Petra McDonald & The Queen of the Fae

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

Petra McDonald is a bisexual, pagan artist who lives and works on a small Scottish island. While in a trance, she paints a young girl who has been abducted by the Queen of the fae and it falls to Petra to save her.

She must travel to Faery, collect three items for the Queen, escape the sec spell of the Selkie prince and steal the loyalty of her fae guard.

Can she bring the child home before it’s too late?

Myths are timeless we are told but I tend to think the best myths where we get the opportunity to hold our own time and morals up against it and see where we are moving to. In this charming mix of modern adventure and ancient faerie story we get what I hope is the start of a new series of adventures reminding us of what hides underneath modern lands.

We follow Petra McDonald who has found on an unnamed Scottish island both a shelter and a way to live her life the way she has wanted to. As well as following her wish to be an artist she has found that this island offers a way for her to practise her pagan beliefs in the service of the Goddess Brighid but unexpectedly one painting trance shows a girl in what appears to be mortal terror. Petra finds her Goddess has recommended her to the Goddess of Warriors the Morrigan who has decided Petra is best fitted to finding the girl stolen by the Fae. After finding that Goddesses never give up Petra decides to seek out the land of the fae and discover what is really going on.

What follows as Petra meets the fae in some ways is a familiar path – The Fae Queen wants three mysteriously unobtainable items to perform a great spell and Petra plus her fae guard Valerian must journey to other parts of the magical land and perform certain tasks to find the items. These tales involving banshees, selkies and other creatures from pagan mythology on the one hand will remind you of older tales but I think the key to the story is Petra brings modern sensibilities – she offers morality about the value of life; consent and serving the greater good all remind us that the world has moved on and Kinsella has added a suspicion that even the Fae are not above seeking some changes.

And while elements of the tale are ancient Kinsella has a really nice flowing style that really does bring the tale to life. The horror of a girl trapped by spiders with human faces to the mysteries of crows who surround you in a circle mean this is a story with a very close link to nature and there is that sense of a pace underneath the world as we know it just on the edge where time passes differently. While the story has a clear ending there are enough signs that Petra is only just beginning to find a new role and purpose and I will be very keen to see what other mysteries need to be unravelled.

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Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price – £8.99

I am very grateful for the publisher providing me with an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Nigeria, 2066 The hopeful and the helpless congregate around an alien biodome, seeking salvation.

Rosewater is a town on the edge.

Science fiction and mysteries do tend to go together. From the simple stories of Asimov’s robots to the urban fantasy genre’s many detectives many novels explore how either science or magic can further complicate a mystery beyond the rational world (plus it’s more fun to think of the impossible Mr Holmes).  In this fantastic novel Tade Thompson provides the reader with an intriguing thriller set in the future, merging telepathy with alien first contact in a web of multiple plotlines that you will completely want to unravel and discover the real cause of all these events lying in the heart of Rosewater.

In 2066 Rosewater is one of the most advanced cities in Nigeria a centre of scientific discovery where an alien presence has for the last ten years been slowly observed by the government and a magnet for so many people wanting to change their lives. This is the alien’s third arrival on Earth and this time takes the form of a biodome that annually opens a portal releasing a mysterious energy that can heal the sick or even make the dead return mindless and violent.  The world is on the brink of China and Russia battling for power as the US many years ago mysteriously vanished after the first sign of alien life was discovered in 2012.

Most surprisingly telepaths have moved from myth to a valued resource that governments are seeking to use for their own ends from bank security to espionage. The world is on the edge of a change, but no one seems clear on exactly what nor if the change is welcome. In Rosewater one of the most powerful telepaths is Kaaro who for all his life has had several interactions at key moments in the city’s short history ever since its creation.  His latest mission doesn’t go to plan but reveals that telepaths are under threat and mysterious presences in the telepath mindscape seem to want Kaaro for their own purposes.

This novel is an amazing puzzle box where all these mysteries are outlined and through Kaaro’s narration we see two sides of the city. In 2066 Kaaro is a reserved cynical but ultra-confident agent but in his youth, he was an arrogant thief using his powers for his own gain – because of his talents the government soon realises he could be the clue to finding a mysterious woman who disappear in thin air Kaaro’s mission however made him end up staying for the rest of his life. Rosewater offers him immense opportunities but also unfinished business. Through the narration of his younger and older selves we slowly piece together what exactly is Kaaro’s role in what is turning to be a deadly game for so many people he has been involved with. There is clever mechanism in rotating chapters seeding the plots of both past and future until there is a final conclusion explaining how these two parts of his life are tied together at last.

I think Tade Thompson has achieved that perfect balance of inventive ideas, character and plot. The old SF trope of telepathy is given a refreshingly new rational cause which really suits it’s 21st century setting when you find the cause; the exploration of what a telepath is capable of and what uses they would serve is both smart and terrifyingly plausible and this is really achieved through the way we see Kaaro. Because of the time jumps we get the young know it all who is living on his wits and then through the experiences we are about to discover we get an older more guarded and hurt Kaaro who while keen to judge the guy he used to be is still recognisably the core of the same man  - prone to take the harder path and not going to obey the rules if he thinks its not in his interests. He’s engaging but flawed and its good to see the book recognises Kaaro’s sense of masculinity leads to mistakes that will haunt him. In fact, the initial factor that sets him on a better path is the revelation that there is a larger telepath population out there who provide him shelter and in one very touching scene a warning that his is very close to making the same mistakes another telepath made which really does change his life. SF thrillers can tend towards the clinical, but this book offers surprising moments of tenderness and introspection that invests you in Kaaro’s story and potential for redemption.

Rosewater is one of the most intriguing science fiction novels I’ve read this year; it’s a classic noir plot set in a future world but its beautifully thought out in terms of worldbuilding as we see how this alternate 21st century grew into existence and where it’s going – all of which sounds plausible to our eyes. It is also refreshing to see a SF world that doesn’t resemble New York and a reminder that aliens are perhaps unlikely to miss one the largest continents on the planet in favour of the centre of Hollywood. Overall if you enjoy getting under the skin of a great thriller and see how the future can offer both horrors and wonders.  This is definitely a book you should be looking to snap up as one of the best reads of the year.  I very much look forward to seeing what other tales Thompson has to tell.

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The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Publisher – Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Published – Out Now

Price - £5.62 kindle eBook

This was the September choice for the #TheLadyVaults reading group started by Elizabeth of the excellent book blog Books n Pieces. The reding group can be found on social media with the hashtag and on GoodReads in the Groups.  The aim is to reads SF & Fantasy works by women that over 15 years old. Please Join in!!

On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Voros and attempts to aid him in protecting the village. But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Voros’ attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis comes and the world changes…

 The worst part of a nightmare is knowing what is about to happen and finding you’re powerless to stop it. You see it coming, closer, closer and then blam its upon you. But after a horrific experience the next question you’ll ask yourself “what am I supposed to do next?” and “Should I even bother carrying on?”.  In this superb children’s story, the real nightmares of the Holocaust are explored while the reader is focused on an independent young girl and her charming family in 1940’s Hungary.

The story is on one level very simple Kicsi is the young independent daughter of a wealthy printer finds herself embroiled in a battle between two magicians.  The respected and very traditional Rabbi of the village and a mysterious newcomer named Voros who is clearly powerful but seems to be wary of something on the horizon.  Initially it seems a clash of old versus new ways of viewing the world but then you realise this is Hungary in the 1940s and the Nazis are on the move towards the Jewish population of the village. Voros warns the town of an unimaginable horror and Kicsi dreams of a man with no teeth driving towards her family.  Into this we start an ongoing battle between magicians that involves golems, ghosts and curses. The rabbi feels Voros is endangering the peace of the village with his dangerous ideas and Kicsi finds him offering a way of life very different to those her family believe she will follow.

As we have the advantage of history we understand (particularly as adults) exactly what the threat is, and the question is can this be avoided for her family.  It’s a building of tension particularly as the early chapters of the book paint this charming village life and amazingly vivid world of Jewish traditions, folklore and magics. The storm is threatening to destroy all of this and Voros seems to awaken special abilities within Kicsi who seems to almost act as an apprentice at first. But importantly the magic doesn’t save Kicsi – she and her family are rounded up and herded to a concentration camp. There is no magical cheat applied - which is completely the correct choice for this kind of story.  I feel this is an important point for you to know as the scenes in there are while not explicit make it very clear what happens to those Nazis feel are worthless. The brutalisation of the amazing clever teenager we have spent time with makes this part of the book heart-breaking but it’s a beautifully tragic piece of writing that haunted me weeks after finishing the tale.  You can argue in this section Kicsi loses agency as the events happen to her, but I think this is intentional many amazing bright lives were destroyed by this period where the power of the regime swept away all they felt to be unhuman.

The final part of the book though is very, much focused on survivors. Kicsi is separated from her village and her family and has been almost destroyed by her experiences. This final section of the book both wraps up the battle of the two magicians and asks a question about how on earth you’re supposed to carry on and if you do is it a path of anger or forgiveness or something else. In this Kicsi who herself has seen so much and been hurt so much must decide how she will aid Voros in his final battle with the furious Rabbi. It’s an ending mixing the scariest ghosts of Jewish folklore and yet also an unexpected debate on hope and revenge.

