Now bear with me here. I recently read two books which seemed, at first glance, to be very different. The first was a collection of short stories by a very famous Canadian novelist and poet: the second was a first novel, set in 15th Century Constantinople, by a tv archaeologist. My subconscious wanted me to do a joint review of the two – but why?
And then it struck me (on a long car journey after a weekend of folk music and wine – this isn’t important but may explain my state of mind) that they were both writing speculative fiction and they both had really interesting hair. Maybe, just maybe, there is some kind of literary Sampson-like quality going on here…
Anyway, I digress…
Let’s start with Neil Oliver – he has written a number of books in connection with his tv programmes, on various historical and archaeological subjects but Master of Shadows is his first novel. Set in Scotland, Galicia and Constantinople in the 15th Century it is clearly playing to Oliver’s strengths (I’ll admit, I was reading it in his accent in my head…) and he deals with the history as well as I would expect of him. You certainly get the sense of the sounds, smells and sights of the Medieval world and lots of action to boot. My only real quibble with the whole book was that every time the main character, John Grant, was referred to it was by his whole name. I’m sure there was a good reason for this but it was lost on me.
I’m not going to give you the reason why I would class this book as speculative fiction – of the ‘alternate history’ genre – since that would be an enormous spoiler but it is enough of a twist to make this book have appeal beyond the purely historical. The history, however, is well enough researched not to make a historian twitch.
Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is no stranger to the world of speculative fiction – the worlds of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are well-known and, rightly, acclaimed. Atwood herself has been at pains to ensure that these books are not called science fiction (although she has referred to them as social science fiction which seems a fair term to me) and, in fact, one thing that seems to characterise her work is that she doesn’t limit herself to any one genre or style.
The stories in Stone Mattress are like fables or fairy tales – they are very slightly dissociated from what I would define as everyday reality – and yet they are also very real. Many of the stories touch on the experience of aging or, to put it more accurately, on the memories of youth from the perspective of old age. My favourite tale in the whole collection was Torching the Dusties – which was a chillingly dystopic view of what could happen if mob rule demonized the elderly as worthless drains on society – but I would also heartily recommend the rather macabre The Dead Hand Loves You. All the stories are beautifully written, of course, and shot through with all the wit and wisdom you would expect from Atwood.