When I saw Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock up on Netgalley as a Read Now title, I didn't hesitate for a moment and downloaded it immediately, as I'd heard...moreWhen I saw Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock up on Netgalley as a Read Now title, I didn't hesitate for a moment and downloaded it immediately, as I'd heard nothing but good about the title when it was first published in the US. But while I knew it was a well-received novel, I'd forgotten what it was about exactly, so when I started the book I didn't really know what to expect. What I got was a darkly funny, painfully honest, and heart-wrenching story about a troubled teen who is more alone than people realise and less alone than he knows.
The central character and narrator of the book is the titular Leonard Peacock. He's a troubled young man, deeply traumatised by events in his past that is alluded to from the start of the book, but only revealed in its entirety halfway through the narrative. These events have driving him into a profound depression, only exacerbated by the neglect and abandonment he suffers at the hands of his parents. When we meet Leonard he has hit rock bottom and he can see no way out. Yet despite his depression, his sense of worthlessness, and his loneliness, Leonard has a distinctive voice and he is deeply, darkly funny. His wonderful sense of humour pervades the tragic tale he tells and makes the pain and sadness of his tale bearable.
On his final day Leonard wants to give the four people who have kept him going a farewell present. These four are his neighbour Walt, his class mate Baback, his friend Lauren, and his teacher Herr Silverman. All of them have a connection to Leonard, three of them in that they offer an escape for Leonard, be it through film (Walt), music (Baback), or visions of the possibility of a different life (Lauren). Only Herr Silverman doesn't offer an escape as much as he offers validation of who Leonard is, that he is worthwhile in and of himself. He seems to care about Leonard, about who he is, how he is feeling without any underlying motivation, other than being kind and a good teacher. He reminded me strongly of my favourite teacher at secondary school and reminded me how much difference the kindness of one person can make to a teenager and how important that was to me.
Leonard's main adversary is Asher Beal, who surprisingly is Leonard's former best friend—from best friend to arch nemesis is a big shift. Asher is only shown as evil, which left me conflicted, because he is as much victim as aggressor. This is reflected and enhanced by Leonard's guilt over the feeling that he should have saved Asher, once it became clear something was wrong with him, even if he was victimised by Asher. While Asher plays such an important role in Leonard's development into who he is in the book and in his plans for his birthday, we hardly see him as an active player in the narrative. Leonard relates the events from the past and during the 'now' of the novel Leonard runs into him at school and trades insults, but that's it. One the one hand, it makes it easier to just see him as Leonard does, on the other it also leaves him rather flat as a character.
The one person in this book that I just couldn't understand was Linda, Leonard's mum. I can see how it would be awful to have what happened to Leonard happen to your child – just the thought of it happening to one of my girls gives me nightmares – but how on earth can you just abandon them because you can't deal with it? And how selfish do you have to be to not want your child to get the help he needs, because you don't want to be told that everything is your fault (the reason she won't let Leonard see a therapist)? I just couldn't see my way past that. Parents generally aren't portrayed in the best light in this book. Both Linda and Mrs Beal are portrayed as oblivious and in Asher's case enabling, and both dads seem to be absent. Lauren's parents are only mentioned in the context of Lauren's being home-schooled and their faith, not in terms of their actual parenting.
Quick's writing is different, with typographical tricks, elaborate footnotes, and interludes in the forms of letters from the future written by Leonard's future loved ones. These last confused me a bit, because I hadn't expected this rather science-fictional element to show up. I loved the use of the footnotes as some of the most important things were said in the footnotes, they were a fun way to tell more of Leonard's history, without breaking the immediacy of the narrative of Leonard's birthday.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock addresses some very tough issues, such as bullying, abuse, and depression, but does so without sermonising or becoming so bleak there is no returning to the light. Matthew Quick's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a wonderful book, one that touched me deeply. Leonard's journey through his birthday was deeply tragic, at times desperately funny, heart-breaking and uplifting. It ends on hope, hope for a happier future, for justice, but mostly a future, any future period.
I first encountered DK Mok's writing in the FableCroft anthology One Small Step, where her story Morning Star was one of my favourites. When Mok appr...moreI first encountered DK Mok's writing in the FableCroft anthology One Small Step, where her story Morning Star was one of my favourites. When Mok approached me about reviewing her urban fantasy novel I said yes with alacrity as I was really interested to read more of her writing. And while The Other Tree is very, very different in tone and setting from Morning Star, I really enjoyed it. The story is set in a future version of Australia – though we also visit Italy and the Arabian Desert – and stars Chris, a librarian cryptobotanist, and Luke, a priest with some serious questions about his faith.
Chris is an interesting protagonist who is still mourning the loss of her mother and who is driven to complete her mother's work when her father becomes desperately ill. I liked her sense of determination and her blind faith that she and Luke can and will complete the mission to find the Tree of Life. She's also got a slightly acid sense of humour, which I really appreciated. Her quest to find the fruit of the Tree of Life, both to keep it out of the hands of the evil SinaCorp and to save her father, ends up changing her life in a completely different way than she expected. Her and Luke's journey is far more than an adventure quest it's also a spiritual journey, one in which both of them grow and change.
For Luke, the quest has a far different purpose; he wants to rediscover his faith and his vocation. His background is tragic, but his history is revealed only in drips and drabs and we get almost to the end of the story before we learn the whole of it. I liked the bond that slowly grows between Luke and Chris; where at first Luke is dragged along by Chris' enthusiasm and drive, the longer they work together the more important completing the endeavour becomes to Luke. I also enjoyed the fact that their partnership is built on respect and friendship, no romantic element there at all. And while I realise that Luke is a Catholic priest and as such he's celibate, that doesn't preclude Chris from falling for him or him falling for her. He's just not allowed to act upon it. But Mok doesn't go there and that makes their friendship all the more interesting.
Opposing Chris and Luke are SinaCorp, its ruthless CEO and a crack team of operatives who are trying to beat our heroes to the Tree of Life and its all-important fruit. Included in this team is one of Chris' university friends, Emir, who was more than just a friend. It's interesting to see how Mok develops Emir's story and re-connects Chris and Emir. She also does a wonderful job of giving many at SinaCorp faces and stories beyond their corporate identity and often in only a few paragraphs. There is also a mysterious third organisation that comes into play later on in the book. I won't reveal too much about them, other than to say I really liked the potential of their arc and was disappointed by the limited use Mok made of them. I would have loved to have seen more of them.
With The Other Tree Mok manages to deliver a story that is based in Biblical lore without being Christian or preachy. Instead it uses lore to build its mystery and to have Chris, Luke, and Emir ponder difficult questions on life, justice, morality, and faith, without the author coming down on either side of the debate. The story is told in third person omniscient and the narrative voice is quite strong and drily funny. So while we follow several protagonists, the narrator remains the same and it's unclear who this person is; a fact that in the context of the questions the narrative asks is ironic.
I had a lovely time with The Other Tree and really enjoyed Mok's writing. The book is also a rare thing in urban fantasy, a stand-alone novel. This story is complete in and of itself, without any clear hooks for sequels, which is refreshing in this age of series and trilogies. If you enjoy urban fantasy that strays off the beaten path then this is definitely a book you should consider giving a go, as it's funny, smart, and entertaining.
I love a good police procedural, especially if its main character is female. That's why, when Someone Else's Skin arrived at my house, I was immediate...moreI love a good police procedural, especially if its main character is female. That's why, when Someone Else's Skin arrived at my house, I was immediately intrigued by the blurb. And the book was every bit as interesting and riveting as promised, but where it surprised me was the fact that this is as much a psychological thriller as it is an exciting police procedural. Sarah Hilary's début was chilling in some instances, but it was also quite engrossing and I found myself drawn into our characters live and the case at the heart of the book more and more as the pages flew by.
The heart of the novel is DI Marnie Rome. She's is an amazing character, fiercely professional and driven in her work, but at the same time somewhat fragile and still trying to cope with the murder of her parents and her feelings for their murderer. Hilary slowly peels back the layers of protection around Marnie's deepest-held secrets, some secrets she's even held from herself and so creates a portrayed of a complex, flawed, and sympathetic character. I loved Marnie and I hope she'll feature in more books in the future, because there are many questions about her past I'd like to see answered. And I'd love to see where her budding relationship with Ed Belloc goes.
Marnie of course doesn't solve crime on her own she has two Detective Sergeants she works with, Noah Jake and Ron Carling. I absolutely loved Noah, especially because he is such a lovely bloke and he feels a little like the rookie to Marnie's experienced competence. Noah is gay and of half-Jamaican descent and as such has to deal with prejudice on two counts, both from the people they investigate and from his co-workers. We mostly see this behaviour from Ron Carling though in a way that drove me bonkers. Carling's snide remarks and completely rude and inappropriate questions were awful and felt only too true-to-life. In a way much of the treatment Noah encounters from Carling reminded me of the issues @EverydaySexism speaks about, in a slightly different, but just as pernicious, way. They are joined by Ed Belloc from Victim Support, and a friend of Marnie's, who is brought in as a safe and trusted case worker for the women in the shelter where they need to investigate.
Hilary does a wonderful job of portraying what abuse does to a person, that there are many ways of being a victim and many different outcomes of abuse. No one's story is the same and all the women in the shelter have their own story, bear different scars, mentally and physically, and have different triggers caused by their abuse. They have emerged damaged from a relationship – which doesn't necessarily mean they are broken or beyond healing – and all of them react a different way. From brave, strident Ayana, to muddled Mab, manipulative Shelley, and survivor Simone to doll-like, fragile Hope, they each cope differently with what their abuse has made of them and how to find their way back to themselves.
Without discussing them too much, for fear of giving away spoilers, the actual perpetrator is not only a surprise, but also a very, very scary individual and they truly gave me chills once Hilary revealed more of their psyche. The plot of the book is very well constructed with plausible alternate suspects and some tricky reveals that were very well done. All of it delivered in competent prose that didn't distract from the action in the novel and drew me in closer in the more introspective scenes in the book.
Someone Else's Skin was a fantastic read and introduced characters I hope to see more of in the future. Sarah Hilary is a talented author writing about a tough topic with sensitivity, but without flinching away from discomfort. If you love British police procedurals then Someone Else Skin is a must-read for 2014!
A science-fictional crime novel set in a near-future London. I was sold on reading The Happier Dead, novelist and play-wright Ivo Stourton's first SF...moreA science-fictional crime novel set in a near-future London. I was sold on reading The Happier Dead, novelist and play-wright Ivo Stourton's first SF novel, by those elements alone. Add some fascinating thought exercises about immortality, memory, and morality to that mix and The Happier Dead was a novel that was equal parts riveting action and thought-provoking ideas. Although the ending bothered me somewhat in its sudden shift away from our protagonist Oates, I very much enjoyed this book, both for its story and its prose.
The Happier Dead is set in a near-future London, but it remains unclear how near a future exactly. Some of the political elements, such as a war in Syria, seem to have their roots in the now and taking the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in consideration, I'd guess that means it couldn't be more than fifteen or twenty years in the future? Then again the building of the Dome and the perfecting of the Treatment in such a relatively short time seems implausible. The timespan doesn't truly matter to the plot and it isn't clearly mentioned anywhere, but I found myself distracted throughout the narrative when coming across historical references, trying to use them to pinpoint the time the novel is set in. Oates's city is also very much a recognisable London, which would probably feel quite familiar to its current residents.
