Fantasy Review Barn
I started 2014 with a determination to reduce my backlog of books to be read, books I've already bought and paid for that are just sitting waiting on my Kindle. Here's one way of doing it: read a third of a book, say 'Nah, not doing it for me' and toss it.
Now, there's nothing much wrong with this book. It's nicely written, it's won the Aurealis Award for goodness' sake, so lots of people think it's a cracker. And it has a terrific premise, which is what drew me to it in the first place: a woman wakes up seemingly in another body, with no memory of who or what she is, surrounded by dead people wearing rubber gloves. And inside the pocket of her jacket, a letter from her (former) self, telling her that she's some kind of supernatural spy secretly working for the British Government, but – oh no! – there’s a traitor in the camp. Sounds great, doesn't it? A tad clichéd, but fun, perhaps.
So what went wrong for me? First off, the main character tells herself in the letter that her name is Myfanwy, but not pronounced the Welsh way, but to rhyme with 'Tiffany'. Erm... what? Well, OK, let's roll with that. Then there are the two aristocrats, Lady Linda Farrier and Sir Henry Wattleman. The lady is mostly called Lady Farrier, which is probably correct, and once is Lady Linda, which probably isn’t, but the gentleman is variously called Sir Henry (fine) or Sir Wattleman (which is so not fine that I found myself tensing up at every scene he was in, or likely to be in, just in case). This is not the kind of tension an author wishes to inspire in a reader.
So, fine, Mr O'Malley is Australian with some American, and I don't expect colonials to get the nuances of the British aristocracy, which take at least five hundred years to master. But then Myfanwy calls a cab in London, and the driver has to look the address up, and I’m immediately distracted. London is possibly the only city in the world where cabbies spend years doing 'The Knowledge', learning their way to every little back jigger, every obscure hotel, every dodgy nightclub in the capital. Now, it could have been a mini-cab that she called, whose drivers don’t do ‘The Knowledge’, but a British author would have made that clear. Small point? Very, but it brought me to a crashing halt for a while.
Then Myfanwy is invited out for lunch (or dinner, not sure which) by Lady Farrers. They go to a very famous restaurant, and there they sit, surrounded by hordes of hovering waiters, talking about their organisation. The one which is so secret that absolutely no one outside a select few heads of government and the armed forces is supposed to know about it. So the author lost me right there. And let's not mention the school for supernatural spooks which is on Kirrin Island (if you don’t get the reference, look up the Famous Five).
If I'd been enjoying the story, this stuff wouldn't have bothered me nearly so much. Maybe not at all. These are teeny tiny details, flea bites of irritation. Trouble is, the story just didn’t grab me, the characters, despite their supernatural quirks, were flat, and the humour likewise. And the worst of it was that despite a nice premise, the style of the story requires that mind-wiped Myfanwy learns everything she needs to know from letters presciently written by her former self. So there's a page or two of Myfanwy winging it through this or that meeting, followed by umpteen pages of what's essentially info-dump. That gets tedious very fast.
The whole secret supernatural spy thing felt like a poor imitation of Ben Aaronovitch's secret supernatural policeman series, and that at least has the advantage of a real feel for London, plus his wonderful dry British humour. It didn't work for me, but lots of people seem to like it, so there you go. Not a great start to 2014. One star for a DNF.