No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017/114: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes -- Adam Rutherford

One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today ... the remaining 80 per cent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century. [loc 1941]
A fascinating and very readable book about genetics, full of anecdotes and asides. I had no idea that the Romans had left behind so few traces in the modern British genome. Or that Charles II of Spain was more cumulatively inbred than the child of a brother and sister. Or that Icelanders have an app to check how closely they are related to one another, with a feature called Sifjaspellsspillir or 'incest spoiler' to alert them to shared grandparents. Or that two black people are likely to be more genetically diverse than a black person and a white person.

Genetics offers good counter-arguments to racism, and to issues of caste in India (not just a product of colonisation); however, as Rutherford points out, a lot of the insights promoted by companies such as 23andme is little more than 'genetic astrology'. (My own genome still fascinates me though: it is one thing to know that one is descended from people in the distant past, quite another to be told of the traces they've left in my body.)

Rutherford is occasionally wrong though ...
If by some incomprehensibly reality-defying mutation a child was born with the nascent power of flight... their freakishness would probably render them an unlikely sexual partner. [loc. 4601]
Now google 'wingfic' and reflect on 'unlikely sexual partner'.

2017/113: The Night Bird -- Brian Freeman

"People can change their own memories without even being aware that they're doing so. The danger — and the opportunity — is that memories can also be deliberately altered." [p. 64]
Thriller about memory, therapy and psychosis, featuring homicide detective Frost Easton (who lives in a house that belongs to his cat) and psychiatrist Francesca (a.k.a. Frankie) Stein (ahahaha), whose controversial therapeutic technique helps people to forget the memories that are troubling them.

Which is all well and good unless somebody else remembers them ...

The Night Bird is a gripping page-turner, though I kept feeling that the characters were making incredibly unwise decisions, albeit with (mostly) the best of intentions. It was an interesting exploration of how false memories can be created out of real events, and of how real memories, erased, could come back to bite.

Frankie, despite her name, is a well-rounded character, as is Frost. I was less convinced by the villain, by the sister, and by one of the victims.

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017/111: The Woman In Blue -- Elly Griffiths

Nelson takes a step back. "Who says we've found a woman?"
He half-expects Cathbad to say something about spiritual energies and cosmic vibrations, but instead he says, "I heard the milkman talking about it." [p. 8]
Ruth's Druidical friend Cathbad is cat-sitting for a friend in Walsingham, 'England's Nazareth', a small Norfolk town which many believe has a brooding atmosphere. One night the cat (who is named Chesterton: this is significant) escapes, as they do, and Cathbad sees a woman in a white dress and blue cloak standing in the graveyard. Next day, a blonde woman is found dead, wrapped in blue cloth: is she the woman Cathbad saw? Meanwhile, Ruth's old friend Hilary has momentous news: she's become a priest -- and is receiving hate mail. Then one of her fellow female priests is also found murdered, and Nelson's wife Michelle is attacked on her way through the graveyard.

Ruth's somewhat belligerent atheism, and her no-nonsense feminism (she thinks the girls in Frozen should wear anoraks, not plunging necklines), is refreshing and often funny. She also does some Serious Thinking about her relationships (though she tells the women priests, over cocktails, "I don't need a man. I've got a daughter and a cat."). She doesn't, however, get to do much in the archaeological line this time around.

Not my favourite of the Ruth Galloway books, although there is progress in several of the soap-opera plots concerning her associates. (Nelson even admits, albeit to himself, that he is not good at talking or thinking about his feelings.) The murder mystery, though, was weak, and the religious elements (women priests, fashions in Catholicism, everyday life in a pilgrim town) didn't engage me.

2017/110: In Great Waters -- Kit Whitfield

Let the Switzers be ruled by landsmen, let nations with no sea borders keep their old ways if they wished, but there were navies to maintain, and the deepsmen of the sea were no longer neutral, no longer sailors' yarns, but an engaged force with loyalties of their own. [p. 43]
Europe reimagined, with merfolk -- 'deepsmen' -- in alliance with the nations of dry land. It's set, I think, in Tudor times, several centuries after the first deepsman-landsman hybrid, Angelica, walked up out of the water on the Venetian coast and proposed a mutually-beneficial arrangement. Since then, deepsmen have interbred with the royal families of Europe (though the penalties for unauthorised miscegenation are grim and bloody) and any country with a coast has a ruler with some deepsman blood.

