Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Sympathy and Consent: The problems of vampire love

The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion.... In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. -Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla


I remember reading it the first time. I put down the book, stared up, frowning at the ceiling (light green, artex. My adolescent bedroom), rubbing the tattered paper of the spine.


After all, I was a Buffy fan, had seen enough of Angel's brooding, heard Spike's immortal line:

I wasn't surprised to find the idea of vampiric obsession, the idea that vampires were capable of strong, even affectionate, emotion towards humans and each other - what bothered me was the line being drawn. "Resembling."

The affection Carmilla has for the narrator is evident, her passion clear - why, then, the reluctance to call it by it's name?

Dracula, too, is charged with an inability to love, and answers, "Yes, I too can love. You yourselves can tell it from the past." What's more, the person accusing him is one his 'wives' - another vampire, suggesting that love is valued by the Undead, that Dracula's lack of it is an aberration. However, context is important; the 'love' to which the wives are refering involves eating the object of their desire. What's more, Dracula counters their criticism by claiming that he had once loved them in the same fashion - three women whom he seems to ignore when he isn't indulging them with a baby-in-a-bag, women he is in the process of abandoning.

The Dracula we see in the novel is alone, almost tragically so.

Vampiric love, then, is one which it is difficult to seperate from appetite, from death. After all, Carmilla talks of love and passion without reservation, but it is clear she means something a lot less sanitary than chocolate boxes and billet doux. She recalls "a cruel love - strange love, that would have taken my life," believes, "Love will have its sacrifices." Even in Buffy (which was my teen-relationship textbook) vampire romance is never healthy - there's Angel's painful impossible love of Buffy; there's  Spike and his glorious, dysfunctional infatuation with Dru; and there's Dru swooning over Angelus, the monster who drove her insane.

Perhaps that's what Le Fanu was getting at - we can recognise the strength of the feeling, its passion, its realness - but ultimately it either fickle, self-serving, or destructive. It is not a wholesome, it offers no support or strength, can only kill one or both parties. Although similar to love in many ways, it cannot be love because, by definition, its focus, its practicioners are perverse.

Transgression, Perversity and Otherness:

Hmmm. Yes.

Hopefully it is news to no-one that vampires are often used as a sexual metaphor. However, the sex they represent is seldom normative, sanctioned sexuality - monogamous, heterosexual, vanilla, and focused on reproduction. Vampires are used to explore Otherness, and one way to do that is to present them as sexually 'transgressive'. This holds true, even at a surface reading: Carmilla is a lesbian, Spike a male submissive, Dracula a bigamous foreigner. If I started to list the gay vampires out there, we would be here all day.

And one of the ways that Othering dehumanises a figure is to present their emotions and reactions as deviant, immature, perverse. Because they are different to us, because they are 'less' than us, their emotions and motivations can never be as real, important, or respectable as the feelings of mainstream groups.

So just an Other cannot be forthright, but rather is shrill or beligerant, what they believe to be love is not really love. It is merely lust, infatuation, obessession. Their relationships are perversions and inverstions of the ones that 'we' practice, the 'real' relationships. When they run against us, their attentions are clinging, embarrasing, unwelcome. Their influence is corrupting by default.

Yes, this fits the metaphor of vampirism rather nicely, doesn't it?

And metaphors are powerful. If these stories show, over and again, that the only 'right' love is male-dominated, heterosexual monogamy, then anything which falls outside of that, which is represented by vampires, is dangerous, evil, corrupt.

And, like many things didactic moralists preach against, it also looks kinda fun.

Take me away from all this death.

"Make me into one too," said the boy. "Please? I want to be one. I want to walk the night with you and fall in love and drink blood. Kill me. Make me into a vampire too. Bite me. Take me with you." - Poppy Z. Brite, Lost Souls
 Oh, who hasn't at least thought about it? About being eternally beautiful, unbreakable, strong?

Sympathy for the vampire is not an uncommon reading, or indeed response to the genre, and the reaction against such sympathy it is always strong, morally guided and didactic.It's well known that the British Board of Film Classification pushed for censorship of Hammer's vampire films because of the sexual element of the biting scenes, especially Mina's almost gleeful acceptance of Dracula's advances.