I found it interesting to see how the London Riots of 2011 are starting to seep into fiction. The Happier Dead isn't the first book I've read in the past few months where their echoes can be clearly heard. The riots in the book mirror and increase the narrative tension. They are also the result of the ever-increasing societal divide which happens when you have a rich upper class that will live forever and keep accumulating more of the wealth and resources in society. Immortality has two large problems in The Happier Dead. One is its impact on society, in terms of societal stagnation and the shifting wealth/power distribution, which breeds discontent ends in the riots. The other is the emotional effect of living forever, of having to deal not just with many losses, but also the ennui that sets in, the feeling the new-young have that there is nothing more and no new experiences out there anymore. Stourton names it the Tithonus effect, after the myth of the goddess Eos and her mortal lover.
The problems caused by the Tithonus effect and the Treatment and the possible solutions to these problems, which seem to be grounded in memory, also raise moral questions. How fair is it to those less privileged that they are essentially oppressed by the new-young? If new-young get to wipe their slate clean and memory is the North needle of our moral compass and a necessity for a proper functioning conscience, what will this do to society in a moral sense? What about guilt and repentance? Will it equal consequence-free sin and crime? Similarly, the way Dreem – a sort of subliminal advertising which is transmitted through some kind of electrical pulse and affects people by stimulating their memories – works also raises a number of moral questions. Questions Stourton never really addresses, unlike the seemingly larger questions mentioned before. However, I found Dreem far more insidiously creepy than the Tithonus problem as for some reason it felt far more plausible and invasive.
Usually my reviews are very much character-focused, but in The Happier Dead the ideas and the whodunit were far more compelling to me than the characters. Our protagonist Oates is a fascinating character, who is grounded by his active duty experience and his love for his family. I really liked him and his history. However, while the rest of the characters aren't exactly one-dimensional, the ones as well-developed as Oates are few and far between; The Happier Dead is far more idea-driven than character-driven. Stourton's writing was great. He creates some beautiful turns of phrase and combines these with very visual scenes. There is a climactic scene at the end of the book, which would look awesome on a big screen. Then again, given Stourton's play-writing chops this shouldn't be surprising.
The Happier Dead is a book filled with fascinating concepts and hard moral questions. I found myself thinking about the book when I had to put it aside and after I finished it, pondering the dilemmas Oates faces and how the mystery would unravel. The book combines thought-provoking themes and exciting action and delivers it with a neat bow on top. Stourton's first step onto the speculative fiction stage was an enjoyable one and I hope he'll give us many more encores in the future.
I loved Pure and Fuse, and I was beyond excited to get an ARC for the trilogy's concluding volume Burn. It is a fitting conclusion to this bleak vie...moreI loved Pure and Fuse, and I was beyond excited to get an ARC for the trilogy's concluding volume Burn. It is a fitting conclusion to this bleak view of the future and human nature. If Pure and Fuse were bleak and bleaker, then Burn was bleakest and I found myself wondering how on earth Baggott was going to pull off a satisfactory ending, if not a happy one. But Burn provides a fitting conclusion to the tale started in Pure and while it may not be a Disney-style happy ending, it is an ending that leaves us with hope, hope for the characters we've become attached to and hope for a better world. Obviously as this is the last book in the series there will be spoilers for the previous books. If you haven't read those and want to remain unspoilt: Beware, here be spoilers!
All of the protagonists from the previous book return in Burn; the reader is reunited with Pressia, Partridge, Bradwell, Lyda, El Capitan and Helmut, and Iralene, with all but the last two having their own points of view. Even if the main characters are familiar, they're very much changed from the people we first met in the earlier books. Where I really liked him in Pure and Fuse, in Burn Partridge came off as a little whiny and confused and he was easily manipulated by those around him. I didn't like him as much in this last volume, mostly because I just couldn't understand why he wouldn't take a stand and choose– choose Lyda and their baby, choose to tell the truth and deal with the consequences without resorting to living a different lie, choose to be his own man. He became a character without agency, even if he does have clear desires and goals.
Pressia also comes across differently. Still very much driven by her desire to save those outside of the Dome and find a cure, she seems far more angsty about her relationship with Bradwell, which is rocky and pretty much non-existent after the events of the previous book, than I'd expected her to be. She's understandably upset, but the wildly competent Pressia we've come to know and love, wouldn't just have been angsty, she'd have been angry at Bradwell as well for not even wanting to talk to her. Similarly, Bradwell comes across as sulky and martyred, angry with Pressia for having caused his wings to become the way they are, yet at the same time completely resistant to the idea of working together with the Dome to find a way to undo the fusings. He becomes driven by anger and revenge, where before I saw him more as driven by truth and a need to save people from the Dome and the OSR.
My favourites in this book were Lyda and El Capitan. To me they are the ones who grow the most throughout the series. I also loved their themes in this book. Lyda has grown from a sheltered and naive girl into a strong young woman, one who takes her own destiny – and that of her child's – into her own hands. She makes decisions not just based on personal desires, but for the good of the people, even if that breaks her heart. She also decides her place isn't inside any more, but she longs for the outside even if life there is harsh, at least it's real. Cap's arc is far more about redemption, repentance, and penance. Cap isn't the angry young man we met in Pure; he's come to terms with being fused with his brother, Helmut, and his friendship with Bradwell and Partridge and his love for Pressia has made him re-evaluate his past. I really loved the relationship between Cap and Helmut and the way the latter gains identity throughout the series. He becomes more than just a lump on Cap's back; he becomes Cap's conscience and a person with his own opinions. Cap's unrequited love for Pressia and the way he handles it, broke my heart and I kept rooting for him to have his happy ending.
The development of the world is more political and Dome-focused this time around. The freaky nature of Dome society is revealed in full and we learn more about those Domers we've met before, such as Arvin Weed and Iralene. There were some revelations about characters both inside and outside the Dome, which didn't truly affect the narrative but did provide some cool moments of recognition and going 'OH!' such as the true identity of Our Good Mother. I also enjoyed the glimpse we had of the Irish settlement our intrepid quartet visit at the start of the book and it made me wonder what the other settlements around the globe would look like and what kind of things they'd developed to keep themselves safe.
Burn is a killer conclusion to a wonderful trilogy. However it's not a series for the faint of heart as it truly is a very dark and bleak series and Baggott spares neither her characters nor her readers from the painful realities of the world as she's created it in the narrative. There are beloved characters who won't make it to the end of the series, just as there are awful ones who do survive. But we end on hope and a glimpse of the possibility of a better future. It's a story complete, but this ending is the beginning of a new story and I wonder whether Baggott will return to this world and tell that story. Part of me hopes she will, the other part wants to take that ray of hope and run with it and not imagine all the awful things the characters will have to live through rebuilding their world. Whatever Baggott decides to write next though, I'll be reading, because with this awesome series she's certainly convinced me of her talent as a story teller.
The Fixer is my first pure crime book read in 2014 and it was a good one to start the year with. T.E. Woods' debut novel offers a smooth reading exper...moreThe Fixer is my first pure crime book read in 2014 and it was a good one to start the year with. T.E. Woods' debut novel offers a smooth reading experience with sympathetic protagonists and a very mysterious antagonist. Woods wrong-footed me several times with some elegant plotting and effortless misdirection, which made reaching the end of the novel and the final resolution of the mystery even more rewarding.
The book was really well-plotted and structured, offering the reader several clues in the form of Chekov’s guns, which were then fired in an unexpected way. The slow interweaving of seemingly disparate storylines and the way they fit together was very well done and I enjoyed trying to figure out The Fixer's identity and her nefarious employer's motives and identity. Woods offers us plenty of options in the form of some very intriguing characters in the person of Savannah, Deirdre Thornton, Jerry Childress, and Bradley Wells and several others. The four named though were really intriguing, Savannah because she's so clearly unbalanced and very mysterious and the latter three due to the academic politicking they engage in and the absolutely venal nature of their character and motivations.
Mort and Lydia are wonderful protagonists. Lydia is very complicated and I liked how we learned more about her layer by layer. Mort is just lovely. His love for his late wife is wonderful. What I liked was that it was such a balanced and healthy way of dealing with having your character being widowed; Mort doesn't just move on and sort of compartmentalise his wife away and on the other extreme he doesn't go into an epic, almost obsessive veneration of that which he has lost. Instead his love and sadness for Edie is present in the book – I especially liked the scene where Mort walks into the ICU to interview a witness and suddenly his grief sharpens because of the memories the place evokes – but it doesn't incapacitate him.
I really liked the fact that there isn't a romance or bromance in this book. Instead there is the story of a father finding a daughter figure to fill the hole in his heart left by his own disappeared child and a daughter finding a trustworthy father figure for the first time in her life. This really spoke to me and the scenes featuring Lydia and Mort together just jumped of the page and were really strong. It did make me wonder about Mort's real daughter Allie though and whether we'll find out what happened to her.
There were some things that bothered me a lot and they both had to do with Jimmy De Villa, chief of Forensics and Mort's co-worker. First of all there is Jimmy's dog, Bruiser. While I love the mutt and the way his reactions signalled the mood of a scene, I just couldn't wrap my head around a forensic investigator taking his dog along to crime scenes and suspect interviews. I mean the dangers of crime scene contamination alone would seem prohibitive. And it's only presented as a personal quirk; there is no good reason for Bruiser's presence given other than Jimmy's idiosyncrasy. The other thing that bugged me was Jimmy's thing for one of the female forensic technician Micki Petty. The way he reacts around her, with teasing and innuendo felt somewhat creepy to me and it's so easy to have that crossover into harassment territory, especially as Micki never encourages it or seems to reciprocate. Yet, while Mort clearly disapproves, there isn't really any fall-out for Jimmy on this.
But beyond those two elements I really enjoyed The Fixer. It was a smooth, pleasant read and an exciting one to boot. If you enjoy character-driven crime novels, then The Fixer might well be one you'd enjoy and I'd recommend crime lovers give it a try. As for myself, I'm looking forward to reading more of Mort's adventures and seeing what else Woods has in store for both him and her readers.
There is nothing I like more in my urban fantasy than a dose of magical London of the sort found in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, China Miéville's Un Lu...moreThere is nothing I like more in my urban fantasy than a dose of magical London of the sort found in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, Ben Aaronovitch's The Folly series, Tom Pollock's The Skyscraper Throne series, and Rosie E. Best's Skulk, to name but a few. So to be offered a chance to explore more of these magical metropolises (metropoli?) in The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic wasn't one I was about to refuse. And by no means are all of these stories set in London, and even more surprising most of my favourites from the anthology weren't even set in London.
Urban Mythic's first volume – the second has just been announced – contains a strong set of stories. What I really loved was the diversity contained in the stories; from the settings to the ethnicities portrayed to the mythical underpinnings, the anthology travelled the globe in every direction. There are Chinese dragons, American wizards, djinns, banshees and some supernatural beings I couldn't even name with certainty. All of the stories were quite enjoyable but there were five that stood out to me.
Graham Edwards – A Night to Forget A Night to Forget is a curious story of a young woman who is still dealing with the consequences of an acid assault and after a number of years finally learns the truth about what happens that night. It asks the question whether sometimes it is better, or perhaps the better term would be preferable, to forget or remember certain facts, especially if they are painful and allows our protagonist to make her own choice. I like the emotional overtones of the story and there was a twist I hadn't seen coming.
