Book Review: Hopeless Maine by Tom and Nimue Brown (this review originally written for Pagan Dawn

Hopeless Maine by Tom and NImue Brown

Procession somber; pageant walked, shuffled, lurching to uncertainty.

This review first appeared in Pagan Dawn magazine.

Hopeless is an island that nobody can leave. Let that sink in; it’s a deeply layered bit of worldbuilding, and it’s reflective of the style of this book. Simple on the surface, yet with leviathans beneath.

On the surface, the story is of an orphan trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs: a common enough tale. Except the orphan is Salamandra, who’s not even sure what she is; she has magic, but she’s not witch material and the most likely option after that in Hopeless is monster. The strange and unfriendly world that she’s trying to navigate is full of mist and seabeasts and ghosts and ancient weirdness. She’s also quite happy to be an orphan, thanks.

With Hopeless, Maine Tom and Nimue Brown have created a world with a deep well of mythology, eerie and beautiful. It has a resonance similar to a fairytale or a legend (there is many a reference to spot). The artwork is exquisite – you could take any page, hang it on a wall and still find new things to look at weeks later – and the interplay between words and image and theme is incredible. I noticed that the book begins in plain black and white, fades into almost sepia with colour washes and bleeds into muted colour by the end. It gave me the impression of a fog gradually lifting.

There’s a sweet and biting sense of humour that runs through the entire book. There are invisible friends and demons and unhappy reverends and normal people trying to live their lives in truly extraordinary circumstances, and sometimes you can tell which is which. There is, against all logic, hope.

I could say a great deal about this book, but I do not have the space so what I will tell you is that I cried both times I read it and that I am planning to read it again. Because sometimes the world feels like a hopeless and inescapable place without sunlight, and how wonderful to see on page such an honest and imaginative tale of working through that. And one that made me laugh too!

I want to know more about every single character because they all seem to live very full lives beyond the pages. I want to puzzle over every odd end of myth that I picked up and laugh at the cooking classes. And I want more of Salamandra, persistently carving out a space for herself with charm and stubbornness.

Rating: read this book. Don’t make eye contact with the beasties.

Get more Hopeless on the blog here.

Book Review: When We Are Vanished by Nimue Brown

When We are Vanished by Nimue Brown, art by Tom Brown

No corpse.

This is a book with serious depth. I am already fifty pages into my second read of it, because I just know that there are things I didn’t quite get the first time round. When We Are Vanished is a beautiful, quietly kaleidoscopic piece of work. It has the feeling of a fever dream just before waking, when sleep logic and waking logic meet for a few moments. It also has a wonderful, sometimes sharp sense of humour that runs through the entire book and that had me chortling to myself at more than one point.

The story is set in a world where computers stopped working. In fact, all silicon-based tech is now useless. Most of the plot takes place some years after this has become the norm, and everything is crumbling away and being reclaimed by nature. The remaining people soldier on through the new normal, and rarely talk about what is happening. They do not, for example, talk about the people who vanish and leave nothing behind. They don’t talk about what happened. The new technology is based on tree cells, and it works pretty well except for when it really doesn’t. The whole set up is fantastically, oddly believable.

Amanda, Maria, Kim and Epona are our main characters. And oh my, did I love them! Not one, not two, not three but four female leads, who are related to each other (Amanda is the mother of the other three), and who are all very different people caught up in the same mystery. Having that amount of female leads was very exciting, especially because they had history with each other. It made me realise how rare it is to have family relationships between women that are central to the story. And their relationships were central; were up close and personal and included all the kinds of mess that comes with family even before we dig into the extra mess that happens when there are time loops and people vanishing and a possibly-prophetic self-help book.

There are other characters: Col: a driven, perhaps slightly mad scientist with a steam-powered car; Jerry: who should be less charming; Tish: a little bit mysterious. The book, How to Improve Your Life – the Merrily Method, felt rather like a character in its own right; a slightly ridiculous, increasingly threatening character who nevertheless meant well (or tried to). And the plot…. Well, it’s hard to review without spoilers, but I will say that it is delightful! It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered such an original take on time travel, and it was exciting to read something nearing science fiction that had nature so close to its heart. There are images that stick and scraps of sentences that refuse to leave. It reminded me, in some ways, of Woman on the Edge of Time: there’s this slight uncertainty about whether the world has gone mad, the character has gone mad, whether the world and the character are even separate or if it matters. When I got to the end, I turned straight back to the beginning to read it again.

As I said at the beginning, this is a work with some serious depth to it. If at all possible, I’d recommend reading it in one sitting (it’s 286 pages). It’s a very atmospheric work, with the slower pace that tends to accompany that, and you do have to actually think about things. However, if you’re interested in thoughtful speculative fiction that has some very interesting ideas about reality as well as strong characters and the single most hilarious interrogation scene that I’ve ever come across, this is for you.

Pretty much my only criticism is that the proofreading was a bit poor, and that’s a shame because it takes attention away from the writing (which is wonderful). Personally, I can soldier through bad proofreading when the writing itself is good, but I know some people find this really difficult. It’s a really personal thing, so I’m just going to say that I think it’s worth it.