Even today, there are no shortage of people who seem to want to drag vampirism back into the realms of 'good, clean horror'. But these currents have always been there. The real power of vampirism is neither in its desirability, nor its horror, but in the ambivalence it raises. As the narrator of Carmilla says:
In these mysterious moods, I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her... but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrance. - Carmilla
We are aware of the moral failings of vampires, even as we are drawn to them. They may be tragic and lovely, but they cannot be saved.
Something in him ached for that boy. For the sadness in his face, for his eyes yearning to stay young. He wanted to grab Nothing away from his companions and tell him that sometimes, everything could be all right, that pain did not have to come with magic, that childhood never had to end. And yet he wondered whether Nothing had not known all those things when he made his choice.  - Lost Souls
Writers do fascinating gymnastics to navigate this problem, but ultimately, it will always be as Carmilla says, "I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so." It is a mad love, is amour fou - another thing which is belittled, mocked, denegrated. It is another thing that is often described as not 'really' being love, only 'resembling' it.

But, oh, it is so very real, and so very tempting. It is a love which transgressive, morally ambivalent, one that can bring with it an entire world of pain. And many vampire writers chase so hard after it, trying to bring it to a happy ending. But tidying away its danger, its nastiness, its utter disregard of morality, it is very difficult to maintain its white-hot intensity. If a vampire is prepared to call your father, 'sir' and wait until marriage, passion can hardly be consuming him that badly, right?

Well, maybe. There is such a thing as self-control. And, after all, Le Fanu speaks of an "artful courtship" of longing for "something like sympathy and consent"?

Take me away from all this death!

That "like" again.

The Boundaries of Metaphor, the Limits of Consent:

As mentioned above, the sympathy is easy. It's the heart of the vampire's allure, after all. It is precisely that balance of attraction and disgust. The idea that something about you is being admitted that you would never have owned before. It is about a sense of transgression, of non-normativity. It's about self discovery - and the ensuing shame, ambivalence, emergence.

The reinvention of the vampire as a romantic hero comes from that longing, that desire to put away all the weakness and uncertainty, to have your secret desires unfolded, to be lifted up on a love that is actually forever. So, of course it appeals, it is so tempting to leave it at that. 

But consent? Oh, how on earth do do we negotiate the morality of this?

After all, this is not coming out or getting laid. It's not asking your partner to spank you: we are talking about a vampire. This is someone who kills humans in order to live. So, yeah, you might sympathise, but that won't stop you reaching for the stakes and the communian wafer.

Besides, even if it didn't, can a word like consent actually be used in these circusmtances? The watchword of the BDSM community is SSC - safe, sane and consensual - and if consent is the most discussed, it does not exist in isolation. The three are interdependent - without consent and safety, it cannot be sane; without consent and sanity, it is not safe; without safety and sanity you cannot be said to have consented.

Also, legally, certain things are out of bounds, no matter how much you might want someone to do them to you. Being eaten, for example.

How can vampire romance ever be unproblematic?

So people tidy things up. They removed the Otherness of vampires,  stop them being killers, make them just humans with better hair and super-strength. But this overlooks the power of that Otherness, the importance of vampire mythos to groups who have been Othered, told their desires are dirty, immoral, or just worthy of mockery.

Contemporary vampire novels are frequently queer, or kinky, or else the dream relationships of lonely women of various ages*. To love a vampire is to desire to turn outsider status in to the ultimate in-group, to rewrite loneliness and frustration in to endless pleasure, to cast off low self-esteem nd find body confidence, beauty and sexual agency.

So we write stories where there are 'good' vampires, where they have souls and don't eat humans, and it becomes all about the metaphor. These are good people, just like us, facing unfair discrimination. The fact they must live in secrecy is unjust. The huge taboo surrounding vampire love is misguided.

However, as an idea of 'devaint love reclaimed as permissible', vampirism is a flawed model. To be able to embrace it wholeheartedly involves tidying away the ugliness, the whole vampire bit of vampirism. Female sexual agency isn't actually fatal, and lesbianism is does not cause aneamia. There is a lacuna between the metaphorical truth of vampirism-as-sexuality and its narrative reality. A young queer person may be justified in feeling that coming out will get them treated like a monster - it happens far too often - but they will never become one. Kinky sex (or, honestly, just sex) may feel dangerous, furtive and transgressive - but it should never actually be so.

Vampirism is. Its whole draw is the idea of being wanted so badly by someone that they will devour you. But this isn't a brutal slash and hack job - it is tender, loving, slow. It is romantic, sensuous, arousing.

And it will kill you.

