Fir Lodge, Sean McMahon

Like a lot of snfal concepts the time travel conceit has been knocking around for, uh, some time now. It’s perhaps older than most, having been popularised by Wells almost 120 years ago. Even the space opera genre is forty years its junior. 

So how do you make something that has been done, time and time again, across pretty much every medium you might imagine, feel fresh? One way to answer that question is to look at pop culture, the entertainment realm of a globalised mass consumerist social sphere, which in its pathologic aversion to risk must continually devise ways to sell us the same stories we flocked to before. Pop culture in 2019 regurgitates itself endlessly, outpacing parody and much satire: another new Spiderman trilogy, PC Music, JK Rowling’s twitter account as retcon feed, another remake of an 80s franchise that nobody asked for because it’s safer than ‘a new IP’, an endless procession of copy-pasted retro-futurist aesthetics. 

Pop culture permeates our existence, and the way it eats itself and is continually reborn is not solely the preserve of creators and corporate owners. The products of popular culture also command our attention and propagate in the form of memes. Images structure jokes by way of their source and are shared online at lightning speed. Quotes become soundbites, their deployment a game between those in the know. Pseudoprivate languages form within communities and between friends, a series of shared signifiers of personal significance, but which might as easily be recognised by an outsider as leave a loved one bemused. Contemporary popular culture is, after all, a battleground; not of ideology but of franchises warring for attention, for eyeballs, for ad dollars and disposable income. 

All of which is a rather long-winded way to acknowledge the many complicated ways in which pop culture permeates and structures society and social interaction in 2019. And this is done to contextualise a simple statement: if you find yourself irritated by the idea of pop culture references liberally distributed throughout a text, for no other reason than a protagonist really, really defines themselves by pop culture, Fir Lodge may not be for you. 

For me, this voice honestly resonates with me. Full disclosure: Fir Lodge‘s author and I went to school together, shared ill-advised teenage adventures together, watched movies and got drunk and pined over girls together. We shared some few of our formative years, and so I see a little of the private language we shared reflected in protagonist Hal’s particular obsessions and personality. And okay, McMahon hasn’t found a way to insert the phrase “I’m gonna be a naughty Vampire God” into his first novel – which will haunt me to my grave – but what he has done in my biased reading is make of Hal an unashamed and charming pop-culture sponge. You don’t have to squeeze hard for that pop culture to seep out, and it’s also been so thoroughly absorbed that it structures his problem-solving approaches too. Hal benefits from a foil in the form of partner-in-crime Kara, who is mildly exasperated and performatively unimpressed by Hal’s quirks for much of their time together. 

That’s a lot about pop culture given that I’m writing about a time travel story. I feel it’s necessary. Although Fir Lodge says little directly on the subject, the way Hal and a few others in his friend circle share and reflect pop culture so deeply in their personalities rings true to me. It’s an unironic presentation of contemporary Western culture that for better or worse feels closer to my lived experience as a child born in the 1980s than a lot of fiction manages. This left me reflecting on the way consumerism infiltrates our lives so deeply. The political adult in me sees in this the way capital’s ideomemes sink deep roots into our psyches, our imaginations just another frontier for late capitalism to conquer so as to establish a revenue stream. The kid in me sees stories that inflame our imaginations, that enrich our lives and help us understand how to navigate and tolerate living amid the ceaseless discharge of hellworld capitalism (hey, it’s 2019 after all and innocence is long dead). Stories and fond memories that we love, and love to share. Both interpretations can be true. 

Seriously, though, if pop culture references vex you, steer clear. There’s a costume party where people come as Ghostbusters, The Mask (you know, from The Mask) and in a Facejacker costume; not one chapter goes by where Hal can’t be found quoting something – even if it’s a two-word line like “punch it!” – and it’s usually a sci-fi movie. TVtropes contributors would have a fucking field day with this book. On the other hand, if a bunch of what you just read above strikes you as pseudo-academic twaddle, don’t sweat it: that’s me reading the novel, not the novel itself. And congratulations on sticking with me. I’m gonna talk about the novel now.

The time travel element – which is gonna get short shrift in this review I’m afraid, as I just have less to bring to the table here – runs with the conceit that time gets reset at the end of every period. It’s more Run Lola Run than Groundhog Day, as Hal and Kara learn that by making minute changes to the past they can affect the future. This often goes wrong in violent, hilarious, stupid and tragic ways, and a lot of the fun of Fir Lodge’s storytelling is in seeing how these two characters – one basically raised by movie wolves – test and define the rules of their environment. Each restart also resets everything, which gives protagonists and author room to breathe with their experimentation. 

