Subjective Chaos: Kind of Awards 2018 - An experiment!

When not changing the order of Mount TBR or finding more time to read all the books I often find myself in that wonderful bit of twitter devoted to books and chat with other bloggers. Late last year C of Themiddleshelf.org proposed hosting an informal blog awards. A jury of us would put forward our favourites in certain categories an then over a few months in 2018 we would debate/argue/maim/bribe in public so you can say we are completely wrong in our ultimate choices but at the same time we give you a load of books you may still not have read yet!

It's not serious - we have not actually got an award or swanky event to host it but it sounded fun and I said I'd like to be involved!  I'm fairly certain there are books in 2017 I should have read and this would help that quest!

Subjective Chaos?

Have you ever tried to get bloggers to agree on rules? Lots of debate already had with fervent checking of publication dates and AGONISING choices have already taken place away from your sensitive eyes dear reader

This is JUST Fun

Its an informal experiment seeing if seven bloggers with differing tastes can agree on what we feel where the best in certain categories. This is subjective based on what we read collectively and happily it all means we have some new books to read too - our minds aren't yet certain that our personal choice for the best will be out final decision.

Who is taking part?

C of The MiddleShelf

@Eowyn

@Hammard

Bethan of bethanmaybooks.wordpress.com

David of bluebookballoon.blogspot.co.uk

Imyril of onemore.org

Plus little old me. 

The Categories?

Well we have to be careful of our day jobs and sleep so we limited ourselves to the following categories

- Best Fantasy Novel

- Best Sci-Fi Novel

- Blurred Boundaries (aka Best Speculative Fiction)

- Best Novella

- Best Series (published in 2017 but may be incomplete)

We have to read the shortlist in any category in order to award and we can opt out if time runs out!

So the Shortlist?

We all put forward one choice and often had a back-up which came in useful. Then there was discussion as to which group they fitted! We all agreed one book to one category only

Best Fantasy

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Godblind by Anna Stephens

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Metronome by Oliver Langhead

Strange Practise by Vivian Shaw

Best SF

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

The Rift by Nina Allen

The Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Blurred Boundaries

Hannah Green and her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

Best Novella

Buffalo Soldiers by Maurice Broaddus

Chalk by Paul Cornell

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

The Black Tides of Heaven/The Red Threads of Fortune by Jy Yang

A Divided River by Christian Ellingsen

A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Best Series

Food of the gods by Cassandra Khaw

The Divine Cities by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

The Split Worlds by Emma Newman

The Broken Earth by NK Jemisin

Stay tuned for updates as to how everyone agreed with me or not!

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Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Publisher - Orbit

Published - 18th February

Price - £8.99 paperback

I thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

 

Mild-mannered headmaster Thomas Senlin prefers his adventures to be safely contained within the pages of a book. So, when he loses his new bride shortly after embarking on the honeymoon of their dreams, he is ill-prepared for the trouble that follows.

To find her, Senlin must enter the Tower of Babel – a world of geniuses and tyrants, of menace and wonder, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. He must ensure betrayal, assassination attempts and the long guns of a flying fortress. And if he hopes to ever see his wife again, he will have to do more than survive – this quiet man of letters must become a man of action

Travel broadens the mind they say. You go and see how other countries live you pick up new ideas; have great experiences and the person who comes back isn’t always the person who left. In the alternate world of Ur if like the newly married Senlin who work in a small fishing village’s school the one place EVERYONE wishes to go is The Tower of Babel. The wonder of the world a huge tall tower that climbs into the crowds. Each floor its own mysterious place of wonder. Think Disneyland combined with Rome and New York. But as many people who have had a holiday recommended to them the experience may not resemble the guidebooks. In the start of what looks to be an incredibly promising trilogy Bancroft gives us a very unique and surprising fantasy adventure that also asks questions about the joys of knowledge versus temptation and greed.

The story takes a bold choice and giving us an initially quite difficult lead character in Head Master Thomas Senlin. Described as a sturgeon even by his villagers he comes across stuffy, over-bearing and a tad pretentious. His wife Marya is in contrast warm, funny and bold – hard to see how this relationship started! But swiftly worse than losing the luggage Thomas swiftly loses Marya at the base of the tower. A fruitless search leads him robbed and stranded in the Tower’s first layer The Basement. If you’ve lost everything how can you progress in a place that is very much focused on wealth and status?

The concept of the Tower which is effectively layered cities on top of one another is a stand-out idea in the book. The Basement seems to be happy to just please people with basic pleasures – a fountain you can pedal yourself to get beer! But as Thomas moves upward each new level adds new challenges. A mysterious level known as The Parlour requires entrants to enact a play; while The Baths offers quality entertainment and endless nights of expensive decadence. But the Tower as Thomas quickly finds has a much darker side. While it endlessly welcomes new guests, there are rules and if you break them you will suffer physically and potentially never leave alive. It’s a perfect gilded cage of wonder and as the story progresses Thomas finds himself having his ideals of a place of science and wonder clashing with reality. It is a very subtle character progression initially he can easily turn a blind eye to an injustice as he doesn’t want to risk not being allowed to search for Marya but then he realises that to progress he needs to be prepared to fight.

It is a fantastically described world of beer fountains; giant metallic wall siders fixing the tower with airships bringing in supplies (and battles) that within this hellish wonderland Bancroft can explore some interesting ideas. The Tower makes people pay to live the lives of the elites, but they will be used in the process; made broke and if not felt to be sufficiently loyal then cut loose (or worse). It’s an amazing technical beauty of pleasure that seduces those from afar. We have a society that offers these expensive wonders demonstrating consumerism which with Senlin battling to find his wife means we have an ongoing battle with the headmaster who values science, ethics and decency. I loved the sense that alongside Senlin’s quest we have a fable about modern life struggles to stay true to who you want to be.

What could sound a very dry book is very action packed – reminiscent of an 19th century adventure story with each chapter offering new sights and adventures. No one can be trusted, everyone has an agenda and often more than one! The book hints at wider battles for power that Thomas is falling into, but this story is very much focused on Thomas’ journey. By the end of the book I’m cheering for this quiet man as he does things I never would have expected of in Chapter 1, but the progression feels very natural and he becomes a new favourite character. Resourceful and on occasion happier to use his wits to beat far stronger opponents.

My only reservation is that in each level of the Tower we see Thomas gain and lose companions who help illustrate the risks and traps that the Tower has in store for the unwary.  Unsurprisingly women often have an unfair deal – many simply used as property/entertainment but while Bancroft gives us some interesting characters such as a touring land-owner and a gang-master’s enforcer we rarely get to see the world from their perspectives.  There is a lot of potential for this though set up in the next volume which I really hope is a theme that continues to be developed.

I will admit I am often wary of a book that seems to suit the label steampunk. Often for me it’s been a disappointment where style is delivered but without substance. With Senlin Ascends I was wrong! It’s a very creative and thoughtful novel that I think in our ongoing society’s discussions with itself over the nature of consumerism and when should we rebel against those in power it really feels like a fresh fantasy voice is debuting something quite unusual. The next volume will be out later this year and I will be fascinated to discover what else lurks in the clouds. Strongly recommended you pick this up now!

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A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins)

Publisher  - Gollancz

Publication date - Out Now

Price - £12.99 Hardback

I am as brown as brown can be,

And my eyes as black as sloe,

I am as brisk as brisk can be,

And wild as forest doe,

(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape

In the 19th century there was a recognition that many ancient ballads passed down the ages in England and Scotland were at risk of fading out of history. The Child Ballads were an attempt to write down those tales/songs before the oral storytellers died out. They reflect tales that have been passed down in villagers for centuries and represent a mythology some may not be aware of. This tale is believed to be from Scotland. Joanne Harris takes the story and gives it a unique fantasy tale that mixes the old world with a slightly modern perspective.

Our narrator is a young woman who belongs to the Faerie in Scotland this magical group who have the power to change into any creature; have a rather stand-offish relationship with Humans (known as the Folk). Although they are dimly aware of each other its well known the two cannot mix.  Until a fateful day in May when our Faerie Girl helps save the life of the local Lord’s son William . They become obsessed with each other and there is a brief relationship that turns sour. The Girl realises that William ultimately puts his family privilege above her and that to him there are many young ladies the local Lord can try to seduce. Over the course of the year The Girl then must firstly win back her abilities to transform and then plan retribution.

It sounds a simple tale, but I think Harris has made some additions that make this a unique reading experience. The Faerie culture we see The Girl belongs to is fascinating we see them at markets, Halloween and throughout the story with characters such as the Old Hawthorne Tree/Woman we sense a bigger legend these events are just a mere part of. I really liked how the concept of shape shifting is done here and the descriptions of the various creatures the girl are evocative. That sense of the bigger natural world with wolves, bats and spirits all co-existing is really brought to life.  You sense so many more tales lurking in the woods.

I also liked how the story tackles prejudice. Our Prince as Into the Woods would say is charming but certainly not sincere. There is a subtle tinge of class (and potentially racism) as to how those in the Lord’s Castle and the Village view the Girl who initially appears a woman from a community outside their own. No one makes her welcome and her inevitable fall from favour brings out the worse in people. At the same time The Girl is no a pure lost princess she makes decisions that will have potentially deadly implications for others. Faerie morality is not quite the same as human morality.

There are two other features I think make this a rewarding experience. Harris’ writing is beautiful and throughout you’ll find motifs of colour and nature. This makes the story extremely vivid and as the story progresses over the year so the changes in seasons also impact the tone as scenes move towards a darker conclusion. To aid this there are stunning illustrations by Bonnie Helen Hawkins throughout the novel capturing key scenes and emotions. This hardback edition is a work of art.

