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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The Testament of Loki by Joanne M Harris

Publisher - Gollancz

Published - Out Now

Price - £14.99 hardback

Ragnarok was the End of Worlds…. Asgard fell, centuries ago, and the old gods have been defeated. Some are dead while others have been consigned to eternal torment in the netherworld – among them, the legendary trickster, Loki. A god who betrayed every side and still lost everything, who has lain forgotten as time passed, and the world of humans moved on to new beliefs, new idols and new deities…

But now mankind dreams of the Norse gods once again, the river Dream is but a snow’s throw from their dark prison, and Loki is the first to escape into a new reality.

The first, but not the only one to. Other, darker things have escaped with him, who seek to destroy everything that he covets. If he is to reclaim what has been lost. Loki will need allies, a plan and plenty of tricks…

A few years ago, Joanne M Harris did a superb retelling of the major Norse myths with a twist – they were all told from Loki’s side of the story.  The views of the Trickster gave some humanity and humour as well as making you see Thor as well…rather thick. However, at the end the End happened, and Loki ended up tormented by a huge poisonous snake that happens to be his child for eternal torment so now it asks the question – what happens next? The answer is complex but ultimately boils down to a story placing the Gods into the modern world that is as fabulous as Loki themselves.

We resume the story in a dungeon of Chaos where Loki has started to notice the inner space known as Dream that links to other worlds. Being naturally cunning a plan develops over centuries and with a hint that out there is a world that still remembers the Norse gods he arrives in 2018 England. Initially in a computer game (wearing strange headwear) known as Asgard!! ™ but swiftly escapes into Jumps a 17-year-old student getting ready for her exams. Loki suddenly finds the world alluring and he has a lot to get catching up on.

This story reminds me a lot of Loki itself as it’s got many sides to it. Loki inside the body of a teenage girl allows for plenty of humour as our favourite god discovers Pizza, The Book of Face and is horrified that many find Thor the best God. The one person you don’t want in charge of your body on exam day is Loki but equally just as this appears to be a fish out of water story you’ll notice Jumps has secrets – incredibly reserved and doing everything she can to fade into the background. It touches upon serious issues such as body image and relationships that allows a contrast with the hedonist god and watching how these two personalities fight and ultimately understand each other is the both the entertaining and emotional core of the book -neither will be quite the same afterwards. Its interesting that Norse gods used to sexuality and disabilities seem the least impacted by those things many in the modern world are swiftest to criticise.

The story also moves into epic fantasy as Loki uncovers more Gods hiding in the modern world. Obviously after enabling Ragnarok he is not flavour of the month, but it is recognised the half demon half god has certain advantages in planning that means he is forced to investigate where the ancient powers known as the Runes are and this means Loki and by necessity Jumps are exposed to what is going on underneath the ‘real’ world. This points to a much larger story that Loki will become a key part in enabling.

Harris continues to narrate the tale in Loki’s voice and that is just as delicious as in the previous entry in the series. Loki is sarcastic, boastful and on rare occasions honest about how he is feeling. As the reader you must work our though when the truth may be getting told and he can sometimes indeed be the unreliable narrator (what did you expect!). This time we see the impact though of Ragnarok has had an impact on him as he has lost his body and his power which puts him in a place where he is able to learn and even empathise with Jumps who also seems to be the outsider in her group.  Watching his character twist and turn is an absolute delight.

Another highlight is how Harris adapts the settings moving from the strange psychic dungeons of Chaos where pain is lashed out daily; to the quiet streets of London where she easily portrays the awkwardness of having dinner with your family when you’re the teenager they want to control or the schoolyard where the popular kids want to make you feel a thousand times smaller than you are. Bouncing from the fantastical to the domestic is performed really smoothly and there is also a reminder that in the Norse gods feuding, arguments and hunts for status were a key aspect of the tales and perhaps it’s the God’s humanity that means they’ve stayed around in our culture for much longer than you would expect.

Overall the story itself makes a fitting new chapter in the adventures of our exiled Asgardians as there is a battle for power between opposing forces based around desire and lust for power. Captivating and going to bring both a smile to your face as well as make you remember what it was like to be young again I think this is a book you need to read…ideally with pizza.

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Slay by Kim Curran

Publisher - Usborne Publishing

Published - Out Now

Price - £6.99  paperback

Meet SLAY – they do two things and they do them well: they play killer music and they slay killer demons. When Milly, the lonely daughter of a world-famous opera singer, arrives home to discover that her mum has been taken over by something very evil, she finds herself in mortal danger. But the last people she expects to rescue her are the hottest boy band on the planet…

 

Kim Curran has a strong track record in YA from her parallel worlds Shifter series to her novel Glaze which a few years ago suggested there would be a social media application used for bad things (I know!!!!), so I was definitely intrigued what this new series would do and as I understood Buffy would be an influence I was ready to dive in. I was not disappointed and its an incredibly entertaining ride for fans of the slayer and also Supernatural.

