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Review: Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell (1929)


Alastair Bing’s guests gather around his dining table at Chaynings, a charming country manor. But one seat, belonging to the legendary explorer Everard Mountjoy, remains empty. When the other guests search the house, a body is discovered in a bath, drowned. The body is that of a woman, but could the corpse in fact be Mountjoy? A peculiar and sinister sequence of events has only just begun…

Speedy Death is the first novel of sixty six to feature Gladys Mitchell’s detective Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a polymathic psychoanalyst and author, and it sets the model for the all the other ones I’ve read so far. Though it also introduces an aspect of Mrs Bradley’s character that I didn’t (and probably wouldn’t) have known without reading this. I won’t spoil it but it definitely makes her stand out from the Miss Marples of this world.

The body in the bath is a unlocked door mystery where no-one seems to have a strong alibi. This really isn’t a spoiler as the body and the unlocked nature of the room are revealed by the end of the first chapter. What is clever is how Mitchell spends the next 322 pages rattling round the same country house with the same core characters without it feeling drawn out.

The strength of this book is how Mitchell keeps presenting each character for analysis, which giving us time to get to know them and to consider whether they are the murder. Mrs Bradley is, interestingly, placed off to the side though you’d think that being a guest she’d be in the perfect position to snoop and inform the readers in reader.

Instead, another guest instigates the investigation and draws Mrs Bradley into their confidences but having her become interested does draw her into the judgemental gaze of the police. You can see that Mitchell is challenging usual conventions of disbelief like the one where the police accept help without placing any suspicions on the helper.

What is particularly sweet is the other characters reactions to finding out that the male Mountjoy and the women in the bath could be the same person. Not one of them made that the issue, which is unexpected 1929. The setting makes a contemporary version of this novel unrealistic but I feel that today’s grittier writers would make it a source of conflict.

I love the unexpected nature of Mrs Bradley, she’s a bit of unwanted guest here, as it does make herself very useful and indispensable at key moments.

Honestly it ticks all the cosy crime boxes. If you’re a fan of cosy crime or clever mysteries please do give it a go.

Next up in the series for me: The Longer Bodies.

SFM Review: Slow River by Nicola Griffith (1995)

I can’t shake the impression I have that science fiction is going to be dry (or that fantasy is going to be some pseudo-medieval Royalty with magic). I know better. I’ve read so many books that aren’t those things and I keep waiting to be proved right. I think you’ll agree this is madness.

The only reason I mention it is because Slow River is anything but dry and dusty. It’s complex, emotive, and daring. It leaves a mark, which is one that I want from the SF Masterworks collection. I do want them to leave a lasting impression after I’ve read them as much as I’d like them to be worthy of being put on a pedestal. Obviously, the reasons for elevation vary, historical importance being one, but impact for me is the thing that keeps me exploring and Griffith definitely has that.

Lore’s troubled life is presented through three different timelines: childhood, recent past and present. The present is told in the first person and the flashbacks are told in the third. Actually, it’s unfair to call them flashbacks as they are threads that weave to let the reader know how Lore Van Oesterling, daughter of one of the world’s most powerful families, ends up with a thief and predator like Spanner.

It raises one big question: What would you do to survive? Lore’s new life with Spanner does make for uncomfortable reading. The depths that Lore descents to in order to pay off the debts owed to Spanner, who rescued her when she was dropped naked and injured in the street after her kidnaping, is a long way to fall.

Lore’s first meeting with Spanner is described in the recent past thread and in the present she starts a job, which is several levels below her knowledge and skill, but is also safe from scrutiny, that is until she has to out herself to her suspicious boss or risk the lives of her co-workers.

Getting to know Lore at these differing points, her childhood being probably the saddest, makes for a powerful exploration of who she was and who she has to potential to be. The ease in which Griffith presents the rightful normality of the same-sex relationship that Lore and Spanner share is to be commended, though if it wasn’t as self-destructive then there would be no drama. It’s the dynamic of their relationship, rather than the sexuality of it, which makes it dangerous.