I appreciate fairy tales are not for everyone, but this was sumptuous reading experience that gives you something to think about long after closing the covers. Very much at this time of year it’s a story I can curl up with and spend hours reading from start to end over a day (which is exactly what I did). Harris continues to be one of the most interesting authors out there offering a variety of tales which is the hallmark of a true storyteller.

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English Heritage - Eight Ghosts edited by Rowan Routh

Publisher - September

Out Now

Price - £12.99 Hardback

Rooted in place, slipping between worlds -  a rich collection of unnerving ghosts and sinister histories

Eight authors were given after hours freedom at their chosen English Heritage site. Immersed in the history, atmosphere and rumours of hauntings, they channelled their darker imaginings into a series of extraordinary new ghost stories….Within the walls of these historic buildings each author has found inspiration to deliver a new interpretation of the classic ghost story.

We love visiting old places around the country. We get that sense of history – how we used to live and behave. Some places seem immune to modern life and when you pass the threshold you’ll feel as if you’re in a different age. But the darker side of our imagination will also imagine that what happened in that place lingers on. The past is there somehow watching and perhaps may not always welcoming our intrusion. In this unusual project English Heritage has assembled eight ghost stories and pleasingly they don’t go for the obvious “in the year of our lord XXXX a gruesome murder occurred”.  Instead we see a range of ideas as to what the ghost story is and what it can be used for.  It’s a largely successful selection and I think something for everyone

They Flee From Me That Sometimes Did Me Seek by Sarah Perry

A tale of a restoration expert repairing a Jacobean screen that has a reputation for harming those who touch it. It’s a nasty story of a curse with a building atmosphere of isolation and self loathing. It preys on that fear we have that no one really likes us and certainly one of the strongest openings

Mr Lanyard’s Last Case by Andrew Michael Hurley

The next story moves to the past of 1746 and Carlisle Castle. Following the battle of Culloden a number of rebels need to be tried in court (and executed). Mr Lanyard is the prosecutor for down south to perform his duty. He’s a cruel man blind to the condition the castle prisoners are in but over time he loses his composure and its clear something may be troubling him.  Probably the most classic ghost story in the selection but it’s done really well as we await the final reveal of what is lurking just out of Mr Lanyard’s sight.

The Bunker by Mark Haddon

Nadine works in a hospital and starts to experience another life hovering around York Cold War Bunker and experiences a world after an apocalypse.  Which world will be the real one? For me this didn’t really work it felt more as an SF tale rather than horror and didn’t really feel it suited the anthology.

Foreboding by Kamila Shamsie

A new security guard starts working at Kenilworth Castle. He is an immigrant from abroad and finds the concept of a castle with ghosts unusual. But then he starts to notice a presence that seems to be calling him.  I liked how this story balances the traditional castle setting with a tale of an immigrant feeling a violent home and leaving relatives behind.  Extremely eerie and that sense of a trap closing builds strongly.

Never Departed More by Stuart Evers

This story is probably the most unusual; Maya is an American actress who wants to immerse herself in the role of Ophelia for a movie to be based in Dover Castle. Maya takes Method acting to the extreme plunging into costume and very much aiming to become Ophelia. But she starts to notice the castle has other inhabitants and a handsome airman offers the chance of a lifetime.  This story swirls like a dream with hints of madness and I was not quite sure until the very end where it is going. Very reminiscent of Tales of the Unexpected!

 

The Wall by Kate Clanchy

Against the setting of Hadrian’s Wall a young family with a troubled teen go on a visit to clear the air.  It’s a tale of a family breaking down and the shortest in the collection. But I think the way the emotions of the parents are captured, and that sense of a daughter/mother relationship fraying is really well captured.

As Strong As Death by Jeanette Winterson

Really enjoyed this tale set of a modern-day wedding set in Pendennis Castle. This story makes use of the many stories around the castle to offer a much warmer story about a haunting that shows the harshness of the past against the better values of the present. Very much worth reading to see how these themes are explored but it’s the story that leaves me with a warm feeling at the end of it!

Mrs Charbury at Eltham by Max Porter

The final tale is about an older woman visiting Eltham Palace. A scandal from her society days is coming back to her memory and how does this all tie into the mystery of her missing sister.  A tale of rivalry, cruelty and nastiness. All done in a relatively recent setting

On top of these eight fascinating tales there is an article by Andrew Martin on ghost stories and a look at some of the haunted places English Heritage are responsible for. I love a good winter ghost story, and this is a collection I strongly recommend you have a look at. Plus it may give you some ideas for day trips…just don’t go on your own!  

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Asian Monsters - edited by Margret Helgadottir

Publisher Fox Spirit

Published - Out Now

Price - £10 large paperback

Here be Monsters! They lurk and crawl and fly in the shadows of our mind. We know them from ancient legends and tales whispered by the campfire. They hide under the dark bridge, in the deep woods or out on the great plains, in the drizzling rain forest or out on the foggy moor, benath the surface, under your bed. They don’t sparkle or have any interest in us except to tear us apart. They are the monsters! Forgotten, unknown, misunderstood, overused, watered down. We adore them still. We want to give them a renaissance, to re-establish their dark reputation, to give them a comeback, let the world know of their real terror.

When I was a young womble my library had several shelves devoted to the myths and legends. Not simply the ancient gods of Greece but English folklore and other such stories. As a child I never really understood that tales and stories were actually a worldwide tradition and those stories perhaps told us even more about ourselves than we thought. Fox Spirit Books has stated a project to bring authors from around the globe to tell stories relating to particular parts of the world and while each tale is focused on one particular monster there is a huge variety in approaches and even formats.

As always with any short story selections the stories that work the best depend on the reader’s tastes but for me standouts were:

 

A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia

A young boy livs on Ghost Street. He may indeed be the only living boy in the entire street but what are his friends and carers hiding from him? A book with subtle clues that there is more going on than you expect and the community of ghosts we see is fascinating even as they celebrate ‘life’ in parades and masks.

Good Hunting by Ken Liu

Hong Kong is moving from traditional life into the British Empire. The professional ghost hunter of the village finds modern life start to impact his profession. This means his young son and the daughter of a ghost find they have more in common than you would expect. What appears a very traditional village tale itself becomes urbanised and with the addition of a modern steampunk world of clockwork and steam it raises the question of colonialism and how people adapt to change. The ending is beautiful and this starts really stands out

Blood Like Water by Eve Shi

An evil monster is starting to kill people it’s a fearsome water monster known as a lelpah. Two young children try to work out is it purely a wild monster or is there an agenda in it’s choice of victims.  Are monsters capable of morality or is it merely a disguise for convenience.  Darkly unsettling.

Golden Lilies by Aliette de Bodard

A young woman fearing that her imminent marriage will end up for convenience decides help from an old relative is the only solution.  That here relative will mean raising from the dead leads to unexpected consequences. The ghost is not the most terrible thing here as it examines the concept of foot-binding used to make wives more attractive to their husbands. At the same time a ghost realises as she is outside of the world she also now has her own freedom.  Sensual, dark and disturbing.

Grass Cradle, Glass Lullaby by Isabel Yap

A young woman finds a baby that gives her immense joy. However, her neighbours and family start to suspect something is not quite right. Told in small flashbacks this is a tale of madness and as the reader puts the clues together we see a mother’s love is a terrible thing when threatened.

 

Unrestful by Benjamin Chee

This graphic novel short sees a band of magical adventurers track down the ghost of a local Prime Minister.  The art sizzles with action and really flows! I would love to have known more about the master and his young student who go into battle.

Datsue-ba by Eliza Chan

This again reminds us not all monsters are supernatural. A young woman hurt by a previous love has started a relationship with an older man who seems to see her increasingly as a trophy and a possession. But their trip to a bath-house and the kind old lady looking after them soon leads to judgement. Our young narrator’s life to date is really made alive and it’s a reminder that ghosts while horrible don’t always focus on the innocent.

Let Her In by Eeleen Lee

A young woman enters a private residential area to take pictures of owls. But she swiftly finds there is a bigger predator out there and it’s got a clear idea of who it needs to find. That sense of being watched in the shadows is really strong here but balanced with a modern setting and ultimately, we find family secrets that perhaps have brought this on themselves. The reader gets to judge who is the real monster.

Aswang by Fran Terminiello

A young woman is trying to support her child alone by working as a family babysitter. On the day she finds her mother is very sick she also starts to find her local family is being stalked in the city by a blood sucking monster. In this case it’s a horrific version of cat and mouse in which Patricia our babysitter must battle a monster that the quieter it gets the closer it is... I like the way an ancient evil has been placed into a modern city again and the action sequences and build of tension made this one of my absolute faves.

It is an excellently balanced collection giving me a feast of new authors to find and I really am looking to the complete series.  Excellently put together by Helgadottir and the stories all have some beautifully dark illustrations to give you an extra sense of terror! Well worth your time and slight urge to lock the doors at night!

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The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Publisher - Harper Collins

Published - Out Now!

Price - £12.99 Hardback

In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.

 

It's often said we love a good villain. The attraction of a larger than life character like Dr Lector or Loki is possibly these characters have a sense of freedom to do and say those things we cannot. But there is also the view that every villain is actually the hero of their own story. Their actions are internally at least logical even if morally questionable. In this excellent debit Anna Smith Spark gives us a new fantasy sequence that gives us fascinating characters who while they can do terrible things are ultimately very very human.

In some ways it starts quite traditionally as we see Orhan is a man watching the ancient empire his family has served being increasingly pressured by outside enemies and corruption. His solution is to kill the ineffectual Emperor and install order through his own supporters. An infamous group of mercenaries are hired….and it all goes to Hell. A running theme to the book is that cunning plans rarely actually pan out the way you expect. The question then is what do you do next and how far do you then go?

