(2014) Mark Morris, Titan Books, £7.99, pbk, 343pp, ISBN 978-1-781-16866-0
Alex Locke has had a second chance at life and he has grabbed it with both hands. Talked into taking part in a botched armed robbery when he was a teenager, he inevitably got caught and spent time inside, where he put it to good use and started a road that would see him as a lecturer with a teenage daughter and a two year old child that he lives with and he looks after because his wife is in a home for the mentally disturbed down in Brighton. Everything is looking rosy until his eldest daughter's boyfriend becomes involved with some drug dealers, pushing drugs on a minor basis himself, then he ends up baby-sitting a major stash which gets conveniently stolen and he has to cough up the value of the drugs, or else.
Desperate to help, but not having enough cash to pay off the bad guys, Alex calls a number he was given in prison from someone who promised to look after him, always, like a guardian devil, and despite the intervening years the phone is answered and Alex finds himself in the chilling presence of, Benny, a major hardened criminal, responsible for things you do not want to know about, but bad though Benny has been, his violent actions are nothing compared to what Alex is about to encounter, but first he meets Clover who runs the club 'Incognito' who used to work for a reclusive millionaire who is virtually a recluse, a rich gent who used to be a bit of a magician in the past and according to Clover he had a stolen obsidian heart in his house that some Japanese people want returned. According to Clover, the house is not very secure and if Alex steals the heart then he will earn enough money to pay off the drug dealers, simple, eh?
What follows is not as Sarah Pinborough describes it a mixture of horror, fantasy and science fiction, more a mixture of horror, fantasy and science fantasy as Alex steals the heart but not before he is discovered and 'accidentally' kills the old recluse. Then his life really is turned upside down as his daughter disappears along with every trace of his next door neighbours who were looking after her and dark forces have been released, namely 'The Wolves of London' who want the heart and will do everything to get it, including slaughtering the staff and customers of Clover's club. The heart, of course, is not what it seems, not just a lumped, dark artefact, but something that will protect itself, and sometimes those that wield it. But that power comes at a cost, and with a nod to Tolkien and the influence of the One Ring on its bearer and perhaps to the possession of the sword, Stormbringer, in Michael Moorcock's Elric tales, maybe even the Lament Configuration from Clive Barker's 'Hellraiser' series, using the heart will taint your soul and turn your body into an ancient, bent and shrivelled thing, if you live long enough, that is. Not only will the heart protect itself but it has the ability to take Alex through time, notably back to the First World War (although we will get more of that in other parts of the trilogy, I am sure) and also back to what seems like awful Dickensian times in chapters that remind the reader of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, given the grimness of the setting.
Yes, given its title, this is the first part of a trilogy set in London, but is that mega-city able to bear another novel set there given that the likes of Neil Gaiman and China Mieville have trodden these streets before? And not just them, given Ben Aaronovitch's 'Rivers of London' series and Paul Cornell's 'Shadow Police' series, that started with London Falling, are also set in London. Well, the refreshing thing about Morris' book is that it is not a gritty police procedural with supernatural overtones. Here we are in the shadowy underbelly of the capital, on the wrong side of the tracks with a smattering of steampunkery added in.
Mark Morris has enough books under his belt to be considered an old pro, so we are in safe, steady hands, and I am sure as a major Doctor Who fan he had great fun inventing an artefact that could travel through time, but Alex has not quite mastered time travel to the extent that he can outdo the bad guys like Bill and Ted did in their Bogus Journey, and given the first-person narrative we are as confused as Alex is in places. Although I have to confess that there was one grim section where I almost shouted out 'No, you can't do that!' with an gruesome event taking place that was similar to something that happened in the late Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents – read the book and you'll know what I mean, and like me, you'll no doubt sign up for The Society of Blood and The Wraiths of War, the next two books in the trilogy.
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