When I first learned of TimeBomb, I thought it sounded really interesting, which meant I was stoked to have won an ARC via Twitter. Described as a YA...moreWhen I first learned of TimeBomb, I thought it sounded really interesting, which meant I was stoked to have won an ARC via Twitter. Described as a YA trilogy featuring time travel and Roundheads and Cavaliers, it sounded like it should be a tremendous amount of fun and that is exactly what it was. TimeBomb was a page turner of a story, with a cool premise and fabulous characters.
The books kicks off with our protagonists all in their own times and being pulled to our present. I loved how Andrews set this up, letting us meet the characters and discover a bit about them and almost immediately throwing them into turmoil by jumping them through time and giving at least Dora and Jana flashes of themselves through space and time. What made the set up even more interesting was the fact that this initial event and consequently much of the action in the story is tied to Sweetclover Hall. There is a significance to the house that is only slowly revealed. While Kaz and Dora’s link to the place were clear, Jana’s connection to the manor is not as evident. This led me to wondering whether this will be revealed in a later book or whether it’s not relevant and their being chosen or having this power is not connected to the Hall at all.
The narrative is structured around three main characters, though we get several additional viewpoints, though none of these take up many pages. Andrews succeeds in making each of the three characters – Kaz, Jana, and Dora – interesting and sympathetic. They each are such distinct characters and have such different stories. Dora is the one whose background is developed most expansively, largely because much of the narrative is set in her ‘home’ timeline and so we learn not just her history, but also get to know her family. While we do get some history for Kaz, most notably the reasons for why he ran away from home, Jana remains mostly mystery The reader learns about her early childhood and the reason for her cavalier attitude to death, but we don’t learn much about her later family life.
The main antagonist of the book, Quil, was the most excellent sort of villain. The kind that doesn’t actually seem villainous at first glance. In Quil’s case that is because she comes across as eminently reasonable and because so much of what she’ll do, is still in the future and since our trio aren't supposed to learn about what is going to happen so as not to ultimately change things, the reader never learns what it is exactly that she does, except that it will be bad. The fact that they have to accept that this is the truth because someone tells them it will be, is the one thing that truly bugged me about the story; it felt a bit Terminator-ish to me. We only see what she does in this book, which granted is bad enough, but not on the scale of evil she’s portrayed as. It only gets really bad once she is defied.
In this first instalment in the series there is a bit of handwavium as to technical and time travelling details, which hopefully we’ll learn more about in the other two books. However, I didn't mind the handwaving at all, because the story was just that exciting. Despite a large swathe of the story taking place in the seventeenth century – with the accompanying muskets, swords, and horses – the narrative feels high-octane with a lot of action. At first the trio is only able to react and it is interesting to see how they struggle to get their feet under them and be able to act. They are aided or opposed in this, not just by the aforementioned Quil, but also by a fantastic set of secondary characters in the form of Lord Sweetclover, the mysterious Steve, Dora’s father Thomas, and the royalist soldier Richard. They each felt real and rounded, even if in some cases they didn’t have that much page time.
TimeBomb was tremendous fun and made for surprisingly addictive reading: I finished the book in one sitting. I can't wait for book two and to discover the meaning of the flashes they had during their first jump be realised. Thus far there was only the one, but they promise a lot of exciting action to come and most importantly I want to learn who Quil actually is. With TimeBomb Andrews has delivered a riveting series opener. If you enjoy fast-paced, action-driven time travel stories, this book is for you, whatever your age.(less)
Jani and the Greater Game is not your usual Eric Brown, at least not at first blush. There are no huge space ships, or alien invasions or travel among...moreJani and the Greater Game is not your usual Eric Brown, at least not at first blush. There are no huge space ships, or alien invasions or travel among the stars, at least not judging from the synopsis on the back of the book. Instead, we're given a YA steampunk adventure set in an alternative 1910 British Raj. Yet it turns out Jani and the Greater Game actually is classic Eric Brown: the book explores societal change and how his characters react to this, though in this case the change isn’t brought about through alien occupation, but through the rise of Indian Nationalism and the threat of invasion from places unknown.
Jani is a great character. Daughter of an English mother and an Indian father, her loyalties are often divided and she doesn't fit wholly in either place. She does start the book with Nationalist leanings, which gradually turn into a conviction that India would be better off without the Raj. While initially planning to return to England and marry her suitor, once home in India, she feels its draw and a growing desire to settle there and use her medical degree to serve her people. In some ways Jani feels like she will be a suffragette in the future.
The narrative contains a rather heavy-handed commentary on British colonialism in India and the (genuine) atrocities committed there. This commentary mostly comes through the depiction of the British villains, who are the worst examples of the Raj imaginable, especially the execrable Colonel Smethers. Their casual racism and cruelty are blatant and feel almost like a caricature—though I sadly fear that it was, and in some cases is, true to life and not fictive at all. Yet with their villainy leaning against seeming over the top, as a consequence they feel rather flat and unexplored. Something that is also true for the two Russian spies that pursue Jane and Anand. The only one that has some depth to him is Durga Das, but only because his motivation is explored beyond being power-hungry.
Of course, Jani doesn't go adventuring on her own, she has some very interesting allies. I loved the Lady Eddington she meets on the way home to India, who is such a spunky old lady. But her true companion and sidekick is Anand, childhood friend and staunch supporter. He was lovely and while more than a bit smitten with Jani, I liked that he also acted from a sense of duty and friendship. And of course there is the mysterious Jelch, who aids Jani in unexpected ways. He did feel like a 'deus-ex-machina' device on some occasions, yet he was also strangely compelling.
My favourite steampunk elements were Max the MechMan and Mel the clockwork elephant. Mr. Clockwork's Emporium in general sounds like a wondrous place, but those two creations were just awesome. The mysterious Annapurnite, which powers them, is an interesting concept as was its origin. Though it’s unclear whether Annapurnite is actually a finite resource or whether it is retro-engineered from what’s been found in the footholds of the Himalayans.
Jani and the Greater Game has quite the old-school, Vernian vibe to it and in fact Jules Verne is directly referenced when it is intimated that his books were based on actual true events. Jani’s adventure starts with a bang when her airship is shot out of the sky en route to Delhi. In the aftermath Jani has an encounter that will change her life and will lead to three separate parties trying to capture her. There is a twist which is revealed early on that I don’t want to spoil, but suffice it to say that it changes the scope of the adventure. The story elements connected to the twists are perhaps familiar, but very entertaining.
Usually I have a hard time really getting into steampunk stories; I enjoy them, but there is always the niggle at the back of my head that things don’t make sense. On some level I’d hoped that Brown would be able to do for steampunk what he did for SF: make me realise that I could get it and enjoy it whole-heartedly. Sadly, he didn’t really succeed. While I enjoyed my time spent with Jani and I look forward to seeing how her adventure will continue in the next book, the novel hasn’t inspired the same desire to read more steampunk that Kéthani did for SF. Still, Jani and the Greater Game does make for a rip-roaring, old-school adventure and is great fun.
The Foundry’s Edge is the first instalment in The Book of Ore and is aimed at the middle grade market. As such it is a bit younger than I usually read...moreThe Foundry’s Edge is the first instalment in The Book of Ore and is aimed at the middle grade market. As such it is a bit younger than I usually read, but in my opinion it’s very much at the upper range and there will be plenty young adult readers who will get a kick out of this story. It’s a very fun romp with a lot of action and very cool characters. I enjoyed the book tremendously, not least because of the wonderfully inventive world of Mehk and the cool characters that inhabit it.
The narrative is a portal novel with two distinct worlds between the human world where we first encounter Phoebe and Micah, in the city of Albright and that of Mehk, where they find themselves transported on their journey to rescue Phoebe’s father. The world of Albright is a modern one, yet at the same time had a steampunky vibe. It has a lot of amazing tech that makes the world feel exciting. But the world of Mehk is where Baity and Zelkowicz really go to town with their imaginations and creativity. Mehk is a completely different universe, not because it has magic, though there might be, but because life in Mehk is metal-based and everything is alien, yet strangely familiar to Phoebe and Micah. I really enjoyed the creatures the authors dreamed up and it made for a fascinating backdrop for the children’s adventures.
The main characters, Phoebe and Micah, are a great duo. Phoebe is a bit of a brat, between the way she treats those who care for her with her father away and her endless practical jokes, which at times a rather mean-spirited, yet at the same time is oddly endearing and ultimately rather lonely, with a father often away on business and having lost her mum in a drowning accident. Phoebe’s love of her father is sorely tested and she has to learn that hardest of lessons any child will have to learn, that their parents are fallible and human and forgiving them for it. Micah is the youngest son of her father’s housekeeper and employed as a grease monkey. Resentful of Phoebe’s privileged existence he is unaware of her sadness and loneliness and only decides to go after Phoebe and her father in hopes of making a good impression on him. Phoebe and Micah’s interactions start out rather adversarial, yet slowly trust grows between them, yet this doesn’t happen without setbacks either. The gradual change was well-handled and I really liked the bond they forged between them.
On their quest to rescue Phoebe’s father the children encounter numerous creatures, ranging from crane-like beings, to huge tank-like creatures, to one resembling a wheelbarrow who serves as transportation. The ones we get to know most closely though are Mr. Pynch, a ball-like creature, and The Marquis, who I picture something like a streetlamp, who serve as their guides to the Citadel and Dollop, a strangely lopsided creature, who can rearrange himself in whatever configuration is most useful and as a result doesn’t know who or what he is exactly. I loved Dollop; he rather reminded me of a cross between Harry Potter’s Dobby and Gurgi from The Black Cauldron. He doesn’t just provide comic relief at times, he’s also a non-threatening way from the children to learn about Mehk.
While the story is a big adventure and action-driven romp, there are some serious themes underlying the story, such as exploitation, genocide, annihilation, and colonialism. All is not well in the human world where Phoebe and Micah’s home country of Meridian is technologically superior due to its mechanical wonders. They are at the brink of war and there is a lot of politicking, heavily influenced by the corporate interests of the Foundry, source of these wonders. At the same time the Foundry commits atrocities in Mehk to obtain the components necessary to create their products, which leads to exploitation of the Mehkies, mass-killing of those considered expendable, annihilation of Mehk through an infestation known as CHAR and a general occupation of the world of Mehk, which leads to the rise of freedom fighters in the form of the Covenant. Baity and Zelkowicz slip these issues in with subtlety and without being heavy-handed.
The Foundry’s Edge was fun, yet with serious undertones. This book would be a great read for an adventure-mad middle-grader or young teen and is an entertaining read for adults as well. The first in a series, the book sets up the worlds and events, creating a conflict for the children to resolve in the next book and it will be interesting to see what Phoebe and Micah will have to deal with next, how they will take on The Foundry and help the innocent citizens of Mehk.
The Second World War has always held a special fascination for me both due to the important role it played in my country’s history and because my dad...moreThe Second World War has always held a special fascination for me both due to the important role it played in my country’s history and because my dad used to read to me from all sorts of WWII adventure novels when I was little. Since those early years I’ve read a lot of books on the topic, both fiction and non-fiction. When I was approached about reviewing And Some Fell on Stony Ground it wasn’t a hard decision to say yes, since it fit squarely in that wheelhouse and sounded fascinating. A fictional memoir – meaning that while this story was fictional, but that the experiences it was based on weren’t fictive – the narrative follows the last active hours of an RAF pilot’s career in a close-up, hard-hitting fashion, one that does away with the shining, heroic accounts of such exploits and instead focuses on the bone-chilling fear and danger these young men faced every operation they flew.
Told in a close third-person point of view over the course of about twelve hours, the narrative is both claustrophobic and a close examination of the emotional state of the novel’s protagonist Leslie Mason. While set over half a day, we get more of Mason’s war experience through copious flashbacks; memories triggered by events, scents, and sounds Mason encounters during his preparations and actual running of the day’s operation. It is a fascinating, stream-of-consciousness-esque way of giving the reader an insight to Mason’s state of mind and the larger scope of the experiences of the Bomber Boys.
The book’s protagonist, Leslie Mason, is somewhat of an anti-hero. The look at his thoughts and emotions is searingly honest; due to the fictional veneer and the fact that what we get are mostly internal dialogues, the story is not concerned with honour and saving face, which means we get the dirt and grit of Mason’s inner life. His story includes a depressing litany of loss, with the majority of the aircrews not making it to the end of the war. A tour of duty was commonly thirty flown ops, a number that at times seemed endless, especially once the raids became a sort of grim routine. Mason describes a strange sort of stasis: no looking to the future or remembering the past, only the endless now to survive. This timeless and harrowing existence wore down most crew members’ ability to cope with the mental strain. Yet most men shared the desperate wish to hide any weakness, in fear of being labelled a malingerer, which let to a lot of repressed PTSD symptoms and lasting mental scars.