There is a under-representation LGBT characters in speculative fiction in general and having Slow River as a SF Masterworks is a confidence boost especially as Griffith doesn’t shy away from the the darkness which Spanner subjects Lore to, there is romantic sex and depraved acts (due to their impact on Lore rather than the acts themselves), but all are shown with the same respect to the characters and the story that Griffith has set out to tell.

Part of me is jaded by stories of impossibly rich people because it removes layers of reality and replaces them with an easy fantasy but this story used that difference to good effect as even in those scenes where the ‘reality’ of wealth is too distorting Griffith keeps it raw. She shows the ways  Lore’s parents use their children as pawns and how naivety can obscure the reality of the situation. If you’re wondering why doesn’t Lore just leave or go back to her family? Well that gets explained and, as in this life, going back isn’t that simple.

Griffith leaves the ‘best’ revelation until last and makes it the most gut-wrenching moment though that’s not the only one you’ll have. This story has several moments where facts shift your understanding. I’m tiptoeing around so much of what makes it a powerful and essential read but I really don’t want to say to much more.

Slow River deserves its place on the SF Masterworks and needs a slightly higher pedestal just to make sure it’s not overlooked.

Read it.

Review: Ghosts of the Citadel (The Copper Promise Part 1) by Jen Williams

Ghosts of the CitadelIt’s strange to see a large publisher chopping up a book and publishing as a serialisation in ebook but having read Ghosts of the Citadel it works. Mostly as Jen Williams has written the novel in parts and this bit definitely tells complete incident but not the whole story.

Ghosts of the Citadel grabbed me with the opening chapters due to its playful Sword and Sorcery setting. After you get past the first chapter’s torture scene you are in classic territory of hired swords, leather, magic and mysterious places to explore.

We join hired-swords Wydrin of Crossheaven and her business partner Sir Sebastian Caverson who are accompanied (and paid for) by Lord Firth as they explore the magically-protected Citadel and try to access its secrets. What makes it  feel alive isn’t the setting, as it’s nothing that new, but the characters of Wydrin and Sebastian, who feel like people that you’d enjoy going on an adventure with.

Williams has a knack for the playful and the banter between them keep the whole thing moving along with an enjoyable tone. There are some nice moments of revelations about the characters pasts. And Lord Firth has an unshared agenda, which has unforeseen consequences, and is the reason to read the next bit (Children of the Fog). But even as mysterious as he is definitely going to play a central role in what’s the come as he gets moment in the spotlight.

That’s not to say it’s all light as Williams doesn’t pull her punches either and she’s a tricksy writer.  Something happens and I had to check in my proof of the whole book if a character did actually die as I was that concerned about them.

This part is only short, 87 pages perhaps, but for 99p gives you a mini-adventure, lets you know Williams’ style and, I think, makes you want to read what happens next.

SFR: Notes from the House Spirits by Lucy Wood (2012)

Title:  “Notes from the House Spirits”
Author: diving-bellesLucy Wood
Source: Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

One Word Review: Perceptive

One Line Review: Lucy Wood asks what if you could hear about a house’s life via its occupants and answers that with snatches and impressions.

One Paragraph Review: It’s voyeuristic this one but at the same time invokes feelings of sympathy for an inanimate object. And to install such feelings is a skill. I ended up feeling sorry for the house as a series of occupants came and went. Wood injects enough of their lives to leave you curious though not enough that you want to know more about them. You still want to go back to the house and its feelings. It’s not a haunted house story but it is a haunting one.

SFR: Amethyst, Shadow, and Light by Saladin Ahmed (2013)

the fearsome journeysTitle: ‘Amethyst, Shadow, and Light’
Author: Saladin Ahmed
Source: Fearsome Journeys edited by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: Subversive.

One Line Review: Zok Ironeyes and his partner Hai Hai plan on looting a mansion, instead this Conan-pastiche turns into a quest that could save the world, and Ahmed then plays and pokes fun at the idea.