Slay are the biggest band touring random cities and comprising the moody lead singer JD, the charismatic Tom on piano, the cheeky Connor on drums and on guitars the sarcastic Zeq and the silent Niv who communicates through sign language. Managed by a former girl band member they are now hugely popular and globally recognised. So far very One direction but after a show the team are less likely to hit a nightclub but instead suit up for battling demons trying to take over the world! A chance distress call from a young British student called Molly means the band and her cross paths where they find themselves too late to save Molly’s mother from being transformed into an ancient evil, but they do realise they may have happened upon a demonic masterplan to release a power that really would destroy the world. Molly and the band now must cross northern and southern America to uncover the truth and put everything on the line.

The Buffy parallel really makes sense in that the concept can sound wacky but in Kim Curran’s hands the story really comes to life. The action is relentless and it’s extremely well plotted as we uncover the reasons the demons have decided to make the move. Set piece after set piece keep the momentum going as we see the demon responsible for Molly’s mother transforming into a monster that has been aware of the group for some time. The world building is well told and its done more as characters talk about their personal experiences of the supernatural rather than simple exposition overload. The demons take over hosts (willingly or unwillingly) only recognisable by their black eyes. But the band have learnt to use weapons and technology to track them down.

The band Slay themselves really do come across as an immensely likeable diverse bunch of young teens. The sense of humour and way they both annoy and look after one another really rings true. Two main characters are JD and TOM. The former outside of singing is the taciturn brooding young man who has a personal reason to focus on the demon-hunting while in contrast Tom is the lighter soul who enjoys performing and can really capture a crowd. This forms an interesting relationship triangle with the arrival on the tour bus of Molly the intelligent researcher who is more than able to use her wits to find a way out of a situation. The villains being possessed also can channel human traits and indeed there are elements of snark which for this kind of book are compulsory.

I found this a very enjoyable read that avoids all the pitfalls of the concept and instead makes you swiftly read along hoping your favourite characters survive or get together. It is important to note that the story when required can go sombre as characters face death and violence and that balance of light and dark helps makes it stand out. It looks like the band are also due some more adventures later this year and I am more than ready to listen to their second album!

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Pacific Monsters edited by Margret Helgadottir

Publisher - Fox Spirit Books

Published - Out Now

Price - £10 paperback

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

As you’ll have seen I’m a big fan of the Monsters series from Fox Spirit Books which is an ongoing series exploring the Monster myths and legends of the world written by writers with connections to the area. In this fourth volume the award-winning editor Margret Helgadottir takes us to the Pacific and we see what lurks in the lands and seas of the islands as well as Australasia. I really enjoyed the selection and many myths I’d never heard of before. It’s a very strong selection and among the tales these are the ones I found spoke to me most: -

 

Monster by Tina Makereti

In the opening story we get a very warming tale of an ancient sea monster making its long-delayed trip to the land where it meets a woman who no longer has anything to live for. A chance encounter changes their views. Eerie but has a rich emotional pull.

From the Womb of Our Land, Our Bones Entwined by AJ Fitzwater

This tale is in modern New Zealand two Maori women re-unite as earthquakes start hitting the island yet again. It uses the myth of the daughters of Papatuanuku who can control the earth gods to explore a woman’s battle to find out who she is. Its powerful in how these powers have hurt this girl’s life but it also suggests she can beat her inner demons.

The Hand Walker by Rue Karney

This story explores the idea of a fabricated monster (a hand walking flesh-eating ghost) to explore some of Australia’s most evil atrocities against the aboriginal population. A very capable butcher is tempted into hunting the demon down, but she finds in the spectral outback a personal connection that may overpower her. This story just gives you a feeling that something isn’t quite right in how people act but it makes a strong point about forgotten chapters in history

Grind by Michael Gray

In the 19th century a whaling crew find themselves trapped in the Antarctic Ice for winter. Slowly the crew are drawn to the angel of the sea. It’s more of a pressure cooker as you are not sure if the issue is the human mind or something more spectral but it’s a very well told epic story told in a few paragraphs with horror not simply created by monsters.

Dinordis by Octavia Gade and illustrated by Dave Johnson

A young girl runs away into the jungle and finds a roc that triggers memories of her grandmother’s final days. It’s bleak and stark with a haunting final page.

The Weight of Silence by Jeremy Szal

An alternate Australia has spiders rising up and taking over the world. Towns and cities covered in webbing hiding the monsters ready for your flesh. A young man seeking the next town to liberate realises he is in his own hometown and this raises not just spiders but bad memories. I read this on a park bench and a heavy leaf fell on my shoulder…reader I jumped!! Powerful horror.

Above the Peppermint Trail by Simon Dewar

This should be one of the funnier stories as it gives us the myth of the drop bears. Super-sized Koala like beats that fall from trees. They sound so cute but a bit like ewoks they are bloodier than you expect. You’ll never look at those creatures in the same way again!!