This was a short but very powerful read and I found myself totally immersed in the world. Its beautifully put together and I think even adult readers would appreciate the mix of fairy-tale and review of one of our worst periods in human history but examines how those who survive the horrors of humanity can decide their own future paths. An excellent read.

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The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark

I’m very grateful to the author for an advance copy of this novel

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 (Hardcover)

King of Ruin, King of Dust and Shadows, King of Death, He Will Rule All, The King is Coming

Marith Altrersyr – father-killer, dragonlord, leader of the blood-soaked Amrath Army – is keeping his promises. He is determined to become King of all Irlast and take back the seat of his ancestors.

Only Thalia, once high priestess of the Lord of Le Empire, might stop Marith and his army’s deadly march. But she is torn between two destinies – and if she was to return home, what would she find there? A city on the brink of ruin: diseased, despairing, dying?

Crawling through a tunnel deep under the ruins of her city, Landra Relast vows vengeance. Her family has been burned, her home destroyed, and now Marith – once her betrothed – must die.

But as Landra cuts through the wasteland left in the wake of Marith’s army, she finds that she is not the only one who wishes him ill…

Warning – some spoilers for The Court of Broken Knives will be mentioned

At the start of this year I was engrossed and ultimately very impressed by the debut instalment of this trilogy – The Court of Broken Knives. What starts with mercenaries hired to kill an Emperor suddenly revealed that a young man named Marith was a long-lost drug-addled royal heir who by chance suddenly rediscovered his desire to take back his crown alongside awaken an immensely violent bloodlust. He falls in love with the High Priestess of Sorlost Thalia who runs away with him on his journey while in Sorlost the man who hired his mercenaries to bring about change instead finds himself very much supporting the corrupt powers he had planned to overthrow. A key factor for me in the success of this novel was the writing of Smith Spark herself – vivid, poetical and powerful it really stood out from other entries into Grimdark territory as something refreshingly different. I’m very pleased to find that the sequel is even stronger and just as enticing.

While Marith was often seen more as aside for much of the first novel as his secret became a key mystery now we focus very much on his quest for ruling the world. The first section of the book follows the death of his father and his decision to move onto attacking his own kingdom and family. Thalia stands as a watcher to these events and it is an absolutely a stunning opening with an invasion of a town via ships at sea. It’s a beautifully whirl of action and pain – from the pageantry and cruelty of sacrificing animals for some form of moral advantages to eventual war at sea with no glamour or heroics just two armies fighting to stay alive. Once finally arriving ashore to take control the question for Marith is ‘what’s next?’ and slowly Marith follows the path of his infamous and dangerous ancestor Amarath marching across the other Kingdoms. Meanwhile in Sorlost Orshan is finding that he is under of suspicion for the various deaths that mysteriously coincided with the mercenary attack and the shifts in power towards him may have consequences for all he cares about and wants to protect.

Alongside these two main plot points we now have two new viewpoints. The mercenary Tobias who indirectly led to Marith being able to seize power again meets up with Landra relast the woman who decided to trigger Marith’s capture and then saw her plans for revenge end in ruin for everyone she knew. These two begin to explore if Marith can be stopped before he causes much more harm. While in Sorlost we start to see the world less from nobles and priestesses but also those who serve them as we see how one of Orshan’s servants gets treated after an attack on his home.

There is a lot going on in this novel and its finely balanced to see what is increasingly looking like two sides getting closer to come form of confrontation. Sorlost is a decadent power that seems to have forgotten the basics of rule in favour of protecting elites. Marith seems to be on a quest to recover all the lands that his ancestor had but at the same time take revenge on all other lands. In the first novel I noticed that for all the main characters the theme seemed to be that the societies that they came from influenced their decisions even when they seemed to be the wrong ones.  Marith in particular is an example of toxic masculinity at its worst – while undoubtably clever and can be charming his family upbringing and court politics led relatives and hangers on to heavily influence who he must be but ultimately, he decides to carry on because he feels this is what he is entitled to. While Thalia would have been happy with a simple home Marith wants everything now - a deeply scary character who you’re never sure what he will do next nor if he can be stopped.

A second theme here is that sometimes even when after seeing the results of their actions these characters all decide it will be better to plough on despite the likely consequences. Its tragic seeing those who clearly have interests of others at heart deciding to keep taking the path of most harm.  There is a chilling insight into humanity one character makes that most of these people who support these sides have decided to do so much harm to others not because of some invisible magical force Marith exudes but because a nihilistic and violent march to crush the world is deep down what they’ve always wanted.

Powering all of this is Smith Spark’s writing and I am definitely impressed how this has grown stronger in the novel. The first novel was often small scenes of intrigue or one on fighting but now we get whole vistas of battles, city riots and cities turning to ruin. There is a general feeling of a world ending possibly for the last time. Its beautifully dark poetry and while equally happy to go for blood and guts when needed the whole book has an epic feel to it and this time we get a stronger feeling of the magical forces in this world. As well as battle mages used in law and small enchantments there are hints of a larger battle between light and dark underway.

I think this is best described as High Fantasy Grimdark. We are seeing the classic story of two ancient empires battling out but this time the focus is on the people impacted and unlike standard Grimdark which always focuses on the front line this novel looks at those in charge making these frequently awful decisions and knowing the results will be deadly for many. Deciding you want to take over the rule of a country or safeguard your self after evading death is often in fantasy seen as noble and heroic and this novel reminds us of what happens to people other than the hero.  This all points to a very impressive showdown in the final book and I cannot wait to see where we go next - although I suspect it will hurt.

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Starfang - Will of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price – £7.99 paperback £TBC ebook

The sudden appearance of the enigmatic jukka adds another layer of intrigue and peril to Captain Francesca Ming Yue’s already shaky game with the shishini. The threat of galactic war with a mysterious force looms. Will the clans gather? Francesca must keep her wits about her, unite all the clans and fight. In this stunning conclusion of the trilogy, the fate of the wolf clans, shishini and jukka will be decided in a final battle. Will the will of the clans prevail?

Space Opera a bit like Musical Opera needs to have a powerful last act.  In place of an an aria we often instead get the infinitely cooler space battle and literally world breaking events.  It’s great to say that the final volume in the Starfang series really does deliver this in spades still with added werewolves and should have you cheering for an encore.

In the last instalment of this trilogy our Clan Captain Francesca Min Yue was piecing together the mystery of how her nemesis and rival captain Yeung Leung had appeared to take over an entire alien species’ home world when her ship was surprised by a starship appearing out of nowhere directly in front of them. Very quickly we establish that this is a new alien race to discover the jukka – a mysterious hi-tech world where they are known to interfere in other world’s development for their own ends (that also resemble the classic Grays of countless SF legends). Francesca discovers that Yeung Leung has been going for the ultimate power grab by stealing technology from both Jukka and the reptilian shishini; but instead he appears to have become something even more powerful than a werewolf and now has set his sights on the elimination of all rival clans.

If the first volume was a classic revenge quest and the second was a variation on a first contact, then this final volume really goes for the aim of showing you of the scale of the galaxy that Chng has created. These three alien races plus the myriad Major and Minor rival clans of werewolves all have been vying for power for many years but now Yeung Leung has awakened a mythic power that all sides could be destroyed on. The jukka want to flee; the shishini are divided between both sides and the human/werewolves are divided.  Even Francesca’s clan leader parents are aghast at the idea of combined forces.  This is a tale where everything is on the line and you really get a vibe of a universe like Babylon 5’s with strange alien cultures and politics; mystical technologies and a sense that everything is on the line and pleasingly even the humanoids are shown to have flaws and prejudices that need to be fought.

Character wise we are once again being told the story by Francesca and this time it’s how she finally recovers from her capture and torture at Yeung Leung’s hands and her unique physic adventures into the minds of shishini rebels. She is no longer simply the loyal dutiful clan warrior we first met but someone prepared to take her own stand and fight for what she believes in.  More open minded than her clan is traditionally thought to be but still internally wracked by guilt that her forbidden relationship with her cousin April is both her motivation to live and her secret shame that she can’t follow her clan’s strict and ancient rules. There is a mirroring theme here of old world meeting a newer more progressive one not simply on matters of the heart but also challenging the view that each alien race must battle for supremacy rather than learn to co-operate with others. It gives the tale a heart as we see characters prepare for their final battle and really powers the final few chapters in surprising ways.

The final element I think makes this a fine read is the sense of life beyond space battles.  We return to the Black Talon’s base Noah’s Ark and this time we see snapshots of life below the stars.  This can be simple celebrations such as the New Year where paper lanterns carry your wishes to the sky or even fishing for oysters in the sea as well as characters exploring ancient poetry and what it says to them. This all gives the universe a depth - that sense of traditional and heart.  This is what the Talons ultimately fight to preserve not power but their family, friends and way of life. Sometimes in an epic we need a quieter song to set the mood just as much as we need the big stage number that brings the house down.

Overall, I’ve been really impressed with these tales. There are hints of a wider universe I’d love to see even more of in the future and I think that a reader is now able to take all three tales at once may be the best way to power through all the different types of adventures and appreciate the growth not just of Francesca but her wider clan. As always come here for the werewolves and then stay for a great slice of SF adventure.

