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The Witches Of Chiswick
Gollancz hardcover £9.99
review by Tony Lee
From a crime-free, 23rd century police state to a hi-tech industrial Victorian London of the steampunk variety, time-travelling adventurer Will Starling quits his job at the Tate gallery - after saving Richard Dadd's painting The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke from destruction by a sinister conspiracy that aims to suppress 200 years of technological progress - and journeys back to the era of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Charles Babbage, the Elephant Man, and the infamous magician, Hugo Rune. Although our young hero was merely trying to escape certain death at the hands of a heavily-armed, Germanic-voiced cyborg assassin, he eventually finds himself on a mission to solve a series of grisly Whitechapel murders, avenge the death of his discreetly well-heeled mentor, and thwart (yes, that's exactly the right word, claims the author) the world-domination plot of a cabal of witches - working in secret under the guise of the Chiswick Townswomen's Guild (hence the title).
Robert Rankin's 25th novel is dedicated to the loyal membership his Sproutlore fan club, and this is a happy narrative homecoming to his familiar story-haunt of Brentford, where all things are possible, however improbable they might appear, and (as a suitably agreeable bonus feature) the matchless local pubs serve excellent pints of large. Expect amusing spoofs of everything from The Terminator and TimeCop movies (though great care is taken throughout not to infringe upon copyrights), to The Difference Engine, and various other notable works of retro-futuristic SF. Anticipate the return of Rankin's familiar satirical targets, including British cultural snobbery, corporate imperialism, and the seemingly indiscriminate (but actually quite precise) breaking of genre conventions. Whether he's gatecrashing the queen's private party, escaping from prison disguised as a nanny called Poppins, sipping port with the invisible man, double-dating on the town with (alleged) babe-magnet Joseph Merrick, saving the life of his half-brother Tim (after Tim has been murdered), or coping with intrusive commentary - about the sinister plot to overthrow scientific rationalism - from an alien parasitic sprout (or holy guardian angel, perhaps?) named Barry, the crazy antics and daring doings of brave Will Starling are always witty and frequently hilarious.
Shamelessly self-reverential but still monstrously good fun, with several running gags that somehow never outstay their welcome due to their skilful deployment in the episodic plot, The Witches Of Chiswick is another remarkably effective comedy thriller from the acclaimed master of "far-fetched fiction." If you have not discovered the off kilter fantasy worlds of Rankin yet, now is as good a time as any. As a genre author, he is definitely unique.
tZ Wombat Salad, or...: Robert Rankin interviewed by Michael Lohr
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