Book review: Hounds of the Underworld, by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray

23 03 2018

Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray are New Zealand speculative fiction writers and editors. Between them, they’ve won several Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadows awards; they’ve also collaborated as editors on two award-winning anthologies, Baby Teeth and At The Edge. I’ve previously reviewed Murray’s delightfully gruesome Into The Mist (a sort of tuatara daikaiju novel) here.


Hounds of the Underworld is the pair’s first joint novel, and the first in the ‘The Path of Ra’ sequence. It’s a noirish tale of unexplained disappearances and inexplicable crime scenes played out within the festering underbelly of 2040s Auckland and its surrounds, as brother-and-sister investigating team Matiu and Pandora (‘Penny’) try to determine whether a puddle of strange blood in a building’s basement is in any way connected with the fate of the building’s missing owner, Darius Fletcher. There’s an ominous atmosphere from the outset, and plenty of sparks between the siblings: technically it’s freelance analytical biochemist Penny’s investigation, but her terminally micromanaging parents have foisted her beefy younger brother on her as a chauffeur and bodyguard, and Matiu (who pretty much plays Mulder to Penny’s Scully) has an annoying but lifesaving tendency to butt in when the eldritch hazards faced by Penny—to which, with her clinically rational mind, she’s mostly blind—are apparent to him. (Or if not to him, then at least to Makere, his malevolent invisible friend.)

This is an intriguing technohorror procedural that, for the most part, juggles its diverse components with enviable skill. If it’s anchored by the vivid sibling-rivalry skirmishes between Penny and Matiu, it definitely helps that the supporting cast—their heavily-entitled parents, Hing and Kiri Yee, who run the country’s largest still-active fleet of hire vehicles; Penny’s overeager hired help, lab tech Grant ‘Beaker’ Deaker, who might be more than a little smitten with his boss; and Matiu’s troubled, mysterious birth mother, Mārama—are genuinely interesting and well-realised characters in their own right, who presumably will reappear in subsequent instalments in the series.


A cover reveal

21 02 2018

I’m a bit slow to get to this, but the SpecFicNZ Te Korero Ahi Ka anthology I mentioned last month is now out:


Here’s the TOC:

Ahi Ka (Eileen Mueller and A J Ponder)
On the Run (Kevin Berry)
Moa Love (Aaron Compton)
An Extract from the Diary of Peter Mackenzie (Daniel Stride)
Friend (Grant Stone)
Backchat (Mark English)
The Lost (Gregory Dally)
Gatekeeper, What Toll? (Mike Reeves-McMillan)
The Dragon’s Friend Inn (Serena Dawson)
The Big Bad Wolf (Kevin G Maclean)
Breach (Robinne Weiss)
Mother’s Milk (Dan Rabarts)
The Eye of the Beholder (Kevin G Maclean)
Somnium (Gregory Dally)
Dance, Tiny Particles, Dance (Sean Monaghan)
Earthcore: Initiation (Grace Bridges)
Mid-Life (Matt Cowens)
Her Grief in My Halls (Alan Baxter)
The Music of the Spheres (Debbie Cowens)
Diggers (Sally McLennan)
To the Centre of the Earth (Robinne Weiss)
Big Enough for Two (Piper Mejia)
Why I Hate Cake (Paul Mannering)
The Mysterious Mr Montague (Jane Percival)
The Nineveh (Mouse Diver-Dudfield)
What You Wish For (I K Paterson-Harkness)
Dancing West to East (Simon Petrie and Edwina Harvey)
Selfie (Lee Murray)
Wearing the Star Cloak (Darian Smith)
Te Hokianga Mai (The Return) (Marolyn Dudfield)
Magnetic North (I K Paterson-Harkness)
The Iron Wahine (Matt Cowens)



I haven’t yet sighted a physical copy (and likely won’t get to do so until the launch at Conclave 3 in Auckland, over the Easter long weekend), but it is already available online at Amazon (paperback and .mobi) and at various other sites including Apple and Kobo (.epub and maybe .mobi again), so if you’re interested, please check it out!

A couple of upcoming anthology appearances

27 01 2018

It’s been more than two years since my last appearance in a print anthology (the story ‘Trike Race’, co-written with Edwina Harvey, in the CSFG anthology The Never Never Land), so I’m thrilled to announce the following:

‘Dancing West to East’, a story co-written with Edwina Harvey, is to feature in the Te Korero Ahi Ka anthology edited by Lee Murray and Wolf Dietrich, and published under the auspices of SpecFicNZ.

And another story—again, co-written with Edwina Harvey—’On the Consequences of Clinically-Inhibited Maturation in the Common Sydney Octopus’ is scheduled to appear in the latest CSFG anthology, A Hand of Knaves, edited by Leife Shallcross and Chris Large.

These are due to come out, I think, towards the ends of March and September respectively (but further details will be forthcoming closer to release). I don’t, at this stage, have any details on the TOC for Te Korero Ahi Ka, but here’s a post by Leife Shallcross on the A Hand of Knaves lineup.