And Some Fell on Stony Ground is far more a psychological autopsy of Leslie Mason than a rip-roaring war adventure, which it isn’t meant to be in any case. Yet it illustrates that while Mason is somewhat of the anti-hero, as Richard Overy puts it in his introduction to the book, these young men were truly heroic, facing their fears each day and flying despite the terror and danger. While Mann's intent may have been to counterbalance the popular vision of the valiant, brave, and fearless flying boys of the RAF with a more truthful account of life as a bomber pilot, he at the same time strengthens the impression of the bravery of these pilots in a way that feels more genuine than most.
A vividly depicted and starkly honest account of the realities of war, Leslie Mann’s fictional memoir And Some Fell on Stony Ground will be of interest to anyone interested in World War II, the psychological effects of combat, and a look at the inner workings of a bomber crew on operation. Published in collaboration with the Imperial War Museums and with an introduction by Richard Overy, which gives context to Mann’s narrative and explains the contemporary attitudes to combat stress-related afflictions suffered by the combatants, And Some Fell on Stony Ground was a gripping read and one I won’t quickly forget.
I’ve always loved Arthurian tales, or the Matter of Britain to give them their proper name, ever since I first read an adaptation when I was a little...moreI’ve always loved Arthurian tales, or the Matter of Britain to give them their proper name, ever since I first read an adaptation when I was a little girl and just reading on my own. When I was just a teen I loved The Mists of Avalon and I read many variations and retellings in the years since. Thus a book that is titled The Fourth Gwenevere immediately grabs my attention. The Fourth Gwenevere however isn’t a straight retelling of the Arthur legend as we know it – the sword in the stone, the round table, Lancelot and Gwenevere and so on – but the tale of what happens after Arthur is taken to Avalon and the kingdom has to go on without him. And it’s not the tale you might have expected.
The novel's structure is interesting. The chapters, which are themselves divided into numbered sections, are interleaved with interludes from the fourth Gwenevere's perspective. The interludes create the impression that what the main narrative leads us to believe might not be necessarily true. James' prose in The Fourth Gwenevere took a little getting used to at first. His love and familiarity with the Matter of Britain and other early medieval texts and legends shines through his writing. It was somewhat evocative of the Mabinogion in its choices of stylistic devices, such as describing things in three, up to and including Arthur’s previous three wives, who were a triad of Gweneveres. The fourth Gwenevere is explicitly said to carry the name as a title—it’s not her true name. Yet she is one of the few who isn’t named in the enumerative style so familiar from the Mabinogion, though to be fair he doesn’t take entire pages just to list names.
Perhaps due to this acclimatisation period The Fourth Gwenevere suffered something of a slow start. The narrative only picks up when we move beyond Arthur’s death and burial. While the tale we are told up to that point is not the saga we’re familiar with, it does contain all the usual staples and it is only after James moves beyond this point that the story comes into its own. James devised a wonderful alternate Arthur, who is not the shining, virtuous paragon of legend. Instead he’s a leader of men and a do-er of great deeds, but not a peace-time king and he certainly isn’t above taking advantage of his station. All the familiar elements of Arthur’s tale are there only they are just a little twisted.
All of this is related to the reader by Morvran, king of Gwent and Arthur’s fixer. He gives an interesting point of via on the Arthurian court as he saw it, which isn’t always very flattering to the king or his subjects. I loved the fact that the reader is essentially told that the way we know the tale is propaganda, because 'Who will fight for the memory of a pig stealer?' Combined with the content of the interludes James creates a subtle commentary on the malleability of truth through storytelling or as Kian puts it: 'What has poetry to do with the truth?' I found this a fascinating theme to the story and one that comes through quite strongly.
Additionally, there is quite a bit of social commentary on the isolationism found in many island cultures and perhaps on British colonialism as well. Mostly this is shown when Morvran and his band cross the Channel and have to interact with the people they encounter abroad, but it's also present in their attitude towards the Saxons or Heathens as they refer to them. Most of this is conveyed in the guise of humour, but the chuckle is more at the expense of Morvran's group than that of the people they address. For example, Morvran is openly dismissive of the innovations introduced by the Romans such as paved roads and brick houses, stating that their own wattle-and-daub huts are more than good enough.
In general there is a humorous tone to the narrative, not for comedic value, but just Morvran’s wry personality shining through his first person narration. There is at times also something of the absurd to the narrative in the sudden inclusion of something wondrous or weird. At one point, after swearing an oath, the Saxon Oslaf pulls an adder, a hare and several pigeon eggs from his pouch and proceeds to slaughter and crush them to seal his promise. While completely nonsensical – for who carries all of that in his pouch at all times, just in case? – these events harken back to the traditional stories and also provide a laugh.
Despite the slow start to the narrative and the shift in tone between sections, which could be due to the way this book came about, The Fourth Gwenevere was a lovely book. Its story is suitably adventurous and exciting and for anyone with the slightest interest in the Matter of Britain this entertaining tale is recommended reading.
Jessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist is set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. This was Holland's Golden Age and as such an important part of my...moreJessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist is set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. This was Holland's Golden Age and as such an important part of my country's heritage. For that reason alone the book would have been of interest to me. Add to that the wonderful inspiration for the book, the Oortman doll-house still on display in our Rijksmuseum, and the fact that a lot of people who's opinion I respect were saying nothing but good things about it, and the book became a must-read.
To be frank, I loved The Miniaturist to pieces, so much so that I don't even know where to begin. From the synopsis I'd expected the novel to have a love story within its pages in addition to a mystery, yet while relationships are at the core of the narrative and love plays its part, this is not the story of a young wife falling in love with her husband. Instead the novel explores how secrets bind and divide people and how a society's view of what is acceptable can stunt and shape people's lives. Burton weaves a stunning tale that captivates with its central mystery and its characters.
For Nella, young and somewhat vulnerable, moving into the Brandt household is somewhat of a shocking experience. Hoping for a loving marriage, with all that entails, she's disappointed and hurt to find her husband largely absent – ostensibly on business – and spending most of her time with her sister-in-law Marin and the servants Cornelia and Otto. The latter two are more family than staff having lived for Marin and Johannes for over five years since they were very young. Cornelia is a feisty, cheerful girl and soon becomes a friend to Nella. Otto is officially Johannes’ man servant, though he’s more of a steward for the household and he is something of a curiosity in Golden Age Amsterdam. Because Otto is black. Bought and freed by Johannes, he is devoted to the Brandt family, but always an outsider as people always regard him as a novelty and often treat him badly.
Marin and Johannes are quite enigmatic when we first meet them. It’s only slowly that they reveal themselves to Nella and the reader, in some cases not quite voluntary either. I loved Marin’s independent and headstrong nature. At points she comes across as a bully, not just domineering Nella, but Johannes as well. And strangely, Johannes lets her, which isn’t something you’d expect from a powerful merchant of that era. Johannes is a kind, though absent, man and he has some secrets of his own to keep. The growth in Nella’s regard and appreciation for both Marin and Johannes was very well handled and by the end had me in tears. Burton writes them just beautifully, with a sharpness and pathos that gives them a wonderful depth and brings them to life.
The rest of the cast is just as vividly drawn. I especially enjoyed the awful Agnes and Frans Meermans, clients of Johannes’ and old family friends turned rivals. They were deliciously horrid and petty, with just enough of a reason to be so to make them just this side of intolerable. But the most striking character of the book and the most elusive was the titular miniaturist. We never actually meet her, yet her presence in the book is all pervasive. I loved how Nella’s enchantment with her work slowly turns suspicious and later into horror. She becomes a brooding and threatening presence in Nella’s life and we never learn whether she means to aid or harm Nella and the rest of the Brandt household.
The darkness and mystery at the heart of the novel is like pure chocolate, bitter yet irresistible. The secrets revealed are tragic one and all and in some cases quite unexpected. Yet they all highlight the hypocrisy of society in what it deems acceptable and proper. It shows that you can get away with anything as long as it takes place behind closed doors and you have enough money and power to buy people off. Yet accumulate too much of both and people will do anything to bring you down. It’s a social commentary not just of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, but of contemporary society as well.
As I said above, I absolutely adored The Miniaturist. While its plot is resolved and the story brought to a resounding close, it left me wanting more. I didn’t want to leave Nella and her household, I wanted to know what happens next, what becomes of them now? Nella’s story may be over, but with The Miniaturist Jessie Burton’s has only just begun. This book is a stellar debut, one of my favourite books read so far this year, and I highly recommend it.(less)
Ben Peek’s The Godless is one of this summer’s big titles. And from the moment I learned about this title when Tor UK asked for feedback on the cover...moreBen Peek’s The Godless is one of this summer’s big titles. And from the moment I learned about this title when Tor UK asked for feedback on the cover design I knew I wanted to read this book and find out more about its protagonist Ayae. Meanwhile I’ve been reading numerous interviews and guest posts with and by the author and his views on diversity only made me more excited to read the book.
Peek certainly delivered on his promise of diversity with all of his protagonists being people of colour. In fact, so many character descriptions included references to skin colour, that I found myself actually noticing and finding it jarring, until I realised that most of the times I felt this way it was when a character was described as white. A fact I found painful as it rather revealed what I guess is an unconscious bias or at least a privileged position and I expect better from myself. So if only for that The Godless would have been an interesting and valuable reading experience.
However, The Godless is far more than just its approach to diversity, it’s also an exploration of what it means to have faith, of the definition of divinity, and the dangers of extreme zealotry. The base of this is the War of the Gods, which has killed or fatally wounded the gods of Peek’s world. Leaking from their imminent corpses is what is essentially their divine essence, an essence that can infect mortals and grant them strange powers and in some cases immortality. These changed mortals are considered either blessed or cursed. In some countries they are put on a pedestal, in others such as the city of Mireea they are shunned and sometimes even persecuted in a way that is faintly reminiscent of the witch hunts of yore. There is a lot of philosophising about what makes one divine, but it’s never done in an overly preaching manner, it’s far more subtle and part of what drives the different characters' past and present.
The three main viewpoint characters are Ayae, Zaifyr, and Bueralan. Ayae is the most traditional story-wise, being the young orphan with an unexpected ability trying to figure out their new identity, only this time it’s a young woman of colour, instead of your typical white farm boy. In fact, while Ayae is young, she’s no innocent having survived the decimation of her homeland and having been brought to Mireea as a refugee. She’s seen some horrible things as a young child and has had to care for herself ever since leaving the orphanage. Consequently there is a maturity to Ayae belying her youth, one that her reactions reflect in the story. No teenage angst here, she acknowledges her fear and despite it, she acts; it may not be the right decision, but she is the one to take it. I also loved that thus far there is also no romantic arc for her; at the start of the book she’s in a committed relationship that is slowly petering out, its death hastened along by the emergence of her ability.
If Ayae is our newbie learning the ropes then Zaifyr is the old pro providing the background and history. I really liked him and the way Peek tells his story, working both in the present time and in the past, giving us his ‘origin story’ and through his experiences developing the world of the Children series and its theological underpinnings. While we learn much about his past, Zaifyr remains somewhat of a mystery, whose intentions seem benign, yet stay nebulous. It is only towards the end of the book that we really seem to get a grip on why Zaifyr is involved and where the series arc will lead us.
Our third main viewpoint comes from Bueralan, an exiled noble turned mercenary captain. He’s a highly respected saboteur, leading one of the most exclusive companies in the land. In many ways Bueralan was my favourite, perhaps because his was the least complex storyline of the three and yet offered lots of action and intrigue. We also get the most comprehensive history for Bueralan, learning how he became exiled and how his previous contract led him to take the job in Mireea. Bueralan is a fascinating character, one who has regrets, but is unapologetic for his past, something which I enjoyed.