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King of Assassins by R J Barker

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

Publisher – Orbit

Price – £9.99

Published – Out Now

The King is Dead, Long Live the King…

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc – years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vythr eyes the High King’s throne and will take the court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and betrayal. There the endgame of twenty of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings. Friends will become enemies, enemies will become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

Warning – there will be spoilers for those of you yet to have read either Age of Assassins or Blood of Assassins

There is a theory that in comedy the number three turns up because it’s the earliest possible time that you can tell a sequence and on the third time wrongfoot the reader. In the last of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy, we as the author have got used to the lives of the assassin Girton Club Foot and his best friend King Rufra in Castle Maniyadoc in stories that are intriguing mixes of epic fantasy, political thriller and murder mystery. But ever since the very end of Age of Assassins when we were abruptly warned that we were actually hearing Girton’s confessions there was a niggling suspicion that things would end in a much darker place and now we have arrived at that destination and everything we learnt and assumed over the previous books needs to be rethought because this is the end of one amazing trilogy.

We arrive nearly two decades after the end of Blood of Assassins and there have been many changes since young Rufra ap Vyrthr won his throne after the Battle of the Three Kings. He has brought peaceful democratic changes to his subjects; married twice and now has young children. His former foe Aydor is now a trusted warrior and finally he is protected by his best friend Girton who has moved on from being an angry headstrong warrior to now both his sworn protector, his Death’s Jester (think a mixture of priest/storyteller) and behind the scenes his assassin to deal more subtly with threats to his rule. Their Kingdom is strong but Rufra has now been focusing his attention on the centre of the Tired Lands and with the death of the previous ruthless High King then Rufra moves his key family and warriors to Castle Ceadoc to begin the horse-trading with other Kings and interested parties to become the ruler of everything. Girton meanwhile has just lost a close friend during one assassination attempt on Rufra’s family and now he follows Rufra suspecting his skilled and dangerous opponent lurks in the shadows ready for a rematch. Everything is primed for a final reckoning.

After reading the previous entries you start to feel off-balance reading this novel. We’re now used to the lands and customs of Maniyadoc but suddenly we have moved into Castle Ceadoc is a very different kind of environment – Rufra is shown to be just one faction in a much larger fight for power; other Kings, the mysterious powers that runs the Kingdom; the Landsmen who are sworn to eliminate magic and on the edge the cult known as the Children of Xus. Old foes are returning, and new ones are also revealing themselves at last. Whereas previously Rufra’s sense of justice and idealism were strengths to bring people under his banner here they are perceived as dangerous weaknesses preventing his support. This time the stakes are high as whoever gains power could cause issues for Rufra too if he fails.  Its an interesting theme that the closer you get to ultimate power then you may have to start sacrificing some ideals to make the alliances and secure your own agenda – will you be the same person you set out to be?  Are there always going to be deep seated interests that while they accept the rile of a King re far more comfortable having the power in the shadows to keep the status quo continuing ever onwards?

Tension is constantly escalating in this story with fracturing friendships and grasps for power. A big key to how that is achieved is Castle Ceadoc itself…this environment constantly feels wrong. You will see the title of the Wounded Kingdom in a very different sense after this story.  Larger than anywhere else we have seen previously the impression is of a huge sprawling castle of uneven floors; vast towers; narrow winding corridors and hidden depths and terrors luring underneath while everyone is watched by massive statues of the dead gods and other threats lurking in shadows. Girton himself finds his magical abilities abruptly curtailed and everyone feels on edge with a sense that someone or something is watching their every move and preparing their attacks. The pressure mounts and mounts and slowly the strategies of their enemy are revealed who unusually seems to know our main characters and their weaknesses unusually well.

But the focus of the trilogy has been on Girton.  We are used to Girton being the outsider in the shadows and hiding his talents each time in a different disguise but this time we have him up front and centre in the court (albeit now dressed in the costume and make up of Death’s Jester so much that most people don’t recognise him without his costume). Rufra’s family and troops know him as a cunning warrior and his reputation as an assassin is now pretty much an open secret. He is comfortable in his skin; still funny but less prone to anger and fear than we’ve seen before but also feeling the first signs of middle age in his strength and speed. An intriguing development is that due to his prowess Assassins are once again in fashion across the Lands and Girton is both held in esteem and viewed as a great target to test your skills against. It’s however much much harder to investigate a murder and conspiracy when you’re so famous and everyone wants to meet you and test you are as good as they hear! At the same time Rufra’s focus on absolute power is starting to run against Girton’s sense of fairness and the two are more likely to fight than agree. All the things we are used to are out of sync…suggesting the centre cannot hold for much longer. Particularly as the one secret Girtin is still hiding is that he is a sorcerer and the one thing Rufra will not accept is magic. Discovery of his last secret means death at the hands of his oldest friend.

Surrounding him and often the heart of the book is the relationships Girton has developed with Merela and Aydor. Merela the woman who found Girton as a child has been a mystery for much of the story.  For the first time we see where she comes from and what drove her into becoming an assassin; her motives and journey with Girton need to be reviewed in the light of these revelations. Aydor however has moved from being the bully we loved to hate to the loveable bear of man who in learning to give up power can offer Girton a refreshingly honest opinion as well as being able to deflate his tendency for the dramatic. Because we’ve journeyed with these two and know how much they now mean their arcs in this story provide the emotional depth and concern as to where they will feature in this final adventure.

The overall feeling you get is we are heading for a mighty climax and Barker has done this skilfully; by the time we enter the final few chapters a scene where characters simply walk up steps slowly is physically and emotionally pounding with a sense that all hell is about to break loose when the final step is loose. We are plunged into kinetic fight scenes where we feel every blow; treated to the assassins’ dangerous moves and this time particularly as Girton has embraced his role as an assassin he can when needed create an air of theatricality he uses to terrify and surprise his targets that is delightful just as much as it makes you cheer him on. This time though there is a stronger mythic element to the story previously only hinted at as the focus on the Children of Xus and their very different worship of the God of Death means Girton starts to find himself key to a much more mysterious plan; in scenes both fairy simple but incredibly eerie hinting at something so much bigger under the surface of the physical world.

Having been a huge fan of this trilogy from the day I first opened the book I can say I categorically loved this finale. RJ Barker is proving himself to be one of the most interesting storytellers debuting in the UK and this trilogy is something I think all readers of fantasy need to read. The sequence is fresh, dazzling and most important of all it has emotional depth from the joys of triumph to the despair of loss and grief and seeing how the seeds of the wider story have been planted is a fantastic reading experience.  When I first reviewed RJ’s Age of Assassins I noted that we tend to think of Robin Hobb as our go to Assassin’s story. With the Wounded Kingdom and Girton Club-Foot RJ Barker has matched the story of FitzChivalry Farseer with a compelling lead character and amazingly detailed world perhaps one day there may be more tales about The Tired Lands but safe to say whatever novels await I will be reading them avidly.

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City of Lies by Sam Hawke

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Bantam Press

Price - £12.99 Hardcover

Published – Out Now

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…

Only a handful of people in Silasta know Jovan’s real purpose in life. To most, he is just another son of the ruling class. The quiet, forgettable friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir. In reality, Jovan has been trained for most of his life to detect, concoct and withstand poisons in order to protect the ruling family. His sister Kalina is too frail to share in their secret family duty. While other women of the city hold positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her brother.

Until now peace has reigned in Silasta for hundreds of years. But when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army storms the gates, the so-called Bright City is completely unprepared. It falls to Jovan and Kalina to protect the heir and save their homeland – but first they must make their way through a new world of unexpected treachery, a world where the ancient spirits are rising…and angry

I do think we are getting into a great new period of fantasy; possibly seeing the next stage after the grimdark era develop.  Writers and their stories still fascinated by moral ambiguity but rather than simply the noir tales of everyone being violent and amoral there is a much more interesting examination of how societies create such people and how they work – perhaps like now everyone wants to know how did we get here?  Epic fantasy being able to examine a world is better placed than many genres to examine how countries work/slide into chaos. Into this picture comes a brilliant new debut from Sam Hawke with one of the most fascinating stories I’ve read this year.

Welcome to the concept of the Proofer – the person who tastes their employer’s food and looks out for dangers. In Silasta that has focused around the role of the ruling Chancellor and has been passed down the family line – all is ordered in a country known for its ingenuity, technology, art and trading far more than any desire to become a military empire. Very quickly though just as the young Jovan and the heir to the throne; Tain, come back from abroad they are plunged into a violent and dangerous situation along with Jovan’s sister Kalina.  The old Chancellor and Proofer are mysteriously poisoned in full sight of everyone; upon their unexpected deaths Jovan and Tain find themselves running a country just as a vicious and merciless army appear out of nowhere on the boundaries of the city and state they are here for its destruction and not it’s surrender. The young trio are finding themselves in positions of power they were not prepared for; with a likely traitor among their close advisors and with the first true military force the city has had to deal with in decades just as they sent their army to deal with issues in the mountains….

One of the things that grabs you about this story is the set-up and the characters who must deal with it. It’s a book of contrasts – we are used to fantasy worlds all being quasi-medieval filled to the brim with armies and here we have somewhere that reminds me a little of south or east Mediterranean realms A trading realm that is advanced in sciences and arts but has decided to focus on wealth rather than becoming an empire.  In many ways advanced with women in senior roles including military ones and even tolerance towards same sex relationships it’s not your typical environment and is a joy to discover how it works differently to our own world. What happens though when part of the country decides the Capital needs to go.  It’s a siege situation where the city is not used to warfare and doesn’t have much of an army in place.

