Coming soon from House of D Publications! A chunky and compelling novel full of strife, fantastical features, surgery, and really horrible phone calls! The birth and probably death of the genre Lamarckian Horror, by the author who brought you Saxonpunk.
That’s right! Before the close of the year, available in print and approximately a million (small exaggeration) e-reader formats including Kindle .mobi, .epub, .pdf etc, and available on iBooks, Kobi, Amazon, etc: ARCHITECTS OF THE FLESH is London as you’ve never seen it and hopefully will never see it, in a world where Lamarckian inheritance works, and just about every other science lags behind xenotransplant surgery.
Wait, back up. Lamarckian?
You may remember Darwin. At least, I hope you do. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection turned out to be right: the idea that organisms develop physical (and indeed behavioural) traits over time as those individuals who display them fare better in whichever environment they’re in than those who don’t, and so have more babies.
Well, in the heady days of the 19th century, when everyone was still trying to figure out what the absolute hell was going on with a world they’d previously assumed was static and unchanging after the Oh Shit discovery of fossils, he was far from the only thinker trying to work out how we’d got from dinosaurs to chickens and whether those things had happened at the same time.
Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck (or just Lamarck)’s idea of how environment enacted biological change was that changes to individual organisms during the course of their lifetime were then demonstrated in their offspring: so if you cut the tail off a mouse, it would have tail-less offspring. If a giraffe stretched and stretched for leaves, it would have offspring with younger necks.
Now… that does seem pretty easy to test via empirical if somewhat cruel methods. Mice are not hard to get hold of and were pretty abundant in the 19th century too. And it certainly hasn’t withstood such a simple test as obviously your surgically mutilated mouse does not beget mice without tails (mice with human ears and mice with green fur are the result of genetic tampering, and are outside the scope of this novel).
Yes but: “xenotransplant”?
In the 1790s, eminent surgeon and co-author of Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, William Hunter grafted human teeth onto a rooster’s head and said rooster grew a coxcomb of tooth enamel. You can see the results at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London (or you can in 2021, when the museum re-opens).
See that? More of that.
So much more of that. Animal husbandry meets 18th century attitudes where theology of predestination props up chattel slavery. Human rights? Never heard of her. Animal rights? Don’t make me laugh. Technology without overriding morality? Wealth without conscience? People with fashion transplants? You got it.
Grab yourself a copy and see how bad things can get–but also just how hard it is to prevent people from trying to make things better.
I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.
A novel again today, because I’m out of individual shorts.
Non-occult engineer Hajar Al-Fihri is about to find herself dragged into a world of intrigue, mystery, exploding ornithopters, intelligent parasites, and some Very Large Arthropods. Right now her only problem is that her colleague and friend Benjon is, in all probability, about to swear on the wireless again, but that happy state of affairs cannot last. This is, quite simply, the fantasy fiction saxonpunk universe with giant bugs and zeppelin cities to end all fantasy fiction saxonpunk universes with giant bugs and zeppelin cities.
Somewhat undermining my insistence that I was definitely not ever going to write fantasy because (list of reasons including horses), this is solidly in that category. It’s got: oil rigs, universities, trains, zeppelins, and a radio system but it’s still fantasy. Or Saxonpunk. Or we’re not really sure what the logic is here but there’s a massive quantity of enormous bugs and some unresolved mysteries, some political wrangling, some bad mother/daughter relationships, some highly protective friends, some unconventional romance, and a lot of world-building.
There’s even horses.
I need everyone to know that I read a huge quantity of entries for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle while doing preliminary research for this, and then just manfully flung all my research out of the window while bellowing “well what if helicopters”.
I think you can, if you squint, see elements in this novel which got further development in Heavy; I’m not going to tell you what they are, only that there’s a degree to which old fixations cycle through works in different forms even with the best of us.
I think this is the only story I’ve written that has a character who is unequivocally, incontestably A Hero, meaning someone who does what is right and what is brave and all the rest. That the character happens to perhaps not be the one anyone might expect is part of the fun.
Step right this way, step inside, and see the greatest show ever to amaze your senses and baffle your mind. Watch! As a budding friendship is slowly but completely transformed before your very eyes! Marvel! At how stupid four very intelligent young people can actually be when confronted with life’s mysteries! Gasp! With indignation at the skullduggery and bad manners brought in the pursuits of love, fame, wealth, and let’s be honest, a lot more wealth. Blush! At some of the language! Laugh! Primarily at some of those waistcoats! Tremble! At the revelation of worlds beyond worlds and compacts most rare and Faustian!
Buy! This! Book!