There are a number of other great characters such as the Captain of Mireea, Captain Heast, the healer Reila, the female mercenary captain Queila Meina, the ominous ‘children of the gods’ Fo and Bau – who are seriously unpleasant characters and rather scary. But my favourite secondary characters were Lady Wagan, the Lady of the Spine and ruler of Mireea, and Ayae’s master Samuel Orlan. Lady Wagan is a fabulous female character, one who is powerful and competent, yet caring and graceful and she’s emblematic of how Peek portrays his female characters. They all have agency and are in control of their destiny or at least as much as any of us are. Not all culture allow their women equal freedom, yet the women we encounter in The Godless are one and all no lesser than any of the men in the book and often even more. But by far the most intriguing and mysterious character of the book has to be Samuel Orlan, the eighty-second of that name, most famed cartographer of the world and Ayae’s master. I really liked this strange, old man, who has his fingers in far more pies than expected and whose intentions, like Zaifyr’s remain nebulous.
For all intents and purposes, The Godless is very much a first book in a series. As fitting with a big fat fantasy – my ARC came to 562 pages and the font and margins weren’t unusually large – much of this first book is spent setting the stage, gathering the troops, and pointing them in the right direction. It is only once we get to the latter part of the book that we learn of the larger threat to the stability of this world, the root of the Leeran military campaign. While the immediate threat to Mireea is clear from the start, about halfway through the book I did start to wonder where Peek was going with the story. Yet the book is never slow and is written in a pleasant, smooth-reading style, one that easily keeps you turning pages.
The Godless is an interesting opening volley to the Children series and I’ll certainly be back for the next instalment of the trilogy. Peek is a talented writer who juggles viewpoints, complex religious ideas, and conflict expertly, creating a vivid and detailed world for his characters to tromp around in, combining some complex issues with an excellent story. If you are looking for a new big fat epic fantasy series to get stuck into then The Godless is a good bet. I can’t wait to discover more of this world and about the mysterious Zaifyr and Master Orlan and to find out what happens next to Ayae and Bueralan.
Reading Irregularity, Jurassic London’s sixth full-length anthology and the second edited solo by Jared Shurin, was a strange reading experience, as I...moreReading Irregularity, Jurassic London’s sixth full-length anthology and the second edited solo by Jared Shurin, was a strange reading experience, as I’ve read a lot of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature at university. Much of that was in the Penguin Classic editions (the ones with a black spine and a red bar at the top) and while the cover is in no way reminiscent of those, the font used for Irregularity really resembles the look of those editions. Add to that the fact that a lot of the stories are written in the same language and with the same sensibility as those classics and for a moment it seemed as if I’d traveled back in time to my student days. Thankfully, reading Irregularity in no way felt like an essay assignment, in fact it was fantastic fun.
Irregularity is clever, subversive and just so much fun. Out of fourteen stories there were only two that didn’t really work for me: Rose Biggin’s A Game Proposition and Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation. Biggin's story didn’t sit well with me, because I had a hard time following the game and the dialogue, which made me have to reread sections several times and caused me to lose the rhythm of the story. Luckhurst’s Circulation just didn’t connect. A story of a clerk sent to San Domingue in the Caribbean to check up on one of the sugar plantations, the story is both a critique of slavery and a horror story about medical research. And I didn’t really get it.
The other stories all worked really well for me though. How could I not love the grandfather paradox library in Nick Harkaway’s Irregularity, or Simon Guerrier’s Ada Lovelace creating a Victorian version of Jurassic Park, literally loosing the dinosaurs in the crystal palace? Or James Smythe’s exploration of failure and its ability to drive a man insane? There are five stories I wanted to give bit more time too as they really hit it out of the park for me.
E.J. Swift - The Spiders of Stockholm This amazing tale set in eighteenth century Sweden mixes the Enlightenment drive to classify things and order them with magic. In traditional secondary world fantasy magic and (mechanical) science are often exclusionary, either because magic precludes the drive to invent machinery to perform tasks humans can’t or won’t do, or because understanding how a thing works destroys its magic. Swift takes this latter trope and places it in our own eighteenth century and combines it with the belief that there is power in the knowledge of true names. This combination made for a bittersweet story and Swift managed to write a story about spiders that didn’t give me the willies, which is a feat in and of itself.
Adam Roberts - The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle Robert’s story starts with the line: “You will excuse me if I remark,” said Boyle, “how strongly I am struck by your resemblance to Brian May.” After which I was properly sold on this story, no matter where Roberts was going to take it. I love me some Queen! Roberts litters this tale of a scientist desperate to speed up scientific progress with references to Queen lyrics and other classic pop songs. The most referenced and most iconic of these is Bohemian Rhapsody which left me to wonder whether it would age well or if in a decade or so younger readers would even get the references, but given Bohemian Rhapsody’s almost permanent top three spot in best of-lists perhaps this isn’t that much of a worry as it would have been for say Single Ladies.
Richard de Nooy - The Heart of Aris Kindt In the Netherlands the seventeenth century was known as The Golden Age in which our country prospered: we sailed the seven seas, we were a bastion for free expression of thought with many natural philosophers publishing their work out of the Netherlands because they were forbidden in their own country, and some of our greatest painters were active in this period. One of them was Rembrandt and it is he and his work on one of his master pieces The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp that are the focus of Richard de Nooy’s story. What happens when the subject of the painting, the titular Aris Kindt starts showing some strange phenomena? And is science always more important to scientist than prestige? I loved De Nooy’s smart and atmospheric story and now I want to go visit the original painting when I’m next in The Hague!
Kim Curran - A Woman Out of Time It’s no secret I’m a fan of Kim Curran’s work, but I’d never read any short fiction by her before or non-YA work for that matter. So I was looking forward to seeing how her style and voice worked in adult short form. The answer is that it worked beautifully. I truly loved this mysterious tale of time-traveling beings – it remains unclear whether they are aliens or god-like entities – who have a decidedly patriarchal outlook on how life on Earth and its scientific development should progress and the trouble they have to go through to keep women from out-thinking and literally out-shining the men around them. It’s a tale with a modern sensibility but one that fits in-between the other tales in the anthology quite harmoniously.
Tiffani Angus - Fairchild's Folly One of the received wisdoms about anthologies is that they should close out with a bang and so with one of their strongest stories and Irregularity’s editor Jared Shurin certainly kept to that rule with Fairchild’s Folly. A beautiful meditation on the nature of love and humanity’s unrelenting need to categorise things I really loved this last story. The structure of the story told through letters and short sections of straight narrative, flashing between several points in time within a twenty-year span was very well done and lent this relatively short story a far larger feeling and scope than its length would have the reader expect.
As I’ve come to expect from Jared Shurin and his small press Jurassic London, Irregularity is a solid anthology with impressive and fantastic stories. I really like Irregularity’s theme and while I wasn’t as blown away by this anthology as I was by their last anthology The Book of the Dead, it’s still a highly recommended collection of short stories. Shurin has once again gathered together a strong slate of authors, some well known, some less so, but just as talented. If you’re looking for clever, intelligent and entertaining stories Irregularity certainly has that for you in spades.
The Illusionists is Laure Eve’s second novel in the Fearsome Dreamer sequence. While I really enjoyed Fearsome Dreamer, I did have some niggles with...moreThe Illusionists is Laure Eve’s second novel in the Fearsome Dreamer sequence. While I really enjoyed Fearsome Dreamer, I did have some niggles with it, mostly to do with pacing and structure. In The Illusionists these problems have all been ironed out and the book is a far smoother read and the story is still as interesting and complex as Eve’s debut. As an added bonus, the protagonists are easier to relate to as well, having lost some of their rougher edges.
The focus of the The Illusionists’ narrative was far more on Rue, rather than White who I felt loomed larger in the previous book. While there are still chapters from White’s, Wren’s and Frith’s viewpoints, Rue is very much the heart of this story. Having fled to World at the end of Fearsome Dreamer, she’s now in a new place and feeling rather isolated, not speaking the language and Wren the only one able to translate for her. There is a sense of culture shock to her reactions on reaching World, which are a louder echo of her reactions in the previous book upon arriving in Parisette. It also means that Rue has to do some accelerated growing-up and loses some of her previous self-importance. There is a lot of honesty in Rue’s inner dialogues and I really liked that Rue isn’t afraid to admit – at least to herself – that running away was a mistake.
White’s story is far more about him discovering what is important to him beyond discovering his abilities. His examination of his feelings for Rue, Frith, and himself at times ends in painful self-recrimination, but is interesting and the development of the love story between White and Rue is lovely. Much of this is conducted indirectly and without actual contact between the two, at least that is what they themselves think. The connection of their dream meetings to Rue’s abilities is the one place where Eve deploys the not talking to each other tactic I disliked in Fearsome Dreamer as well. It turns out both White and Rue are unaware that Rue has the ability to make people share her dreams, yet her classmates are well aware and never bother to comment on it, not even to tease.
Wren becomes somewhat of a tragic villain, seeing how he develops through the narrative. He becomes harder to sympathise with as the story goes along and we see more of his treatment of Rue, but in his own chapters it becomes clear that he is a troubled young man, one trying to prove his worth to himself and others and he just can’t seem to make the right decisions. Frith’s story arc was quite the opposite really. After a confrontation with White, Frith has to recover himself and we travel with him back to Rue’s home town and we finally discover more about his history and his past with Fernie in particular. His story is another that plays with the importance of memory and how it shapes who we become. I enjoyed the questions it evoked and the answers Eve provides or leaves open to the reader’s interpretation.
She takes a similar approach to the explanation of Rue’s abilities and the true nature of the Castle, the mysterious other place, where the monsters are locked away, but threatening to break free and destroy humanity as we know it. Eve reveals much, yet leaves some of it open to interpretation. She also included some huge twists to Rue’s story, which very much alter the way one reads the previous book. The final twists of the story were amazing, I really hadn’t seen those coming, yet they felt fitting. They force Rue to step up and become a leader and in a way validate her previous sense of self-importance and destiny, just at a point where she doesn’t really care about all of that anymore.
The epilogue is bitter sweet, especially since while the story is very much finished, it doesn’t bode well for our gang’s ultimate future. It wraps up the narrative elegantly, while leaving Eve an opportunity to tell more of Rue’s story in the future should she choose to revisit Angle Tar. The books are very much a duology though and work better when read together, so I’d advise getting both of them and reading them in one go. With The Illusionists Laure Eve wraps up her debut series in style and I truly can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.
From its synopsis The Forever Man sounded like an interesting near-future SF thriller and it was. Pierre Ouellette’s latest novel from Random House Al...moreFrom its synopsis The Forever Man sounded like an interesting near-future SF thriller and it was. Pierre Ouellette’s latest novel from Random House Alibi was an interesting story, with some original world building and a sympathetic main character. Yet while I enjoyed reading the book, I had a number of problems with it that made the book less compelling than it could have been.
My biggest problem was that there is a lot of science in the book. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but in this case the science was related in a very info dumpy way and these scenes rather made the narrative drag in places. For example, to explain how the main villain Thomas Zed has reached the age he has and what sort of research he’s tried to discover a cure for ageing, he’s given a scene where he’s looking at himself in a mirror and reminiscing about all the failed experiments. Or his right-hand man explaining the process they’ve developed to a third party, which feels a little too detailed. Another example that springs to mind is Lane's visit to Crampton’s office and labs at the Institute, which is also littered with explanations.
My second big problem is that the bad guys are almost villain caricatures. They’re all power hungry and ruthless and most of them don’t seem to have any redeeming features. Even gang boss Bird – who is most definitely a bad guy, yet is oddly likeable – turns out to be a somewhat stereotypical gangster. The flatness of the adversaries also makes the good guys less interesting, as it’s somewhat of a black and white proposition with very little shades of grey in-between. I would have liked to see a little more depth to Zed, Arjun, and Green to give them a clearer motivation other than elementary greed.
I did enjoy Lane’s character. He’s the white knight beyond his prime; he still has the instincts to protect and serve, yet his body is slowly letting him down. His relationship with his brother Johnny is central to the novel and its complexity is well built, though Johnny’s being brilliant yet mentally unbalanced is rather cliched—at least he wasn’t autistic. The interplay between Lane and Rachel is also interesting, with an undeniable chemistry between the two of them. I liked that her role in uncovering the mystery is vital and she is never relegated to merely a love interest or a sidekick.
There were a number of locales in the novel that I found completely fascinating. There is the creepy gated community Pinecrest, where everyone looks prosperous, young, and healthy. There is a strange obsession with youth using different rejuvenation treatments to reduce their physical ages. They even give their ages in a split way to differentiate between seeming age and true age, for example 26/61, which means they look 26, but are actually 61. The other location is Pima. Essentially it’s a free-for-all jail where inmates are thrown in and left to fend for themselves as long as they remain inside the compound. This gives rises to a cutthroat environment with strict rules and hierarchies, the fringes of which are deadly more often than not. The prison is located inside a military base that serves as an airplane graveyard, with the abandoned fuselages serving as barracks to many of the men. It makes for an incredibly visual backdrop to this section, even if only painted in words. I also liked the characters Lane encountered there, especially Sam.