There is an antagonist against whom Hal and Kara must also test themselves. The most fun element of the antagonist for me was an early fake out moment that evoked a genuine laugh; the character itself gets little opportunity to demonstrate depth beyond central casting psycho, but I can live with that. He’s an important piece of Fir Lodge but the novel wouldn’t particularly benefit from delving into his motivations. 

The novel is overlong at 550 pages and a good quantity could’ve been trimmed away without losing much; part of that could have come from an over-large supporting cast most of whom don’t get much to do at all. Despite the flab it’s a brisk and breezy read, with competent pacing once it hits its stride almost 90 pages in. I will concede that the substantial time devoted to set-up pays some dividends once the story gets stuck into its restarts, but it’s a fair investment to ask of a reader before the story really gets going. 

Making that investment of time is certainly helped by the occasionally bristling energy and genuine warmth of the narrative here, and an easy humour that feels natural. The story’s structure works nicely around the idea that its protagonists accept and are knowingly working out the rules of their predicament, based on the same information available to the reader, and twists and revelations are doled out such that the story never loses its forward momentum, even if Hal and Kara themselves sometimes do. 

As I’ve made clear, I’m hugely biased and you won’t get any pretence toward objectivity from me. Still, the criticisms and warning are as honest as the praise, and to get even more honest I’m just plain proud of my buddy and his first novel. And yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Vignette #4

I suddenly become aware that I am being watched, and glance to my right. Sitting on a rock I see a short, stocky figure with dappled skin like coral lichen: Farrah. I frown. 

“Spying again, Farrah?”

Farrah laughs. “That, coming from the Glade’s most notorious people-watcher? Your mooning over Emmaline is on the lips of every dullbrain with nothing better to occupy their thoughts.” 

I notice, though, that she looks away when she speaks of Emmaline. 

“Anyway,” she says, glancing back toward me. “You looked deep in thought. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

I shrug. “You have me there. I was thinking about the Cathedral again.” 

“Of course you were.” She laughs. “You’ve only two things on your mind, after all.”

I don’t say anything. I just look back out to sea. For a while the only sound is of waves lapping at the shore, their irregular rhythm – shh-shh, shhhhh, shh-shh, shhhhh – a soothing susurrus. A gentle breeze stirs the thin leaves of the trees at our backs. 

I think about the Cathedral, that drowned old place about which no one cares any longer. I think about Emmaline, and her beauty, and her manifest disinterest in me. I think about the Glade, and our community’s inability to think beyond what it can see and touch. I think about Farrah, who is still looking at me, and I feel a sudden flush of anger. 

“I’m going back there tomorrow,” I decide, then and there. 

Out of the corner of my eye I see Farrah shake her head out. “Tomorrow the migration passes. The whole Glade will be out collecting crabs. The Elders won’t be happy.” 

I don’t acknowledge her. “And this time, I’m going inside.” 

The Meg, Steve Alten

A part of me is inescapably, incorrigibly fond of aquatic monster stories. It’s the same part of me that’s drawn to cinematic creature features. Coupled with childhood affection for gigantic dinosaurs and childhood exposure to endless photos from my parents’ scuba diving trips, this fondness is why I enjoy literary junk food like Peter Benchley’s The Beast, a follow-up to Jaws starring a gigantic man-eating squid, and Deep Rising, an extremely 1990s action-horror flick starring a bunch of scenery-chewing stereotypes and a panoply of gigantic man-eating tentacle monsters. 

This melange of bad taste lead me to a copy of Steve Alten’s The Meg, the 1997 novel behind, uhhh, Last Summer’s Soonest To Be Forgotten Cheap Blockbuster. And holy crap, it’s bad. 

That’s obvious, right? It’s a book about a giant prehistoric shark that somehow survives into the present day, and is set loose – by the hubris of man! – on an unsuspecting humanity. I don’t particularly want to tell you how bad it is. This is writing that aims for Crichton and Benchley but fumbles its grip, drops the harpoon gun and falls in the sea. The prose isn’t enjoyably crap; it’s just turgid, clumsy, pedestrian, and from the first moments with its cast of unlikable middle-class Americans and Naval archetypes you know what you’re in for. It’s fine. Most of them are going to get eaten. 

