Review: Philip Terenson – Progenitor (Cold Blood Rising book 1)

Progenitor: Forget what you think you know. There is only one conspiracy. (Cold Blood Rising Book 1)Progenitor by Philip Terenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Progenitor would qualify primarily as science fiction, but reads equally well – if not better – as a thriller. It’s fast-paced, intrigue-ridden, save-the-world writing, pressing all the right buttons to get the reading turning forward one more chapter when he really ought to be getting some sleep. Damn it.

The saving of the world falls upon the shoulders of one man, Cameron. Unfortunate name, but let’s not criticise him for that. Cameron is a journalist who, covering a war in Africa, gets himself blown up and into a coma that lasts six years. When he awakens it is, amongst other things, to the discovery that he’s lived his life telepathically bonded to an intelligent lizard, a throwback from Earth’s history which, along with its brethren, managed to survive the asteroid strike that wiped out the dumber dinosaurs by escaping underground.

As premises go this is far-fetched in the extreme, and Terenson knows it. He handles it as such, undercutting it in the characters’ responses to the revelation, even mocking it through their reactions. Through their acknowledgement of it as a ridiculous premise, Terenson succeeds in making it believable enough for understandable concerns to be suspended in the reader, a dextrous move on the part of the author.

As if evolution-tinkering lizards riding around as passengers in people’s heads wasn’t enough, Cameron also finds himself up against a breakaway group of lizards his unwanted hitch-hiker opposes; a cabal of industrialists who have already taken over the world – and have been in control of it for some time – and the mysterious Lazarus with his companions Mike and Gabby, a well-beyond human trio who could solve Cameron’s problems at a stroke were it not for the fact they have a non-interference policy. In trying to solve the world’s problems, Cameron has as his companions Meg, an ecologically-inclined lawyer; and Yuri, an erstwhile member of Russia’s special services. Oh yes, and briefly at least, the Pope in a night shirt. Don’t ask.

Bar Lazarus as an effectively neutral observer – on Cameron’s side, but only able to offer logistical support – all the other forces are ranged against Cameron in his desire to save the world as much as they are ranged against one another, making for an interesting dynamic. Any cavalry that rides over the hill is pretty-much certain not to have the best interests of the human race at heart, and so Cameron finds himself a desirable pawn in opposition to nearly everyone he encounters, his only protection being his value given the telepathic link with his lizard. He is not a too-unlikely hero given his experiences in war zones as a journalist, but he’s way out of his depth throughout nonetheless.

Everything is nicely balanced for manoeuvres to come when, suddenly – blast it – the book ends, this being the first part of a trilogy, the second and third volumes yet to be published at the time of writing this review. Don’t you hate that? I hate that.

Overall belief is readily suspended, but there are a few challenges along the way. An occasional passage from Cameron’s lizard’s point of view feel like mistakes. We really ought not to be let into the head of something so alien, it becomes way too homely. Meanwhile Lazarus, Gabby, and Mike – for all their superhumanity – have a line in student humour and a tendency to bicker which doesn’t feel quite right. These aren’t serious distractions, but they do present the odd unnecessary challenge. Progenitor is also a work which may have benefited from a tad more scrupulous editing here and there, though that comes down to one or two repetitive errors rather than being a major flaw throughout.

That the most frustrating aspect of the work, though, is its leaving this reader high-and-dry for want of the sequel volumes is the most telling issue. Progenitor is a work worth reading well beyond its end.

Review: Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency #1)

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency  (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency #1)The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a township in Botswana, an man lies dying of a malignancy he contracted through working in the mines in his earlier years. He has put aside money, husbanded it well, invested in cows equally well-husbanded, and now he is about to pass it all on to his daughter so she can open a small shop. She proudly tells him she intends opening a detective agency. The man is surprised, is about to say something – but then he is gone, and so the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is born.

Mma Ramotswe is its owner. She is a plump woman, a pragmatic woman, a lover of life and the land in which she lives. She is cheerful in the face of the problems that confront her, ever-optimistic, innocent without being naive. It is, all in all, pleasant to be in her company.

This is an amiable work, a quaint work that drifts whimsically around the life of Mma Ramotswe and the nation of Botswana. In its drifting it is unpredictable. We are given Mma Ramotswe’s father’s experiences as a miner first-hand in an intrusion that doesn’t intrude because there is no pattern to the work. It goes where it pleases in short tales, sometimes even brief anecdotes which seem to serve no purpose whatsoever. Through it all relationships build, the Detective Agency does well for itself and things progress, but there is no real plot, just as life has no real plot. There is no story arc in the day-to-day, only a scatter of events, and yet somehow we make progress in life in much the same way this book progresses.

The staple fare of the agency is the day-to-day – a cheating husband, a lost dog – but sometimes something more challenging comes along and Mma Ramotswe deals with such things with anxious competence, never failing. That serves a little to detract from the realism, but it’s a retrospective realisation more than something which feels uncomfortable while reading.

For all its innocence there is a darkness here, too. The man Mma Ramotswe’s father sees murdered in cold blood in the mines. The witch doctor who kidnaps children. Mma Ramotswe is not so innocent that, when a man tries to wave her down at the roadside in the middle of the night, she stops to pick him up. Her innocence and cheerfulness transcend some of the more grim realities around her but it does not deny their existence, and somehow her innocence is to the fore. We can almost forget the ugliness of what is sometimes described.

An amiable read, a pleasant character study, it can at times be too amiable, too pleasant, too inconsequential. In its exploration of blind alleys lies the work’s strength, but some of those alleys are a little too featureless, and one or two could be taken off the map and not be missed. There are, too, just a few too many happy endings. Sometimes, realism is lost when things turn out quite so well, quite so often. The result is that, though I am sure I will happily visit Mma Ramotswe again in Alexander McCall Smith’s later works that feature her, perhaps not soon. That would feel like eating one too many cream cakes, and I’d fear feeling just a little sickly at the end of it.

But, to be fair, only a little. This is a work worth recommending, an interlude in Mma Ramotswe’s beloved Botswana, a pleasant land with thorn trees; as good a metaphor for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as any I can imagine.