And just as in our history, this has led to problematic inbreeding: imbecility, deformity, unfitness for the throne ... and marriages of desperation.

In Great Waters focusses on two young people: Henry, formerly 'Whistle', who's left on the beach by his deepsman mother; and Anne, the younger of two princesses, who has watched her half-deepsman mother negotiate the royal court, and seen that she and her sister Mary are pawns in the game.

Some elements of this novel work better than others. I'm not convinced that the history would be so similar to our own after several centuries of deepsman-landsman interaction. What about colonies, trade by land and sea, anti-deepsman sentiment? And I never really warmed to any of the characters -- though this might be intentional on the author's part, given that the deepsmen are depicted as unsentimental and violent, driven by instinct more than intellect. Henry is certainly an arresting character, but not really a likeable one: when Anne crosses him he looks at her and thinks of eating her tongue.

I found the interpersonal, rather than international, elements of the novel more satisfying. Henry's deep-borne sensorium (he loathes straight lines and corners, thinks the air too thin to carry sound, has poor long-distance vision because he grew up underwater where distance is a 'blue-green blur') is vividly conveyed. Anne's half-crippled state on land -- deepsmen, and those who share their blood, have webbed feet and their legs are 'jointed with vertebrae rather than shin bone and thigh bone' -- contrasts beautifully with her agility and freedom in the sea.

On the whole, though, I didn't enjoy this as much as Whitfield's previous novel, Bareback: strip away the fantasy, and the plot is standard historical fare; strip away the history, and there is an intriguing idea -- a strongly-realised race of merfolk -- that could have been explored more convincingly in a different story, perhaps one set at an earlier stage in the deepsman-landsman entente.

2017/112: Black Swan Green -- David Mitchell

birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can't find if you're not alone. Time in woods's older than time in clocks, and truer. Ghosts of Might Be run riot in woods, and stationery shops and messes of stars. [p. 234]
This is a book about an adolescent boy growing up in the early 80s, who writes poetry, thinks Thatcher is great and the Falklands War will never be forgotten, and is so focussed on his own problems that he's oblivious to the momentous changes happening around him.

Why no, his name is not Adrian Mole. It is Jason Taylor, and Black Swan Green is considerably less humorous -- and more profound -- than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Jason lives in the rural village of Black Swan Green, where there are, apparently, no swans at all. His parents and his elder sister are more or less mysterious to him: he has a better understanding of his friends and foes at school.

Superficially this is the story of the year when he breaks his grandfather's Omega Seamaster watch, and panics, and tries to raise the money to replace it before his parents find out. On a deeper level, it's about Jason growing up -- and growing as a poet, under the tuition of old Mrs Crommelynck (who curses the British with 'twenty years of Thatchers') -- and of the secrets he keeps, the secrets he tells, the secrets he doesn't even recognise. There is a great deal happening in the background which never really became clear, at least to me, but had a fantastical ambience: the old woman in a dark house by a frozen lake where many children have drowned; mysterious tunnels under the hills; of the part of the woods that 'just isn't good'; the secret society, Spooks, which may be more than it seems ...

There were a couple of things that rang false: would Jason have known about Goth culture in 1982? was there really such excitement about the end of the Falklands War? (Several friends say 'yes there was'; and it seems to have been the week I was doing my O levels and worrying about my mother having been admitted to hospital for surgery, so maybe it passed me by.)

I liked Jason a lot. He is a thoughtful character, prone to parentheses and moments of lyric clarity, and like many adolescents (especially the male ones) he's obsessed by and ignorant about sex. The main focus of his world, though, is bullying, and the way it expands to fill a child's world until everything else is pushed aside. Yet he doesn't lose sight of the principle that being good to other people matters: that it's more important than being right.

The supporting cast is good too, including the girls. And some of the characters appear in other novels by Mitchell: Hugo in The Bone Clocks, for example, and Eva van Crommelynck in Cloud Atlas.

"Wish I could be thirteen again." Then, I thought, you've obviously forgotten what it's like. [p. 169]

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017/108: The Midnight Queen --Sylvia Hunter

[The temple] might just as well have been dedicated to the Breton sea-queen Dahut as to Neptune. This Gray supposed to be the reason the Professor had described Duke Gaël's refurbishments as insufficiently ambitious; a man more convinced of the superiority of Roman worship, law, and custom he had never yet encountered. [loc. 638]

A fascinating alternate history, set in an early nineteenth century comparable to the Regency period, but with no Napoleon and with Henry XII on the throne of Britain -- a Britain which does not include Alba or Eire, but comprises the provinces of Cymru, England, Kernow, Normandie, Maine and Breizh. Magic may be studied at Merlin College in Oxford, where Graham ('Gray') Marshall is an undergraduate, tutored by Professor Callender, Regius Professor of Magickal Theory.

