An Occupation Of Angels – Lavie Tidhar – 7.5/10

In his novella, “An Occupation of Angels”, Tidhar presents us with an alternative 1980s in which the end of the Second World War came about through the intervention of Archangels who manifested above the battlefields and occupied sites across the world. They are not, however, the beings of moral light that one might assume, serving their own interests and balancing the world powers.

In this gritty Cold War caper with angels, the Archangels begin to be assassinated and it quickly becomes clear that some shadowy figure or organisation is orchestrating the killings, with agents planted in the security forces of several major powers. Our tale follows Killarney, a British agent tasked with hunting down a potential defector who she believes may hold the key to the mystery. She is a good, solid first-person protagonist, and it is a testament to Tidhar’s characterisation of her as a hard-bitten undercover agent that, while we sympathise with her greatly, we never truly learn that much about her. Her detachment to herself extends to her regarding her body as “the organism” – which admittedly I found to be a little off-putting. Likewise with her stream-of-consciousness manifested in run-on sentences – although this is a personal foible, and the technique works well in some places to convey the fast pace of the action.

It is a premise which in the hands of another could risk become silly or ridiculous, but as in HebrewPunk Tidhar is generally able to keep it serious, at least until towards the end, where the gritty “Tinker-Tailor” vibe of the first half of the novel merges into that of a James Bond/Indiana Jones mash-up – not that this is a bad thing, although the ending Tidhar provides, for me, ends up providing more questions than answers. Here Tidhar occasionally falls prey to the “deus ex machina” that he was prone to at times in HebrewPunk; yet in a story of wars in heaven on earth, one suspects that this is hard to avoid.

Tidhar once again provides a fun “what-if” tale by playing with Judeo-Christian mythology in a gritty modern setting. Definitely worth picking up for an afternoon’s entertainment.

HebrewPunk -Lavie Tidhar – 7/10

Lavie Tidhar’s 2007 publication “HebrewPunk” is an interesting collection of 4 short stories, each with a brief introduction by Tidhar; a nice touch, providing context and a deeper sense of the authorial intent. These four tales weave together dark fantasy, horror, alternative history and Jewish mythology seamlessly; each tale, however, riffs on a different genre.

The Heist, as the title suggests, is a heist caper (in this case, a superteam of a Jewish vampire, a Wandering Jew and an immortal rabbi and his trusty golem raiding a futuristic bloodbank). The conceit is somewhat amusing, riffing on horror cliches and playing with the idea of religion among the undead – can crucifixes, for example, harm a Jewish vampire? Could they care less about holy water? This appeals greatly to my love of cheesiness in my fiction, but it is handled with a seriousness which means that it does not become cloying or overstated. The plot is well-paced and heavily action-driven, but I found that the conclusion came abruptly, and was not entirely satisfactory. Then again, stories of this kind can be difficult to end, and it was an enjoyable, and unconventional, romp. 6/10

The subsequent tales explore the histories of the three protagonists of The Heist. Transylvania Mission tells of the vampire’s time fighting the Nazis as a partisan in Romania, a tale of war with a twist of Stoker. Here, as SS Wolfenkommando clash with insurgents around the ancestral home of Vlad the Impaler, we enjoy a dark and suitably violent story which explores the nature of evil, as the Old Evil of strigoi clashes with the New Evil of man, embodied in the obsessive Josef Mengele, the Butcher of Auschwitz. While once again the ending runs away with Tidhar somewhat, this is a thoroughly enjoyable tale. 8/10

The Dope Fiend is a smoky, bluesy, drug-fuelled 1920s sleuth story of the Wandering Jew and tzaddik (a form of spiritual leader). Our hero is put on the trail of a dame who’s been teasing one of his love-sick friends. The kicker is that she’s dead. Weaving together the contemporary history of tongs, opium dens and the jazz age with the supernatural realms of Jewish myth and voudou, this is another story that has a strong and compelling story which sadly falls short somewhat at the climax. 6/10

The final story in this collection is Uganda. This is a fascinating piece, in many ways. It is a construction from journal entries and interviews surrounding the historical yet little known “Uganda Plan”, in which the British Empire considered providing the Jews with a homeland in East Africa. In this an immortal rabbi is tasked with scouting out the spirituality of the land, making sure that it is suitable for settlement. The result is a Lost-World-style journey, blended with time-slip visions of a future in which President Einstein rules over a Hebrew African state. The tone is one of discovery and is firmly anti-colonial. Though the inspiration is very much The Lost World, there are two lost worlds here – the world that may be lost to the colony, and the world of the could-have-been. While the narrative dips in parts, the overall story is thought-provoking and entertaining, with a satisfactory ending. 8/10

HebrewPunk has its flaws, but nothing that stops it being an excellent collection of short-stories and novellas. Tidhar demonstrates flair with several genres, and brings a fresh and unusual twist to all of them. Definitely a recommended read.

Spiderlight – Adrian Tchaikovsky – 9.5/10

It is very rare these days that I ever devour a book in one sitting, but Spiderlight, Tchaikovsky’s masterful new novel, has broken that dry spell with aplomb.

On the surface, this is a standard, clichéd sword-and-sorcery adventure. There is a Dark Lord plotting to take over the world, a band of Heros of the Light opposing him (who are so D&D-tinged that Tchaikovsky produced stat sheets for them), orc-like beasts, dark minions, ancient and riddling prophecies that must be unknotted to bring down the Dark One, cliff-hanger chapter endings – it’s all there. But Tchaikovsky has taken these disparate elements and not only done them well, but has inverted them, subverted them and turned them inside-out with a dry wit and masterful command of bathos that Pratchett would be proud of.

But while Spiderlight is a love-letter to and quasi-parody of classic pulp sword-and-sorcery and all the imagery that Tolkein handed down to us years ago, it transcends this through the characterisation. Evil creatures become sympathetic characters, while some of the nominal heroes are anything but. Light does deals with Dark, and many of those paladins of righteousness spend their days walking in the grey areas between – indeed, some revel in this. And that is where Tchaikovsky leads us in this epic quest. Through our heros he tackles such issues as zealotry, misogyny, racism, and classism, challenging the heroic actions that in more general fantasy are deemed to be righteous and asking the question – what is it to be a hero? Do the ends justify the means? Who empties the latrines in the Dark Tower anyway?

And then there is the central character – Nth. A spider magically transformed into the semblance of man, to his perplexity and horror, Nth is possibly one of my favourite characters of all time. Through his learning about his new body and society, he allows Tchaikovsky and the reader to examine the foibles of humankind through the lens of one of the stock sword-fodder beasts of fantasy RPGs. Needless to say, the findings are not always favourable. Except when it comes to beer.

It is this character that gripped me throughout and he is the creation that makes Spiderlight all that it is. The words of Penthos, the mage who creates Nth, could easily be said by Tchaikovsky of this novel:

“Have I not wrought well?”

Lawrence Harding