The Alchemy of Blood

The Alchemy of Blood: a scientific romance by Brian Stableford. Review by Sally Startup.

In this alternate Nineteenth century, doctor Mathieu Galmier is secretly researching an essence of beauty.

Aware that scientific discovery inevitably comes at a price, Mathieu allows others to pay it. He is not noble, or altruistic, or even especially determined. Nevertheless, he does have more of a conscience than his patient, Sir Julian Templeforth. Sir Julian is an aristocrat, raised to exploit those less fortunate than himself. Mathieu, on the other hand, is reflective, questioning the morality of his own actions, even when acting badly. I did not find him likeable, but he certainly comes across as very human.

The scientific knowledge that develops as a result of these characters’ actions is haphazard, containing accidents and mistakes. For this reason, it is also believable. The alternate scientific history uncovers links with mysticism. Mathieu’s explorations pose many questions for which the characters find no definitive answers. Can love make people more beautiful? Is there such a thing as inner beauty? And can scientific exploration by dubious and unethical means ever be justified by positive long-term consequences?

The wealthy and the ruling classes will benefit from the work of scientists like Mathieu, along with other experimenters like the Rosicrucians. Some positive changes will result, just as there are some positive changes in the lives of Mathieu’s accomplices and victims in this book. Those characters who are allowed a long enough life span, are able to share and learn, and grow and develop. Yet it is not a comfortable tale. I am looking forward to re-reading some of Brian’s other novels about emortality in the light of this one.

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The Pool of Mnemosyne

The Pool of Mnemosyne by Brian Stableford, published by Hollywood Comics 2018, review by Sally Startup

This is a most satisfying conclusion to the series of books which began with The Wayward Muse. The previous stories are elaborated on, and the various threads within them are drawn together into a greater construction.

Axel Rathenius has lived for a very long time. His knowledge and his art are built on a great many memories. On the island of Dionysus, he has learned much that is new to him. He now enjoys a pleasant relationship with Mariette. However, he is dissatisfied with his painting, and his subject, Elise is not happy with her music. It is not long before they are both recalled to Mnemosyne. Axel has received a very worrying message from Hecate Rain.

On Mnemosyne, characters reappear from the earlier books in the series. A surprise connection is revealed between the Dellacrusca twins and Eirene Magdalena, the morpheomorphist. Axel begins to acknowledge his true responsibilities. He continues to work on a painting inspired by Hecate’s poem about fallen petals in the pool of Mnemosyne, to which he has decided to add a portrayal of  the goddess Ananke. Meanwhile, as hierophant of the cult of Dionysus, he expects to stand against the Marquise de Mesmay, who has taken on the leadership of the cult of Orpheus.

Such things as steamships, seismographs and telegraph apparatuses are now becoming increasingly common across the Empire. The leader of the cult of Dionysus, usually known as Madame, is well aware that all such instruments may have both magical and scientific uses. Yet it falls to Axel Rathenius to attempt to protect the people of Mnemosyne when danger threatens. His art, sorcery and wisdom eventually conspire to create an ending which is both truthful and inspirational.

 

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Spirits of the Vasty Deep

Spirits of the Vasty Deep by Brian Stableford Published by Snuggly Books  March 2017

Review by Sally Startup

What happens in this novel could be taken entirely metaphorically, or as serious and enlightening science fiction. There is also an element of contemporary fantasy based on historical folklore. I am not particularly concerned about categories of genre, so I read it in all of those ways, and more.

Simon Cannick, an eccentric writer, moves to North Wales and discovers a previously unknown personal history. Simon has always felt himself to be unusual. He also seems to have a propensity to be kind. Being kind can be hard, courageous work, requiring purposeful effort.

Simon’s new community do not exactly welcome outsiders, in spite of the fact that most of the local properties are let as holiday homes. However, with the assistance of the Reverend Alexander Usher; a lady of ill repute called Megan; and a raven named Lenore, he soon discovers that the strangest residents of all may not even be human. He becomes quite intimate with some extremely elderly women, and he converses with a ghost.

As a writer, Simon is familiar with that which is normally hidden. Some of his work has explored this in detail. He now finds himself in a situation that seems to come straight out of Welsh folklore. It also parallels much that he already knows from his own studies of French folklore. Feeling himself to be inside a story he could almost have written himself, Simon begins to fear that he has actually entered the world of an entirely alien author. As he considers all this, his thoughts provide some fascinating exposition about the processes of reading and writing.

Simon may lack confidence in his own writing ability, but his story contains layers and layers of intrigue for serious readers to dive into. Encompassing Simon’s experience is a far wider story concerning what humans know, and cannot know, about the ecosystems of the Earth.

 

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Further Beyond

Further Beyond, by Brian Stableford. Published by Wildside, 2017

Review by Sally Startup

In a novel that takes places shortly after the events of H. P. Lovecraft’s story, ‘From Beyond’, another chilling tale develops.

