of copious extrusions of bright green sap), they mainly just stand there, interfering with radio transmissions and occupying what might, a decade ago, have been prime human real estate.

Most of the attention in vol. 1 is split between Spitzbergen, where biologist Dr Joanne Creasey has newly arrived at a research station to discover that her colleagues are in the habit of leaving frozen bodies scattered around the base of the local Tree, to see what actions the Tree takes to these incursions; Cefalu, where Eligia, the girlfriend of Tito (a thuggish fascist gang leader seeking to carve out a little empire for himself in the town in the Tree’s shadow) is looking to find a way out from under her boyfriend’s ‘protection’; and Shu, where Chenglei, an artistically-minded villager from the surrounding countryside, seeks permission to enter the Special Cultural Zone that the Chinese authorities have established as a protective measure following the arrival of a Tree. Once ensconced in the anarchic artists’ commune called Spaceship One, Chenglei realises that the feelings he holds for his transsexual neighbour Zhen are far from straightforward. But, particularly in the threat-charged environment that is a Tree’s neighbourhood, nothing lasts forever …

Trees_vol2

Trees volume two (‘Two Forests’) picks up the storylines from vol. 1. Though each of the storylines is advanced further, to a greater or lesser degree, most of the action this time around centres again on Dr Creasey (now a veteran of what’s referred to as ‘the Blindhail incident’ following events unfolding on Spitzbergen), who’s consigned as an urgent advisor to an archaeological dig in the shadow of the Orkney Tree as, it appears, an insurance against Spitzbergen’s fate (and accompanying electromagnetic pulse) repeating itself on UK soil; and Vince, the corrupt and ambitious mayor-elect of New York, who appears to have dealt his way into power purely to exact retribution for mistakes made by the city authorities (not least NYPD) in the immediate aftermath of the Tree’s arrival in Manhattan eleven years ago.

Within the sharply kinetic confines of the comic book format (the two volumes, though presented as graphic-novel-sized paperbacks, are constructed as sequences of respectively eight and six individual issues), there’s an impressive array, in Trees, of punchy characterisation and grainily expressive illustration; there’s also an intriguing and slowly-unfolding overall story. Though there’s no deeper connection than the trope of ‘alien-settlement-on-Earth’, the tone has quite a lot in keeping with District 9 in its grimy, unglamorous exploration of human reaction to the culture shock of alien intelligence. There’s a cerebrality and a humour to it, too, that heightens the often-confusing and fast-paced action: this promises to be considerably more than just another riff on ideas aired in books such as The War of the Worlds, Childhood’s End, and The Forge of God.

The second volume doesn’t end the story, though there does appear to have been a hiatus of at least a year since the most recent instalment (issue 14, which forms the last part of vol. 2). It’s certainly to be hoped that the series does continue, since vol. 2 moves the story into some very interesting territory, with growing hints as to the Trees’ purpose and the likely risks to mankind as the Trees carry out their mysterious assignment.





Book review: Nightblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

12 10 2017

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, TV reporter, translator and crime novelist best known for his ‘Dark Iceland’ series featuring policeman Ari Thór Arason, of which four books are now available in English translation (though not in their chronological or series order). I’ve reviewed the first of the English-translated novels, Snowblind, here.

NightBlind

Nightblind (Náttblinda, 2015, translated by Quentin Bates), is nominally the fifth in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series and is set five years after the events of Snowblind. It opens with the gunning down of Ari Thór’s commanding officer Herjólfur late on a cold autumn night, in a deserted house on Siglufjördur’s outskirts. Ari Thór, who finds himself playing second fiddle to his previous commanding officer, Tómas, dispatched from Reykjavík to lead the investigation. The police soon find themselves working at cross purposes to the town’s new mayor, Gunnar, and his deputy and close friend Elín, whose accounts of their actions at the time of the shooting are unsatisfactory. But a motive for the murder, and it seems as though everyone in the small coastal town harbours a secret of some sort.

Ragnar’s writing is crisp and evocative, the town’s classically-nordic winter cold and gloom is very atmospheric, and the characterisation reveals just enough of the townspeople’s foibles to keep the reader guessing as to how it will pay out. My only real criticism of the book is that the interwoven diary entries—which, though relevant to the story, are perhaps somewhat too frequent in what is a fairly slim novel—do tend to pull the reader repeatedly out of the story. Otherwise, Ragnar does an excellent job of balancing the crime and the backgrounding social commentary, playing off the tension against the often-brittle domesticity of his characters’ lives, and the greyscale morality—nothing is black and white, nobody’s motives are pure—adds texture and complexity to what is, at heart, a reasonably simple tale.