Anne Nicholls – The Seeds of a Pomegranate I loved the diversity of the characters in this story and the djinn. All of the characters in the story are people on the outside, different because of who they are. Nisha and her husband are immigrants, Zoe is a recent transplant from Rutland to London, and Bosh is – well, he's Bosh and what makes him truly different isn't the fact that he's gay, but the fact that he is a techno wizard and bonded to a magical spirit in the form of a dog. But by the end of the story there is a sense of homecoming that is almost palpable. I really loved these characters and I would love to see more of them in the future.
Adrian Tchaikovsky – Family Business I loved the tone and setting for Family Business, which in some ways rather reminded me of the Guy Ritchie film Snatch. It also seemed only an outtake from a larger story; at the end of the story there remained several questions I'd love to be able to get answers for, such as who is the Other, where did Tarrant, Winston and their siblings come from and what would happen if they went back? It's also convinced me that I want to read more of Tchaikovsky's work as I really enjoyed his writing.
Zen Cho – Fish Bowl This story might seem to be about a magical fish, but it seems to me far more about the pressures placed upon teenagers these days by their parents, often with the best intentions, but harmful nonetheless. I really loved the tragedy of this story and I'm still not sure whether the fish was a malicious entity or not. In addition, Zen Cho's sense of place and her ear (pen?) for dialogue are exquisite. Fish Bowl was a quietly impressive story that will remain with me for a long while.
Jonathan Oliver – White Horse Jonathan Oliver's story resonated deeply with me as it is about a woman trying to reach the love of her life who is depressed and closed off to the world around him. Her feelings of helplessness and frustration at not being able to fix things for him were all too recognisable to me, having been on both sides of the divide. I loved how Imogen realises through the story that she can't fix things for others, but she can be there next to them while they do it themselves. All of this is woven into a narrative involving the White Horse of Uffington, past lives and dream horses in a way that was infinitely attractive to me.
I really enjoyed The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic. It was a great collection of stories, none of which disappointed really. If you'd like to discover more flavours of urban mythic and some wonderful stories, The Book of Urban Mythic is a good one to pick up. I'll be very much looking forward to see what the editors include in their second volume.
This is going to be a shorter than usual review for me since the book is a short one and there are a number of things that I can't discuss without giv...moreThis is going to be a shorter than usual review for me since the book is a short one and there are a number of things that I can't discuss without giving spoilers for the book's big reveal. P.B. Kane, a pen name for Paul Kane, moves into the YA market for the first time with The Rainbow Man. And it's an interesting story to make an entrance there, as it's a slow-building story as mentioned in the introduction by Rachel Caine, in a way I haven't seen it done very often in YA fiction.
The Rainbow Man's main character is Daniel, who I found a very sympathetic character. He is very much a YA protagonist, dealing not just with a tough situation at home, but also a shift in the relationships between him and his best friends. It was interesting to see a love triangle where the protagonist isn't the deciding factor; instead he's the one on the outside. Daniel's best friends are Jill and Greg. Jill and Daniel have been friends all their lives and Greg joined their band when his family moved to the island. Both of his friends have home lives that remind Daniel of what he's lost and serve as a sort of surrogate family. But with the three of them growing up, relationships have shifted and Jill and Greg seem to be pairing off, while Daniel realises he wants to be the one Jill chooses. This creates tension between the friends and I loved how they have to fight past this to get back to their friendship.
Daniel's home life isn't pretty with a mom who's looking for a solution to end her grief at losing her husband at the bottom of a wine bottle every night, Daniel having to deal with his own grief at his father's death and a younger brother who looks to him for love and safety. I love how Daniel both resents having to take care of Mikey and resents John when Mikey looks to him instead of Daniel. Not because it was a pleasant situation, but it was a recognisable one to me. John is quite creepy; he seems harmless but he's insidious and Kane portrays Daniel's growing isolation – he's the only one who sees John for the pernicious figure he is, which sets him apart from the rest of the island's inhabitants – quite well. In the end friendship, not romantic love conquers all and I liked that. The island setting creates a creepy atmosphere due to its enclosed nature and especially since they are cut off from the outside, which is a well-worn horror trope, but Kane plays it out well.
The eventual resolution of The Rainbow Man was cool, though unexpected. The clues to John's true identity only start to appear relatively late in the narrative. The ending felt a little redundant and was rather strange as the book seemed set in current day, not in the past, and the last few pages weren't cast as a prediction of the future, it was cast as fact and already happened, which just felt odd. Still, I really enjoyed this relatively quick read and for horror-loving mystery fans, whether they're in their teens or beyond, this should be an enjoyable read.
Julianna Scott's debut The Holders took me by surprise last year. The book had sounded like a fun, interesting read, but I was taken completely unawa...moreJulianna Scott's debut The Holders took me by surprise last year. The book had sounded like a fun, interesting read, but I was taken completely unaware by how much I loved the story. It featured a great protagonist with a very distinctive voice in Becca, an interesting concept in the Holders and their abilities, and the romance between Alex and Becca was delicious. So The Seers was a book that I was really looking forward to and it was definitely worth the anticipation. It was a fun continuance of the story and I got answers to some of the questions I was left with at the end of the previous book.
Becca remains awesome. When we start the book she is still learning about her abilities and her new life. She's also trying to come to grips with the reality of her father. They are in the middle of re-establishing their relationship and I liked the way Scott handled this tentative rebuilding of trust. To top it all off, Becca is also still developing her relationship with Alex, trying to figure out how they work together and what the influence of the Anam bond is. I loved the growth in Becca; she has to learn so much, become much more self-assured and learn to stand up for herself instead of just for others. And she does so without ever losing her lovable, sarcastic self. Becca is just so completely relatable. The scene where she overhears people talking about her and judging her rather harshly, hit me in the gut, as that feeling of just wanting to hide is so recognisable.
One of the new characters introduced in The Seers is Bastian. I liked the addition of this complicated character as he creates some interesting tension, not just plot-wise, but between Becca and Alex too. I loved that for a change it's the guy in the relationship who is insecure and scared of losing the girl, instead of the other way around. While there is never any doubt about Becca's feelings, I love that she and Alex need to communicate about the situation and Alex's reaction and that it doesn't magically disappear. Apart from this effect on the narrative, Bastian is an interesting character in his own right. I loved his conflicted position within the Bhunaidh and the way that in many ways he's a lot like Becca. Their friendship develops in a fun way and I love its snarky nature.
The one thing I missed was a bit more in the way of recapping from the previous book, because I was a little adrift in the first few chapters of the book. Still, once I'd re-acclimatised to the story and the characters, I was just as immersed in this book as I was in The Holders. The plot is exciting with lots of deviousness and secrecy. The Bhunaidh are a rigid, arrogant bunch, all about appearances and I completely sympathised with Becca when she wants to hit them over the head. In the Bhunaidh, Scott shows us a completely different aspect of Holder society than the one we've encountered at Lorcan and while I found them awful human beings, I loved the way Scott structured Bhunaidh society linked to abilities and their strength. The Seers also further develops Becca's and through her the reader's knowledge of Holder abilities and what they are able to do, what their limits are and that not all abilities are equal. We also learn more about the Anam bond, including the fact that same-sex bondings occur, which was one of the questions I was left with after the last book.
I flew through The Seers and having finished it, I can only say that I'm sad to have to wait another year to return to St. Brigid's. I really want to know what happens next, how everyone will deal with the fall-out of the events of this book and how the story will end. The Seers was a great second book in this series, but doesn't really stand alone, so I'd recommend going back and reading The Holders if you haven't done so yet. If you have read The Holders and were unsure about picking this one up, I recommend you do, as it's even more entertaining than its predecessor and Becca's story is wonderful.
In 2012 I developed a taste for supernatural police procedurals, when I read Scott Sigler's Nocturnal and Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London and Jus...moreIn 2012 I developed a taste for supernatural police procedurals, when I read Scott Sigler's Nocturnal and Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London and Justin Gustainis' Evil Dark was the one that confirmed that these sorts of books were really my thing. After finishing Evil Dark I was really looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Haunted Scranton series and, after two years, this weekend I finally got to return to Scranton and Detective Sergeant Markowski and friends. Known Devil was a blast, with the same sense of humour that had me chuckling out loud when reading Evil Dark and another action packed adventure.
We once again follow the tale of Stan Markowski, his partner Karl Renfer and Stan's daughter Christine. Stan is almost your typical plain clothes detective seen in so many crime novels and TV shows, except for the fact that he works in a unit concerned with supernatural crime. Still, Stan is a cop in a familiar mould, dedicated, determined and stubborn, but with a heart of gold. Yet Known Devil sees Stan taking some hard decisions to keep his loved ones safe, decisions that will affect his far beyond the scope of this novel. One of these loved ones is his partner and best friend Karl. I love the progress Karl makes during the novel. Still adjusting to his status of being undead and having fangs, he's learning what this means for his life and how it limits what he can do. Especially the therapy to desensitize him to crucifixes is genius. The other loved one closest to Stan is his daughter Christine. Her role is a little smaller this time around, but I like how Gustainis works in their close relationship and their evening breakfast talks about the cases Stan works.
Known Devil's case is a good one, with plenty of action, danger and some surprising twists. We get the return of some known antagonists and I loved the scenes with the Fangsters, vampire mobsters, and those with the bomb squad. There were some elements that made me a bit twitchy, mainly to do with the fact that when Stan ignores a direct order from his boss no one calls him on it, in fact their departmental white witch, Rachel goes out of her way to help him afterwards. While it fits the narrative and Stan's character and his relationship with his boss, I just couldn't imagine Lieutenant McGuire just letting it slide like that.
As last time what made the book for me were all the real-world references which where tweaked to fit this alternate reality Scranton, which is filled with supernatural creatures and thus caters to their needs as well. There is the elf Thorontur, nicknamed Thor, though he doesn't resemble Chris Hemsworth. The head of the vampire mobster family is called capo di tutti vampiri and drives a car with the vanity plates BATDAD1. The department shrink is called Doc Watson, and the department witch Rachel consults an academic journal called Journal of the American Magical Association or JAMA for short. And that's just to name a few. Picking up on these Easter-egg-like elements was huge fun and Gustainis does them very well.
I had a great time with Known Devil and tore through it in a single sitting – with a break for food and putting the kids to bed – chuckling all the while and reading out good bits to my husband. Like Evil Dark, Known Devil stands alone quite well and you don't have to read the previous books to enjoy this one. However, if you haven't read any of these books before then you are in for a treat as they are hugely enjoyable. Meanwhile, Known Devil is a very enjoyable read that ends on a satisfying note, but leaves the door open for more adventures. I sincerely hope this isn't the last time we will see Stan, Karl, Christine and the rest. I'd love to return to Scranton in the future, but I'll have to settle for catching up on the first book in the series, Hard Spell, which I haven't read yet.
Paul Kearney is an author I've seen people rave about ever since I started blogging. At the time he was in the middle of publishing his The Macht tril...morePaul Kearney is an author I've seen people rave about ever since I started blogging. At the time he was in the middle of publishing his The Macht trilogy and there were a number of bloggers I discovered early on who are huge fans of that series (Looking at you, Speculative Scotsman!). So I was excited to learn that Solaris would be republishing his earlier work and The Macht series. However, based on what I'd read about The Macht, which as I recall it was akin to military fantasy, A Different Kingdom was quite different (no pun intended) than I'd expected. Instead of a raw, hard, military fantasy, this book is a far more traditional fairy tale, though with some very dark elements. Its sensibilities reminded me powerfully of Charles de Lint's The Little Country though with a darker edge.
