A Hero Born by Jin Yong (translated by Anna Holmwood)

Publisher - Maclehose Press

Published - Out Now

Price £14.99 paperback

My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

China 1200AD The Song Empire has been invaded by its warlike Jurchen neighbours from the north. Half its territory and its historic capital lie in enemy hands, the peasants toil under the burden of the annual tribute demanded by the victors. Meanwhile on the Mongolian steppe, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan. Guo Jing, son of a murdered Song patriot, grew up with Genghis Khan’s army, and is fated from birth to one day confront an opponent who is the opposite of him in every way: privileged, cunning and flawlessly trained in the martial arts. Guided by his faithful shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing must return to China – to the Garden of the Drunken Immortals in Jiaxing – to fulfil his destiny. But in a divided land riven by war and betrayal, his courage and his loyalties will be tested at every turn.

This Chinese martial arts series started in the 1950’s and has already sold 300 million copies (and rumours suggest in bootleg form up to 1 billion!) Its however only just made its way across the world thanks to an excellent English translation by the translator Anna Holmwood. Safe to say I was not sure what I was in for and I was pleasantly surprised to find a fast-paced epic fantasy that has a unique way of storytelling and some surprisingly modern approaches to the genre.

The saga starts with two friends (and highly trained martial artists) Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang who are living in a Chinese empire where the enemy Jin empire secretly has control. The two meet a Taoist monk Qui Chuji who is carrying the head of a Jin spy he recently despatched. This minor misunderstanding is quickly over but draws the attention of enemy Jin forces who order both men for execution.  The pregnant wives of both are made to flee as their husbands are mortally injured and we focus on Lily Li who moves to the Mongol Empire, Qui Chuji is desperate to know what happened to his friends and after some epic battles with the mighty kung Fu sect The Seven Freaks of the South its agreed that to make up for lost time the two factions will each search for one child.  Lily Li gives birth to Guo Jing and we see him grow up to become a sensible young man in search of a destiny and has a major role in uniting the Mongol groups!

This is a true epic plot, and this is just volume 1! But it never feels overloaded. In comparison with many western epics where you can appear to live every mile of a quest it’s more as if a vast selection of short stories/key scenes are being told by a storyteller.  Each one stands on its two feet but there is a larger story slowly evolving leading to potentially the defeat of the Jin.  For example, a scene where Guo Jing tames a wild horse is quickly turned into Guo and his shifus (The seven Freaks) working to free a victim from a would be serial killer and then shortly after that the final battle in the Mongol Civil war. The pace is indeed frenetic, but it flows very organically. Yong ensures there is an emotional kick to each scene be that the heroic last stand of Ironheart and Skyfury to the tragic scene where Timujan (shortly to be Genghis Khan) buries his best friend’s toys in the soil as a sign their friendship is over on the eve of war. Moving from epic history to these moments especially considering the pace it goes at is immensely skilful. Its perhaps notable for post-revolutionary China there is an ongoing theme of good people taking on corrupt nobles and creating a better world. Happily, not overly done but you can sense that at the time this message would not have been popular.

The action scenes are also a highlight. In this world we have many Kung Fu sects all with key sills. This can range from the humorous (a monk who can in drinking contest force the alcohol from their skin!) to the deadly. There are networks are touring shifus who either feud with or teach each other. Rather than describe each kick and punch instead we get beautiful terms such as Nine Yin Skelton Claw, Shoot the Arrow moving from the ability to fight hordes of armed guards to climbing steep mountains at high speed. As you get used to the world you will notice the different styles and the bigger history of the various groups. By not explaining everything in detail it really allows your imagination to add the visual spectacle, but the pace really makes it all come across as if it was a movie scene.

The final standout is character. Our lead character Guo Jing who we see growing up isn’t entirely the standard hero born to rule the kingdom later.  He’s kind and good natured rather than an adventurer. Keen to help those in need but very shy when it comes to potential relationships. In contrast and it’s so welcome are the large number of female characters in the story. For a 1950’s tale the number and variety of women in different roles we see from Lily the doting mother who is prepared to hide in the steppes to Temujin’s daughter Khojin who is happy to defy her arranged marriage to the totally independent, playful and certainly skilled martial artist Lotus Huang and finally the mysterious powerful Consort who holds secrets that will bring about the story’s confusion.  Yes, there are elements of sexism; Ironhearts’s wife is viewed as too kind leading to their enemy’s attack but overall, it’s a world where women can act and talk and often match the lead male.  Compare that with Tolkien’s ‘vast array’ of women in key roles…. ahem.

So, for me this was a very immersive reading experience introducing me to a world and style of storytelling I was not previously familiar with. It’s epic, heartfelt, funny and has breath-taking pace.  Possibly it may be too fast for readers more used to watching someone grow up year by year in one volume but I think it’s a fascinating experience and will be watching out for volume 2 next year.


Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby

Publisher - Angry Robot

Published - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback/£6.99 e-book

I am grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

When dragons rise from the earth, firefighters are humanity’s last line of defence. In this wild near future-fantasy. Firefighter Cole Brannigan is on the verge of retirement after 30 years on the job, and a decade fighting dragons. But during his final fire call, he discovers he’s immune to dragon smoke. It’s such a rare power that he’s immediately conscripted into the elite dragon-fighting force known as the Smoke Eaters. Retirement cancelled, Brannigan is re-assigned as a lowly rookie, chafing under his superiors. So, when he discovers a plot to take over the city’s government, he takes matters into his own hands. With hundreds of innocent civilians in the cross hairs, it’s up to Brannigan and his fellow Smoke Eaters to repel the dragon menace.

As the vampire Angel once remarked it’s often a hero’s ambition to kill the dragon. Our fire-breathing frenemies have been part of our culture for hundreds of years (perhaps even longer) and from Smaug to Pern they have a long legacy in the genre. Sean Grigsby has used the concept of dragons to create a curious blend of science fiction and fantasy with fire-fighters now replacing the knight in shining armour!

In this world a century or so in the future a series of catastrophic earthquakes led to the release of dragons. In this case they are fire-breathing, non-flying; occasionally EMP-emitting and dangerous beasts that lurk underground laying eggs and then erupting from homes consume all they find. Rather than just give us the apocalypse Grigsby gives us the more interesting question how do we then survive it? It’s a world of ash-strewn wastelands where dogs have vanished, travel has been replaced with holograms and fire-fighters are slowly being replaced with technology. Into this mix we find Cole Brannigan who has the traditional action movie curse of being a few days from retirement. A dragon attack that wipes out a fire crew which he only just escapes leads to a discovery that as he can breathe dragon smoke means he can now join the secretive Smoke Eaters a government agency exclusively focused on dragon hunting wielding laser swords and shields. Against them; a mayor keen to build walls and blame the emergency services for the natural disasters now faced; I wonder how he wears his hair…

It’s one of the most original concepts I’ve read in a while and there has been a lot of thought into the world that Brannigan lives in. It feels like a century in the future with robotic dogs, holo-readers but still has aspects of the current world in it. There is a touch of Pacific Rim in how the world is trying to work out what types of dragons are now alive and studying them to finds weapons and solutions to something that could destroy the world. However, while a lesser author may try to just info-dump the world into existence it was pleasing that Grigsby really paces the explanation of the world nicely throughout the novel. Often surprising directions are taken such as mysterious electric Wraiths haunting and murdering on the site of dragon attacks and wait until you see what happened to Canada!

This is helped by a really-well balanced cast of Smoke Eaters, not just the refreshing older experienced veteran Brannigan applying his experiences to the new organisation he is part of but a refreshingly diverse set of characters where women are not immediately deemed love interests. There is a touch of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in terms of approach to the generation gaps (with both an implicit and explicit nod!) and Grigsby has a touch of Scalzi’s ear for dialogue that while witty and moves the plot along at pace also sounds right for the cast.

My reservation though is that the plot for the story does however tend to go for the obvious. I think a regular reader/view of the genre can quickly identify the villain and while Brannigan is a lead character you want to side yourself with due to his humour and humanity he also seemed to lack much of a learning curve. He rather too quickly gets to grips with the world and technology that he was a few weeks ago unaware of and perhaps makes too many 50/50 calls that are proved right. I do wonder if this is possibly more as a way of introducing the wider world and there are hints of a bigger story and perhaps an enemy that really would make an interesting battle in the future.  I would love to see that original eye used for world building used now applied to making different types of stories we have not seen before.