* Mine is, arguably, all three. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Review: Lost Boy, Lost Girl - Peter Straub

I do like a bit of Peter Straub. His books have a kind of freshness and intelligence that I enjoy seeing in horror novels. Although dealing with the classic tropes, there's a deep humanity that keeps them clinging in your head, somewhere in the back. Even years after reading them, I'll sit up with a shudder, suddenly remembering a line of his description, a scene he painted, the angle of light you imagined in a house he described.

He's one of those writers who you need to read a couple of times to get in to the heart of his books - you'll skittle along on a surface reading, maybe unaware of the cloudy, terrible depths beneath you. But the depths are there all the same, and they're very dark.

 So, Lost Boy, Lost Girl - for those of you familiar with Straub's work, it's a Millhaven novel (for those of you who aren't, don't worry) and it gains a lot of power from the inhabiting that liminal space between human horror and supernatural horror which Straub always exploits so well. It's good, very good, and generally, I have to recommend it to readers with a strong stomach and a taste for the disturbing.

Something which caught me about it, though, is that it felt a very American novel. I'm not saying this as a criticism of any kind. It's not to say, either, that his other works lack a sense of a specific place. It is rather that the horror he explores elsewhere has a universal, almost antique, feel. You can taste the air of the place the horror it occurs, but the horror itself could find you where ever you stood. The places, too, have a parallel to places I have been - the location is very specific, but it is not specifically American.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl could be set nowhere else. The basis of the plot revolves around the gridlike street structure of American towns. The relationships are defined by the landscape in which they are set; the concerns of the characters, their demographics, even their physical interactions with each other seem defined by the very American-ness of the setting. As I say, this isn't a criticism, nor  does he present  a generic, airbrushed Hollywood America that someone from this side of the pond will know from imported sitcoms and teen movies. No, it felt very genuine, but it brought a pronounced sense of foreigness, almost an exoticism, that made the whole experience a little unreal and defamiliarising.

This was only heightened by the somewhat American concerns of the novel. This is not vampires, or black magic, not an imported horror. No, it exists in a area between urban legend and historical fact that seems uniquely American: fascination with the serial killer. America does not have the monopoly on murder, or even on sadistic mass murderers - but it is only in America that they seem to hold that kind mythic cachet. As the Corinthian says:

Used for review purposes

Almost, however, this specificity gave the book its power to unsettle, upset and captivate. It ran headlong into the promise of the American dream, and the darknesses beneath it. Anyway. Very good. One for horror fans.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Thunder in her Veins - the sacredness of geekdom

Some bits of childhood never do make sense.

Look: I grew up in a village with an unreliable bus service and two shops - that became one shop, and then none, and that's where it's settled. It was the sort of place where there were enough people who wore petticoats for the expression "Charlie's dead" to be part of my childhood lexicon. My elder sister was the first - the only - girl on the school's football team. It was a place where 'comic' meant the Dandy and the Beano, or - if you were really lucky - an old copy of Bunty*.

So how I ever came to read Marvel's Thor line is something of a mystery to me. I think I had a Spiderman annual once, and there was the X Men and the Fantastic Four on telly on a Saturday morning, but… Thor? Seriously? I might have been able to get it at the comic book store in the nearest town (seven miles and, apparently, a twenty year timeslip away) but, well, I always knew places like that weren't made for people like me**.

All the same, Thor I did read. A fair few, actually. Mostly the early ones, with Donald Blake in them. I remember being caught by something about them - the disabled man whose vocation was easing others' pain, his walking stick actually the hammer Mjolnir. I still can't really express why, but something about them felt very beautiful, very true.  Maybe it was the overtones of the Fisher King? Maybe it was just the myth connection.

Because I was a myth junkie, devouring folklore and fairytale. If a story was old and epic and glorious, then it was my kind of story. I grinned at the pranks of tricksters, railed at monsters, wept for Prometheus chained to his rock. Raised as both an Anglican and a Baptist (don't ask) I was used to God being male, ineffably right and absorbingly loving. My contact with the grim, problematic stories of the Bible was one sanitised by a Sunday school framing which repackaged them into a reassuring scholasticism where faith (read:goodness) was rewarded, and the wicked (read: unbelievers) were punished.

Used for review purposes
Noble failure...
Myths weren't like that. In myths, all bets were off. And that made for grandeur and for tragedy. It made for fatal flaws and noble failure. It made for Gods who were tricksy, passionate, even petty. They could be deceived, could deceive. They could be wrong. 