The story set in our world, is set in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and starts in 1953 and it is a Northern Ireland on the brink of the modern age, where cars and electricity are still seen as new-fangled and many people still travel by horse and cart and farm work is done by hand and horsepower. It was a time when The Troubles were still very much unsolved, but apart from some mentions on the periphery of the narrative they don't seem to play a large part in the story, at least as far as I could tell and in as far as The Troubles don't unavoidably influence any Northern-Irish author. However, I might be completely mistaken in this assessment. Religion as a whole, on the other hand, definitely plays a large role in the story, both in our world and in the Other Place. In our world, it means that Michael loses his beloved aunt Rose, when she becomes pregnant outside of wedlock and she's sent away to have the baby elsewhere. Rose tells Michael that it's the family priest that is sending her away and in a devout Catholic household in the 1950's that wouldn't have been uncommon. In the Other Place it's The Brothers and their Knights – transplanted Early Christian monks – that are one of the few powers that provide safety against the Horseman and his wolfish minions. They and iron are anathema to the fey folk called the Wyrim. On the whole though, Michael remains conflicted about his faith and especially the Brothers never clearly fall on the side of either good or bad.
Michael is a likeable protagonist and easy to connect with. His tale has many of the classic elements of the Hero's Journey, a fact acknowledged in the text when one of his allies discovers one of his reasons of travelling to the other place and declares he is on a quest. The one thing I really had a problem with was his age. At the start of his adventures in the Other Place, Michael was thirteen and he never felt like he was that young. Especially his relationship with Cat seems far too mature for a boy his age. Along the same lines his close and sometimes innuendo-laden relationship with his Aunt – for whom he develops an almost oedipal longing – left me quite unsettled. Cat, his wyrim lover and fellow adventurer is sympathetic, but remains opaque; we never truly learn her motivations. She is of the Other Place, a place both magical and dark and her nature reflects this. This goes for the other secondary characters from the Other Place as well, especially the Horseman and his minions, but Mirkady and his wyrim and the Brothers as well. In a sense they are true fairy-tale characters, ones who fill a specific role in the narrative and remain somewhat fuzzy in other aspects. It is only on closer examination after finishing the book, however, that this becomes clear, within the narrative the reader is swept along on the adventure and the wonderful sense of atmosphere that fills the book.
The ending of A Different Kingdom is amazing, being neither wholly happy, but not wholly sad either; it was just a perfect ending to this story. It's hard to put a finger on what I think of the book. I was carried away into the Other Place by the writing and the atmosphere of the tale, but once I finished and stepped away from it, I suddenly began to notice all these niggles with it. In the end, I think the book is like its ending: it didn't make me wholly happy, but it didn't make me wholly sad either; it was just the perfect shape for the story and one that perhaps didn't work perfectly for me. However, I did enjoy it and it's made me really curious to read more of Kearney's work to see how I get on with that.
The Tower Broken is the epic conclusion to Mazarkis Williams' debut trilogy Tower & Knife and after reading The Emperor's Knife and Knife Sworn...moreThe Tower Broken is the epic conclusion to Mazarkis Williams' debut trilogy Tower & Knife and after reading The Emperor's Knife and Knife Sworn I was really looking forward how Williams was going to resolve the problem of Mogryk's wounds. The author managed to wrap up the story in a way I hadn't expected, but which was compelling and elegant in one fell swoop.
Williams brought back Mesema as a point of view character and replaced Grada and Nessaket with two new characters, Farid and Didryk, and added a fifth one from High Mage Govnan. I was really glad to regain Mesema as a viewpoint character, as I really liked her and missed her invested outsider's perspective. Mesema's investment in the future of the Cerani Empire has only grown larger over the course of the series as she's come to love not just Sarmin and their son Pelar, but others in the palace as well. Despite this, her Felt origins and upbringing ensure that she's still an outsider as she still thinks as a Felt at heart.
Both Farid and Didryk, one a Cerani fruit seller and the other the Duke of Fryth are outsiders as well, but in completely different ways. While Farid is completely loyal to the Emperor, he is a fish out of water as the newest member of the Tower of Mages. He's discovered an aptitude for Pattern magic and as such is recruited by the Tower, which means he is suddenly part of not just the upper class, but court life and at the heart of the action. He's doubly out of his depth, he isn't sure how to behave and he doesn't really understand how his magic works. Duke Didryk, on the other hand, is perfectly at ease at court, but he is comes to make peace and is a Mogryk and thus anathema for most Cerani and his intentions are uncertain, so he's not trusted by most of those around him and a true outsider.
It is exactly this different perspective, defined by traditional beliefs, societal positions and their backgrounds, that makes Mesema, Farid, Didryk and Grada able to make the difference in the battle against the nothing and against the Yrkmir. Sarmin, the consummate outside-insider from The Emperor's Knife has become a true insider in his time upon the throne, even if his ideas are still less than conventional. His development is very well done, as he not only has to learn to live outside his tower and rule, in The Tower Broken, he also learns how to truly love and trust again. Another insider's perspective is that of Govnan. Together with Mesema's, his arc in The Tower Broken was my favourite. I really loved his dedication and loyalty to his emperor and country, but also his kind and loving way with his acolytes and students and with Sarmin. Plus, together with Farid, he gave us an interesting closer look at the Tower and elemental magics. These five, together with Grada, and two of the Tower mages, Mura and Moreth are the key to saving not just the Empire, but the world, through their different abilities and approaches and I found them wonderful windows onto the narrative.
The Tower Broken is expertly paced. The problems Sarmin and his people have to face are many and have increasingly larger impact on the chances of survival of all of them. Perhaps least threatening in the overall scope is the General Arigu and his conspiring with High Priest Dinar to gain control of Sarmin and the throne. Scaling up there is the nation of Yrkmir that is invading Cerana and taking no prisoners, killing indiscriminately instead. And of course, the largest threat is that of the Storm and the Scar, which is unmaking reality and swallowing everything. Williams manages to make all of these threats interweave and makes their resolution interleaved, so the tension only breaks towards the end of the novel, even if there are smaller victories and breathing spaces throughout the novel. I think this is one of the places where Williams' growth as an author is most marked. In The Emperor's Knife, and to a lesser extent in Knife Sworn, there were points in the narrative where the pace lagged and I got distracted from reading more easily. Not so with The Tower Broken, it kept me glued to the page for one more chapter for more chapters than I'd care to admit.
I really enjoyed this last volume in the Tower & Knife trilogy. It's a series that is truly epic fantasy, in the sense that it deals with potentially world-shattering events, but one that is very much character-driven. The Tower Broken completes Sarmin and Mesema's story in a completely satisfying ending and one that suits the series very much. While the chances of Williams returning to Cerana in the near future are slim, I'm looking forward to reading what they write next. Although, if they change their pen name, we might never know whether we are reading their next book. In any case, if epic fantasy is your thing, Tower & Knife is a series you'll want to read. And the good news? It's complete so you'll be able to read it without having to wait for the next book longer than a trip to the book store or for the post to deliver it!
Knife Sworn is the second book in the Tower & Knife series and the middle book of a trilogy. As such it had a tall order in front of it; it had to...moreKnife Sworn is the second book in the Tower & Knife series and the middle book of a trilogy. As such it had a tall order in front of it; it had to live up to the first book and keep the narrative going so there will be a strong draw back for the third book. And of course, it has to avoid middle-book-syndrome. And people wonder why writing that second book is harder than writing the first! So you'll be glad to know that Knife Sworn did the first and the second and was relatively successful at avoiding the last. I was quite pleased with how Williams continued the story after the relatively self-contained The Emperor's Knife and the book's ending definitely left me eager to start the final book. However, while it wasn't less action-packed, slower-paced or only a bridge between book one and book three, Knife Sworn certainly doesn't stand on its own; one could read it without having read the first book, but you'd miss a lot of background and the story doesn't have as satisfying an ending as The Emperor's Knife. Still, Knife Sworn is a very enjoyable read and shows Williams' growth as an author quite well.
The book features different points of view than the previous one. Sarmin makes a return, and we get new viewpoints from Grada, Rushes and Nessaket. Which means this time we get three women and one man, whereas last time it was one woman and three men. I do have to say I missed Mesema's point of view in this book, as I'd come to care for her and I was sad to only see her at a remove in this book. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Rushes' and Grada's story arcs and I appreciated getting to know Nessaket better and seeing what makes her tick. All of the point of view characters are unreliable in some way as well, which made the narration of the novel even more interesting as you had to keep reading closely. I really liked Rushes, as she's an interesting character and she provides an informative view not just of the lower classes in the palace, but also more insight into the Mogryk faith.
Sarmin's development from the imprisoned prince in the tower to a ruling emperor is a rough road and quite fascinating, especially with the pattern magic factored in. However, my favourite arc in the book was Grada's. I loved the way she has to learn to live with what she has done as part of the Many and what that experience has made of her. She essentially has to remake herself, find her own identity again by incorporating all that's been added to her by the Patterning. It's a hard lesson to learn, but I found it quite moving and I really enjoyed Grada's voice as well.
Ostensibly Knife Sworn is about Sarmin dealing with the Nothing, an unexpected after-effect of the Pattern Master's final pattern, a mysterious force that is one of unmaking and negation. But it is also about remaking; not just that which has been destroyed by the Nothing, but identity, self, peace, a nation, and people's lives. I found Williams' incorporation of The Longing of the Unpatterned, those who Sarmin cured of the Patterning and returned from the Many to themselves haunting. The sense of loss these people experienced and the loneliness Grada and Rushes feel is heart-breaking and you'd almost wonder whether Sarmin shouldn't have found a way to make them better while still being able to connect to the Many. Especially Rushes' story shows us why Sarmin was right in what he did and Rushes' realisation of this was quite bitter-sweet.
Knife Sworn was the sequel The Emperor's Knife deserved and in many ways was even better. The book felt better paced and the writing was far more certain and unflinching. There are some beautiful and gruesome scenes in here and Williams almost gave me a heart attack with a few of the developments. I found this quite an exciting read and I can't wait to start The Tower Broken, the concluding book of the trilogy, which is what I'll be doing once this review is up. A review for the final book will be up in the near future.
Mazarkis Williams is an author I've been aware of for a couple of years. They – since Mazarkis Williams is a pen name and the author's identity and ge...moreMazarkis Williams is an author I've been aware of for a couple of years. They – since Mazarkis Williams is a pen name and the author's identity and gender is unknown (to me at least, though I have my suspicions) I'll be referring to the author as they – are part of the group of authors known as the Booksworn, several of whom are authors I've read and enjoyed and some of whom I regularly chat with on Twitter. So it was to my shame that I had to admit I hadn't read any of their books, when I was approached about reviewing the final book in the Tower & Knife series, The Tower Broken, which was published late November last year. Fortunately, the publisher was kind enough to send me the whole series for review, so I could rectify the oversight. And I'm glad I got that chance, because judging by the first book, this trilogy and Williams' writing is right up my alley.
The setting for The Emperor's Knife is an interesting mix of desert and plains cultures. Most of the story is set in Nooria, the Cerani capital, but we also travel to the desert and to the plains of the Felt. The desert culture actually felt more Northern African/Egyptian than Middle Eastern, but that might be due to the fact the Nekasset seems a name that one of the Pharaohs’ queens could have worn. There are a lot of juxtapositions between the desert and the plains peoples, not least in their treatment of their women, but also in their architecture and their religions. I loved the different forms of magic Williams created, the elemental magic of the Tower and the more mathematical magic of the Pattern Master. The genesis of the pattern magic is hinted at, but never really identified and I wonder whether we'll learn more about that in the next book.