The Forever Man was a solid thriller, with plenty to enjoy yet with some large flaws. By the end of the novel everything is wrapped up nicely, though the ending wasn’t altogether happy, something that was a bit of a let down. I certainly don’t mind unhappy endings, yet this one just didn’t sit right with me, but in this your mileage may vary. I enjoyed reading Ouellette’s book and for those of you that enjoy science near-future thrillers, The Forever Man is definitely a book to check out.
All good things must come to an end, so it was inevitable that Tom Pollock’s debut series would end too. After the fantasticThe City’s Son and the eq...moreAll good things must come to an end, so it was inevitable that Tom Pollock’s debut series would end too. After the fantastic The City’s Son and the equally wonderful The Glass Republic, this final instalment in the trilogy Our Lady of the Streets came with high expectations and had to meet a high standard to equal its predecessors. Happily, Our Lady of the Streets is even better than the previous books. It takes Beth, Pen, and all their allies on a wild ride trying to save the city they love and their own lives in the process. Since this is book three in a series it’s hard to review it without giving any spoilers for the previous books. I’m keeping them to a minimum, but you have been warned.
Where the previous books were mostly about Beth and Pen separately, Our Lady of the Streets is definitely their story together. I loved the interplay between Beth and Pen in The City’s Son and always felt somehow cheated we didn’t get more of it. In this book Pollock gives it to the reader in spades. Their friendship is really the heart of the series. In fact, I’d argue this series is about their friendship more than anything. I love that in Beth and Pen we have two best friends who are there for each other through everything and even if they argue, they find their way back to each other. There is not cattiness, no bitchiness, and no going after the other’s romantic prospects. It’s rare to find this sort of friendship between girls in books and I wish we’d get more of them.
With the return of the Mirror Mater to London, Beth needs to step up and lead. London is under siege and only Beth will be able to stop Mater Viae from taking power. To do this she needs to learn what exactly her transformation means and what powers, if any, come with it. Pollock not only gives Beth new strengths, he also adds new weaknesses and shows just how painful being a leader in what is essentially war time is. He shows how hard Beth takes her losses and how much she just wants to protect her loved ones by keeping them out of the line of fire. Yet in the end, Beth learns you can’t control people’s choices and they have the right to choose to be part of the fight. In Our Lady of the Streets Beth becomes somewhat of a tragic hero, albeit in true Beth Bradley-style, with the expected amount of snark and humour. There are also clear echoes to The City’s Son in the book, sometimes mirroring the events and in some cases using it as a contrast. It’s an elegant use of foreshadowing and one that is entirely fitting, yet unexpected.
Pen meanwhile is back down the rabbit hole and trying to survive and reconnect with Espel. While it would have been easy for Pen to have slipped into just a sidekick role to Beth, she because anything but. Her choices are her own and she has to make some hard decisions. From the previous books we knew Pen was brave, but just how courageous she is, becomes clear from the choices she makes and the allies she manages to recruit to their cause at great personal cost. I loved Pen’s arc in this novel, perhaps even more than Beth’s. Pollock not only addresses Pen’s fear of coming out to her parents, he also returns to the trauma of her sexual assault and what sort of effect having to keep that secret had on her. I really liked how Pollock handled it and the resolution to this storyline.
After having built two equally fascinating but very different worlds in the first two books with Beth’s magical London and London-Under-Glass, in Our Lady of the Streets Pollock not only merges those two, but also adds another layer. With Mirror Mater’s return a number of new and destructive phenomena have arisen. She induces Fever streets, Tideways, Blank Streets and pretty much wrecks the city as we know it at will. The presence of this other, magical London is far more invasive than in previous books where the strange and magical was pushed to the fringes of mundane awareness or to a different realm altogether. Yet in this last book it is present front and centre and even the mundane citizens of London – and the rest of the world for that matter – can no longer ignore the other side of London. I loved the illness metaphor for the Mirrored Goddess’ campaign to retake London and how Pollock incorporated this into the plot.
As I told the author on Twitter, after I finished the book: "my heart is in a thousand pieces and yet you left me with hope."Our Lady of the Streets is a fantastic conclusion to an extraordinary series. Tom Pollock has proven he’s incredibly talented and I’m really excited to see where he’ll go next, even if I’m sad to be saying goodbye to Beth and Pen. If you haven’t yet read this conclusion to The Skyscraper Throne, what are you waiting for? If you’ve not yet picked up this series, I highly recommend that you do. It’s one of my favourite series of the last few years and one you shouldn’t miss.
I first became aware of Susan Spann when I came across her first novel Claws of the Cat last year. It immediately pinged a lot of the alerts on my rad...moreI first became aware of Susan Spann when I came across her first novel Claws of the Cat last year. It immediately pinged a lot of the alerts on my radar: historical fiction, a murder mystery and an interesting setting in feudal Japan. Unfortunately I never came across the book, so I missed out on picking it up, but when I was approached about reviewing the second one I knew I had to say yes. For those of you who like me haven’t read the previous book: don’t worry Blade of the Samurai stands alone beautifully and makes for a very satisfying read.
The book is set in feudal Japan at the end of the sixteenth century. It’s an interesting era and one I don’t know that much about, as I’m more familiar – if only a smidgen – with its history a century later. I really enjoyed the setting and the way Spann evokes Kyoto, though beyond canals, bridges, wooden houses and sliding doors, she leaves it pretty nebulous on the whole. With an author writing in a culture different from their own, there’s always the risk of over explanation, to make sure that the reader understands all of the nuances and details included in the narrative. Spann doesn’t make this mistake, giving enough context to clarify meaning, but without turning into a textbook on Japanese history. She accomplishes this by using the nice device of having her narrator Hiro working as a translator for an outsider, one of the rare foreigners present in Japan, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. This conceit allows Spann to comment on Japanese culture and society both through Hiro explaining it to Mateo and by having Hiro wince every time Mateo behaves in a not-Japanese manner, that had he been Japanese would have given offence. The one thing that made the text sometimes a little harder to grasp was the fact that some Japanese vocabulary used wasn’t translated. It turned out there was a glossary for these terms in the back, which I only found out after I’d finished the book, and while the gist of them was clear from their context, I found myself distracted by it.
As mentioned, the book’s narrator and main protagonist Hiro officially is a translator to Father Mateo, which makes him look at Japanese society with different eyes. But Hiro himself is somewhat of an outsider in and of himself already, due to being a shinobi, an assassin, which is a breed of men taught to hold themselves apart and furthermore by dint of his cover story, which is that he is a masterless samurai, a ronin, and as such is considered of lesser rank. This outsider status also helps to allow the reader into the story and this, for most readers, unfamiliar society. The samurai treat him with disdain and he’s often at a disadvantage socially speaking, especially in this story where much of the investigation takes place within the Shogun palace, a place peopled by those of the Samurai class. Hiro’s unique training has also made him somewhat blind to class boundaries, something that the palace officials he has to deal with observe with a jaundiced eye. In a society underpinned by the principle of honour, pretending to be someone he’s not and having to tolerate disrespect is hard for Hiro and I liked that Spann shows him having to force himself to not react.
Hiro’s employer, Father Mateo is an interesting character. A devout man of staunch faith, he’s nevertheless quite flexible in his thinking, though somewhat uncaring about giving offence to his hosts through his Western manners. It’s also in elements of Father Mateo’s household that the story’s standalone character falls down the most. Blade of the Samurai never repeats the explanation for how and why Hiro comes to serve as Mateo’s bodyguard, only that he has a fat contract to do so and that as a consequence his life is linked to that of Mateo. Similarly, it was never quite clear to me whether Ana, the housekeeper, was Japanese or Portuguese. From her behaviour I’d say Japanese, however, Ana seemed more like a Portuguese name. If she is Portuguese, how did she end up in Japan? In the grand scheme of things not knowing these details doesn’t affect the plot, but they did shake me from the narrative several times.
The mystery was tightly plotted. The murder was somewhat of a locked-room mystery, with the attendant back and forth between suspects. I loved the concept and especially seeing how Hiro’s theories develop. Of course the initial main suspect, Kazu, is Hiro’s friend and he really wants to believe in his innocence, especially considering he’s a shinobi from the same clan. Hiro can completely absolve him of guilt at first and as a consequence stays suspicious of Kazu, something that almost ruins their friendship. I really loved the interplay between these to, as I did the relationship between Hiro and Mateo, which is more a friendship than anything else. I kept second guessing myself as to who the real culprit was and the final reveal was amazing. I really liked the way the plot played out and it made for a very satisfying ending.
Blade of the Samurai was a terrific read, with only some minor quibbles. If you enjoy well-plotted historical crime fiction then I recommend you take a look at this one as it is highly entertaining. The book has convinced me I’ll have to track down a copy of Claws of the Cat at some point to learn how Hiro and Mateo first met. And I sincerely hope there’ll be many more adventures in the Shinobi Mysteries, but we’re guaranteed at least one more due out next year. Until then you can get caught up with Claws of the Cat and Blade of the Samurai.
When I first came across Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s writing last year I fell in love with her writing. Her style and voice are fantastic and I think she’...moreWhen I first came across Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s writing last year I fell in love with her writing. Her style and voice are fantastic and I think she’s one of the most exciting short fiction writers to have emerged in the field in the past few years. When the author asked on Twitter whether anyone wanted an ARC of her new novella Scale-Bright I couldn’t raise my hand quick enough. A retelling of an old Chinese tale and a sequel to an earlier retelling of a Chinese legend with a gender twist, Scale-Bright sounded like an amazing story. And it was. I loved it whole-heartedly.
Scale-Bright is a wonderful story that is gorgeously told. Sriduangkaew writes a rich prose, providing beautiful visuals that are often surprisingly tangible; in one scene Houyi is cooking and I actually found myself hungry after reading it. Julienne’s Hong Kong steams off the page, but so does Olivia’s banbuduo, the place between, which is just as vivid and even more entrancing for its strangeness. The Gods’ abode is otherworldly and celestial, yet it is not a kind or safe place. Throughout the narrative there is a sense that nothing – and no-one – is as it seems, something that is reinforced by the world building of banbuduo and heaven.
In this strange, new world she’s discovered of ancient beings and underworldly denizens, her aunts form Julienne’s anchor and the sole surety for safety. The interplay between Julienne and her aunts is fabulous. Julienne is understandably awed by these divine beings who have claimed kinship with her, yet they very much aim to be traditional aunties, which they don’t always succeed at, being not very traditional at all. Julienne is seemingly taking a leaf out of the Book of Unconventionality, especially once she meets and falls in love with Olivia, who is far more than the beautiful woman she seems. Theirs is a relationship against all odds and I loved how Sriduangkaew shaped it. She also slips in some subtle hints to Julienne’s mental health issues, to the anxiety and mood disorder she lives with and how these affect her reactions and decisions in the narrative. I appreciated these, especially as Julienne’s bravest decisions aren’t made to prove herself worthy or her aunts, or to prove her love for Olivia, but to prove her worth to herself.
I’ve actually read Scale-Bright twice. Once somewhat accidentally – I just went for a quick peek at the first few pages and then didn’t put it down until I was finished – and once after reading all the connected short stories about Houyi, Chang’e, and Julienne. How did having read the previous stories affect my reading experience the second time? In terms of sheer enjoyment not much, though having some of the backstory did enrich some of the details Sriduangkaew drops into her narrative and made me recognise some of the visual clues I missed the first time. Having read the other stories – and indeed all of Sriduangkaew’s short fiction I could freely get my heads on – did elucidate some recurrent themes in her work that also appear in Scale-Bright, such as f/f relationships, finding one’s place in the world, and breaking away from societal expectations and gender roles. Overall I would say that Scale-Bright stands alone beautifully, but is enriched by knowledge of the other stories.
Scale-Bright is a fabulous story and it’s only confirmed Benjanun Sriduangkaew as an author to watch. I’d love to read more stories about Julienne, Olivia and the aunts, whether in short form or in long form. In fact, I’m generally excited to read more from Sriduangkaew in the future, be it this kind of fantastical retelling, stories set in her The Hegemony SF universe, or wherever she’ll explore next. If you’ve not read any of her work before then I highly recommend Scale-Bright as an entry point. But whatever you do, remember the name Benjanun Sriduangkaew; you’ll be sure to find it often on future award shortlists.
