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Review - Stamping Butterflies
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lil_shepherd
Because we don't have room for hardbacks or for paperbacks the size of hardbacks, I am always going to be somewhat behind published reviews so...

Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtney Grimwood.

Recently, Jon Courtney Grimwood has climbed to close to the top of my mental list of SF writers I love reading, and to the top of the much shorter list of those writers who make me want to reformat all my attempts to write because I will never be as good.

Before the Arabesk sequence his books were full of fireworks, with ideas spilling from the page in a somewhat uncoordinated display. Perhaps it was me, but they also seemed slightly shallow, and the characters not totally engaging. Pashazade was a revelation. This, his first book after the Arabesk sequence, does not let me down.

In this relatively short book he handles half a dozen major characters, a couple of dozen minor ones, and four related timelines with complete aplomb. No word or character is wasted as each slots neatly into a plot that only becomes clear at the very, very end.

The complexity is already there in the apparently simple but actually multi-layered title, with its immediate ambiguity. Do the butterflies themselves stamp their feet, in which case Kipling is brought to mind, and Solomon and Sheba, and the communication between superior and inferior beings? Or does someone put a stamp on the butterflies? In the novel, butterflies are indeed stamped with a message. Or is someone trying to stamp - with a foot - on butterflies? Again, this is literal in the novel (but can also refer to other behaviours of at least one and probably several characters). And, if this last is the case, 'A Sound of Thunder' is also evoked, and that, too, has relevance.

What's more, those plot strands represent different genres. For a start, there is a perfectly decent mainstream 'literary' strand in the in the story of proto-punk rocker/spoiled rich boy Jake Razor, hippy-chick manager Celia, and their relationship with two local Moroccan kids (Moz and Malika) growing up in the underworld of Marrakech between 1969 and 1977. Then there is the thriller set sometime in the near future, with the attempted assassination of the US president who is a lot like Clinton, only cleverer and an ex-film star, followed by the capture and interrogation of the would-be assassin. While there are SF elements in this thread, there are no more than might be found in any modern day thriller.

Then there is the 'hard' SF strand, with the discovery of a sort of Dyson sphere, and a 'first contact' story, if an alien can be said to make 'first contact' with a dead man. And if what becomes 'The Library' is truly an alien and not a construct.

Finally, there is the story of the civilization that grew from that discovery, and the function of the 'Emperors' and the personal rebellion of the latest in that line... not to mention the girl who billions follow in an ultimate reality show as she journeys to try to kill him. Here the old Chinese Imperium is recreated in scrupulous detail, with added tasks out of legend. It could almost be 'Hero'.

All these plot lines are linked, and not always in the way you first think. They weave together into an ending that is deeply satisfying on a number of levels; that of the last puzzle piece locking into place, that of a new beginning, and... well, never mind. To say more would give too much away.

There is a good deal of violence and gore but, unlike in, say, the novels of Richard Morgan, you never feel that the violence is there for its own sake – or to prove how macho the hero is but all Grimwood's heroes – even Raf, who comes over as a superhero at times – are vulnerable. It's what makes them engaging. Grimwood is also well aware that no-one is a villain to themselves, and this sympathy for even minor and thoroughly nasty characters gets through to this reader at least.

I haven't even mentioned the political satire yet. Or the occasional shaft of wicked humour. Or the spare, immaculate writing style, which never, ever, spoon-feeds the reader. And there is probably a lot more to this book, but that will have to wait for a second reading. For now, this book is:-

Highly recommended.
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That's one I shall have to read. I've enjoyed his Arabesk novels and when reading is physically difficult, only the good books make it onto my list.

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