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Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre, Jonathan Cape, RRP£14.99, 448 pages
Journalist Hermione Eyre’s fiction debut – a pop-historical novel set in 17th-century England – centres on Lady Venetia Digby, a fading beauty desperate to reclaim her looks and social position.
Venetia, once the muse of playwright Ben Jonson, secretly consults Lancelot Choice, an apothecary who claims to be able to restore her youthful beauty and make her more ravishing than her rivals with the use of an illicit tonic extracted from the venom of snakes. Rumours of the potion spread through court in jealous whispers reminiscent of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Viper Wine is a fable about the dangers of vanity in a puritanical era. Eyre’s manipulation of history is as funny as it is surreal – she frequently drops contemporary references (Jeremy Paxman and Jonathan Ross make an appearance at one point) to entertaining effect. It is both thematically and structurally ambitious, though there is a superficiality about the novel’s subject matter and characters that can at times be grating.
Review by India Ross
Black Moon, by Kenneth Calhoun, Hogarth, RRP£12.99, 288 pages
Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon reads like a waking nightmare. An inexplicable epidemic of insomnia has struck the world. None of the usual remedies works, and so people shamble around in a state of abject exhaustion, becoming increasingly deranged and suicidal. The few who can still sink into slumber aren’t safe. If those afflicted with sleeplessness catch them napping, they pursue them in a frenzy of murderous envy.
The book interweaves several storylines – a man searching for his absent wife, a woman who is part of a group of scientists trying to cure the disorder, a girl abandoned for her own safety by her sleepless parents, a college kid struggling to survive – but its preference for character study over action means it doesn’t quite deliver the narrative punch one is hoping for. Calhoun vividly depicts the societal collapse that results when people are no longer able to differentiate dreaming from reality, and his prose is skilled and polished. But, as apocalypses go, this is rather somnolent.
Review by James Lovegrove
Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate, RRP£10, 208 pages
Area X has been an uninhabited environmental disaster zone for 30 years. Eleven expeditions have crossed the border in an attempt to study and map the region. All have met with disaster. Now a 12th team is following in their footsteps.
The team consists of four women, all unnamed: an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and a biologist, the narrator. Finding a subterranean tower covered with strange, fungus-based writing sparks an inexorable descent into paranoia. There are unnatural beasts in this wilderness, and secrets that the expedition’s paymasters have kept from the group.
The first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation owes much to the explorations of psychogeographical landscapes in early JG Ballard and also to the work of the old masters of weird fiction such as HP Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson, with their love of nameless horrors haunting liminal realms. VanderMeer synthesises these influences to create a tale with a deliciously creepy atmosphere of dread.
Review by James Lovegrove