We have a focus on three main characters. Orhan is civilised, kind to his family and slightly balancing his effectively political marriage to his wife Bil and his actual love for his friend Darath. Outside of Government in the Temple of Tanis we have Thalia the High Priestess brought into service at an early age her life is the temple conducting prayer and when required human sacrifice – dutiful but always aware that due to the nature of the religion her own life hangs in balance as the Temple always looks for her successor (who then must kill her) and then into this mix wanders Marith and he is the catalyst for tearing this world upside down.

Marith is the fascinating character. He seems a lost soul and we are given several clues that his childhood may be hind that outlook. But he can be amazingly noble and when we first meet him he takes on a small dragon that attacks his squad, but this sensitive, cultured young man will on occasion act completely the opposite of what you expect. He’s capable of terrible acts when needed (or if he thinks required) and at one stage is beautifully described as having ‘a boy’s glee in which maggots writhed’. For Orhan he will be both responsible for failure and a chance for glory but for Thalia he is freedom and a dangerous attraction. Endlessly fascinating he may be one of the more dangerous characters fantasy has seen for some time

Choices are an important factor in this story. Smith Spark really makes each of her characters very human rather than a fantasy trope and we see the society they all come from has forced them into certain roles. Orhan cannot be with the man he loves; Thalia cannot refuse to sacrifice, or her own life is forfeit and the childhood Marith has come from has quite frankly made him think he is a worthless man ready for death. As a reader I found myself willing them all to succeed but then recoiling as some of those choices mean others will be hurt. A political revolution doesn’t just remove one corrupt ruler but their servants, old friends and even just those passing by may find themselves sacrificed for the greater good. The old saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is apt here. Each character gets a choice to say no but for the best of reasons they decide to plough on. That we understand and sympathise with their monstrous choices may be the biggest horror of all. Very few don’t feel guilt they just feel the world has sadly not given them a real choice.

Another strong point as to why I loved this is the quality of the writing and worldbuilding. From the desert empire of Sorlost with it’s temples, drug dens and bronze walls to the small desert towns and then later a mysterious northern island kingdom. The descriptions of these place really give you a sense of wonder. Be it a mage performing magic for street theatre; a small town having a party that allows characters a night away from their lives; to a hard town of whalers battling for survival in rough seas.  Everywhere you get a sense of a mysterious realm of gods, dragons and an ultimate fear that life here is fragile and a character you have warmed to may be only few pages from facing death.

Recently and I think correctly Fantasy has been looking slightly more at those on the edges of society the soldiers, the priests and those who keep the world turning. Part of the attraction of this trend is to remind us of the people on the literally sharp end of decisions in those in power.  But in this book Smith Spark gives us a glance again upwards and makes us see that while their actions may be often be terrible the real horror is that they think it’s justified for the best of intentions.  I’m absolutely fascinated as to where the larger tale is going and the sense of a bigger conflict now ready to erupt is something I’m keen to find out in future stories. An excellent debut

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Starfang: Rise of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher - Fox Spirit Books

Price £3.99 ebook (out now)

Is a clan captain going to sacrifice everything for her clan? Tasked to kill Yeung Leung by her parents, powerful rival clan leader of the Amber Eyes, Captain Francesca Min Yue sets out across the galaxy to hunt her prey, only to be thrown into a web of political intrigue spreading across the stars. Is Yeung Leung collaborating with the reptilian shishini and playing a bigger game with the galaxy as a price? Is Francesca’s clan at stake? Welcome to Starfang: Rise of the Clan, where merchants and starship captains are also wolves.

“Wolves should not be in space, but here we were, a clan of wolves and merchants. Instead of the preserved forests of New Earth and Noah’s Ark, we were in ships of steel and armor, reading data scans and commanding officers on the bridge. Wolves within the uniform of merchants and mercenaries, human seeming, claws and teeth sheathed.”

– Captain Francesca Ming Yue, of the warship Starfang.

 

Welcome to Starfang, a space opera with werewolves, politics and intrigue

Sometimes I will go for a book because I hear it’s got great writing, fantastic worldbuilding and a nice line in characters and political intrigue; but I am going to be completely honest with you dear reader.  I picked this one up because it was described as werewolves in space to me.  That I subsequently found out it was all the above as well was a glorious surprise.

Min Yue is part of a family trading group in deep space who also happen to be werewolves. This is a universe of planets belonging to various factions, alien civilisations, spaceships and feuds.  A simple trip to see her family becomes a mission to destroy Yeung Leung who has tried to wrest control of the area from her family.  She goes out into space to seek, locate and destroy but her crew finds itself up not just against Leung but also starting to be involved with the mysterious Shinishi who may have their own plans for her and her family.

Min Yue is a fascinating character. Very much seeming a model hero she commands tactical knowledge; great crew loyalty with a warm heart and she battles her family honour with her own personal feelings.  We see she is attracted to her cousin April but duty holds her back. The family life where you command a ship but once home can change to wold form to hunt and run is a really interesting idea and as we can see at certain points Min Yue is more than happy to destroy to get her quarry but finds her goal of parental approval a burden. It makes for an interesting ambiguous character who is finding her own role in the universe and I’m looking forward to how she develops in future episodes.  The battle between wold and human elements is also intriguing - we see a relative who as she has gotten older has become far more readily wolf (is that a bad thing?). 

Alongside this are many factions all trying to gain power and influence from Ying Mue’s family; the internal battles of Leung’s group and a mysterious group of aliens who seem to have their own agenda at play in the wider cosmos which Earth is a recent addition to.

My only reservation is it was a short adventure I wanted MORE!! It feels very much a tale setting up the universe and the factions within it. But I strongly urge you if you’re looking for some different SF and to get in early on what looks to be a very interesting adventure then give this a try!

 

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Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Publisher - Gollancz

Price - £12.99 Hardback

Published - Out Now

The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow's Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer's legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh-eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard's paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.

The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some eighty years ago, thanks to Nall's 'Engine', a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the Engine created the Misery - a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a No Mans Land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the Engine fails to launch. Galharrow only escapes because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together, they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic's defences. Far across the Misery a vast army is on the move, as the Empire prepares to call the republic's bluff.

 

A good underdog can make all the difference in a story that one person who never gives up and that you want to see rise and take the world by the scruff of the neck is a tale I will always come back to.  Throw in sword fighting and magic and I will definitely be there for you! I’m pleased to report that this promising debut from McDonald creates both a new character to cheer on while also giving us one of the more interesting worlds for adventures to take place in.

The reader is very much plunged into the deep end as we have are told the story through Galharrow’s own narration so it’s that fun (for me) feeling of trying to work out what is going on and how everything works. He is part of a shadowy group known as Blackwings; a sort of special troupe commanded by secretive wizard Crowfoot; they can go anywhere and speak to anyone in the Republic and this means we get to see how the world works at both the top and the bottom of society.  This is a world caught in a deadlock.  A group known as The Deep Kings many years ago waged war on the world – they appear to be fearsome sorcerers who slowly conquer lands and turn people into Drudges (powerful remorseless zombies) or even creepier Darlings the angelic children who can make you want to tear your insides out. A smaller group of sorcerers however banded to stop them, and a device known as the Engine protects the border.

Galharrow leads a small band on what appears to be a straightforward mission which quickly gets complicated as he encounters Elizabeth a woman from his youth who he finds has special information that various groups including the Deep Kings and possibly pockets within the Republic itself are trying to obtain and they’re more than willing to kill for it. The story moves across the republic from garrisons to mysterious parts of battlefield with the kings; creepy places to trade body parts or to the palaces of Princes with many a glorious fight scene along the way involving magic, pistols or swords and when all else fails fists.  It’s a vibrant, dirty, lived in world that has something interesting to find out and explore in each scene.

A major plus of the story is Galharrow’s narration.  A man from nobility who has fallen in society he is cynical yet comes across as warm, funny, loyal and tortured with a fine eye for what is wrong with the world. Hard on himself as much as he is on his troops he is also prepared to do anything for his them too. I like the way that he obviously thinks himself a hardened cold warrior, but we see he’s ready to do anything if he feels it is the right thing to do even raising impossible debts for an injured friend. He makes a compelling narrator and one who propels the story on.

The world building here is great a mix of 18th century Europe with steampunk and with the twisted word of the Deep Kings outside the Republic it is a fascinating place. I find it impressive though that McDonald doesn’t just go with convention as this world accepts women has a place in it.  We get three interesting female characters all different and add more than romance to the story. Elizabeth the noblewoman who loves science and because of her investigations has perhaps become a little too anti-social but at the same time more than ready to face down those in charge. Prince Herono is one of the most powerful nobles in the Republic and she is known for bravery, loyalty and a ruthlessness to save it and finally we have Nenn the cynical warrior happy to fight; able to challenge Galharrow and mock him when his sense of tragic hero gets too much!

My only niggle with the story is that occasionally Galharrow’s narration can lead to exposition overload.  Several times I felt a tad taken out of the action to be told facts about the wider world (in one case during a rather tense interrogation sequence) and a character’s DARK PAST was heavily hinted at that when it was finally explained it I felt no surprise factor.  There was a sense that McDonald really wants me to see all the fantastic world and its history he has built and sometimes I felt focusing on the actual scenes to hand would have allowed it to breathe better.  But this was only an occasional gripe and I have to say the overall narration really is a major selling point.

So, I’m more than happy to now await future instalments. The story sits well on its own, but you leave it with the sense of a larger world out there to be explored and both sides are still keeping secrets. How Galharrow and his gang progress in this world will be a fascinating journey and I think you too may want to join this series’ flights into the fantastic.