A fracas between town and gown sends Gray into exile at the Breizh home of his tutor, where he makes the acquaintance of the Professor's daughters: elegant Amelia the eldest, mutinous Joanna the youngest, and Sophia, the middle sister, who tries to avoid notice. This chameleon quality is so effective that Gray suspects her of having magickal talents, but Sophie protests that her father has always told her she has no magick.

The Winter Queen is in the same general territory as Sorcery and Cecilia (Wrede and Stevermer: perhaps the earliest of the Regency-romance-with-magic genre), but it's more Gothic. It lacks several of the usual trappings of the pseudo-Regency romance: Sophie is not especially interested in fashion (though Amelia is); there are dastardly conspiracies; there is a shadowy plot involving the Midnight Queen, the Breton second wife of King Henry; the mysterious Mrs Wallis, Sophie's guardian, knows more than she says; and of course there is magick, and counter-magick.

The plot is byzantine, the characters (especially the women) have distinct and rounded personalities: but what I found most interesting was the worldbuilding. This is a Britain with Romano-Celtic, rather than Judeo-Christian, roots: Ivor (not Isaac) Newton's Principia alchemica is a standard text; Oxford boasts temples to Minerva and Apollo, though Sophie's offering is left at the temple of Mercury and Epona; a knowledge of Cymric is essential for any scholar; and Joanna struggles to comprehend the monotheistic Judæi's insistence on a single deity. 'How peculiar. He must be terribly busy.'

This enjoyable novel is the first in a trilogy: I expect I'll read the other two, not least to find out more about this particular variant of history.

2017/109: The Beauty of Murder -- A K Benedict

'I feel more alive standing next to something dead. Don't you?' [p. 57]
Stephen Killigan, newly arrived philosophy lecturer at a Cambridge college, stumbles home one drunken evening via the kebab van on Market Hill, and discovers a corpse. Unfortunately, when he leads the police to it, it's no longer there.

This does not do his career any good. Nor does it endear him to Inspector Jane Horne -- even before another impossible corpse (this one recently disinterred) turns up in the Fellows' Garden of Killigan's college. Killigan, who is aware that this all looks highly suspicious, turns for help to his friend Satnam, and to librarian Lana Carver. He also gets to know Robert Sachs, an academic with an interest in the aesthetics of death, and meets the eccentric Iris Burton, who gives him a copy of her book on time travel.

The Beauty of Murder captures Cambridge's ambience: the way the stone walls sometimes seem to emanate cold, the dankness of the fens, the plague pit underneath the bus station, the bohemian roughness of Mill Road. (I am not altogether convinced that 'a lecturer from the University of East Anglia' inscribed the words Reality Checkpoint on the lamppost at the centre of Parker's Piece, given that UEA is 65 miles away in Norwich. Perhaps Benedict means Anglia Ruskin?)

Killigan is a charismatic and witty narrator: a former goth, tattooed, prone to melancholy memories of his drowning mother. He becomes less likeable later in the novel, but I think that's simply that the plot ensnares him -- both in terms of the character becoming mired in unpredictable and acausal events, and of the author focussing more on those events, and on the other characters, than on Killigan's interior life.

I also liked Jane Horne a great deal: indomitable, prickly, secretive, and unwilling to tolerate stupidity.

Benedict's writing is gorgeous, full of lovely turns of phrase and surprising metaphors. Even when Killigan's being a tad pretentious ('a library is a sanctuary, a paper city where the emotionally homeless can find haven between the pages') his part of the narrative is interesting, and when he's less epigrammatic his turn of phrase is a delight.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017/106: The Man Who Remembered The Moon -- David Hull

He suffers a first-order false belief: the belief that there was once a thing called a moon, which disappeared and sucked the evidence that it had ever existed into the black hole of its absence.
[loc. 518]
This is an odd novella, deceptively simple: the premise is that the moon no longer exists, has never existed, and Daniel Hale is the only person who remembers the world where there was a moon.