Crawford Tillinghast’s house and its contents have been left to his estranged widow, Rachel. Tillinghast’s friend, who was also the narrator of Lovecraft’s tale, tells the reader more about himself in this one.

The police have given up searching for Tillinghast’s missing servants, and have accepted that David, the narrator, did not murder his best friend. David would prefer not to return to the scene of the tragedy, yet finds himself unable to refuse Rachel’s request for his help.

It turns out that the damaged remains of Tillinghast’s terrifyingly uncanny machine are of huge interest to other scientific and occult investigators. In order to protect Rachel from the unscrupulous attentions of three such men, David agrees to return to the house. There, after enduring an apparent attack of migraine while trying to understand Tillinghast’s previous researches, and in fear of what could happen if the machine were to fall into the wrong hands, David takes an incredible risk.

Out beyond the known boundaries of scientific knowledge, our actions might easily have consequences too terrible for most of us to contemplate. Through his own exploration of knowledge, David reaches a position in which he has to make a horrifying choice. The result is hauntingly poignant.

 

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The Tangled Web of Time

The Tangled Web of Time, by Brian Stableford. Wildside Press 2016.

Review by Sally Startup.

Every ten years or so, Jimmy McKinnon has attempted to break out of the prison of his everyday consciousness. To do so, he has always sought help from Mark, his ‘astrological twin’ and the the narrator of this novel. And although Mark wants to say no, he has always ended up getting involved.

Now Jimmy, through his fieldwork in ethnomedicine, has obtained a new psychotropic drug. He also has a new accomplice, with whom he has been exploring metempsychosis and transanimation. The time has come for Mark to truly consider his own desires, and to examine the tangled web of time from his own perspective.

Under the influence of Jimmy’s new drug, his lover, Christiane, appears to channel Sosipatra of Ephesus, thus reaching back in time. Mark’s own past in relation to Jimmy is revealed in flashbacks as the novel progresses. The tangled narrative is cleverly controlled all the way through, until its interesting resolution. Background concerns about the ethics of ethnomedicine in the context of commercial research are also explored.

Mark cannot really ever be a detached observer of Jimmy’s experiments. He is vulnerable to delusion in the same way as everyone else. So what Mark experiences is open to a variety of interpretations; And what makes this novel so fascinating is that Mark’s very scepticism allows for the existence of any, or all of them.

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The Mirror of Dionysus

The Mirror of Dionysus, by Brian Stableford. Hollywood Comics 2016.

Review by Sally Startup

A further sequel to The Wayward Muse and Eurydice’s Lament, The Mirror of Dionysus clears up some mysteries introduced in the earlier books, as well as bringing in some new and very fascinating possibilities.

Axel Rathenius seems to have lost some of the arrogance he appeared to display in The Wayward Muse. Or perhaps he is just more self-aware. Given his true age, this is understandable.

He finds himself entangled in some political consequences of the traumatic events described in Euridyce’s Lament. It falls to him – along with Mariette, who has previously been muse to a different painter, and Elise, a musically talented child – to join in a ritual that may help to prevent further harm. When they look into the Mirror of Dionysus, they have been told to expect visions of their true selves. Axel, being a great artist, sees far more than his own face.

This story might encourage imaginative readers to think about how myths are used, and why. In my earlier review of the Wayward Muse, I described the fictional island of Mnemosyne as a place I enjoyed escaping to. In The Mirror of Dionysus, Axel Rathenius is required to use his art to political effect more widely than he did in the earlier books. Escape can lead to freedom. And reading for escapist purposes is always a useful way to illuminate the stories of our own lives.

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The Portals of Paradise

The Portals of Paradise, by Brian Stableford. Wildside Press 2016.
Review by Sally Startup

A playful novel, narrated by Gabriel, an aspiring playwright on his Grand Tour. Having already spent some time in Paris, where he attended many plays and also fell in love, he has recently arrived in Venice. It is the mid Eighteenth-century, at the time of Carnival, only ten years before the festivities will be abolished under Austrian rule. Gabriel is especially interested in the commedia dell’arte, and also admires Carlo Goldoni, Carlo Gozzi and Molière.
Not long after arriving in Venice, Gabriel stumbles, quite literally, on the Devil. The young man is kind to the Devil, who appears to have fallen. The Devil is grateful and offers to return the favour with an invitation to a play. Some time later, after the entanglement of various strands of narrative, it becomes clear that this particular play has great significance to those characters in search of ‘the portals of paradise’.
Having initially perceived Venice as decadent and dispiriting, Gabriel is slowly drawn into a more lively appreciation of its layered complexity. Gradually, his role as detached observer develops into that of a player. However, he has no idea which of the plots slowly revealed to him are the most truthful.
Since the story is told in the form of a novel, Gabriel’s own inner thoughts can be reported at length. As he puzzles over what happens to him, readers may also play imaginatively with ideas of their own. Such activity will remake the story differently for every reader, layering personal interpretations over Gabriel’s narrated thoughts and his retrospective descriptions of events. Characters, narrator, author and reader are all most skilfully encouraged to play together.

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