 

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Food of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw

Publisher  - Rebellion

Price - £9.99  Paperback (Out Now)

Gods. Gore. Good Food.

By day, Rupert Wong - sorcerer, chef, former triad prepares delicious meals of human flesh for a dynasty of ghouls in Kuala Lumpur; by night, he's an administer for the Ten Chinese Hells. It's a living, of sorts.

When the Dragon of the South demands that Rupert investigate the murders of his daughter and her mortal husband, Rupert is caught in a war between gods that's as bewildering as it is bloody. 

If he's going to survive, he'll need to stay sharp, stay lucky, and always read the fine print...

We all on occasion hate our bosses. The job can be stressful; the hours and conditions hard and our co-workers can vex us (I strongly say this is in no way reflects my current employers – honest guv).  So, imagine if you served at the pleasure of Hell, Gods and ghouls?  No Unions just the threat of dismemberment, eternal damnation and lots of pain. Enter Rupert Wong  - Cannibal Chef and this is a witty and often scarily tasty double bill of stories that may make you happily confirm your workplace is not truly a living hell.  This book covers two novellas that tell the story of Rupert’s adventures.  They are linked but worth highlighting their original format. Regardless, I think you should give this a go as Khaw is one of the freshest writers out there and this is yet another great set of tales from her.

The first story is set in modern Kuala Lumpur and focuses on how Rupert s set up to investigate the murder of a Dragon’s daughter and her husband by one of the Greek Furies.  Yes, this a multi-faith world! The major plus is Rupert’s voice while he is certainly a rogue (and does make meals of human flesh) he is so damn likeable!  Khaw combines his sense of humour;  a touching relationship with a violent ghost and his admittedly unusual sense of morality which all make him really engaging as our narrator. The central mystery of who would kill a God’s daughter also makes a tricky puzzle for the reader to put the clues together as Rupert finds himself battling other investigators and with the Gods failure often is fatal….

The second tale moves Rupert to London and this time he is dealing with a mainly European/Greek pantheon. An unusual level of holy gang warfare is underway, and Rupert is forced by his bosses to assist (and cook). A highlight of the tale is that it reveals new Gods are being create and once you realise what caused a new God to be created it is both fascinating and a rather pointed comment on our own times. How the Gods hide in plain sight is also an interesting trick.  This one has a lot more violence as factions clash and it’s more a case of which side is Rupert best placed to support to allow him to get home.

I don’t really want to say too much about he plots as mysteries they are better to discover yourselves.  But what I think should be highlighted is Khaw’s way of making a world come alive.  Both London and Kuala Lumpur are brought to life and there is interesting commentary on how those cities and their people work together. The fantasy sequences are both comical and regards gods also a reminder that those in power are not to be trusted and that the pantheons all seem to share a similar appalling view as to the treatment of women.

Khaw has already two very different but also excellent crime/horror stories set in a more noir world.  This collection is more loud and colourful but offers a very delicious read and I hope Rupert has future courses and adventures to come.

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What's Next?

I have a confession I don’t really like New Year’s Eve. Staying up late (usually with those who may be a tad worse for wear) isn’t really my cup of tea. I’m a lark more than an owl and I find some of the sentimentality on it a tad weird (hey I am an introvert!). But New Year’s Day?  That’s my kind of day the world is re-set; often asleep and hungover but it’s a day for me to start thinking about the future. If 2017 was me starting to find balance I want 2018 to be the year I start pacing myself better and reading wise you should see a bit more on the blog but I’ve a few more goals this year to do on it

a)       Read a bit more outside one genre – no fear not I’m not tiring of SF and Fantasy but looking at Mount TBR it would be worthwhile to remember I’ve a few more books with crime, history and science to read. Some of which have been calling me recently to help understand exactly where our planet has come from to get to the mess it is today (and give me signs of hope).

b)      Endings – I don’t like ending series.  I have realised this when finding out how many last volumes I have on one shelf so in the first half of the year you may find me focus on a few final volumes and have a chance to tell you about some series you should try.

c)       Gaps – There are quite a few well-known authors and series I have never got around to. In some quarters I am assured Sanderson, Erikkson etc are titans of the genre. Well let’s see and at the same time I’ve quite a few other names I want to try like Elliot, Wurts and Cherryh. This could be fun if I compare……..

d)      Short Stories – I feel very embarrassed how little short fiction I read when I think it would be really good for me with some of my time pressures.  I’ve quite a few compilations in TBR and I will be on the lookout for interesting ones to share

e)      Other Media – I’m way behind on TV and podcast dramas – this needs to change before I am spoiled on EVERYTHING

f)        The Wombelgariad (delayed by work but it is a coming this month and throughout 2017

g) Continue to challenge numpties who think SF should not tackle social issues

So that’s the aim for the blog. Right now, I’ve had a holiday and my batteries are recharged so let’s get to work.  

 

 

 

 

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Well that was a year!

So, we bid 2017 a farewell.  Globally a year where the bad decision making of 2016 came back to haunt us as I had feared but as I’m always the optimist I also saw signs that those in power have found that some people are still prepared to stand and say No and resist on many fronts.  My gut feeling is that 2018 will see this continue and grow; it may take time, but I think we will hear them crash to the ground one day… hey I like SF and Fantasy I’m used to these things taking volumes.

On a personal level 2017 was a relatively good year.  My big aim was to start focusing more and doing a few things I’ve been putting off for a long time.  I’m really pleased my diabetes is in a better place than it was 12 months ago; at work I did a project like one I attempted six years that beat me and this time I took it by the scruff of the neck and won; although the last three months have been a killer – hence a lot of radio silence; and then finally this blog has appeared.  I started ad hoc reviewing for the now ended GeekPlanetOnline a few years ago and if you know me I love books so as that site started to go quiet I thought time to try out on my own. I will always be grateful for Dave Probert for giving me the opportunity to start reviews and I would totally recommend you read his new blog at http://theprobertreport.wordpress.com for great commentary on the genre.  For me Dave was the heart and centre of GPO managing the bloggers and finding time to create some great podcasts.

Less than a year of my own blog and the one thing I now know is it requires dedication and I know for next year I intend to aim for a bit more regular content. To be fair the last few months of 2017 were just plain hard work;  but reading and talking about it gives me something I don’t have elsewhere in my life so be prepared for January to be seeing quite a few updates on what I read on those delayed late trains getting home this winter ! Good news I broadly loved them! Sharing what I have found is one of my greatest joys so that is definitely one of my aims for 2018 (it is a sacred womble oath).  There will be a companion piece to this tomorrow talking a bit more about what I want 2018 to be on here and a bit more widely

So that leaves….my faves of 2017!! I’m finishing on 105 books (thank you train companies for so much reading time when you’re late) and I think a pretty good year for books; the number I didn’t get on with was surprisingly small. If I reviewed it on here I enjoyed it (I’m not sure I will ever review or finish a truly bad book as they stop me from reading better ones and life is too short) so a few shout outs.

Why by Great Uncle Bulgaria Have I Not Read This Earlier?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Still got to catch up on the TV series but I finally read this and firstly it is an amazingly sharp look at how women can be treated.  Haunting and tense and will stick in your memory for years.  The scariest thing – it feels a lot more contemporary than you would think…

Novellas Have I told you Lately How Much I Love You?

One of the recent joys (and here I do credit e-books) is we are seeing authors able to tell tales that are not a multi-volume epic of never ending build-up. Some that again stayed with me are

Arrival of the Missives by Aliya Whitely – one of the smartest stories I’ve read that confounded expectations.  Go in cold but trust me you’ll love this.  (Reviewed on the blog)

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle – a tale of racism that is applicable now as to when it was then. Hits you like a gale force wind; tackles Lovecraft’s racism and reminds the reader we are still living in a very flawed world.

It’s The End of the Series as We Know It

2017 has reminded me I have a lot of series to now finish so this is a theme to develop but three to mention so far are: -

The Split Worlds by Emma Newman (also reviewed on the blog) what appears to be a simple tale of a parallel world d and their dealing with the fae over five books becomes a searing takedown of patriarchal society and the need for equality.  I was so happy to see this series finish so strongly

The Broken Earth by N K Jemisin – (I’m trying to work on a review to give this justice) this may be my new favourite fantasy trilogy for the decade.  Yes, it’s that good! A tale of people battling an apocalypse has been done before but in this case, it combines that with discussions on race, sex and asks the question if you believe your society cannot be fixed what should you do?  Amazingly inventive and just as important takes you on an emotional journey.

Discworld by Terry Pratchett – On twitter I’ve started a daily account @discworldreads looking at a discworld book each month (workdays allowing!) and it’s fascinating to watch the evolution of a writer.  The early books feel like rough sketches but now after Wyrd Sisters and Guards Guards I’m spotting a writer prepared to take risks, develop characters and quite frankly become the writer of some of my later faves.  A reminder that debuts are great but watching how authors develop over several boos can also be satisfying (something for 2018 to watch)

Let Me Be Your Fantasy!

These three already reviewed on the blog but a reminder

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams – This time after the Sword and Sorcery of The Copper Cat Trilogy comes a look at Epic Fantasy and I think it looks to be a fantastic story.  Does something new and may also contain spaceships….

