Reviews of two novels that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-
Teenager Aisling Selkirk, the protagonist of Verity Holloway’s PSEUDOTOOTH (Unsung Stories pb, 416pp, £9.99), is subject to fits and seizures, which the medical profession simply can’t explain, though some suggest that her experiences are psychosomatic. It’s decided that Aisling needs rest, and so her mother takes her to Suffolk and offloads her on great aunt Edythe, who lives in an isolated old house. Vicar’s daughter Edythe is a strict disciplinarian without a shred of sympathy for teenage girls throwing fits, though Aisling does strike up a loose friendship with the other inhabitant of the house, Edythe’s brother Robert, an invalid she treats like a naughty boy in need of discipline. Aisling takes refuge in her book of William Blake’s poetry and the journal in which she records her dreams of the boy Feodor, a pyromaniac and stray. Another strange boy calling himself Chase is met in the woods, while discoveries made in a priest’s hole dating back to Tudor times hint at a terrible history of the house. With Chase Aisling escapes to another reality, one in which she has an idyllic country existence with the woman Tor and her adopted children, while in a town far away the land is subjected to the dystopic rule of the tyrannical Our Friend.
This is a multi-layered novel, one that excels in its use of ideas and with realities like Russian nesting doll sets. We never know how much of what Aisling experiences is real, or if she is simply dreaming while in a coma, but that in itself is part of the appeal of the novel as events in one reality reflect and inform those in another, with links made between the various characters. Edythe is a tyrannical figure, but in the world of Our Friend we see her ideas sharpened and made all the more ferocious, so that a new form of government with the best of intentions soon descends into a terrible autocracy, a rule by government diktat, with nobody safe. Our Friend is the Big Brother of this novel, but in the underlying tale he is, in his way, just as much a victim as any of the others, despised and outcast, and in his fate we see a reflection of what could have happened to Aisling or Feodor, both of whom have suffered abuse and, each n their own way, survived the ordeal by flames.
In the figure of Aisling the author gives us a marvellous depiction of a teenage girl with problems, but who will not allow those problems to define her or circumscribe her life any more than necessary. She is an intelligent and caring individual, shaped by abuse but never a victim. Conversely Feodor is abused, but turns into a monster of sorts, giving free rein to his pyromania, but ultimately acceptance is enough to redeem him. Assuming of course he isn’t simply a projection of Aisling’s consciousness. This is a book that will reward further reading, a rich tapestry of truth and fiction, with a gratifying wealth of detail to supplement the main story and some excellent characterisation.
INTO THE DROWNING DEEP (Orbit Books, pb, 486pp, £8.99) by Mira Grant is the kind of book that cries out to be made into a blockbuster film by someone of the stature of Ridley Scott or James Cameron, and you find yourself assigning actors to the various roles as you read. Seven years ago the Atargatis set off to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, to film a mockumentary about mermaids. Contact was lost, and when the ship was found it was devoid of life, the only clue to what happened to the crew and passengers a Blair Witch style video showing them slaughtered by fearsome sea creatures, which many dismiss as a hoax. In the present day a second expedition is mounted, financed and rigidly controlled by Imagine Network, the entertainment company that was so discredited by the failure of the first voyage and now seeks to redeem itself in the eyes of the world through the Melusine. Aboard the ship is a coterie of the world’s leading marine biologists, some of them with personal vendettas to pursue and points to prove, and most of them think the tape was a hoax but are not going to pass up the chance to do valuable research on Imagine’s dime. Everyone is in for a nasty surprise as the truth behind the mermaid legend becomes too tangible for comfort and these intruders on the surface of the deep are translated into food for ruthless predators.
There’s a certain irony in reading this book a week or so before the UK release of The Shape of Water, as Grant’s work is the perfect antidote to that fishy love story, offering us a very different vision of aquatic beings. Her mermaids (the name is a misnomer) are savage creatures, strong and fierce, and driven by an insatiable appetite. Grant is superb at delineating the science behind them, coming up with convincing ways to make plausible the feats they perform – methods of communication, ability to survive out of water, etc. – and the reasons why they are regarded as creatures of myth and folklore. The fight for survival aboard a massive ocean going vessel is magnificently portrayed, brutal and bloody, with the creatures seeming to be always one step ahead of their human prey. Add to this various plot complications, such as the motives of Imagine Network, which are not as purely scientific as they would have us believe (and perhaps here laying the groundwork for a sequel to this book), and you have a fast paced and exciting story, one with enough wet work and action to delight the most jaded monster movie fans, but also with an intelligent backdrop that has been worked out in gratifying detail, and a nod of the hat in the direction of environmental concerns; humans are the architects of their own undoing, even if the mermaids are the agents of its execution.
What helps to make the book so special though is the varied and engaging dramatis personae Grant gives herself to work with. There is Tory, a young but talented marine biologist, whose sister was lost on the previous expedition and who has made revenge her life’s work. There is Olivia, the news presenter struggling to stay on top in a male dominated world and with a wealth of personal problems to overcome. There is the acerbic Dr Jillian Toth, the world’s leading expert on mermaids, seeking vindication for the years of ridicule, guilt driven and fully expecting to die. And there is her estranged husband Theodore Blackwell, once an environmental campaigner, but made bitter by injury and now a corporate shill, seeking to control everything, even as it all runs away from him. There are the twins Holly and Heather, accomplished scientists who must communicate with sign language through their older sister Hallie, and have to deal with the unconscious prejudice of the speech empowered. There is rich boy Luis, whose family wealth has secretly funded research for his friend Tory. And perhaps the most unnerving characters of all, even more alien than the mermaids in some ways, are white hunters Jacques and Michi, driven by their love of the chase and sexually aroused by the prospect of training their weapons on a creature previously unknown to science.
It’s not a perfect novel. There are the occasional missteps, such as when one character has to swim under the ship and seems to be holding her breath for an unbelievable period of time, or the way in which the white hunters are sometimes reduced to the level of caricatures, a straw man and woman for the perils of bloodlust. These are only quibbles though regarding a book that overall is an enthralling and magnificently entertaining read, and as I have already observed is one day going to make a marvellous film.