What really stuck in my mind and craw, like a minisub slipping down the gullet of a megalodon, are Alten’s efforts to capture the slippery personalities of those creatures far stranger to him than prehistoric fish. That’s right: women! Rarely have I read a book that so perfectly articulates a certain worldview: one directed toward the emotionally violent, needy, unpredictable, manipulative personality voids that are biology’s love interests.

The Meg has two female characters. One of them is the jilted protagonist’s wife, of course, who’s literally trying to ruin his credibility in the press, and of course has a character arc that inexorably terminates in near-simultaneous reconciliation and sharkbait. The other is the feisty young daughter of the protagonist’s rich Japanese pal, whose personality oscillates hilariously between pretty much every emotional extreme, but consistently directed towards the Barry Sue non-entity we’re supposed to be rooting for. (I can’t recall his name, but it can’t possibly be as funny as the protagonist of Benchley’s The Beast, who is named Whip Darling. Whip Darling!)

Obviously, the Barry Sue and the emotional oscilloscope get together at the end, because what’s creepy about a middle-aged American Naval divorcee getting together with a much younger Asian woman? Their moment of romantic union is every bit as sudden, forced and unconvincing as the obligatory passionate kiss in the Any Summer’s Soonest To Be Forgotten Cheap Blockbuster this book clearly always wanted to be. 

Apparently there are about half a dozen entries in The Meg book series, all about Megalodons coming back to eat everything. One of these was bundled with my ebook, titled The Meg: Origins, and it recounts the protagonist’s backstory. The one from the novel you’ve just read. As a metaphor for pointlessness it is rich. I did not read Origins, given that everything of possible substance in both plot and character development is revealed by the 50th page in the preceding novel, and indeed was quite obvious from the outset anyway (of course he saw a Megalodon down there, in that terrible incident seven years ago!). 

I rate The Meg 0 out of 5 nitrous-fuelled minisubs bursting out of giant sharks, and recommend this 1997 review in the LA Times instead, in which a shark expert appalled to be credited by The Meg’s author as a research source dissects the novel’s appalling science. You might also enjoy the novelist’s petulant response, and the hilariously scathing response to that from the only true hero here: an annoyed marine biologist. 

Vignette #3

At this depth, in this place, the lack of visibility stifles you. Sometimes I think it’s like the surface air when night closes in and thick cloud cover shrouds the moons and stars from the night sky, and there are no fires breaking the fabric of the night. But that doesn’t quite fit, because the colour is not the same. Or the absence of colour. You know?

The source of the light surrounding you is no longer discernible, and the particulate in the water is thick enough, the limited distance your eyes can penetrate through that fug, is such that you can’t tell up from down. Everything is just the same gritty grey-green.

You have your other senses, of course. The air pockets in our bodies, our natural ballast, tug us just-so towards what must be the surface. Our skin, that sensitive organ, can sense slight gradations in temperature – and here where the currents barely flow, downwards is forever cold.

And then there’s the weak sonar we possess, though the elders warn us against its use in open water. I know that I could belch out a ping and I know that a few hundred feet below me I’d perceive my destination, its shape imprinted in my brain in those rough echoes. But I don’t, because I was raised well, and because I know where I’m going.

And of course because I’m afraid. Deathly afraid, as any youth who lives beyond youth must be, of the creatures which were born and grew and fed and bred and died a thousand times over, long before our kind ever felt the touch of this world’s boundless seas. The creatures which hunt below.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge

In the first chapter of her book Eddo-Lodge recounts a story from 1919, seven months after the end of the First World War. In Liverpool, where post-war employment opportunities were scarce, a hundred black factory workers lost their jobs without warning. White workers refused to work with them. The same month “a Caribbean man was stabbed in the face by two white men after an argument over a cigarette”. Street fights and police raids of black homes followed, culminating in the tragic death of a twenty-four-year-old seaman called Charles Wootton. A white mob threw him into the water and, as he attempted to swim to safety, he was pelted by bricks until he sank. In the following days, white mobs marched the streets of Liverpool. 

Later in that same chapter we read of Guy Bailey, a nineteen-year-old Jamaican man. In 1963 a local youth worker arranged a job interview for him with the Bristol bus service, having first confirmed that jobs were available and that Bailey possessed the necessary qualifications. On arrival, as Bailey recounted in a BBC interview almost fifty years later, he heard the Bristol Omnibus Company’s receptionist tell the manager “your two o’clock appointment is here. But he’s black.” The manager’s response was “Tell him we have no vacancies here.” 

