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Sunday, 21 September 2014

When Geeks inherit the Press

I don't usually review publishers on this blog but why not? An innovative bunch of bibliophiles like AngryRobot are well worth celebrating and with their reader-centred, geeky passion, they are quietly changing the landscape we all write and publish in. Angry Robot is the brainchild of MarcGascoigne, its MD, who on Thursday last regaled LeicesterWriters' Club with tales of life on the inside of the machine. Formerly peddling genre books to 'spotty 14 year old boys' in Warhammer shops, his success in this niche led to the publisher giant HarperCollins approaching Gascoigne in 2009 to 'come do something innovative for us.' It's to his credit he knew exactly what he wanted when that offer came knocking. Angry Robot's mission was to break out of the mould of 'books with spaceships or wizards on the cover', as their mission statement says:

'To the new generations of readers reared on Dr Who and Battlestar Galactica, graphic novels and Gears of War 2, old school can mean staid, stuck in a rut. “Crossover” is increasingly the way forward and you’ll find plenty of it here … if there’s an energy in a book that gets us jumping up and down, we’re all over it.'

So far, so good for sci-fi/fantasy fans – but what about the rest of us? Gascoigne's business plan also intended to shake up the prevailing mode of publishing. 'Corporate monoliths', move over – 'we're hobbyists, fans, geeks, nerds' – the people behind Angry Robots are the readers as much as they are the producers and marketers. For geeks, read 'people with a passion for sharing stories'. They therefore proposed a 'menu of formats' that includes Physical paperbacks, Limited run special editions in leather or hard-covers, eBooks, Downloadable audio and release of the text in all of these formats simultaneously. I lost track of the plot twists he related around ownership and sell-ons with the publishing giants but they still have 'partners' in Faber and RandomHouse and the mission is intact. An example of their reader-friendly approach is their current offer of the Angry Robot Clonefiles programme;

'a growing number of indie book shops in the UK and the US are able to offer their customers both the paperback and eBook version ... for just the price of the paperback. So you can buy the ebooks for yourself and give the paperbacks to your friends and loved ones as presents.'

See? They get that readers enjoy both the physicality of a well-produced paper copy and the convenience of e-readers. And they know that part of the pleasure of reading is sharing stories. This is especially true of the genre they deal with where typical readers get through dozens of books and tweet and blog about them, in between running up costumes for another steampunk convention or trying out the last game. (These are the same fans who kept Dr.Who going through the dark, wasteland years by writing their own fanzines and novelised episodes.)
I have been especially impressed by Angry Robots' canny approach to harnessing their readers' passion for 'finding the good stuff' and passing it on. On their website, they are recruiting a 'RobotArmy' of reviewers and bloggers who can 'Take the Robot's Shilling' and download Advanced Review Copies in exchange for an 'honest review' on sites which have their own established genre audience. (Loving the BattlestarCylon references btw in the red-eyed robot logo.) Recently I watched on Facebook as Rod Duncan's new Steampunk novel, TheBullet-Catcher's Daughter garnered dozens of reviews, interviews and blog tours months before the official launch. Gascoigne told us they only have 5 people working for Angry Robot, yet they have hundreds or possibly thousands of committed fans sifting and promoting 'the good stuff'.

So the occasion for this fascinating industry speaker was a book launch of TheBullet-Catcher's Daughter, a new title by Angry Robot. The event was hosted by Leicester Writers' Club and the author was our own Rod Duncan, a long-standing member, previous crime-novelist and well-respected writing tutor. It drew the crowds who rose to the invitation for Steam-punk fancy dress with a gusto that would have endeared the boys from the BigBang Theory. Marc, who delivered an entertaining history of the new genre ('Steampunk is what happens when Goths discovered brown') turned up in the uniform of a Nerd. The rest of us sported hat-pins, airship goggles and scarlet brocade corsets. As ever, I'm grateful to Ambrose Musiyiwa for his photographs which captured the fun and the readers' rapture at Duncan's taster chapter. We snapped up copies, snaffled cake and not a one of us won't have learnt something about how to keep our readers close in the game of 'pass it on.'

