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Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2012)

England, 1966. American screenwriter Shane Carter has arrived in search of work and approaches Hammer Film Productions. Beset by competitors and subject to a waning interest in horror, Hammer needs new blood and so commissions Carter to produce a script in just five days, instructing him to set the story on a train and to include Hammer’s trademarks, “an exotic setting, young lovers, fearsome creatures, a dire warning, rituals and curses, and dreadful consequences.” (p16).

Carter accepts the challenge and sets his story in the fictional country of Carpathia (a stand-in for Romania) during the Great War. Four people board the Arkangel in order to flee the approaching front line, ignorant of the train’s final destination and the horrors within – the roguish cad Nicholas, the village girl Isabella, the vicar Tom and his wife Miranda. Each in turn will be tested by the train and those that fail will be damned to ride the train all the way to Hell itself.

Your enjoyment of Hell Train will greatly depend on your familiarity with Hammer Horror films and tolerance for homage. In the main story aboard the Arkangel, Fowler deftly employs Hammer’s archetypical characters and the aforementioned trademarks with verve, briefly sketching out each of the principal characters’ backgrounds, motivations and flaws before throwing them under the train (quite literally in one instance). Keeping the plot moving along briskly through the use of short, punchy chapters punctuated by cliffhangers, the fun comes from seeing what horrors Fowler will unleash next, rather than out of curiosity as to how each character will endure their tests.

It’s not a huge spoiler to state that Nicholas learns to care for people other than himself, Miranda is consumed by her greed and Tom’s faith is exposed as hypocrisy. Isabella is the one character who gets an interesting arc, a minor deviation in Fowler’s homage, noting via the voice of Carter that “Hammer had relegated their female leads to scream-and-faint roles for too long [..] he wanted his leading ladies to be as indelible as the men.” (p165). Thus in spite of being the ‘ignorant’ peasant girl, Isabella is the only one who survives her own test without aid and who ultimately saves the day.

The healthy dose of gore employed in the form of some very gruesome deaths at the hands (and mouths) of ghouls, succubi, war-crazed soldiers and ravenous insects is tempered by the occasional present-day interlude focusing on Carter as he searches for inspiration, embarks on a fling with assistant and muse Emma Winters, and meets Hammer’s most illustrious stars. Despite being a fundamental part of Hell Train‘s structure, lampshaded by Fowler as a “portmanteau approach with a traditional script, and add[ing] a wraparound framework set in the present day” (p167), these interludes are a very abrupt shift in feel and serve as unwelcome distractions from the far more compelling train-bound thread.

I’m torn about Hell Train, because it is clear that I do not have the prerequisite depth of knowledge to truly appreciate what Fowler has achieved. So, as originally stated, it comes down to your familiarity with Hammer’s film output. Fans will lap this tale up whilst those less familiar may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

This review was originally published in Vector 273 (October 2013)

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The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2011)

After spending centuries on a cunning plan for world domination, the Charnel Lord Morthûl is foiled by sorceror Ananais duMark and his group of meddling heroes. Out of spite Morthûl murders the only daughter of duMark’s liege, King Dororam, who in turn assembles all the armies of the Allied Kingdoms in an effort to end the threat of Morthûl once and for all. Morthûl has no intention of being destroyed by mere mortals and plots a counterstrike that involves forming an elite Demon Squad for a top secret mission. Thus Cræosh the orc, Katim the troll, Belrotha the ogre, Fezeill the doppelganger, Gimmol the gremlin, Gork the kobold and Jhurpess the bugbear are thrown together and expected to get along on pain of an extremely torturous death (or merely the prospect of joining the Charnel Lord’s legion of undead servants). At any rate, they have other things to worry about, like the historic survival rate for Demon Squads being on the low side and not having a clue about the finer details of the mission. Or, indeed, any of them. If the group can survive for long enough and avoid killing each other then perhaps they’ll be the ones who will save the day, albeit for the forces of evil.