So overall, I think Sean Grigsby has made a very promising debut with a unique concept combined with engaging characters and action. While it’s perhaps not going to provide too many surprises for regular genre readers I think for any reader who wants a fun, unique and importantly well-told story then I don’t think you can go wrong curling up on the sofa with this book in front of a nice warm dragon-induced fire.


Blood of Assassins by R J Barker

Publisher Orbit

Published - Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback

I am grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

To Save a King, Kill A King…

The Assassin Girton Club-Foot and his master have returned to Maniyadoc in hope of finding sanctuary, but death, as always dogs Girton’s heels. War rages across Maniyadoc, with three kings claiming the same crown – and one of them is Girton’s old friend Rufra. With threats on every side. Girton hurries to his friend’s aid – though his greatest enemy of all remains closer than ever.

WARNING – Mild Spoilers await those yet to read Age of Assassins

So, a few months ago I caught up with RJ Barker’s impressive debut Age of Assassins which I would happily say is a great fantasy tale combining a murder mystery with a claustrophobic atmosphere due to it’s castle-bound setting. Now the awaited sequel is out and while this a bigger scale story Barker again delivers a fantastic story blending characters with action, politics and antlers. It asks that important question we face when we grow who…exactly who are we?

At the end of Age of Assassins Girton and his Assassin Master Merela had uncovered treachery at Castle Maniyadoc and prevented a scheming Queen putting her heir Aydor on the throne by effectively starting a civil war between the warring factions. Girton has helped his best friend Rufra escape a murder plot and he himself was fighting for the throne. Girtin however had suffered not just the loss of his first love but discovered he had magical abilities in a world where this meant an immediate death sentence. The Assassins’ only option was to flee into the wilderness…

We arrive in Blood of Assassins five years later and Girton finds himself unexpectedly back in Maniyadoc’s politics carrying a gravely wounded Merela. The war Gorton unexpectedly triggered has split into three factions all led by nobles that Girton encountered on his last visit. Rufra the first friend he has ever made; Aydor the previous sole heir who was a vicious bully and Tomas who was a skilled noble also with claims on the throne. Girton finds himself in Aydor’s camp which is on the edge of defeat by Rufra and against his will he is forced to persuade Rufra Aydor wants a truce and carries a message that Rufra is being spied upon by Tomas from within his inner circle.

It would have been easy for a very simple re-telling of the first story, but it is immensely satisfying that Barker has decided to go for a very different feel to the first novel. This time the action moves from a single castle to a wide field camp where Rufra is preparing for battle and has multiple factions (loosely) allied. Each group has its own agendas from a sect that worships the god of death to the scarier Landsmen sworn to wipe out all those who have magical abilities. Girton would usually want to lurk in the shadows but Rufra quickly makes it known that instead he is a loyal friend and ally. This all adds to a causing significant uncertainty for Girton who’s Master is on edge of death, watching his friend talking to his worst enemy and grappling with a magical ability that if found out could spell his death. He even finds a new generation of super-skilled soldiers being groomed that may match his own talents.  Whereas previously in times of stress or trouble he could always rely on the parental influence of Merela to stabilise him here she is absent and on top of that he carries brutal memories of what he had to do in the wilderness to survive. What is he a blunt instrument of death or something more?  All the time spies and murderers encircle his friend’s camp increasing the tension.

Character is a key aspect of Barker’s writing and one fascinating point here is how much do people change over five years? Girton has grown more powerful physically but emotionally is in turmoil which re-visiting Maniyadoc has exacerbated – the sharp-witted, playful and kind Girton has become a more brooding, angrier and violent man now rejecting the swords of an assassin for a brutal mean Warhammer. Placing himself between Rufra who seems to now have a bigger vision for a better type of kingdom where justice and equality reign and Aydor who while protesting his future loyalty has a history of deceit and arrogance means Girton is torn between his automatic instinct to protect versus his friend’s desire to make peace. Rather than make Girton a pure hero Barker shows Griton’s past makes him decide for what to him are very logical reasons to do some very scary things. Ultimately reminding the reader that while Girton is a one of the deadliest assassins in the land he is also still a young man on the run from his past and terrified of losing anyone he holds dear no matter the cost to himself or others.  Both Aydor and Rufra also have to decide where they stand in this time of crisis against their instincts

A newer element that is impressive is the use of larger set-pieces. In Age of Assassins it was very much focused on one-on-one conflict. In this case however the story levels up to larger armies and brigades fighting one another. The Normen are introduced as a foe who are happy to torture and kill their way through an enemy even causing howls through the night of their victims to make other’s nervous. It makes for an unpredictable and vicious foe and in one key scene set over a few hours we have Girton and a group of soldiers make a heroic stand in a village. Barker is great at describing moving and flowing action scenes but the key aspect he delivers in spades is in using action to define character.  Not as in the more recent trend of grimdark showing everyone to be brutal at a base level but the ability for a character to decide to make the right thing; stand up against the tyrant and go into battle whatever the cost even if one man (or woman as Barker’s world doesn’t have the typical sexism of others) against a horde. Themes such as justice and friendship can appear outdated, but the way Barker really provides the emotional depth of such scenes was a highlight of the novel (there may have been fist-punching reader).

So, this is a sequel that cleverly builds and, in my view, excels on what the first tale delivered. That sense of increasing scale and what is now on the line makes this an exhilarating read and I think it is safe to say while I’m more than ready to read the conclusion to this series but also will be watching this writer’s career with interest!


Unclean Spirits (Gods and Monsters) by Chuck Wendig

Publisher - Rebellion

Published - 13th February

Price - £7.99 paperback

I thank the punblisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Five years ago, it all went wrong for Cason Cole. He lost his wife and son, lost everything, and was bound into service to a man who chews up human lives and spits them out, a predator who holds nothing dear and respects no law. Now, as the man he both loves and hates lies dying at his feet, the sounds of the explosion still ringing in his ears. Cason is finally free.

The gods and goddesses are real. A polytheistic pantheon – a tangle of divine hierarchies – once kept the world at an arm’s length, warring with one another for mankind’s belief and devotion. It was a grim and bloody balance, but a balance just the same. When one god triumphed, driving all other gods out of heaven it was back to the bad old days; cults and sycophants, and the terrible retribution the gods visit on those who spite them. None of which is going to stop Cason getting back what’s his…

To some the photocopier at work not working is a bad day at the office but to Cason Cole he finds someone blew his boss into pieces can really dampen your day. This goes from bad to worse when he returns to his family home five years late and finds out that his wife and infant son immediately want to kill him on sight. Cason starts to realise that somethings are not adding up. So, begins an intriguing mix of crime drama and supernatural battle with the gods.

It’s a fascinating story that builds up pace as Cason starts to find that the world he lives in is magical and full of Gods. Not just the usual big names of the Greek and roman pantheons but those of Native Americans, Asia and even very small local gods all aware of each other. For reasons not fully explained all the world’s pantheons are banished to Earth with some of their power. Cason finds his employer was one and sadly his family have decided Cason is the number one suspect.  His only allies are a taxi driver good Samaritan and an incredibly scarred and uncouth man known as the Cicatrix. Cason must find out who has framed him or risk losing his family….and his wife.

For starters this is clearly a Chuck Wendig book.  If you’ve read his Miriam Black novels (you really should) you know this is a writer who can make supernatural noir sing like a choir. It’s a dirty, visceral and nasty world of double-crosses, violence swearing and all of it happens in the dirty side-streets, dark bars and abandoned factories of the US. The dialogue is short and snappy and characters bounce snark off each other while at the same time Wendig gives all his heroes (and even some villains) some added depth. Cason is a large fighter, but you’ll side with him not just because he has a fine line in humour, but we see this man is absolutely in love with his wife and child. Over the story we invest ourselves in this man who while not academic is clearly smart and driven. In fact, he ends up having to become an expert in mythology. A nice piece of character development subverting your initial expectations when you meet him!