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Eye in the Door

This book is shockingly well-written. Think Dante's Inferno with an undertow of Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde, bundled into a respectably precise historical novel.  The second in Pat Barker's WW1 Regeneration trilogy, it quickly outstrips the first novel in its revelations about a war we think we know and in its power to move and unnerve us.

The first book, Regeneration was fascinating in its insights into the world of Craiglockhart's military mental hospital and the pioneering treatment of the true-life Dr. Rivers. If you've been impressed and scarred by the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, you'll relish the portrayal of their friendship in this brief haven from the Front. I hadn't realised Owen's poetry was rooted in River's 'dream therapy' as well as Sassoon's editorial eye. The novel probes how the British Establishment declared Sassoon temporarily insane rather than deal with his powerful Declaration Against the War and traces the collusion of his humane and conflicted doctor with that process. I like very much in this novel that we only revisit the landscape of the war itself through the men's night-terrors and memories ceded under hypnosis. Their phobias speak far more loudly than their mutism or stumbled confessions; such as the man who cannot eat at all after his front-line encounter with another man's guts. This distancing device actually made the battle scenes far more terrifying.

Craiglockhart Military Hospital in WW1 -

But 'Eye in the Door' is a darker beast, if that seems possible, after the trench-bound nightmares of River's patients in Craiglockhart. In the second novel, Barker has melded her forensic period research with her considerable powers as a storyteller to surprise us with a Home Front that is as dystopian as the hell of No Man's Land. This is the world of MI5's pre-cursor, the 'dirty war' of propaganda and spying. As much as Rivers is applying early Freudian techniques to helping his patients defuse their post-traumatic stress, so Barker is probing the twisted psyche of a nation at war with itself. Her story pulls in two landmark court cases that defined the neuroses of an age - the rigged trial of a working-class pacifist woman for allegedly planning the murder of Lloyd George - and a libel trial in which '47,000' of Britain's elite were reckoned to be colluding with the Germans for fear of being exposed as 'sodomites' and 'degenerates'. Barker is very astute about how the cult of masculinity in WW1 threw up this frantically homophobic backlash during the most intense years of the war. Episodes detailing the brutality meted out to conchies and strike-leaders broaden the picture of a state ruthlessly suppressing dissent with some positively Orwellian scenes in prison cells.

However that's just the backdrop - because what really rivets us is the figure of Billy Prior, a soldier home on sick leave, roped into the intelligence service while he struggles to digest the horror that caused his breakdown. Prior proves to be a far more compelling protagonist than Sassoon. A working-class man who achieved officer rank, he is now thrust into the company of the class he so despises. A bitter, angry, caustic yet ambitious soldier, he is secretly terrified by his own hatred of civilians and the violence he senses simmering beneath the surface. To add to his self-loathing, his sexuality is also urgent and aggressive, veering into the 'deviant' in an episode of 'cottaging' that seems all too familiar. Rivers is the one person who can save him, yet their sessions often flip over into a verbal sparring that threatens to drag the doctor's own traumas into the light.

The novel's feverish atmosphere, all graphic social realism shot through with something almost surreal, is heightened by two powerful motifs. The 'Eye in the Door' is a throwback to the shell-shock incident that first unhinged Prior. But it also alludes to his new role as a spy in the service of an increasingly repressive state. And then there is the Jekyll and Hyde allusion, which not only attaches itself to Prior's bouts of memory loss but seems to say something about the whole culture of soldiers disassociating themselves from the violence of combat, as Rivers realises.