This becomes a battle of wit versus strength. A key part in this are three roles of our two narrators Jovan and Kalina.  Either of whom also fall into the classic fantasy hero model. Jovan is the studious serious one thrust into the secret role of Proofer for the new Chancellor. He is studious, loyal and moral but he is also neuroatypical - stressed when events move out of control and can seriously disrupt his thought patterns and behaviours. He is plunged into a very unusual situation and needs to learn how to adapt (as do those who rely on him). His sister Kalina would have been the Proofer but an earlier test involving poisons either caused/enhanced what would appear to be a chronic fatigue condition that an endless siege and various needs to investigate the city’s factions and communities takes a toll not helped by everyone considering her the weaker child despite her equally intelligent study of science and politics. This makes the story really interesting an environment that our lead characters have an even steeper learning curve to battle and they can’t simply do the massive fight scenes many adventurers are known for. As it becomes very clear there is a traitor in the mix the plot has these apparently young and innocent teens having to go undercover and navigate the trickier political world to work out what exactly is going on - and as no one can be trusted this really makes the city scenes increasingly tense. But when armies attack and invade Hawke has a great eye for making the chaos and tactics of battle collide that you feel very exposed yourself in the heart of the action!

The final element is that this world is not one of absolutes. It’s a country where many groups came together to create a new way of doing things and over time as with so many places that worked well for some and not all. Jovan, Kalina and Tain by being thrust prematurely into the heart of government suddenly find out a lot more about how their world operates and we see the power of Guilds and the richest versus those who society tends to ignore.  And being in a relatively powerful privileged family are they always on the right side of events? It raises questions of democracy and tolerance that means the solutions required are not going to be easy ones. A debate over morality and how government should work is not something you usually see in a genre often fascinated with supreme kings and again this makes it a very unusual tale.

My reading time this month was unexpectedly curtained but stepping each time into this book and exploring the world was a delight. The story is never going for obvious plot and in doing so has created both a world and set of characters that really surprised me in the direction they took. I think fans of RJ Barker’s tales would enjoy this as it goes for a similar examination of a Kingdom although this one I would say focuses more as a political action thriller rather than purely a murder mystery. It’s the start of a new series which I am keen to read future instalments in. One of the most impressive debuts this year I’ve read and an author I will be watching out for with interest!

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The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £5.99 eBook/£9.99 paper

In South Africa, the future looks promising. Personal robots are making life easier for the working class. The government is harnessing renewable energy to provide infrastructure for the poor. And the bustling coastal town of Port Elizabeth, the economy is booming thanks to the genetic engineering industry which has found a welcome home there. Yes – the days to come are looking very good for South Africans.

That is, if they can survive the present challenges. A new hallucinogenic drug sweeping the country…An emerging AI uprising…And an ancient demigoddess hellbent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mainly blood) of every human she encounters. It’s up to a young Zulu girl powerful enough to destroy her entire township, a queer teen plagued with the ability to control minds, a pop diva with serious daddy issues, and a politician with even more serious mommy issues to band together to ensure there’s a future left to worry about.

Mash-ups have given us great things generally. Lightsabres, Ham & Pineapple Pizza and more seriously in fiction I’m increasingly seeing writers blurring the boundaries of science and technology. In recent years I’ve enjoyed Charlie Jane Ander’s All the Birds in the Sky; N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and Jen William’s Willowing Flame series. How Magic works with Technology feels right for the 21st century as both these subgenres are read in equal measure by readers. In this story Nicky Drayden explodes on the scene with an incredibly vibrant futuristic South Africa where the old and the new collide into a fast and delightful new way.

The plot reminds me a little of the old TV show Heroes (the good season) as we see the characters start to explore their powers and motivations. We first meet Muzi a young teen on the cusp of adulthood – on the one hand balancing his grandfather’s love of the old traditions and his growing feelings for his best friend Elkin. Experimenting with a new drug together as well as making Muzi hallucinate himself as a giant crab also gives him the power to control people and read their darkest secrets. One of the country’s best pop stars also hides her secrets and as well as her troubled family she hides a physical disability that vibrant pop stars aren’t supposed to have but she finds a new way to manage pain after also taking the drug. A nail technician called Sydney finds herself finally with an opportunity to not simply to read the odd mind (and kill the odd unsuspecting male) but to reclaim her old status as one of the most powerful demigods in Africa while a young girl in a  township named Nomvulu is finally given some understanding about her past and her powers which at such an end age means a temper tantrum can be deadly to anyone around her. Finally, Wallace Stoker one of South Africa’s most promising progressive politicians is balancing his mother’s very focused plans for his future as a leader with his equal desire to be a singing sensation but his alter ego could pose a problem…

It’s ambitious watching all these characters work out who they are and what they now want and then crossing paths. Into the mix we have the alpha bots – small personal robots that combine AI with the abilities of an Echo/Alexa interface…and who may have found their own God and desire for freedom. There are engineered monsters brewing in labs and an ancient power that has been there since the dawn of the universe. All levels of society; sexuality and morality are thrown together into a very fluid and engaging me. As well as the fate of the world there is also a theme of having to learn who you are and take ownership of that. Each character gets a chance to choose a different path and their decision informs the plot. For many of the characters it’s an act of responding to their parents as well and can this generation fix the mistakes of the past ones?  Each character even the deadly ones comes across as a solid person you can understand why they’ve gone in this direction.

My only reservation is that towards the end when there is a fantastic set piece with all the characters in the same place that there possibly seems to be just too much for me to follow – one character almost seems lost in the background. I really enjoyed the kitchen sink approach here as the novels really rattles at a fair pace; and I’m more forgiving og this in debuts where the writer is finding their voice but if you are a reader who prefers a more structured plot then this may be a little too loud for you.

But overall this entry into the Subjective Chaos Awards for me was a delight. Full of energy, weirdness and heart I think I shall be eagerly waiting to reader Drayden’s future books with interest and now I must find a ham and pineapple pizza.

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A Glimmer of Silver by Juliet Kemp

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

Publisher – The Book Smugglers

Published – Out Now

Price - £3.80 eBook

Jennery is floating on xyr back when Ocean speaks for the first time. Just three days away from freedom, all Jennery has ever wanted to do was become a musician – because if you reach sixteen and Ocean hasn’t spoken to you once, then you can pursue a different life instead of becoming a Communicator.

But Ocean speaks to Jennery – only to Jennery. And Ocean is angry. And when Ocean is angry, bad things happen to the humans who have colonised Ocean’s world. Jennery must choose whether to listen or to swim away

When you reach a certain age as a teenager you can feel the weight of the world on you but sixteen-year-old Jennery finds xyr life complicated when just when xe think xe may have escaped having to have a sacred duty in their society xe find the planet has a different view on things. Jennery must learn to grow up fast and xyr preconceptions about adults and the way the world works is about to be seriously challenged.  This sets up a great fast paced science fiction novella with some themes applicable to our own world well worth reminding ourselves about.

Jennery lives on Endeavour a floating human colony on a water-filled world known only as Ocean. There is no land here and our Earth is past the point of no return due to environmental collapse.  The colonists decided to make do over a hundred years ago and have slowly created a way of life and now started to create other colonies. But the water here can burn your skin; one Colony has mysteriously been destroyed.  Early on the Colonists eventually realised that the entire ecosystem of the planet is sentient (but alien). Early into settlement the consciousness (named Ocean) gains the ability to talk to a few humans xe realise the planet is actually alive and agree to live alongside each other but apart.  No fishing, no bathing but allowed to co-exist.  But Jennery going through the standard test to see if xe are a Communicator (very reluctantly) on xer last day gets a message from Ocean.  Someone has started to fish, and Ocean is NOT happy.

Juliet Kemp has a great ability to tell a story like this quickly and organically. It’s a very alien set-up but as a reader I never felt I was getting infodumps.   Instead through Jennery’s voice I gradually understood the way of life on Ocean and the reasons it’s develop that way through a teen’s view and both reader and lead are trying to work out what is going on.  It’s a progressive society not focused on race nor gender but you can still have social issues to address.  It is a science fiction mystery where something as simple as fishing has life threatening consequences for the colonists.  Finding out what is going on is going to mean Jennery accepting responsibility and leaving the safe walls of xer home and braving Oceans waters. 

What I particularly liked about this is that it’s not a story of good and bad characters.  Everyone is complicated – even Ocean. Rather than villains we have competing points of view (trademark Obi-wan Kenobi). Life on Ocean because of the limitations in place is hard – why does it have to be?  Jennery is a reluctant hero and would much prefer hanging around with xer friends and learning to be a musician but lives are at risk…Jennery also realises those in positions of power are not always going to be logical and sometimes you then really need to take a stand to persuade them. The story beautifully combines how it’s important for people to listen to one another rather than just lecture and that humans don’t half tend to see themselves as separate to the planet

This is a great novella that I think conjures up a unique world and situation that at the same time gives the reader a situation that they can easily apply to our own world.  It’s refreshingly less about conflict and more about resolution and I think fans of such SF stories will really enjoy this a lot. I will look out for more of Kemp’s work in the future!

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The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Publisher - Del Ray

Price - £8.99 paperback

Published - Out Now

A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family.

