Filler content with fairy tales and bloody murther

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:- ONCE UPON A TIME: SARAH PINBOROUGH The middle volume in a trilogy of retellings of classic fairy tales, a series that began with Poison and concludes with Beauty, CHARM (Gollancz hardback, 217pp, £9.99) is Sarah Pinborough’s take on the story of Cinderella, and it works perfectly well as a standalone volume though there appears to be some overlap with its predecessor. Pinborough’s version reads like a cross between Perrault and Clueless, with a dash of mild eroticism to add flavour. The young lady herself is cast as a typical spoilt teen, believing the whole world revolves round her and seeing everybody else in a bad light. Magic helps her to win the hand of the Prince, just as in previous versions, but for this iteration the Ugly Sisters and the Evil Stepmother are shown as sympathetic characters, with Cinders simply a selfish brat who doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices made by others. She wants to marry the Prince for no real reason other than it seems like a good idea and conforms to the romantic daydreams that fill her empty head, even though her sister, who would have made a far more practical wife for a future King, is badly hurt by this betrayal. Fortunately Pinborough has added an element of rite of passage to her version of the story, with Cinderella coming to realise the error of her ways and that true love isn’t necessarily attached to some romantic ideal. As a side issue, the Fairy Godmother has an agenda of her own, but that I suspect is the thread connecting this story with the other two volumes in the series. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this and found it a refreshing variation on the original template, with Pinborough taking a long hard look at romantic love, the concepts that are peddled to young girls, and finding them wanting, demonstrating that Prince Charming is not necessarily the default setting. As an adjunct to that, she also touches on the theme of the unreliable narrator, showing that the bad rep given to the sisters and stepmother in previous versions is simply a matter of perspective. There is also a ‘sexy’ side to the book, and this is where I think she makes her one misstep – I don’t have any problem with Cinders masturbating, or physically expressing her desire for the book’s rugged romantic lead, elements that seemed entirely natural and added zest. More problematic for me was the way in which Cinders drew the gay Buttons into her fantasy games, which seemed a little far-fetched, a gratuitous touch that felt forced and added nothing to the story. That quibble aside, Charm was a light and frothy concoction, entertaining and true to the source material but with a subtext dealing with how fairy stories distort our expectations of reality. The text is complemented by some excellent illustrations from Les Edwards. The first in a series of two, MAYHEM (Jo Fletcher Books hardback, 343pp, £14.99) is more grim than Brothers Grimm. The novel’s protagonist is Dr Thomas Bond, a Police Surgeon attached to New Scotland Yard at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. But while the whole of London is caught up in the hunt for the Ripper, Bond is involved in the search for an even more terrible killer, one who lacks the emotion of Jack. The remains of his crimes, headless and limbless torsos, are washed up by the Thames, but never any real clue, and there are elements of the case that simply don’t appear to make much sense to the methodical man of science. An insomniac and opium addict, Bond begins to wonder if his sanity is at stake, as he is drawn into the web of a rogue priest and a man with a psychic gift, who both insist that the killings are the work of a monster, something that is not entirely human. Doubtful at first, Bond is forced to believe and accept that he must step outside of the law to see justice done and the menace laid to rest. A Victorian police procedural with a supernatural element, this book put me in mind of work by people like Caleb Carr and Anne Perry. Pinborough is excellent at delineating the nature of the threat, seizing our attention with a series of ghastly slayings, and then slowly unveiling to Bond and reader alike the true nature of the menace. With his addiction and visits to opium dens, Bond has something of Sherlock Holmes about him, but he is a more agreeable character than the Great Detective, and certainly far more fallible. His weakness arises out of the challenges he faces in his professional life, providing a means of release from the horrors of the everyday, and he has a support network of friends, people who give his life an extra dimension, even if most of them appear to have been come to by way of his work. It’s in making the killer an acquaintance of the good doctor that I think Pinborough errs slightly, not only stretching credibility with this coincidence, but also diluting the mystery for the reader as we realise who the guilty party is long before Bond. Against that it does add an element of personal anguish, as Bond bears witness to the plight of somebody he cares about very much, sees their happiness blighted by the dark shadow that hangs over London. The background of Victorian London is put over well, with little touches of detail that add verisimilitude and newspaper reports to create a sense of immediacy, and it’s possible to feel the pressure the police are under, the need to get ‘a result’ no matter what, as they conclude that not one, but now two serial killers are operating on their patch. And on that score, kudos to Pinborough for making one of the Ripper suspects, Aaron Kosminski, a character in her novel, in part redeeming him from the accusations made back in the 1880s, instead showing a tormented soul, one cursed with a gift that only brings him trouble and pain. While it doesn’t scale the heights of her Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, Mayhem was a gripping read from an author who knows how to tell a story and do it well, and I look forward to seeing more of Dr Bond’s adventures in follow-up Murder, which is scheduled for publication in May 2014.

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