James Brogden's second novel is an imaginative delight... just don't say "steampunk" around Craig
Anyone who's ever attended a creative writing class will have heard that best thing a writer can do before they've written a word is just observe. Although this conjures up visions of neurotics with notebooks, wasting hours on benches, slugging down coffee and scrawling "woman with hat, woman without hat, man with trainers, man in suit", etc, until their wrists snap, there's nevertheless some truth to the tip. All of us, writers or not, are forever observing things. Quite often it's stuff too mundane to bother processing, but it's all in there somewhere, sloshing around just waiting to be given meaning.
James Brogden seems like a writer who's done a fair amount of observing in his time. He has a gift for taking the drab wallpaper that hangs on the periphery of everyday life and turning it into something mindbending. His debut novel, The Narrows, was a phenomenal horror-fantasy that built itself around the geography of Birmingham and - speaking as someone who was born and raised there - I can think of few things that sound as tedious.
However, not only did it draw me in to its incredible story but also ensured I'll never walk down an alleyway in town again without making certain it's not going to lead me down a ley line into a nightmare parallel universe. His second book, Tourmaline, builds on this theme of other worlds existing beyond the familiar one (not to be confused with the "real" one) but here the link lies in dreams and Brogden offers some weird and terrifyingly plausible explanations for the mysteries of the human mind....
We're introduced to the main characters with a pair of striking opening scenes: a beautiful young woman walks into a Birmingham art gallery, puts her hand to a Victorian painting of Eve and watches as the paint starts to move beneath her touch. A man wakes alone on a raft in the middle of an ocean filled with bits of random junk, floating towards oblivion, unable to remember who he is.
How these two stories entwine is a joy to read; there's an urgency to Brogden's prose that keeps the action fast and thrilling, without sacrificing either thematic depth or his knack for an evocatively British atmosphere ("Seagulls wheeled like windborne litter in a sky the colour of lead"). He sculpts the magical aspects of the book so subtly that you'll find yourself wondering if there was ever a time when words like "dreamwrack" and "worldpool" weren't part of your natural vocabulary. As we come to understand the meaning of the Tourmaline Archipelago - the story's surreal setting - and how it weaves into reality as we know it, the journey is unpredictable, exciting and ultimately very moving.
Although we're treated to hideous tentacled monsters, adorable fish-people, eerie glowing angels, megalomaniac goggle-eyed baddies and even hints of Steampunk that didn't bring me out in hives (no mean feat), Brogden's at his most powerful when he examines the dramatic heart of the story; our own mortality. He looks death in the face and emerges with a deeper appreciation for the preciousness of life.
Tourmaline is so conceptually vast that it could easily have been an epic novel or even a long-running comic series. At a lean 320 pages, it occasionally feels like there are too many ideas for its covers to hold inside. Every once in a while, it stretches itself too far and will rush blindly through an idea that a lesser writer might've got a whole book out of, which is as impressive as it is frustrating. A couple of times I felt myself wanting to shout "No! Wait! I wanted to know about THAT THING!" and there were other scenes so outlandish I couldn't even attempt to get a mental handle on them before they'd gone ('The Swarm' being one particular chapter that baffled me as to how it was working). However, these feel like they're misfiring with feverish ambition rather than failing through lack of effort or vision.
The gripes are minor and infrequent though. There's a natural levity to Tourmaline that brought to mind Neil Gaiman at his most playful (ie: "La Belle Dame de Merci" asylum - affectionately known as "Beldam"!), yet this nestles alongside dark unflinching fantasy violence that wouldn't be out of place in Clive Barker's Books of Blood. Like Christopher Priest, Brogden treats his twin realities as something of a logic puzzle but he isn't afraid to go full cosmic and explore the abstract, at times reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's masterly Book of the New Sun. These are heavyweight comparisons so early in a writer's career; a testament to the kind of talent and imagination on offer here.
If you like fantasy and yearn for an intelligent, meaningful new voice, dip your toes into the turquoise waters of Tourmaline. Just be aware that next time you're out observing, you might start to see a few rather more unsettling things that weren't there before. Oh, and do watch out for the floating sensor buoys...
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