Book review: Shortcuts, Track 1, edited by Marie Hodgkinson

7 01 2018

Shortcuts is an anthologisation of the first six novelettes and novellas released under Paper Road Press’s novella project of the same name. The anthology encompasses some of NZ speculative fiction’s most notable authors. I’ll comment briefly on each story, then do a wrap.


‘Landfall’, by Tim Jones, is a well-realised climate-dystopia piece that posits a future New Zealand with a ruthless, militarised ‘solution’ to the climate refugee problem. Nasimul, the apparent sole survivor of the deliberate NZ Navy sinking of an overloaded Bangladeshi river ferry off the coast of Auckland, must swim for his life in order to reach shore. Once he makes terra firma, fate decrees that his life depends on the actions of disaffected young Home Guard reservist Donna. This is a gritty, chilling, uncomfortable piece somewhat in the spirit of Greg Egan’s ‘Lost Continent’.

In A C Buchanan’s ‘Bree’s Dinosaur’, Cam is a Vietnamese business student taking an English For Business Purposes course and homestaying with a local couple, Sue and Martin, and their teenage daughter Bree. There’s more than a decade between Cam and Bree, plus a hefty bundle of cultural difference, but Bree’s parents seem to hope that their houseguest can forge a connection with their sometimes-shy, sometimes-abrupt daughter whose time home seems principally to be spent in building a titanosaur in her bedroom. While I’m a big fan of saurian plotlines in general, I found the dinosaur aspect to this story to be something of a hindrance, appearing tacked on to a story which really did not need it. The plot here seems slightly confused, but the characterisation is excellent, strongly immersive and pleasantly detailed.

‘The Last’, by Grant Stone, sees seasoned British rock journo Rachel Mackenzie travel to a backblocks NZ farm to conduct the sole interview that legendarily reclusive singer-songwriter Katherine St John has agreed to offer in connection with her upcoming final album. Rachel has known from the outset of St John’s mysterious past—as an eleven-year-old, Katherine went missing for a week or more in Kent’s Bedgebury Forest during a camping trip with her parents, and was the subject of a major manhunt until she turned up clean, unharmed, and with no recollection of where she had been all that time—but it quickly becomes apparent that the strangeness that surrounded her childhood has taken root, somehow, on the ground of the farm she now calls her home. This is a decidedly eerie tale that draws the reader into its mystery.

In ‘Mika’, by Lee Murray and Piper Mejia, the titular character is an adventurer who’s journeyed from Aotearoa to New York’s Ellis Island in an amphibious vehicle, determined to reach the Las Vegas biotechnology company where, twenty-four years ago, her late father had been working on a gene-therapy treatment for the diabetes that now threatens her pregnant sister Huia. Along the way she acquires as companions a young girl, Bree (no relation to the A C Buchanan character) and a renegade paramedic, Steve. This is a fast-paced, sometimes sketchy story that I felt sought to cram too much in—though I enjoyed the immediacy, the mythological and cultural grace notes, and the crash-through-or-crash enthusiasm, it could probably have benefited from a little more length so as to flesh out its characters and its worldbuilding somewhat more.

In ‘Pocket Wife’, by I K Paterson-Harkness, grandparents Carl and Jenny are half a world away from each other—he’s in Montreal, she’s in Auckland—but they stay connected through their Tinys, miniature simulacra with some kind of optical / neural connection to the brain. So Carl has a miniature Jenny with him, while she has a diminutive Carl. Carl’s infidelity is something he definitely doesn’t want Jenny to know about, but when the little Jenny in his pocket won’t power down and disconnect the way it’s supposed to, it all goes to pot. I couldn’t quite decide how much sympathy to feel for Carl: he is very much a bastard, but it also seems as though he doesn’t manage to do anything right, and that level of failure is always painful to witness. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re his poor always-on spouse.

Octavia Cade’s ‘The Ghost of Matter’ sloshes between pivotal moments in the life and career of physicist Ernest Rutherford. The story’s bookended by the disappearance at sea of his younger brothers Charles and Herbert, in 1886, and by the death, shortly after the birth of her fourth child, of Rutherford’s lone daughter Eileen, in 1930. These events, as much as the struggle to understand the atomic structure hinted at by his laboratory studies, trouble Rutherford across the years, heightened by repeated manifestations—seawater, a girl in a blue dress—that his rational mind cannot account for. Cade is very good at this evocation of the private lives of scientists (I recollect reading her story ‘Eating With Ghosts’ in a recent issue of Asimov’s), and this is an eerily powerful piece with which to close the anthology.

I’ll avoid invidious comparisons in giving a summation on the anthology: the stories, really, are each too different to effectively compare and contrast. The volume does give an effective overview of the range of NZ speculative fiction talent, and for that reason it’s well worth seeking out for those interested. It would also be interesting to see further volumes in the series, though since as I understand it the ‘Shortcuts’ programme is currently in abeyance, that’s probably some distance off.