The main characters, who had their own point-of-view, were Sarmir, Mesema, Tuvaini, and Eyul. All of them are compelling in their own way; Sarmir's slightly unbalanced outlook on life is fascinating, yet his still having retained his innate good nature makes him oddly appealing; Mesema's unfettered ways and tongue might have gotten her into more trouble than she could have gotten out off, if not for the events of the book and the natural rapport she has with both Emperor Beyon and Sarmir; Tuvaini is the villain you love to hate, yet he's also very human and in his flawed nature strikingly capable of love; and Eyul, the titular Emperor's Knife, was astonishingly well-drawn. He might actually have been my favourite point-of-view. Not just because he travels beyond Nooria, but also because his is the more quietly profound emotional journey. He rediscovers his humanity and has to learn to live with who he is after his armour has been cracked. Beyond these four the most important and intriguing characters are Empire Mother Nekasset, High Mage Govnan, Fire Mage Amalya, Emperor Beyon, and the Pattern Master. I found all of them intriguing, though not all of them equally sympathetic. All of them are multi-faceted and complex, though I would have liked to learn more about Amalya and Govnan in particular as, comparatively, they were less developed.
All four major female characters defy their designated role in society, though all in their separate ways. The position of women in the two cultures we encounter closely, the Cerani and the Felt, is almost completely opposite of each other; Felt women are required to prove their fertility through the bearing of plains-children before marriage, while the Cerani value virginity and at least the royal women are locked away in a seraglio, where Felt women live among their menfolk. What they have in common though, is that the women need to obey their husbands, fathers, and lords and it is here that Mesema and Nessaket differ. Mesema doesn't fit the Cerani seraglio, because she'll always speak her mind and Nessaket isn't content with the pampered, but powerless position of a wife and mother, she actively schemes to gain the throne for someone she can dominate. Amalya is set outside the usual societal expectations for women, due to her nature as a mage, while Grada is an Untouchable who dares to strive for a life beyond her class. Grada's circumstances are complicated or rather her desires are wakened due to her connection to Prince Sarmin, who befriends her, even though contact between an Untouchable and a Prince is impossible. I like that these women break the norm in such different ways and show those around them that things can be different. They also give the book plenty of opportunities to pass the Bechdel test, which it does.
In addition to an interesting setting and characters, The Emperor's Knife has an equally interesting plot featuring the puzzle of the pattern master's identity and motivation, intricate and cut-throat palace politics, and the role of the Carriers. The ending of the book was satisfying, though a little sudden. It wraps up well, but at a rapid pace and I hadn't expected it to wrap up quite as thoroughly. I really enjoyed this first book of the Tower & Knife series and The Emperor's Knife scratched the epic fantasy itch I'd been feeling since finishing my last epic fantasy read in mid-December. Williams' writing is good with sometimes lovely descriptive flourishes and compelling characters, none of whom are safe, all of whom might not survive the book. It also stands alone quite well, while still leaving you wanting more and I was glad I could dive into the second book, Knife Sworn, immediately. Expect a review for that soon.
Whenever Jacqueline Koyanagi's debut Ascension is talked about, the first thing that comes up is the fact that it has lots of elements so sorely lacki...moreWhenever Jacqueline Koyanagi's debut Ascension is talked about, the first thing that comes up is the fact that it has lots of elements so sorely lacking from a lot of genre fiction – LGBT people, people of colour, people with disabilities – united in its female protagonist. This raised expectations highs for the story, expectations that the book certainly met. I had a lot of fun with this book. Alana is a great protagonist and I loved the themes of love and acceptance, both of others and yourself that Konayagi wove through the narrative. In addition, there is a seriously steamy romance, which I really loved.
Alana is a woman of colour, living on the Fringe on a world where human technology is slowly being ousted in favour of the new-fangled Transliminal technology from the Othersiders, people who have managed to create a rift between the multiverse and travel it at will. For Alana, who is a starship engineer or Sky Surgeon, this means that business is slowly dying away and she and her aunt are seriously struggling to make ends meet. When the Tangled Axon touches down in her yard, she grabs her chance and stows away, hoping for a chance at being a true Sky Surgeon in the Big Quiet. But Alana also suffers from Mel's Disease; an auto-immune disease that makes her depended on her medication to keep her condition from deteriorating and has her in chronic pain. And stowing away on the ship means she might end up without her meds.
Koyanagi handles Alana's pain and disability in a fantastic way. She keeps it front and centre and ever-present, just as it is for Alana. We see her continually considering whether what she wants or needs to do is possible for her and worth the pain. We see her setting the pain aside and pushing through, going through barriers and sometimes even going too far and doing herself damage, just so she can do what needs doing. Koyanagi also takes a frank look at Alana's envy and resentment that her sister Nova didn't inherit this disease and she did, which is fascinating and leads to some interesting character building and conclusions on Alana's part. I found it a very honest emotional development and crucial to how the relationship between these two sisters is woven.
The bond between Nova and Alana and the development of their relationship was really well done. Through the conflict displayed Alana doesn't just learn to accept Nova, but herself. She learns that Nova isn't just the flighty and ethereal airhead Alana thinks she is, but actually has some pretty impressive abilities and is really good at what she does. Similarly, Nova sees that Alana's being a Sky Surgeon is more than a hobby; it's what makes her happy. When Nova tells her so, it allows Alana to finally let herself step out of her sister's shadow. It also ties in to the development of her relationship with Tev, the Captain of the Tangled Axon, which is pretty interesting, since Tev is in a polyamorous relationship with Slip, the ship's doctor. Alana needs to come to peace with the fact that to have the love she desires is to accept that about Tev and become comfortable with it, to feel secure in the fact that 'sharing' Tev doesn't mean Tev loves her less, but that Tev chooses her and and Slip every time they are together and that love is multiplied, not divided.
In between all of this feelings stuff, Koyanagi weaves an interesting mystery/quest for the crew in figuring out why the CEO of Transliminal wants to see Nova so badly and to get her to cure both Alana and the ship's pilot Marre, who seems to be losing her corporeal state bit by bit. The denouement of this plot took me quite by surprise and without giving spoilers for it, was dramatic and emotional. Ascension is an interesting book that I enjoyed a lot. It ended on a wonderful note, which leaves the book open for more in the series, but also created a self-contained story, which is complete in and of itself. I'll certainly be keeping my eye out for more books featuring Alana Quick in the future.
Ghost Hold is the second book in the PSS Chronicles after Ghost Hand and continues the story of Olivia Black and friends in their struggle to remain...moreGhost Hold is the second book in the PSS Chronicles after Ghost Hand and continues the story of Olivia Black and friends in their struggle to remain safe from those who would do them harm. It's very much a middle book, as it doesn't really standalone. We start the novel weeks after the ending of Ghost Hand and end it on a huge cliff hanger with not much explanation of what has gone before in-between, which means that it's necessary to have read Ghost Hand before starting Ghost Hold and when you finish it you'll really want to start book three immediately when it is released next year.
We re-join Olivia, Marcus, and the rest of the group when they arrive fresh of the trail in Indiana to go and rescue Samantha James, the next name on the CAMFer list. Marcus has arranged a place for them to stay and new false identities which they will use as cover. We quickly get the lay of the land within the group, with Marcus and Olivia only having grown closer and Olivia and Passion still awkward around each other due to the events of the previous book. And as ever the three boys, Jason, Yale, and Nose orbit around them being mostly attached to Marcus. Olivia is still her loveable, snarky self. I liked the way Patton played out her relationship with Marcus. She keeps it interesting, without letting Olivia sliding too far into the apologetic girlfriend role. She makes Olivia – and Passion for that matter – stand up for herself and demand to be treated with respect. But Olivia's development in this book isn't all about the boy. She discovers some pretty shocking things about her family's past and she discovers that she's spread her wings and can't return to her small-town home in Greenfield.
Marcus' secretive nature is starting to work against him in Ghost Hold, when time and again Olivia catches him in an outright lie or a lie by omission. While at first Olivia tries to rationalise them to herself, blaming them on Marcus' troubled past and the need he's had for secrecy in the past, but slowly it just becomes too much and she calls him out on it. And she's not the only one who's questioning Marcus' decisions; when he decides to have all of them armed and taught to shoot, Yale doubts whether that's a wise decision. The unquestioning obedience from the first book is gone. I really liked Passion's development more than Marcus'. We really get to know her and her past and there are some surprising revelations from the pastor's daughter, one of the major ones is that she is a lesbian. The only thing I found a little disappointing in this regard was that where Patton stayed away from the insta-love thing with Marcus and Olivia, she lets Passion and Samantha fall in love instantly. Or perhaps more accurately they crush instantly, but the attraction is immediate and mutual and they're an item in about half a day. I understand that because this novel takes place in the space of two weeks at the most, there wasn't much time to develop this burgeoning relationship in, but I really don't like this instant relationship trope.
One other thing I found problematic was the fact that a lot of the elements established in the first book are treated as known fact. The reader never gets a refresher on some fairly important things. For example, we know the CAMFers are bad news, but why and who they are exactly is never really repeated. Similarly, there is a list of PSS kids who the CAMFers are trying to snatch, but we never get a clear recap of this. I dislike it when authors feel the need to give bio's for every character we re-encounter each book, but at the same time Patton's approach is completely minimalistic and that's a bit too far to the other extreme for my taste.
Still, despite those problems, I had a great time with Ghost Hold. I loved how Patton further developed her world and how she went about creating relationships and friendships between Olivia, Marcus, Passion and the three boys. The story was thrilling and Patton threw in some twists that are absolutely delicious. And the biggest twist of all comes right at the end, which leads to my biggest complaint: I'll have to wait at least till the autumn to read how this ends and I want to know now! *stomps foot like a two-year-old in a tantrum* Seriously, the PSS Chronicles are great fun and super-fast reads. If Ghost Hold sounds appealing make sure you've read Ghost Hand first to get the most out of the story.
Last year I read and enjoyed the first Unidentified Funny Objects anthology. When Alex Shvartsman approached me about reviewing the second volume, I...moreLast year I read and enjoyed the first Unidentified Funny Objects anthology. When Alex Shvartsman approached me about reviewing the second volume, I immediately said yes, curious to see what he'd found this year. I wasn't disappointed. There are fewer stories than last year, though they are longer and there are repeat appearances and new big names. I had a great time with the book, but there were some stories that didn't work as well for me as others did.
The ones that didn't work for me just didn't grab me or their central conceit didn't click with me. In the case of Vogt's Girl with the Dagon Tattoo it's that to me the connection to H.P. Lovecraft only became clear after the mention Chtulhu and I wasn't familiar with the story referenced by the title as I've not read Lovecraft. All of this meant that the clue to Vogt's story went right past me. Konstantine Paradias' How You Ruined Everything had a fun premise, namely time travel gone wrong, but it was written in the second person present. And that is the one narrative mode that I always struggle with. White's The Wiggy Turpin Affair was a fun story, considering its Jeeves and Wooster vibe, but I struggled to wrap my head around the resolution of the story and it left me a little underwhelmed. All of these are highly personal reactions – the stories aren't badly written at all – they just didn't connect with me. My favourite stories all did connect with me, mostly due to their narrators just clicking on my head. I'll go into my favourite stories individually.
