Book Review: Traction City / The Teacher’s Tales of Terror

2017 is the first year since I became aware of the event’s existence that my children did not return from school on World Book Day eagerly clutching either their choice of book or a voucher to be exchanged at a bookshop. My youngest is now in sixth form and is presumably no longer a part of the target demographic.

Recently, however, he has urged me to read a series of books that the rest of my family have already enjoyed – the Predator Cities Quartet by Philip Reeve. Having posted the reviews for these over the past few weeks I decided to pick up an associated, former World Book Day publication to see how it slotted into the fantasy world.

Traction City is a short story set in a time shortly before the first book in the quartet. London is on the move and a young boy, Smiff, is creeping through the city’s bowels searching for dropped or discarded items that may be saleable. Instead he finds a dead body. Smiff then witnesses a violent attack on the outlaw men who roam this abandoned area. A tall, human like figure with glowing green eyes allows the boy to escape. Despite his aversion to the police, a terrified Smiff reports what he has seen. He finds a sympathetic ear in Sergeant Anders.

Anders rarely has much to do during his shifts at the lower level police station where he was assigned when his home town was eaten by London. This evening, however, he has a prisoner to process. A young girl has flown in and been apprehended carrying a small amount of explosive. Her shabby airship is named the Jenny Haniver.

There follows a chase, the discovery of body parts, and a run-in with the Guild of Engineers. As ever in this series, where a potential weapon exists, all sides vie to harness its power for their cause, whatever the cost to the wider population.

This was an interesting add-on but was not as compelling as the excellent quartet. I will now need to decide if I wish to read the prequel trilogy starting with Fever Crumb. These are set around the time cities first started to move.

As with many of the World Book Day offerings, a second story is included on the flip side of the book. In this case it is an addition to Chris Priestley’s chilling Tales of Terror, not a series I am familiar with.

The Teacher’s Tales of Terror is appropriately set in a school on World Book Day. A supply teacher has been called in to cover for an ill colleague. The head teacher is pleased to note that Mr Munro, the rather austere looking gentleman who presents himself for this role, has got into the spirit of things and dressed for the chosen theme, celebrating a Victorian heritage.

Mr Munro soon takes control of his rather unruly class and informs them that his lesson will be to read them some stories. What follows are a series of deliciously creepy tales. These are short and spine tingling but not too scary.

The denouement was unexpected and added an extra dimension to the overall story arc. This was an engaging, nicely constructed, and satisfying read.

Book Review: A Darkling Plain

A Darkling Plain, by Philip Reeve, brings to a conclusion the author’s Predator Cities Quartet, and what a conclusion it is. Like the earlier books in the series it is filled with action and adventure, humour, a touch of romance, and some difficult truths about the predilections of mankind. All this is set on a future earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval and changed the manner in which survivors may live.

When the story opens, Theo has returned to his family in Zagwa but cannot forget the kiss he shared with Wren. Tom is travelling the Bird Roads with his daughter, both keeping busy in their attempts to put behind them their break from Hester. At a trading post Tom spots a face he recognises from his time in London where he thought everyone had been killed by Medusa. With his health deteriorating Tom mulls the possibility of revisiting the wreck of his old home city.

The Green Swarm and the Traction Cities have embarked on an uneasy truce but there are many on both sides who are unhappy with this peaceful acceptance of alternative ways of life they have been raised to regard as detestable. Rogue elements are determined to quash their enemies by whatever means necessary. When Tom and Wren are chartered to take a wealthy young mayor-in-waiting, Wolf, on a reconnaisance flight to what is left of old London, they get caught up in violent intrigues where trust is scarce.

Hester has been reunited with Stalker Shrike and is travelling on a sandship, intent on not allowing herself to care for anyone again. When she encounters captive slaves, recognising them from her previous life, she becomes embroiled in rivalries from both sides of the war.