Johnny Lee Miller & Jonathon Pryce as Prior & Rivers in film

The barely contained rage and fear of Prior is a grenade we continually expect to go off in the novel. But he is possibly saner and a good deal more self-aware than the society that has recalled him from the trenches but which will soon re- assess his 'fitness for active service'. Although Barker's war-torn England is a deeply disturbing world, I was reluctant to leave it at the end of this second book and certainly want to see more of both Prior and Rivers in Part Three. Taken as a whole, this trilogy is a towering achievement of storytelling and a fittingly complex response to the catastrophe of the so-called 'Great War'.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Postcards from a Digital Dug-out

August is a strange month to be sitting in a locked room. Curtains closed to keep the blaze of sunshine from the obscuring the computer's glare. Half-starving, shivering in trenches (imaginatively) whist outside summer burgeons and allotments fatten. But I was excited to be leading my first digital writing residence and for seven days, it felt as if the flickering screen was my patch of sky. When I wasn't googling research sites, jotting exercises or tweeting about it, I was waiting for the cheep of e-borne post. The residency was commissioned by WritingEast Midlands in conjunction with a national body responsible for organising suitable cultural commemorations of WW1. Someone in 14-18-NOW had the idea of a unique 'memorial of words' from today's generation and nationwide, schoolchildren, pensioners, squaddies and civilians, writers and other artists, were drafted to pen a Letter tothe Unknown Soldier of Paddington Station.
He's an approachable soul. When you get above the height of the marble plinth, he looks like an ordinary young man from your street. In the bulky uniform of a WW1 Private, he wears a voluminous greatcoat and a non-regulation knitted scarf. He is reading a letter and the 14-18-NOW project invited us to write that Letter From Home. But we had seven days to play with so I devised exercises each day on themes around the Paddington statue - or 'our friend Tommy' as we came to call him. Moving through reflections on the STATION, BOOTS, LETTER, HELMET, SCARF, GREATCOAT and MEMORIAL, we edged further and further into his nightmarish world of troop trains, trenches, shell-holes. It was impossible not to be disturbed, horrified and deeply saddened at the industrial slaughter and daily privations these Tommies suffered.

For me, the experience was lightened by the beautiful writing and enthusiastic engagement of the week's work-shoppers. As it turned out, these included some experienced writers, already knowledgeable about WW1. Each day along with writing prompts and exercises, I posted videos, images and web-links garnered from a wide range of on-line sources. We explored the WW1 'field' postal depots and a French cottage industry producing silk  embroidered postcards on a huge scale for soldiers to send home. We wrote about trench foot and shell-shock, about Boy Soldiers (Britain's 250,000 underage recruits) and dawn executions. My 'posties' delivered witty, insightful and moving accounts of desert bombing raids, 'Munitionettes' and life on the Home Front too. After all, this 'Total War' not only spanned the globe but revolutionised social and gender relations as well as the technology of killing human beings in unforeseen numbers.

A century on, a digital writing course is probably a fitting venture for 2014. The unpredictability of who and when was a challenge for me but the flexibility was appealing to workshoppers. With open access 24/7, they could pick through which of the resources and exercises they wanted to tackle and post when they were ready. An attempt at 'live workshops' faltered – it proved better for people to work at their own pace. But they could share the 'texts' they produced – poems, stories, dialogue fragments – and converse with each other via forumthreads. I critiqued each piece posted but also found their feedback invaluable on my own attempts at exercises. So fruitful was this, that subsequently I have drafted a dozen 'Unknown Soldier' poems. An unexpected bonus.
When we emerged blinking from this digital dug-out, it was the 4th August. We were posting our final Letters just as the nation marked the 100thanniversary of the War declaration. A sobering moment. But also the culmination of a week's creativity, exploring our own responses to war, and imaginatively re-entering that charged landscape of the past. I am grateful to WEM for the opportunity and to my 'posties' for their openness to writing challenges, their willingness to venture into some dark places and their companionship. I hope we shall see more of their WW1 writing but you can read their Letters to 'our friend Tommy' along with 21,408 others on the 14-18-NOWUnknown Soldier website. They will be available to read there until 2018 when they will be stored permanently in the British Library's digital archive. At which point, our voices and letters will merge into that polyphonic postbag that is our own 'history'.

