Friday 18 October 2013

The Book of the Dead

(October 2013)

Well now. An unsolicited ARC*. This, I don’t mind admitting, is something of a first (OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD). The fact that it’s coming from a publishing house/enterprise/concern I’ve previously been quite enthusiastic about is very nice, but I’m aware that this is the first step down the fraught and slippery path towards Industry Blogger. In an effort to keep my Fandom credentials intact as best as possible, I shall of course try to ensure my comments here are as (un)fair and impartial as they are for everything else. Professional detachment is, somewhat ironically, very much the name of the game (OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD).

This is the second recent Jurassic London title to mine a very fruitful seam of hook-ups with museums and learned societies. This summer’s The Lowest Heaven was produced in conjunction with the Royal Observatory and I’m eagerly anticipating their forthcoming collaboration with the National Pencil Museum in Keswick, and then maybe that dick place in Iceland. For the time being though, The Book of the Dead is brought to you with the Egypt Exploration Society which means mummies, obelisks, sun gods, and all that jazz. This post will thus be drawing on my experience with Jemisin’s Dreamblood, Pratchett’s Pyramids, one or two episodes of Scooby Doo, and Thundercats. They’re not much by way of frames of reference, but they’re all I’ve got. HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Ramesses on the Frontier – Paul Cornell
The reanimated corpse of Ramesses I takes a road trip across pre-millenarial America. Ka and the art of sarcophagus maintenance, if you like.
Rating: 5½ Panthros

Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb – Jesse Bullington
An interesting twist on the standard lycanthropy/adolescence trope, but not really. Simultaneously heart-breaking and life-affirming. Very good.
Rating: 3 Gatherers

Old Souls – David Thomas Moore
Immortal soul-mates bond over signal failure at Crew. There is talk of a replacement bus service. More poignant and less British than it sounds.
Rating: 1 Fred and 1 Daphne

Her Heartbeat, an Echo – Lou Morgan
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by way of Poe. I’d be quite happy for my wife to read this. My servants, not so much. Wouldn’t want them getting ideas above their station.
Rating: 6.25 Cheetaras

Mysterium Tremendum – Molly Tanzer
Never trust magicians. David Copperfield did always look slightly desiccated, so this comes as no surprise. Neither does Ms Tanzer’s impressive ability to pin period through style as well as detail, and she also gives us our first brush with real horror. Slightly surprising it took this long, to be honest.
Rating: 4 Meddling kids

Tollund – Adam Roberts
The horror knob gets another tweak upwards. Alternate history with an unclear point of divergence, and with a culture swap that’s simple and obvious but also neat and effective in a ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ kind of way.
Rating: 4 Kisuati ambassadors.

All is Dust – Den Patrick
Hmm. Death in the (Square) Mile. Not sure what to make of this one, feels a bit too much like it’s trying to have its coke and eat it.
Rating: Snarf

The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, the Mummy that Was, and the Cat in the Jar – Gail Carriger
An English werewolf in Luxor. Or not, but our first sojourn south of the Med in any case. Unflappable valets, rakish Italians, and an excessively long title. Fun.
Rating: Djelibeybi

The Cats of Beni-Hasan – Jenni Hill
Talking Cats and dogs. Cats and dogs that talk. To each other. There’s quite a nice little story here once you get past the achingly twee narrative device, wherein cats and dogs have a conversation (which I believe I may have mentioned).

Inner Goddess – Michael West
Fifty Shades fan-fic. I was not expecting that. Uncomfortable reading on several levels.
Rating: Damn you Kate Kavanagh.

Cerulean Memories – Maurice Broaddus
Old guy buys death in futile attempt to mitigate loss, like a particularly creepy insurance broker. In places a touch flowery for my tastes, but a lovely, slightly sinister note at the close.
Rating: The Mystery Machine

The Roof of the World – Sarah Newton
Tsarist Russia this time, with a distinctly Jules Verne, Conan Doyle feel to affairs. Probably the coldest story in this collection.
Rating: 10,000 leagues

Henry – Glen Mehn
The ghost in the machine.
Rating: C

The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey – David Bryher
Mad cult space-witch abuses far-future medi-tech in deranged and freaky little grotesque. Yeah baby.
Rating: Hat (The god of unexpected guests)

Bit-U-Men – Maria Dahvana Headley
Sticky sweet confection of jealousy, desire, and caramel frosting, with a pleasantly slow-burn depth of flavour.
Rating: Doom-pa-de-doo

Egyptian Death and the Afterlife: Mummies (Rooms 62-3) – Jonathan Green
Further devotions from a museum attendant. Or at least an attendant of some sort.
Rating: 5 minutes until closing time

Akhenaten Goes to Paris – Louis Greenberg
Aging messenger-boy delivers missive and musings on monumentalism, post-colonialism, and ice cream. Nicely done.
Rating: 2 triumphal arches

The Thing of Wrath – Roger Luckhurst
The long awaited sequel to The Whachamacallit of Disgruntlement, this is an entertaining and atmospheric mystery in the Auguste Dupin mould with, unless it’s a reference I’m just not getting, one of the laziest and most god-awful titles I’ve ever seen.
Rating: 1 orangutan

Three Memories of Death – Will Hill
With pleasing circularity we close with the death of Ramesses II, in this surprisingly touching tale of a friendship for life and beyond.
Rating: Pteppic

So those are your pithy pen portraits. But I hold the possibly forlorn hope that this might get seen than more than my usual handful of readers, so let’s pull out all the stops and actually try to engage with the text shall we? A-theme-hunting we will go…

The first of these is the obvious elephant in the room. You’ll have noticed I left Orientalism off that lists of references at the top, because I wrote that intro before I started reading and wasn’t sure to what degree it’d be justified or if it would just come across as po-faced bleating. It is perhaps the most influential work on Europe’s relations with Egypt in the last half-century though (Go on then, name me another. No? Well there you are), so a collection like this can’t not engage with it if it has any pretensions to being more than just an assortment of pretty words. That engagement is variable, to be honest.