And although it’s an ultra-violent world where you’ll feel each punch, bone break and bleeding wound it is balanced with a fascinating set-up of this connected pantheon that Cason is trying to find out how to unpick it from his family life. Part of the fun is working out who the God of the chapter is and then what their potential weakness or angle in this game is. You may be surprised where some legends have started to live, and this can move from drama to in one historic scene of mass murder some chilling horror in the dark…

My one issue is that it’s got such blistering pace and these early scenes make this world so vibrant with gods in the streets and alleys that it slightly loses pace in the last act when we move from Cason’s personal battle to sort his life out to a slightly more greater scale.  I felt the story loses some energy and it doesn’t quite gel with the more human-level drama we got before.

In special bonus addition at the end of the story (also signalling that it looks like there will be other entrants in the same shared universe) there is a short novella from Pat Kelleher set shortly after the events in Wendig’s novel. One of the US pantheon gets embroiled with a UK tourist in what turns out to be an quest with some potentially world-ending events. Kelleher has a nice ear for dialogue which has a slightly less harsh sense of humour than Wendig, but the story feels more magical as we replace the streets of the US for eventually London and the countryside.

Overall, I think this is very much for the fan who enjoys books like American Gods but in terms of style would like to see a fast-paced noir crime thriller rather than simply epic fantasy. Certainly not for the weak but for me Wendig is a poet at making the dirty streets shine brightly on the page. Definitely worth a look!



Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

Publisher - Titan

Published - 6th February

Price - £8.99 paperback

I wish to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Nell Crane has never held a boy’s hand.

In a city devastated by an epidemic, where survivors are all missing parts – an arm, a leg, an eye – Nell has always been an outsider. Her father is the famed scientist who created the biomechanical libs that everyone now uses. But she’s the only one with her machinery on the inside: her heart. Since the childhood operation, she has ticked.  Like a clock, like a bomb. And as her community rebuilds, everyone is expected to contribute to the society’s good…but how can Nell live up to her father’s revolutionary ideas when she has none of her own?

Then she finds a lost mannequin’s hand while salvaging on the beach, and inspiration strikes. Can Nell build her own companion in a world that fears advanced technology? The deeper she sinks into this plan, the more she learns about her city – and her father who is hiding secret experiments of his own.

I believe it was The Beatles who once sang that it was 200 years ago today that Mary Shelley taught the science fiction world to play. Frankenstein started the debate about our ethical approach to science and the ability to create artificial life.  It’s a theme we have continually explored ever since and in this fascinating debut novel Sarah Maria Griffin explores the theme in a delightfully subversive and also refreshingly optimistic approach to the subject.

The story is set in a future world nearly 100 years after an apocalypse struck an island’s population. Its not the UK or the US but an unnamed country of soda bread, tea, and a sense of community (certainly a hint of Ireland comes across!). A century earlier an effort to attempt even more digital progress instead led to a huge technological collapse causing EMP pulses and a deadly plague that wiped out most of the original population.  However, rather than the standard march into a dystopia the remaining community came together strongly. Slowly but surely, they are rebuilding their land and moving forward.  It’s tough – pubs have only just become back into being! But Griffin gives us a increasingly confident society building inspiring monuments; the only big glaring gap is technology – the idea of artificial intelligence even a simple microchip is considered heresy. The elders remember that the machines caused the downfall they have only just survived.

The technical exception though is where Nell Crane our lead character appears. Nell’s parents are hugely respected.  Her late mother Cora gave them the design for the new in progress monument being built as a beacon of hope for the future. While her father Julian developed artificial limb. The community is still suffering the impact of the plague and people are born without limbs or even parts of their body. The local population now expect each new generation to contribute their ideas for improving the island or if not then they must move into the local stonemason group or even out into the pastures where a group more interested in magic and rituals lurk (including Nell’s Nan). In the face of these parental giants Nell has absolutely nothing as an idea for her contribution…until she sees a mannequin and in a flash of inspiration decides to create an artificial man and challenge the non-technical orthodoxy that has developed.

There are so many areas I can praise in this book. The central character of Nell is a complex detached young woman. Partly this is because as she received an artificial heart as a child (that ticks loudly) she is viewed as physically; but add in her family’s lineage and the community assess her differently. Nell also is quite happy to observe rather than directly get involved in society.  In the bar she watched from the side-lines not dance in the party and instead machines and design are her passions. Despite this introversion she has almost two friends – Ruby the young artistic dress designer and Oliver the undertaker’s son who as well as sharing lessons in the creation of limbs is also clearly fixated on Nell. But Nell is not looking for that type of companion and that is an element into the creation of the artificial intelligence that she wants to build. She a mix of tough with strangers and vulnerable internally as she tries to overcome her natural urge to be sarcastic and rude. I was really touched when there are scenes of what she wishes to what she could say to her friends when they cross her and what she actually says! She is also shown to be working out who she is – is she just eternally in her parents’ shadow or can she offer something even greater?

As you can probably already see I’m really impressed by the worldbuilding in the novel. It feels fresh compared to so many recent dystopian futures to see one where people are coming together as a community. Children are valued (provided they can make a contribution) and despite the loss of limbs there is a vibrancy in the life the community is pulling together. Its delightful when Griffin shows that behind the façade of the town being anti-technology there lies a young heart wanting to explore the electronic path and see what they can make of it. My one caveat is that if you are expecting an early appearance of AI then you may be disappointed - it’s nearly two thirds of the book before they make their appearance but for me the creation of the world and the characters and moral dilemmas within are so much better fleshed out first that you can then understand how the appearance of this new element will cause so many unexpected events.

Griffin adds several gorgeous emotional kicks to the novel. The simple act of watching the first pop video played for 100 years is a moment where you see young people suddenly pulled together and rocked by the power of music (in an age when even Bowie has been lost!). It gives those who listen a understanding of something greater and that rush of energy that roc and pop can deliver into your soul. This is further increased with the eventual arrival of Io - Nell’s artificial man who certainly seems to be benign and potentially could unlock even more ancient parts of the world. His scenes with nell as he responds to being activated are fascinating and even Nell realises that he is far more alive than she ever expected. It is however not all optimistic Nell has to battle in what could be seen as fairly standard parts of a teenager’s life. Ruby does not approve of her following a technological path; Oliver wants her to move into business and a relationship – but at no time do the way these moments are played do they seem purely for emotional effect. In fact, the way most of the characters respond is refreshing mature. There is a running theme in the book that the young are not the ones going to cause trouble but want to repair the mistake the past made. This comes into a very dark plotline where Bell has to face the fact that her loveable absent-minded professor of a father actually has his own ambitions and an approach to his career that directly could limit her own growth. Those encounters turn into the most powerful parts of the novel and create a very unsettling conclusion as truths are unearthed at last.

The book this most reminded me of was Station Eleven. It shared that theme of a lost past/present technology that gave us benefits we perhaps don’t always appreciate today and a sense of rebuilding the future based around the best parts of it. It is fundamentally an optimistic piece of science fiction and in the dark days of the present that is so refreshing. Whereas Victor Frankenstein seemed to be in the search for life purely for his own goals with Nell Crane we have someone focused on using science to better her world. It feels an overdue angle to take on the theme and I think it’s safe to say I will be very interested in Griffin’s future novels.  A debut I strongly urge you to pick up.






White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Publisher - Hamish Hamilton

Published - Out Now

Price - £14.99 Hardcover

Carter and Seth are worlds apart – one a trust fund hipster, the other a penniless social misfit – but they make a great team.

Brought together by a shared love of music, they’re rising fast on the New York music scene. Everyone wants a piece of what they are selling. Until the day Seth stumbles across an old blues song – and everything starts to unravel. Carter can’t resist sharing the unknown song online where it goes viral immediately, spiralling out of control and carrying him in its wake. As Carter is pulled ever deeper into a shadowy underworld, Seth, always the sensible one, has no choice but to follow his friend into the darkness.

We often like to think music has evolved freely but there are many instances of white musicians using songs and tunes from black artists to further their own careers.  Even giants like the Beatles can show this in their work. Hari Kunzru takes this a theme for a horror novel that balances 21st century rap versus 20th century depression blues to create an interesting yet flawed literary horror novel.

The story is told through Seth’s eyes.  A rather introverted poor student who is happier recording conversations of others from afar than actively taking part.  He crosses paths with Carter; a rich student who also doesn’t want to fit in but loves music and although in all other aspects of life they’re from different worlds this love of sound bonds them. Soon Seth finds himself Carter’s roommate living in a luxury apartment; using the latest equipment/also the best vintage equipment and slowly they’re becoming artists known for giving artists a new old school sound. Seth wanders the streets recording and by chance he picks up a chilling refrain sang by a stranger in the park. Carter loves it and wants to hear more and more.  Eventually discovering the whole song hidden in Seth’s street recording its haunting blues tune neither have heard. To Seth its creepy but to carter it’s the best thing ever. He’s plunged into discovering the Blues and moves into a world of collectors and online bids for records all to find out more. But both the would-be music geniuses find that there is something lurking out there and its been waiting a long time.