Elizabeth Fremantle writes historical fiction set in the Tudor era. In a market where one would expect every aspect of this family’s turbulent reign t...moreElizabeth Fremantle writes historical fiction set in the Tudor era. In a market where one would expect every aspect of this family’s turbulent reign to have been mined to exhaustion, Fremantle approaches it through avenues that have been lightly travelled, if not missed entirely. In her first book, Queen’s Gambit, she focused on Henry VIII’s often overlooked last wife Katherine Parr and in her second novel, she focused on the similarly neglected Grey sisters. Having read Karleen Bradford’s The Nine Days Queen in the Dutch translation when I was about ten or eleven, Jane Grey has always fascinated me. When I saw the synopsis for Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason, the story of Jane’s younger sisters, I knew I had to read this book. Katherine and Mary Grey make for compelling leading ladies and the book was a fantastic read.
The titular Sisters of Treason are Katherine and Mary Grey, the younger sisters of Jane Grey. We only meet them after their sister has met her fate on the executioner’s block and they are ensconced at court as ladies of the Queen’s Chamber. We follow them through the next two decades and see Northumberland’s bid to keep the throne in Protestant hands after the young King Edward’s death haunts their lives and how by dint of their blood they will always be regarded as a threat to the throne. But while a story of court politics and conspiracy what stands out most is their humanity. These are just two girls, different as sisters can be bound by love and blood.
Katherine is beautiful, impetuous, and impulsive; the spitting image of her beloved, treasonous father she has his passionate heart and loves boldly an unwisely. It’s hard not to love Katherine as a character, as she’s complex in unexpected ways and has some of the most interesting relationships in the narrative. I loved her close friendship with Jane ‘Juno’ Seymour and the mischief they get up to together. But Katherine takes some very dangerous decisions and it’s hard to see her go down that road knowing where it’ll end. I loved Katherine’s indomitable optimism and loyalty though, she’s steadfast in her love, whatever it may bring her.
Mary Grey was perhaps my favourite character in this book. The youngest of the three sisters, Mary is set apart by her crooked back and small stature. Even as a young teen, she remained small enough to comfortably be held on a lap, as Queen Mary often did, something that Mary Grey despised. Mary’s voice is something special. While conscious of the way her back dictates how others treat her and understandably angry and bitter about this, she is a good and kind person, though quick of wit and sharp of tongue when provoked. It is this that attracts Elizabeth’s attention once she becomes queen. Mary is also an astute observer of court life and it is through her that we learn of most of the plotting and politics going round at court. Mary has learned at a young age that people will overlook her and speak of things in front of her that should have been kept secret.
Mary is not the only character that is at once of the court and outside it. Our third narrator Levina Teerlinck –court painter and close friend of Frances Grey, the girls’ mother – is also someone who moves through the court mostly unregarded. When sat in the queen’s rooms to sketch scenes and draw portraits, people often forget to watch their words. Levina is also our clearest viewpoint of the religious strife that marked Queen Mary’s reign. She witnesses the countless burnings and as a “reformed” Catholic is closely watched by Bishop Bonner’s informers and even threatened into informing on their neighbours. She’s also instrumental in the creation of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in this story, an element that adds an extra element of suspense to the story. Levina’s viewpoint is also that of a more mature woman, one who is settled in a happy marriage, one that requires work but brings contentment, and as such is a good mirror to Katherine’s youthful passions.
Mary and Elizabeth Tudor might not be central characters in Sisters of Treason, they are huge presences in the book and ones that hold huge and frightening power over the Grey girls, a fact that especially Elizabeth is wont to remind the sisters of regularly. Despite their fearsome presences Fremantle doesn’t paint these two powerful women as ogres. For example, while Mary earned her nickname Bloody Mary to the fullest this didn’t stem from being an awful person, but from desperation and the devout conviction that the Catholic faith was the one true faith and that for the good of her people she should bring them back to the Roman Church. Elizabeth is a hard young woman, one who knows what she must do to survive on the throne, yet at the same time she yearns for love and has to rein in her heart at each opportunity. Fremantle shows us two very human queens, marked by their awful, painful youths and by the pressures of the Tudor throne. In their portrayal, and indeed in much of the narrative, the reader finds a contemplation of the meaning of power, of what people will do to gain and/or keep it and how the whiff of a chance at it changes them.
Sisters of Treason is a remarkable book, one that I just couldn’t stop reading. Fremantle’s writing is clean and precise and conveys layers of depth in its narrative. I loved Katherine, Mary, and Levina and their story. I loved learning more about this family, who is so often relegated to the footnotes of Tudor history. With Queen’s Gambit Fremantle suitably impressed me, with Sisters of Treason she’s made me a fan. If you love Tudor-era historical fiction then Elizabeth Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason is a must-read. I can’t wait for her next book to see who she tackles next!
When The Clown Service arrived the cover grabbed me as it was seemingly so at odds with the title. It evokes a classic cold war spy thriller, but in a...moreWhen The Clown Service arrived the cover grabbed me as it was seemingly so at odds with the title. It evokes a classic cold war spy thriller, but in a colourful way. It is also set in a supernatural London; that fact alone would have sold me. But it was not just the supernatural London setting that made this book so much fun, it was its tone and sense of humour as well. In addition, The Clown Service’s plot was extremely entertaining and very well put together. I was really pleased with the book and while the story was impeccably paced, I would have loved for it to have been a bit longer, so I could have spent just a bit more time with the characters.
The Clown Service centres on Toby Greene. He’s a British Intelligence agent, who has been just reassigned to what seems to be a career-killing department. And Toby is seemingly somewhat of a failure, as his boss is keen to remind him. His last mistake – letting an asset he was babysitting get away – gets him shunted off to Section 37. But it’s not just at work where Toby is treated like he’s less than capable, his father treats him the same way. Toby is someone with a past, having been deployed to a hot zone in the Middle East and having come back with a case of PTSD, a diagnosis he roundly denies as he doesn’t want to be judged unfit for duty. I loved how Adams incorporated this into Toby’s character and his reactions to events when the Fear – as Toby calls it – overtakes him. In contrast, he accepts all the weirdness Shining reveals to him as part of the reality of working at Section 37 almost too calmly.
Toby’s relationship with Shining was somewhat reminiscent of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant from The Folly series and his bond with his superior Inspector Nightingale. Like Peter Toby is taken under his wing by an eccentric older mentor. August Shining is fabulous and I loved that he believed in Toby’s capability and wanted to train him. In fact, Shining is the rare type of mentor who seems to want to give his protégée all the facts, not keeping secrets. Something which only makes the fact that circumstances make it impossible for Shining to actually give Toby all the details all the more frustrating, both for Toby and the reader.
The narrative is nicely structured, told in two timelines, one in the present and one set in the early Sixties, when Shining first encounters Krishnin, the villain of the book. Much of the story set in the past is conveyed through Shining or others sharing their stories with Toby, which is an enjoyable way to frame a secondary narrative. With Toby being introduced to Section 37 and learning more about the supernatural reality of his world, Adams is also able to insert some interesting story beats and Chekov’s guns that he then has paying off at exactly the right moment. The Clown Service was faultlessly paced, both in terms of its action and its humour.
Of course, Toby and Shining can’t defeat the evil Krishnin alone, they do have back up. I loved all the sidekicks and their various abilities, some of which were truly supernatural, while others where more of the 'technology so far advanced it seems like magic’-variety. My absolute favourite secondary characters, however, were Shining’s neighbour Tamar and his sister April (their parents didn’t have much imagination when it came to names) who were fantastic. Especially April was a strong-as-nails, eccentric old biddy, who appeared to my mind’s eye as a sort of mixture between Professor McGonagall and Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet). The ending was great, because it’s an ending that is not undividedly happy. Toby, August and April come out of it indisputably changed and Adams’ is a world where actions definitely have consequences.
I had a fabulous time with The Clown Service and I’m excited to have the second book in the series, The Rain-Soaked Bride, already on the TBR-pile and I can’t wait to start it. Once I pry it out of the husband’s hands when he has finished it that is, because he is currently devouring it. For fans of Aaronovitch’s The Folly series and Stross’ Laundry Files this will be a great series to dive into and I highly recommend it.
Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; - William Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, Prologue
The cover copy for The Shadow Master called to mind Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet, quoted partially above, immediately and with the invocation of the names of the Medicis, the Lorraines, Leonardo and Galileo created certain expectations about the nature of the book. I expected an alternate history and a romance and while there was truth in advertising, at the same time my expectations were disappointed. There is far less of a Shakespearean influence in the story than I expected and the book wasn’t so much as alt-history as much as a story told with certain historical characters and events dropped in to invoke a certain sensibility.
This resulted in me having a tough time getting grounded within the story. It was clearly set in a Renaissance, Italianate city and the inside of the Walled City is clearly developed. Yet everything outside of the Walled City is covered in mist, it is the great Beyond and not much is revealed about it. This spare world-building is perhaps symbolic for the way most of the City's inhabitants have been cloistered in the city and have never travelled beyond and as such truly do not know what the world outside looks like. Looking back it was quite cleverly constructed, but while I was reading, I just felt confused. This general ignorance of the world beyond the walls also felt forced given the time frame set up for the plague that has penned everyone inside the City’s walls. According to the text the plague is rumoured to last for eight years and has been running rampant across the land for six, so how did knowledge of the outside evaporate like this?
Setting aside my problems with the setting, I really enjoyed my time spent with The Shadow Master. The dynamic between the two families was interesting and I loved the rivalry – that wasn’t really one – between Leonardo and Galileo. There were also some fun nods to some of their real historic works and inventions. I especially loved the way Cormick incorporated The Vitruvian Man in the story. The idea that magic is as much artifice as it is alchemical was intriguing, especially considering that one doesn’t need to have any nebulous aptitude, but just have a rigorous mind. Additionally, here is magic that isn’t without cost. It’ll be interesting to see if this magic system will be transferred to the next book or if Cormick creates a different one.
My favourite character in the book was Lucia. The only daughter of the Duke of Lorraine, she’s beloved and sheltered and dying to break out. Over the years she’s formed a connection with one of the ward’s of the Medici family and she wants nothing more than to be able to pursue their relationship. However sheltered she is, Lucia isn’t a wilting flower. When she’s kidnapped and imprisoned she doesn’t weep and wail, she doesn’t let despair cripple her, she plans and takes her fate into her own hands. I loved Lucia’s self-reliance and quick thinking. Her romeo Lorenzo was interesting as well, though I found him less compelling than Lucia. He’s a bit more on an accidental hero type and does things he knows are wrong, all to satisfy his own desire to see Lucia. Yet despite all this he’s a very sympathetic character and I found myself rooting for him regardless of his unwise choices.
The Shadow Master ends on a huge twist, didn’t make for a cliff hanger ending exactly, but did leave the reader to contemplate a mystery and wondering about the true nature of the Shadow Master. While there were some hints at this turn of events during the book it felt a bit abrupt. Still the core story of The Shadow Master was resolved in a quite satisfying manner and as such the book stands on its own quite well. Despite my qualms I enjoyed The Shadow Master and I’m looking forward to The Floating City to discover more about the true nature of Lucia, Lorenzo and The Shadow Master.
**spoiler alert** I was surprisingly blown away by the first book in this series and its sequel drew me in even further. Yet A Discovery of Witches a...more**spoiler alert** I was surprisingly blown away by the first book in this series and its sequel drew me in even further. Yet A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night were two very different books. Where A Discovery of Witches was modern day supernatural fantasy, Shadow of Night was very much a historical fantasy. And I was looking forward to seeing what The Book of Life would be. As far as setting goes, The Book of Life is very much more in the vein of A Discovery of Witches, yet with the added benefit of some of the fantastic characters from Shadow of Night. Yet like both of its predecessor the book makes for addictive reading and I had a serious case of book hangover once I finished it.
Of a necessity, talking about The Book of Life will contain some spoilers for the previous books, so if you want to remain unspoiled, beyond the cut will be SPOILERS!