One Paragraph Review: I’ve not read a lot of Conan but I was wondering if it was supposed to subvert this brand of heroic fantasy and I found another story (set in the same world) and an article  confirming that feeling.  Over 20-pages, we get a crash-course in world-building and go this mission but it’s a all a little too compressed to enjoy properly. I’m sure it echoes the source material as it does feel pulpy (eg loosing subtleness for instant explanation) but the moments of info-dumping distract from a fun partnership with a big human and a soulless human-rabbit (what I can tell that’s what Hai Hai is). I hope I get to read more of their ‘adventures’ as it’s an interesting idea but hopefully it’ll be a little less packed next time.

SFR: Ripple in the Dirac Sea by Geoffrey Landis (1988)

TTATitle: Ripple in the Dirac Sea (1988)
Author: Geoffrey Landis
Source: The Time Traveller’s Almanac edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

One Word Review: Clever

One Line Review: Asks, what are the consequences of time travel?, and illustrates those in a twisty three-thread narrative.

One Paragraph Review: As a second story of the almanac it throws you in the deep-end of the theories in time travel but it also gives you lots of buoyancy aids. It teases you with ‘Notes for Lecture on Time Travel’, with the author’s most revisited moment in history and time spent in the ‘present’. It’s one of those stories that becomes clearer and clearer the more pieces that are set down before you see the inevitable. Even if some of the ‘science’ gets confusing the consequences are plain.

SFR: Mono no Aware by Ken Lui (2012)

future_is_japaneseTitle:  Mono no Aware (2012)
Author: Ken Lui
Source: The Future is Japanese

One Word Review: Sweet

One Line Review: A threat to Earth sends of 1000 people from Earth and Lui deftly navigates the present and the past to give us someone to care about.

One Paragraph Review: Until I got to the end I was hoping that this would be an episodic piece as we’re transported to a ship that is traveling near the speed of light to a destination outside our solar system (61 Virgins) and it makes a good setting to dip into to see how they are getting on. But Lui is focusing on the child of Hiroto as he ends up on this ship and the part he plays when he gets there. I’m a little sad it was so short as I’d liked to have seen what Lui would do with the other people on the ship though the relationship element  sadly does boarder on saccharine.

SFR: The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria by John R. Fultz (2010)

Other Worlds Than TheseTitle:  The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria
Author: John R. Fultz
Source: Other Worlds Than These ed. John Joseph Adams

One Word Review: Compact

One Line Review: Finding the first book leads Jeremy to complete a quest across worlds in amazingly short 18 pages.

One Paragraph Review: I’m impressed with the scale of what Fultz attempted with this short story and how he pulled it off. The main character reads a series of volumes in The One True World, but as he reads each one things change around him change and he goes further and further away from our world, pealing back layers, showing us different worlds. And for such a brief story it’s a testament how much is world is built and quest is achieved. It’s a slightly cliché in terms of hero-meets-queen-while-on-quest but enjoyable and different nonetheless.

SFR: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts (2009)

Title:  Adam Robots
Author: Adam Roberts
Source: Adam Robots: Short Stories by Adam Roberts

One Word Review: Soulful

One Line Review: Roberts cleverly asks a ‘What if?’ by putting a robot in a garden then having him be told that the only thing he can’t do is touch a jewel, which then becomes the Robot’s obsession until the test ends.

One Paragraph Review:  At one point one of the robots says of the test, ‘But forbidden by words. Not by our programming.’ And Roberts uses this story to make observations on the nature of obedience, what we won’t get from a certain religion, and what happens if we let robots do everything for us.


SFR: Precious Artefact by Philip K. Dick (1964)

Title: Precious Artefact (1964)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Source: Total Recall/We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick

One Word Review: Twisty.

One Line Review: A Martian Engineer visits Earth to check out a suspicion and P.K. uses this to look at illusions and what we consider precious.

One Paragraph Review: This is my first Philip K. Dick short story and my expectations where dry and obscure and I was pleasantly surprised that I got the opposite. I was engaged with the main character’s dilemma though he makes curious decisions which boil down to ‘do you want to live?’ I liked the twist as he’s not as deluded as I thought he was going to be at the beginning. I’ll definitely be reading some more of his shorts.