So, what really appealed in this story is atmosphere.  Kunzru really captures places and types of people well.  You get the feeling of these New York apartments that the very rich own to make them seen as if they’re living on the edge of poverty. Easily contrasted with trips to Carter’s wealthy family estate with staff waiting to serve them and a host of millionaires to be dancing and laughing around. Later, the novel captures very different environments the poverty-stricken areas of the US at the turn of the century and most creepily when one character relives the brutal interrogation of a black man for a crime he doesn’t commit. There is a growing feel that in these empty spaces something is hungry for these youths to cross its path.

Character however I think is where I felt the book let itself down. Pretty everyone here is a terrible human being. Carter and Seth are your typical dudebros – very much focused on themselves and our narrator is rather creepy with his efforts to record everyone and in particular his obsession with carter’s sister.  It comes across as a critique of the 1% who are oblivious that they don’t have to worry about rent and can just purchase anything they need with a phone call. Seth is from a poorer family though and frustratingly there isn’t much made of how he is not one of this group and has had a different life experience to contrast with their own until quite late in the novel.  I was not impressed with how the main female character Leonie is handled. She seems to be very much there for one purpose - to become a victim and while I appreciate in a horror story everyone is a potential target I felt she had little agency of her own bar Seth’s continual desire for her.

My biggest issue was the horror element.  As I mentioned Kunzru can write scenes that unnerve you, but the story really doesn’t hang together.  The force the two young people are getting involved with takes a long time to really do much and the eventual motive doesn’t quite hang together. Its thrown into the plot that Carter was bipolar, but no evidence is really done with it and I think more could have been done with the idea of cultural appropriation but neither Carter nor Seth actually show much evidence of that in their music before things hit the fan. Rather than a growing sense of tension building up to a horrific climax I found myself hoping for things to happen. Constant reviews of the life unpleasant rich people driving around the US was not for me enough to keep me interested.

So overall while I think Kunzru has a great grasp of style and giving his characters a voice to show their inner personalities I don’t feel I’ve read a successful horror story that has something to say about life in the 21st century.  Worth a look for an example of literary horror but not one I think I will be replaying anytime soon.



The Bastard Legion by Gavin Smith

Publisher - Gollancz

Price - £9.99 paperback

Published - Out Now

Four hundred years in the future, the most dangerous criminals are kept in suspended animation aboard prison ships and ‘rehabilitated’ in a shared reality environment.

Miska Corbin, a thief and hacker with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships, the Hangman’s Daughter, and made it her own.

Controlled by explosive collars and trained in virtual reality by the electronic ghost of a dead marine sergeant, the thieves, gangsters, murdered and worse are transformed into Miska’s own private indentured army: the Bastard Legion.

But are the mercenaries just for fun and profit, or does Miska have a hidden purposed connected to her covert past? And how far is she prepared to go to find out?

Sometimes with science fiction we tend to get focused on the giant technology, the philosophy of where we are going as a species - I’m therefore pleased to say this book brings those two elements together with a huge dollop of fighting; morally ambiguous characters and exploding heads.  This makes a rather compelling debut entry into what’s looking to be a very interesting series.

The story throws us head first with a soldier diving down in space over a gas planet orbited by a mining station where we meet our central character Miska Corbin leading a team into an attack on the station. It quickly becomes apparent that a) Miska’s crew is a group of hostile male prisoners b) all are hardwired to have their heads explode if Miska thinks appropriate and c) Miska will be happily do so if she feels they cross a line.  Rather than Firefly’s found family we have a Dirty Dozen with an additional six thousand prisoners guest-starring.  The rather new on the block mercenaries for hire a powerful conglomerate has hired their group to recapture a deep space mining station where the miners have retaliated against their employers. Miska therefore must balance a fledgling crew with homicidal tendencies; bosses who really don’t care about any issues she has doing the job and miners who feel they are morally obliged to declare independence.  Safe to say this is not going to be a smooth crushing of a fledgling revolution.

So, this is very much a visceral story. Not simply in the exploding heads but everything feels raw.  Characters don’t trade quips all the time and not everyone has a heart under a crusty exterior. It’s much more a series of fragile allowances while the groups work out how they can get the best deal for themselves. You can smell the welding on the space stations; dust the dated assortment of weaponry and technology being used depending on your social status and it s a very lived in universe. Countries like the US still exist and have some form of power but its mixed in with conglomerations; former AIs and even an alien race known as Them. Lots of fascinating hints as to how the Earth has fared but intriguingly all just good background so we can see this adventure is just the tip of the iceberg.  Smith wisely uses the debut to focus on the would-be Legion themselves.

A major plus is the character of Miska. Short and prone to demonstrating her temper towards her team explosively she is a fascinating lead character.  Neither you as the reader nor even herself seems to know what she should be doing next. With her nose ring and dream of dyeing her hair purple she could have been just a standard SF female fighter but there is more complexity to her which you don’t always see in similar action stories. This is achieved by access to her inner thoughts nicely contrasting with the snark she gives nearly everyone she meets.  The punk edge is more bravado as the would be general is learning she now has to lead a team (possibly to their deaths) rather than her previously murky role as a stand-alone govt soldier. Added to this is the dynamic that to train the troops she is using an old AI recording of her deceased father (who himself was an acclaimed sergeant)  and as he is the only person who actually knows her it adds an emotional heart to a character who otherwise I found to be one of those dangerous people you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a train in case they decide to spook you.

I also really was impressed by the weaving of action and strategy scenes. Smith has a way of making you understand the dynamics of two squads having a firefight in a hanger; then moving into a bruising one on one encounter with an enemy where you feel each punch or slice before finally going outside the station and into the dynamics of a gun battle between two starships. Each battle is unique and you don’t just get repeats of punch and kicks and testosterone. Moving it past some similar adventure action stories is because there is a lot of weaving in of flashbacks to explain how Miska ended up leading the legion and why she ended up carrying an AI version of her father around. AI is a running theme too in the books as well as the deliciously named Small Gods lurkig in the corporate shadows we also see some AIs are interested in their opponents.  This adds a lot of ambivalence to the plot as at the same time Miska’s crew, miners and employers keep pointing out to her that her mercenaries are not voluntarily behind her and all she does is follow her bosses’ orders without examining the morality of them. The reader though must wonder if Miska really cares about this or is she just focusing on her own personal ambitions?

For me the moral ambivalence all through the characters and the plot is fascinating.  I start to sympathise with prisoners who do terrible things and then it is made very clear that pretty much anyone can die even if few pages ago they were making you smile with their antics. If you prefer your heroes to be less ambivalent or violent then this tale may not appear, and the body count is rather high. I probably have two niggles – for four hundred years in the future there are a lot of 20th and 21st century weapons hanging around in one form or another and there is also a slight obsession with current films and TV I’m not too sure would have carried through the ages (although to be fair Star Trek does that all the time!) and at one point you are trying to work out exactly who is double crossing whom which takes some time to unravel. But for me that was the fun of working out where the book was heading towards…

Overall if you would like some science fiction with added portions of wonderfully choreographed action scenes; gritty characters and a sense of moral ambiguity then I think this should be your next read.  While it is a complete adventure in its own right; there are enough threads dangled to suggest an arc that will become more apparent in future instalments.  I am definitely looking forward to what the Legion does next provides it does it light years away from me!




January Reading!

I am very rare amongst my friends and family in my love for January as for me it always seems to lead to a boost in energy levels after the end of the year wiped me out.  I also may have had two weeks off in it…(polishes halo).

I had a lovely trip to Barcelona and it’s a fantasy novel city in its own right.  Amazingly relaxed and gorgeous you can easily imagine magical events happening down the streets. Well worth a visit and a long wander.  Of course, coming home my body caught the dreaded flu bug so I had a fascinating week trying to breathe and stay warm – no sign of an exorcist being required but it was a close-run thing!