With Matthew and Diana's return to the present time, the story takes a new direction, especially considering Diana's increased power and skills and her unique condition, a witch carrying a vampire's babies. I love how Harkness incorporates the pregnancy in the plot, creating limits on what Diana can and cannot do, without turning her into a fragile glasshouse flower who can be allowed to do anything for herself. Instead, Diana remains her strong, independent and active self as much as she can; dealing with the vagaries of pregnancy as she must – I related to the constant 24/7 nausea, having had it with both my girls, so I really felt for Diana on that score – going on with life in the main.
With the return to the twenty-first century also comes the return of modern science and I adored the way the two strands of scholarship intertwined and furthered the plot, with neither Diana's historical research or Matthew's science being the deciding factor, proving that the Humanities and the Sciences aren't oppositional fields, but should be complementary. This modern research also allowed for a larger role for Diana's best friend Chris and for the return of Miriam to the main stage. I loved these two; their dynamic was awesome. The undeniable attraction combined with a competitive streak of academic ambition made for great entertainment.
With our protagonists returned to the family fold, Harkness gives the reader a closer look at vampire family politics, especially as Diana is now a fully fledged, if warm-blooded, member of said family. These politics are more complex than they seemed at first blush and it was interesting to see Diana finding her feet in them. When she does, she's upgraded to the next level, she's sent to Venice to face the Congregation. The chapters set in Venice were among my favourites in the book. Being once more amongst the De Clermonts also means learning more about their history, such as Marcus' history in New Orleans, the different members of the De Clermont family, and about Matthew's first son.
The Book of Life sees the return of many characters from the previous book, chief amongst them Gallowglass. Matthew's Gaelic cousin was one of my very favourite characters in Shadow of Night, so it was wonderful to see him again in The Book of Life. His journey in this book and the revelation of how he has spent the years since 1591 is rather heartbreaking. Another family member that plays a larger role in this book is Fernando, Matthew’s brother-in-law, his brother Hugh’s widower. He is a wonderful characters, full of empathy and patience. Yet despite my liking for these two characters and the very much testosterone-driven society of the vampires, in this book it’s very much the women who are the power players, even if the men bark louder. The Book of Life is filled with fabulous women, from the fearless and loyal Diana, the regal Mater Familias Ysabeau, stubborn and loving Aunt Sarah, the cool, calm, and cerebral Miriam, to clever, courageous Phoebe. All of them are special in their own way and I loved the bonds Harkness creates between them.
What I didn’t like was the neat pairing off that took place. It felt a little too convenient. What bothered me most though, was the dynamic between Diana and Matthew. It bothered me more than in previous books, he was so possessive and dominant, that in a normal situation we’d say it was an abusive relationship and she should get out of there. Even the fact that his possessiveness is due to his vampire nature and exacerbated by his blood rage doesn’t really make it better. Only the fact that Diana realises this and never acquiesces in his trying to limit her agency and knows how to handle it and manipulate Matthew into getting her own way, makes it just this side of creepy. But it is in no way a healthy or easy relationship.
I adored The Book of Life and I really and truly hope this is not the last we’ve seen of Diana, Matthew and their family. And Harkness seems to have allowed an opening for her to return to this world, even if this book wraps up the story arc of the All Souls trilogy quite well. No matter whether she returns to the world she’s created here or not, I can’t wait to see what Harkness writes next, as she knows how tell a fantastic story. A mix of bookish thriller, supernatural romance, and historical novel, The Book of Life is a compelling ending to Deborah Harkness’ debut trilogy. If you haven’t started the series yet, I highly recommend you pick it up, as it is a fantastic read.
June’s Hodderscape Review title was an interesting choice. At first blush, Elliott Hall's The First Stoneseemed more a crime thriller than an SFF nove...moreJune’s Hodderscape Review title was an interesting choice. At first blush, Elliott Hall's The First Stone seemed more a crime thriller than an SFF novel, however there are certainly speculative elements to the story. Most of these are due to the narrative’s dystopian tendencies and near future setting. It made for a fascinating and somewhat chilling world and one whose elements are frighteningly plausible.
The future United States in which The First Stone is set has turned into an even stronger surveillance state. The movement towards ever closer and all-encompassing scrutiny was begun with the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11. Yet it is the complete and utter destruction of Houston by Iran that moves the USA even further to the right and towards an even more fundamentalist mindset. There are shades of Orwell's 1984, the citizen informers of the Soviet Union informers, the current revelations about the NSA surveillance and the police state. In short, Felix Strange’s world is a frightening one.
Such a society is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy and corruption. It also puts the government apparatchiks constantly on the defensive to retain control of their position and powers. The government’s policies are dictated by a strong fundamentalist religiosity and are aiming to curb all sinfulness, so as to be morally superior to the rest of the world. In many ways it reminded me of the Cromwellian Protectorate and its strict morality laws. This also leads the USA to reinstate what amount to crusades into the Middle East to convert the non-Christians in that region. This also leads to one of the main plot devices in the form of Felix’s debilitating syndrome which he caught during the war. His treatment by the VA and society felt reminiscent of reactions to PTSD and Gulf War Syndrome. Both were at first regarded as phantom afflictions, as not real, and were only acknowledged as ‘real’ medical conditions years and even decades after they were first reported.
While the creating of this brave, new world is seemingly secondary to the plot – which is a relatively straight-up murder conspiracy, although the conspiracy is complex – with Hall slipping in many of the details almost in passing. Yet this hierarchy is deceptive, because without the society Hall creates, the plot could not have taken the shape the author gives it; both work hand in hand to create a fantastic story. The murder mystery was intriguing and very well structured. Hall creates a believable dystopia, one in which the eventual denouement of the mystery seems inevitable, if it hadn’t been this time, then at some point in the future.
The novel’s main character, Felix, is fantastic. Despite the near-future setting, Felix is a hard-boiled PI, with the accordant vocabulary; he uses dame unironically. Hall’s description of his struggles with his medical condition and his dependance on expensive drugs, which he can only acquire illegally, is impressive and I found the way it influences his every decision convincingly portrayed. His connection to Iris is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because she is an interesting woman, with her own goals and ideals, who is a good partner for him. A weakness, because their romantic connection is almost instant and as such feels a little unconvincing. Despite this, I really enjoy their connection and their dialogues. Another of Felix’s friends I really liked was Benny, an FBI agent, who is one of Felix’s squad mates from Iran. They have kept their friendship even after shipping home and theirs is the friendship of two men who have faced the worst together and have come through it. A similar unspoken comradeship is displayed with the other veterans he encounters during his investigation.
Elliott Hall’s writing is smooth, pacey and really funny, yet also contains lots of pathos and makes you feel for the characters. I really enjoyed The First Stone and hopefully I’ll get the chance to read more by Elliott Hall in the future. I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for the two other Felix Strange novels. The First Stone is an interesting, creepily dystopian, near future murder mystery that should be appealing to both hard-boiled crime lovers and fans of dystopian fiction.
Clifford Beal’s Gideon’s Angel impressed me very much last year and when the author told me a prequel was in the works I couldn’t wait to get my hand...moreClifford Beal’s Gideon’s Angel impressed me very much last year and when the author told me a prequel was in the works I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Raven’s Banquet is set 26 years before Gideon’s Angel and is told in memoir form by Richard Treadwell in 1635, so nine years after the main events related in the book and running up to the earliest events recounted in Gideon’s Angel. While the narrative as such stands alone quite well, its ending clearly makes it a prequel and the 1635 arc definitely isn’t resolved. To find out what happened the reader will have to seek out the next book.
What then is the value of this prequel? First of all, it allows Beal to delve deeper into Treadwell’s history and develop his character further. The reader is introduced to a younger, more idealistic Richard Treadwell. Not always as sympathetic as he is in Gideon's Angel, however, as Treadwell is very much a son of privilege and one that feels he's been less well-treated by his family than he ought to have been. His motivation for joining the Danish army is also rather surprising. Of course there is the young man's dream of glory and riches to be gained, but Treadwell also seems genuinely devout and willing to die to save the Protestant people of Germany from the clutches of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. This motivation isn't just surprising given the Treadwell we know, but it is also hard to fathom for someone like me, who’s largely agnostic. Yet this kind of militant devotion is of all ages, just consider the jihadis in the Middle East or some of the more militant fundamentalist Christian groups in the US.
Second, the prequel allows Beal to introduce more information on Treadwell's gift. His ability to see the dead is examined in more depth, including the fact that he was told to never ever reveal what he saw for fear of being denounced. We also learn that his ability makes him prone to haunting, something that serves to drive the plot forward in an interesting way, without leading him by the nose. The third element that makes this prequel a good addition to the history of Richard Treadwell, is the fact that we learn more about the mysterious Anya, a Roma woman who aids Treadwell and provides him protection from the supernatural. I liked learning more about his connection to Anya and how they met, but it was also Anya who was at the heart of the thing that bothered me most about the book. Treadwell, in keeping with the time the book is set in, refers to Anya and her folk as gypsies. While historically completely accurate and a quick search of the OED online doesn’t provide any other contemporaneous term, its use made me wince, since its now widely considered a racial slur. Beal works hard to incorporate era-appropriate language and language use, succeeding at this well. The language feels authentic, even if the subject matter isn’t, though even that is debatable as in Treadwell’s time people did truly believe in witches.
Even though her being called a gypsy made me wince, I really did love Anya. She a person all her own, living her life on her own terms and appearing and disappearing at will in Treadwell’s life. Another group of women that choose to live life on their own terms are the women who save Treadwell and his comrades after the battle at Lütter. This band of women living on the Kroeteberg are women widowed by war, who have chosen to fend for themselves in the woods making charcoal, leaving their children behind with relatives. Chief among them are the Oma, the German (and Dutch) word for grandmother, who is the camp’s leader and priestess, and Rosemunde, her second-in-command. Rosemunde is such a decisive figure and her ultimate choice to free Richard was stunningly written and her courage hit me hard. Rosemunde lives on her own terms and not on those of any man’s. Anya, Rosemunde, and the other Kroeteberg women are exemplars of women ostracised and worse, because of not submitting to male dominance. Again something that is still relevant today.
Other characters worth mentioning are the bluff and hearty Balthazar, who is hard as nails yet at the same time is kind, Richard’s brother William, who we see in the framing timeline set in 1635, and the creepy and dangerous Christoph. In truth, none of the men in Treadwell’s squad are men you’d like to meet in a dark alley, but Balthazar seems capable of kindness as does the converted papist Andreas. Christoph, however, is something else and he deserved everything he got. The growth in the relationship between Richard and William was lovely, yet it still feels as if there are some pieces of their story missing; perhaps these will be added in a later story.
Raven’s Banquet is a wonderfully captivating story, yet it should be read in conjunction with or after Gideon’s Angel. That way you’ll get all the nuances, plus the cliffhanger ending is softened by either already knowing what happens or being able to find out immediately. Beal’s second Treadwell novel is a truly enjoyable read and I hope we’ll meet Treadwell again as between his leaving Lütter and his being taken in 1635, there’s still quite a gap of adventures to be filled.
The Buried Life, Carrie Patel's debut novel, intrigued me with its synopsis. It reads as a noir crime novel in a fantasy setting and the lovely cover...moreThe Buried Life, Carrie Patel's debut novel, intrigued me with its synopsis. It reads as a noir crime novel in a fantasy setting and the lovely cover gives off a bit of a steampunky vibe for me. Yet Angry Robot has filed the book under Science Fantasy, which confused me a bit. Still, I'll never say no to a crime fantasy novel and I cracked open my ARC for The Buried Life looking forward to discovering where exactly the book would fall on the genre scale. Two chapters in and any such considerations where completely forgotten as I became drawn into the narrative.
The subterranean city Recoletta is a fascinating setting, especially with the link between the underground and the surface. The cities different levels and areas were intriguing in what they said about the world and its culture. Recoletta is strongly class-based, yet it’s not a linear system where the highest classes live on the surface and the lowest classes on the lowest level or vice versa. Instead the upper class lives on the first level below the surface, with exits and entrances on both below and above ground, while those living fully above are considered nothing better than peasants and the rest of the classes do seem to move down to the lower levels of the city. Recoletta’s society felt somewhat Victorian, yet its population was not at all WASP-y society. It is a diverse society with people of all ethnicities and it’s treated as something unremarkable. Some of the world building elements were super subtle. One example of this are the white nails sported by the upper classes. These nails aren’t just white, because they do not need to do any physical labour – which underground often means you'll get grimy real fast – their remarkable length is also a symbol of their owner’s status. The longer your nails, the less able to fend for yourself you are without the risk of them breaking.