Fishcake has done what he can to repair Stalker Fang who is eager to return to Batmunkh Gompa that she may avenge all who have failed her and, alone, turn the world green. Despite her deadly focus, she becomes the closest thing the abandoned young Lost Boy has to a longed for parent.

When a fearsome new weapon starts attacking from the sky, old grievances risk destroying what progress has been made in this violent and increasingly fragile new world. The race is on to prevent mankind’s annihilation.

This is an engaging and fast moving romp through an imaginatively constructed if somewhat violent fantasy world, but I would recommend reading the full series to gain the most from the story told. The quartet is proof, if anyone still needs convincing, that young adult fiction can be enjoyed by competent readers of any age. The final page is as satisfying as any I have read.

My reviews of the previous books in the series may be found by clicking on the titles below.

  1. Mortal Engines
  2. Predator’s Gold
  3. Infernal Devices

 

Random Musings: Lessons in Mind Control #StanlysGhost

I recently reviewed Stanly’s Ghost, the final installment in Stefan Mohamed’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. This is a fantasy adventure series aimed at young adults and you may read my review here. For many it will be a fun, action packed tale of intrepid if somewhat geeky heroes fighting monsters and evil overlords. They save the world, and more specifically their friends, from the power grabbing intentions of a ruling elite led by a smarmy yet dastardly megalomaniac named Freeman. Whilst thoroughly enjoying the story, what I took from it were parallels with our current reality.

One of the powers being abused by the bad guy is mind control. He and his acolytes use this not only to subdue and get their way but as an instrument of torture, a way of destroying those who attempt to thwart their plans. In the basement of their headquarters are prison cells within which superpowers may be neutralised. Freeman prefers to harness these superpowers for his own ends, but any who refuse to comply with his demands are taken down.

The hero, eighteen year old Stanly Bird, is in many ways charmingly naive. He wants above all else to do what is right. The problem is that to thwart Freeman’s plans he has to engage in similar activities. Stanly also harnesses mind control to get others to do his bidding. This is often to the good – he banishes a wife beater – but to get rid of Freeman it is suggested he will have to kill, or at least send his enemy to another realm, preferably one where he will suffer for his misdeeds. Freeman had sent Stanly to another realm in a previous book in the series, supposedly for the greater good. What is the difference?

All this set me thinking about the UK where political thinking has recently become more polarised. The last General Election (in 2015) was challenging as no parties seemed to represent ordinary people, that is, those who could not directly benefit the politicians. It was hard to choose who to vote for when all candidates talked in misleading soundbites and demonstrated blatant self-interest. A change was needed, and with the subsequent battle for the Labour Party leadership and then the vote for Brexit this was achieved. Now the country seems even more divided and discontent. The uncertainty that change brings is not being well received.

Before the General Election many complained about the Prime Minister, Cameron. They are not happy with his successor, May. The Labour Party leader, Milliband, was widely mocked for his willingness to compromise, yet his successor, Corbyn, is disliked for his steadfastness – he is regarded by many as ineffectual. Before Brexit many complained about the waste and perceived cronyism within the EU. Now leaving it is being decried as a national disaster. Change is demanded, but only if it follows the agenda of particular groups.

“I love Europe. I love its peoples, its culture, its food, its architecture, its common heritage, its cultural diversity, its trains, its art, music and drama, its literature and poetry, its history and the richness of its land. It’s just the EU that I loathe.”

In Stanly’s Ghost, Freeman has taken the power that Stanly’s previous actions granted him and used it to achieve a number of good things. The country is stable, infrastructure projects provide work, sustainable power sources are harnessed. There is still discontent, particularly amongst those who struggle to accept the empowered living openly and displaying their differences. Certain unempowered people would prefer to go back to when they could regard themselves as superior.

To take Freeman down would be to throw the country, and possibly the world, into the unknown. New leaders would emerge, and they may be no better. What right have Stanly and his friends to forcefully decide what is good for the wider population?

“A revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.”