Age of Assassins by RJ Barker – now the other great tale of an Assassin’s Apprentice that does a mystery novel in a fantasy environment. Fascinating world, great characters and a sense of humour – one to watch

Under the Pendulum Sky by Jeannette Ng - subversive, eerie and not afraid to tackle theology this tale is well worth your time as Victorian Missionaries try to convert the Fae.  A book the more you think about the more you realise how smart it is

Together in Electric Dreams

My Favourite for 2017 - The one book I read in January that stayed with me throughout the year and I’ve been pushing onto as many people as I can……

The Power by Naomi Alderman – A story that explores how society would react if women developed the power to fire electricity. While it tackles gender inequalities it also really explores how humans react to those with power – we fear it, love it and want it. The worldbuilding is amazing, the use of character to explain ideas is spot on and the science fiction of the idea and its consequences is done very cleverly.  If you’ve not read it…off, you go…right now….

 

So, I leave you on the last day of the year with the words of a fine Doctor with some advice for 2018

“Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And, never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind…. Laugh Hard. Run Fast. Be Kind”

 

May there always be cake

 

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Age of Assassins by R J Barker

Publisher - Orbit

Price - £8.99 Paperback (Out Now)

It's a game of Assassin versus Assassin.

Girton Club-Foot, apprentice to the land's best assassin, still has much to learn about the art of taking lives. But his latest mission tasks Girton with a far more difficult challenge to save a life. Sonmeone is trying to kill the herir to the throne, ansd it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor. Ina kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies, Girton will find enemies he never expected, friends he never wanted and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire land.

If I say the words Assassin’s Apprentice I suspect currently only one author may come to your mind.  When I first heard the premise of this novel I immediately pictured Hobb’s world but having finished I was very pleased to say this is a fantastic debut fantasy that has a completely different approach while still giving you a unique world and characters that mean the next time you hear those two words you will now think of two excellent but very different authors both well worth reading.

We first meet Girton and his assassin master Merela Karn as they infiltrate Castle Maniyadoc but are quickly captured by Queen Adran; whose husband is being poisoned and her son is being plotted against. Adran’s solution is to use Karn to investigate and identify the traitor trying to get to the throne. Karn decides that as Girton is under threat of death that she has no choice but to agree and so Girton is disguised as a low-ranking noble to help investigate the Castle and report back to her.  The story is a murder mystery where the murder has yet to be committed and our trained assassins are using their powers of infiltration to catch the killer rather than their usual line of work. On top of this Girton must go undercover so a 14-year-old fully trained assassin pretends to be a novice at the bottom of the local hierarchy at the mercy of the local higher nobles.

It's a story which takes several standard fantasy ideas – kingdom in turmoil, assassins and palace intrigue and creates something fresh and new. Barker has a great ear for dialogue that informs character.   A key part of that is Girton; he is the first-person narrator of the story and while quite young has a wry sense of humour as well as a fine eye for watching people.  He can see the various factions fighting for power in the castle but at the same time having largely been an assassin since a young child he’s not used to spending time with people especially those his own age.  This means for the first time he explores having friends, enemies and even potential for romance – he comes across as a very three-dimensional character and even prone to strops when he feels Merela is keeping him away from having a life of his own.  I also was impressed that Girton is shown to have a club foot and while this means he can tire more easily (especially if climbing walls!) he is still an affective assassin. In this world the assassins use a martial art that is almost like dancing – we get gracefully described attack moves such as “Ninth iteration – The Bow” where he can easily use his body to defend or attack far stronger foes.  When Girton gets an opportunity to show his actual skills it’s tremendously satisfying! It’s very refreshing to see a fantasy story that accepts not everyone is the perfectly healthy hero and one I wish I saw more often in the genre.

The other element that makes this such a good read is the world building.  Rather than epic fantasy sprawling a country virtually all the action is confined to one castle.  It’s a fantasy kingdom done in miniature – the local King has several factions who live under his protection from local lords in training to an assortment of priests.  It feels a place full of narrow corridors, hidden conversations and Girton (as well as ourselves) is having to learn to navigate this; which starts to put him in his hidden enemy’s sights.  Slowly you see that everyone is taking sides or hiding secrets; which as any good mystery novel does are slowly revealed in the investigations.  As with a good crime novel these revelations are also a good way to also explain the wider social politics of the kingdom.  We see often in Griton’s flashbacks to his earlier life that magic is a thing to be feared; something that has someone how polluted the land and can take a toll on people; although is that down to the magic at work or the people ruling the lands? It’s a fascinating world where the people believe not their Gods have died but they still have priests.  The Assassins also knit at a bigger picture at work – not simple mercenaries but people who seem to work to a code and potentially higher purpose that Merela is not yet ready to share.  I suspect a lot more is to be answered in the remaining parts of the trilogy and the politics that Girton involves himself with starts to have wider implications…

 

This was an immensely satisfying read.  I felt like I’d visited a new kind of world I’d not been to before; loved the emotional punches and moments you want to punch the air when Girton succeeds and worry over characters when in danger.  My only quibble is that sometimes the mystery felt a bit too linear  - each clue led immediately to the next part of the puzzle and a few more red herrings may have helped confuse me more.  Despite that I think this is one of the best debuts in 2017 and well worth your time as I think this series could be well worth your time and I’m intrigued where it is going

 

PS – by the way you really need to read the bit about the giant antlered beasts they ride instead of horses – so cute and deadly.  Sorry I’m all about the furry beings 😊

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Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Publisher  - Angry Robot

Price - £8.99 paperback (out now)

Catherine Helstone's missionary brother, Laon, has disappeared while bringing the Gospels to the Dark Continent - not Africa, but Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae.

Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey to that extraordinary land, but once she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister hour of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her - but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

For many the word Fae conjure up images of blond ethereal beings – houses made of wood, flowing robes and ancient wisdom. Elrond and Legolas have recently cast a long pointy-eared shadow over the genre and even in SF we get the likes of the Minbari and arguably Vulcans playing a similar role to aid humans. But there is an alternative side to the Fair Folk and that’s when we tend to think of them as the Faerie – magical Fae of a slightly older and wilder time.  Less trustworthy, wild and magical with a hint of cruelty lurking under smiles. The tricksters of Midsummer Night’s Dream or in Pratchett’s stories simply cruel vicious monsters who smile widely and despite their gorgeous looks are not human in either their behaviour or morality.  In this excellent debut Jeannette Ng gives us an excellent eerie trip into their own world and leaves the reader trying to work out if a trick or treat is being offered.

The story is set in an alternate 19th Century where Captain Cook discovered not Australia but instead getting lost he found an entrance to Arcadia – the Land of the Fae. A tacit trade relationship is starting to form but it’s also led to people asking some interesting questions about where humanity and the fae fit into theology that placed white English speaking people at the top of the tree. Hence Laon decided to cross the ocean to convert the Fae to Christianity and then no more is heard from him.  We start the tale just as Catherine arrives off the ship searching for her brother.  Arcadia is a mysterious place with swirling fogs; an almost constant sun swinging through the skies that sets both her and the reader on edge.  Then she is taken to the large ruined castle of Gethsemene and with a former Changeling and a religiously converted fae servant she tries to piece together what exactly happened to her brother and the previous missionaries who have gone silent.

This is very much a story in the gothic tradition. The atmosphere of Gethsemene and Arcadia is as much as character as the human and fae we meet. It’s unsettling to Catherine who comes from the Yorkshire moors (which itself nods towards some other stories!); this land of warmth, shadows in the fog and a house that has doors that mysteriously open; the sense of eyes watching and remnants of earlier occupants that need decoding. As a reader you’re very much put in her position – all of this world is new to us and its certainly initially alien seeing what appears to be an old stately home in a faerie kingdom.   Catherine must always remember to salt her apparently human food or risk enchantment – there are constant reminders she is no longer in her world anymore from a wild moon in the shape of a fish to the way the House seems to guide her to certain rooms when it wants. At the same time, it’s fascinating to watch Catherine subtly change from purely a determined loyal sister into someone keener to explore the secret history of the Fae and start herself to answer questions about theology just for herself rather than serving her brother. None of the Fae seem to think Catherine is not a person in her own right or not able to ask questions or give instructions to others which starts to highlight that perhaps Arcadia isn’t wholly need of changes.

However, as the novel starts to introduce the other characters it moves from what could be a simple tale of a woman finding her independence into something more unsettling and challenging.  Ng does this primarily through introducing three different characters that Catherine has to interact with. There is Miss Davenport her companion/liason who explains Fae customs but is quickly identified as a changeling (a fae swapped for a human baby) who has moved back to Arcadia.  Her loyalties seem the most complex and her stories start unsettling Catherine’s own view as to her past. Eventually we find a key Fae noble The Pale Queen that Laon was trying to convert – she is very much the Faerie Queen we see in other stories. Aristocratic, cruel and unsettling equally happy to hunt living people and hold parties she gives the impression of having other motivations about letting two missionaries attempt to convert her to a religion they don’t recognise. That every other Fae character is terrified of the Queen makes it clear Catherine is in danger but it’s not immediately clear how.  Is it her life or is there something more the fae want to bring out in her?

The final character into the mix is Laon who eventually Catherine finds alive but not quite the brother she remembers.  The traditional Victorian missionary keen to teach lesser nations about the ways of the Church is on the one hand arrogant and dismissive of Catherine studying the Fae history herself but at the same time obviously very close to his sister and caring.  Arcadia seems to be having the opposite impact on him making him keen to drink as he gives sermons to a congregation of one servant. But Catherine is incredibly attached to him and has been throughout what was clearly a bleak childhood they both were keen to escape – their bond and relationship is a theme that the novel takes to unexpected and challenging places.  Ultimately have the Fae decided the siblings are fair game to play with for their own amusement (and may have been for years before their arrival in Gethsemene) or has Arcadia just given the two a chance to finally be themselves outside the conventions of their society?  The story keeps you guessing al the way to the end with small clues, red herrings and just a constant sense that nothing is quite what it seems.

