Vigil by Angela Slatter

Reviewed by Duncan Lawie. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Urban fantasy, as we now know it, is dominated by a few big cities and a few common types of nightmare creatures. Angela Slatter’s success with Vigil is to make such a style work in a place as seemingly mundane as Brisbane, Australia and to do so with a collection of Weyrd more subtly defined than the default vampires or were creatures.

Whilst it is a long time since I lived in Brisbane, the city I see in this book is familiar. Slatter makes good use of iconic locations. The book returns repeatedly to the cliffs of Kangaroo Point, which feels like a natural gathering place for flying mythical creatures. West End, always friendly to those of a Goth outlook, works well as a suburb for the Strange to be hidden amidst the merely strange. The ordinary city comes alive too, particularly the incessant driving to get from one place to another.

Vigil

In common with much urban fantasy, we have a first-person female protagonist, a private investigator with a liminal role. In this case Verity Fassbinder has mixed blood. She was brought up by her normal grandparents after her Weyrd father died in prison for killing and butchering children. For the Weyrd of Brisbane, the old ways of preying on the normals are forbidden for selfish reasons rather than moral ones. Fassbinder Senior’s principal crime in their eyes was to bring them close to exposure.

There is an interesting theme here of fitting in, of being an immigrant community which needs to take up the apparent norms of their host society, but it seems a generation out of date. Both the Weyrd and regular human population of Brisbane we see here are immigrants from Europe to Australia and their descendants. I understand the nervousness most modern Australians feel about invoking the Aboriginal uncanny, but it seems a little odd that the waves of immigration of the last forty years aren’t visible.

Nevertheless, the Weyrd come from a broad variety of European ancestry – creatures of myth, fairy tale, nightmare. Many aren’t clearly identifiable types, which means they can take individual shape, whilst some “types” help to shape the plot. Amongst these are Sirens from Greek myth, though I am rather bemused that these are flying women, when I would have expected such to be called Harpies; perhaps that carries expectations of ugliness. The angels are dependent on the faith of the people for their power. The Three Fates run a cafe. 

The private investigator plot is a classic mechanism for explaining the city. There is every sense that this city, this community, has existed for a long time and that many stories are waiting to be told. Slatter throws several apparently unconnected mysteries into the mix and gradually shapes them together. Can the new boyfriend really be as good as he seems? Who is killing Sirens and why? How does The Winemaker connect to Verity’s father? Slatter builds up the intrigue, though there is never a genuine feeling of peril. Fortunately, Verity’s character convinces, to the extent that I found myself getting somewhat frustrated with Verity’s apparent obtuseness in chasing the clues placed in front of her. 

Perhaps this tells me that Slatter is a great writer, building the tension in her reader by showing us things which our protagonist has seen but not understood. There is clearly enough here to show that Slatter can plot well, but she needs a tighter edit. Verity’s relationship with her primary police contact is inconsistent, which makes it harder to understand either of them. Minor items would matter less except that the reader is trawling for clues – for example a conversation about taking a child to school the next day when that next day turns out, in the next paragraph, to be Sunday.

Beyond these gripes, Vigil is an entertaining read, particularly if you know the setting. 

Guess-the-Arthur-C-Clarke-Award-Shortlist Contest Winner

At long, long last, SCI-FI London begins today, the winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award will be announced on Wednesday, and we have a winner for the Guess-the-Clarke Shortlist contest!

Thanks to the generosity of the Clarke Award, the winner will receive a copy of every book on the shortlist.

Three entries, submitted by Nicholas Whyte, Duncan Lawie, and Kenny Lucius, tied for first place, with four correct guesses each. For comparative purposes, I note that all three correctly guessed Embassytown and Rule 34.

Contest judge Tom Hunter has drawn the winning name from the hat… and the winner is Duncan Lawie!

Ancient Light

Ancient LightA few months ago, I read and reviewed Mary Gentle’s 1983 novel Golden Witchbreed and reviewed it here. This week seemed like a good time to get around to reading the sequel, in which Earth representative Lynne de Lisle Christie returns to the world of Orthe after eight years, as part of a delegation intending to negotiate access to the ancient technology that litters the world. I knew, going in, that it was a book that divided opinions; I didn’t know much else. I discussed the book — up to and including the ending — with Duncan Lawie by email in November and December.

NH: We can take it in turns with the questions, but I’ll put you on the spot first with something nice and general: how would you characterise the relationship between Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light?

DL: It’s rather a cliché, but to my eye the pair are a diptych of innocence and experience, youth and age, certainty and doubt.

Golden Witchbreed is a First Contact book, with Lynne de Lisle Christie enthusiastically engaging with the world around her, taking chances, trusting fate, rushing in. The people of Orthe and the world they live in are there to be investigated and understood, even as they try to kill her or discredit and reject Earth’s influence altogether. As a reader, it was a chance to learn a world as Christie travels low tech through a full flow of seasons.

In Ancient Light, Christie returns, ten years older and every simple truth she thought she knew seems to be just one horn of a dilemma. She doubts her own mind, her motivation for being there. She spends much of the book caught between bad choices, accepting she can’t fight PanOceania, for whom she now works, and attempting to mitigate the disaster for Orthe of being controlled by a Company. She stands weary (at the age of 38!) before the vim and vigour of the youthful Company Representative, then uses her decade’s advantage to stare down this younger commander. With the resources of the PanOceania, the characters flit about the planet’s surface, never connecting, always controlling. The hard won knowledge from the first book is background knowledge, the people natives to be exploited or protected.

There seemed to be a lot more message in the second book, more science fiction, while the first was more of a planetary romance. But it’s a long time since I read Golden Witchbreed. Maybe they look more of a piece read closer together?

NH: I think they do. I’m not sure whether this is a function of the fact that I read them close together, or of the fact that I read Golden Witchbreed knowing there was a sequel (and a contentious sequel, at that) lurking in the background — but either way, I was aware of unanswered questions in Golden Witchbreed, issues to do with further contact deferred and not resolved. And so Ancient Light felt to me very much a natural extension of the first book, as the various tensions that the existence and nature of Orthe creates for humanity start to work themselves out.

I also felt the sense of Christie being more detached than in the first book, but I hadn’t made the literal connection that she spends the novel flying back and forth, rather than walking across the world; that’s a useful observation. It accentuates her increasingly fraught attempts to prevent the situation on Orthe degenerating into chaos. But I think you’re right to suggest that the humans move to the foreground — it’s perhaps something that starts to date the novel (I didn’t think Golden Witchbreed felt very dated at all), in that I doubt you’d get an sf novel so explicitly about colonialism nowadays without some attempt to represent the perspective of the colonised. I suppose Ancient Light offers that to an extent, through the memories of past Orthean lives that Christie has inherited, but they seem so exceptional that I don’t think they fill that role very well; of course in other ways it seems to me a very sophisticated take on colonialism.

Continue reading “Ancient Light”