One plot line in the story involves a drug that could be added to the water to quietly remove all superpowers. In one sense this would make everyone equal. Stanly argues that individuals should not have the drug foisted on them, that they should be offered a choice. Who would choose to give up their privilege? It may be commendable to wish for a better life for the downtrodden and oppressed, but few are willing to sacrifice the comforts they enjoy in order to achieve equality and the downgrade in their own lifestyle that this may bring, even when they can see that they bear a degree of culpability for other’s suffering. Think of the current attitude towards immigrants and refugees.

The superpowered in Stanly’s Ghost use mind control. In our world this is achieved through the skewed and biased dissemination of information. It is too easy to regard those who hold views that are anathema as fools. Both sides do this. The reality is a great deal more complex than many seem able to accept.

“Beware the new imperial elite: athiest, rational, convinced of their rights, prepared to trample the responsibility of individuals, families, communities and local institutions for themselves and substitute central control and governance ‘for the greater good'”

Stanly struggles with his conscience as he tries to decide what he should do. In a fast moving environment, where knowledge that may damage the standing of the powerful is witheld, it can be difficult to discern what the right decision may be. With hindsight there could be regret, but who can say with any certainty how any alternative result would have played out?

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

“Good science is not about crusading with preconceived ideas. It’s about asking why, and seeking the truth, however inconvenient it might be”

Stanly’s Ghost is published by Salt and is available to buy now.

The quotes I have used in this post are not taken from the book. They have been inserted to illustrate points of view, not necessarily my own.

Book Review: Stanly’s Ghost

“That brief, glowing time when an afternoon spent on the lawn with only a cardboard box and a stick for company was an afternoon well spent. That time which, like all times, you didn’t truly appreciate until you realised it had long passed.

But then there’s new times. And you do those.”

Stanly’s Ghost, by Stefan Mohamed, is the third book in the author’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. I review the first two books here and here. In this final installment the teenage superhero, Stanly Bird, discovers that he has somehow been released from his suspended dreamstate amongst the shimmers who unleashed monsters into his world. Stanly’s awakening is abrupt and confusing, with images imprinting themselves on his memory that he cannot explain. When he returns to London he finds that time has moved on and much has changed.

Stanly’s old nemesis, Freeman, is running what is now known as Angelcorps, working with governments and heads of state to manage the roles empowered individuals can usefully play in a society still being rebuilt after the Collision. Registration and enhanced surveillance have been widely accepted, for the good of the people (of course). What actually happened, and Stanly’s role in this, have been altered in people’s memories. Alongside the myriad of superpowers now being openly wielded, the most pervasive is mind control. Stanly needs to learn quickly if he is to avoid being manipulated. His powers are particularly strong and Angelcorp will only allow him to operate in the public sphere if Freeman retains control.

Like the previous two installments in this series, the writing is witty and candid with many passing references to popular culture. Unlike his friends, Stanly has not aged so is still eighteen years old. He is impulsive, somewhat arrogant and has little understanding of the organisation he is up against. His powers have grown exponentially and he is determined to use them to help his friends. He harbours a desire to be a force for good in the world, a comic book superhero. His problem lies in deciding what good means.

Into this maelstrom of conflicting emotions and risky exposures appears another powerful individual who also wishes to influence Stanly’s behaviour. The Collision proved that alternative worlds exist and he shows Stanly that it is possible to move between them. Stanly has the power to rid his world of a dangerous megalomaniac but he fears what doing so would make him.

Issues are explored with the lightest of touches whilst following Stanly as he flies around London, throwing large objects whilst reading people’s minds and using the force, or whatever it should be called in this tale. The narrative is funny and quick, poignant and honest in its depiction of a teenager trying to retain some control over his life when most of the time he hasn’t a clue what exactly he wants to do or to be.

After the epic battles and revelations I wondered how the author could create a saisfying denouement. He does so with aplomb. There may be no easy answers to the massive questions, nor to those Stanly struggles with on a personal level, but the final page is a perfect fit with all that has gone before.