Movies and TV wise has been I will be honest light – I seem to be reluctant to try and watch a plot if that makes sense and I’m hoping to start a mammoth catch up on shows like Discovery, Dark and that little-known drama called Stranger things soon.  I also have the remake of It to watch and I’m intrigued how I will react to it (please be better than Dark Tower).

But one thing I definitely have done is read and pleasingly I’ve also made some inroads into Mount TBR. I’ve started to plan out my reading schedule a bit better into small chunks each week and as you’ll start to notice I’m starting to review a few books ahead of publication date.  Yes, reader I now have a spreadsheet to track dates!


So, what did I read?

Novels (5 from last year’s TBR attacked)

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper – review to follow - an old children’s classic that is perfect for midwinter.  While the plot is very mechanical I think it wins on the sense of atmosphere and the creepiness of a cold winter.

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark – reviewed – you should all be reading this interesting mix of high fantasy and grimdark.  Hopefully the rest of the series will be just as memorable.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – reviewed - A very clever and unusual new fantasy sequence exploring a city in the clouds and having a lot to say about social climbing and elites

White Tears by Hari Kunzru -review to follow – an unusual literary ghost story that I’m not sure quiet worked for me…

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden – review to follow – a modern retelling of Russian folklore and it’s really worth a look is my non-spoilery tip 😊

If Souls Can Sleep by David Michael Williams – reviewed – a surprisingly smarter fantasy thriller involving dreamworlds and wrongfooted me a few times which is always something I value in a book!

The Left hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin – reviewed – I really loved what this book does in only 245 pages.  Stunning how all the themes combined into a beautiful story of friendship.  Expect more reading of her this year.

Paris Adrift by E J Swift – reviewed - a time travel tale with a focus on character and really reminded me of growing up in your twenties. Another author I want to read more of.


The Bastard Legion by Gavin G Smith – review incoming – violent grim SF tale of a penal mercenary crew that has one of the most interesting main characters in some time.  Quite a scary one actually…

Novellas and Short Stories (four out of last year’s TBR!)

Asian Monsters/European Monsters edited by Margret Helgadottir and Jo Thomas (European only)- reviewed – Two excellent Fox Spirit editions exploring myths and legends around the world

Uncanny Magazine Issue 20 – loved the mix!

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or day by Seanan Mcguire – review to follow – loved the idea of a New York with its unique ghost community

Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky – review to follow – near future SF military thriller with a nice edge in satire

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Bo Bolander – reviewed – Yes amazing parallel history of elephants and radium girls – just read it!!

Non Fiction (1 out of last year’s TBR)

Lonely Planet Pocket Barcelona – I did not get lost

Graphic Novels (2 out of last year’s TBR)

Monstress Vol 2 by Marjorie M Liu – how can a world so pretty be so evil!! Love this series

Saga Vol 8 by Brian K Vaughan – nice return to form and I still never know what to expect

The Wicked  + The Divine Vol 6 by Kieron Gillen – felt like it treaded water and I would like a bit more plot in the next instalment

Wytches Vol 1 by Scott Snyder -a horror comic about a family finding out something in the woods is after their daughter.  Unnerving art but not quite hung together in first volume and looks like a wait until the next!


Paris Adrift by EJ Swift

Published - 6th February

Publisher  - Rebellion

Paperback - £9.99

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

Determined to escape her old life, misfit and student geologist Hallie picks up her life in England and heads to Paris. She falls in with the eclectic expat community as a bartender at the notorious Millie’s, located next to the Moulin Rouge. Here she meets Gabriela, a bartender who guides her through this strange nocturnal world, and begins to find a new family. But Millie’s is not all that it seems: a bird warns Hallie to get her feathers in order; a mysterious woman shows up claiming to be a chronometrist; and Gabriela is inexplicably unable to leave Paris. Then Hallie discovers a time portal located in the keg room. Over the next nine months, irate customers will be the least of her concerns; as she navigates time-faring through the city’s turbulent past and future, falling in love, and coming to terms with her own precarious sense of self.


There comes a time when you leave school or university; move out of the family home or student digs and then face that big question – what the hell do I do now? Not everyone has that amazing career plan or driving ambition; many of us are just stilling working out who we are. We will float around but then sometimes a certain job or group of new work colleagues will slot around us – people we may not immediately have had much in common with but the experiences we share with them give us that first opportunity to start being a fully-fledged adult. In this fantastic story EJ Swift gives us a tale that captures that moment in everyone’s lives when we find that place and what would happen if you add in the ability to time travel with world-ending consequences if it all goes wrong.

The story starts in the far future of 2318 and it is almost all over.  A cataclysm is slowly destroying the last remaining areas of humanity and a group known as the House of Janus have one last gamble.  A set of Anomalies exist around the world throughout time and each with one owner who gets the ability to travel through time based around that entry point.  It’s known that around the turn of the twenty first century an anomaly will be in Paris and that it’s owner may have the ability to change things before it’s too late. The group arrange for it’s oldest member The Chronometrist to go and find and train her.

Skip backward circa 300 years (time-travel my friends) and we meet Hallie a young English student(ish) who has decided to leave the UK and just be someone else. As many have found this means night shift work at a bar. No family, little grasp of French and no previous experience but works for minimum wage so she gets the job. But then she sees ghosts of herself; a talking bird warn her that something is awake, and her shifts just escalate from there…

If you are looking for a hard SF view of time travel, then this isn’t the book for you. The anomalies that lurk around the world are not really explained beyond the core purpose; although they are certainly shown to have some form of sentience and possibly even a sense of ownership do not expect the science to be taught.  Nor is this book going to give you a detailed sense of Paris throughout the ages. Instead you’re going to get a story that uses SF to talk about life and in a wider sense our culture. It’s the experience of being in an unfamiliar world where you must decide how to live for yourself that is the more important element in the story but being in a strange place does allow you to try everything!

The early part of the book puts a great emphasis on Hallie and her present-day life. She is clearly feeling lost and running away from her life. Prone to panic attacks; evasive about her past and low in confidence. If you’ve ever had that moment of ‘what’s next?’ then this rings so true and that’s why the focus on Millie’s and the rest of the bar crew, she meets is done. From that moment you find your other geeks who watch the same SF show to you; when you realise that although all these people come from different backgrounds and countries they can still actually all bond in the face of a busy shift facing off to demanding customers. I love a found family story and Swift has really captured that sense of camaraderie you get at your first workplace that you enjoy which slowly rubs off on you so at some point you’re the old hand helping the newcomers. We see Hallie realise that everyone has a past they’re also aimlessly running from. Each member of the shift comes alive from the philosopher to the guy happier to dance on the bar in his underwear. Watching Hallie grow and bond with the team is something that really feels true and adds a lot of soul to the novel.

Of course, once you add in time travel everything gets even more interesting! Initially it adds a sense of terror. Hallie sees ghosts of herself influencing tiny elements of her shift but most chillingly is the Chronometrist. The oldest time traveller with an anomaly has become incorporeal and possesses people. You could be walking down the street or in a bar and suddenly a strange person will start talking to you and its clear they know far more about you than you do. She’s a chilling character and its not clear she is acting purely to Hallie’s benefit. But at the same time the anomaly’s power is seductive. Hallie initially must work out how she can survive stranded in 1875 and through a chance encounter with an expat from London also looking at surviving they find a way to support each other.  By later trips Hallie starts to decide to at for others and again there is a running theme of deciding what’s the right thing to do. Can Hallie give up on perpetual experiences of the past and not focus on her future?

Alongside this there is a look at the wider world. These days it’s not hard to believe an apocalypse is possible and we see eventually a fledgling political movement that says there may be a way forward through ideas of helping others at a local level. Hallie and this group ‘s future/past is tied, and it’s done really imaginatively. We also get a slightly different look at a dystopian future.  It’s always tempting just to imagine the traditional wasteland but the scarier one is when you realise some people just like the idea of a shiny, cleaner world with all the ‘disruptive elements’ removed from sight. When you see who the culture has memorialised in the future you will feel a shiver…The question for Hallie is can she decide to stop this?  It can feel like the addendum to the main plot in modern Paris but for me it really helps act as a logical conclusion but again if you just want a pre SF thriller this is not that type of book and for me works better because of it.

