First up we have The Straw Men, by Michael Marshall. This was a reread because I was short of a book to read on the train and all my new purchases are at the bottom of a pile somewhere so I grabbed the first thing I could find. And I'm glad I did. Michael Marshall is of course Michael Marshall Smith, author of some of the most original science fiction I've ever read, and you should all do yourselves a favour and check out Spares, One Of Us and Only Forward. Lately he's stuck his name onto a Rubik Cube and come up with a couple of pen-names under which to write disquieting thrillers. The Straw Men is the first of a (so far) trilogy. It's not as innovative as MMS's science fiction, which I thought was genuinely groundbreaking, but it's easily a cut above any other thriller you'll read. And (getting back on the old high horse) he does place really really well.
Next up is The Intruders, the latest Michael Marshall novel. See above. If you strip away the thriller elements, what you have is a rather good novel about the collapse of a marriage. Recommended.
Next up is Halting State by Charles Stross. You all know I'm a fan of Charlie's work, and he hasn't disappointed me. Set - as Max Headroom would put it - twenty minutes into the future, the novel takes as its jumping-off point a robbery at a bank in an online roleplaying game, and then accelerates towards a cyber-attack on the independent state of Scotland. This is very good, and it's the first of Charlie's books that I can actually visualise being filmed in some shape or form. It has a lot to say about the surveillance state, but it throws in a whole lot of other stuff, including a zombie flash-mob. I've sometimes thought that Charlie can be a bit rocky on characterisation - Manfred Macx in Accelerando was more a device to deliver ideas than a character - but here he nails it. I've heard some people had a problem with the tense the book's written in, but after a bit of mental shrugging I found it was fine. This is a proper, mature work by a writer who's accelerating towards producing something quite considerable, and I think we all need to take cover because Christ only knows what he's going to do next.
Next up is The Mirrored Heavens by David J Williams. Well, that was a hell of a thing. If this book was a film it would be the loudest ever made, and it would make the most kinetic of Michael Bay's movies look like Merchant-Ivory productions. In the first - oh, I don't know, Dave, what is it? - hundred pages or so a South American city gets bombed to buggery and the largest structure ever built by man gets totalled. It has a body-count that makes Neal Asher's bloodiest book (and I'm an Asher fan) look like an average Saturday night out in Newcastle. A large proportion of the characters spend a large amount of time flying in powered battle-armour and spreading death and destruction in every direction.
And yet, and yet...
While this is thick-ear stuff dialled up to eleven, Williams is also asking pertinent questions about memory, espionage, loyalty, the use of weapons, possibly even what it means to be human. The prose is...unsettling. Choppy. Terse. Stripped-down. A little unusual in places. The dialogue is off-kilter and occasionally very funny. The geopolitical background is nicely thought-out. There's a point where several rugs are pulled out from under the reader which I didn't see coming. It is enormously fucking complicated, and I lost track of who was screwing whom, and I'm going to have to read it again to get it straight in my head, which will not be a trial.
I finished The Mirrored Heavens and came out blinking into the sunlight slightly stunned. I found myself comparing it to Neal's stuff, but really this is a different kind of horse. I can see this not being to everyone's taste, but I liked it a lot. If davidjwilliams is looking for a beta-reader for the sequel he sets up, I'd like to volunteer myself. I won't have any constructive comments to make; I just want to read the next book now. And I want to read the one after that.
And last, but absolutely not least, Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman. These are rereads too, but I try and read them once a year because they're so good. The books take as their jump-off Bram Stoker's Dracula, but they propose that Dracula was not destroyed, that instead he succeeded in his plan to dominate Britain, and in Anno Dracula he has made a vampire of Queen Victoria and married her. There are innumerable joys in these books, from the rigorously-thought-out gradations of vampire society to its absorbtion into the history of World War One. Newman grabs characters from film and fiction and seamlessly incorporates them into his story, so Drs Moreau and Jekyll meet Herbert West and rub shoulders with Simon Templar (described as a new-born with `a quizzical eyebrow') the vampire Winston Churchill and the vampire Edgar Poe. Danny Dravot from The Man Who Would Be King becomes a vampire bodyguard, and Manfred von Richthofen's Flying Circus includes Bruno Stachel from The Blue Max. It is as much an act of scholarship as a work of fiction, and it is a mighty success. I've never encountered anything like it. Newman even takes Kate Reed, a character Stoker wrote into an early draft of Dracula but never used, and turns her into one of the most interesting characters in The Bloody Red Baron.
These are two marvellous novels, but for all their learning and deep knowledge of fiction and film, the reason I keep coming back to them is because Kim Newman is a very, very fine writer. He knows his stuff, and The Bloody Red Baron may well be one of the best World War One novels ever written.