On Amazon Kindle (US | UK), on Lulu (print | eBook), on iBooks, on Nook, on Kobo…
What’s it about? What’s it about? You’ve heard all this and you still need to know more? Allow me:
The year is 1900. An Earl, an engineer, a suburban philosopher, and an enigma meet at University and make a pact to learn the art of conjuring.
But nothing among the friends is quite as it seems, and soon the happy four are plunged into worlds of political activism, crime, despair, sordid trysts, and a Faustian compact which seems set to threaten their very lives, one by one…
In fact, if you search most regional Amazon sites, you’ll find it, replete with scorpions and stuffed with intrigue, adventure, massive arthropods, zeppelins, radio celebrities, and the grand knowledge that it is literally the best saxonpunk giant arthropod adventure story with a female protagonist of colour on the entire whole of my blog. Guaranteed.
Don’t have a Kindle or Kindle reading app? We got you covered.
“But Del,” you obligingly call out in a shamelessly P T Barnum hard sell hawker move, because I’m just so bloody excellent at marketing, “I have bookshelves, Del, bookshelves with gaps in them. Bookshelves which do not groan with the modest physical and pregnant metaphorical weight of the finest printed copy of a book which, lest we forget, is the foremost saxonpunk giant arthropod adventure story to feature a fictional version of Durham university.”
Unbelieveable! I am sorry for your bookshelves. The absence of this book is an insult they cannot be expected to endure for long. Happily, they no longer have to as for the price of a standard UK mass market paperback this handsome green jewel emblazoned with the most glorious arachnid the scorpion can shuffle off the bounds of the print-on-demand warehouse, TAKE FLIGHT (probably in a zeppelin) and bound willy-nilly with glee from the arms of the postman onto your loving shelves.
Where, if you feel like it, you can pick it up and read it. Amazing.
It’s real. It’s here. It’s got scorpions on it. And it’s available on Lulu.com for a perfectly normal price.
It’s a work week, so I haven’t been hyping you all up about my BUG BOOK (As Simple As Hunger) because sleep, but sleep decided to interfere with that last night:
Dreamt I was promoting ASAH launch by trying to distribute homemade cakes to get people excited. They weren’t decorated or anything which is probably a good thing but you’ve seen my cakes, that’s not going to make people want the book more.
If you haven’t seen my cakes:
I think the kindest thing that can be said about them is that their charm lies primarily in their taste.
Happily, and with much less restraint, the same thing can be said about alla youse; excellent taste, am I right? Therefore, brace yourself, because the impending book is so, so nearly upon us:
Before you get the opportunity to drown out the clamour and sorrow of the world with GIANT BUGS, SARCASTIC ENGINEERS, SPIES, and the SAXONPUNK FANTASY MASTERPIECE to end all saxonpunk fantasy giant arthropod masterpieces (apologies if I have miscalculated and there are other books in this genre, I suggest we settle this like gentlemen – by sulking about it on our blogs!), I’d like to introduce you to some of the characters, as drawn by some very talented and awesome artists in moments of passing fancy.
Unfortunately the headshots were drawn by me, but you’re just going to have to cope with that.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and people who do not identify as any of the above! Bug enthusiasts, fantasy fans, people who just want to read something new and different and before everyone else – I have great news for YOU. You have the chance to pounce on a novel of ferocious novelty, an epic of epic quality, the fantasy fiction saxonpunk universe with giant bugs and zeppelin cities to end all fantasy fiction saxonpunk universes with giant bugs and zeppelin cities. You will quake with terror at the vastness of the spider citadel! You will gasp in awe at the aforementioned zeppelin city! You will make a series of conflicted faces about a number of locations and scenes in which all kinds of dastardliness and arthropods dwell!
As Simple As Hunger is poised to crawl among us, spreading fascination, wonder, tears, laughter, and some REALLY BIG INVERTEBRATES wherever it goes.
‘Well we’re not going to sit around and wait for you to write it’, I hear you cry, as a rhetorical device. Not to worry! The manuscript is already written. It is edited. It is ready to fly! It is sitting on the runway awaiting clearance to swoop into your personal library and change either your life or at least a couple of days where you might have succumbed to some other, lesser book.
At a recent event, one of the questions raised by other participants at the writers’ surgery was that of world-building, reminding me again that for some reason not everyone spends the majority of their waking life engaged in ironing out logical creases in a world of their own devising (or several worlds), and that like all unfamiliar tasks, at first jumping into doing this can seem quite daunting to those that don’t do it.
There are any number of ways to winkle open the shell of a new world in order to make sense of it:
If you’re the kind of writer who finds it easiest to come up with a character rather than the other elements of the story, all you need to do is work out what has made them the person that they are. Find the parts of them that have been broken or abraded and then deduce how: was she abducted by pirates? Great! This world has piracy. How common is it? Where was she living when she was abducted? How did they react? Where is the piracy concentrated around? What is the official response from the monarchy or government? Is there a governing body where your character comes from? How does it work?