Ken Liu - The MSG Golem I know many people are huge fans of Liu's short fiction and I am one of them. Of all his stories I've read there are only one or two I didn't love, merely liked, so it's no surprise to find him among my favourites once again. I enjoyed Rebecca's voice immensely. She's a fun and witty ten-year-old, with a delightful mixture of world-weary cynicism pre-teens can display mixed with boundless enthusiasm to throw herself in new things whole-heartedly. I love Liu's gentle mocking of the prejudices that are oft-held about Chinese and Jewish parents. Behind the fun there is a story about family and parental love, which I found very touching.
Matt Mikalatos - A Stiff Bargain Mikatalos is one of the returning authors from the first volume and he's stuck with his protagonist from that volume's story, the vampire Isaac Van Helsing, yes the son of that Van Helsing. The second story in which Chtulhu makes an appearance and this time my lack of grounding in his mythos wasn't a problem. I thought it was a very fun story and one filled with great secondary characters, such as Isaac's landlady Mother Holmes and his ghostly former servant Richard. What amazed me most about the story was that Chtulhu knew how to use a phone and how to prank call!
M.C.A. Hogarth - Improved Cubicle Door Now this is how you make office life interesting. Just give everyone a limited amount of mana and a spell book and of you go. A mixture between a scathing commentary on cubicle office life and an exciting DnD campaign, I had a blast with Hogarth's story.
Jody Lynn Nye - Insider Information It shouldn't be surprising that Insider Information is one of my favourites, since in my review for the first volume I said of Nye's story that I hoped she'd write more in this setting and perhaps even a long form story. Well, long form this is not, but it does mark the return of D.S. Dena Malone and her symbiotic alien guest, K't'ank. And like last time I adored this story. I just love the idea behind the link between Malone and K't'ank and the way Nye elaborates on it; the having to adapt her way of reading to let him watch TV, the way he's always listening in. Coupled a great crime to solve, it makes for a fantastic story and I really hope, once again, that there will be more in the future.
James Beamon - Class Action Orc Beamon writes a great story featuring a likeable bad guy protagonist. I really liked the voice of the narrator, who is wry and unapologetic for his nature. His rivalry with the prosecutor, who is a High Elf (naturally) is very fun and they're given a great case to battle it out over in court. With as a star witness the talking sword Cleave. I swear Cleave himself is worth reading this story; he made me laugh so hard. He reminded me of the talking sword in Baldur's Gate II only smarter. Class Action Orc had me laughing out loud and I really enjoyed it. This is another setting and protagonist I'd not mind reading more of.
Overall, Unidentified Funny Objects 2 was another fun read and a good addition to the series. I look forward to seeing how Shvartsman will expand on it next year in UFO 3.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a genuine science fiction classic that, depending on whom you ask, is part of science fiction canon. Being the SF n00b th...moreThe Left Hand of Darkness is a genuine science fiction classic that, depending on whom you ask, is part of science fiction canon. Being the SF n00b that I am, I hadn't read any of Le Guin's books before, other than her Earthsea novels, which are fantasy. But even those took me two tries to read and The Left Hand of Darkness is the sort of old-school SF I've never tried, because I thought I wouldn't be able to get it. However, having discovered that I do enjoy "modern" SF in the last few years, I was hopeful that I'd like this one as well. The Left Hand of Darkness also intrigued me as it's been referenced again and again in conversations about Ann Leckie's much praised book Ancillary Justice. So when The Left Hand of Darkness was announced as the next Hodder Review Project title, I was pretty stoked.
When the book arrived, I thought: "Yay! A short one, I'll be able to finish it in a day or two." It turns out that was a little optimistic, as it actually took me twice the time I thought it would. While it would be easy to blame it on pre-Christmas break fatigue and general lack of time to read, in actual fact I think it had far more to do with me having to stop and reread or think over what I'd just read. The book was very thought-provoking, especially since much of its themes regarding gender and acceptance are (unfortunately) still very current and relevant to the conversations held in the fieldtoday. The Left Hand of Darkness has so much to unpack, that I'd have to reread it – probably several times – to get it all clearly identified.
Gender is the most important theme in the novel split into three elements. First there is the gender fluidity of the Gethenians and the difficulties Genly has in accepting this. Only once he's able to reconcile that they are both masculine and feminine, is he able to let go of his own cultural prejudices and accept Gethenian nature fully; he even comes to platonically love Estraven. – though I wonder why it could only be platonically. Why couldn't they have truly loved each other in every sense? Would this have pushed the conceit of Gethenian ambi-sexuality a bridge too far in the eyes of 1969 readers? – From this gender fluidity also flows a critical consideration of gender politics and how gender plays a part in how people behave, how they are treated and what is expected from them. The fact that Gethenians are often both biologically fathers and mothers, having both borne and begotten children, seems to Genly to change the way they relate to their offspring, as a lessening of their maternal instincts or perhaps as an increase in their paternal instinct. Similarly, there isn't a limit to what a Gethenian can achieve professionally as there isn't a societal expectation of gender roles.
And underlying both of the previous aspects is the notion of cultural bias and prejudice. Genly can't seem to wrap his head around Gethenian society, neither Karhide’s nor Orgoreyn’s. He can't let go of his bi-gendered world view and views the Gethenians' feminine behavioural traits when in their neuter stage as effeminate and thus reprehensible. At the same time, the Gethenians consider Genly a pervert because in their eyes he's constantly in a sexually-determined stage and thus sexually motivated. Le Guin’s choice of the standard usage of he/his as a pronoun makes sense from Genly’s perspective as he comes from a bi-gendered culture and his own world view is decidedly male. However, one wonders whether this choice was as natural for the Gethenians, though if they had used the feminine pronoun by default, this would have quickly become quite confusing, I think. There are also some dubious assumptions on Genly's part, namely that Gethenians don't understand the concept of full-scale war, partly because of their feminine side. If there had been permanent males, war would have been a natural conclusion. Personally, I very much doubt this conclusion and I wondered why he never asked Estraven about it.
There is also plenty of political commentary in the novel, largely centred in the differences between Karhide and Orgoreyn. I kept trying to link these nations with a real-world equivalent, with especially Orgoreyn reminding me of a form of communist state in the vein of the DDR or the USSR. However, this might have been me reading too much into the text and giving too much weight to the year it was published. In any case, neither nation comes off very well, with Karhide being subject to the whims of an insane king and his corrupt advisors and Orgoreyn part of an even corrupter bureaucracy. In contrast, the Ekumen seems rather utopian, a beneficial coalition of human civilisations, concerned more with the good of humanity and trade than with actually making and upholding laws. Membership of the Ekumen is voluntary; they even have something reminiscent of Star Trek's Prime Directive, where they aren't supposed to teach potential allies new skills and technologies, such as telepathy or the creation of ansibles.
It's easy to see why Roz Kaveney included The Left Hand of Darkness in an article on radical reading in SF. The book is still relevant today and I can only imagine how ground-breaking the novel was when first published. But beyond all the important themes and subtext, The Left Hand of Darkness is also a really pleasurable read, both for its story and Le Guin's writing. I'll definitely be rereading this seminal work and I'll have to make a point of reading more of Le Guin's oeuvre; I have some catching up to do.
Cemetery Girl: The Pretenders is a book of firsts: it's the first book in a new series for Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden, it's the first gra...moreCemetery Girl: The Pretenders is a book of firsts: it's the first book in a new series for Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden, it's the first graphic novel Jo Fletcher Books has ever published, and it's my first-ever graphic novel. It's been decades since I last read comics and even then it was more of the Asterix, Tintin, and Donald Duck variety instead of DC or Marvel. So I was interested to see how I would enjoy reading one now that I'm an adult. It was definitely and fun and successful experiment.
Cemetery Girl has a cool story centred on its protagonist, the titular Cemetery Girl, Calexa. We meet Calexa when she's left for dead at Dunhill Cemetery and we follow her making a life for herself there. Calexa doesn't remember anything before her life at the cemetery, a mystery that seems to lie at the core of the series. During the course of the book she does regain bits and pieces here and there and this is where the plot for this first instalment comes in. In the course of her involvement with the teens running amok in the cemetery some memories are shaken loose and these form a hook for the next book.
In addition to Calexa there are two or three other prominent characters and of course the teenage vandals. Calexa finds people who care for her in the person of the cemetery caretaker, Mr Kelner and in the old lady living opposite the cemetery, Lucinda Cameron. While they get limited screen time, we do get a good sense of who they are. We get a lot of background information in relatively few panels for both Kelner and the old lady. Some of it not even stated explicitly, but there in the background.
The art, drawn by Don Kramer and coloured by Daniele Rudoni, fits the story really well and has lots of detailing. The colours and the tonal palette used are muted and often blue/greenish in overtone, helped by the fact that a lot of the story is set at night. This lent the visual aspect of the story a dark and chilling mood, contrasted with the far warmer and brighter tones used for scenes where Calexa feels safe and cared for or when we visit someone's memories. It almost felt like a form of visual pacing, where the brighter and safer panels allowed the reader to breathe before the next action scene.
As stated above, reading Cemetery Girl: The Pretenders was a quite enjoyable experiment. This is a lovely story, not just suitable for adults but a YA audience too. While the plot for this story is resolved, the main story arc very much isn't and we're left with plenty of questions. It a fast read, I read it in about an hour, but satisfying nonetheless. I look forward to seeing – literally in this case – what happens to Calexa next and what she discovers about her history.
Tom Lloyd is one of those authors who have been on my radar for a couple of years, but whose work I hadn't read yet. In Tom's case because when I disc...moreTom Lloyd is one of those authors who have been on my radar for a couple of years, but whose work I hadn't read yet. In Tom's case because when I discovered him, he was already more than half-way through his previous series, The Twilight Reign, which was five books long. I did pick up the first book in the series, The Stormcaller, in 2011 but it has been languishing in my TBR-pile ever since, due to new and shiny review copies muscling in. So when Gollancz announced his new book, which seemed to be a standalone (in fact it's not), I knew I had to read it and finally hop on board the Lloyd train.
Moon's Artifice is a mix of crime, mystery and epic fantasy. While at its heart this is the story of Narin and company figuring out who Irato is and what the poison called Moon's Artifice is meant to achieve, if they fail it will have far-reaching consequences, not just for those in the Imperial City, but for all the inhabitants of the Empire of a Hundred Houses—that makes it pretty epic in my book. However, while epic in consequences, due to its mystery-solving nature, the book also feels intimate. We spend a lot of time with our main group of protagonists and some of the antagonists and we get a good feel for who they are.
Narin's group of stalwarts consists of his close friend Enchei, an old war veteran who definitely is more than he seems, Kesh, a young woman drawn into the conflict due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Irato, a victim of Moon's Artifice who is a stone-cold killer but has no memories of his misdeeds. On the edges of this are Lawbringer Rhe, Narin's mentor and direct superior, and the other Lawbringers and Investigators of the Palace of Law. They are the cavalry and Rhe helps Narin think things through and figure out the mystery. On the opposite side there are the Goshe and their nefarious goals for Moon's Artifice. Added into this mix are demons of all sorts and sizes, creatures of which we're never certain whose side they are on.
I really enjoyed the characters surrounding Narin. Enchei reminded me a bit of Feist's Nakor. He had the same wilful mysteriousness about him and the same contrary sense of humour. Kesh is wonderful; she's brave, despite her fears, feisty and resourceful, and above all she's loyal and very, very human. I liked the interplay between her and Irato. I'd have expected her to never be able to forgive Irato and while she doesn't out and out forgive him, she does seem to come to an acceptance of him and that who he is now isn't the same person he was before. Irato posed an interesting question to the reader: is a person inherently, genetically evil or does circumstance – be it due to mental disorders, experiences, abuse or what have you – play into it? Because the Irato we meet is a meek, loyal companion, not a cold-blooded assassin and this is not just a puzzle to the reader, but to Kesh as well.