And yet despite all that, they were honourable, powerful, righteous.

It's probably fair to say that I found myself through reading Norse legends. Yes, I was too young, too uncertain, to call it 'faith', yet all the same something in me ran to those myths with a more intuitive open-heartedness than my parents' religion could ever call from me. More, they seemed to understand me. I craved them, the way you crave salt when dehydrated: dread, beautiful Freyja; bright, lost Baldur; Loki - quick, cunning, dangerous; and Thor.

Of course, Thor.

I always feel faintly ridiculous using the word 'sacrilege' in anything other than ironic hyperbole. All the same, there does need to be a word for that hurt that is located somewhere against your heart, behind your ribs, when the things you hold sacred are treated slightingly. As a Pagan who honours certain Norse deities, there is something wrong in seeing the stark, terrible beauty of your mythic landscape re-envisaged into slick, commercial print, complete with hulking villains and so. much. spandex.

Thus it was that, for years, I was embarrassed by the association. Marvel's Thor was not my Thor, their Odin not my AllFather. Drawing that distinction was important, remains important still. But scorning the former overlooks something vital, something powerful, something old. The memory of it came back to me with the release of the MCU film. A sense of struggle, of soaring glory, of a rightness at the very base of something. And, yes, it was more slickly packaged, and sexier than a fireside story about Sir Gawain, but it spoke of something grandiose and sweeping on that same, gut-deep level.
Used for review purposes
Something sweeping and grandiose

People tend to associate the numinous with a sense of peace, of silent wonder, but sometimes it is more a sense of your heart being pried apart with grinning exuberance. Sometimes, it is that twisting, cathartic need that comes with the raunchiest choruses of folksong, the catchiest reels of the Morris. Sometimes it was what we feel when we hear stories about heroes, about people in extremity, about villains we love to hate, and sometimes just love, despite ourselves.

And that feeling is sacred. Some narratives speak to something deep in us, something more real than anything we enounter in our daily lives.When they are slighted, undermined, mocked, we feel that little wince that cries out 'sacrilege!'. It is one of the reasons why feelings are running so high around this 'Hydra Cap' debacle. Some heroes should be held high, above baseness, above the taint of cynicism.

Yet, collectively, we disown these stories. Heroism, self-sacrifice, betrayal, need - the bright, bold colours of traditional stories - are things we insist upon shutting out as we become 'grown-up', 'critical', 'literary'. But these things are still nestled in us, occupying a space in what I can only call our soul.

My engagement with this comic was not adult. It was not smooth, questioning, probing. It was not the 'refined' tastes that I have spent years cultivating. No. It was the wild joy that got me into stories in the first place. It made me air punch, made me grin, made me arch my feet and press my eyes together. I cared from a place of total, unironic absorpsion. I felt this book, felt the way I once felt as I tore around the playground pretending to be the Human Torch.

(Flame on!)

But, as such, an actual review is beyond me. Is Mighty Thor: Volume 7 great art? Will it change the shape of Literature as we know it?

Is the story any good, even? Should you read it?

I have no fucking clue. Sorry.

I had to whittle this down to one awesome picture. THERE ARE SO MANY.
Also: Malekith the Accursed - just too FABULOUS for your morality.
There are some books out there that make you realise the futility of reviewing books, that make you see there is no helpful, universal rubric to define whether something is worthwhile. Yes, you can analyse craft and effect and technique, but sometimes a story speaks to something that is too pronounced and personal, its power over you too great to allow you to reach for your wonted pose of critical objectivity.

I have to admit that, while I tend to enjoy what I read, I'm not especially immersed in Marvel 616 stuff. As an adult reader, it's rare they provide me with more than an entertaining stopping post for an insatiable bookworm. Mighty Thor: Thunder in Her Veins went so far beyond that faint praise that there is no comparison - but those feelings are so subjective that I cannot extend to any of you.

As such, I really can't recommend it. Do you like stories about honour and righteousness, about family and longing, about war and good and evil, and some things that you just can't categorise? Then maybe read it. You might get something from it.

But, while we're on the subject of recommenations, what I have to say is that  it isn't really this comic you need to read. No. Don't seek out a specific story or book, don't listen to anything else. Instead, shrug off your irony. Ignore the cheap, headline grabbing shots, the 'risky' takes appealing to the part of you that wants to tarnish and tear down.