Telling a fantasy story from the point of view of the villains is nothing new. Mary Gentle was one of the first almost twenty years ago (Grunts!) and more recently Stan Nicholls (the Orcs series) and Jim C. Hines (Jig the Goblin) have had a crack. So what does Marmell bring to the table with his effort? Subverted tropes, complex characters and plotting? You wish. What you get is course-grained characterisation and relationships predicated on gross racial behaviours, layered with bad slapstick comedy married to a plot ripped out wholesale from a roleplaying quest. That is to say that the Demon Squad go looking for various magical items, during which the big guys (the orc and troll) pick on the small guys (the gremlin and the kobold) whilst the ogre and the bugbear provide comic relief by being really fucking stupid. Some of it is even occasionally amusing:

A keening war cry rose to the uncaring heavens, and it took the startled Cræosh a moment to realize that it had come from the gremlin!
“For King Morthûl! For the Demon Squad!” Gimmol shouted, eyes gleaming with fervor and anticipation – and then glistening blade a shining beacon above his head, he charged madly in the wrong direction.
“Gremlins,” Fezeill observed as the stunned party watched him go, “do not have particularly good night vision”

There is a fair amount of shit-wading to be done to get to those rare moments and there are many more instances of dwarf kobold/gremlin tossing, insults on a par with ‘your Mum’ jokes, ‘funny’ bullying and narrative missteps, deliberate or otherwise. Cræosh uses nicknames such as Nature-boy for Jhupess (because he’s simian and lives in a forest), Dog-breath for Katim (trolls in this world have hyena heads) and Shorty for Gork (because he’s…you get the idea). Oh do stop, Mr Marmell, my sides are splitting.

The repetitive nature of the comedy makes reading the book a complete slog, assuming you are able to survive prose that describes a serpent-like creature as moving “with the speed (unsurprisingly) of a striking snake” or a character losing his balance and staggering “sideways in a clumsy dance as his entire center of balance became, well, uncentered”. There is a later example of such poor narration that is lampshaded as being the fault of the character’s exhausted state; fair enough but this would have worked better if Marmell had done it much earlier and, more importantly, knew the difference between a simile and a metaphor. With wordplay chapter titles such as “Elf Care” and “Ogre and Under”, the book elicited a binary response of Picard-style facepalms and wanting to punch the author in the face.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the pacing is completely broken. It takes 200 pages to find out about the Demon Squad’s mission, the aforementioned magical item hunt, carried out on behalf of Morthûl wife, Queen Anne (one would never have guessed that Marmell got his start writing material for Dungeons & Dragons). There are some sub-plots added for variety, such as Gimmol’s secret talent and from the introduction of dark elf Nurien Ebonwind who wants information on troop movements, but they also take so long to play out that they all collapse under the weight of expectation. Once those all wind up, we’re onto another secret mission that finishes all too quickly before the epilogue and the shocking, shocking I tell you, twist. James Barclay thinks that having fantasy stereotypes thrown in your face is entertaining and fun. I think he’s talking rubbish.

Few and far between they may be, there are occasional glimmers of worth buried in the dross. Genuinely amusing scenes occur from time to time and Marmell’s decision to start proceedings after Morthûl’s grand defeat is an interesting take on the trope (although, again, this was done first by Gentle). Also in its favour is the fact that the book is a standalone and the cover is gorgeous, even if it won’t appeal to fans outside of the genre.

In many ways, I’m surprised that there is still so much shit fantasy published when the genre has been elevated to higher standards. Back in the Nineties, I read far too many Dragonlance novels as a teenager and I would probably have lapped up The Goblin Corps. In the meantime Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch (amongst a good many others) have had fantasy works published that do witty dialogue and black humour a damn sight better and have got fantasy trope subversion down to a fine art. In short, go and read Abercrombie et al instead.

This review first appeared in Vector #269 (February, 2012)

Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2010)

At one stage or another, many of us have drunk too much and woken up with no memory of the previous night. Few though have woken up with horns and the power to know a person’s deepest desires and to influence their behaviour. That is the situation that Ig Perrish finds himself in following the anniversary of the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, an unsolved crime that most of his hometown believes he committed.

Fearing for his sanity – for the horns are only visible to Ig – he finds that a mere touch compels people to confess their sins to him. This leads to the discovery of some uncomfortable truths about his friends and family, and eventually the identity of Merrin’s killer. Thus enlightened, Ig embarks on a course of vengeance, but soon discovers that justice for Merrin may come at the cost of his own humanity.

I’m in two minds about Horns. On the one hand it’s a very readable gothic fantasy with (mostly) superb characterisation. On the other, it’s a bad fix-up of its genre premise with starkly different mainstream novellas, features a ludicrously over-the-top antagonist and lacks a proper exploration of Ig’s transformation into a devil.