What makes Bailey’s story more remarkable – in that it stands out from a long, grinding history of such racism – is what followed. A local group had helped arrange that interview, and after its denial they arranged a press conference, and gathered support and sympathy from local students, politicians and press. Despite this, Guy’s experience and the group who championed his cause were ignored by the Transport and General Workers’ Union as well as the bus company itself. These two groups, ostensibly defined by a dynamic which pitted them against one another, were united by racism. Eddo-Lodge writes: “Racism had infected worker solidarity, with a union representative at the time insisting that more black workers would be taking away jobs for prospective white employees”. 

The campaign continued for several months and included a boycott of the bus service by the city’s West Indian community. On August 27th, 1963 – the day before Martin Luther’s famous “I have a dream speech” halfway across the world – five hundred employees of the bus service met and agreed to discontinue their unofficial colour bar. This was rapidly affirmed by the bus service’s general manager. It was a victory, but one over antagonist organisations which have not, to this day, apologised for what Bailey experienced. 

~

The first chapter of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is titled ‘Histories’. It begins with the author’s admission that “most of my knowledge of black history was American history. This was an inadequate education in a country where increasing generations of black and brown people continue to consider themselves British (including me).” The stories of Wootton’s lynching and the 1963 Bristol bus strike are not widely known. And another result of widespread British ignorance of our country’s history of racism is that it lends itself to exceptionalist thinking. 

One example of this is the British notion that Britain’s record on the slave trade is better than most countries, whether because it led the way on abolition or still more spurious reasons. Another is the idea that – perhaps because historical Civil Rights movements in the USA were so prominent, perhaps because the post-Emancipation Proclamation horror stories of racist violence and murder in the US are quite widely taught, or perhaps a variety of other historical and contemporary reasons – that racism in the twentieth century has been largely an American problem in the Anglophone world. Yet another is the prominence of “colourblind” thinking that, in presupposing a ‘post-racial’ society, blinds itself to actually existing racism (an illustrative example of this outside the Anglophone world can be found in Salvage.zone’s interview with Selim Nadi of the French Parti des Indigènes de la République). 

To put it concisely, by “eclipsing the black British story so much … we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.” So in part this book attempts to be a corrective to such high-handed and superficial grasps of history. We begin with an exploration of black British history because that is where Eddo-Lodge herself began. And as good readings of history inevitably do, they guide our understanding deeper into new avenues of thought. We see how racism does not manifest from thin air, and is rather “in the very core of how the state is set up”. 

~

In the chapters following ‘Histories’ Eddo-Lodge patiently unpacks, in clear and precise language, other concepts and areas of thought that are significant in holding an informed understanding of what race means in Britain today. 

‘The System’ explores the systemic nature of racism in Britain. First the lived reality of this is illustrated with the Stephen Lawrence case and the Macpherson Report’s acknowledgement of the “institutional racism” of the London Metropolitan Police. Then the basic concept of what is meant by “structural racism”, and what it means to those who are subject to it, is outlined. An important breakthrough in any grasp of what racism is lies in grasping this concept, without which the foundations for receiving more sophisticated ideas are weak. ‘What is White Privilege?’ also attempts to define an idea that can be conceptually difficult for white people to grasp: “It’s so difficult to describe an absence …. an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost”. This chapter covers the history of the term, compares it to other ‘invisible’ privileges, and provides personal anecdotes that illustrate the everyday nature of white privilege and its implications in social interaction and discourse. We are given insight into the experience of mixed-race people and how some people have been let down by the “colour-blind” worldviews of their parents. 

‘Fear of a Black Planet’ tackles organised British racism in the form of the National Front, UKIP, the BNP and sundry other short-lived groups. This might be regarded as an easier argument to make, but Eddo-Lodge uses their rhetoric and the fear that motivates or under-girds it to turn the mirror on mainstream organisations, businesses, culture and politics. This includes those who have internalised an identity as socially liberal and anti-racist, but who nonetheless can behave in defensive or reactionary ways when challenged on (often unknowingly) racist statements, opinions or actions. 

