Simon Morden’s Down Station

MordenI’m a bit behind the pack in reading Simon Morden’s novel Down Station (2015). I’m not sure I’m going to stay on board for its sequel, The White City, published in 2016, but there are a lot of very good things about this London fantasy novel.

1: It isn’t about London. It starts there, in the Underground, with cleaners and maintenance workers, but then there is a Voyage of the Dawn Treader moment in which a portal into another world opens out of nowhere. It’s an escape from utter terror rather than a cosy living-room, and the protagonists fall into a strange sea.

2:  It’s super-realist and beguilingly fantastical at the same time. The protagonists only have their underwear, boots and bright orange Underground maintenance overalls, but the land they’ve arrived in – called Down, though the portal called Down Station – is where buildings grow, magic can be learned, shape-shifting happens, and there are no stars, only an impossibly ginormous moon. I love the juxtaposition of the two modes, and Morden writes convincingly.

3: The explanations for the way Down works are almost science-based, and don’t rely on an evil mage, or a magic orb of power, or a long-lost hidden prince, or a curse. There are no prophecies or quests or faeries, thank goodness. This is ecofantasy working at a very high standard for internal logic.

4: One of the two lead protagonists is Dalip, an engineering student, an attractively earnest hero. The other, Mary, is stonkingly good, though with a limited range of expletives. She’s a stroppy teenager, without much interest in her femininity, which is so refreshing. These two of the small number of characters power the plot and hold all our attention. For these two alone I’d read the sequel.

5: Their antagonists are splendidly original, and true to the plot, which is about making a fresh start to life directly connected to one’s true nature. The darkness in some people’s souls breeds monsters, and there are some spectacularly good ones here.

On the other hand, there are some irritating aspects:

6: The mundanity of the party’s progress, heading through the strange magic-filled land, finding out how it works and how to survive, battling monsters and collecting useful weapons and prizes, is a bit too D&D for me. Role-playing games are about the journey, whereas a novel is about the story that the plot unfolds, beginning, middle and end, and there is a worrying smell of dungeon-master’s plotting about this novel.

7: If Dalip the good boy is worrying about the state of his underwear without any chance for a wash, how are the female characters managing with their periods? Or is the impossibly huge moon stopping the flow? Have they all coincided into amenorrhoea? Teenage girls cannot avoid the undisguisable monthly blood flow unless they’re too thin, which we’ve not been told Mary is. If the other characters’ concerns include a complete lack of baths, hairwashes, laundry, even toilet paper, dealing with periods needs to be part of that. Admit that you know where babies come from, and deal with it. Think through the problems, do the research, or ask a friend.

8: Why did Morden put some characters in the plot, and then forget about them? Mary, Dalip and Stanislav get whole chapters of lines and action, and undergo huge character arcs. Mama is forgotten until mother figure or fat woman jokes are needed, or some pathos about her babies needing her. Luiza and Elena are far too often described as ‘the two Romanian women’, and Elena doesn’t even have a line to say. Grace appears during the escape as an afterthought, then disappears completely. This is astonishingly unbalanced, and unsatisfactory to read. Perhaps Morden was saving Grace and Elena for a big showdown reveal in book 2, but it looks more like he simply forgot them, and had to patch in a few ‘Where’s Grace?’ and ‘We’ll have to go and find her’ lines to cover up when he was reading the proofs.

So I’m almost convinced, but I don’t think I’m convinced enough.

Simon Morden, Down Station (2015 Gollancz), ISBN 978-1-473-21146-9, £8.99



Comic books and Spider-Woman: a little rant

I heard an episode of the Double X Gabfest podcast the other day in which Noreen Malone of New York Magazine claimed that superhero movies were only made for teenage boys, or nerdy men, and that women didn’t go to see them. (Even though she lives in Brooklyn! That just seems improbable.) Superhero movies are for everyone, and I for one have never stopped loving them.

On the other hand, I’ve lost touch with superhero comics, because the flood of titles is too bewildering to make sense of in a crowded basement comic-book shop full of teenage boys and aggravating booming-voiced hipster idiots bent on impressing their rolling-eyes female companion with their dudey-frood bearded sneery nonsense about ‘all that Wonder Woman shit’ (I paraphrase). I visit Forbidden Planet periodically to browse the shelves but rarely buy comics, because most of their cover art all looks much as it did when I sold the things in Aberdeen’s first comic-book shop in the 1980s.

SW oldI’m also put off by the incessantly pneumatic mammary glands that have been de rigueur for comic book cover art since the 1950s, when the Marvel artists saw Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell on screen and thought, ‘that’ll bring the boys in’. In that respect, yes; most comic-books are drawn for those attracted by flimsily-covered bouncing female secondary sexual characteristics. The rest of us: BORED. Look at the old 1972 Spider-Woman costume, which is basically a naked woman in body paint. It makes me irritated, especially as it was drawn by a woman, whose brief must have been ‘breasts’, not ‘action hero’. Don’t these artists realise how much cantilevering these female superhero costumes must need to support so much weight? And how impossible it must be to run, swing, thwack, rebound, and leap with a double weight of monstrously outsized cannon-balls suspended from the chest by straining muscles and spandex? Asking for logic in a superhero world feels pointless, like wondering how Banner finds his trousers again when the green guy disappears.