But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

Everyone respects the countryside; it gives us natural beauty, fresh air and a sense of peace. But if you go off the beaten track and take a wrong turning or the weather changes unexpectedly the exact same place can appear menacing, haunting and not happy at your intrusion. Tales of what lurks outside our towns and villages are universal and in this gorgeous story Elizabeth Arden gives a version of the stories that remind us of what lurks in the Russian wilderness. A kaleidoscope of nature, spirits and magical elements combined to give me a very satisfying lead.

I know very little Russian folklore, so this tale is unusually both familiar and strange to me.  Vasya is born to a beautiful and potentially magical mother who dies shortly after childbirth. Left to be reared by her father Pyotr who rules the local lands and village she becomes the family rebel.  Less interested in staying at home and instead loves to wander through the fields and forests outside the village where she can talk and play with the domovoi – spirits of hearths, forests and lakes. However, when her father takes on a new wife who also sees the spirits but in her eyes they’re devils; over the following years we will see Vasya torn between two worlds of humans and magic in a game between two powerful elemental forces of winter.

So, we have a fairy-tale but very similar to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted with a hugely expanded plot. Arden brings this world to life be it the quaint traditions of the countryside to the internal politics of the court of the Tsar Ivan into which Pyotr unwittingly receives a new wife. The natural spirit world is contradicted with the orthodox Christian faith and one cannot live alongside the other for much longer. Rather than in depth examination of life in Russia you’re painted in a series of episodes as Vasya grows up snapshots of key moments in her life. The joy of her finding she has such talents to the pain of an evil stepmother who will not accept Vasya is not tainted by the devil.

While Vasya is joy and wants to help her family she finds two key human opponents her stepmother who while she sees the same world can only see it as a threat to her sanity and soul. But most impressive is the complex relationship that develops between Vasya and Konstantin an ambitious priest the Tsar has decided would be better placed out in the countryside. Konstantin finds Vasya as she grows fascinating - a disturbing quasi friendship develops but with a darker subtext aided by a shadow that whispers how Konstantin is so close to the power he really seeks.  Which way will he ultimately turn?

The story is relaxed we spend it watching Vasya have a series of interlocking adventures and slowly see her role in what looks to be a more elemental battle that threatens the whole world. I found it a story I could really relax into and get to know the world.  I think if you were to look for a crisper narrative this isn’t the story for you but for me this gave a lot of depth and it’s very enchanting as the bigger picture gets revealed. Arden paints scenes of winter and summer with lots of little stories that it hums with magic.

A lovely read that offers adventures, magic and a picture of a world you don’t see very often.  If you enjoy folklore and how it fits with our world. While it gives an ending for this adventure there are future instalments to come. I think this is the start of a series I think many of you will love.

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The War In The Dark by Nick Setchfield

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

Publisher – Titan Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

Europe.1963. And the true Cold War is fought on the borders of this world, at the edges of the light.

When the assassination of a traitor trading with the enemy goes terribly wrong. British Intelligence agent Christopher Winter must flee London. In a tense alliance with a lethal, mysterious woman named Karina Lazarova, he’s caught in a quest for hidden knowledge from centuries before, an occult secret written in the language of fire. A secret that will give supremacy to the nation that possesses it.

Racing against the Russians, the chase takes them from the demon-haunted Hungarian border to treasure-laden tunnels beneath Berlin, from an impossible house in Vienna to a bomb-blasted ruin in Bavaria where something unholy waits, born of the power of white fire and black glass…

It’s a world of treachery, blood and magic. A world at war in the dark

Spies in media very much like fantasy characters can come in all sorts. You can jump from the grand adventures of 007 to the insanity of Austin Powers. In contrast to the movies John Le Carre’s books pointed out that it’s less driving around in the flash car and more skulking in shadows and being part of a large government machine that was grubby, amoral and often merciless.  Nick Setchfield in his impressive debut asks the question what would happen if we added in magic and demons?

The story is set in 1963 when the world was only just getting used to seeing satellites launched into space; the US and the USSR were only just recovering from the being on the cusp of nuclear war and the Berlin Wall was a reminder of the power of the state. British assassin Christopher Winter’s “simple” mission to eliminate a communist spy goes out of control and leads to the spiralling deaths of colleagues and loved ones. He glimpses something inhuman within his target and starts to spot figures that can both appear to be those he knows and then someone completely different.  Fleeing Britain to track down those he believes responsible he finds that in the higher world of those in charge of espionage there is a lot more acceptance that ‘magecraft’ is not just real but very useful to the fighting for dominance of the planet.

It’s a fascinating world and Winter discovers some of the first English intelligence agencies were influenced by the ciphers of the mysterious Doctor John Dee who protected the Queen but also wanted to study demons and angels (which is true!). Setchfield really captures the sense of a 1960’s spy world – bureaucrats moving pieces from afar; clandestine meetings in shabby places and essentially a whole messy and often deadly battle being fought in alleys, dusty rooms and tunnels. It’s not that surprising that the darker, magical powers have taken an interest in the humans showing up in their own places. Winter who is a focused, practical and calculating man much more used to planning ways to kill and flee suddenly finds himself questioning himself and his role in these events as he pursues and himself chased by those who see a firm role for him in their games. It’s tense, everyone is hiding something, and all lives are expendable – making it feel a tense and claustrophobic read.

It’s skilful that the spy side can so quickly turn into something much more darker and fantastical. There are aspects of supernatural horror that are less big flashy scenes of spells and far more the subversive creeping horror. Is the corpse moving? What is the bannister made of? Its that feeling that something that isn’t quite right that strongly reminded me of the supernatural written by John Connolly and Mike Carey – the quiet and tense kind that I always find the scarier to read as we find the world just isn’t what we think it is.

My only niggle is that it could have done with a few more female characters. The stand-out is Karina who you never really know what she will do next but be assured it will be done with style and competence. The three women we do meet all have unique and different roles but at times it felt a little too much a re-enactment of thrillers written of the time by men and I’m not sure how accurate that was. Setchfield shows he can write great characters and Karina proves an even match for Winter and possibly the more accomplished spy too and none of the women are simply foils for the main lead, but I’d like to see much more.

It’s a very impressive debut novel and while it wraps the main plot up there is room for more episodes int his mysterious world of spies. If you’re looking for a great supernatural thriller that may even give you chills in this heat, then I’d strongly recommend this trip to the 60’s!

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Godblind by Anna Stephens

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price – £8.99

 

There was time when the Red Gods ruled the land. The Dark Lady and her horde dealt in death and blood and fire.

That time has long since passed and the neighbouring kingdoms of Mireces and Rilpor hold an uneasy truce. The only blood spilled is confined to the bored where vigilantes known as Wolves protect their kin and territory at any cost.

But after the death of his life, King Rastoth is plagued by grief, leaving the kingdom of Rilpor vulnerable

Vulnerable to the blood-thirsty greed of the Warrior King Liris and the Mireces army waiting in the mountains

I like surprises in my reading. Like a good cover version, I want to hear something familiar but also new.  Simply swapping a few vocals around isn’t enough I want something that I just don’t see coming.  I mention this in passing because this was part of the Subjective Chaos awards that initially looked like a very traditional epic fantasy but instead combines great plotting, worldbuilding and characters in very surprising ways.

The story centres on three very different cultures. The Mireces appear your standard evil simple Mountain Kingdom performing human sacrifice often from those they enslave to their gods in particular the Dark Lady. Across them is Rilpor your standard medieval kingdom with a larger army and elderly King Rastoth his dutiful son Janis and his rebellious son Rivil and these two countries watch each other closely.  But with an unexpected event that reminds me of WW1 being triggered by the death of Arch Duke Ferdinand starts a cascade of events that lead to the cold war becoming a lot hotter and bloodier.  But rather than technology aiding the battles to come now we have the medical forces of the Red Gods and those of the Dancer.

Stephens puts us straight into the action by focusing on the viewpoints of multiple characters on all sides. It’s a real talent that everyone comes across as a real solid individual. The Priestess of the Red Gods Lanta is completely despicable, but we also see her internal battle to be respected by the male warriors and it’s a match of wits as she works to establish her position. Amongst the Rilporian we get to see a variety of characters, but standouts are Crys a new Captain in the King’s capital happier to play cards and have a laugh but also knows his fighting and how to lead. In contrast we have Tara the first woman to be a Captain working on the front-line border – diligent; more than capable and constantly having to justify her position against men often promoted more for their wealth than their ability. And in-between both are the Wolves who appear in some ways to be just simple village folk but who combine fierce hand to hand combats skills; spirituality and views on gender and sexuality that while shocking to Rilporians appear far more in keeping with our own age. The focus is on Dom a man cursed to receive the messages of the Gods who is being driven into the events to play his part even if he wishes to turn away and an escaped slave Rillirin feeling the Mireces untrusted by the villagers and hiding secrets that have huge ramifications for everyone.

Every character has their own secrets and we see how they interrelate. Not all can be trusted; their statuses will shift  and as things escalate we see that there is a wider game with the forces of Dark and Light moving their own pieces around and often appearing to care little for who will suffer from this.  That each character stands out and each plot thread is equally interesting adding variety from murder mystery to court politics to vast military battles you want to move across the land to see what is happening. I really was impressed how the story didn’t go for the obvious and often subverted the standard scenes I’ve come to sigh when I read fantasy. Attempted assaults on women; human sacrifices romances all don’t quite play out how you expect. I’m really pleased to see a world where men and women have agency; interact not just as potential romantic partners and respect each other’s role in their society.  When violence comes it is gruesome and you’ll feel the flesh tear (men will cross legs) and that can be a simple one on one fight to two armies simply trying wipe each other out. The story leaps from huge scale to the personal really well and by the end of the first novel you sense there is so much more to find out about his world…not least can anyone survive it!

