Jon Courtenay Grimwood, 9Tail Fox. 2005. Gollancz. Pp. 336. ISBN 0575076151. £12.99

Reviewed by Jehoshaphat

Grimwood's early work was hardcore cyberpunk, typified by the novels in the trilogy started by neoAddix (1997) and ending with reMix (1999—note the taste for camelCase); he was catapulted to fame by the excellent "alternative future" Arabesk series (2001-3). After the arguably less enthusiastic response to the complex and arty Stamping Butterflies (2004), 9tail Fox is a return to high-octane form for this softly spoken but punk loving writer.

Detective Bobby Zha is called to interview an eleven year old girl after a burglar is shot whilst trespassing in her home. The other resident, her blind grandfather, is apparently the only person who could have physically shot the man, which Zha dismisses as extremely unlikely... The case is closed for 'political' reasons, but Zha, the dogged investigator full of stubbornness and resolve, continues to investigate the case. In the course of a different investigation, he is shot, and wakes up in the body of a wealthy young man who has been comatose for several years, since boyhood. Zha slowly comes to terms with what has happened, and eventually uses his cunning and the apparently limitless resources of his assumed identity to mix back into his life to answer the now many questions. We are treated to a tale of investigation, murder, intrigue and a very dark rendering of San Francisco. Throw in the shadow of reincarnation and you have the latest in Grimwood's repertoire in a nutshell.

This story takes unoriginal, stock sub plots (dogged investigator who can't let a case go, mired by a dysfunctional marital and personal life), and mingles unoriginal, stock science fiction / fantasy (dogged investigator wakes up from coma in another body and a new life) to create a story that is lush with originality, slick in both narrative and character development, and so well tailored that I found it a sublime pleasure to read. The stylistic quirks may grate for some, but I found them refreshing. Throughout the book, there is a very subtly conveyed sense of uncertainty, both as the reader gets to know the character of the protagonist, and as Zha himself explores the facets of his persona that never really impressed upon him the hardly disputable fact that he is "a shit". You cannot help but sympathise with Zha, and forgive him for his faults: but he has many serious faults (adultery, selfishness and a scheming nature among them).

Zha is not a character that should be classed in quite the same league as Sergeant Bruce Robertson of Irvine Welsh's Filth, but the natures of the two men bear comparison in the area of self-loathing and unhappiness (mainly derived from the mess their personal lives are in). There is a detachment in the way that Zha is described and developed, and this detachment persists throughout the development of all the characters. Their nuances and depth leave you with a powerful sense of familiarity and make you utterly convinced of their reality, though they feel like shadows of people: not shallow or hollow, but in an eerie, almost ethereal fashion because they are perceived primarily through the eyes of a seemingly reincarnated man in a new body. Eerie and unsettling, the allusions to folklore as Zha continues along his journey unsurprisingly add to the other-worldliness of the story, but are surprisingly powerful mainly because they are not overdone.

I was very impressed with the portrayal of San Francisco. Although Grimwood spent time there for research, he makes it clear in his disclaimer that he has provided a fictitious representation of San Fransisco and Chinatown. I—admittedly unfamiliar with either location—found the atmosphere of both places nonetheless overwhelmingly real. This sort of thing is what Grimwood does best, and 9tail Fox brings us a veritable treat, worthy both of general attention and a critical eye.

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