In fairness it’s strongly alluded to in the opening story and then blatantly invoked in the second, so nothing’s being shied away from exactly. However, sticking it front and centre like that demands that everything which follows be read in that light. I realise that’s pretty much exactly what I just said I wanted but a less confident editor might have tried to brush it under the carpet in the opening stages. I’m glad that didn’t happen, and I also doubt it’s a coincidence that the stories I felt were among the strongest (‘Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb’, ‘Tollund’, ‘Akhenaten Goes to Paris’) dealt squarely and intelligently with those issues, whereas the ones I was less keen on kind of toyed with them in a manner which could charitably be described as ‘well-meaning but clumsy’ before falling back into more comfortable genre tropes.

That said, a good tranche of the stories made no effort in that direction at all. Which is frankly a relief; we can’t all be po-faced intellectual wannabes (and it does let you give points to the others for effort). But fortunately for me they can also broadly be made to fit the other theme I’ve decided is present here, which is that of Loss.

I know, Loss in something called The Book of the Dead. What were the odds?

It’s more than that though; a notable number of these stories are intensely personal affairs, with a variously expressed but consistent undertone that borders on the elegiac (notably ‘Old Souls’, ‘Cerulean Memories’, and ‘Egyptian Death and the Afterlife’). It’s not really loss, it’s unwillingness or inability to lose that which is already irretrievable; attempting to preserve what was against, perhaps, the natural order of things. Clearly yer mummy is a perfect metaphor in that respect.

What we have here then is a broad split between the political implications of Orientalism and the personal implications of Loss. But of course the personal is political, and addressing that unity of scope is never easy. Glenn Mehn’s ‘Henry’ perhaps best embodies the difficulties of this through-running tug o’ war. It’s the only story to directly reference the Arab Spring and hints at some very intriguing ideas about the role of social media therein, but the guts of it are relatively standard themes of remembrance and forgetting. It’s not a bad story at all, in fact I rather liked it, but as we end up with all the real action taking place via Facebook and in an office in Oxford it’s hard not to feel that the time spent in Tahrir Square was only so much window dressing. It’s reaching for bigger things but ultimately coming back to the more intimate and familiar, and while that’s often a very effective way of making large ideas more immediate, here it does feel like a bit of a retreat.

It is of course slightly unfair to criticise a story not for what it is, but against what I would have liked it to be (though that’s largely how all criticism works, really). ‘Henry’ does well for what it is, and if in context it initially seems like an unnecessarily hasty withdrawal from a promising line of attack, as you read on it comes to seem more like the collection marshalling its forces for the final push. Immediately following it the shock troops of the outright weird sally forth (‘The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey’ and ‘Bit-U-Men’) and their assault is followed up with an increasingly irresistible march towards victory. The final story (‘Three Memories of Death’) rounds out the collection brilliantly, unexpectedly contrasting with all the previous sensations of loss, romance, and unhealthy adulation with an affecting story of platonic friendship and acceptance of both life and death.

The Book of the Dead starts strong and finishes stronger, and while it’s inevitably a little uneven in between the balance is overwhelmingly to the good with a few unquestionable gems dotted about. It will be available from October 29th from all good bookstores, morticians, and taxidermists.

*Advance Review Copy. Don’t ask me how I know this.


  1. Glad you enjoyed it, especially as it wasn't a book you solicited. Although there are several authors on there I don't recognize, there is also an impressive list of authors I do. I hadn't realized at first it was a book of short stories. Very enjoyable review (your fan credentials are still intact).

    1. Cheers. Yeah, it's a short story collection. Probably should have mentioned that somewhere near the start. I think I've read maybe four or five of the authors here previously, and am aware of a couple more peripherally (there's been a Lou Morgan book on the TBR pile for yonks now). The joy with stuff like this is discovering new voices (or new to me at least). I'll definitely be tracking down some more of Headley's work. Took me a while to warm up to her story, but there's definitely something going on there I like, even if I can't quite pin it down.

      As for the slightly but not entirely joking 'fandom' thing, about six months after I started this blog I signed up for netgalley and the rest, but then realised that wasn't really the direction I wanted to go. The dynamics change if you start asking people for things in a way I didn't really want to deal with. I'm certainly not above taking stuff if people want to give it to me though. What can I say? I'm easily bought...

  2. UNSOLICITED ARC!!!!! I eagerly await the day when I log in over here and the title has changed to:
    this is how she fight start
    whore for industry

    Also, I enjoyed the longer and snootier review. Geographer though you may be, I suspect we share a great many intellectual tendencies. Or maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel smarter. Tally ho for social science.

    1. Also, apropos nothing, I dreamed last night that I was standing in front of a Japanese elementary school class, expected to teach something without any preparation or warning. I was not sad to wake up.

    2. TIHSFS - Will Review Book for Backlinks

      I should work out how to make that appear in the browser title bar, really. As for the dream, at least you weren't naked, that's usually how the more traditional anxiety dreams go...