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Fiction: "Under the Sign of the Cockatrice" by Timothy J. Jarvis

Review Round-up: Bleeding Violet, Sir John Hawkwood and You Don't Know Me

Three books that have extremely little in common (except they're all nifty): Dia Reeves' Bleeding Violet, Marion Polk Angelloti's Sir John Hawkwood and Sophia Bennett's You Don't Know Me. Witches, pop stars and mercenaries - oh my!

Bleeding VioletDia Reeves' Bleeding Violet (2010) has a lot of similarities with Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, in that both these books are about a mysteeerrious small town with an overtly-magical atmosphere and a (slightly odd) female protagonist hanging with a group of Chosen One-type boys. 

The Raven Boys speaks a bit more about class - our protagonist is the literary equivalent of a 'townie' - the working-class daughter of a local family, living in the (ostensible) 'shadow' of some rich kids' school. Bleeding Violet is more about race - the central character, Hanna, is half African-American/half Finnish, and this informs not only her approach to the world around her, but how the world approaches her. Her background also adds a lot of depth to the way the book tackles the (incorrect) assumption that the Special Boy has to be the Chosen One. Hanna is not a sidekick, a 'love interest' or the 'comic relief' - she's the agent of her own narrative and - as it turns out - she's the one the 'meta' story is about.

Bleeding Violet is also a (bless it) self-contained story, and not the start of a series. It wrestles with the mommy issues and the boyfriend issues and the fitting in issues and the crazy portals filled with necromancer issues, and manages to wrap it all up nicely in a single volume.

This is - and prepare your torches, internet - Gaiman-like in its 21st century spin on magical realism, but vastly better written, with an intense, provocative and deeply likable central protagonist. A terrific book, and, like The Raven Boys, another example of how the year's best fantasy books can go completely overseen by the genre 'literati' because they're 'hiding' in YA. (Quotes for exasperation at the whole System of the Genre World, myself very much included.)

Marion Polk Angellotti's Sir John Hawkwood: A Tale of the White Company (1911). A pulp author for titles like Adventure, Angellotti's best-known creation was the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood. Apparently this book is the first (a novel collected from a long-running serial), but there are other Hawkwood adventures that follow. I'm interested how they work chronologically, as this one feels a bit like "Hawkwood's Last Adventure". 

Sir John Hawkwood follows Hawkwood as he navigates the swamp that is 14th century Italian politics - near-perpetual warfare and bickering between city-states and microduchies. Hawkwood gets caught between the proverbial rock and unboiled pasta when his odious employer asks him to kidnap the local princess. One thing leads to another, and Hawkwood winds up kidnapping her anyway, because, pulp - and, like a sitcom, people do all sorts of stupid shit rather than just talk to one another. The plot is silly, and although the swashbuckling does have a pleasant fizz, the real strength to this book comes with Hawkwood as a character. Sir John was a noble knight, but now lives in the chivalric gutter - he drinks, he works for coin, his boss totally sucks and, lo and behold, he's not super-proud of himself. His self-awareness - self-loathing, even - is what makes him a fascinating character, and gives his motivation the ring of verisimilitude ('truth' in pulp is a bit much).

It is hard not to contrast Sir John Hawkwood to the latest crop of grimdark. Here we have a character that has done wrong and knows it, that wallows in the error of his ways, that has turned away from the light; you name it. Nor does Sir John Hawkwood brush over the harsh realities of the setting and the brutal pseudo-historic atmosphere. But the book captures a man wrestling with his demons without a) denying them (the flaw of epic fantasy) or b) indulging them for the sake of prurience (the flaw of grimdark). I'm not holding this book up as a masterpiece of literature, but it does leap over a few hurdles that - 103 years later - fantasy authors are tripping over today. The prose is decidedly purple, but the end result is still worth a read.

You Don't Know MeSophia Bennett's You Don't Know Me (2013) has a lot stacked against it. It is utterly improbable (the core story involves four girls winning an X-Factor-style competition sponsored by a Facebook-style site), the lead character is the popular hot girl and, in essence, we're supposed to sympathise with  bullies. Except... not really.

Somehow this manages to combine the best trashy escapism of Gossip Girl with real emotional depth when discussing a (rather harrowing) topic. Sasha and her friends are just... ordinary small-town girls, who screw around with  music for fun. When a video they made (for themselves) sneaks into a talent competition - and then they (kinda) win - they're blown away. But the Evil Marketing people want more of a story, so they spin Sasha and two of her friends against the four girl, Rose. The 'hot girls' dump the 'fat girl' - the drama the show wants. Just at the cost of four lives. 

Off the back of books like Glaze, it is nice to read another novel that juggles both the power and the danger of social media - instant access, global power - all lovely things, but with a real, human cost. And You Don't Know Me isn't shy about tackling the horrors of online bullying: how words go somewhere and are read by real people. Anonymity isn't power, it is cowardice. The whole set-up is implausible, but what Ms. Bennett does with it is extremely clever, and she uses the outlandishly impossible as a means of talking about the deeply personal and everyday.

I'm not particularly sympathetic to 'self-selected celebrities', but with her one work of fiction, Ms. Bennett does what ten-thousand magazine articles can't, and reminds us that they're human too. I don't even mind the Evil Marketers taking a beating - this is a good cause after all.

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