An adrenaline inducing adventure that never takes itself too seriously. The writing flows and the action is fist-pumpingly good. A must read for anyone who has ever dreamed of having superpowers. Always fun and entertaining, yet it is the originality and depth that truly impressed me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

 

Book Review: Infernal Devices

Infernal Devices, by Philip Reeve, is the third book in the author’s Predator Cities Quartet. This is a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at young adults but enjoyable for all competent readers. I reviewed the first two books here and here.

In this instalment, Tom and Hester have settled in the now static city of Anchorage where it came to rest on the Dead Continent, presumed sunk by all who knew of its existence. Their daughter, Wren, was born here and has known nothing but a peaceful if rather lonely existence in her fifteen years. Having grown up listening to the tales of her parents’ adventures she dreams of experiencing some excitement for herself.

Caul, the former Lost Boy, inadvertently presents her with opportunity when she stumbles across a secret meeting he attends in the dead of night. She turns thief in exchange for passage away, but when events turn deadly, ends up being sold as a slave.

Appalled by this unexpected reminder of their past, Tom and Hester set out to rescue their child. Assuming that she will have been taken to the Lost Boys’ hidden headquarters at Grimsby, Caul goes with them. He wishes to be reunited with Uncle, the closest he has ever had to a parent. This desire the young burglars feel to belong to a mum or dad has been their undoing. Wren is not the only freshly captured slave.

The action moves to the pleasure city of Brighton where the wily Pennyroyal continues to spin his web of deceit. Unbeknownst to all, just as Tom and Hester launch their rescue attempt, powerful forces are about to be unleashed. The Green Storm has set its sights on Brighton, although its stalker leader is not telling her minions why.

As with the previous two books, there is plenty of action and many imaginative contraptions that playfully mock the terms and technology we enjoy today. Beneath this humour lies an unavoidable dark truth, that man’s greed, selfishness and lust for power overrides any semblance of sense.

An entertaining romp that plays fast and loose with coincidence, bravery and luck, not that this detracts from the enjoyment of the tale. Amidst the carnage there lies much for the reader to consider. A fun but also poignant read.

Book Review: Predator’s Gold

predatorsgold

Predator’s Gold, by Philip Reeve, is the second instalment in the author’s quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. Aimed at young adults, the story is set in a post apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval. I review the first in the series, Mortal Engines, here.

Two years after their escape from the Medusa disaster, Tom and Hester are travelling the Bird Roads in their airship, the Jenny Haniver, ferrying cargo between remote cities. Whilst on a stop at an airborne trading post they are offered a substantial fee for transporting a passenger, a task they would not normally undertake. The journey turns troubling when they are pursued by a recently formed band of radical Anti-Tractionists, the Green Storm, who wish to reclaim the Jenny Haniver. It had belonged to one of their most revered members who is now dead.

The subsequent dogfight damages the airship forcing our trio to put down on Anchorage, a peaceful traction city that has been ravaged by plague. Its ruling Magravine, a teenager named Freya, is still finding her way as leader following the deaths of her parents. Bound by tradition she is reluctant to mix with the visiting ‘tramp avaiators’, but when she discovers that their passenger is the renowned author and historian, Professor Nimrod Pennyroyal, she grants them an audience.

Freya is immediately drawn to the handsome Tom. When he mentions that he trained as an historian on his home city of London she offers him a job at her personal museum. Tom is tempted, and Hester is incensed. Her disfigurment has sapped her self-confidence, but she will not give up her beloved without attempting to reclaim his affections.

Unbeknownst to all aboard, Anchorage is playing host to other visitors. Hidden within the bowels of the city are a team of Lost Boys, and their spy cameras enable them to watch everyone.