As you can see, a lot of world-building – indeed, a lot of writing in general – comes from seeking answers for questions that arise as a logical consequence of previous ones. Finding the right question to start them off is the key, and fortunately there are a lot of “right questions” to choose from. Sometimes telling a friend – or a stranger on a train – about the germ of your story is a good way to get those questions rolling in, and can help a lot in finding unanswered nagging problems you may have overlooked in your close examination of the world.
Maybe you’re a plot-driven writer. The obstacles that come up, and the antagonism your characters are up against, will also tell you about the world that they’re involved in. Stuck on the wrong side of a mountain range? This is when you find out what level of technology your world has. Hero has to battle a five-headed dragon? There are dragons in this world! How common are they? Do people know they exist? What methods have people developed for dealing with dragons? How intelligent are the dragons? Are five-headed dragons usual or unusual? What folklore is there about them and how accurate is it? Perhaps your hero’s found herself thrown into a dungeon: where’s the dungeon, what’s the legal and judicial system of that place like, what are the loopholes in it, and how has that helped to shape the way the people in that place behave?
Even if you’re the kind of writer who finds that you get your seeds in the form of snatches of dialogue, there’s a way in. The way people talk tells us a lot about their culture. For example, in English, the language still shows the marks of over 1,400 years of Christianity. Even now, non-religious people exclaim ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘for Pete’s sake’ (after St Peter), or ‘bloody hell’. This example isn’t to imply that you have to concentrate exclusively on religion, either: it’s true of every idiom that what’s important or reviled in a culture seeps in, what’s admired becomes transmuted to imply admiration in other quarters. “Three sheets to the wind” as a euphemism for drunkenness comes from a sailing nation, and has less resonance if you’re landlocked and desert-based. Beautiful women are said to ‘walk with an elephant’s gait‘ in some parts of our world, drawing on the known delicacy and elegance of the elephant’s tread, and the way that this very valuable animal can pass through a forest without snapping a single twig if she chooses. Imagine that the same compliment were paid to someone whose only knowledge of an elephant is that it is very heavy: not quite the same effect! Turns of phrase can provide an immediate in, as can questions about where and why the conversation is taking place, who is holding it, and what will happen if they are found out.
A detailed and convincing fictional world will always be aided by a detailed and broad-running understanding of our world. Reading dribs and drabs of history – preferably from sources who like to join the dots to show how the loss of one crucial city led to the ‘discovery’ of a new continent, or how the defeat of an armada led to the confidence to form an empire, which had other drastic effects further on down the line – is a great way to start. Remembering that every culture within every given world has a different view of how history happened is another; not just creation myths, but the outcomes of battles (and which battles they remember), which interactions are deemed important, and the costs of them. Remembering that even in our one world there are countless ways that people have come together to solve the problems of existing in their environment and against the pressures put upon them by natural disasters and hostile neighbours; using these differences as a springboard, but never copying them. If you must draw on a cultural history for world-building it’s always advisable to look back into the history of your own culture: there will be surprises in there, dead ends you can pursue to other logical conclusions (what if Britain had successfully remained a republic in the 17th century?). There are always fascinating elements strewn throughout the history of the world, but never pull a George Lucas: don’t assume that because the fascinating headgear of Mongolian monarchs is alien to you, that someone else reading won’t immediately recognise it.
World-building is the place where the glorious free-form flights of your unbridled imagination meet with the bridle of logic and consequence and come together to form, I guess, a chariot of convincing story and setting. Enjoy that strained metaphor: it probably came from a culture that’s had a long historical reliance on horses.
It does my heart no good to have to give a bad review of a book, especially a book which has annoyed me by having profoundly decent ideas to go alongside its unsatisfactory execution. It does it even less good to have to compare it to books by another writer, especially when that writer is a friend of the book’s author and quoted on the cover of the book I am reviewing, praising it. However, it would be utterly short-sighted not to draw a parallel between the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell and the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch. And I have to deal with the frustration of this book which had so much in it so poorly-presented, when it could have been brilliant.
Indeed, in description London Falling(currently a respectable 59p on the Kindle store) sounds like exactly the sort of thing I profess to enjoy, which just goes to show that trying to describe what one enjoys reading by means of characteristics is no more useful than saying “I like steak” when one means one likes grass-fed, correctly-aged steak of a particular cut and probably only served in the right way in about five restaurants overall. The difference is, I suppose, that while one can handle mediocre steak, because it is so common, this is rather more like finding a rare dish of a specific recipe and having it made by someone whose tastebuds aren’t aligned the way yours are.