The story has a nice level of honesty. While Hallie finds the experiences, she lives through empowering they are also painful, tragic and won’t heal everything or everyone you care about. But you will always find in life you will have moments you decide what is the best thing to do right now. I thought this was one of the most thoughtful and emotional stories considering Time travel I’ve read in a long time and that feeling of learning independence is captured perfectly. I really think if you want a science fiction story with a lot of heart and character then this is one you need to read right now.


European Monsters edited by Margret Helgattir and Jo Thomas

Publisher - Fox Spirit

Price - £10.00 paperback (out now)

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, beneath 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.


I recently reviewed Asian Monsters and this time I’ve played catch-up and found the first of the planned seven book cycle from Fox Spirit. Once again, the anthology has a clear aim to use the legends of each continents to refresh our memories on what a monster is and what it wants. In this selection a range of Europeans authors are supplying the tales and I’m pleased to report it’s another good selection where we meet some very familiar myths and some less so.

Here are a few of my favourites from the series (as with all story collections your views may differ!)

Herne by J C Grimwood

An unusual tale that seems to take place in the future with a London covered by strange vines. A young woman decides to support a man in a deal he needs to perform but all is not surprisingly what it seems. It’s all in the narration for me in this one from the way our unseen lead describes a Waterloo station now turned into a residence for the homeless to an eerie trip into the long grass with wolves. The pay-off you may be able to guess from the title but it’s worth the journey.

Vijka by Anne Michaud

This tale goes into the past and some returning Viking raiders arrive to their village to discover the dreaded Black Robes have taken over with their mysterious One God. This tale really burns with a sense of an older wilder magic underneath the world and when it is invoked to save the village the cure may be worse than the disease. It’s bloody and visceral but that helps it stick in the memory.

Broken Bridges by James Bennett

This story reminds us that European legends themselves have spread around the world with migration. It focuses on Gard a rather taciturn man working in the scrapyard; a mystery to his co-workers he is viewed as solid but completely ill mannered. The story weaves legends of old Scandinavia with his views on the New World. The reader has to slowly work out Gard’s secret and it asks the question can you really change all that you were when you leave your homeland?

Nimby by Hannah Kate

This tale really has a lot of bite in what would normally be a genteel Park Association meeting. We see a clash of old and new world with the Member Secretary raving against plans to build on his beloved park and what he sees as dangerous political correctness gone mad.  The way these really suburban issues suddenly gets eaten up by something much wilder and nastier is well played and the surprises continue all the way to the end.

A Very Modern Monster by Aliya Whiteley

We all have our dodgy relatives that our parents try to not discuss with us. Our narrator has just lost her mother and decided to meet her Uncle George. There is a steadily sense of something unsettling going on in her Uncle’s life and the remoteness of Exmoor where she and he are camping out in the night mean the sense of something nasty lurking out there is gets ever stronger.  One of my favourites for that reason. 

Serpent Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Eugene Smith

This is a graphic short-story where mysterious govt agents accidentally release into the wild a monster of legend (to tell you would be plain rude!). Two women with a strong track record of tracking such monsters venture into the basement of a London pub to track it down. Really strong artwork and best use of a weasel in short fiction I’ve seen (ahem)!

Fly, My Dear, Fly by Nerine Dorman

This is the darkest story for me in the collection. A woman and her young son leave South Africa to stay with their only remaining relative in an attempt to rebuild their life.  However, she finds family secrets mean that tragedy is calling.  There is a sense of something just off in this remote village where she must return by nightfall to a house covered inside with mirrors.  The end is pure horror and it’s the one I had the most visceral reaction to. Certainly not one to read with the lights on low!

Melanie by Aliette De Bodard

This is a tale of Erwan who is falling for a young woman at school.  It balances that horrible feeling of falling for someone already involved with someone with a sense of a secret in Melanie’s life. It’s probably the most optimistic tale in the story as it reminds us not all monsters are inhuman and it’s a sense of romantic hope which really is needed at this point in the wider book!

Moments by Krista Walsh

On Lake Seljord in Norway a young woman finds her life ruined. Her love mysteriously vanishes before he told her something very important. The horror of the encounter with what lives under the water is also balanced with the sense that our narrator may be lying to herself over her perfect love. It’s a cold haunting tale of loss.

The Cursed One by Icy Sedgwick

Ahh Venice is my favourite city so it’s nice to read a tale among those narrow streets and canals.  An atmospheric tale of a secret society tracking down a monster that steals appearances from visitors (who then die) in the time of Vivaldi. It packs a lot into the story from psychics to masked adventures while learning more of the seven Old Ones who the group is sworn to track down…but not all monsters can be easily stopped.  Really sumptuous tale and I enjoyed watching it play out.


So once again a fine anthology well worth your time!


The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

Publisher - Orbit

Price - £7.99 paperback (Out Now)

This outstanding classic of science fiction, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when first published, is the story of Winter, an Earth-like planet with two major differences, conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest time of the year, and the inhabitants are all of the same sex. Tucked away in a remote corner of the universe, they have no knowledge of space travel or life beyond their own world. And when a strange envoy from space brings news of a vast coalition of planets, which they are invited to join, he is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief.


One of my aims for the blog this year is for me to explore some more of the ‘classic authors’ of SF and Fantasy. I’ve probably always focused on books that come out now and the few times in the past when I have picked up Golden Age novels I’ve been a bit disappointed; it’s always hard when you’ve read the books other authors have since used/or even countered the arguments made within of the originals to get that amazing feeling of something truly original that was felt back when people first opened the covers of a story. I’m also suspicious of the concept of a canon people should read if they’re interested in a subject (I’m a Doctor Who fan and take the view there isn’t only one) but I’ve heard enough people I trust to mention certain books as well as authors its time to have a nosey. On a personal level there are authors I’ve been meaning to try to read for a while and some that while they’re not automatically appealed I’d still like to try just to possibly understand how they’ve got the acclaim other put to them.  I was planning to start with something light like the Belgariad this month but the passing of Ursula K Le Guin has made me decide to finally read an author I have heard was a true original in the field. Reader I think it’s fair to say after reading this there will be a lot of catching up to do on her work!

We have a first contact scenario with a vast interstellar group having decided the inhabitants of Winter are ready to be approached as to whether they wish to join the wider neighbourhood. Unlike Star Trek it’s less focused on technology and instead more the nature of the society that has attracted their attention – The people of Winter don’t know they are not alone and haven’t developed flight technology.  They also have an unusual concept of past and future which appears to have given them almost supernatural powers of prediction. The Envoy known as Genry arrives when there are two key nations starting to vie for dominance on the planet - Karhide a monarchy and Orgoreyn run by a collective government. Initially Genry has focused on Karhide working with the local Prime Minister Estraven to secure the King’s favour; but the book starts with Estraven just falling out of the King’s favour and Genry quickly finds himself improvising between two governments with the fate of the planet’s future in his and Estraven’s hands.

So, I’ve come into this classic relatively cold and what jumps out at me is it changes genre several times. Initially it looks like a simple tale of a culture clash. The King of Karhide is worried introducing an interstellar alliance will reduce their influence; but the tale develops into a political thriller as Genry decides to move across to Orgoreyn and we see a very different type of country. There while on the surface we see a land focused on ensuring everyone has a job and income we also see political infighting combined with an all powerful secret police, equally people on both sides see this idea of something bigger and more powerful in the stars as a threat to their own ambitions. Its really not hard to see comparisons with the old USA/USSR Cold War and there is some interesting commentary on the power of free speech.

Although Karhide has an all-powerful monarch people there are allowed to discuss the new alien and decide overall if this will be a good thing; whereas in Orgoreyn it becomes apparent that news is tightly controlled and while the Elite is happy to engage with him the wider populace is not even aware the aliens have landed! Mirroring Genry’s treatment we see Estraven fleeing his replacement in Karhide and being welcomed in Orgoreyn as a political refugee.  A running theme in the book is the concept of nationalism. Is it natural to be loyal to your homeland or really should we be prepared to look that little bit wider to see us all as one planet?  Is our sense of place not protecting us but possibly dooming us as a species?