This is achieved by a very textured sense of place. We see the Fae have their own hierarchy, mythology and customs. It’s not a backward place in need of westernisation but its own powerful kingdom. Part of the story is that culture clash and that the Victorian values (focused on men) Laon wants to impose may not be the most appealing. So while the reader may feel unsettled how Catherine’s story plays out there is also a sense that exactly how arrogant the Bristich are to think they can convert a whole culture to their way of thinking (and ultimately imperial power). Each chapter starts with a piece of Fae history either about it’s wider traditions or how it’s started to now fit with the rest of the world.

Overall this was an immersive read.  You are plunged into a world that was uses familiar ideas of the Fae but very much uses it in a way I’ve not seen before to cast a mirror on our own world. It’s challenging and unsettling and is more than happy to trick the reader into exactly the type of story we are getting.  If you would like a chance from fantasy that constantly looks for a quest or quasi-detective story then I think this would be a perfect novel to take you away but you may not be quite the same person afterwards.  Pass the salt…

 

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Heartland by Lucy Hounsom

Publisher - Pan

Price - £7.99 Paperback

 

WARNING - Spoilers follow if you've not yet read Starborn the first book in the Worldbreaker trilogy

Kyndra has saved and damned Mariar's people. Her Starborn powers healed the land, but destroyed the magic which concealed them from invaders. How Kyndra must head into enemy territory to secure peace. She finds the warring Sartyan Empire plagued by dissident factions. Yet its emperor still has the strength to crush her homeland.

The Khronostrians, assassins who dance through time could help Kyndra - or be her undoing. And deep in the forest Char Lesko struggles with his own emerging powers. He's been raised by a mercenary, and her secrets could change the future and the past. But when Kyndra and Char meet, will their goals align? Kyndra has to harness the glory of the stars and Char must channel his rage or two continents will be lost.

You may recall I was very warm in my review of the first novel in the Worldbreaker trilogy - Starborn is one of my favourite fantasy debuts in recent years and I’ve been eagerly awaiting to find out what happened next in the sequel Heartland.  Luckily both remaining parts of the trilogy are out in 2016 (final part next month).  I'm pleased to say that Heartland is a step up in terms of scale, character and quality which now makes me just need the final volume right now….right now…….anytime now…

In the previous novel we left Kyndra having finally inherited her powers as a Starborn – someone who can literally summon ALL of the cosmic forces of the sky at any time. As part of this transformation she had the power to stop the various enchanted apocalyptic storms wrecking havoc on the local population but by doing so made she removed the enchantment that made Raimar finally visible again to the Empire it has been at war with several centuries ago and nearly conquered by. This novel explores the consequences of that how the Sartyan Empire reacts to their ancient enemies returning.  Kyndra and a small group of Wielders (people able to harness the energy of the Moon or the Sun) go on a scouting mission to find out if the Empire may now be ready to talk.

One criticism of Starborn is that it took a while to move from Kyndra’s home town to reaching the wider world of the wielders but in this book with all the set-up to explain how the magic system works now completed means Hounsom can march straight into the action.  Cleverly the story this time is divided between four main groups.  Kyndra trying to work out if the Empire is a threat; back home with her former protector Bregenne trying to persuade her fellow Wielders that it may be time to shore up the defences and interestingly two new groups from the Empire itself.  We meet General Hagdon a noble army commander who the Emperor has ordered to battle a local sect of mysterious assassins and most intriguing Char Lesko a young man who has become a slaver in tandem with his tough as nails guardian known as Ma.  These welcome additions show the Sartyans as a divided group on the brink of civil war.  I love a bit of palace intrigue and seeing the Empire as more than a group of evil monsters is a welcome change to some fantasy series out there.  Char is an interesting character who seems to be full of pent up rage and while initially I was not that sympathetic slowly we saw the struggle this young man is having particularly as he too seems to have a very different type of power to Kyndra’s.

I really enjoyed the way the novel poses different kind of problems for Kyndra and her allies to face. Kyndra a relatively young woman from a small village is now thrust into a tense and dangerous world of politics and strategy – she is initially reluctant to demonstrate her power as Starborn energy seems to have an impact on her humanity but when she finally uses it the effects are devastating. Where she now goes with this rather tempting ability to destroy is a growing theme in the story. When you are the most powerful person in the room how do you stop yourself going too far?  There are also some gloriously staged set pieces of violence and battle in this story which give the book a lot of energy as it balances the plots but at the same time it points out violence has consequences and how the cast start reacting to Kyndra sets up some interesting thoughts for the rest of the series.

I also must mention the addition of the Kronostians – assassins wrapped in bandages who can battle you by moving insanely quick through time - both eerie and a key mystery to the book is how this group relates to everyone else.  Hounsom has a really nice way of making a battle scene be visualized which is something I like to see in fantasy.

Middle books of a trilogy are always tricky, but I think Heartland is a successful tale as it is different beats to its predecessor, but I think uses the foundations of the world to give me a much more epic feel and surprises such as time travelling assassins were not what I expected.  Strongly recommended if you like modern epic fantasy.  As you’d expect there is a lot to now get resolved in the final volume Firestorm but start reading this now as wintry evenings on the sofa with a good book are what epic fantasy while feeling toasty on the burnt remains of your enemies as you read is the best feeling ever!

 

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Fight Like A Girl - edited by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall

Publisher - Kristell Ink

Price - Out Now £3.99 e-book £9.99 Paperback

What do you get when some of the best known women writers of genre fiction come together to tell tales of female strength? A powerful collection of science fiction and fantasy ranging from space operas and near future factional conflict to medieval warfare and urban fantasy. These are not pin-up girls fighting in heels; these warriors mean business. Whether keen combatants or reluctant fighters, each and every one of these characters was born and bred to Fight Like A Girl.

The title to this fascinating anthology was an insult I'd heard many times growing up. A gendered slur saying women don't know how to fight as that's the man's job. In fantasy there was for many years a belief that women could either be there to be rescued or just have a single woman (likely in armour made to shapely display breasts) who would be allowed to play with the boys provided that at certain moments all competence would vanish; to allow the male hero to win/woo. Happily the genre is waking up the reality that women can be just as brave, focused and as skilled in violence as any man and in this collection we have a vast array of interesting writers to tell some storiesexploring what the phrase really means..

For me several highlights were

Coins, Fights and Stories Always Have Two Sides by Juliet McKenna- A strong opening sequence where a wily warrior camp chef in the winter season attempts to make some money as various warriors try to work out who is best and who is leading which gang in the future. It feels dirty, grimy and an air of scheming behind tent walls abides but you should be careful about who gets under-estimated....

The Women's Song by Nadine Andie - A training school of warrior boys has selected the next worthy male to face the final task. Trained in both the art of magic and battle the young warrior believes all he has left is to spend the night in a room with a young woman to make himself a man. He finds she has far more to teach him than he expected. Andie does some impressive re-telling of the rite of passage myth and gives us a modern, refreshing and impressively choreographed story with a clever final scene that lingers in the memory.

Arrested Development by Joanne Hall - Moving into the far future of a conquered Earth Hall delivers a tale of an aging cage fighter putting everything on the line battling regularly super powerful alien races. Her desire is to win not just for the joy of battle but for the future of herself.  When you realise what the story title signifies you will understand how much some people are prepared to risk. A grim world of concrete and decay is painted too to make you understand why this life is chosen.

Asenath by Kim Lakin-Smith - Probably my joint favourite story in the pack.  Almost calling to mind Italy's warring city states we have a young Doctor trying to bring in one of a future city's best mercenary gangs to help protect her patients. The mercenary gang's leader is a fascinating woman who balances traditional belief with a love of life and violence. There is double-dealing; beautifully created fight scenes and some tender moments of regret.  Just a fascinating world that isn't quite SF nor fantasy but a pleasing mixture of both.

The Quality of Light by K T Davies - This is a gracefully told story of one warrior preparing for her next battle. It balances working out how to survive the first encounter with the enemy with flashbacks to a more gentler moment from her childhood. It's all about the emotions felt by the warrior where they go to in such times; a desire to survive against all else and you feel the mud suck at your shoes as you read it. There isn't any debate of which side you're on being right this is about your survival this day.

Fire and Ash by Gaie Sebold - My other favourite tale looks at consequences. We find a warrior who has won her final battle at the cost of losing all her friends. She has nothing left and we meet her broken, traumatised and drunk. It's a well told story giving you a glimpse of an amazing warrior troupe now defeated and a character who is in grief that they are no longer in her life. It asks the question many fantasy stories ignore - what is next? A fine way to end the collection.

A good collection must offer variety and I think explore a theme and this easily manages it. Any of these stories could be a novel and you appreciate how many variations on a lead woman in the story there can be and how many worlds there could be to explore. As someone who strongly pushes for a bit more open mindedness in genre I really think this is an excellent way to start exploring outside of the stereotypes plus some more great authors to find!

 

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The Murderbot Diaries - All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Publisher- Tor

Price - £2.22 ebook (out now) £8.99 paperback

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied securirty androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn't a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied 'droid a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as 'Murderbot'. Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is. But when a neighbouring mission goes dark, its up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to them.

I'm sure you like I have never have an urge to watch our favourite TV shows rather than work in the office and interact with colleagues. Ahem....look who doesn't want to just finally tidy up their Netflix list...anyway...oh yes the book. Murderbot I think is one of the most enaging action SF novellas I've read in ages and presents you with a fascinating character while also dropping you into a dangerous planet where not just the wildlife is out to kill.