‘The Feminism Question’ addresses the importance of intersection between race and feminism in activism, theory and culture, beginning with how the white feminist perspective can be so easily centred and the ways in which this public discourse can be so easily poisoned by a lack of intersectional thought and reflection. Again, both personal experience and broader examples support the patiently articulated argument. This is followed by ‘Race and Class’, an answer to the question “what about class?” that “follows me everywhere I go. In it is an implication that it’s class, not race, that is the true battle to be fought in Britain – and that we have to choose between one or the other. I totally reject this assumption.” Eddo-Lodge breaks down the myth of the “white working class”, arguing strongly against this construction as neither representative of nor beneficial to the people who actually constitute the contemporary British working class, tying it back to the fears described in ‘Fear of a Black Planet’. 

~

The book’s conclusion begins with a student asking when we get to the end point. They mean when racism is dealt with and is no longer a problem. The real conclusion is that there is no such ending, only a constant engagement, for the self a perpetual trying driven by learning and empathy, and for the community constant work to understand and deconstruct “warped power relations”. It’s not an easy or comforting answer, but it is the only honest one. 

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a valuable read whether you are only beginning to learn how to question yourself and how to engage critically with the power structures that surround you, or whether you already consider yourself on that journey. That it is moving and thoughtful as well as valuable only makes my recommendation of it more firm. 

Vignette #2

She waves, the gesture languorous in the soupy sun-warmed waters of the shallows, and smiles. Her exposed teeth are bright-white even through silt and salt. Then she turns her back and pushes away, supple legs braced together to drive wide, powerful finfeet. She vanishes between tall strands of notkelp.

I have to suppress the instinct to give chase. At no point did her eyes, glossblack and warm, turn their gaze toward me. As I wait, unconcealed but not seen on the abandoned calcite halfshell of some long-dead mollusc, I see another supple figure darting forwards, pursuing her into the forest. He’s so fast, so strong that he moves across my vision before I can consciously register who it is. But of course I know.

For a time I sit and watch the strands of notkelp as they sway gently in the currents. Their movements are predictable but without pattern, and as always I’m fascinated by that.

A few minutes after the flirting couple have disappeared, notfish re-appear. They emerge from everywhere and nowhere. Green-skinned grazers detach themselves from notkelp, what was once a single wiry strand suddenly become two. Small silvery shoals of baiters seem to shimmer into perception. A medium-sized scissorfish drifts down from above, huge jaws hanging open and eyes staring dumbly to its sides.

It’s time to head home. With a sigh that expels most of the remaining air from my lungs, I shove myself away from the halfshell. The scissorfish twitches its fins, pivoting gently to get a better look at me with each eye, but for the most part the notfish don’t react. The life here – the life that’s not us, at least – is mostly unfazed by our presence. Not unless we’re moving whipfish-quick, of course. Moving at the speed of hunters, or lovers.

Fleet of Knives, Gareth L. Powell

In ‘Embers of War’, predecessor to ‘Fleet of Knives’, we were introduced to the decommissioned intelligent warship Trouble Dog, which in a former life had been complicit in the destruction of the sentient jungle-world of Pelapatarn. This orbital strike ended the Conglomeration-Outwarder war, perhaps preventing hundreds of thousands of human deaths at the cost of a genocide of planetary proportions. Following this, Trouble Dog renounced its former ties to the Conglomeration navy and joined the House of Reclamation, an organisation devoting its considerable resources to rescue operations throughout human-colonised space. In its journey toward redemption Trouble Dog is joined by Captain Sal Konstanz, a member of the defeated Outwarders who helped rescue some of the few human survivors from Pelapatarn. 

The shadow of Pelapatarn hung heavily over ‘Embers of War’, a space opera expressly concerned with redemption. Trouble Dog muses on its role at Pelapatarn, a time before it imagines it possessed a conscience; about what it is to grieve; about how it is still at heart a warship and what that truth speaks to; and whether its self-reinvention as an instrument to save lives can ever be enough. The Dog’s counterpart in that novel is Ona Sudak, a poet who – it is later revealed – is better known to humanity as Annelida Deal, the Conglomeration officer who ordered the attack on Pelapatarn. Sudak too grapples with her conscience, but for her the question differs. Was what she ordered justified? Were the Conglomeration lives she saved worth the price that Pelapatarn paid? 