The relationship between Genry and Estraven is at the heart of the book and it’s fascinating. When we first meet them it’s very much seen as a purely transactional relationship. Genry sees Estraven as using him for political reward and once out of favour feels used and betrayed. The book however cleverly swaps narrators, so we don’t just see Genry’s viewpoint and we soon see that Estraven has his own morality and ethics and in his eyes Genry has been acting over-cautiously and often clearly condemning the behaviour of the aliens he now lives with. I think the book is very successful at is highlighting how cultural assumptions can impact our judgements. Both main characters are shown to be applying their own cultural beliefs to the other. Each character initially assumes the other is behaving to their code of ethics and they eventually realise they’ve misinterpreted the other’s actions. The emotional punches you feel as they realise they have so much in common are subtly done until you really want these two to just have a nice meal in the warmth together!

I’m always fascinated with how people communicate and it’s a timely reminder that if you assume someone from another country will just behave the way you expect them to you may find yourself making major mistakes (always useful these lessons of SF say if you’re negotiating leaving a major political union for example…). I’m not entirely satisfied though with the way the biology of the people of Winter is dealt with. This planet has evolved a hermaphrodite culture; their sexual cycle is largely dormant except for every 26 days. In some ways I think Le Guin raises some fascinating thoughts. Sexual politics and dominance do not exist here everyone is biologically the same and the concept of families is broader and more nuanced. Genry really struggles to grasp these differences and tends to ascribe male/female physical characteristics to various characters and it’s a salutary kesson that sexuality and gender are very wide-ranging. But I think Le Guin is less successful with all inhabitants of Winter called ‘he’ and Genry often ascribes various behaviours as either masculine or feminine. It’s a very 20th century look at behaviour based purely on physical gender and not the concept of a bias in a culture. Genry posits that the world has notably no concept of war until very recently because there were no men to bump heads – an interesting counterpoint with the way the more recently Naomi Alderman’s The Power looked at our concept of gender and power. I was however impressed that we see Genry start to realise that he has followed a distinctly masculine trait of bottling up his feelings and that is partly why he’s made some mistakes as to explain his behaviour being very cautious over how much he tells people about the stars.  I’d loved to have seen a little more acknowledgement that culture rather than biology was a deciding factor but I do think the 1969 publication date highlights this was a topic only just getting a wider public gaze.

All the above clearly shows this is a novel exploring ideas but Le Guin has taken some interesting choices and the latter half moves the action from the corridors of power to a desperate race across a polar region with giant volcanoes, freezing temperatures and deadly crevasses to evade. The sense of scale and the weird alien nature of the landscape is beautifully done – you will feel the cold. At the same time by moving Genry and Estraven to a location away from everything else we get to see them must face each other and learn to trust one another while the threat of death/capture injects a sense of tension the book needed now the world has been set up so well. This gives the book quite a lot of energy and you don’t know where exactly Le Guin is taking us until the last few pages. I’m not going to forget though the way a giant volcano erupts into an ice sheet it gives the story a mythic quality. That last part is also useful as interspersed through the main story are various legends from Winter.  These short fables give us grasps into a richer culture and explore concepts of loyalty and love that have bigger bearings for the main plot. Again, this re-iterates how the culture of a civilisation also influences its current behaviours.

So, do I think it’s a classic?  Yes, I think this is one of the best depictions of a first contact situation I’ve read.  It explores the issues of communication and nationalism that feel logically would be hurdles to any relationship between planets.  At the same time, it is clearly putting a mirror up to the Cold War of the 20th century and highlighting the dangers the world was then facing….and sadly arguably still face in now slightly different forms – the threat that nationalism makes us keen to see everyone else as an enemy feels as relevant now as then. That amazing developing friendship between Genry and Estraven is also I think a stand-out element and watching how two characters learn about each other and decide to act for a greater good is one of the most powerful explorations of friendship I’ve read in a long time.  So yes, I would totally recommend if you too have not read Le Guin to try this book!



Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Publisher - The Book Smugglers

Published - Out Now

Price - £3.78 ebook

In a world of superheroes, supervillains and a machine that can create them all, millennial vlogger and girl reporter Friday Valentina has no shortage of material to cover. Every Lottery cycle, a new superhero is created and quite literally steps into the shoes of the hero before them – displacing the previous hero. While Fry may not be super-powered herself, she understands the power of legacy: her mother is none other than the infamous reporter Tina Valentina, renowned worldwide for her legendary interviews with the True Blue Aussie Beaut Superheroes and her tendency to go to extraordinary lengths to get her story.

This time, Tina Valentina may have ventured too far.

Alongside Australia’s greatest superheroes – including the powerful Astra, dazzling Solar, and The Dark in his full brooding glory – Friday will go up to another dimension in the hops of finding her mother, saving the day, maybe even getting the story of a lifetime out of the adventure (and possibly a new girlfriend too)


Since I was a child and saw Christopher Reeve fly (he really did!) I’ve been aware of superheroes and their impact on our culture. In the 90’s they got darker and edgier while in the twenty first century they are now a huge wide-spanning genre ranging from the comedy of Guardians of the Galaxy to the hyper-realism the Dark Knight trilogy aimed for. They are now very much part of our culture not just in movies and comics but used within our day to day language and increasingly used to champion and debate changes in our society.  In this novella we get a strangely familiar set of heroes that has a lot to say about how we value our icons and also gives us a fresh and satisfying adventure that goes from secret labs to the stars

We are visiting an alternate 21st century where mysterious machines are given to the countries of the world that appear to have one purpose - to create superheroes. In Australia it was decided a national lottery would be held to choose who gets upgraded and over the past forty years there has been a steady mix of heroes ready to fight internal and external threats from all sorts of quarters and indeed hidden dimensions. Heroes often have a limited shelf-life but their legacy from the clean cut (almost pure Boy Scout you could say) Solar and the grim and gritty The Dark started a run of superheroes that over the decades evolved into what could almost be described as its own celeb fandom with bloggers and youtubers creating a culture reporting on their various adventures as well as their wider impact on society.

We meet popular up and coming vlogger Fry. The next lottery is about to announce the next new hero, but she is distracted as her mother; who was there at the dawn of the superhero age, appears to have vanished. Has she gone undercover; perhaps hiding/romancing with other heroes or has her past caught up with her? Tina was the original Girl Reporter to Solar giving him an opportunity to show his human side to the public and their relationship was always the source of great speculation. However now Fry must decide who can she trust with helping her and are the heroes going to allow a very young keen reporter into the world behind the masks and capes?

It’s tempting to think trying to do a comic in pure novella format will not work because the visuals are being lost but Rayner Roberts easily adds in a focus on character and world building that makes you forget that you’re having to do the artwork yourself and instead gives you a richer world you should really enjoy visiting. The whole world (indeed universe) these adventures take place in is fascinating. It feels totally natural that if heroes did exist then by 2017 we would be following them online daily. The public eye is firmly fixed 24/7 on who they are, what they say and possibly who they date. Fry captures the 21st blogger anxiety to get the story but also that sense is she trading on her mother’s reputation and can she step out of her mother’s shadow. Life is more than how many hits her page generates but instead dealing with that feeling as you grow up that you occasionally must start looking after your parents yourself. She is an engaging narrator happy to jopke but also gives you a honest view of herself and her fears.

The story is lightning fast moving across various set pieces but also has an exceptional ability to hit its character points beautifully at the same time.  We move from Fry’s vlogging homelife to the secret HQ of the heroes and then out to a mysterious other dimension where some long-standing secrets will be unveiled. It’s not afraid to laugh at the genre either in one scene we see that in the 90’s the heroes took on board the familiar over designed costumes that would easily have graced DC/Marvel covers back them - with heavy armoured looks balanced with appalling hairstyles! It could easily veer into parody, but each character gets a moment to show their more human side and although there is the team snark you could easily see in any recent blockbuster there are some delicate human touches to show us that these are real people who have found their lives completely changed and that can be both very lonely but also incredibly empowering.

By moving the main plot to Australia, we get to mirror but subtly tweak certain icons of the comic age...Solar and Dark ahem …and get to use their history to set up some interesting contrasts. Solar has been replaced recently with a young woman who also has a physical disability – and just as has sadly taken place with various recent comic reboots we see a divided public reaction between those who see this as a betrayal of traditional values in favour of political correctness to those who welcome greater representation and how it empowers those who previously never saw themselves in our wider culture. There are some interesting debates on growing female representation, privacy and a reminder not everyone will want to be a symbol.  There are some reminders that issues on race and sexuality while still an active subject today – Fry is openly bisexual – also have a longer history where public attitudes led to people in the public eye having to take different choices.