This is a first person tale told through the eyes of a security android a mesh of organic and robotic parts with internalised weapons, computer brain, super strength and an ability to take serious damage and all to protect whoever the Company assign to her. While she may have a human face she is part of a long production line of unemotional squads assigned throughout the galaxy. Except no one has realised that after a disaster involving Murderbot a few years ago she has vowed never to be under direct Company control again and as a consequence now has her own view on following orders combined with a desire to avoid humans and just watch all her stored episodes of a soap space opera.

The character of Murderbot is the major selling point of the story.  We are plunged immediately into her narrating a rescue attempt demonstrating both her abilities and apparent lack of humanity although not shy of throwing herself into the action she is equally loathe to give anything away about herself to her human partybut when needed can take charge in a crisis. She hides behind a securirty visor and anytime her human face is on display makes her feel vulnerable. As the story progresses we find more about her history and I wondered if we were seeing a person who's past trauma had led to a form of depression or PTSD that she is trying to overcome. That feeling of just wanting to lose yourself in an internal world to recover while you are also under demands from work and people around you to engage with the world. Murderbot feels lost after her past and as becoming self-aware is illegal telling people about it would lead to the wiping of her memory she can't tell anyone what she is thinking.  This makes her a lonely figure yet she is clearly the most experienced person to lead her party but she can't show them why

This causes issues as the scientists she is assigned to find a number of strange issues suggest their group and a rival team may be being targeted by som ething or someone. As Murderbot is seen as a corporate tool (and if you work for a SF Company known as The Company this must mean bad things) then she finds herself under suspicion. Is she even aware of what she is doing herself? 

That internal battle between personalities is nicely balanced with some beautifully told action sequences where we get to see Murderbot's phycial strength and cunning comes into play. She takes damage and makes mistakes but she keeps on going and that's admirable.  A great force to be reckoned with which combined with a snarky narration makes for a fast-paced read.  My only issue is none of the other characters really do much more in the story than serve's Murderbot's own tale but as she is such an engaging voice that wasn't too bad a trade!

I'm very pleased to know more diary entries are coming out next year and I am hoping to find out a lot more about both where the Murderbot came from and where she is going to.  

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Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Publisher - Solaris

Price - £7.99 Paperback (Out Now)

Shuos Jedao is unleashed. The long-dead general, preserved with exotic technologies as a weapon, has possessed the body of gifted young captain Kel Cheris.

Now, General Kel Khiruev's fleet, racing to the Severed March to stop a fresh enemy incursion, has fallen under Jedao's sway. Only Khiruev's aide, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, is able to shake off the influence of the brilliant but psychotic Jedao.

The rogue general seems intent on defending the hexarchate, but can Khiruev-or Brezan-trust him? For that matter, can they trust Kel Command, or will their own rulers wipe out the whole swarm to destroy one man?

Last year Yoon Ha Lee created one of the most interesting SF stories I'd read in ages with Ninefox Gambit. A mix of military SF, dizzying ideas on technology and political intrigue. A corrupt and cruel empire had detected a threat to it's existence and bonded their ultimate strategist Judao (who is an insane AI/ghost consciousness) to a young disgraced Captain Cheris. At the end of the book the two escape an internal attack and we were not sure what would happen next. The answer in the sequel is a finely told political SF thriller matching action with revolution and asking some interesting questions about the nature of rebellion.

The Hexarchate that all these characters belong to has many groups and the main warrior group within the group is the Kel. They have created fledging instinct - soldierly will automatically obey the highest rankingn officer without question. Hence all Jedao has to do is turn up and the entire fleet he runs into will obey his orders. The question is then what does Judao who when human had killed millions and is no friend of the leadership of the Hexarchate going to do next? He claims to now be preparing to defend the entire Hexarchate against an invasion from the bordering rival Hafn group but can anyone trust him and how do you defeat a well armed ghost?

If Ninefox was a military SF battle combined with an almost Silence of the Lambs like interpay between the cyncical Juado and the kinder Charis then this is a more military SF and a political drama exploring loyalty. There are some beautiful and tense battles between the Hexarchate and the Hafn in space. This is epic scale - fleets of ships defending planets and space stations; battling fleets and hurling huge mysterious energy traps at one another. The Hafn don't really show themse;lves but when you do find out their attitude to their soldiers they make the Kel seem not so bad. Ha Lee has very good eye for exploring three dimensional space battles and the scenes on Judao's bridge while this goes on are tough. You feel characters stressed and on edge knowing their lives are on the line. It's a finely staged battle of tactics and you get very involved watching the characters working out how to battle this mysterious fleetand it really soars once the set pieces commence.

It is not however my favourite part of the story. That is the wider set of characters we are introduced to who I think help explore the book's themes. Judao is a mystery and seems on the edge of an internal battle between hoping to redeem himself or wanting to let rip at everything that has attempted to destroy him; in counterpoint as Charis is no more we have General Khiruev and Lieutenant Brezan and each of these has an internal battle against the Kel fledging instinct. Brezan is a 'crashhawk' a soldier who isn't able to just obey all orders but his larger loyalty to the Hexarchate means he sees Judao as a threat and a lot of the book explores how he has to try and infiltrate the fleet to get to him and stop his control. Khiruev is I think the more interesting character initially able to resist Judao's power she finds herself drawn to his cause and this sets her on a crisis between her nature.  Can she live with herself knowing she is a traitor or can she continue to serve an empire she knows is out of control?

Against all three we have the fascinating new character Mikodez a genius tactician in the Shuos faction within the Hexarchate - a group know for their tactical brilliance and ruthlessness. He is an interesting counterpoint to Judao - far more approachable, keen to eat sweets and tend to plants yet known for sacrificing cadets at the academy to win tactical games and is firmly embroiled in the battle for power withint he Hexarchate itself. Is he going to the one to finally end Judao's comeback or has he a greater goal in mind?

Powerplay in factions can be a hallmark of military SF but rather than use this to say the soliders are far more nobler than the generals we have amore interesting question posed to us. The Hexarchate is ultimately despite amazing technology that allows you to change your form; fly around space and colonise so many planets is now ultimately a dictatorship. It requires the mental belief of it's citizens to provide the power for the technologies it wields. Our soldiers here have all destroyed the uprisings (heresies) where some have tried to resist. No one is truly innocent and we see a chilling use of that power when the Hexarchate exact a brutal revenge on Charis' own people just for her becoming the vehicle Judao uses to be free. The book asks why do people allow terrible things to happen; is it fear or weariness that no one believes you can win?  Is it because if you are benefiting why would you disturb the status quo? Safe to say once again SF provides timely commentary on our own times and the answers make you think uncomfortably about our own internal battles.

I found very little that I thought needed improving and I'm fascinated where the larger story is now going. It often brings to mind Iain Bank's Culture series as here is a society that could do anything but here far more obsessed with power and control. Interestingly the AIs here are clever but purely serving staff but they do see everything....

So if you would like a tasty mix of SF battles and politics I would strongly recommend you try this book out but just be careful who you trust as you explore this darker patch of space opera.

 

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Blindspots

I like to think of myself as fair-minded and progressive. I love reading and been a fan of science fiction and fantasy for many years - it's all about the glorious future or strange new worlds and civilisations but around five or six years ago there was an online debate about blogs and representation.  A lot of the major blogs at the time were challenged over the lack of women being reviewed and I (at the time just a reader) decided to have a look at how many books I was reading by women and it was around 30%!!!    To put it bluntly I was acting in a sexist way.

Why am I raising this? Well for the last few months I've been lurking in a facebook fantasy forum - which is quite large and has members from around the world.  Over the months I spotted something interesting.  Every time someone asked for book recommendations - it would be books made by men.  Often books that hadn't been that recently released. I could easily guess after a few months they would quote - Sanderson, Rothfuss, Lawrence , Eriksson etc. Yes, all very big authors but I noticed a lot of my fellow male SF fans seemed...well not actually to have read that much fantasy certainly not it's more recent authors and in particular those by women.

Some more recent posts I would say have underlined this disparity and I got a sense many men didn't think there was an issue so I asked the group a simple question.  How many books have you read this year and how many were by women.  In a (totally unscientific) survey of around 50 responses the average number of books read was over 50; women read 53/47 in favour of women but men......only 25% of books were by women.  JUST A QUARTER!!!

That was bad enough but some of the responses were just tiresome

- I don't read books by women as I only read fantasy (Le SIGH)

- as a guy I largely read series (LE SIGH)

- male authors have the better covers (LE GRITTED TEETH)

- men wrote more books (WOMBLE STARE)

- women are too emotional and don't get men right (WOMBLE STARE OF DEATH)

- I don't see gender I just read a good story (even if in those cases women were hardly evident in their annual reads!) (WOMBLE SMASH)

Roughly speaking women make up approximately half the population of the planet so if you don't see gender I would think you'd manage the average wouldn't you?

 But amazingly the books they thought would be the best reads are by men in huge numbers. What a purely weird coincidence! Now I doubted most of the men had explicitly chosen this but I do think they were implicitly biased towards men; the reasons for this will be many - as kids many of us are told there are books for men and women; go into a bookshop and I'm always amazed how many tables in the SF section are vastly male and we have already discussed over years there have been a bias in some blogs towards male authors.  All of which creates an environment that unfortunately I think has influenced men to focus on men BUT ITS 2017 AND WE SHOULD KNOW BETTER BY NOW.

I've been following this debate for years. After I realised a few years ago that I was acting stupidly I made an effort to get to around 50/50 and these days it's norm for me.  Many women who have written books; write blogs or host podcasts have been calmly explaining the concept of bias and opening our eyes to a larger world so I'm quite disappointed when I see so many years later that many seemingly rational people who can engage in sensible discussion seem incapable of thinking they are at fault or need to change their behaviour. Our genre is supposed to be the imaginative one; the books that can create whole new countries and yet we default to a mythical white male-led cod-European setting as default that didn't even happen in our own middle ages. Our genre explores power structures all over the place yet we seem more than happy to ignore discussing and challenging gender roles preferring to instead default to 'the classics' be it insipid love interest or damsel or in some case sexually assaulted to  give our lantern jawed hero motivation.