This plays out logically: first Daniel, and later his doctor (Marvin Pallister), examine all the inconsistencies, possibilities, misapprehensions et cetera that follow from such a premise. Hale, desperate to prove himself sane, looks in poetry books; notes that the other planets now have satellites, rather than moons; rants at the local newspaper for leaving moon phases out of the astronomy column. Pallister takes a certain relish in the more nonsensical of his patient's pronouncements: "Let me get this straight. Everyone knew about it. It was huge. And nobody noticed if it was there or not." [loc. 46]

Then, one afternoon, Daniel sits down with the book that Pallister has written about his case.

I had to reread the last few pages several times to appreciate their full weight. (My first thought was that they made a nonsense of the rest of the story: later, I understood it better.) The last page, in particular, is carefully crafted: punctuation, paragraph breaks, repetition all precise.

Brief, thought-provoking and oddly humorous. It's a story, I suppose, about mental illness, about whether a problem is internal or external, about fighting to hold onto a belief: but one would not wish for Marvin Pallister as a therapist.

I'll look out for more of Hull's fiction.

2017/107: Dzur (Vlad Taltos Book 10) -- Steven Brust

With cooking and murder, there really shouldn't be a "good enough." You need to get as close to perfect as possible, otherwise find another line of work. [loc. 3998]
Reread, though I didn't realise it and nothing seemed familiar: only when I tried to add the book to LibraryThing did I realise it was already there ... Apparently I enjoyed the novel very much when I read it in December 2006: eleven years later, it felt rather less satisfying.

See that earlier review for plot details: I came away this time reminded that cooking and murder both require patience; that with any Vlad Taltos book it's wise to review the story so far, from notes or Wikipedia or whatever (perhaps some people rely on their memories?); and that I become irritated with long conversations where I have to count lines to work out who's talking.

I do like this series, though: must work out where I'd actually got to, so I can carry on from there.

Monday, December 25, 2017

2017/105: The Pearl Thief -- Elizabeth Wein

What's your proper work, Julie? I would like to be a theatrical escape artist, I think, like Houdini, or a circus owner like Bertram Mills. I want to dazzle people and be applauded for it. I am good at it, and it is thrilling. Walking a tightrope when you've had too much to drink – dangerous and wonderful. [loc. 1992]
A prequel, of sorts, to Code Name Verity: the heroine of that novel, Julie Beaufort-Stuart, is fifteen in The Pearl Thief, returning to her ancestral home for one last visit before the house is sold. It's a time for farewells, not least to the McEwens, a family of travellers who -- despite the class disparity -- have been part of Julie's life ever since she can remember. Now they're being hounded by the local council, and blamed for the disappearance of archivist Dr Hugh Housman. Julie may have been the last person to see Housman alive, and immediately after that someone hit her on the head ... possibly the same person who's stolen a jar of freshwater pearls.

Not just a whodunnit (though that aspect of the novel is well-structured and kept me guessing) but also a fascinating depiction of an interesting character. Julie never does anything by halves: not only does she kiss a girl, she kisses a traveller girl. (She's also mistaken for one, for 'a dirty tinker', in the hospital after her head injury.) She kisses a man, too. And takes a friend to see a variety show featuring 'Le Sphinx', who is black and wears a white satin dress, and tells Julie 'I'm a more exciting performer as a woman'.

Julie is a likeable, courageous and energetic character, and Wein gives us the sense of a childhood among books: Julie is reading the latest novel by Lisette Romilly (from Wein's novel Rose Under Fire) and is told -- delightfully for Sayers fans -- that she gets her ideas about crime scenes from 'a Harriet Vane novel'. She apparently spent weeks as a child going around in a kilt and insisting that she was David Balfour. And it's possible that her heroics have their roots in literature.

The Pearl Thief is quite different from, much lighter than, the other Elizabeth Wein novels that I've read: but it has the same deft touch, a varied cast of female characters, and a sense of a young woman finding a place for herself in the world. Delightful.

2017/103: Rotherweird -- Andrew Caldecott (illustrated by Sasha Laika)

"...we're forbidden to study old history – by law."
"Ha, ha, that's a good one – I'd have to study old history to find out, wouldn't I! So just remember to keep it modern. 1800 and after ..." [loc. 420]
The town of Rotherweird has been isolated from the rest of England since Elizabethan times. It is a small town in a quiet rural setting, located on an island in the River Rother (not the Rother in Sussex, though), and featuring gorgeous Italianate architecture, a highwalk known as the Aether Way, twisting cobbled alleyways, and a main street called the Golden Mean.