By the end of the tale I think we get a fascinating look at a world I would happily explore the adventures of the heroes again in. Its unique and there are hints of wider issues behind the appearance of the heroes, but we also get a very modern and intelligent look at the role of superheroes in our own modern culture and how this changing to meet the needs of society today. Rather than the cold aloof godlike heroes we sometimes get in the movies we get a reminder that often superheroes represent us at our human best and I think that’s a message we sometimes need to hear a bit more often.



girl reporter.jpg

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

Publisher - Tor

Published  - Out Now

Price - £2.22 ebook

In the early years of the 20th Century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island. These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustices crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.


Sometimes history shows that the human race is incredibly cruel not just in epic warmongering ways but just simple moments of careless cruelty and greed. In 1903 Topsy was a performing elephant that had a reputation for ‘bad’ behaviour leading to her killing a spectator and eventually being sold to an equally uncaring zoo which decided; after further incidents, that a public electrocution of her would be both a fitting punishment and of course a tourist attraction. Similarly, in the early twentieth century the properties of radium were seen to have increasing value leading to factories where young women would have close contact painting items with this radio-active substance. The ‘radium girls’ were of course slowly poisoning themselves with devastating consequences. In this short but powerful story Brooke Bolander creates a story melding the two ideas into a beautiful angry tale of horror at what humans do as a species and the hope for a form of justice.

In Bolander’s alternate world it was discovered in the 19th century that elephants could be communicated to in sign language and trained to perform simple tasks. For the war effort radium factories produce army watches but as the female workforce succumbed to cancers brought on by radiation the bosses felt the better solution would be elephants; who it turns out are very dextrous painting with their trunks. She is being taught to paint by Regan the last woman in the factory who herself is ravaged with cancer of the jaw. Topsy is traumatised by being sold into the factory and Regan has just lost a close friend to the power of radium. Their injustices are about to collide unexpectedly.

This plotline then crosses with a future United States where elephants are an accepted sentient species but also a time when the US government is struggling with their own nuclear waste problem. Kat a young scientist working on the problem of how you warn people in millennia from now to stay away from wasteland.  She realises elephants may be their best hope but that the elephants may finally expect something in return…

The beauty of this story is that it takes a non-linear approach to the plot. We first meet Kat and then bounce around in time to Topsy’s world and alongside both we also visit the mythology of this thoughtful elephant civilisation that we have not actually recognised was there for thousands of years. We know Topsy will somehow lead towards the uneasy truce we currently have in Kat’s world we just don’t know what happened until the events of this alternate world pan out. But there is a sense that as in the culture of elephants their history or as its referred to their ‘Stories’ have always existed forwards and backwards in time then the events of Topsy’s life and death also serve a larger purpose to aid her people.

It’s beautifully written Bolander mixes the vernacular of the early 20th century with a poetical myth about the first elephant to create Story; finally contrasting both with the ways of the current age where everything is hidden within management speak and corporate negotiations. Each section has its own unique style but the way they complement each other is really well done. This I think really underlines that elephant culture is just as rich and intelligent as the myths of our own history and to see how we treat Topsy as dumb labour to be poisoned for watch faces is powerful and you will feel shame at how we as a species think we naturally are in charge. In fact, within each time-zone we see evidence that humanity puts value on everything and is happy to lie and harm not just to the elephants but anyone perceived to be standing in their way.   Its sobering though that it becomes clear the elephants are aware of this too…

There is a theme of sacrifice that flows through the story. Regan could decide to take her company compensation cheque and run off to die quietly; Topsy could decide to just give in and we see both Kat and the first elephant (the amazingly named Furmother!) have their own battles to resist convention be it office politics or an ever-static ice age. For a book under a hundred pages how these worlds come alive so vividly even in relative short scenes is a real triumph of writing and I think makes this a haunting tale I can see linger in my mind for a long time to come.

Provided you are happy with a short tale I think any reader who values being made to work how the pieces of the story will slot together will be richly rewarded with a reminder of both how humanity can be both cruel, stupid and on occasion willing to help those in need.  I will definitely be looking out for more from Brooke Bolander in the future.  


If Souls Can Sleep (The Soul Sleep Cycle - Book 1) by David Michael Williams

Publisher - One Million Words

Published - 30th January

Price - £2.24 ebook

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

I want to thank the publisher for this advance copy in eschange for a free and

First, he lost his daughter. His mind may be next.

After years of being haunted by the day his little girl drowned. Vincent faces a new nightmare – one that reaches into the real world and beyond the grave.

If Souls Can Sleep introduces a hidden world where gifted individuals possess the power to invade the dreams of others. Two rival factions have transformed the dreamscape into a warzone where all reality is relative and even the dead can’t rest in peace.

Sleep is I think we can all agree both precious and weird. We all experience mysterious time loss when we shut out eyes; we are essentially not here and then suddenly back a few hours later. On top of that we have the mystery of dreams – those odd narratives that can appear to make perfect sense until we wake up and some always give a nagging sense as to whether are we still asleep now?  In this new fantasy thriller David Michel Williams uses sleep and dreams to create an engaging thriller that is not uncomfortable with wrong-footing a reader’s expectations.

The story starts with Vincent Cruz a troubled grieving parent now nearly divorced, working as a janitor and sharing a flat with his stoner friend Jerry. He comes across as a man who has given up on life but then Vincent begins to fall asleep often without warning and wakes up in a seemingly medieval tavern as Valenthor a drunk grieving parent who is required by an elf for what looks to be a mission that has major consequences for the world! While that is going on we also meet Milton running through the snow from his enemies; his only friend a mysterious cynical traveller known as DJ who seems to know a lot more about Milton’s past than even Milton does. As Vincent begins to investigate why he keep returning in his dreams to the life of Valenthor with the help of Leah Chedid a sleep disorder specialist there seems to be a lot more going on than a simple case of narcolepsy.

I really must commend this book because when I first read it I thought I was about to read a slightly twee portal fantasy as Valenthor uses ALL thee tropes from taverns, Knights called Angus, prison brawls and an unhealthy stack of Forsooths and Verilys! But slowly we start to see Valenthor’s life is chiming with Vincent’s who gains increasing awareness of himself in this dream-world. It becomes apparent that it’s not quite a parallel world but more of a stranger creation that clearly has a purpose for Vincent lined up but it’s not quite clear as to what purpose that will be for. It was also quite amusing when Vincent and Jerry use a trusty online source known as The Master of Fantasy to work out what the likely plot points will be in the dream as it seems to so closely follow epic fantasy plot points! Obviously, I will would never wish for such a resource for a book reviewer (polishes halo).

What I think pushes the book into what became a very engrossing read was the addition of two other features that broaden out the story. The strange night time encounters between Milton and a young man calling himself DJ are a mix of sinister cat and mouse conversations balanced with some interesting action set pieces. A shadowy group obsessed with Norse mythology are also stalking Milton and they also seem to be able to start to enter Vincent’s dreams; gradually we see the lines between the groups converge and I was quite impressed how the plot was constructed. It is a really  well paced tale with the various clues and revelations slowly unveiled and this is supported by some very nice characterisation from larger cast from the just plain untrusty DJ to the loveable stoner friend Jerry and I was very pleased to see a clever competent professional female lead in the character of Leah who does the harder work trying to work out what is going on in Vincent’s head.

I only had two misgivings. Understandably the story revolves around the character of Vincent who having lost his young daughter is clearly troubled, but he more often comes across a sulky teenager rather than tortured soul. Annoyingly he also seems to be irresistible to women (human and otherwise) but as the novel develops we do see characters start to pull him up on his rather selfish behaviour it’s just something I’d had preferred to see happen earlier and more often! He tends to be more a character to whom the adventure happens to rather than often leads the narrative; Leah is the much more interesting character! My other niggle is that as it’s a trilogy many plot points are raised that simply vanish as we reach the satisfactory conclusion.  I no doubt these will reappear in future volumes but it felt at times slightly rushed.

But despite these two issues I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I became invested in the story and was often surprised in the directions it took. Williams was not afraid to have a slightly more sober and quieter character-based conclusion than simply an epic battle as seemed initially promised. Overall it was a refreshing read that I think if you’re looking for a fast-paced supernatural thriller that doesn’t take the obvious route then I think this would be well worth a look!


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



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

Chalk by Paul Cornell

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

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!


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!


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.


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!  


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