At the centre of this group is Narin. He's a good man, devoted to the Lawbringers and their oaths, and he's a sympathetic main character. He's neither supernaturally gifted for the task nor unsuited, but you get the sense he is where he is through hard work and dedication. The only thing that detracts from this image is his romantic entanglement with the Lady Kine. While I liked how much he was driven by his love for Kine and his responsibilities to her, at some points his constant drifting off to ponder their situation and his love for her rather got on my nerves as I wanted him to focus on the tasks at hand, because they were pretty dire. Then again, it also felt supremely genuine, to worry about something more in the future instead of what's right in front of you. Narin is by no means perfect, but he tries to do the best he can by everybody and it makes him infinitely sympathetic.
All of the characters need a stage to play on and Lloyd has built them a wonderfully intricate world to inhabit. I loved the political intricacies of the Empire of a Hundred Houses and their strict House and caste-based society. I also like that the characters run the gamut in terms of appearance, including having red eyes or even wolf-yellow ones. The location and the topography of the Imperial City are also fascinating. It's been built on the ruins of an older civilisation and it's been strictly divided into sections by House loyalties. The one element I would have loved to have learned more about are the various demons roaming the city. There are the almost ubiquitous fox demons and the larger and older Apkai and some others who pass through the narrative and I'd love to have learned more about their place in the Empire's religion and its magic. The society is also a curious mixture of magic and flintlock, with fire power using black powder is firmly in the control of the Astaren, the magicians, whose very name strikes fear into the rest of the world. They are another group I'd loved to read about in greater detail.
Moon's Artifice was a great read, both fun and compelling. When I started the novel I wasn't completely clear on whether the book was a standalone or not, but I was really hoping there would be more the closer I got to the end. Lo and behold, I read that there will be another book called Old Man's Ghosts. Despite there being a follow up in the works, Moon's Artifice stands alone beautifully as its plot and narrative arc are fully resolved by the ending of the book. While there are some loose ends left, there aren't so many or such big ones that it makes the ending unsatisfactory. I really enjoyed Moon's Artifice tremendously and I think it's a great entry point for new Tom Lloyd readers and well as a satisfying new novel for existing fans.
Scary stories are still tricky reads for me. The balance between deliciously scary and nightmare-inducing is a thin line. As opposed to End of the Lin...moreScary stories are still tricky reads for me. The balance between deliciously scary and nightmare-inducing is a thin line. As opposed to End of the Line which was straight-up horror, End of the Road takes road stories on with a slant to the weird, but still there are some pretty scary stories here. However, they stayed firmly on the side of deliciously scary, even if some of them pushed the line quite closely.
I enjoyed this anthology quite a bit, though some of the stories didn't really resonate with me, most notably the stories by Reeve and Nevill. Coincidentally, these were the opening and closing stories of the anthology. Technically, they were good stories and the craft that went into them was great, but they both made me feel impatient to get to the ending and not because I needed to know how the tale ended. The thing that put me off We Know Where We're Goin, the Philip Reeve story, was also its major strength: the rhythm and, for want of a better word, dialect the story is told in. I usually don't mind dialects in my fiction, but in this case even though it was really well done, it grated more than it worked for me. In the case of Adam Nevill's story, Always in Our Hearts, while I appreciated the structure and plot, I just couldn't connect to the characters and their emotions. However, even if these two didn't work for me, there were plenty of others that did. The following ones were the ones I connected to the most.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew - Fade to Gold Fade to Gold features an interesting protagonist, a soldier who is quickly revealed to be female by the woman she meets on the road, who in turn has her own secret to keep. They decide to travel together and what follows is a poignant story about societal expectations, impossible love, and destroying something you treasure before you've discovered its worth.
Dagiti Timayap Garda (of the Flying Guardians) - Rochita Loenen-Ruiz As with Fade to Gold, Dagiti Timayap Garda features a mythical being. I loved Arbo, the Flying Guardian protagonist and his journey towards the future. To say more of his story and of the young human man, Kagawan, who accompanies him would quickly lead to spoilers; suffice it to say, the twist ending was unexpectedly hopeful.
Bingo - S.L. Grey In this story S.L. Grey take the question "What would you do to spare someone extended suffering?" and combine it with what seems to be a burning case of road rage. It creates a rather effective blend of horror and fascination. The story, which is only about ten pages long, is also packed with social commentary: on peer pressure, on the lengths people will go to in order to get ahead, on old boy's networks, and on the objectification of women.
Peripateia - Vandana Singh Singh's story would definitely qualify as weird. I found it fascinating as there was so much to unpack. There's the question of what happened to the main character and her partner, for the latter to walk out giving no explanation for the why of her departure. The mystery of what exactly this road that appears to Sujata exactly is. And perhaps in the end, how much of it was real? Peripateia, the Greek word for turning point gives clues to the answers to all of those questions. I found this a clever story, with fascinating ideas – even though following some of the schemas and scientific hypotheses made my brain hurt – and a beautiful, moving ending.
Through Wylmere Woods - Sophia McDougall A companion piece to Mailer Daemon, from Oliver's last anthology Magic, the novelette Through Wylmere Woods gives us the origin story for Morgane and her daemon Levanter-Sleet. Sophia McDougall goes into the genesis of the story on her blog. Through Wylmere Woods is my absolute favourite story of the anthology, because as usual McDougall weaves a fantastic tale. What makes this story so wonderful is that it not only looks closely at what it is like to be abused by your family for being different, McDougall also approaches how Morgane's perception of herself differs from the way others perceive her with wonderful sensitivity and care. I loved Morgane's emotional connection to Mr Levanter-Sleet. He was the embodiment of the notion that darkness doesn't necessarily equal evil. Theirs is a wonderful bond and the resolution of Morgane horrific home life was quite dark, but satisfying nonetheless. I'd love to read more about these two in the future. Let's hope they pester McDougall until she writes about them!
Overall, The End of the Road is another solid anthology edited by Jonathan Oliver. What I especially enjoyed about this collection of stories was its diversity. Oliver included authors from all over the world and stories set all over the world, which results in a rich tapestry of mythology and landscape to the stories. If you like weird stories or stories about change and discovery, then I'd definitely recommend picking up The End of the Road.(less)
Jack the Ripper's identity is a mystery for the ages. As the first modern serial killer and certainly the first whose acts have been so well documente...moreJack the Ripper's identity is a mystery for the ages. As the first modern serial killer and certainly the first whose acts have been so well documented, he has been the inspiration for countless stories, many of them creating their own solution for the riddle of who he was. Letters From a Murderer is the latest novel in this vein and it has to be said, the story John Matthews paints is riveting. It's clear that Matthews knows his Ripper history and he weaves in some very detailed facts into his fiction, making his story that much more plausible.
Letters From a Murderer plays off the assumption that one of the possible reasons of the sudden stop to the Ripper murders was because he emigrated. In the book the Ripper has moved to New York and has resumed his bloody work in the seething ant hill that is the poorer quarters of the metropolis. Once a connection is made to the Ripper murders, the London authorities refer the New York Police Squad to Finley Jameson, a Brit and former protégé of the London criminalist Thomas Colby, who has been living in New York after the death of his aunt. Jameson is called in to consult with the new lead investigator on the case, Joseph Argenti.
The title is a great word play on both the letters the Ripper sent to the police and the press – the first of which famously began Dear Boss... – and on one of the plot points. The case is very much a psychological game between Jameson and Argenti on the one hand and the Ripper on the other. The Ripper makes the case personal by blaming the further deaths of any victims on Jameson for not catching him sooner. Matthews succeeds in making the reader doubt everyone, the only one whose veracity is never suspect is Argenti. Argenti is a good man and an upstanding police officer, a fact that results in a great subplot to the novel. Corruption was rife in the NY police force at the time and Mathews incorporates this into his story through the antagonism between Argenti and McClusky and other cops on the take. McClusky is in the pocket of Michael Tierney, one of the big crime lords of the city, and their animosity towards Argenti, not to mention their need to keep their agreement under wraps creates some interesting situations for our intrepid investigators. It made the story less about the Ripper case and more about the characters of Argenti and Jameson, while at the same time adding extra tension to the Ripper story line.
Argenti and Jameson are fascinating characters. There are some Sherlockian overtones in both Jameson, with his less-than-recreational use of the poppy, and in his assistant Lawrence, who has an almost savant-like recall. Like Holmes there are also rumours of mental illness, which in Lawrence's case are well known. Jameson is a privileged member of the upper class and as such doesn't always blend very well with those he works with and investigates. But for all his short-sightedness and occasional boorishness to those less-fortunate than he, he isn't a bad man. This is illustrated by his taking Ellie Cullen under his wing to teach her how to read. I loved Jameson's interactions with Ellie. She's a fabulous character and I liked how Matthews leveraged her to humanise the victims, especially since society at large at the time didn't really seem to care about these women whose work was less than respectable and lived on the edges of society. This is re-enforced by Argenti's feelings whenever he has to notify the parents of another victim. He sees them as human first and foremost and not as beneath notice. Argenti is a bit older and a solid working cop, with a loving family life. I liked that they were included in the novel; we see him around them and the love shared among them, which might go some way to explaining his sympathy for the grieving parents, but Argenti is also a man with a secret. We learn the full extent of his secret late in the book and it makes a lot about Argenti clearer, though it's more of a deepening of our understanding than that he's revealed in a new light.
Letters From a Murderer was a compelling read with two fabulous lead investigators, who I hope we'll get to see much more of in the future. Matthews tells a great story laced with pathos and unexpected twists, which I just couldn't put down. It was an exciting and gripping narrative, which elaborates on the Jack the Ripper mystery in a novel way. If you enjoy historical crime fiction, this is the book to put on your Christmas wish list this year.
Rosie Best's Skulk was one of my Anticipated Reads of the second half of 2013 and while it took me long enough to actually read it, that label was com...moreRosie Best's Skulk was one of my Anticipated Reads of the second half of 2013 and while it took me long enough to actually read it, that label was completely justified. What drew me to the book were its London setting and the fact that its main supernatural element was shapeshifting. This sounded like it would be quite interesting and I was interested to see how Best would approach the shapeshifting, would she take the were-creature approach or go for something more innate such as the Japanese Kitsune. Skulk promptly delivered on my expectations and more; the book was an awesome read with indeed a fantastic shapeshifter mythology seemingly untied to any existing tradition.
The shapeshifting in the book took a completely different road from were-creatures or Kitsune-like spirits. The shapeshifters in Skulk can change at will and while their ability isn't in-born, they aren't infected through a bite or other violence. There is also a strictly limited number of sorts of shapeshifters. They can become foxes, spiders, butterflies, rats, or ravens. They each band together in factions, somewhat like a family, as there are always only six members of each faction. The story behind the creation of the shifters was quite cool. I loved the political manoeuvring of the different factions, some of them are somewhat neutral, others are outright enemies, but most of them have forgotten their origin and heritage. The different factions are given shape quite clearly with each having their own meeting place, which fits the character of their shifted shape quite well, such as the Tower for the ravens and Kew gardens for the butterflies. However, the people behind the animal shapes are varied and sometimes quite incongruent with the nature of their creature, such as one of the butterflies who turns out to be a seven-feet tall, massively muscled, and fit man; not exactly the type you associate with butterflies, unless you're into boxing of course.