For further disclosure, I found Paul Cornell’s two-parter on Doctor Who – Human Nature and The Family of Blood – almost the strongest of that season and certainly some of the better stories told since the return of that show to British screens in 2005. But he is out of kilter with my reading preferences, and I am about to explain why, with a certain number of spoilers, and comparisons to Ben Aaronovitch and Neil Gaiman which the author (who shouldn’t be reading this anyway) and his fans may find annoying and/or insulting.
The book follows the progression of a case through a series of established policemen, beginning in media res. That is to say, there’s no jumping-in point, no hand-holding, and no introduction, which I normally quite enjoy. There is, however, also no handle to be got on any of the protagonists, which makes it a little harder to like.
James Quill, the head of the operation, has a series of characteristics apparently pulled from the “honest copper” bin of clichés and nothing that differentiates him as a person, even after he gains “the Sight” and an unexplained and frequently dangerous insight into the malignant, magical city that lies below/beyond/through the physical one. Lisa Ross, the data analyst and eventual sacrificial hero, driven by a fairly standard-issue need for vengeance for her father (you will note no heroic woman ever wants to avenge her mother), has no other characteristics, no other desires, and like Quill no personality. They barely even have voices: with the attributions removed, I can’t tell one character from another for most of the book.
Tony Costain, the requisite reluctant hero/bad boy, similarly has no real personality aside from a desire for self-preservation and an ego which apparently vanish for most of the book in order to further the plot; Kev Sefton, the knight in shining armour and token nod to the existence of queer characters, goes on the hero’s quest for enlightenment, dumps a lot of exposition, and gets into a relationship in which he confides almost immediately every feature of his case in a dude he picked up in a bar. Sefton is described as having a posh accent that he slips into, of which there is no actual sign in the text.
I read stories for their characters first and foremost. A strong set of character voices is imperative in forming an emotional connection with the characters and in London Falling it is almost entirely absent. This is frustrating as all hell because there are some excellent ideas and some very solid world-building in here, but the overall tone of the book is cold. By comparison, the Rivers of London series provides a human warmth, set of weaknesses, and easy handle on all the human characters, and even the strange and esoteric creatures which pass through the world have glitches and points of interest.
There are other problems with the book, which ordinarily would have been nagging problems but not major ones: combined with the lack of character warmth and connectivity they became gaping. For example: in the Rivers of London books and Neverwhere, the fantastical London which lies within and through the London in which most people dwell is primarily neutral. It has its own laws, it can be extremely dangerous to those ignorant of them, but it is not malignant. In London Falling, the world which lies across ours is not fairyland, but Hell. The adversary of the overall arc of the Rivers of London books – and this is one of the things that really connected for me – is not a demon, not The Devil, but a human being who has become greedy for power. Something mundane, a form of evil with which we are all familiar, and which instead of excusing the greed and evil of mortal men by providing something bigger only underscores how rotten it is.
However, I can take fiction where the adversary is not mortal: in Neverwhere, Door and Richard Mayhew face a fallen angel, which is a pretty clear code for The Adversary in anyone’s eyes. In another of my favourite and not-exactly-well-written supernatural detective series, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, the adversary is again the lord of Hell: but the humanity of all its characters – including the grotesques – and the broadness and mundanity of the world, are preserved.
London Falling takes elements of traditional London storytelling: old Hob, a wicked witch, football legends, ghost stories, the power of the city, a hero’s vision quest, and the eternal copper. It lines them up together in a plot which makes good narrative sense and which hits all the major points at the right pace: but it feels both slow and rushed at the same time. The characters don’t speak from the heart, but are vehicles for the story, rather than driving it. There are times in which the narrative appears to be trying too hard to elicit a feeling that it doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to instil; moments in which the reader feels more like the jaded coppers standing outside the horror with no connection than perhaps they ought.
Most of all, this doesn’t seem to have any love for the city in it. Rivers of London and Neverwhere, Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), among others, fairly throb with affection for the metropolis in which they’re set. The story has been coalesced from the sense of unreality and history and Something Bigger which I think affects almost anyone who spends much time here, looking at the past poking through the present in unexpected places and in incongruous ways. It is natural as breathing for any writer to look at London and think of the mystical past affecting the rational present. But Paul Cornell’s writing doesn’t betray any kind of love for his subject matter, and that I think is what really affects the tone of the book more than anything else.
The alternative London captured in his pages is Hell; the London Sefton enters via a number 7 with a London Charon is empty; the Londoners of our reality are aggressive and stupid and moved only by tabloid thinking; there is nothing but contempt and anger, and if that’s real sum of London I’d be surprised.
There are other ways to make a horrific story boil out of a city than by failing to appreciate the picture that its uglinesses and beauties give rise to, and I don’t think I’ll be expending money or energy on the sequels to this book.