Hill paints a vivid picture of small-town America and is deftly able to get to the heart of a character with minimal effort. The novel starts off with a bang as Ig’s unwitting use of his newfound powers leads to an early reveal of the killer but then into a very mainstream segment (entitled ‘Cherry’) which lays the foundation for the triangle between Ig, Merrin and their best friend Lee Tourneau. Providing emotional depth for Ig and Merrin’s relationship, ‘Cherry’ is a well-written rite of passage tale albeit a very different beast to the main narrative. We return to Ig’s revenge quest briefly before turning to ‘The Fixer’, a flashback told from the sociopathic perspective of the story’s villain. Again a style shift ensues but here the greater crime is that Hill, in an effort to make Ig’s devil antihero look good by comparison, deploys such a density of evil clichés that the novella undergoes a kind of literary gravitational collapse.

My other concern with the book is that whilst it sets up an interesting premise in Ig’s transformation, it fails to torment him with any morally questionable decisions, nor explore how Ig feels about the choices he does make. Kicking his grandmother down a hill is probably the most evil thing that he does and that happens near the very beginning – everything else he does seems quite agreeable and thus Ig’s path is never really in doubt.

Still, as previously stated, Horns is an enjoyable tale if you can ignore the stylistic bumps and not delve too deeply into its theological arguments.

This review was originally published in Vector 268 (November 2011)

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman (Penguin, 2010)

Being an acolyte at the Sanctuary of the Redeemers is not what might one call an enjoyable experience. A bland diet, a brutal training regime and the possibility of sudden death at the hands of sadistic priests, where survival only results in being sent off to fight in a holy war.

Thomas Cale is one such acolyte, a quiet boy who happens to be gifted in the art of killing people. When he is talked into exploring the Sanctuary by two other acolytes, Vague Henri and Kleist, the trio stumble upon a dark secret and are forced to escape to the city of Memphis.

There they find adventure, vice, hijinks and romance but the Redeemers are not yet done with Cale. He is the key to their ultimate victory over their enemies the Antagonists and perhaps the harbinger of Armageddon itself.

With two novels behind him, Paul Hoffman’s first foray into the fantasy world appears to be aimed at the young adult demographic but has been pushed quite hard at the adult market as the next big thing. It could appeal to the former being as is a fast-paced boy’s own adventure, but at the same time its deployment of epic fantasy cliches, thin characterisation and ill-judged worldbuilding makes for a poor showing against other recent genre fiction.

Spending pages and pages laying out your world in unnecessary detail is a charge often levelled at sf, pithily summed up by M. John Harrison as “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. On the other hand, it is necessary to develop a believable setting that holds veracity for the reader and Hoffman fails to achieve this.

Perhaps detail was kept to a minimum to avoid scaring off non-genre readers. However it is not the level of detail so much as the consistency that frustrates. At first giving the appearance of a pure fantasy with the Christ-analogue Hanged Redeemer and the warrior priests that worship him, it scatters a liberal number of jarring references to real-world places and historical figures: Memphis, Odessa, Norway and Poland are mentioned alongside Gypsies, Jews and Jesus himself. Geographically, the book is scattershot with its places and use of distances, which merely compounds the haphazard nature of the setting.

This mix-and-match approach is also taken with prose to an equally discordant effect. Cale’s retort of “I could care less”(p9) being the prime example, along with modern idioms such as “living the life of Reilly” (p158) and “playing possum”(p239). Vague Henri is also referred to as a “sniper”, a term that originated around the time of the British Raj. I’m not usually a stickler for correct language usage in historical fiction or fantasy, but this really did destroy any sense of immersion from almost the very beginning.

Hoffman isn’t going to win any awards for style, but he maintains pace throughout the book, inserting action sequences periodically to keep things moving along. Sticking to swords rather than sorcery, the fantastic elements are virtually non-existent, perhaps in keeping with the minimal worldbuilding, but a prophecy rears its head at the end of the book which is a little much to take on top of Cale’s otherworldly brilliance. Some actual character development would have been a nice way of balancing this out, but that is something else that this book is missing. The acolytes don’t grow in any way as a result of their adventures, and indeed Cale finds himself back where he started with nothing to show for it.

In summary, the book is a confused mess, not knowing which demographic to go for and not having the confidence nor quality to comfortably appeal to both. Purely out of curiousity and some degree of masochism, I’d still like to see where Hoffman plans to take the series, but based on this first installment I would happily live in ignorance unless things drastically improve.

This review was originally published in Vector 264 (December 2010).