Monday, 4 August 2014

When the Lights Go out

We've had ... years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"

Harry Patch, Britain's Last WW1 veteran in 2004

As part of a writing project, I have been immersing myself recently in documentaries and books and on-line research about the First World War. It's a dark place to go at the best of times. I have been especially moved and frankly disturbed by the testimony of survivors of the trenches who in their final years tried to voice the terrible experiences of their youth. 'LastPost', edited by Max Arthur, brought together interviews with 21 of the last British veterans back in 2005. By now, only their words remain. A good third of these veterans were BoySoldiers, amongst the 250,000 recruited during Kitchener's campaign. In film footage from the Somme and other front-line coverage, these child faces were all too recognisable. And last night I was watching the same generation on TV recounting how they came to be caught up in the 'Pals Regiments' of that war. Raw, heart-breaking accounts of the friends they lost, of the wounded, of the 'wall of bullets whizzing by' as they stumbled over the top.

I am still trying to take in my feelings about all of this as today our WW1 commemorations reach one of those milestones with an evening of broadcasts and the 'LightsOut' campaign. This symbolic appeal to get the nation to switch off at exactly 11pm tonight is an echo of Sir Edward Grey's famous comment: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." Grey, as Liberal Foreign Secretary from 1905-16, was part of the Cabinet that unanimously signed the British Declaration of War – so he knew all about that earlier 'switch-off'.

A hundred years ago then, our politicians and generals declared war, along with their counterparts in Europe. As summer waned, they marshalled music-hall acts and sportsmen, viscounts and ministers, editors and poster-makers, to bang the war drums. They handed out white feathers. They promised 'see the world' and 'home by Christmas'. They said they'd 'make a man out of you.' They shamed and applauded and corralled a generation of youngsters into the Recruitment Office. 'You're just the Boys we wanted', said the Sergeant as they arrived. They openly signed up children who 'lied' about their age. (The youngest in this country was twelve.) 'I thought I was a big man,' said William Roberts who joined up at 17, 'but I got a shock.'

They sent Our Boys to the Front often on cattle trains 'with a little straw on the floor'. They shovelled them into trenches to crouch and sleep where they could. Up to their knees in water, under shell-fire, often with little to eat, for days or weeks at a time. The war broke men into pieces but the Army patched them up in military hospitals and sent them back. They didn't only shoot the enemy. They shot men, and children too, at dawn when they fell apart. 'Age no excuse'. 'Shell-shock' something that only happened to officers. Cecil Withers, one of those Boy Soldiers who enlisted at 17, said: 'Our people treated us like dogs. They were cruel bastards compared with the Germans.'

A memorial modelled on 17 year old victim, Private Herbert Burden

The undoubted bravery of those who enlisted and their comradeship and lifelong friendships were smothered under horror. Men left crying for help in all languages in No Man's Land. Veterans' descriptions of those scenes will stay with me a long time. And the living too eaten by rats and cockroaches and the inescapable lice. Harry Patch describes how the men clung together and depended on each other:

'I mean, these boys were with you night and day … we belonged to each other. We were a little team together and those men … carrying the ammunition got blown to pieces. It was like losing part of my life. It upset me more than anything.'

The Armies of this 'Great War' invented new weapons and these boys and men on both sides were guinea-pigs for a new technology of killing. Green poison gas. Aerial bombardment. Tanks. The modern age speeded-up even as the war trapped combatants in holes in the ground. Another survivor, Albert Finnegan, decided after the war never to have children, 'I was not prepared to produce cannon fodder for the army, not fodder for industry.'

And the warmongers put off and avoided every opportunity for diplomacy. Until starvation at home and mutiny in the ranks and social revolution across Europe and the collapse of the German Army brought them to a railway carriage. At 5am on 11th November they signed the Armistice. And with the Truce agreed, for another six hours, they still threw men into the line of gun-fire; as many as 11,000 across all Fronts that finalday, just to make the German defeat a little more crushing.
This year David Cameron's call for a "commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people" sparked a NoGlory in War campaign from many of our leading cultural figures. Even Jeremy Paxman, who dismissed 'conchies' as 'cranks' in his own documentary, commented 'Only a moron would 'celebrate' the war." Cameron recently published a Letterto the Unknown Soldier in Paddington Station which says:

'… our world would have been far darker if you had declined the call to act. Without your service, our security, our values, our very way of life would have been lost.'