Recoletta’s political system is intricate, with what seems to be an almost inherited councillorship, flanked by nobles and a large underclass. There is also a strange government control of knowledge. History, and anything that hints of it, is verboten. Books can only be entertainment, so the poems of Matthew Arnold are allowed – in fact the book’s title is a line from one of his poems – yet Shakespeare’s historical plays are highly illegal. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a regular citizen to know what actually happened to precipitate the earth’s collapse and cause humanity to retreat underground, except for the explanations that government is willing to allow the populace. As such the reader never finds out what really happened and how much of humanity survived. I hope Patel will reveal more of this history in the following books.
The story is told from two points of view, both equally competent women with lots of agency. The latter however, is undermined in Jane's case by her instant infatuation/attraction to Roman. The first viewpoint we get is that of Liesl Malone, the Municipal Inspector assigned to solve the murder of Dr Cahill. She a wonderful character; a seeming ice princess with a rather nourish vibe about her, she is a textbook example of silent waters running deep. Her no-holds-barred detecting style is fun and I really liked how she interacted with her boss and her new partner Rafe. Patel allows us to see events from both points of view in places where the narrative allows and we don't get a physical description of Liesl until Jane encounters her and vice-versa. I really liked this approach, as it avoided the self-conscious self descriptions or the usual mirror scene.
Jane is fabulous. A self-employed laundress, she is wonderfully independent and determined to remain so, by providing for herself and being beholden to none for her living. Her close friendship with Freddie, a journalist often covering the society pages, is fun and rather touching. Connected by similar experiences in childhood, they’ve struck up a true friendship and it was refreshing to see it just be friendship, despite them being of the opposite sex. This is made even more clear once Olivia, Jane’s new boarder enters the picture and Jane doesn’t really care that Freddie is infatuated with her as she is worried for his safety. Also tragic childhoods seem a theme here, as in addition to Jane and Freddie, Liesl and Roman also had horrible childhoods.
Roman is a stumbling block for both our heroines. Jane instantly likes him, yet Liesl despises him, for reasons that aren't ever truly articulated beyond his reputation and his brusque manner in keeping said reputation alive. I liked this tortured mysterious man, especially once his true story emerges. Yet his instant connection to Jane and his protectiveness of her based on only a few meetings bothered me greatly. It seems too deep for the amount of contact and borders on – if not crosses into – insta-love territory.
The narrative contains numerous plot twists and murders, which make for a riveting tale. It’s a tale that only gets more tangled the closer to the end of the book we get, ending with a new status quo that was quite unexpected. Clues to the identity of the killer are spread throughout the story and sometimes clearly placed, yet I found it completely engrossing. At times the narrative became confusing though, because things or people were referenced that I hadn't encountered before or only mentioned in passing, which would make me have to go back or think really hard, which shook me out of the flow of the story.
After finishing The Buried Life I looked up the “official” definition of science fantasy and the book does fit it quite closely, yet it feels like it is essentially its own thing. I really enjoyed the novel, Patel's descriptions are strong and evoke Recoletta quite clearly. The narrative builds up to a clear climax and while the murders are solved, the story clearly isn't over. I can't wait to return to Recoletta and discover what happens after the upheaval caused by the events in this book. Luckily Cities and Thrones is already slated for release in early February of next year. If you enjoy your SFF a bit off the beaten path or genre mashups in general, then I highly recommend giving Carrie Patel's The Buried Life a shot.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.(less)
Two years ago I was very impressed with Jeff Salyards' debut Scourge of the Betrayer. I enjoyed this tale of a young, naive scribe hired by a ruthles...moreTwo years ago I was very impressed with Jeff Salyards' debut Scourge of the Betrayer. I enjoyed this tale of a young, naive scribe hired by a ruthless band of soldiers as their company's chroniclers enormously and I was looking forward to reading the second book in the series Veil of the Deserters. Unfortunately, due to the folding and subsequent sale of his publishers, Night Shade Books, to Skyhorse Publishing the publication of the book was delayed and we had to wait until a few months ago to be able to return to Arki's story. But it certainly was a joyful reunion.
In hindsight, I might have needed to reread Scourge of the Betrayer. Salyards doesn’t coddle the reader with recaps or other explicit reminders of what has gone before and after two years I found myself grasping after details of what exactly happened in Scourge of the Betrayer. Yet it doesn’t detract from enjoying the story and after a chapter or two things started coming back to me. What didn’t take long at all though, was to remember why I enjoyed Salyards’ writing so much. From the first page Arki’s voice and the tone of the book is clear. It’s a mixture of wry humour, naiveté and grit, one that I found irresistible.
Arki, or Arkamondos to give him his proper name, is a wonderful character. He is the story’s narrator and our window onto the world of the Syldoon Empire. It’s often a distorted view, shaped by Arki’s decidedly non-martial nature and his conviction that he is not cut out to be a hero. Arki is a scholar pur sang and happiest with ink on his fingers and book dust in his nose, yet he keeps surprising himself, the Syldoon, and the reader by taking risks and decisions that are remarkably heroic, even if not always well-executed. He grows in his role as archivist to Captain Braylar Killcoin’s band of Syldoon, becoming more sure of himself, his position in the group, his worth to the Syldoon, and his loyalty to Braylar. It’s reflected in his observations of the Syldoon around him and Braylar and his lieutenants in particular; they become less and less intimidated and more direct and critical. He doesn’t feel as a twig swept along by the river as much and more as an oarsman deciding his own course.
One of the reasons Arki seems more at home among the Syldoon is his growing friendship with Vendurro. The band’s remaining sergeant, he’s a junior officer and closer to Arki in age than Braylar, Hewspear, and Mulldoos. He’s also quite funny and, like Arki, a poser of awkward and inappropriate questions. He often doesn’t know when to keep his mouth closed, sometimes to comedic effect and sometimes allowing Salyards to drop in some more world building. Arki also gets a better read on Braylar’s character and seems on surer ground with him. He also learns more about Braylar’s history, some of it in surprisingly frank confessions by Braylar others through accident or eavesdropping. One of the reasons we learn more about Braylar is that his band of soldiers is joined by two memoridons, or memory witches, one of whom is his sister Soffjian. I really liked Soffjian and her companion Skeelana, who turn out to be as dangerous, or perhaps even more dangerous than the Syldoon. The memoridons are a fascinating element of Syldoon society and one we fortunately learn more about in this book, especially once we reach Sunwrack, the capital of the Syldoon Empire.
Sunwrack was awesome in every sense of the word. I love the palpable sense of awe Salyards invokes in Arki when he first sees Sunwrack, only letting it increase the further he gets into the city. Sunwrack is also a hotbed of political wrangling and plotting. We learn more about the details of what becoming a Syldoon brother entails and it isn’t pretty. What happens with the current Emperor, Cynead, is unexpected, if not out of character as to become a Syldoon emperor means having an excessive dose of ambition and an unhealthy sense of pride.
One of my major complaints with Scourge of the Betrayer was the fact that due to Arki being the first person narrator and largely being kept in the dark as to the Syldoon’s true plans, meant that the reader was kept in the dark as well and perhaps a little too much and too long. In Veil of the Deserters Arki slowly discovers more of the Syldoon’s true intentions and ambitions, with the speed of revelations increasing the closer we get to the ending of the book. Yet, while I was glad to finally get a clearer idea of Braylar’s plans and where the plot is heading, it still took rather long for these facts to finally crystallise. Arki still needs to fully gain Braylar’s trust at the start of the book and it is only at the end that he has finally won it and information is shared more freely with him. I hope that in the next book Arki is kept in the loop and events and motivations won’t be as much of a mystery.
Veil of the Deserters is a terrific sequel to Scourge of the Betrayer. One that builds on the framework Salyards created in the previous book, expanding the world and developing the characters in organic, but unexpected, ways. The book can be read without having read the previous book and Veil of the Deserters doesn’t really suffer too badly from second book syndrome. However, the ending of the book is somewhat of a cliff hanger and as such the book doesn’t truly standalone. If you like military fantasy reminiscent of Glen Cook and well-written battles and dialogue then Veil of the Deserters is a book you certainly won’t want to miss. I had a great time with Arki and his comrades and I hope we won’t have as long a wait as last time to find out what happens next.
**spoiler alert** When I saw Thirty Sunsets in the Flux catalogue and later on NetGalley, it sounded like it might be an interesting novel. But from t...more**spoiler alert** When I saw Thirty Sunsets in the Flux catalogue and later on NetGalley, it sounded like it might be an interesting novel. But from the synopsis I’d expected a far different book than I got. That isn’t to say that this is a bad thing, but it was surprising. Note that this review will have spoilers as you can't really talk meaningfully about this book without giving them. If you want to remain unspoiled for this book, best not continue on, because here be SPOILERS!
Thirty Sunsets is told from the first person perspective of Forrest Shephard, a sixteen-year-old young woman, who has come to accept that she isn’t one of the popular crowd at school, even if her big brother is and everything looked set for her to be the same. But Forrest is a bit of a braniac and as such if not an outcast, at least on the periphery of the social sphere at school. Yet even if Forrest is our narrator and protagonist, the true focus of the book is the relationship between the various members of the Shephard family. Forrest worships her big brother Brian and as such has a major chip on her shoulder regarding his girlfriend, especially as she sees Olivia as the cause of every one of Brian’s bad decisions. There are some interesting secrets being kept from Forrest by her parents and her brother, secrets that will put everything she’s taken for granted in a new light.
Deriso spends time building up the close relationship between the Shephards. It’s there in the little things, such as the word game between Forrest and her editor dad, where he’ll fire off an obscure or difficult word and Forrest gives the definition, her pride in her brother, and the unspoken – if spiky – communication between Forrest and her mum. This close bond is emphasised by the sense of intrusion that Forrest feels when Brian’s girlfriend Olivia is invited along to their annual summer stay at their beach house, loving called Spackle Beach. Forrest is angry and feels betrayed, especially since she thought her mum shared her dislike of Olivia.
Once at Spackle Beach, Olivia drives Forrest nuts, between her picky eating and constant throwing up and her brother’s doting on her every whim. It also seems to corroborate the rumour that Olivia has bulimia. Yet despite this, slowly Olivia thaws Forrest’s icy demeanour towards her. And when Forrest flat out asks her about a possible eating disorder and Olivia reveals she’s pregnant, Forrest starts to see her in a different light. I liked the way Forrest’s attitude towards Olivia shifts from outright hostility to grudging respect to sincere friendship, even if, certainly at first, the shift seem a little fast. What I also liked is that through talking to Olivia Forrest learns that the way she feels about herself and how she thinks people regard her, isn’t necessarily how others actually see her.
Learning that her brother is going to be a father is a shock to Forrest and it’s obviously also a shock for their parents, as Brian and Olivia have only just graduated high school. Deriso shows the period of adjustment for all of them, except for Brian and Olivia who have already processed the shock and are now determined to keep their baby and do right by them. It also makes Forrest doubly determined to be like other girls and finally get a boyfriend. Fate seems to conspire with her by throwing the gorgeous Scott into her lap. Handsome, charming and glib, Scott zeroes in on her and sweeps her off her feet. He’s a player and when Forrest tells him to leave her alone, he doesn’t take no for an answer and assaults her, she barely escapes being raped. Her parents are wonderfully supportive, yet Forrest’s assault reveals their final big family secret, one that thus far had remained secret, but one that explains the strange behaviour of Forrest’s family in one fell swoop: Brian is her half-brother and he was conceived through rape.
It was at this point that the narrative lost me a little as it felt a little too much; how much can happen to one family? Then again, perhaps that is life and events in the past have indirectly influenced current events. Still, it jarred me out of the story and it was hard to be fully immersed in it afterwards. This was reinforced by the resolution to prosecuting Scott’s assault of Forrest. It disappointed me as it felt like the easy way out. Obviously it allowed for all the threads to be neatly tied off in one novel, but felt more dissatisfying than it would have been if left open.
Despite my disappointment with that ending, the epilogue more than made up for it and closed the book on a hopeful note. I felt that Deriso handled some very difficult situations with care and consideration and makes it doubly clear that rape (or attempted rape) is never the victim’s fault, but always the perpetrator’s. I think this is an important message to get across to teens – and adults, for that matter – and Thirty Sunsets certainly delivers it.
