Wednesday, January 30, 2008

It's not natural...

Charles Stross, Jaspar Fforde, Peter Hamilton, Hal Duncan, Ken MacLeod, Ian M. Banks, and so many other great notable British Science Fiction writers have produced some of the best examples of SF in the last few years, in many cases redefining the genre and shattering expectations. Most notable among these illustrious names is Simon R. Green, the author responsible for such magnificent characters as Owen Deathstalker, Hawk & Fisher, and now John Taylor. In this post I will review Simon's latest novel, Unnatural Inquirer, which follows the exploits of John Taylor in the Nightside.

As this is a continuing series, it is very helpful to understand the nature of the setting first and foremost. The Nightside is a secret, magical city deep within the rotten heart of London (and yes, that is a stock phrase from the series). While it is always 3AM in the Nightside, time passes normally (at least one presumes it does) outside the borders of this fantastic city. Available here are the fruits of every sin, vice, and perversion, as well as magic, mystery, gods and goddesses, tropes, myths, legends, horrors from beyond, and monsters too dreadful to imagine. Sounds like fun right?

Enter John Taylor. For those of us who have been following his career from the beginning (Something From the Nightside, Ace Books 2003), we know that John Taylor is a man with a gift: he can find things. This makes him a pretty good private detective, and a nasty force to be reckoned with. John Taylor is a good man in a pretty vicious world, and in the Nightside even the best men most be hard and horrible on occasion.

OK, so now that we know what the background is, let's look at the story of the Unnatural Inquirer. As the name suggests, the story is centered around a Nightside tabloid of the same name. This particular rag has hired our intrepid hero to locate a fellow named Pen Donovan, who has allegedly made a recording of a transmission from the afterlife. This is notable in that nobody (even the gods and goddesses on the Street of the Gods) knows what, if anything, happens when you shuffle off the mortal coil. The higher and lower planes are a complete mystery (and yes, the pagan gods are inferior to the God/Devil in these stories though they are more powerful because the God/Devil are not allowed to interfere directly in the world due to a detent while the pagan gods can do as they please). When Taylor is hired, he is saddled with the unfortunate side-kick Bettie Divine, demon girl reporter, who is looking for trash to scoop for her paper as well as followng the main story wherever it leads. Chaos ensues.

Now, for those of us who love a great detective story, this is a fantastic example of Chandlerian noir if ever there was one. The thing that makes this series (in general) and this book (in particular) stand out is the supernatural element. This element is pervasive in some other series (Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Charlain Harris' Dead in Dixie series, and Mark del Franco's Unshapely Things/Unquiet Dreams), but in the Nightside, this magic takes on a whole new tenor. While Green's universe owes a lot of its style to Lovecraft, his fast-talking, affable characters and witty dialog hum along providing a depth that even the great HP himself would envy. These books are easily accessible, and they all contain a certain number of twinge inducing scenes. Unnatural Inquirer has all the elements of a great detective story as well as all the makings of both classical and surreal horror, and science fiction.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Note: although this is a part of an over-arching series, it is fully capable of standing on its own.

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