I’m very glad to have picked this up now and will be looking forward to the sequel out in August. If you’re looking for some epic fantasy which don’t take the easy options and reward you with  adventure with a large dollop of action then this is a series I think you should be reading.

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Starfang II - Claw of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback/ebook to follow

Kenn on avenging the death of her Pack-mate, Captain Francesca Ming Yue embarks ona hunt again to seek out her enemy, Yuen Leung, member of the Amber Eyes. Torn within from her own desires and failure, Franseca has to play a dangerous game with the reptilian Shishini. Can she trust them? With her clan at stake, the captain of the Starfang has to tread carefully or place the lives of her ship and crew in jeopardy.

I really enjoyed the first chapter of this series.  Humanity has reached the stars and contact with other civilisations at last but into the mix werewolves have also come out of the shadows and now control giant fleets as a Pack controlling certain worlds and businesses.  Ming Yue at the end of the first story was nearly wiped out by here enemy Yuen Leung – drugged, cut off from her crew and rescued at the cost of a friend’s life.  This next instalment looks at the consequences of those events in an engrossing tale.

The Ming Yue of the first book was supremely confident and professional above all other things. But the events of this book have taken a toll. Her arm is injured; her ability to transform is curtailed and we find her feeling lost but surrounded by her home. Her demanding parents urge her to chase her enemy down but can she do this again?

If the first novel was building the world the second is almost a character study as told through Ming Yue’s eye we see a woman balancing the demands and traditions of her Clan versus her own desires.  She as a Captain is supposed to be at a a distance emotionally from her crew and she finds herself attracted to her cousin April and drawn to her the young orphan Lien from an enemy clan. It creates a tension – is there perhaps a better way to live?  Is duty more important than being happy?

While I really enjoy the exploration of consequences and character we also get to see more of the mysterious Shishini.  Her Shishini torturer comes back offering a truce and through an artefact of the truce we see how her enemies took over their world.  But can they be trusted either? Its nice to see an alien perspective in an SF tale and their reaction to the werewolves is also unusual!  I really like Chng's way of telling stories organically rather than huge set-pieces I think it has a more natural flow.

I will just warn you that this is the middle part of the story and while there is plenty of progression there is a lot yet to be resolved and happily the third book is coming soon.  I shall definitely be reporting back nearer the time as to how the Pack’s final adventure ties this all up

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Blackout by Kit Mallory

Publisher - Lit Mallory

Price - £7.99 paperback £2.49 ebook

Published - Out Now

I would like to thank the author for a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

After the Board came to power the world changed the way a hunter stalks its prey: all paranoia and unimagined flickers of shadow, so that while you were being torn to pieces you were still wondering whether you were overreacting. For 16-year-old Skyler, fear is a way of life. For three years, since the Wall split the UK in two, her survival as an illegal Northern refugee in the South has been a perilous balancing act between staying in the shadows and clinging to her reputation as the South’s best hacker.

Fellow refugee Mckenzie is a ghost from her past she would rather ignore. But when their paths collide unexpectedly, Skyler sees an opportunity to exact revenge on the brutal regime that destroyed her home and family – even if it means she goes down with them.

For some reason this week despots and dystopias have been on my mind. In an age where let’s face it we seem to have lost the plot on so many things why are novels looking at ever more dystopian versions of the future?  I used to think this was so SF could warn people about why we need to never go down this path.  Obviously not enough people read SF.  However, I now wonder if like Dragons the reasons dystopias exist in fiction is to perhaps remind us that they can be fought and beaten? In this near future thriller we focus on three young lives where the UK’s fall into a dictatorship creates horrors but ultimately makes people decide to say no more.

We initially focus on Mckenzie one of the best thieves in the recently split South of the UK working in the new capital of Birmingham. Mckenzie is from the North and here illegally trying to hide his Yorkshire accent.  He works for various gangs ‘obtaining’ items for a price.  Offered a chance to infiltrate the Board (the new UK Govt/Regime) he takes the merchandise but also helps himself to a hidden memory stick on a whim. Realising it has ultra-high encryption on it he goes for help from a fellow ex Northerner called Skyler who works for a mutual crime lord.  Unfortunately for both that memory stick holds state secrets that the they want back, and the duo find themselves being chased not just by the Enforcers but also the local crime boss Daniel (mild on the outside and totally vicious within).  On the run they end up with the assistance of the mysterious Angel who offers her services as a back-street medic, contract killer and vigilante and then there is a chase across the south of the UK to both unlock the secrets of the drive and decide how best to use them to take the Board down.

This I thought had a unique British dystopian feel and pleasingly focused less on the national and more on the local impact. Seeing life for normal people ranging from curfews; a secret police force that doesn’t want people to hide their faces with hoods even in the rain and electricity cut-offs at sundown all create an eerier off feeling for the UK. Through flashbacks told across the tale we see how Skyler and Mckenzie as kids saw the world change so that parents hush them from asking too many questions and where even a slip up at school can bring about the grey coated Enforcers who will want to take you away never to be seen again.  It’s caught that sense that the death of democracy is a slow boil as people try to focus on survival until escape is too late. The way the North of England is deemed a waste of resources and cut off to wither and die behind a huge Wall (as if anyone would want giant walls everywhere in real life…ahem) seems plausible and the impact it has on people a reminder that once the State says you are a not one of them you can quickly lose all rights and privileges.  The only bit I think I’d have liked to see is a bit more as what led to the change and who is in power.  There is a great sense of atmosphere but occasionally I wanted to know what exactly led to these final steps.

But the heart of the book for me is the trio of Skyler, Mckenzie and Angel. Skyler is fascinating she seems a very withdrawn beaten computer hacker.  Living in the basement of a gangster just to survive rather than with any sense of where she wants to go. Daniel has crushed her physically and mentally but seeing Mckenzie’s memory stick gives her a sense of curiosity she has missed and re-living the events that led her to the South makes her realise the Board is the one ultimately responsible. Mckenzie is the more amoral of the two focused on his own survival more than anything else often using his crimes and sense of adventure to give him a sense of worth and way to avoid his own painful memories.  This almost sibling like relationship is quite well put together; they bicker, they obviously care for one another each tries to persuade the other they are right. In contrast the one character who really does come across as a mystery is Angel she is careful not to give her past and secrets away. Ultra-competent able to fight the pair’s enemies and patch up their injuries she is initially more like a friendly bodyguard, but a highlight is the growing relationship with Skyler that develops.  From mutual respect to sharing confidences they have to work out how each feels about the other and whether can they trust each other with their ambitions for the future. A character that really gives the book an extra sense of energy and whom you want to find out more about.

It’s a very confident and smart tale that by focusing on a small group impacted by the regime allows time for the story to breathe and the reader to start to understand the world and invest in the characters. I’m really impressed with this novel and will be very keen to watch out for the next instalment and where the characters are heading towards next.

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Murder on the Titania and Other Steam Powered Adventures by Alex Acks

Publisher - Queen of Swords

Price - £3.62 Kindle £10.85 paperback

Published - Out Now

I thank the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Captain Marta Ramos, the most notorious pirate in the Duchy of Denver, has her hands full between fascinating murder mysteries, the delectable and devious Delilah Nimowitz, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas (the Duke of Denver’s new head of security), a spot of airship engineering and her usual activities: piracy, banditry and burglary. Not to mention the horror of high society tea parties. In contrast Simms, her second in command, longs only for a quiet life, filled with tasty sausages and fewer explosions. Or does he?

 

Reader, I must make a confession last year I was telling people my least favourite sub-genre was steampunk – too obsessed with style over substance with a nasty bit of imperial colonialism thrown in for luck.  But over the course of this year I keep reading books like this one that shows me there is a better way to do steampunk that tackles my concerns head on.  This is an inventive, progressive, enticing and most of all fun volume of murder mysteries set in an alternate USA that I think may also help you see why I am now converting to the joy of airships.

In this book we have a series of five loosely linked short stories telling us the adventures of Captain Marta Ramos one of the most feared pirates in the loosely knitted Duchies of the North Americas. Feared in the skies, on rail or on land Captain Ramos is a shadowy figure that all security agents want to track down. Few realise the Captain is a woman (the very idea!!) so she can move around her targets and plan her next heist. But the Captain has a rather constant need for mental stimulation and if that is not a heist the next and possibly better thing is a puzzle or a murder. If you can imagine the talents of Irene Adler and the morality of Catwoman merged together you may start to get a feel for this unusual anti-hero. Fascinating, full of her own mysteries and you’re not too sure what she herself is up to she is a compelling character to read the adventures of.  In contrast we have in her second in command the more grounded Simms (when you see his real name you’ll understand why that’s all he goes by). Its not a will they won’t they relationship its two people with both processional respect and friendship in the mix that makes for a powerful double act as they try to work out the situations they’ve landed in.

