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End of the World Blues
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Gollancz, 352 pages

End of the World Blues
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Jon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta, and grew up in Malta, England, the Far East and Norway. He has worked as a publisher and a journalist. His novels include neoAddix, Lucifer's Dragon, reMix and redRobe. He lives in London.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: 9Tail Fox
SF Site Review: Lucifer's Dragon
SF Site Review: Felaheen
SF Site Review: Effendi
SF Site Interview: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
SF Site Excerpt: Effendi
SF Site Excerpt: Pashazade
SF Site Review: Pashazade

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

It is always surprising how readable Jon Courtenay Grimwood's novels are. What one remembers from one book to the next are the violence and the complexity; contradictory characteristics in modern fiction, but neither usually associated with limpid prose and crystal-clear storytelling. But with Grimwood you find yourself caught in the enchantment of his fiction until that inevitable moment when something so nasty happens in such clinical detail that you want to look away, only, of course, you can't. There were two such moments in End of the World Blues, shocking mostly because they are accepted with such equanimity by the victim, who is also of course our viewpoint character, that you are tempted to wonder, just for second, if it really is a commonplace for people to have two joints of a finger hacked off.

But the viewpoint character -- in this novel he goes by the name of Kit Nouveau -- is a Grimwood antihero. These are, invariably, characters who move fluidly and knowingly through a world of incredible cultural complexity. Here the scene shifts between Tokyo and a near-future England of crime barons and security services, and Nouveau is so attuned to the currents in both places that he can always act with the minimum of effort and the maximum effect. Yet this precise, almost delicate, cultural empathy is offset by the inevitable human disconnect. Every Grimwood antihero has some trauma, violent or sexual or sometimes both, buried in the past and as a result now moves through the world acquiring human connections but not admitting to any feelings. The novel, therefore, forms a cruel and painful purgatory at the end of which the damaged hero can emerge to admit those unacknowledged feelings.

Nouveau -- the name was adopted during his brief leadership of a band, but it is appropriate -- has more than his fair share of buried traumas: an abusive father, service in Iraq as a sniper during which he killed a child, the death of a friend just as Nouveau was stealing his girlfriend. The fact that the girlfriend was the daughter of Britain's most powerful and fearsome crime family just adds another complication to the mix. As the novel opens, he has somehow found his way to Japan where he runs a disreputable biker bar; is married to a famous potter; and is bedding, in a desultory manner, the wife of a Japanese crime lord. Then, on the same day that a street urchin saves him from an apparent assassination attempt, his bar is blown up and his wife killed. Recovering in hospital he receives the friendly warning that Japan is now too hot for him; at the same time he is commissioned by his former girlfriend's mother. The girlfriend had apparently committed suicide, but now there are suggestions that she may still be alive, and the godmother of British crime wants Nouveau to find her. So, with the urchin in tow, he returns to England, only to find himself embroiled in events as threatening and as mysterious as in Japan.

So far this is a conventional crime thriller of the sort that Grimwood habitually writes. Both of his last two novels, Stamping Butterflies and 9tail Fox, have been powerful thrillers with science fictional elements more or less successfully grafted on.

End of the World Blues is more of the same. In this instance the science fictional element (apart from a near-future setting not discernably different from our world today) comes with the Japanese street urchin, Nijie. She also calls herself Lady Neku, and we see her in the far future as the daughter of one of the powerful families who live in orbital colonies controlling what remains of the world. The structure of this novel mirrors that of Stamping Butterflies, with the contemporary thriller interrupted every few chapters for a further exploration of the distant future, but the future sections work much better this time. The setting is more limited, more thoroughly imagined, more convincing, and the drama played out within what is effectively a futuristic haunted house echoes the contemporary drama in a way that is curiously satisfying. What's more, when it comes to tying the whole thing together at the end, Grimwood carries it off with far more authority than he has managed before, even if the satisfying resolution throws into question once more the whole issue of whether he is actually writing science fiction.

Only a couple of loose ends make us hesitate between the psychological and the science fictional resolution. One of these is what seems to be becoming another Grimwood trademark: the external intelligence that often seems to take animal form. Remember the fox in the Arabesk novels? I am still trying to work out what this might signify, but Grimwood is now doing it often enough to raise serious questions. Are his characters so alienated that they must even externalise some part of themselves in order to function? But what are we to make of the fact that the cat, as it is embodied in this novel, is initially the companion of Nijie, but goes on to appear to Nouveau at a crucial moment?

But in the end, be grateful that the science fiction leaves so many trailing edges. The thriller ties off every single one of its loose ends almost too neatly. Grimwood introduces a bewildering array of plot strands: the bombing of the bar; the search for the old girlfriend; the net cast by criminal families in London, Tokyo and the far future; Nouveau's guilt for so many past misdeeds; a terrorist chief dabbling in the drugs trade; a war within the Yakusa; and all bring physical pain to Nouveau but are tidily resolved on the road to his self-rediscovery. It is the vivid, disordered science fiction that slips out of the author's grip and stops the whole enterprise feeling too controlled to be anything but artifice. And that's a good thing because, in the final analysis, End of the World Blues is Grimwood's best novel by far.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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