No. Reach into your heart and find those embarrasing remnants of unmitigated joy - however commerical, low brow or melodramatic they may be. Find your heroes - your glorious and impossible heroes - and cling to them. Celebrate them.

We are readers. We are better than that.

*What? The stories were better.
** Shout out to 'The Grinning Demon' and 'Whatever Comics' of Maidstone, which (when I finally plucked up the courage to slip inside) were absolutely lovely. But you know what I meant.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Review: Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? By Paul Cornell

Ha! Alys, nothing in your life is straight.

I've raved a bit about the Shadow Police before, and have been waiting for this sequel for a good old while. The earlier books are bloody good. This is... It's… Well, it's more or less flawless, actually.

I try not to give too many flat out, positive reviews, try to pick out the problems in the book, the failings, because otherwise this blog just turns into a long episode of me going YAAAAY! BOOOOOKS! But sometimes, it's justified.

Cornell is a writer of rare talent and compassion, and in Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? the concept of The Shadow Police finally fulfils the promise of the first two books. Opening it, I was lost, captured entirely. The unevenness of the shock-brutality that could be seen to mar London Falling has been replaced by a creeping weight of horror, a sense of real struggle and danger. The possibly-too-fast pace of The Severed Streets has levelled out in to the gripping, but measured, almost painful intensity of the plot.

DI Quil and his team are still breakable, still wounded, and Gods, the stakes are as terrifyingly high as every they were, but in Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? there is a sense of movement that The Severed Streets did not have. There is a touch of playfulness. A sense of hope.

That does not mean terrible things do not happen - none of the Shadow Police books are for the faint hearted - but balancing the horror, there is as good an old-fashioned mystery as the title demands. Honestly, I could laud this book all day. From Cornell's creation of a magic beneath London - which feels less like invention, and more like channelling - to the pitch perfect emotional beats, it is a triumph and an utter delight to read.

If, however, you forced me to level one criticism, it would simply be that it is a little crowded. With five fully realised central characters and their relationships, one gnarly mystery and the overarching plot of the Smiling Man, there is an awful lot to fit in to 350 odd pages. It is intense to read, and the sheer quantity of information the reader is presented with is overwhelming. Cornell handles it admirably, and I honestly think that goes to make up some of the richness of the book, but it is somewhat full on.

So, clear your weekend before attempting it, because you won't be putting it down

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Grief and Pride

I should be writing.

I'm sitting here at a keyboard and I know there are so many things I should be doing. I've got a novel to crowdfund and I've got last stage editing to do on it. I've got book reviews to write and a post about vampires that I've been twitching over all week. I have professional things to do, organised things, important things. But every time I try and say something about them, I find my mind is going blank and my hands shaking with something that is maybe grief and is maybe rage and that I hope to all my Gods is not fear.

50 people have been killed. 50 LGBT+ people have been murdered in gay club in Orlando during Pride month. During Pride.

Just typing it is making me cry. They are murdering us during Pride. Because of Pride, because we are living in a world where - if you live openly as queer, or trans, or gay, there are people out there who think your life is worth less. That it deserves to be taken from you. Hell, if you live in the closet but get outed, then there are people who feel your life should be taken from you. 

I can't work tonight. I can't bloody think properly tonight. I try, and I find myself thinking of life and love and the way it has been stolen from people just because of who they love. I'm thinking of my own tenuous crawl out of the closet and my trembling little forays into transition and how - suddenly - I'm reminded that it's not just sneering and spitting and ugly names, not just rejection and hostility and friendships cooling off that I need to fear, I'm remembering that there are people out there who want me dead. I'm thinking about what it would take for someone to walk in to a room of people who were laughing, dancing, harming no-one, and to open fire on them.

I'm thinking about how being queer is a constant fight to be seen, to exist, to be acknowledged as valid and real, and not some anomaly that can be legislated out of existence. I'm thinking about how bloody easy it would be to push my binder to the back of my drawer, grow out my hair, and go back into the closet. I'm thinking about never talking about being attracted to women, to non-binary people, as well as men. I'm thinking about how much safer that will make me.

I'm thinking about how that is the exact bloody opposite of what I'm going to do.

And I am furious. Because right now there are queer people, gay people, trans people who are just as  paralysed by this as I am, who are watching the evasion, the erasure in the way people are discussing this, watching every person saying 'night-club' and 'terror attack' and never 'gay club' or 'hate crime' as though our community doesn't even deserve the dignity of recognition when we've been gunned down just for daring to exist in the open. Because there are 53 of our people lying in hospital, and still we are told we cannot give blood.