Meg's character is fabulous and has a really distinct voice. I like that she's a heroine with rough edges and that – to her mum's eternal disappointment – she's not your average teen in the looks-department, or rather she isn't a size zero, instead at size sixteen she's a little on the chubby side (if I've got my conversions right). Between a father who hardly seems to notice her and a mother who seems impossible to please when it comes to Meg, it's a wonder she's come out as nice as she does. Meg's parents are awful; especially her mum is evil and abusive, though one might say that her uninterested and negligent father is even worse. Meg finds her escape in her graffiti art, which I really enjoyed, especially as it gives her something in common with Mo and made their rather fast connection more plausible. I found the way Best plays Meg's desperate need to save her parents off her rather guilty relief at being free of her mum's pernicious treatment done really well and I could completely feel Meg's self-doubt when she realises her conflicting emotions. Because what sort of person wouldn't want to save their mum, however horrible she treats them? The answer obviously is a very human one, because only a saint would not be conflicted, and I loved the Best let Meg go there.
Meg is surrounded by a wonderfully diverse cast, in character, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race. Mo, short for Mohammed, is a lovely chap and a great love interest. But my favourite character next to Meg was Addie. A scrappy, homeless teenager, I loved her independence and her spunk, while at the same time just wishing I could take her in and feed her up. She's loyal and courageous and rather funny. Another wonderful supporting character was James. He was completely charming and the reason he is a bit of a magpie who prefers to remain in his fox form was quite touching. It made me rather sad that he'd think so little of himself, that he'd hide himself away. The bad guys were delicious and the true identity of the main antagonist was a complete surprise which I adored.
The one problem I had with the novel is the portrayal of Ameera and Jewel, who were made to look flighty and shallow, obsessed with looks and boys, which on its own shouldn't be problematic, but it's done in a way that is rather judgemental and condescending on Meg's part. Given Meg's background with her mum's obsession with her weight and her social life it might be understandable in context, but it might be giving the wrong signal. I mean, it's not really slut-shaming, but it's also projecting a quite clear judgement on people who seemingly are more happy-go-lucky and – for lack of a better expression – in with the popular crowd.
That one critical note aside, I had a fabulous time with Skulk. Best has created a great version of London and an intriguing shapeshifting mythology and used it as a base for an exciting and intricate puzzle of a mystery. Skulk was just the first book in Meg's adventure; its sequel Rabble will be out in the fall of next year and I'm really looking forward to find out what happens next.
Discussing Shadowplay is impossible without revealing some major spoilers for the previous book Pantomime. If you haven't read it and want to remain u...moreDiscussing Shadowplay is impossible without revealing some major spoilers for the previous book Pantomime. If you haven't read it and want to remain unspoiled, please read no further. You've been warned: here be spoilers!
Laura Lam's debut Pantomime was exquisite. Not only was it wonderfully atmospheric and exciting, it also featured an intersex protagonist, something I at least hadn't seen written about before and it was done beautifully and with care. So to say that my expectations were high for Shadowplay would be an understatement. To my delight, Lam managed to meet all of them and even left them behind with her second book in the Micah Grey series.
After the climactic events of Pantomime, Micah and Drystan find refuge with an old mentor of Drystan's, Jasper Maske and move from the circus ring to the magic theatre stage. I loved how Lam managed to find them a new place but with a similar enchanting atmosphere to the circus. The magic we see them learn under Maske's tutelage is a well-developed mix between sleight-of-hand and illusions. Maske's teaching of magic and séances was interesting and cool and even drew back the curtains on some of the mechanics of illusion. In a way the story evoked The Prestige somewhat in its rivalry between Jasper Maske and his former partner Pen Taliesin. I loved this plotline and Lam plays it out beautifully.
Jasper Maske is a wonderful paternal character in need of redemption. This is given to him by the family he collects around him consisting of people who find refuge in his old, run-down theatre. Lam makes him both sympathetic and a bit mysterious, without having him become pitiful due to his past. The main other new addition is Cyan, a Temnian girl who's run away from home to escape her parents' disapproval of her abilities. She's a wonderful addition to the mix, creating a bit of tension between Micah and Drystan, but also just interesting in and of herself. Other characters who play their part are Lily Vere, Maske's lady love, and Pen Taliesin and his grandsons, who are the main adversaries in this book. And of course there is the Shadow who has been looking for Micah to return him to his parents.
Lam also expands the reader's knowledge of Ellada, both in the book's present and its past. In the present we learn more about the current political situation through the presence of the Foresters, a group who protests the current distribution of power between classes. I expect them to play a larger part in the next book, but in Shadowplay they are one of the signals that all is not well in Ellada. We learn more about the past and Ellada's history with the Chimaera and the Alder through the memories imparted to Micah by the Phantom Damselfly, whose name turns out to be Anisa. I loved Anisa's memories and the way she can still be a character with agency despite having been 'stored' on a disc. Lam also uses Anisa and her memories to create a greater story arc. Where Pantomime was intimate, a coming-of-age story if you will, Shadowplay widens the scope to becoming a saving-the-world story in the rest of the series.
It's hard to talk about the book without giving too much away, which might make this review seem somewhat vague, however I truly adored Shadowplay. Lam's writing is gorgeous and with Shadowplay she's proven she's here to stay and has put herself on my must-read list. While the story can be read without having read Pantomime, not having read it takes away from the story Lam is weaving and I highly recommend you pick it up before reading Shadowplay. If you have read Pantomime, you probably don't need me to convince you to go read it. Shadowplay was brilliant, even if it ends on somewhat of a cliff hanger, and I can't wait to find out what happens next.
The cover for Amalie Howard's The Almost Girl really caught my attention when it was launched and when I read the blurb I looked forward to the chance...moreThe cover for Amalie Howard's The Almost Girl really caught my attention when it was launched and when I read the blurb I looked forward to the chance of reading this. When I started the book I was a bit disconcerted to get a huge Terminator vibe from the book. Not that the specifics of the two are very similar, apart from Riven being sent from a parallel world that felt very futuristic and where there had been an AI war, but it did remind me of it. However, this vibe quickly faded and then I was just sucked into the story and didn't emerge, or should I say evert, until I finished the book.
Told from Riven's first-person viewpoint, she's the story's beating heart. I thought she was a wonderful character and one that goes through and interesting transformation. She starts out as an angry, mission-driven, and lonely individual and she ends this book in a completely different place. She's still a professional soldier, but she's let down her walls and let in her emotions and I really liked how Howard effected this change. Riven has a wonderful chemistry with Caden and I spent the book rooting for them to get together, but it's not Caden that changes Riven, or at least he only is one of the reasons she grows and not even the most important one. While the romantic element of the story was lovely, it's also about more than Riven and the boys. It's about Riven and Riven, because she finally learns the truth about herself and her family. She learns to understand and trust herself fully, not just the rational part of her, but her emotional side as well. And she finally understands the true nature of Neospes society thanks to her time in our world.
Neospes and its tech are fascinating and politically it's also an interesting place. It is very much a dystopian world, with an almost post-apocalyptic feel. Neospes' limitations on robotics and AI development makes for some interesting inventions to keep to the letter of the law but still be able to have the advantages of androids and other AI tech. The Vectors, who are for lack of a better description zombie androids, are gruesomely inventive. And they inspire a particular sense of dread, especially the later iterations. However, there's also a bit of authorial handwavium, where the tech seems plausible, but I still had a lot of questions. For example, if Earth and Neospes are parallel worlds, what happened to make their development diverge so much from each other? How are they so alike, yet Neospes seems to be centuries farther along in its development? How come they all speak the same language? What I did like is the idea of everting sickness; not just the fact that jumping between the worlds is physically harmful, but that those who evert to Earth from Neospes are somewhat allergic to our reality. It did make me wonder whether that shouldn't work both ways. Wouldn't Earth-born humans be allergic to Neospes?
Despite some of the more scienc-y questions it raised and its echoing of the Terminator vibe in the beginning, I had a fantastic time with The Almost Girl and I can't wait for the second half of the duology to discover how the story resolves. The Almost Girl is a clever, exciting novel with the perfect dash of romance thrown in. Howard writes a compelling story – she throws in some really ingenious twists to the plot, which ratchet up the tension to page-flipping, "can't put this book down" heights – in a very readable writing style, which makes for a very smooth reading experience overall.
Last year I read the first two books in the Low Town trilogy, The Straight Razor Cure and Tomorrow The Killing, in quick succession and both books m...moreLast year I read the first two books in the Low Town trilogy, The Straight Razor Cure and Tomorrow The Killing, in quick succession and both books made it into my favouritesfor 2012, so I had high expectations for She Who Waits. And Polansky not only managed to equal those expectations, he blew them right out of the water. In fact, She Who Waits was so good, it's going to take a lot to not just gush and fan-girl all over it for the entire review. Bear with me; I'll try to actually make sense as well.
It's been three years since Tomorrow the Killing when the story starts and Warden hasn't really turned his life around. He's clean, but he's still dealing and still the kingpin of Low Town. Wren has grown and Adeline and Adolphus are the same as always–solid and dependable. Rigun, however, is falling apart. Under the reign of a new king and with the Old Man slowly losing his grip on Black House the city poised on the brink of revolution under the leadership of the Sons of Śakra, also known as the Steps, a new religious sect that has sprung up. To add some more inflammatory material to this mix, there is also a new drug that has surfaced in the city, a drug they call red fever. One of the side effects of this drug is that some people go into a violent psychosis and become murderous. To investigate the origin of this new drug, the Steps bring in Warden, who is then roped back in by the Black House to spy on the Steps. This sets the stage for a breathtakingly paced narrative.
Of the three books this one is the darkest. Polansky creates a world where there is a clear distinction between good and evil, though his characters are many shades of grey. However, unlike as is often the case, Warden never seems to apologise for being so dark a grey it's hard to distinguish it from black. He knows he's a bad man and he doesn't pretend otherwise. Astonishingly, he's still a sympathetic protagonist, despite this fact. Exactly how Polansky pulls this off I don't know, but pull it off he does. One of the things I think helps in this regard is that Warden knows exactly who and what he is, is unapologetic about it, yet at the same time regrets that his life has turned out this way. I think the moment he shows Wren what his business is really about and Wren well and truly realises the man Warden is, it kind of breaks Warden's heart. He's no longer Wren's hero, which Warden thinks is all to the good, but at the same time feels as a loss, which in turn made me feel so sad for him.
In She Who Waits there is betrayal round every corner, people betraying Warden, Warden betraying others and everyone double-crossing everyone else. This means the reader has to pay close attention to remember where allegiances lie at any moment and that Polansky presents the reader with some major twists and surprises. As with the previous book we get a story arc from the past told through flash back chapters. I really enjoyed this storyline featuring Albertine quite enlightening, as we finally get the answer to why he was kicked out of the Black House and why Crowley hates him so very much. I also really, really liked the resolution of Albertine's story arc and what she meant to Warden.
She Who Waits has a stunning, stunning ending which wraps up the trilogy in a wonderful way. I think it's the best ending of a series I've read in ages. I've adored Warden, Low Town and this trilogy fiercely and She Who Waits has cemented it as one of the best series published in the last couple of years. Readers already invested in this series will need no encouragement, but if you haven't read these books and if you don't mind dark, morally grey, and gritty, then you need to read these books, because you're missing out in a major way if you don't. Daniel Polansky has firmly established himself as one of my must-read authors and I can't wait to see where he takes us next.