In the world of Municiple Darwinism, where resources are uncreasingly scarce, loyalty is a luxury few possess. Anchorage is at risk from bigger cities who covet its innovative propulsion system. The Green Storm are intent on acquiring the Jenny Haniver. And for reasons few comprehend, a price has been put on Hester and Tom’s heads. When Hester’s jealousy mars her judgement, and the truth about Pennyroyal is revealed, personal interests clash leading to powerful forces being unleashed.

This is an action adventure story set in a wondrously imaginative world. The author pokes fun at contempoary elements and our attitude to history whilst offering battles reminiscent of Robot Wars but on a huge scale. Characters are believably fallible with their ingrained prejudices and blinkered fight for self-preservation. The damage and death count may be high, but this remains a rollicking read.

Book Review: Pseudotooth

pseudotooth

Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway, is one of the most unusual books that I have read in a while. It explores the effects of trauma and the crossover between dreams and reality. It asks the reader to consider what they would define as real when ‘pseudo’ events have an impact on everyday life.

The protagonist is seventeen year old Aisling who has been raised by her mother, Beverley, after her father left his pregnant, teenage girlfriend in the care of his maiden aunt, Edythe, and disappeared forever from their lives. They have had little to do with any family members since Aisling was a young child. Beverley, a secretary, is concerned about how she and her daughter are perceived and is struggling to deal with the health issues Aisling is currently facing.

For the past couple of years Aisling has suffered blackouts and seizures. She has submitted to a plethora of tests and spent time in psychiatric care but still no cause can be found. When a doctor suggests her condition may be psychosomatic Beverley loses patience. She cannot cope with the way her daughter looks – emaciated with messy hair, grubby clothes and no apparent desire to improve her life or appearance – and after so long trying to find a solution wishes to move on with her own life. Beverley’s boyfriend has asked her to move in with him. When the doctor suggests that Aisling may benefit from a change of scenery Beverley arranges for her to go and stay with Edythe at the old rectory where the now elderly lady has lived all her life.

Aisling wishes to please her mother and desperately wants to get well. She is frightened by the effects of her illness, exhausted from her inability to sleep restfully, drained by constant nausea that prevents her from holding down food. She packs little for her stay in rural Suffolk – the diary where she writes down her dreams as her doctor suggested, and a volume of poetry by William Blake whose dark words bring her comfort.

Edythe treats her great niece with contempt. She values cleanliness and order as on a par with godliness, the personal problems she believes Aisling has allowed to fester as something that can be sorted with strict rules and determination. Edythe’s brother, Robert, is also being cared for at the rectory. He is kind to Aisling but the secrets he shares with her about the old building’s past start merging with her dreams.

Aisling’s dreams have for some time featured a young man named Feodor. Her diary recounts in detail his often violent history. When a shadowy version of him appears to her whilst awake, around the time she discovers a priest hole in the rectory cellar, her world’s collide. Another young man, Chase, who she met briefly in the rectory garden, emerges as a dream time friend. She becomes a part of his world, a post apocalyptic existence where those deemed unfit and undesirable are made to disappear.

The trauma that triggered Aisling’s illness is touched upon but she has dissociated events, tried and failed to wash the stain of them away. Although she is aware that the world she is currently inhabiting is a dream she is unsure how to return to waking life in the rectory, or even if this is something she wishes to achieve given the happiness she has discovered here. In confronting the dangers faced by Feodor and Chase she learns more of terrible events that took place in the rectory, which Edythe cannot allow to be talked of for fear they besmirch her memories of her revered father. It becomes clear that Aisling’s demons have also been suppressed.

Although vividly portrayed and well written it took me some time to engage with the plot. Many of the early sections of the book are bleak, Aisling’s situation painful to contemplate. By halfway through the pace had picked up and I raced through the final third eager to know what came next. The adventure is fantastical, but then dreams are subject to a different concept of reality, whether dreamt awake or asleep.

This is an unusual fantasy adventure grounded in the dark realities of mental illness and escapist imagination. It is a sometimes challenging but ultimately worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.