Random Reading 9

Tom Holt, The Portable Door (2003), opening a loosely connected series about the mysterious firm J.W. Wells & Co., 70 St Mary Axe, London W1. Here the typically gormless Holt hero Paul Carpenter applies for a job and – to general surprise all round – is recruited. Most readers will glean a rough idea of the company's activities from that name and address alone. Carpenter is incredibly slow to catch on despite being presented with a book of Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics (which he doesn't read) and getting forcibly steered to a performance of The Sorcerer (which he nevertheless contrives to miss). He finally connects with, or has his nose rubbed in, the relevant song in the last chapter when all the comic Sturm und Drang is over. As usual there are plenty of good lines en route, but the setup and development seemed too generally shambolic to hook me. The Portable Door has been several times reprinted, though, and there's a bunch of sequels, so no doubt I'm just a grumpy minority.

The current Orbit UK packaging of Holt's comic fantasies uses plain cream-coloured covers with faux-inept or maybe just inept "child's scribble" drawings. At last I noticed that these are variously bylined, mostly with unfamiliar names: staff members or their small children? Another J.W. Wells book, Earth, Air, Fire and Custard (2005), has cover non-art by my own editor at Orbit, Darren Nash. The Portable Door design, consisting of a crude outline of a door, an identical pasted copy of the same, and a wavering arrow between them, is credited to mighty publishing director Tim Holman. All together now: "My five-year-old could draw better than ..."

Frank Key, Befuddled by Cormorants: fifty two stories (2006) and Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down from the Stars, and other tragedies (2007). I wrote an appreciation of Frank Key's eccentricity and bizarre verbal felicities in NYRSF #63 (November 1993), soon after which – no causal connection, I hope – he fell silent for a long time: "I was engulfed by my Wilderness Years." Now he's back. The unusually long title story of Unspeakable Desolation ... is pre-Wilderness, a rambling, inconsequential yet intermittently menacing quest for a lost stamp album, as though Kafka and Spike Milligan had collaborated; there is a cameo appearance of the Frankenstein monster. Also included are two recent shorts which could be called SF, one of whose openings shows Key's idiosyncratic way with an adjective: "Far, far away, there is a galaxy of shattered stars, stars crumpled and curdled and destitute, and there is a planet tucked in among these sorry stars ..." Befuddled by Cormorants comprises 52 pieces written to be read aloud on London's arty radio channel Resonance 104.4 FM. This is full of strange delights, as hinted by such titles as "How I Plunged into the Bottomless Viper-Pit of Gaar", "Wafers, Vile and Otherwise", "So You Want to Become a Haruspex?", "The Legend of the Grunty Man", "Build Your Own Plasticene Model of Dealey Plaza" and "How to Eat Mashed Potatoes next to a Lighthouse". Self-help mingles with surrealism and serendipity, and on the whole I would have to call this collection indescribable. But addictive. Both books are self-illustrated, and self-published through Lulu.com.

[Later: a further compendium appeared in 2008, titled – with a certain majestic inevitability – Gravitas, Punctilio, Rectitude & Pippy Bags.]

James Lovegrove, Provender Gleed (2005). A alternate history romp whose light-heartedness verges agreeably on outright silliness. History took another course in the 16th century when Borgia/Medici-type rule by Families set the governing pattern for increasingly many countries, even eventually America. The Gleeds, whose fortune is based on spice, run Britain like an adored Royal Family with lots more power and privilege, including such wish-fulfilments as their own private transport network of trams running along sealed routes inaccessible to the horrid proles and equipped with splendid cocktail bars. For foreign jaunts, there are of course airships. The book opens with a huge Gleed Family party from which the personable but not entirely ept scion Provender (whose hated middle name is Oregano) gets kidnapped. Is this a plot to precipitate inter-Family war? The majordomo of the vast Gleed household takes the problem not to the police but to a pair of private Anagrammatic Detectives ("Honestly? Or on the Sly? / We can tell you which!") who set to work analysing everyone's names with surprising results. Meanwhile Provender – held in a urban sinkhole called Needle Grove, a place which is contained in his name – learns more about his captors, and they about him. There is time for a couple of murders and a very quirky performance of Hamlet before the suspects are gathered in the fourth largest drawing room and guilt fastened on the Least Likely Person.... Enjoyably dotty. It is surely relevant that Lovegrove, under the byline "Jael", has been known to set crossword puzzles for the Independent and other UK newspapers.

Ian R. MacLeod, The Light Ages (2003). Impressive and memorable fantasy without a trace of wish-fulfilment. The flavour is somewhat Dickensian – including an Artful Dodger homage-figure – and so is the effect of sure, cumulative power. Aether-mining has made the Industrial Revolution even bleaker than in our own history, since this magical essence can trigger occupational diseases worse than black lung or phossy-jaw. Transformed victims, "changelings", are persecuted as trolls and locked away in Bedlam-equivalents. Also there's a more subtle wrongness and rottenness resulting from aether's plastic versatility: who needs craftsmanship when aether covers up the cracks, or self-supporting architecture when an aetheric spell can prop up your church just as effectively? Hidebound, oppressive Guilds are likewise buoyed up by aether. It's a black age despite the diamond brightness of its waste product, "engine ice", the crystalline slag of spent aether that blows and glitters in the wake of industry. Our protagonist grows up to the massive, incessant pounding of extraction engines in the northern mining town Bracebridge, where his mother gradually and painfully becomes a changeling after an offstage industrial accident which proves to be the heart of darkness about which this novel revolves. Eventually he escapes to London, which is not as he expected but where the plebs think grim Bracebridge is a magical realm of enchantment and faerie – how could a fount of aether be anything else? To him, though, the real magic lies in the aristocratic Guild house-parties he contrives to crash, where for once the power is used for fun and there are even unicorns (horses, artificial horns and a lick of aether). Revolution brews, with our man and his Artful-Dodger friend slaving away at the printing press, but the expected day of change goes nastily if predictably wrong. The current Age of British history only ends when – with some small help from the hero – its dirty inner secret is exposed. There is lacerating irony in the nature of the new Age which all too literally arises from the ashes of the old. I suppose you have to call it dark fantasy. Highly memorable; for a while, indeed, it haunted my dreams.