SW newSo, if the cover art doesn’t pull me in, the story doesn’t stand a chance. I look for the clear-line style that Hergé invented, which continued all the way to the Hernandez Brothers with Love and Rockets, and in the new Spider-Woman series. I love what Javier Rodriguez and Veronica Fish do with the new(ish) Spider-Woman universe to make it clean, frightening, compelling and focused. I also love Spider-Woman’s new look, originally designed by Kris Anka: neat, practical, washable, undistracting, and unsexualised. Obviously she fills it with curves, but they’re in proportion, there’s nothing to get in the way of vigorous, physical crime-fighting activities, or swinging from skyscrapers.

SW matThe uniform also comes in a maternity version, because Jessica Drew – for it is she – is a single mother crime-fighting superhero. I’ve written about her here and here on Vulpes Libris. Go take a look. And then write to Kevin Feige and ask him when Spider-Woman can join the Avengers on screen.


Alan Garner’s The Stone Book Quartet

garner 1I found these four short novels with a squeal of triumph in an Aberdeen second-hand bookshop, and bought them for £3. That’s right: the four books that are one of Garner’s greatest creative accomplishments, in a pristine box set, for barely more than they cost the original buyer in the late 1970s. I could barely contain my excitement, and gobbled all four stories over the next two evenings.

The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate were originally sold as children’s books. I know I read Granny Reardun as a child because I never forgot the image of the mother scrubbing the floor, moving backwards on her knees towards the door for the last time, where the rest of the family were waiting in their loaded cart to move somewhere they didn’t want to go. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember the title, and wondered for years where that story had come from. It came from Cheshire, Alan Garner’s ancestral county, and the Allman family were put out of their cottage because it was built of the last dimension stone in the county, and the vicar’s wife wanted it for her garden wall. This cruelty and injustice is a mere detail in the novel, since the main plot is about Joseph deciding that he does not want to be a stonemason like his grandfather, and how he is drawn to the forge as if he belongs there instead. Mark Edmonds wrote about Granny Reardun in an essay in the Alan Garner festschrift First Light: ‘It is only when [Joseph] sees their connection, in chisel mark and weathercock, that he fully understands. Metal is not asking him to turn his back; it just wants him to know where and how he fits’ (76).

garner 4Joseph is Mary’s son, and she is the stout-hearted daughter of Robert, the stone mason of The Stone Book. She climbs a ladder all the way to the top of Saint Philip’s steeple, carrying her father’s baggin in a knotted cloth between her teeth. Once she’s got over the dizziness she’s quite happy, and climbs the weathercock to be whizzed round and round by her delighted father. She wants to learn to read, but the squire doesn’t like his kitchen-maids to read, so Robert tools and knaps her a prayer-book from green flint, with a fossil fern on the back. There is also one more wonder in the story, that only Mary can see: she’s the bravest of all the characters in this quartet.

garner 2Joseph comes back in Tom Fobble’s Day, when his grandson William is learning how to stand up to the bullying Allman boy over the loan of his sledge. Joseph builds a sledge that carries William from the top of the top field past the dangerous rough ground near the gate, right through to the bottom field, well past the sledge graveyard where all the smashed ruins of homemade sledges end up. William’s sledge, much better than the shrapnel that rains from the sky as German bombers pass overhead, unregarded, is Joseph’s best and last job. Edmonds again: ‘The frame and rails are a composite of the forge that Joseph had stepped back from, and the loom used by William’s namesake many years before’ (78).

We go back in time to uncover that awkward bit between the fields, in The Aimer Gate, in which young Robert is put to work to move the stones and rubble by his uncle Charlie, back from France on leave in the First World War. Charlie is a sniper, his leave nearly up, and he has the shadow of death around him. Faddock Allman is the legless Boer War veteran now breaking stones in the road, sitting in his trolley. Charlie treats Faddock kindly, and with respect, one soldier to another. Faddock was the boy who threw stones through his own cottage window when he was working for the team who broke it up for the vicar’s wife’s garden wall, which is why Robert’s father William won’t speak to him. The ruins of the Allmans’ cottage make the ridge in the field boundary that smashes the unwary sledges, and will blunt the scythes of Charlie and the Leah brothers if young Robert doesn’t clear it out. Charlie’s last job is to shoot the rabbits and other creatures escaping from the field portion ever shrinking beneath the scythes. His sniping skill is his route out of farming, and stonework, and metal crafting, but his own plans may include something more drastic than that.

There’s a photograph of the Garners in First Light, with Joseph and Charlie and Mary and old Robert. We don’t really need to know that all the stories are true, or near enough. They are marvellous. Harry Lupton, again in First Light, said it best: ‘They are of such a distilled precision, they are so layered, so finely observed, so pregnant with what lies under their surfaces’. They wear like stone, with stories in every layer.