If you believe the world should be a better place and I'd be scared if you thought this one was healthy at the moment then the obligation is on YOU to do better.  No one likes to admit they're in the wrong - it's hurtful; it's embarrassing and it casts an unwelcome glance into our characters and beliefs but this will not kill you.  I'm suggesting you are limiting yourself if you do this and by starting to look a little outside your comfort zones you're actually going to find MORE books; new authors to enjoy and new perspectives that I think might make you think about our world more; why it is the way it is and how it could change for better or worse. I think the likes of Frances Hardinge; VE Schwab, NK Jemisin, Kate Griffin, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire, Alyssa Whiteley and so many more are equal to any man in the the task of telling you a great story in whatever segment of SF you're looking for. Can't find one? Then ask me and if I can't suggest one I bet I know someone who does.

And I'm going to be honest I don't think achieving parity is that much to ask of you - you've reached base camp when the books you read match one of the most basic splits in our society; you may also want to consider how many authors who are people of colour you read; LGBT etc. Some will say well this is quotas for reading but I think we ALL (and I know I need to do better too) should if we believe this is the genre that can change the world should be prepared to do our bit and make our choices representative of our own world and challenge the role many of us have in it.  To actually be as open minded as we like to think we are and you will have more books and all bookworms love more books.  Going into bookshop or library and missing out on half the books sounds horrific- why do that to yourself?

Finally while this issue was getting discussed on Twitter I would like to share a bingo card that my friend @lazyhedwig made that records all the standard clichés why men do not read books by women feel free to check them off next time you see this debate.

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Blood Bank by Zoe Markham

Publisher - Kristell Ink Books

Price- £4.99 Paperback £2.31 ebook

Benjamin is a programmer moonlighting as a security guard at Dystopia, a seedy club that caters to the down-and-outs, the desperate, the addicts. He's been building his reputation, saving for a way out - but when he rescues a young woman from the nearby estate, he may just have stepped too far out of line...

Lucy is ordinary; a girl with a deadbeat boyfriend, a normal life Benjamin is a programmer moonlighting as a security guard at Dystopia, a seedy club that caters to the down-and-outs, the desperate, the addicts. He's been building his reputation, saving for a way out - but when he rescues a young woman from the nearby estate, he may just have stepped too far out of line...

Lucy is ordinary; a girl with a deadbeat boyfriend, a normal life and college studies. But when her world takes an odd twist, she starts to wonder about the people she's meeting, the situations she's in, the odd aversions and attacks happening around her. They're just coincidences...aren't they?

And Zack is in deep trouble. He's losing his girlfriend, drowning in debt, and has dwindling job prospects - and that's not the worst of it. His debt is to people who won't ever forget it, and who want the things closest to Zack's heart: his blood - and his life. In the heart of Swindon, an ancient order hides in plain sight, spreading their influence through the streets like a disease. But despite their widespread power they are catching up with the modern world: the vampires are going online, and the Order is about to become more powerful than even they would have dreamed...

When I think of the places where dread evil may be Swindon isn't I admit at the top of my list but in this novel despite the temptation to think this is a pastiche Zoe Markham actually plays this tale of Vampires and their victims straight and it's tale with some bite...(I'm sorry...I'm so sorry).

We are dropped into a spat between Zack and his girlfriend Lucy who have just been on an incrfedibly badly planned date. Zack is now broke; prone to vanishing and following an urgent call from a mystrrious job turfs Lucy out into the middle of nowhere. We quickly see that Zack has fallen into huge amount of debt and unfortunately slightly worse than your usual payday loan companies in his case he has found himself at the mercy of a local Vampire Group who cunningly are using their loan book for regular donations.  While this goes on Lucy is attacked by a local gang and is saved by Benjamin who is a complex mix of computer geek and aide to the head Vampire. The tale revolves around the three characters reacting to their various lives colliding.

Two major pluses for me on this.  Firstly Markham has made each character a little more nuanced than the initial premise suggests.  Lucy initially appears the damsel in distress but quickly gains depth as we see she is resourceful and actually strats to notice how certain odd events don't add up. Zack appears the boyfriend from hell but we soon see he is actually putting other people's lives ahead of his own and finally Benjamin is sitting between his better and worse natures as he tries to work out which side apart from his own he is on. There is a nice tension that grows between the characters and I wanted to see how this developed.

The other advantage is Markham really wrotes action and horror well.  Supernatural attacks are well choreographed and make you wince as bones are broken and bodies bled; a trip into a dark cellar is definitely eerie as you realise they are not alone and the Vampires are unsettling super fast and ruthless. The pace is fast and lots of plot strands start converging creating a much deeper world than I was expecting as we see Vampire groups appear to be in many cities.

This leads to my one caveat which is the book for me doesn't quite feel like I've read a full story more the end of part one of a really good pilot episode.  Lots of plot points are raised but I don't feel the initial story had fully landed.  I am aware the sequel is coming soon and I think I am very keen to find out where the series goes next.

Overall if you'd like to see a British take on a teen vampire action story that combines humour; adventure and horror with a very good ensemble cast I think this would be a good place to start.  I will definitely be loking forward to reading more from Markham in the future.  I also confirm roundabouts are mentioned....

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Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

Publisher- Pan MacMillan

Price - £8.99 (Out Now)

Death and Destruction will bar her way...

Kyndra's fate holds betrayal and salvation, but the journey starts in her small village. On the day she comes of age, she accidentally disrupts an ancient ceremony, ending centuries of tradition. So when an unnatural storm targets her superstitious community, Kyndra is blamed. She fears for her life until two strangers save her, by wielding powers not seen for an age - powers fuelled by the sun and the moon.

Together, they flee to the hidden citadel of Naris. And here, Kyndra experiences disturbing visions of the past, showing war and one man's terrifying response. She'll learn more in the city's subterranean chambers, amongst fanatics and rebels. But first Kyndra will be brutally tested in a bid to unlock her own magic.

If she survives the ordeal, she'll discover a force greater than she could ever have imagined. But could it create as well as destroy? And can she control it, to right an ancient wrong?

One of the most tired tropes in Fantasy can be the Chosen One that one individual (usually a teenage boy) who by luck magically over a trilogy gains expert knowledge to defeat The Dark Lord (TM) and bring in a new era of well.... usually the Divine Right of Kings (side-eyes to Tolkein). In this first part of a new trilogy (all parts of which will be out this year!) Hounsom gives us a refreshing take in a fascinatingly creative world that I am very much looking forward to exploring in future books.

We meet Kyndra the innkeeper's daughter in the small town of Brenwym on the day her fellow teens undergo a ceremony where they will touch The Relic and find out their true name and role in life. Kyndra who is hoping to find out she can do more than innkeeping is disturbed that when it is her turn The Relic....breaks. Unfortunately at the same time a magical destructive force that has been visitng all parts of Mariar (the continent they all live on).  This force known as the Breaking brings an amazingly destructive storm that kills and destroys randomly.  Villagers being villagers decide this must be Kyndra's fault despite her lack of any previous magical ability and a feel a good lynching is bound to clear things up.  Fortunately for Kyndra two hooded figures who do have magic intervene and then force Kyndra to choose to leave her home and travel with them to parts unknown.

What then follows is a quick journey across the land of Mariar that gives us time to find out that Kyndra has been saved by two Wielders - Breganne and Nediah who can individually use the magic of the Sun and the Moon to heal....or destroy.  They suspect Kyndra's brush with the Relic actually suggests that she too is a Wielder and so are taking her to the underground city of Naris where the Wielders are hiding. Kyndra finds herself then drawn into the murky politics of Wielders who make the current Conserative party seem positively open-minded, loyal and trustworthy. Kyndra though starts to fiund that she may have the far rarer power of the Starborn and if it doesn't materialise....she dies.

I love Starborn because it tweaks quite a few things we see in epic fantasy and reminds me a lot of Katherine Kerr's Devarry series in style. It does start in the traditional almost medieveal small town but we are quickly given a surprise as the main way of travel across the country is airship and people are starting to think engines may be useful!  Naris is no Hogwarts but instead an underground burrowing of dark tunnels whose residents rarely see the source of their powers. It's oppressive and claustrophobic with a sense that the Wielders are less Jedi but a sect that has started to lose their sense of humanity.

Kyndra I find a believable young woman. She is not blind fully choosing her destiny she wants to survive and go home.  She comes across three dimensional - takes time to build trust with strangers and not afraid to challenge them. Balancing her are the characters of Breganne who on the surface is reserved, super-powerful and a model Wielder yet this hides a lot of hurt from her past and Nediah who on the surface is the happier rebel but he is hiding a lot of hidden passions.  These two and their relationships led to a lot of flailing here and was nice to see two Wielders actually care about the wider world; I just want them to be happy (*reviewer wails*)

A criticism of the book is it takes a while to get moving as a good fifth of the book sets up the initial meeting of characters but for me this is important as you have to understand where Kyndra come from and why she would return. Once at Naris we move into darker territory (literally and metaphorically!) as we realise the Wielder honestly believe in causing their new entrants a huge amount of pain in order to see if they are worthy. This finally leads to a bloodthirsty conclusion that wouldn't be too far off a Game of Thrones finale and by then the pace of the book is flying.

By the end of the book our characters and world are significantly changed and I am eagerly awaiting later adventures. Hounsom I think really has done something interesting with a genre in need of reinvention and I'm looking forward to how her career develops.

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