Book review: Into the Mist, by Lee Murray

7 09 2017

Lee Murray is a New Zealand speculative fiction writer with three novels and a substantial amount of shorter work under her belt. She has won nine Sir Julius Vogel Awards for her writing and editing, and an Australian Shadows award for the anthology Baby Teeth which she coedited with Dan Rabarts.


Into the Mist (which won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel, and was also shortlisted in the Australian Shadows) describes a geological survey into the wilds of the Ureweras, to follow up the chance discovery, in one of the region’s streams, of a sizeable gold nugget. But the Ureweras have acquired a reputation for danger—there are rumours that their mist-shrouded folds conceal separatist training camps, drug operations, and perhaps something more sinister—and in view of the number of people who’ve gone missing in the area in recent months, it’s decided that the scientific team should be accompanied, for their own safety, by a sizeable infantry squad. The team members regard this additional manpower and weaponry as overkill, but as it turns out, the army’s Steyr rifles are no match for the foe the group faces deep in the North Island bush …

Into the Mist is a well-executed piece of creature fiction which fires well on all cylinders. The characters are vivid, varied, and credible; Murray manages the nontrivial task of depicting a motley but genuinely interesting team of ‘grunts’ as well as a group of plausibly-drawn scientists, and charts the friction between these groups without any of the characterisation impinging unduly on the story’s action. There are some nice lines of humour as well, in addition to the steadily-mounting tension as it becomes increasingly apparent that the soldiers and researchers are encroaching on the territory of something unknown but genuinely dangerous. I was particularly impressed with Murray’s detailing of the mechanism by which a long-vanished creature might manage to once again become part of the ecosystem of the bush; and the elements of Maori lore which have been woven into the storyline have been deployed skilfully and to good effect. If I have a quibble, it is that the ‘framing story’, which seemed to involve international mining-rights skullduggery, was not explored in any kind of depth—what there was of this background story detracted, I felt, from the excellent depiction of bushland crisis management by the beleaguered soldiers and scientists, and could quite probably have been omitted in its entirety. But Murray’s telling of a ‘mission from hell’ is masterly, brutal, and thoroughly enjoyable.

In other matters arising

7 04 2015

Life goes on, even in the midst of a Hugo nominations maelstrom, and here in the Antipodes, the synchronised Australian and NZ natcons — neither of which I was able to attend — have seen the parcelling out of Ditmar, Sir Julius Vogel, and other awards, under considerably less contentious circumstances than have attended the Hugo noms.  The Ditmar summary can be seen here, and the SJVs here. (Yes, I know the ‘Ditmar’ link isn’t to an official results page, but it’s a source I trust, in the apparent absence of the official page at this time.)

Hearty congratulations to all the winners — I’m especially pleased to see, on the NZ side, SJVs go to Paul Mannering for his marvellously daffy novel Engines of Empathy (thoroughly recommended), to Lee Murray for her short story ‘Inside Ferndale’, and to A J Fitzwater for her well-deserved Best New Talent award. (A J has a novella — the cover story, in fact, in the upcoming ASIM 61, which has been upcoming for so long that I’m sure it’s starting to seem like the Cathedral of Chalesm. But the issue is, honestly, almost complete …) And there’s a long list of good names on the Ditmar sheet as well, but I’d like to single out the hardworking and multi-talented Donna Maree Hanson who has claimed the A Bertram Chandler award this year.

A signal boost

19 07 2013

A group of my colleagues at SpecFicNZ, spearheaded by the energetic and talented Dan Rabarts (and with editorial backup from the delightful Lee Murray), have put together an anthology called Baby Teeth, a collection of horror stories inspired by the creepy things kids say.


They’re setting up to sell the anthology (in both print and e-formats) as a fundraiser for New Zealand’s ‘Duffy Books In Homes‘ child literacy programme, and they’re running a PledgeMe campaign to raise $1000 (NZD) to cover costs for an initial print run. You can pledge as little as $5, and a pledge of $10 suffices to get you a copy of the e-book. (Some of the incentives / rewards are available only in NZ, but the e-book offer is certainly international.)

If you’re wavering, the authors represented are:

Jake Bible, Anna Caro, Debbie Cowens, Matt Cowens, Morgan Davie, Elizabeth Gatens, Jean Gilbert, Jan Goldie, JC Hart, Alan Lindsay, Kevin G MacLean, Paul Mannering, Sally McLennan, Piper Mejia, Lewis Morgan, Celine Murray, Lee Murray, Jack Newhouse, Michael J Parry, Alicia Ponder, Dan Rabarts, Jenni Sands, Darian Smith, Matthew Sanborn Smith, Grant Stone, and M Darusha Wehm.

I’m familiar with enough of those names to convince me that this is going to be a very classy collection, and it’s in a very good cause. Please get behind it!