The stories of the Trouble Dog and Ona Sudak collide in a star system known as the Gallery, where they independently encounter the avatar of the Marble Armada, a million-strong fleet of dormant alien warships awaiting direction. They assess Sudak and judge her unworthy: she has made no effort to make amends for what she did. But in the Trouble Dog they find a being worthy of awakening them. Seeing a warrior who has turned its back on war, a tool made to take lives which now works to save them, they ask it to give them purpose. The Trouble Dog does so, asking the Marble Armada to prevent a war like that which produced Pelapatarn from ever happening again. 

As this sequel starts, Konstanz and the surviving crew of Trouble Dog are taking time out to collect themselves. The Marble Armada is, for now, placid. Konstanz expects to be discharged from the House of Reclamation following the death of a crew member due to her negligence. Elsewhere in the galaxy, Sudak is on death row, awaiting her execution by firing squad. 

None of this holds. Sudak, resigned to her fate, discovers that others have something else in mind for her. The Trouble Dog and Konstanz are ordered to respond to a distress call from another human ship, the urgency of the situation overriding any other concerns. The Marble Armada breaks its silence, and in the space between stars something else has begun to stir. 

‘Embers of War’ was an enjoyable space opera, at its richest when exploring those themes of redemption through the introspective moments of its well-realised characters, and in how they found solidarity with and experienced conflict between one another. Its story, replete with twists and revelations, was enjoyable though I admit to feeling a little underwhelmed by its unveiling of mysterious alien artefacts and ancient artificial intelligence. Perhaps these are just space operatic themes I’m over-familiar with, and I won’t deny the role the awoken Armada played in that novel’s culmination was a thrill. 

‘Knives of War’ wisely chooses not to revisit thematic ground already trodden, concerned instead with how its cast responds to the aftermath of those redemptive arcs. This is not as neat a theme to summarise and connect between characters, but it certainly makes this second novel in what I assume will ultimately be a trilogy more interesting in its own rights than a lot of awkward middle books. The Trouble Dog revels in regaining a little of its former self. Konstanz can’t escape feeling like she has yet to pay penance for that death-by-negligence. Sudak’s new role reframes her previous arc in a potentially far more horrifying way. 

The sense of mystery and reckoning with the unknown is ramped up. The chapters following a group of survivors aboard a long-abandoned generation ship improve upon the similar plight of Sudak in the warrens of the Gallery, both in terms of their environment and what they are attempting to survive. We learn more about the Marble Armada including why it exists in the first place, and this is significantly more interesting than the deus ex machina role it played in the climax of ‘Embers’. And, of course, there’s that stirring between the stars I mentioned earlier. 

‘Knives’ deftly reframes what came before, weaving fresh stories by recontextualising existing threads, whilst doling out answers and questions in equal measure. It can’t entirely escape the challenges of mid-trilogy plotting, but in its thoughtful development of character and setting amid a significant payload of adventure and threat, it provided me with everything I might have asked for and more. 

Vignette #1

As usual, as soon as Argento walks into the room, he dominates it.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like he tries. He’s not a swaggering lout, loud and belligerent. He’s a presence. There’s a charisma and a commanding air about him. People can’t help but pay attention when he’s there, and damn it, the man is plain likeable.

Argento doesn’t seem to notice that the noise level drops as he walks in. Instead he walks up to the bar and flashes a brilliant smile at the tavern’s owner and his daughter, then flashes a half-sovereign before placing it on the bar.

“Two plates of whatever cooked food you can provide,” he says. Then he raps the coin with a finger, adding “and drinks for everyone in the room for the next hour.” He speaks softly, so the other patrons don’t notice. This is just the kind of thing Argento does.

The tavern owner raises his brows, but picks up the coin and inspects it. “Right you are,” he says. He gestures to the young woman by his side, who has been smiling nervously at Argento since he walked in, to fetch the food. “Who’ll you be eating with, sir?”

Argento’s not nobility, though I can forgive the man for making that assumption. He’s a son of the rising petit bourgeois, once a commissioned officer and bona fide war hero, now a free agent.

He gestures toward me, sat quietly at a small table in the corner of the room, my back toward a wall. He’s not looked at me once since walking in, but again, that’s Argento: he’s observant.

“My friend and I will be dining together. He could do with a refresh on his ale, and I’m parched. Could you…?”

“Of course, sir,” says the owner. The half-sovereign vanishes into the folds of his beer-stained, yeast-smelling clothes. Argento thanks him and turns away. He finally looks to me and nods with a smile, affecting not to notice the way that half the other people in the tavern are suddenly looking very closely at the drinks in front of them.

Yeah. Argento.