The Peter Grant series has become one of my favourite current series, the adventures of a Metropolitan Police Constable recruited to be the apprentice of one of Britain’s last wizards had been consistently entertaining over the last four books. The previous book, “Broken Homes”, had ended on the best finale in the series so far as a sudden reversal snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Folly’s effort to capture a very dangerous rogue magician. Foxglove Summer picks up the story a few weeks after the end of the previous book but isn’t really a continuation of the story, instead it sees Peter being sent far away to rural Herefordshire to investigate whether there’s any supernatural involvement in the disappearance of two 11-year old schoolgirls. There are occasional references to the ongoing investigation into the Faceless Man and his allies but most of the focus on the abduction case. While it is a little bit frustrating to have to wait longer for the next chapter in the series’ primary plotline I think the book does benefit from focusing on a single case, in the past splitting the narrative between two different plotlines had left the second book “Moon Over Soho” feeling like the weakest entry in the series so far with one plotline far more compelling than the other.
There might not be much progress in the case against the Faceless Man but we does get some information about other elements of the background, namely some welcome detail about what happened during World War 2 in Ettersburg, an event that’s been frequently referenced due to its cataclysmic event on Britain’s magical community but one that had only been vaguely referred to in the past. There’s also some good ongoing characterisation for Peter as he has an opportunity to try to heal some of the emotional scars left by the traumatic events in previous books. Most of the characters in the book are new, but there is a return appearance for Peter’s potential romantic interest Beverly Brook and while the appearances by the River families in previous book have sometimes felt a bit disconnected to the main plot I think it works better here.
Characterisation has been one of Aaronovitch’s strengths in the series and there are some interesting new characters in minor roles although few of them get much in the way of characterisation. Local policeman Dominic Croft does make a likeable sidekick for Peter although he does seem unrealistically blasé in the face of the revelations about magic. In previous books London has almost seemed like a main character in the stories, this book takes Peter out of his urban comfort zone so there aren’t as many of the asides on local history that featured in his narration of the previous stories with a few scenes showing Peter a bit baffled by the way of life in the English countryside.
The abduction case is one of the more interesting mysteries in the series. The tension caused by the girls’ mysterious disappearance is shown both by the panicking families and their differing reactions and by the increasing desperation of the local police force to try to solve the mystery while the local and national press are breathing down their necks. The portrayal of police officers and their investigations in the series has always felt very plausible (aside from the magical elements) and this continues here with the police showing both cynicism and a stubborn determination to do as much as they can to solve the crime.
The story all builds to a tense finale and I think the resolution to the plot does work well although it does perhaps a bit rushed towards the end. There are a number of unanswered questions left at the end, I think it is reasonable to leave a number of mysteries particularly in regard to the motivations of supernatural beings but it might have been nice to at least hear Peter’s theories about why events unfolded the way they did.
Overall, I’d say this is up there with the best of the series so far although hopefully the next book will feature a return to the series’ main plotline.
Rating : 8 / 10
The premise for “The Martian” is very simple. One of the first manned missions to Mars is forced to abort early after a huge storm hits the landing site, most of the crew escape safely but they believe that one of their number, botanist Mark Watney, is dead after being impaled by an antenna, his body lost in the confusion of the storm and the vital signs transmitted by his suit showing nothing. However, Watney does survive the accident but finds himself stranded on Mars with no way of getting to orbit, limited supplies and any potential rescue years away. The obvious comparison is to “Apollo 13” as the resourceful astronaut tries to find a way to survive using limited resources while NASA try to come up with a way of saving him.
“The Martian” is a book that does a lot of things very well and unfortunately does some other things quite poorly. The book is split between journals written by Watney chronicling his life on Mars and third-person scenes shown people back on Earth trying to come up with a way to help him. Watney’s journals are the highlight of the book, despite all the trials he manages to keep his sense of humour which helps to break up the scientific details of how he manages to survive. There are a lot of technical problems to solve along the way and Weir’s writing manages to explain clearly the science behind it without getting bogged down in detail. At first glance the scientific and technical details do seem plausible, I can’t really tell how accurate most of it is but it does manage to sound convincing. Watney experiences a number of setbacks along the way, some of them nearly fatal, and there are some genuinely tense scenes as he has to attempt some extremely dangerous and risky tasks.
Unfortunately, while I thought the chapters from Watney’s logs worked well I didn’t feel that the other scenes back on Earth were as successful. Andy Weir may be good at writing about space exploration or about a tense struggle for survival but he seems to struggle a lot with writing dialogue or characterisation. While there is only one character on Mars there is a much larger cast back on Earth (as well as Watney’s five fellow astronauts heading backing to Earth without any way to help) but Watney is virtually the only interesting character on the book (although I did like the fiery NASA PR manager). The rest of the characterisation feels very shallow, even if those characters aren’t the main focus of the book it does feel like more could have been done with them. The dialogue is clunky and unbelievable and often at its worst when Weir tries to write witty dialogue. While some of the jokes in Watney’s journal are amusing the other attempts at humour seem to fall completely flat and Weir seems to feel the need to explain in detail any pop culture references. Perhaps it’s for the best that Watney’s scenes don’t involve him interacting with any other characters. Watney’s journal entries may not necessarily be particularly eloquent but at least his writing does have a distinctive voice. His journals don’t seem to show a lot of emotional range beyond occasional outbreaks of terror or despondency, but perhaps this is realistic since I suspect Watney might realistically censor some of his thoughts knowing they’d be read by NASA later.
It’s a pity that some of the writing is so clunky because at its core there is a tightly-plotted and compelling story of survival against the odds with plenty of highs and lows along the way. It’s definitely worth reading despite its flaws but I feel with some improvements this could have been a great book rather than a reasonably good one.
Rating : 7 / 10