In this volume there are five tales

Murder on the Titania – You may be disappointed to then find out that in this Captain Ramos is pretty  much a background character but it’s quite important to set the world of the Duchies up for the rest of the tales. We see a number of aristocrats on the airship Titania and meet the Duke of Denver’s new Head of Security.  He’s on the lookout for a cunning thief but soon finds himself in a murder mystery with a rising body count. It’s a refreshing look at a locked room..ahem..airship mystery with a number of suspects and clues thrown into the mix. I really liked the way the Captain made her eventual entrance but it also from the outset shows this set of stories doesn’t go for the obvious with modern sensibilities too.

The Curious Case of Miss Clementine Nimowitz (And Her Exceedingly Tiny Dog) – Captain Ramos is about to liberate a rich eccentric lady of her jewels but finds a killer appears to have got there first. This story follows the Captain investigating the deceased Miss Nimowitz’s two remaining relatives. It fleshes out why the Captain is unable to resist a puzzle and fleshes out her skills of science, physical combat and disguise.  A nice Holmesian mystery but with the added humour of a little dog that may have swallowed the riches which needs to be ermmmm released.  This is where Conan Doyle went wrong. Lots of fun and with the introduction of Delilah Nimowitz we get a character that intrigues and seems able to best our Captain.  How will it end well?

The Jade Tiger – This story is the shortest in the collection showing the Captain on a train heist up against a particularly greedy member of the elite.  While short it gives the reader some insight into the Captain’s history (while explaining very little).  A great bit of character exploration delivered very economically.

The Ugly Tin Orrery – In this tale our Captain shows us more of her crew that live in a mine.  A heist produces a puzzle in the form of an orrery and an owner who shortly dies after losing it to the Captain. Here the story moves into the political exploring the tensions between the duchies but also it allows the reader to see several connecting characters from the earlier tales come together.  It feels very organically how the tale has moved into higher stakes and there are consequences and risks that Ramos has to deal with.  It gives tantalising glimpses of the larger world outside the tales from the risk of the dead coming back to life to the various grabs for power that are standard for the aristocrats at the cost of the everyday folk left behind.

The Flying Turk – Simms and Ramos return to the Titania for a look at the modern wonder of a difference engine that can fly airships alone., But the inventor has made new enemies.  Is the ship safe from their actions?  A satisfactory conclusion paying tribute to the history of automaton and giving a intriguing puzzle for the reader to try to fit the facts together.  A fitting send-off for the final adventure in the volume.

In conclusion this is a very satisfying set of short stories showing that you can create nuanced looks at the land of steampunk and address social attitudes as well as giving us great characters, adventures and mysteries. One for fans of The Invisible Library series particularly. I’ve been meaning to read Alex Acks for a while and will certainly be reading more of their work.  So, if you want to meet Captain Ramos and start exploring her intriguing world this a series I think well worth your time to track down.

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Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Publisher - Solaris

Price - £7.99 paperback

Published - Out Now

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

When Shuos Jedao wakes up for the first time, several things go wrong. His few memories tell him that he’s a seventeen-year-old cadet – but his body belongs to a man decades older. Hexarch Nirai Kujen orders Jedao to reconquer the fractured hexarchate on his behalf even though Jedao has no memory of ever being a soldier, let alone a general. Surely a knack for video games doesn’t qualify you to take charge of an army? Soon Jedao learns the situation is even worse. The Kel soldiers under his command may be compelled to obey him, but they hate him thanks to a massacre he can’t remember committing. Kujen’s friendliness can’t hide the fact that he’s a tyrant. And what’s worse. Jedao and Kujen are being hunted by an enemy who knows more about Jedao and his crimes than he does himself..

Spoiler warning - I shall be mentioning some plot points from earlier novels

I’ve been a fan of Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire novels for several years.  I think they’re a very apt SF series for the decade we are in; as on top of glorious space battles and technology they have also been an intriguing look at the concepts of tyranny and rebellion.  In this concluding volume we continue the strong tradition of both novels and also have a closer look at two of the more mysterious characters’ motivations.

Jedao has been a running theme through the series.  In the first instalment Ninefox Gambit we see him as a Hannibal Lector like centuries old ghost fitted into the consciousness of young Kel Charis where his tactical know-how and her sense of mission resulted in the unexpected start of a revolution guiding his host onwards for reasons that were yet to be fully explained. Following a botched assassination by the Hexarchate Cheris finds herself free of the Kel control but with the memories and tactical brilliance of Jedao which allows her to create a revolutionary act that splits the empire across and kills most of their leaders. This book asks the question what comes after a revolution and why do certain people want to become a dictator.

The reader will be surprised to find themselves in the mind of Jedao but not as we’ve seen him.  Neither centuries old brimming with bile or an impersonation but actually the young student who will one day become the notorious destroyer of squadrons.  He’s more relaxed and humorous than any version encountered to date but surprised to find himself in the body of a much older version of himself and about o command a squadron when he’s never been in a ship before.  Only the last remaining Hexarch Kujen appears to know what is going on and has fitted Jedao with an amazingly powerful ship that could destroy fleets and worlds. 

Across the gameboard on the other side is re mains of two factions the Compact; the main group that came out of Kel Charis’ rebellion that wants to promote democracy and against the Hexarch’s desire for Remembrances (where Heretics are tortured to death) and the Protectorate the last remnant of the Hexarchate wanting to try and preserve the old ways…to a point under the rule of a powerful general. Realising that Kujen is alive and is clever enough to take both sides down and fully restore the old order an uneasy truce us created and preparation for a final battle begins.

This really is the space opera the previous entries to the series have been building towards. The reader moves across planets and ships over the years since Cheris’ act of rebellion and watch how the varying sides vie for power. In keeping with the series so far; the technology that is used is rarely specifically defined but instead these ‘exotic technologies’ play with dimensions, minds and planets. Jedao’s ship has an immense doomsday weapon that can wreck either a fleet or a planet. But this time there is a larger focus than before on the AI that sits behind the power. The basis of the Moths (the various types of starships used by all parties) and servitors (the small robots who perform myriad tasks to keep the world going). There is a theme that they have reached their own level of consciousness from becoming addicted to soap operas to aiding Cheris in her rebellion. But how much longer can such a force be subservient to humanity?

For me the highlight of the series is that it isn’t primarily focused on the big battles (which again are when they arrive immense, tactical and portray the horror of battle) but how people react to power. Four primary characters are used to explore this; Brezan the de facto leader of the Compact didn’t seek power but his unique ability not to fall in line within Kel leaderships marks him as independent but now he has to start considering the consequences of his own decisions and the need for the ‘greater good’ may lead to casualties. Cheris from the first novel shows how far she has come to continue her determined battle to save her own people using all the ruthlessness and guile that Jedao’s memories taught her. A worrying thought that in all revolutions the heroic leaders may eventually harden their principles to save the world.

This is neatly mirrored in the scenes focusing on Jedao and Kujen. Kujen is explored through the people who have encountered him over the centuries and the question is asked how could a man who wanted to save the starving become the tactical monster who thrives on the Remembrances? Jedao here being the young man without the baggage of the having to learn to live and comply is given an opportunity to try and reconcile these two men he was aware of as well as his own growing horror of the monster he is accused of being of. That discussion on choices and that they can take you down paths that while may achieve your original objective but at the cost of your humanity I think has been a running theme in the series and this time the focus on the four and arguably the two antagonists within the tale asks some unsettling questions.  How can empires that feed all the poor, are socially liberal, highly advanced willingly fall into dictatorship?

There are few final answers, but this is a series I have been thinking about where it was going and what it had to say about our times for several years. Ha-Lee deserves to be recognised as creating some of the most interesting science fiction out there and I’m intrigued to read future stories and if this universe will ever be returned to.

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Still Life by Isobel Hart

Publisher - Livi Shaw Solutions

Price - £8.99 paperback

Published  - Out Now

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

A woman must discover the meaning behind a new virus affecting men before there are too many infected for them to be stopped. When Samantha Davis and her boyfriend are involved in an accident, on the same day as a new virus is identified, his recovery appears to be a miracle. Until he turns on her. Determined to understand the changes in him, Sam joins with others to uncover more about the virus. But soon the knowledge they gather poses a threat. The infected men want to stop them and soon. Resolving to meet the threat head on, Sam prepares for the toughest fight of her life but finds herself caught between two worlds; still caring for the man she once loved, as her affections grow for another, while fearing for her life and the lives of all women. As the net closes in on her, she must decide whose life is more important.

Samantha David and her boyfriend are in an argument over his infidelity at a wedding when a car crash in a mysterious fog changes their lives.  Both injured Edwards appears to die but then comes back…actually a nicer and more affectionate man than before.  However, Samantha starts noticing his controlling behaviour and others at his hospital out patients support group appear to have their own plans in motion.  This sets up a global conspiracy theory with a huge element of romance.

The first half of the novel I think is quite interesting as I think Samantha initially comes across as very realistic character trying to work out what happened to the man she once loved and who appears even better than he was before. Several small mysteries are set up and as a group of men who all nearly dies that day appears to find each other and start working together there is a sense of tension towards something building up. Samantha finds Edwards have a darker agenda and are prepared to kill to preserve their secrets as he focuses on her getting married and having children. Added in the mix is a very charming hospital Doctor Elliot who Samantha confides in and has an obvious chemistry with.

