Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Review: The Home Front by L.M. Cooke.



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Another first publication to wash up on the shores, the Home Front is a well conceived and executed book which serves as a strong introduction to the series, the Automata Wars. I would hesitate to call it a novel, in truth its a series of short stories, held together by the overwhelming concept of the setting and background.

This background is well established early on in the book and is simple enough to strike true: the idea of a long, mysterious war taking place somewhere in the world against a foe, the nature of the which is left a mystery, beyond the idea that they are highly advanced machines that occupy specialised roles within their society. Cooke creates 'Skimmers' and 'Burrowers' to menace the troops and android infiltrators who aim to topple the humans from within through sabotage, treachery and the creation of fifth columns. There's a sense of gleeful menace to her writing in places, as she describes the actions of the automata; never letting us doubt that these machines are a threat.

It is on the efforts of one of the infiltrator androids, one Mr Black, that the narrative really rests, as he worms his way through the home front, creating menaces to undermine society. Perhaps fittingly he's studiedly blank as a character, kept to the background most of the time, when he does step into the centre stage, in the fifth story 'Festival' he is both desperate and so goal driven that his personality is almost incidental, especially when taken in comparison with the mask of gentility he sports earlier in the volume. This functionalism contrasts well with the conflicting natures, drives and fears of his human opponents, which are deftly characterised by Cooke and well drawn throughout the stories. Black's plans are well conceived, without wishing to give too much away, a great deal of thought has evidently gone into what would be feasible for a machine in his position to be able to accomplish and the result feels neither too exaggerated nor too timid, the balance is achieved with apparently little effort.

His principle adversaries are another group of shadowy figures, a group of courtesans who seem to be working as a de-facto unofficial wing of the secret service. They are for the most part left in the shadows, serving as a set of enablers for the various heroes of the stories, where they exist. Their madame, who we only meet in the last story, is an interesting figure, coming across almost as if she were one of the automata herself; again raising questions about the mechanistic foes' true nature.

The book's world building is well accomplished, from the beginning the book feels grounded, there's a sense of time and place even if there are no real nods to real places or events within the stories (there's one reference to a place I recognise, but that's on the side of one of the enemy's machines, which raises interesting questions about their true nature). The idea that this is an alternate world is established very simply and very early on when Cooke refers to soldiers wearing red, which works simply because by the point in time in our own history that corresponds more or less to the society she's describing, the late Edwardian period, the British army had all but abandoned the scarlet uniforms in favour of khaki. Other details then fall in confirm the otherness of the world we're reading about, and the author successfully establishes a society that feels familiar but is filled with details that are new, and in some places alien. This after all is a world where apparently the principle deity is largely unacknowledged, even in a time of war and a church in a desperately poor area is left abandoned apart from the few foolhardy souls that make their way there especially.

Where the book does fall down, a little, is in the structure and pacing. There's very little to complain about with the latter but there were a couple of occasions where the description feels heavy and I found myself skipping through paragraphs rather than reading them properly in search of action and plot. This is only a minor thing and it may be a very personal one. The issue with structure is that there are places where I, and again this may be personal, found myself mentally rewriting sentences a little to make them make more sense in my head. This is probably more a matter of writing style's clashing than anything else however, and it should not discourage anybody else from picking up and enjoying the book.

Overall though, this is a fine collection of stories, well realised and written and building nicely, in the incidental snippets between each story, towards a satisfying revelation that hopefully will pay off in the second volume. If you want a new voice in science fiction and to support the vanishingly small number of women writing SF then I would recommend picking up this book.