The End of the Day, by Claire North

Second paragraph of third chapter:

…in a land of rain…

I very much liked four of the previous five books I have read by Claire North – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, The Sudden Appearance of Hope and 84k – and also enjoyed seeing her at Novacon a year ago.

I’m afraid The End of the Day fell into the less good category for me. The writing as ever is good,and there are some lovely vignettes, but I did not quite gel with the central plot concept: Charlie, the protagonist, has been recruited to be the harbinger of Death, who together with the other three Horsemen of the Apocalypse is active in today’s world; bad guys are trying to interfere with Death, and there’s some incidental observations on US politics that didn’t really come together for me. Still, liking four out of six books by her is not bad and I’ll still be looking to buy more. You can get this one here.

This was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2018. Next on that pile is Ratlines, by Stuart Neville.

84k, by Claire North

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The man lies on the couch, and dreams and memories blur in a fitful crimson smear of paint.

I’m a big fan of Claire North’s work anyway, but this is a bit different – a well-realised near-future dystopian England, where crime and social transgression have been transformed into accounting units (along with the privatisation of most public services) and the underclass is oppressed by cosy collusion between big business and government. Our protagonist, a minor cog in the bureaucracy of punitive taxation, is moved by a shadow from his own past to begin fighting back against the system. A couple of interlocking plot lines, so that you can look at the story from slightly different angles. Grim but convincing. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2018, and my top unread book by a woman. Next on both of those piles is Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders (which I’ve already read and will review next).

The Gameshouse, by Claire North

Second paragraph of third chapter:

You will not find it now โ€“ no, not even its gate with the lion-headed knocker that roars silently out at the night, nor its open courtyards hung with silk, or hot kitchens bursting with steam, no, none of it, nothing to see โ€“ but then it stood in one of those little streets that have no name near San Pantaleone, just north of a short stone bridge guarded over by three brothers, for there are only two things that Venetians value more than family, and those are their bridges and their wells.

I’ve generally loved Claire North’s novels, which all seem to involve different riffs on immortality. This is a set of three novellas, originally separately published, and I’m sorry to say it didn’t work as well for me. The first one, The Serpent, is great: a young woman in Renaissance Venice becomes part of a secret game-playing fraternity, which sucks her into the high politics of the city. The Thief, set in Thailand in the 1930s, is a hunt where the protagonist is the prey. It somewhat stretched my suspension of disbelief. In the final section, The Master, the protagonists of the first two novellas become involved in a game for the future of the world with implausibly high stakes. I think my recent disappointed re-reading of Foucault’s Pendulum put me in a suspicious mood regarding vast secret conspiracies. As I said, the first bit is very good. You can get it here.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As memory of me faded, so did a part of myself. Whoever that Hope Arden is who laughs with her friends, smiles with her family, flirts with her lover, resents her boss, triumphs with her colleagues โ€“ she ceased to exist, and it has been surprising for me to discover just how little of me is left behind, when all that is stripped away.

I really liked both North’s previous books, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, whose protagonist is reborn again every time he dies and has the chance to re-live his life from the beginning, changing things he wishes he had changed, and Touch, whose central character can occupy the body of another simply by physical contact. In both books, a substantial part of the setting is that there is a whole sub-culture of individuals with the same trait, and the plot is driven in part by their internal dynamics.

Hope Arden, in The Sudden Appearance of Hope, is socially invisible; as soon as she finishes interacting with you, you forget her. If you meet her again, you think it’s the firt time. You won’t recognise her from her photographs. She grew into this alarming condition as a teenager; messages she writes endure, but the people she meets do not remember her. She exploits it to become a master thief; but her relationships can never last longer than a night with her lover of the moment.

At the same time, a new lifestyle app called Perfection is perniciously forcing its users to adopt its creators’ image of the perfectly fashionable human being. Hope and the makers of Perfection come into conflict – deliberately sought from both sides, even though neither has a clear idea of the other, leading to much conflict and confusion and excellent action. There is a lot of globe-trotting, which I see some readers objecting to, but I actually found the portrayal of Istanbul rather convincing (having been there myself recently) and felt she at least caught the spirit of the other locations. Really enjoyed it, as I did the previous two.

You can get it here.

Touch, by Claire North

I greatly enjoyed last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Harry August has an unusual experience of consciousness: every time he dies, he is reborn again and has the chance to re-live his life from the beginning. It really blew me away, with its alternate histories intersecting with some harsh questions of how much difference one person could make to the development of science and society in the twentieth century, and whether that would be a good thing. I thought it very well handled, and told with a strong emotional voice. I didn’t blog about it here when I read it (in December 2014) because I was one of the Clarke judges and was maintaining radio silence on submissions; but we shortlisted it, it also made the BSFA shortlist, and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Touch also features a narrator who experiences consciousness differently, through having the ability to take possession of someone else’s body simply through skin contact. Set in our contemporary world, there is a whole sub-culture and underground economy of people renting out their bodies to such “ghosts”, along with “estate agents” who broker those arrangements. But there are also those who want to stamp out the ghosts – or at least our narrator – whatever the collateral damage, and unravelling the conspiracy while staying alive is the key driver of the plot. The book begins with an assassination in Istanbul, and climaxes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, taking in various parts of Europe en route, all well sketched with a good sense of location and culture. I really liked it and I suspect it will be on my Hugo nomination list and my BSFA second round vote.