Unfortunately, the second half of the novels falls apart as Samantha ends up captured and a previously engaging character seems to lose all agency and has to wait on others to save her be it Elliot out in the world trying to convince others of a revolution and Edwards who seems unusually attached to Samantha and willing to cross methods of the group to keep her to himself. The group in many ways appears a group of MRA activists but the themes get muddied in favour of the way Samantha becomes so desirable to the group. 

Overall a less than satisfying reading experience and I don’t think I will be willing to read any more as to where Samantha’s fight to save the world goes.

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Buying Time by E M Brown

Publisher - Solaris

Publsihed - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

 

In January 2017, something very strange happens to screenwriter Ed Richie. He wakes up one morning to find that he has been shunted back in time nine months and is now inhabiting the body of his younger self…Worse to come the following day he jumps three years, to 2013, with all his memories of the intervening years intact. What is happening to him? And where will his involuntary time-travel end?

Meanwhile, in 20130, journalist Ella Croft is investigating the life of screenwriter and celebrated novelist Ed Richie, who mysteriously vanished in 2025. She interviews friends, acquaintances, and old lovers – and what she discovers will change not only Ed Richie’s life, but her own…

 

We all have regrets and can recall the days we zigged rather than zagged – said x rather than y and our lives may be very different for good or for ill. In this novel we explore what would happen if you today could go back to certain days knowing what is to come.

Ed Richie is your standard mid-fifties hard-drinking self-loathing writer with a neat line in destroying his relationships (consecutively); after a particularly bad day he wakes up nine months earlier …but all memories intact. Can he change events?  Slowly Ed notices a pattern after a few days he can feel himself tugged further and further back. Why is this writer being sucked through time? What is the impact of his arrival in the timestream knowing what is to come?  Alongside this we see a dystopian future awaits the UK in 2030. The UK Conservative Govt fell into a dictatorship (as if ermmm) keen on censorship, arrests and violence. The increasingly right-wing US has started to outlaw homosexuality and people are fleeing to the newly independent Scotland. Into this journalist Ella Croft has decided its time to find out why Ed vanished.  She has a personal investment in this man she never really understood, and her enquiries bring out people very keen to find her for their own agendas.

There is a lot going on in this novel. The idea of a person falling into their own life is fascinating and how Ed reacts and slowly tests his powers of memory is well done.  It feels natural that you first doubt your sanity and then start to roll with it.  You may realise you’ve never been the hero you are and that certain stupid things you did have long-reaching consequences with friends and lovers. My only issue is that the focus is very much on Ed rather than the times we are now in. In contrast the future we see Ella in is a horrifyingly plausible future where isolationism and populism create nightmares for the UK and other democracies.  This a future where Trump, Brexit and economic collapses all make logical horrible steps to a more sinister country.  If Ed’s story is on the personal Ella’s storyis more on how did we get there.  It is quite an engrossing mystery as we see how these two are intertwined.

Annoyingly this also leads to the less satisfying part of the story. The focus on Ed is very much a stereotypical firebrand writer stuck in tv and radio. His drinking and constant chain of short-term relationships while is slowly explained often feels very flat. Often, we find his former flames all feel to have some fond feelings and there is a tendency to say he was flawed but not too bad and that doesn’t really come across in his behaviour and in fact just seems to pardon it. Ella’s story comes across as the more interesting as that nightmare world does feel a commentary on where we may be going however the ultimate way the two cross feels a little less than I expected to happen. Overall, I think this is a tale with some interesting ideas and a story and that makes it worth while but you may be shouting at the lead rather than encouraging him onwards

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Water Into Wine by Joyce Chng

Publisher  - Annorlunda Books

Published - Out Now

Price - £2.17 ebook

When war comes to your planet, everything changes…perhaps even the meaning of family and identity. Xin inherits a vineyard on a distant planet and moves there to build a life…but an interstellar war intervenes. Will Xin’s dreams of a new life get caught up in the crossfire? Xin’s understanding of a family and sense of self must evolve to cope with the changes brought by life on a new planet and a war that threatens everything.

Science fiction does love the battles – the wars in the stars (no trademarks are infringed!); the land battles, the starships exploding in the skies but we perhaps forget about those who just find themselves in the firing line. In this bittersweet novella from Joyce Chng we focus less on the armies and the tech but a reminder that there are human lives being devastated by both sides.

Xin’s grandfather decided they should own the vineyard he has on the remote planet Tertullian VI. She narrates the story of the family arriving and how over the months to then come a Secessioniest War in the Allied planets spreads through space and ultimately hits the planet too. The hardship of understanding farming and running business gets intermingled with a simple farm being pummelled by armies who are more focused on the prize than the people they wish to save/liberate. Xin discovers love, horror and how far she is prepared to go to protect her land and her family.

The story is told through Xin’s voice. Xin is not a natural farmer but finds the prospect of owning and running the farm a challenge, they can’t refuse. Their children and mother accompany them into working how exactly wine gets produced and, in some ways, this feels a very relaxed matter of fact narration but then we see explosions in the sky; acts of terrorism against refugees and a casual cruelty that both sides dish out if they feel you betray their values. Its that sense of dawning horror as we see children ant to be soldiers; livelihoods ruined, and people being tortured less for secrets and more than they just can. Chng has a subtle way of making you see the changes in the world but at a local life level. You invest yourself int this little household and hope they can survive what the two factions throw at them. By the end the pain of war and what this means is heartfelt.

Xin is a fascinating lead narrator – currently transitioning to be a man Xin is trying to focus on farm and family but an intriguing relationship with the stoic and sometimes secretive Galliano develops that is fraught with tension of many kinds. The world is vividly brought to life with scenes of food and religion and family customs. All painted to show you what is being lost by war. It’s a very haunting experience.

This a short tale but one I think would be good for readers to vie and remember that war is not always a special effect extravaganza and be it in Syria, Yugoslavia and Iraq will always mean local people who just really wanted to make a living may find themselves in a whirlwind that will change everyone.

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The Chalk Man by C J Tudor

Publisher - Penguin

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99

None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning.

Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures or when they started to appear on their own?

Was it the terrible accident?

Or when they found the first body?

 

The greatest time in our lives as a description of childhood always puzzled me. Learning how the world and more importantly how people work was hard work and finding out as you grow up that the world is darker and scarier than you originally thought can be very unsettling. Childhood shapes us and often haunts us. In this fantastic thriller by C J Tudor we get a delicious mystery wrapped up with all the horrors of growing up and then growing old.

The story focuses on Ed a teacher at his local school who finds that a major event in his life from 1986 which affected his closest group of friends is now returning into his life. As a child Ed was thrown into a series of events over a year that blew apart his local gang and exposed the darker secrets of the village as well as making him realise adults cannot all be trusted as they too have secrets. This all starts with a violent bloody fairground accident that sets off this chain of events where Ed is thrown into an uneasy friendship with his local teacher Mr Halloran and the ensuing months will reveal more and more about life. Thirty years later and Ed is a man living with his past (often influenced by alcohol) and then one of his old friends returns with a plan to reveal what really happened that year and then all the old gang members find a letter with a chalk man drawn on them – someone seems to know a lot more about their past than anyone realised…

Its really hard to describe this book because one of the greatest satisfactions is watching the past and the present get revealed. We unusually get two real-time narrators who happen to be the same character Ed in 1986 -  a pleasant shy but intelligent kid finding the world out as a teenager and Ed in his mid-forties where his life has become frozen and now by the appearance of the chalk men unsettled. With alternating chapters, we see the impact of the past on the present and scene by scene you get a better picture of the place they all live. Small mysteries such as how did a friend end up in a wheelchair to the largest of them all  - who murdered a local teenager that Ed’s gang found when the chalk men pointed the way? Kids start to experience death, violence and lies all for the first time and it’s an unsettling experience is anyone the person you think they are?  Can we even trust the kids?

It brilliantly plotted and there is enormous satisfaction as you see the bigger picture and realise how all these little revelations make up the bigger mystery, but Tudor also brings two other stand out elements. Characterisation is a major element. The childhood version of the gang really does feel like 80’s kids with Ed, Fat Gav (the loud one); Hoppo (the kind one with his dog); Mickey (the one who no one really knows why you’re his friend) and Nicky (the local Vicar’s daughter who much prefers hanging out in a gang to church). It really captures that sense of childhood friendship and exploring long summer days which makes the later changes to the group both startling and intriguing - whey made them become the people we now see? What are they all running from? Added to this we have the mysterious Mr Halloran the new teacher no one really knows and even Ed’s parents get revealed to have secrets they are keen Ed doesn’t yet understand. There is a whole host of local rivalries and relationships to unpick and the way that is created is fascinating.

My other highlight is the sense of horror. Although this is a murder mystery there is a feeling of something spectral happening. The eerie sight of chalk men; figures in the woods and in dreams who know a lot more than anyone should bring a sense of the uncanny to the village. Scenes of death and violence are much more elaborate than you would find in a Poirot all leading to a feeling that perhaps much more to the way these secrets are being unburied than simply bad timing.

That combination of mystery, horror and the cast that you may not all like, but you really want to understand made this a reading experience where I found myself swept up so much that when I started this on my Bank holiday Monday I didn’t go to sleep until it was done!! I strongly recommend that if you enjoy crime with a touch of the horror about it then you really should give this a go and I look forward to seeing what this author gives us in the future.

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