End of the World Blues opens in a Tokyo subway station where a young woman, Nijie, is stashing a suitcase full of money into a coin-locker. It then jumps to Roppongi Hills, a popular drinking area in Japan’s capital where Kit Nouveau owns and runs a bar with his wife, Yoshi. Kit’s bar, ‘Pirate Mary’s’, is frequented by a mix of regular drinkers, art students, foreigners, and bosozoku bikers. One night, Kit is walking back to his bar when a stranger attempts to rob him. As the robbery looks to be turning deadly, a good samaritan’s sudden and shocking intervention turns Kit’s world on its head.
Kit stared drunkenly at the man’s Colt automatic, then at his own watch. ‘Okay,’ said Kit, ‘it’s yours.’
This was not the response his mugger had been expecting. (p.27)
Three years ago, I began a reading challenge to read all the BSFA Best Novel winners. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far with my challenge, but at least it led me to this excellent book. (I’ve had it on my kindle for ages and only wish I’d got around to reading it sooner!) It has also put Jon Courtenay Grimwood on my “must-read-more-of-this-author” list. He won the 2006 BSFA Best Novel Award for this book. No matter what you may think of book awards, it is a sign of this novel’s quality that Grimwood was up against fellow nominees M. John Harrison, Roger Levy, James K. Morrow, and Liz Williams for the award.
End of the World Blues is a hard book to label. It’s part noir-tinged thriller, part futuristic fantasy with manga and anime stylings. As a thriller, it is meticulously plotted and extremely readable. Kit wants to know who wants him dead. We follow his investigations as they take him deeper and deeper into a dangerous world peopled with rival bikers, warring gangsters, and -possibly most lethal of all- ex-girlfriends. I found myself racing through these pages to discover what happened next.
A cold click told Kit that the slide had been pulled back on Alfie’s gun. So this is the way the world ends, he thought. (p.263)
The manga-esque fantasy sections add a fascinating side-story that Grimwood subtly links to the main narrative. Here, we are dropped into the middle of a strange royal court from the future, where ancient family members plot against each other and siblings duel with razor-sharp katanas. The author calls it “nawa-no-ukiyo” in Japanese, which roughly translates as ‘floating rope world’. Just who is the mysterious Lady Neku whose story we follow here? And what is her connection to Kit? Anyone with an interest in Japanese popular culture, as well as futuristic fantasy, will find much to enjoy in these parts of the narrative.
Her family were explorers, new to the end of the world and owners of what remained of human time, which could still be counted in tens of millennia. (p.50)
The two main characters are fine creations by the author, each having a distinctive personality and voice. Kit is a British ex-pat in his thirties; Nijie is a teenage Japanese cosplayer with a fondness for cats. Both have suffered trauma in the past, which Grimwood reveals in tantalizingly small doses. Kit spent time as a sniper in Iraq and is still feeling the effects of PTSD. Nijie is living on the street when we first meet her, on the run from someone or something. And this is just scratching the surface of their respective pasts.
There is so much to enjoy in this story. The ‘floating rope world’ sections starring Lady Neku separate this book from other similar titles, giving it a unique flavor. Court intrigue played out between ancient families in a decaying future setting, bodies that can be changed like clothes depending on mood, sentient castles that shift their internal layouts to trick and confuse the people inside, and more.
I may be a little biased because I live in Japan and have been interested in all things Nippon since I was a boy. But this shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that End of the World Blues is a cracking thriller with memorable characters and some electrifying action scenes.
This is a stand-alone novel by Jon Courtenay Grimwood and comes highly recommended for fans of near-future noir, as well as readers with an interest in manga, anime, cosplay, and Japan.