I first encountered Gail Z. Martin’s Deadly Curiosities world in her short story Buttons in Jonathan Oliver’s Magic anthology. I was immediately char...moreI first encountered Gail Z. Martin’s Deadly Curiosities world in her short story Buttons in Jonathan Oliver’s Magic anthology. I was immediately charmed by the premise and the characters and the consequent announcement of Solaris’ acquisition of a full Deadly Curiosities novel was a pleasant surprise. This meant that starting Deadly Curiosities came with certain expectations about its setting, its characters, and its subject matter. And Martin certainly delivered on those expectations with a very entertaining tale of supernatural shenanigans, ancients ghosts returning, and the fight of Cassidy and Teag’s life.
The story is set in the historic and atmospheric city of Charleston. It’s clear that Martin has true love and great affection for this beautiful town and it makes the streets and buildings truly pop of the page. In Martin’s Deadly Curiosities the supernatural is real and ghosts, demons, and immortals all wander the earth. The supernatural elements are present in the world, but most mundane mortals are unaware of their existence and there are organisations that work hard at keeping it so. One of these is the Alliance, a group of supernaturals and magically-gifted individuals that have banded together to contain the more dangerous and evil of their number. The book’s protagonist Cassidy Kincaid is such a gifted individual; a psychometric, she can read the history of objects and even places, if the emotional impressions left by their owners or occupiers are strong enough.
Cassidy is a fun main character. She’s snarky and spiky with a great sense of humour. She’s comfortable in her life as the owner of Trifles & Folly and the occasional remover of spooky items. She’s got a great support system in her friends and neighbours, especially in her best friend and assistant Teag. To be clear, Cassidy is single, yet there is not a hint of romance in the book. The only men in her life are Teag, who’s gay and in a committed relationship, Sorren, her vampire silent partner, and Baxter, her Maltese. I really enjoyed Cassidy’s independent spirit, but appreciated the fact that she knew when she needed help and allowed her friends to help her. She’s still relatively unschooled in her gift and as she doesn’t truly have a mentor to teach her any more, this sometimes makes her gift hard to control and places her in unexpected and dangerous situations.
Cassidy’s main allies in her work taming the spokes, as she calls the haunted items she comes across, are Teag and Sorren. Teag is her assistant, both in the store and her work. He has his own recently discovered gift; Teag is a Weaver, which means that he can created and weave magic using knots, webs, and cloth. But Teag is not just a Weaver, he’s a Data Weaver— he’s incredibly talented at manipulating the internet and other digital data connected to the World Wide Web. Sorren is the silent partner in Trifles & Folly, the partner that set up the store together with Cassidy’s ancestor centuries before. I liked his paternal attitude to Cassidy, which is protective, without ever becoming patronising or creepy. Sorren is also a vampire and Martin maintains most of the traditional vampire traits: intolerance of sunlight, super strength and speed, incredible healing powers, and a thirst for blood. However, he doesn’t see humans purely as food and it seems as if Martin’s vampires can subsist on animal blood if necessary. He’s more of an Angel character than a Spike. There is an amazing amount of history he’s lived through and I’d love to learn more of it in future tales. A last character that I really enjoyed and who deserves special mention is Lucinda. She’s an academic and a root woman and has a strong connection to the Loas, vodoun spirits, who she invokes for protection. She’s such a warm and comforting presence in the narrative and I hope we’ll see more of her in the future.
The plot of the book was well-paced. Every time Cassidy and Teag got close to solving the mystery, it turned out to be only a minor piece of the puzzle or to open up an whole new can of trouble. It allowed for Martin to reveal more and more of her world and of the supernatural elements in it without creating giant info-dumps. While the tension gets turned up every time, it also caused me to check whether I’d misremembered the number of pages left in the book, as it seemed as if the plot would be resolved in the next chapter or two. Inevitable this would be followed with a twist, which meant more problems to solve. To me this wasn’t a problem, but it might be off-putting to those who dislike this sort of thing. Martin manages to work a lot of history into the book and from the author’s acknowledgements in the back of the book some of the historical figures, landmarks, and events truly existed or happened.
Overall, I was a charmed by Deadly Curiosities as I was by Buttons and I found myself being sucked more and more into the narrative the further we got along. The tale Martin spins us is interesting and complex. Cassidy, Teag, Sorren and the rest are wonderful characters and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. Deadly Curiosities is a strong opener to a new urban fantasy series, one that stands on its own beautifully, but it leaves many avenues open to explore in future books. I can only hope there’ll be many more in the future.
Speed of Dark was May’s Hodderscape Review Project title. It wasn’t my first Elizabeth Moon as I’ve read and enjoyed her Serrano Legacy books. However...moreSpeed of Dark was May’s Hodderscape Review Project title. It wasn’t my first Elizabeth Moon as I’ve read and enjoyed her Serrano Legacy books. However, while Speed of Dark is ostensibly SF, it is so in a very different way from her Serrano Legacy series which is far more space opera and military SF. Speed of Dark takes the question ‘What if medicine has advanced so far that we could cure almost anything, including extending life and repairing spinal cord injuries? What if this could also cure autism?’ as its central concept It takes this question and looks at the many ethical and moral complications connected to it and does so in a compelling and sensitive manner.
Before I go further, I have to give some background. Disorders on the autism spectrum are something I’m intimately familiar with, as I have two brothers who have been diagnosed with ASDs and my husband works with special needs children, many of whom are also autistic. Admittedly, the people with autism I’m familiar with are all highly-functioning, so that might shape my bias, but the idea that autism is something that should be cured by definition is one that raises many doubts for me. Of course there are many autistic people that manifest in catatonic or uncommunicative ways, who will never be able to live an independent life. But there are also many highly-functioning autistic people who excel and who would take the suggestion that they should be cured as an insult. There are many different forms of autism and again as many different manifestations. So I found myself reading Speed of Dark very much from a place of scepticism and rather hoping that Lou would choose to not have the treatment.
The book is mostly told from Lou’s perspective, though both his supervisor, Mr Aldrin, and his friend Tom get their own points of view. Moon conveys the rigidity of Lou’s thought patterns and routines clearly and compellingly. Sometimes Lou’s voice was somewhat uncomfortable as his reasoning is so different from mine, and I’d guess most neurotypical people. However he’s also quite endearing and I really rooted for him to choose what’s right for him, even though the question of what’s right for him wasn’t that easily answered. Yet, treatment or no, rigidity of routine or no, Moon also shows that to be human is to change and Lou changes and grows throughout the book. In fact it’s his changing that makes up his mind as to whether he wants to have the treatment or not.
Moon explores the prejudices harboured against disabled people in her version of our future and how those fully-abled but unsuccessful often blame them for their failures. It's something that is relevant in the here and now not just with regards to differently abled people, but with regards to race, gender, and sexual orientation as well. The division between the normally-abled and the differently-abled is emphasised by the prejudices being mirrored by the people at the Center where Lou meets with his fellow autistics each Saturday. Especially Emmy is disgusted by the fact that Lou has developed feelings for a normal, even if this is partly fuelled by jealousy. It also made me wonder how much of this isn’t the internalised prejudices of the norms speaking through Emmy, as she just can’t imagine a neurotypical woman being interested in Lou for Lou without any ulterior motives.
Lou’s dilemma and that of his co-workers is looked at from every angle thinkable and all possible reactions are shown, from those affected immediately – Lou and his friends at work – and from the neurotypical people in the book such as Lou’s fencing friends, his supervisor at work and others. I was quite surprised by the strong reaction of Detective Stacy, whose positive enforcement of Lou was unexpected. I found Lou’s boss, Mr Crenshaw and the medical doctors involved with the medical trial rather frightening in their wilful pushing of the procedure, especially Crenshaw who seems to act from a perspective of both prejudice and financial gain. Lou’s stalker is disturbing in his blind anger and violence, but Lou’s reaction to his punishment – the placing of a chip to take away his violent impulses, much like Spike on Buffy – is graceful and honest, even if ultimately irrelevant; he can’t prevent the punishment being administered.
Did I ultimate agree with Lou’s choice? I’m still not sure. I think he was already changing and growing and perhaps becoming more “normal” which is what he thinks he needs to be to achieve that which he wants. In the end though, it’s a fitting choice and it’s Lou’s choice, no one else’s despite all the outside forces interfering , and that’s all that matters. I very much enjoyed Speed of Dark. I think Moon handled a complex story with care and consideration and provides much food for thought. Great example of the way SF can make us examine our own opinions and prejudices about elements in our own current time more closely. If you like more introspective and slower-moving near future SF, then I’d certainly recommend giving Speed of Dark a read.
Isla Morley's Above was Hodderscape's Review Project title for the month of April – a project that I'm woefully behind on, something I aim to fix in t...moreIsla Morley's Above was Hodderscape's Review Project title for the month of April – a project that I'm woefully behind on, something I aim to fix in the near future – and when I first received my ARC and read the synopsis, I was all kinds of intrigued. The notion of children, and sadly it's most often girls, being snatched and hidden away horrifies me, both as a human being and as a mum. I can only imagine the pain Blythe's parents go through when she disappeared, however Above doesn't consider this at all. Above is all about Blythe, about her experiences and her captivity; we feel her panic, her anger, her despair and eventually her hope for a better, different life. Above delivers a harrowing tale, one that has a happy ending with a giant twist, which was fascinating not because 'Whoa! Apocalypse', but because of the emotional turmoil it throws Blythe into and the fascinating questions it poses of both Blythe and the reader.
The story in Above literally has two halves. The first half is called Below, where we join Blythe the moment she comes to inside the Silo that is to be her home for the next half of her life. It is a truly contained narrative taking place inside a silo with only Blythe, Dobbs, and Adam as active characters. The second half is called Above where we follow Blythe and Adam out of the silo and into a world changed beyond reckoning. While they don't move that far from the silo physically, they may have travelled to the moon for all that Blythe feels alienated by what she finds in the world above and in a painful way she finds she initially has as little agency interacting with the people outside as she had in her captivity with Dobbs. The contrast between the two situations is only heightened by the helplessness Blythe feels in both.
Blythe is our window on to the world as we see it in Above. Throughout the novel Morley sticks close to Blythe's point of view and due to the isolation of her captivity we necessarily spend a lot of time inside her head. We follow Blythe's development from a scared teen convinced she'll be rescued at any moment, into a young woman resigned to surviving as best she can, and finally into a mother bent on escape to save her son. I found myself going from being scared for her to being scared with her, especially in the latter half of the book and I found it hard to step out of her head space when putting the book down. Morley brings Blythe's emotions alive and to the surface without falling into melodrama. Blythe's voice is surprisingly dynamic, confined and isolated though she is.
Our other main character is Adam. Blythe's son, well-loved by her, more mentored than parented by Dobbs, he's a true innocent. Born underground, isolated from humanity, only knowing his parents until he reaches fifteen, he truly is Adam in more ways than one. He's not just Blythe's best hope for a future, but humanity's as well. While Adam is an important character, he's still always seen through Blythe's eyes. And she loves him fiercely and, she comes to discover, jealously. Unused to sharing his attention, trust, and love with anyone other than Dobbs, who both Adam and Blythe refer to as Mister, when they meet other people she has a really hard time accepting what she feels is an invasion and a threat. I love Adam's free spirit and the way we get to see the world made anew through his child-like wonder, when they finally leave the silo.
Apart from Blythe and Adam, there are really only a handful of characters that play more than a background role. The most important of these is Blythe's captor and Adam's father Dobbs. He's a disturbed and unbalanced individual, a survivalist convinced that the apocalypse IS coming and he WILL be prepared. And he's a predator, who clearly groomed Blythe to be his chosen Eve. But he's fiendishly clever and he's prepared everything really well, having covered his tracks and making quite sure Blythe will never be found.
Morley incorporates some fascinating world building in Above and it's done despite a very close focus on Blythe's inner life and her point of view. Not much is explained directly, we learn most of it through the details in the background. Especially once we learn about the events above during Blythe's incarceration, previously innocuous details slot into place and complete the puzzle. I thought this was really well done and while I quickly figured out what the twist would be when Blythe came out, Morley's execution of said twist was gripping.
Above is a riveting story, though it can be slow in some places. I found myself drawn deeply into Blythe's character, the more so the older she gets. Morley focuses closely on the psychological conflict inherent to Blythe's situation and the internal struggle she engages in during the last quarter of the book where she tries to come to grips with her anger at Dobbs and the need to perhaps acknowledge that he might also have saved her life. I enjoyed this book tremendously, if that is the correct word for such a harrowing tale, but if you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction and psychological thrillers, Above might provide you with the perfect blend of both.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.(less)