Book review: As White As Snow, by Salla Simukka

10 10 2017

Salla Simukka is a Finnish novelist, critic, and translator, known mostly for her YA fiction (for which she’s won the Topelius Award). To date, only her ‘Snow White’ trilogy—the first book of which, As Red As Blood, I’ve reviewed here—has been translated into English.

AsWhiteAsSnow

As White As Snow (Valkea kuin lumi, 2013, translated by Owen F Witesman) sees Simukka’s seventeen-year-old protagonist Lumikki Andersson on holiday in Prague, soaking up the summer heat and the architectural opulence. But her relaxation gets diverted by the intrusion of a woman, Lenka, who seems to be a couple of years older than Lumikki, who speaks reasonably fluent Swedish, and who claims to be only-child Lumikki’s older sister, the result of a holiday dalliance between her mother (now dead) and Lumikki’s father Peter Andersson. Lenka’s story, though sparse, rings true to Lumikki, and it throws her into a tailspin that gets progressively deeper as she realises just how strange and reclusive is the extended family into which Lenka was adopted following her mother’s death. Is it possible that Lenka has some kind of ulterior motive, beyond the claim of kinship, which explains her efforts to forge a link with Lumikki?

This is a compact, tense story that, to a modest degree, suffers from The Two Towers syndrome: it’s neither the introduction nor the resolution and, despite being mostly self-contained, does rely, in part, on its predecessor to establish the character of Lumikki. Simukka does manage some good riffs on the idea of identity and of belonging; the further teasing-out of the backstory Lumikki has with the mysterious Blaze is employed to good effect; and the book’s dance between action, tension and paranoia as restrained as it is immersive—the author doesn’t waste words. Nonetheless, the story ultimately felt a little slight to me: it doesn’t entirely live up to the promise and the weight of the preceding volume. (It remains to be seen how the final volume, As Black As Ebony, fares; I’ll get to it in due course. Among other things, it’ll be interesting to determine whether it, too, contains significant Moomin references, as have both its predecessors.)

I think my main problem with As White As Snow was that neither Lenka nor the journalist Jiri, the two characters tasked mainly with the job of acting as foils for Lumikki, is entirely up to the role: there simply doesn’t seem to be enough depth to Jiri, and Lenka is frustratingly constrained by a personality which never truly flares into life. (Indeed, rather more of the interpersonal heavy lifting is provided by the flashback scenes involving the absent Blaze than comes about through Lumikki’s interactions with Jiri or even with Lenka.) Overall, though, the book is admirably propulsive, particularly in the second half, and the additional character development afforded Lumikki is reason enough to keep faith with the series.





Book review: Wellside, by Robin Shortt

9 10 2017

Robin Shortt is a Canberra-born speculative fiction writer now living in Vancouver. In the interests of transparency, I should state that I selected his short story debut, ‘Bonsai’—a story I first encountered in the CSFG short story crit group—for ASIM issue 51. He’s since had a few other short stories published, recently joined by his debut novel.

Wellside

Wellside starts with high school student Ben running, possibly for his life, from the knife-wielding class bully Ryan. Ben flees to the school’s disused gymnasium, but his efforts to lock the door behind him fail and Ryan bursts through, hell-bent on vengeance for some imagined slight during the preciding minutes in the cafeteria when Ben had trying to make conversation with Essa, the mysterious, withdrawn, artistic girl in his class. In desperation, Ben tries the other door, the last door, the door on the gymnasium’s far wall that has never opened in all the time he’s been a student at this school … and it opens, and suddenly it isn’t Ryan that’s the deadly menace. As things very rapidly turn to not-in-Kansas-anymore, Essa convinces Ben that his only chance to escape the carnage of the next few minutes is to follow her through the door and start climbing.

What’s beyond the door is the Well, a broad shaft of apparently infinite extension that’s studded here and there with doors into, as it turns out, other worlds. These other worlds are populated by a miscellany of exotic creatures, Cogs and Vats and Librarians and giant clockwork spiders and fungal predators and living iron and creatures agglomerated from sentient dust …

Shortt’s envisaged universe is fractally strange, its grotesqueries catalogued with unflinching precision. The setting seems something like a turf war between Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali, a steampunked, anime’d, cylindrified riff on C. S. Lewis’s ‘Wood between the Worlds’, populated by escapees from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and from all those nightmares too strange to remember the next day. The book brims with full-throttle widescreen weirdness and, wonderfully, it just doesn’t let up. But it is, I think, the strength of characterisation that is the book’s principal achievement, with protagonists such as Essa, Winter, and Gardenback as solid and as plausible as they are inscrutable. It’s an achievement equal to that seen in the best and strangest works of, say, Greg Egan, where the characters simultaneously seem to embody the essence of alienness and the idea of humanity. It’s this kind of thing that makes a book seem far larger than its borders.