Darker than this? 16 million dead in 4 years? And who was it who switched off the lights across Europe? This war was planned in gentlemen's clubs, in cabinet rooms, in palaces. They may not have understood what it would unleash but the slaughter was obvious long before Christmas. And still they prosecuted this war for four long years. Today their inheritors stand at Cenotaphs and in Cathedrals and pay their respects. And tomorrow they'll will go back to the business of making war. A part of the 'very way of life' they have never given up.  I believe they would do it again. I really do. If We Forget.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Ear to the Ground: Water Poetry

Q:   If water was a goddess, how would she move?
A:   She would leap about and dance.

Q:   If water was a child, what would it wear?
A:   It wears bubbles and little fishes. Or it goes completely naked - it is wearing the air.

These are some of the things I learnt from the children of Kidgate Primary School in Louth in Lincolnshire. I was there for a day of workshops on themes drawn from the history of Louth's springs and streams, now hidden underground like a well-kept secret. But we teased out the song of that water in our first class poem which played with wonderful water words like 'gurgling', 'sloshing', trickle', 'dribble' and 'splash'. And that delightful closing couplet:

'It dances and prances, making us stare;
with no clothes on, it's wearing the air.'

Our second session took this class of 28 children - seven to nine year olds - out into the green space of the nearby Gatherums. Here Lucy Lumb from the Gatherums & Springside Regeneration Project related more of Louth's history to the children. The GSRP is a dedicated group of local volunteers and community workers who have transformed a rather muddy and semi-derelict area into a park with flowers, vegetable beds and paved play areas. As we walked down the ancient footpath of the Gatherums, past the site of the town's original sacred spring, the kids played out stories of John Jeffries, the town's Water-Carrier with his trusty horse. They revived the ritual of the Rag Tree, tying imaginary rags to wipe away sickness. And on the spot where the slum children of Gatherums once played by an open stream, they listened for the sound of water 'from a 100 years ago.' Never has a man-hole caused so much excitement as we all queued to kneel and hear the spring 'dripping and trickling ... like it was wriggling under the ground'. The wholehearted engagement of these  open-air poets blew me away as each child wrote their own line for a place-poem alive with the sounds of the past and present:

'Walking around, children playing beside;
walking around a beautiful place
walking along the invisible water
green and alive, we are thinking back.'

Remembrance continued to thread the day's themes as our afternoon session focused on their own memories of a childhood in Louth or elsewhere. Each small group delivered a verse with a rhyme about their shared stories. They were generous with each other and creative with their rhymes: 'sledging in winter - don't get a splinter!' Then in a magical moment, Mrs Rhodes put her hand up and the hubbub fell silent for a final read-around. Later I edited this collective poem into a 'Memory Quilt' patched with squares from each table:

'From Lincolnshire, Louth
or Fermanagh lanes
Japan and all over
childhood's the same.'

At this tender age their powers of memory are impressive. Asked what they'd learnt through the day, without notes they recalled the Great Flood of 1920, the 50 houses that once bordered the stream, the Wool Walkers of Queen Street and much more. Pleasingly, they also learnt that 'you can make a poem from anything', that 'some are funny' and 'poems don't have to rhyme'. Collectively, they penned three lively, poignant, thoughtful poems, which may yet feature in the on-going celebrations of the Gatherums & Springside Project.

For myself, I learnt a huge amount and like the children 'wish we could do this again!' I want to thank the GSRP for the invitation and Writing East Midlands for facilitating this visit. My thanks go especially to Lucy for being our guide and my right-hand with the marker pen while the children were brainstorming lines thick and fast. Also to Mrs Rhodes and Mrs Philips who welcomed into this beautifully run school and fetched us restorative cups of tea. Above all the day at Kidgate reminded me what a pleasure it is to work with this age-group, 'playing acting and making poems all day.'

Some feedback:

Teacher:   'A great day. I really liked the linking of history and poetry writing ... your given lines were a good starting point for the children'.

Project Organiser:  'It was wonderful to see the children in the Gatherums, talking about the history they had learnt ... their use of language was excellent, they understood what was expected and responded enthusiastically.'