Rotherweird also has History Regulations, a fact which at first dismays and later intrigues the school's new history teacher, Jonah Oblong. The Regulations prohibit any teaching of pre-1800 history, and any teaching at all of the valley's own history. Oblong collects scraps of knowledge from the townsfolk, who have Dickensian names and peculiar habits: he observes customs and lore that seem to hearken back to an earlier age, and pieces together the story of this peculiar enclave, which has no MP, no police, no cars, very little technology, and a dire secret.

Oblong's arrival in the town coincides with the arrival of Sir Veronal Slickstone (and his fake family): also, curiously, with the discovery (by municipal gardener Hayman Salt) of four small coloured stones in the mysterious Lost Acre. Sir Veronal is keen to acquire these stones: but why?

Rotherweird is delightfully eccentric, though occasionally overstuffed with strangeness. The description of a fiercely insular community that has persisted for four hundred years, full of clever and innovative people yet isolated from the larger world, is packed with details and subplots: they do all contribute, I think, to the larger arc, but some seem less relevant than others. (On the other hand, this is book one of a trilogy.)

Some of the characters seem like ciphers, with a single role and little character development. (There are some interesting female characters, though, which is a favourable sign.) And speaking of ciphers, I'm at once vexed and amused by the puzzles -- like crossword clues -- that serve to advance the plot, reveal another layer of mystery, at various points. These puzzles are created by an especially opaque character, who may well prove pivotal to the trilogy.

The reviews assure me that Rotherweird is reminiscent of Gormenghast, which [confession] I have never actually read: perhaps the time is right for another attempt. Instead, I'm reminded of James Treadwell's Advent trilogy, for reasons that are not yet clear to me: perhaps the Englishness, the sense of a pagan underswell? And also of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy novels: perhaps the sense of an isolated English town with idiosyncratic characters and a hint of magic?

A note: the illustrations I've seen online look gorgeous, but they don't display well in the Kindle edition.

2017/104: The Muse -- Jessie Burton

"I thought London would mean prosperity and welcome. A Renaissance place. Glory and success. I thought leaving for England was the same as stepping out of my house and onto the street, just a slightly colder street where a beti with a brain could live next door to Elizabeth the Queen. ... There's the cold, the wet, the rent, the lack. But – I do try to live." [p. 26]
The Muse is set in London in 1967, with a backstory that takes place fifty years earlier in the south of Spain, just before the Spanish Civil War.

The protagonist of the London thread is Odelle Bastien, a graduate and a poet who came to London from Trinidad five years earlier, and has been working on the shop floor at Dolcis. She's offered a position as a typist at an upmarket gallery, and is befriended by Marjorie Quick, the co-director, who recognises Odelle's intelligence and believes that she has potential. Odelle, meanwhile, is subject to a great deal of casual racism, and her only friend from home, Cynth, is about to marry, leaving Odelle alone in the flat they shared. At the wedding reception, though, Odelle meets a nice young man -- Lawrie -- and uses her position at the gallery to introduce him to Marjorie: he has a painting he thinks might be worth something.

The painting -- 'Rufina and the Lion' -- is the link (or one of the links) between Odelle's story and that of Olive Schloss, an art dealer's daughter and an artist in her own right, though her parents have no interest in or appreciation of her paintings. Olive is befriended by Teresa and Isaac Robles, a local brother and sister who like her and admire her art: but Isaac (who's also an artist) is a secret revolutionary, hoping to raise funds for a local uprising that the Schloss family believe will never happen.

There is romance in both stories, and betrayal: other themes include issues of identity; a female creator struggling for recognition, and being helped by another woman; the equation of creative satisfaction and personal satisfaction, and whether they are the same; thoughtless prejudice; creative integrity; self-sabotage; social change.

When I read the sample chapters, I wondered if Odelle might end up as someone else's muse, inspiring an artist or a poet: instead, she is the catalyst for the resolution -- inasmuch as it can be resolved -- of Olive's story. Though perhaps Odelle is, in a sense, a muse for Marjorie (who I liked more than the other characters, though (because?) she is irascible and independent and determined).