This is the worst terrorist attack the US has seen since 11th September 2001. It is the worst mass shooting they have ever seen, and the BBC is still prioritising the Queen's fucking birthday. 

 And all these people, all these people who are dead and injured, all these people who have read about it, heard about it, and are crying to themselves and their family right now? They are just as real as you. They have art and writing and music and dreams and loves and careers and families that they should be spending time with, and this gross act of violence has taken that from them. Instead, this one awful act, this blow that was designed to go right to heart of them, has made them victims. It has torn us - all of us - away from our lives, our sense of security, our hope, our ability to live and love and create.

This is terrorism, because its purpose was to terrorise. It was intended to tell the LGBT+ community that we live only on the sufferance of hate-filled people with guns. It was intended to take away the things we can bring to the world, to silence our voices, to prevent our art. It was intended to put us 'back', back to the margins, back to invisibility and fear.

It hits harder because, in our hearts, we know that we have never left those places. That despite all the gains of recent years, we have always been at the mercy of bigotry, of erasure, of the actions of violent people filled with hatred. It hurts more because we exhaust ourselves just being heard, being seen, being recognised - in our lives, in media, in law, in advocacy. It hurts because, just being there,
in a gay club, participating in Pride, can take so much fucking courage and strength and heart-break.

It hits harder because it was intended to hurt this much, to send this exact message: You are not safe. Your lives are not valued.
LGBT+ people reading this: You are valuable. You are beloved. You have something to give in this world, and people who want to see that thing. You are not alone. You will not be broken.

Straight people reading this: Tell the LGBT+ people in your life you love them, you support them. Ask them if there is anything they need, if there is anything you can do that will help them feel safer tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day.

Tell them you stand by us.

Stand by us.

Stand by love.

So, tonight, I weep. And tomorrow, I get up and I fight harder. Tomorrow, I create harder and I live harder and I love harder. Tomorrow, I am more visible, my open, more out. Tonight, I hang the flag at half mast. Tomorrow, I fly it higher than ever.

Love wins. Love has to win.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Review: Ross Poldark, Winston Graham

Alright, I only read this one because there were a lot of screen-grabs of a rather dashing fellow in hitstorical costume littering up my Twitter feed about a year ago, and I was interested to see what all the fuss was about. Also, it was very cheap in a charity shop.

So, okay. Anyway. I wasn't impressed.

 Ross Poldark is a novel that needs to fall out of love with its main character and decide exactly what it's trying to do. It gives the impression of trying to be one of those wonderfully sprawling 18th/19th C novels that charts the fortune of a region and family over the years and it did kinda grab that mood from time to time. It's just, having grabbed it, itwould veer into rather po-faced social commentary which was just starting to hot up into something interesting when we'd careen the other direction, ending up in what can only be described as a sentimental romance. You'd just begin to get invested in that when you'd  find yourself in the middle of the misadventures of a drunken yokel, something which was probably intended as comic relief, but - in light of the aforementioned social commentary - felt a little more like punching down.

If you managed to keep your balance, you begin to suspect all this white knuckle motion is to stop you taking a real measure of Ross, who is not so much unlikeable as irrelevant. While some of the other characters really sparkled off the page - Demelza may be a manic pixie, but she's a charming one, and George Warleggen hovered in the background with insalubrious intent - Ross himself thunked about the novel without any real sense complexity. We were fed facts about him but they felt like very deliberate cues for our emotional response rather than actual character depth: he's 'likeable but troubled' because he reads a lot and drinks too much; he's a 'real man, but a good one' because he… sleeps with sex workers and doesn't much enjoy it?

Hang on. What?

I don't know. Worse still, these shorthands weren't really borne out by his actions. Of course, we get the impression his erratic behaviour was caused by depression following Elizabeth chucking him over, but we never really got a decent picture of his affection for her to begin with. They felt like desperate grabs at reader attention and sympathy, trying to get us to forget that Ross repeatedly behaves like a dick-without-a-cause.

Yet, for all its flaws, I did enjoy reading it (once I got past the disorientation of the wildly uneven tone). No, nothing about it convinces, and yes, it is a bit jarring and directionless, but it isn't actually terrible. The writing is unobtrusive, and there is enough interest to be found in each of the plot strands to keep you reading - if not actually hooked.

On balance, though, I'm probably not going to bother with the sequels.