Children:   'I found this lesson well today because I loved the poet writing the history and the little trip!!! It was great fun. I would like to do this again.' 

'My favourite part of the day was listening to the manhole water and writing poems about Springside.'

'I enjoyed doing the acting in my group when we got hold of each other pretending they were horses.'

'I liked listening to the drain. Also I learned that Springside has a whole history!'

'We worked well together. I have enjoyed finding the two lines and acting like the people did in the olden days.'

'I wrote my first poem and it was fun
and at lunch I had a bun.'


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Refugee Week: Singing in Colour

For this delicate Irish 'blow-in',  summer brings sneezing and slapping on the factor 50 and going incognito in sun-hat and dark glasses. But it also brings festivals and the special joy of people gathering to celebrate each other as well as the season. I was especially pleased to be invited to do a set on the 'Acoustic Stage' of Leicester's Red Cross Refugee Week bash in the Town Hall Square on Saturday. The images captured by Ambrose Musiyiwa, our resident community photographer, offer their own feast. Here were lawyers, trumpeters, passers-by, singers, refugee case-workers, volunteers, asylum seekers, doctors, drummers, children, pensioners and at least one poet 'shaking out their colours'. Weddings spilled out on the Town Hall Steps. Sun-worshippers laid themselves out on the crocheted blankets the Red Cross provided. Teenagers moved through a complex choreography of Tai-Chi and/or pop dance on the lawn. The Red Leicester Choir emblazoned the square with harmonised anthems from the heart. A series of musicians with guitars and homespun lyrics seduced us under the sari-dressed tent. As the pictures show, people danced, picnicked, laughed - shared jokes, shared their culture and their stories, and Leicester, at its best, strutted its stuff.

My own set was woven from the collection called 'Songs of a Blow-In' which threads together two stories. The first is perhaps the oldest story, narrated by the archaeologist Dr Alice Roberts in her wonderful TV series The Incredible Human Journey some years ago. That inspired for me a sequence of poems tracing the footsteps of Homo Sapiens as they trekked out of Africa and found their way around the continents of our planet. The other story is taken from my personal memories, fragmented like the shards archaeologists dig up, of my family's move from Fermanagh in the North of Ireland to Bolton in the North of England, swapping one childhood world for another. They are both stories then of Memory and Migration. It turns out that our people, the humans, have always been migrants. We are, in the words of my first poem, 'always on the move/ always at home' ; two states of being that define us as a species. We leave and migrate; we settle and create. We bring our skills and our songs, our prayers and our stories; we share food and jokes and we build communities out of all these shared gifts. This is our story - we are the human race.

It goes without saying that this year's Refugee Week celebration was especially joyful and much needed after a tide of racist vitriol against migrants in the recent election. Our corporate media - which also managed a complete 'news-block' on the peaceful 50,000 strong March Against Austerity this weekend - would have us believe there is an anti-immigration consensus in this country. But Leicester's Refugee Week told another story and the city will undoubtedly host a summer of such festivals, a polyphony of songs from its many communities and bands and performers. Between the hills of Bradgate and Highfields, the air will thrum with colour.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter

Don't ask me how I got my hands on a copy of a book that has yet to go on sale. That information is on a need-to-know basis and more than you can afford. But this much I will tell you freely. From the ingenious art work of Will Staehle – that blood-red Victorian purse/ metallic hand – to the fabulous title, The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, Rod Duncan's first novel in the Gaslit Empire series promises a thrilling and duplicitous read. And it delivers. This treat from imprint Angry Robot (loving their Cylon logo too!) is coming to Steampunk fans this September, with a sequel hot on its heels next spring. It has as much peril, mystery and mashed-up Victorian-futuristic technology as you could wish but above all, what will be bringing this reader back for more is the central character; gutsy cross-dressing private-detective, Elizabeth Barnabus. She is alone in this world but for a fictional brother and a remembered father. 'I'm no more than a shadow,' she tells a would-be admirer, 'and can have only such friendships and feelings as a shadow might'. Only one job away from destitution, she yet turns out to be a cunning and always courageous match for the shadowy Agents of the all-powerful International Patent Office. Appealingly, she is an accomplished liar as well as a reader of others' deceptions.
'Illusion was my inheritance,' she confides early on. From a childhood spent in The Circus of Mysteries, she has learnt ' … the gift of being, when needed, my own twin brother.' Without this skill, Elizabeth cannot survive as a woman on the run exiled in a land where females cannot own property or run businesses. 'Equal but different' is the slogan of the Anglo-Scottish Republic, a rather Puritan world where the Rational Dress Society enforces strict codes about women's clothing: 'That is not a hat and you are not properly dressed.' Elizabeth, masquerading as a Victorian gentleman 'intelligence-gather', is a deviant living in the shadows of Leicester's waterfront on an old canal-boat, Bessie. Duncan convincingly explores the mechanics of her gender-manipulation: 'Men fancy they recognize a woman by her dress, figure and face but it is more through movement …' Elizabeth enjoys strolling through the city with the easy swagger of a man: 'rolling the shoulders … occupying the centre of the road.' However much she can handle a weapon and calculate an escape route, this action-heroine is young and at times, emotionally volatile. 'I don't know if it was fear or anger that made me act,' she reflects after shoving a loaded revolver in a thug's mouth. What's for sure is you're rooting for this outsider who is not only a wanted 'fugitive from a contract of indentured servitude' but also a Gypsy who arouses a casual bigotry in officials of the Republic.

Elizabeth has crossed all sorts of lines in a novel pre-occupied with boundaries of many kinds. A runaway from the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales, she occupies the middle-space of Leicester, a city bisected by the historic partition of England (an irony this Irish reviewer enjoyed.) As a citizen of the real Midlands centre, I thought the sense of place enriched the novel with its Turkey CafĂ©, Darkside Coffee House and Gallowtree Gate, complete with gallows. The twin border-checkpoints are a step away from Leicester's iconic Clock Tower. Another location I recognise as 'the Lanes', offering 'an alternative shopping experience' of boutiques and 'emporiums', has become Duncan's 'the Backs … that dark warren of narrow streets, blind alleys and iniquity.' I found myself wanting a map in the book (apparently this will be found in the accompanying web-site on publication) but then again, my Leicester is not the fictional city. Rather I am looking at a setting reflected back in the distorting lens of a fairground-mirror. Similarly, I kept thinking I had gotten a foothold on the history of the book, drawing on my own knowledge of the English Revolution, the Luddites and Empire etc. But like a tourist who's strayed into the smuggler's den of the Backs, I am easily way-laid. It makes no sense that the emerging bourgeoisie of Cromwell's Puritans would build a realm so hostile to technological innovation. And which century am I in when a reference to the 1970s is dropped in as a teaser never to be explained? History-as-we-know it, fragments of that narrative, have been shaken up in the kaleidoscope of Duncan's invention. It is this kind of total 'world-building' that draws in the reader and I hope to master this alternative history as it unfolds over several volumes.

I soon stopped trying to map my way through, too caught up in the rapid pace of Elizabeth Barnabus' adventures. The protagonist is continuously on the move, taking an airship to Lincolnshire, where she pursues Harry Timpson's Laboratory of Arcane Wonders, and later to London where she not only risks capture by her old enemy, the Duke of Northampton, but even enters the citadel of the terrifying International Patent Office. The Lincolnshire scenes will delight fans of the cult-TV series, Carnivale – I'll say no more – and the capital is at once Dickensian and deliciously fantastic with its International Air Terminus at St. Pancras. The tension of quest and discovery is constant. And Elizabeth Barnabus has more secrets and back-story packed into her trusty portmanteau than her friends can possibly know or the agents of the Patent Office suspect. 'Illusion is story,' she advises us, quoting her long-lost father, '… weave it with characters … and love and loss and the audience will follow you as children … followed the Pied Piper of Hamlin.' Here are Mysteries wrapped in Disguises moon-lighting as Plots. The closing pages promise that The Gaslit Empire will yield many more before its rumoured 'Fall'. This reader is booking her ticket for the show and marking off the months till the sequel 'Unseemly Science' rolls into town.