CASTLE IN THE AIR by Donald E. Westlake

Castle in the Air
(Hard Case Crime Series #148)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 30th March 2021
ISBN: 9781785657221
— Paperback — 208 pp.


A beautiful woman named Lida from the (fictitious) South African nation of Yerbadoro has come to ‘master criminal’ Eustache Dent with a proposition. Escobar Lynch, the president of her nation has been ousted in a coup. The former dictator faces exile to keep his life, but cannot bring any of the tremendous fortune he has amassed off exploitation of the masses.

Lida has inside information that Escobar has a cunning plan to get his riches outside of the country: smuggling the fortune hidden in the bricks of his castle, an architectural attraction that is being disassembled and shipped to Paris to be reassembled for a special international exposition. Lida wants her people’s money returned to the people, but is willing to split the treasure with Dent, the nefarious thief who might just be able to pull such a heist off: taking a whole castle.

The novel begins with Dent starting to assemble his international group of thieves needed to coordinate such a complicated caper. He enlists a top thief from England, France, Germany, and Italy and instructs them each to recruit goons to help them. Each team is to simultaneously steal the castle blocks (edifices) as they are transported en route to Paris. None of the criminals are too happy about half the spoils going to Lida and back to to Yerbadoro, but Dent assures the team leaders that they will be cheating her out of any money as soon as they are able.

There are a couple problems. First, none of the thieves share a common language, so coordinating proves to be quite a challenging task! A bigger issue is that no one knows with part of the disassembled castle will hold the loot until after all are separately stolen and searched. Once one team discovers their pieces of the structure hold the valuables, what’s stopping them from taking it all and running? Is there any trust among criminals? Or will the fear of being chased by their fellow colleagues be a deterrent against greed? When there’s so much money involved, none of them can manage to say no, and all simply push doubts aside.

As I started reading Castle in the Air I became reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s The Black Adder, particularly a first series episode where the Prince Edmund goes throughout England to enlist the most ruthless bandits and criminals for help in seizing the throne. Things don’t go as planned. After all, you can’t really expect criminals to play well together.

The novel proceeds similarly, with farcical takes on each nation’s thieves that includes silly sounding names and clichéd eccentricities, all for comedic effect. With a fast moving pace the story proceeds through all the introductions and then spends a chapter on the actual theft. Then the really zany aspects of the caper begin, the double, triple, and quadruple crosses between each of the international teams. The humor of idiots trying to deal with the language barriers gets amped up through this all, until things finally settle with the loot ‘won’ by one and the others discovering themselves with unexpected successes of a different kind.

Castle in the Air is a much lighter sort of fare from Hard Case Crime than normal, but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. Just in a different way. There is very little violence, more just inept bumbling. No one dies, they are just humiliated. There is also very little sex or femme fatale type interaction, and brief bits that are present are also mostly played for comedy by poking fun at the stereotypes, and making the playfully seductive language extremely corny.

The success of the novel then is really going to depend on the reader’s potential enjoyment of a silly caper romp. It’s a pulp crime version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It may not be as laugh out loud funny, but some chuckles may come. The other potential interest for Castle in the Air may come for fans of the author. The prolific Westlake first had this novel published in 1980 and it’s pretty much disappeared since then. Hard Case Crime does a great job reissuing forgotten works such as this. It’s certainly not Westlake’s best, or usual kind of offering, but it is a worthwhile quick read, a curiosity worth a rediscover by genre fans.


THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

24581979

The House of Shattered Wings
(Dominion of the Fallen Book 1)
By Aliette de Bodard
Roc Books – August 2015
ISBN 9780451477385 – 402 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Set in an alternate history, late 20th Century Paris that lies in near ruins, The House of Shattered Wings is a dark urban fantasy of competing houses who compete for control of the city. But these houses of noble power set in the ashes of a great apocalyptic conflict are not founded or controlled by humans, but by fallen angels and ancient magic. Once at the top of political influence, House Silverspires is in rapid decline, its powerful founder gone missing decades past, and its current members now targeted by a mysterious, unknown force. As its current leader tries to maintain House Silverspires’ existence, a trio of potent wild-cards fall under its protection: a human alchemist struggling with addiction and escape from past loss, a newly fallen angel, and a strange young man of rare abilities who appears neither human nor angel.
 –
Those who read the major markets for short speculative fiction and fantasy are likely familiar with Aliette de Bodard’s science fiction stories set within her alternate history Xuya Universe. Prior to reading The House of Shattered Wings this is the only writing I really knew her from, so I was surprised to find out the novel I anticipated was a fantasy. (I later learned she does have another alternate history fantasy series of novels from Angry Robot Books). This ignorance actually made me start the novel with optimistic expectation because I was curious to read something from her that I could approach more independently from my previous reading experiences of her SF.
Of her short fiction that I’ve read, I consistently find the stories to be beautifully written. A native French speaker, de Bodard’s English prose is spectacular and her dialogue is generally engaging. Despite this, her stories have been very hit or miss in enjoyment for me. Some pulled in my attention, while others I could just never fully connect with the plot or characters. Reading The House of Shattered Wings I felt similarly. Rarely do I feel so ‘wishy-washy’ over a book. I had a difficult time first getting into the novel, but slowly began to develop some more interest as the story unfolded. Yet, overall I never felt strongly connected to its characters (perhaps due to their being so many), and I found myself strongly regretting the absence of certain elements, while still enjoying fairly well those elements that were present.
 –
Another general way to state all of this: I understand how readers could both really love this book, while also find it a big disappointment despite the obvious quality of the writing and de Bodard’s talent. Because I felt all of this, like a tug-of-war, throughout my reading The House of Shattered Wings. So then, what specifically did I like and what did I feel was missing?
To start with my negative impressions, they stem from the complexity of de Bodard’s universe that she is introducing here. The first volume in a series, it contains a troop of characters of major importance, including multiple protagonists. It is a mashup of several speculative genres while also including a prominent mystery, several angles of romance, and some decent delving into matters of spirituality, culture, and mythology. It is rich and dense: a universe I really want to get to know filled with characters that should become dear to me. But it’s all too much for just this book, the first step in what is to be an even grander series. And despite those statements, I’m going to go on and say that I wished it had something more: a fuller setting. With fewer characters, fewer twists to the plot, and perhaps fewer focused themes there could have been some more room to see more of this post apocalyptic, alternate history Paris that the characters inhabit. Another reader I noticed use the word ‘claustrophobic’, and I think this is apt. The view is so close to the myriad characters that there is little direct sense of the physical world they inhabit.
The added bit of mystery genre to this novel, however, is one factor that really made me enjoy the story, particularly by its closing chapters as I finally also got the plethora of character identities under some type of memory, control. de Bodard incorporates the magic, the fantastic, into the politics of this universe really effectively. Towards another point of the novel’s strengths: I’ve read so many novels where I adore the setup and then become embittered by its ending. While The House of Shattered Wings may try to overdevelop its setup, it does takes all of its plot threads and ties them up satisfyingly well. I finished this pleased with its conclusion, and looking forward to what future books would bring, perhaps with a bit narrower focus.
If you’re familiar with de Bodard’s short fiction, then decisions on whether to read this novel should be easy, particularly if you have strong feelings one way or the other on urban fantasy featuring fallen angels (in a generically spiritual sense). For those unfamiliar with her writing, I suggest you try out some of her short fiction if you are curious, but hesitant, to start a full novel. She has several short stories set within the Dominion of the Fallen universe. Though I haven’t read those – like her other short stories – I suspect they are representative of the high quality of de Bodard’s writing, and also contain style,  plotting, or character that will permit you to judge the ‘fit’ for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, by Sean B. Carroll

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Revolution to the Nobel Prize, by Sean B. Carroll
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN: 0307952339
592 pages, hardcover
Published September 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Having focused on biology and French in college, I was obviously intrigued when I saw the description of this book. Amazingly I hadn’t realize the wealth of connections between these subjects that intersected in the decades from World War II to the Cold War. The achievement of Carroll’s book is that he is able to merge disparate forms into one cohesive, enthralling, and compulsively readable volume. A combination of biography, military history, literary/philosophical history, and science, Carroll somehow makes it all work, focusing on the lives of Camus, Monod, Jacob, and others. Mostly these stories are physically separated, coming together in time and space only briefly. Yet each individual’s separate story is linked together by shared global experiences of political and social strife and coming each, individually to a personal philosophy and pursuit of some passion for their own personal betterment and the benefit of their fellow humans. Camus’ story in terms of his journalism, literature, and Existential philosophy is the most widely familiar, but strikingly similar to the genius and passion displayed by Monod, Jacob, and others through their pursuit of science. For anyone interested in literature, science, or the history of World War II, this is a book I would seek to devour. What sets it apart from a mere history of compelling characters is the inspiration it engenders to fight against situations of injustice and concern that you may see in the world, giving an applicability that transcends any particular historic period or society, one that you can easily see reflected in many issues of politics, science and culture today.

Five Stars out of Five