I haven't yet read Burton's debut novel, The Miniaturist: reading The Muse has edged that novel higher in the virtual TBR pile.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017/102: Five Children on the Western Front -- Kate Saunders

"I saw a couple of pictures of ladies who looked a bit like Mother, and might have been me or Jane. But I didn't see any grown-up men who looked a bit like you boys – I wonder why not."
Far away in 1930, in his empty room, the old professor was crying. [loc 123]
A fine example of the genre I like to call 'literary fan fiction': this is a sequel of sorts to E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, in which the eponymous 'five children' (Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and their baby brother, known as the Lamb) encounter a Psammead, a grumpy being that claims to be a sand fairy, and grants wishes which seldom turn out as the children intend.

Nesbit's novel was published in 1902: these children will grow up and come of age just in time for the First World War. Kate Saunders' novel deals with that, and with the Psammead's own past. Five Children on the Western Front opens with a Prologue set in 1905 -- within the timeframe of the original novel -- in which the children ask for another trip to the future, and the Psammead takes them to 1930. (That's where the quote above comes from.) It's a nice way of foreshadowing the events of the main part of the novel, which begins in October 1914 with Hilary (formerly known as the Lamb) and Edie (who wasn't even born when her older siblings met the Psammead) stumbling across the 'sacred sleeping place' of an ancient, irritable desert creature.

The Psammead is especially irritable, it transpires, because it's been through 'some sort of violent magical upheaval' and has been transplanted from its 'proper hole' by powers unknown. ('You're a refugee,', says Anthea.) The nature of that upheaval, and the solution to it, occupies Edie, the Lamb and Jane for the rest of the book. Cyril is in the army, Robert's at university, Anthea at art school, but their stories are as much a part of the plot as the immediate interactions of the younger children with their new friend, the retired desert god.

Saunders won the Costa Children's Book of the Year for this novel, though I do wonder how well Modern Children will get along with it: the style is evocative of Nesbit's (though the story's somewhat faster-paced) and the characters very much of their time. There are weighty themes (moral relativity, war, women's suffrage, class inequality) running through the story, though they don't overwhelm the charming, and often funny, fantasy elements.

I couldn't help mentally comparing Five Children on the Western Front to A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, although the two novels are doing very different things: Saunders is exploring the characters and their futures (and in the Psammead's case, its past), while Byatt is more concerned with the author behind the story. Yet both are concerned with the way that the First World War was a crashing full stop to a myth of an idyllic golden age of childhood. ... And now I want to read the Byatt again!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017/101: The Stars My Destination -- Alfred Bester

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. [loc 247]

A classic of the genre which I had either never read, or read at an early age and forgotten: I decided it was about time I did read it, primarily because Bester is an author cited by Ada Palmer as an influence.

It's an epic space opera, with a huge canvas -- the Solar System of the twenty-fourth (or twenty-fifth*) century -- and a(a anti-) hero whose need for vengeance is worthy of Greek tragedy. Gulliver 'Gully' Foyle, marooned in a wrecked spaceship, thinks his salvation is at hand when another ship approaches: but it ignores his distress signal and leaves him to die.

Rage is an energy. Foyle, in short, rescues himself; transforms himself; learns self-control (not least because when he's in the grip of any strong emotion, his face displays a 'hideous' tiger-mask, legacy of an enforced tattoo); and discovers who gave the order not to rescue him -- and the secret of why he alone survived in the first place. There is also a fortune in rare metals, a recurring vision of a Burning Man, a radioactive detective who's after Foyle, a one-way telepath, and some glorious synaesthesia. Oh, and jaunting, personal teleportation over distances of up to a thousand miles.

In other words, there is a great deal happening in this novel. It's well-paced, occasionally melodramatic, sometimes very funny, sometimes (as for instance the descriptions of synaesthesia) gorgeously poetic. I liked Foyle's single-mindedness, self-transformation, and sheer competence; was interested to see Bester's predictions about which commercial clans remain in power (Kodak?); was unimpressed by some of the sexism (Foyle is a rapist and doesn't treat women well: jaunting has brought back the days of the harem where women are locked away). And it does have that sense of wonder, that epic sweep, of old-school space opera. Despite the flaws, and the sometimes dated feel of the society in which Foyle moves, I think I'll be returning to this novel.

"Why reach out to the stars and galaxies? What for?"
"Because you're alive, sir. You might as well ask: Why is life? Don't ask about it. Live it." [loc 3789]

*"Our UK editor also thoughtfully changed 'twenty-fifth century' to 'twenty-fourth century' throughout, while leaving the prologue's one actual date ('the 2420s') untouched." From Dave Langford's excellent piece on Bester