All My Relations by Bryan Kamoli Kuwada

In Hawaii there was once a truce among the Sharks that meant those who can change form into humans no longer prayed upon the real thing. Skip forward a few hundred years and one hunter is torn between the two worlds as he befriends a young child that worships him, but has he taught him the wrong habits. Fascinating legend mixed with a description of the horrors under the sea.

Mudgerwokee by Kirstie Olley

A young woman and her family quickly escape to the Australian outback, she swiftly befriends some teens and they go wandering in search of a beauty spot and a legend that trades power for sacrifices. It is saying a lot more about social issues than you think until you reach the end which is soaked in violence. Stays with you long after you close the pages

Into the Sickly Light by AC Buchanan

In what appears to be mid-twentieth century Australia a hair strewn monster arrives on the beach. The locals start to attack the corpse, and this connects to a young woman with many secrets. I loved this story the most in the pack as it moves from a mystery to a personal story about attitudes to homosexuality and the need to not simply hide in the shadows.

 

One of my favourite volumes so far and the exploration of social issues with monsters is well told and gives me a lot of information about he the worlds they come from. Highly recommended!

 

 

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Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Publisher - HarperCollins

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99 hardback

Someone is living a lie…but who?

Is it Lisa? Haunted by a tragic past, all Lisa wants is a quiet life with her daughter, Ava. And when she meets a new man, things seem to be falling into place. But Lisa is hiding a secret so momentous it could shatter her entire world…

Is it Ava? When sixteen-year-old Ava saves a young boy’s life she becomes a local hero. But never in a million years could she have anticipated the fallout of her actions…

Is it Marilyn? Marilyn has the perfect life. Her husband, her job, her house – she seems to have it all. But she could never admit to her best friend Lisa the lies she tells herself to get through the day…

One moment will change these three women’s lives forever. And the secrets they’ve been keeping could destroy them all.

Last year the excellent Sarah Pinborough had an international best seller with Behind Her Eyes and yes THAT ending. This year the tagline for this super-smart thriller could be #WTFthatplot as the reader arrives in a small very middle-class town and watches the lives of three women completely shatter generally while taking a deep breath as revelations finally surface and lives end up on the line.

If you know Pinborough for her horror stories you may initially think it is all looking very well …normal. Shy but competent Lisa has just got herself the employment contract of a lifetime for her firm and a handsome millionaire who wants to discuss things over dinner. Her daughter is on the elite swimming team and has a handsome boyfriend while Marilyn is the super-smart protective best friend anyone would want to protect you from the office politics and who would take you the pub when you need a drink. But while this story isn’t supernatural we all know that once everyone is happy this rarely lasts in a drama slowly but surely, we notice things aren’t quite adding up.

Lisa is not just your standard single mother she is super worried about Ava vanishing from sight and avoids pictures and social media. Ava while from outside is a confident girl is secretly finding the cusp of being an adult hard work with a demanding boyfriend and an online friend who really knows her much better than her mum or mates. Marilyn never wants to allow guests home anymore and is always careful what she says. The reader bounces from the heads of each character in sequence and we realise each character is hiding something. No one wants to share secrets with their closest friends and that may be dangerous…

At this point I’m going to move away from giving you much more as this dear reader is really best taken as a voyage of discovery. This is a world where an abandoned soaked child’s toy can be terrifying and where just when you think you’ve been given all the clues (and you really have!) you’ll realise that you have come to the completely wrong conclusion as to the type of story this is and then just one more time for good measure and then one more for luck! You’ll find your assumptions challenged and your sense of ethics questioned. A mirror is held up to society and we are asked exactly what is evil? How is it created? Can you be forgiven for the worst things you’ve done? Everyone has secrets and as a reader you’re going to have to try and sift them all out.

The writing is excellent, and the scenes of office-politics, college cliques and council estates are pitch perfect. You understand these characters even if at times you cannot possibly want to be their friends any longer. Its very much about trust and when is that being abused. A run of the mill thriller would simply be about clues and red herrings but it’s the social commentary that makes this stand out. Its got a lot to say about the personas we adopt and how society is quicker to condemn rather than understand; particularly based on the status someone is at any time. The tension is twisted chapter by chapter until the darkness erupts to a very memorable and violent conclusion.

It’s a short review because I really don’t want to spoil you, but this is the type of story where I sat down to read it and was cursing having to put it halfway down for the night because I needed work in the morning! Its that good and its one of those book journeys you do not want to miss out on while at the same time it will make you look at certain events in a way that may make you uncomfortable to realise your own prejudices colour your judgement. Very much one to haunt you long after the final page is turned.

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Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

Publisher - Orbit

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99 hardback

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

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living; however, the city is starting to fray along the edges – crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called ‘the breaks’ is ravaging the population. When a strange new visitor arrives – a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side – the city is entranced. The ‘orcamancer’ as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people each living on the periphery – to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles they will learn shocking truths about themselves

 

We are used to the megacities in science fiction. Those places where humanity clusters for it’s final days. Be they forever raining, neon-lit or patrolled by grimacing helmeted police warriors this is where stand and fall. In this new entrant to the genre we visit Qaanaaq a city that resembles multiple rigs merged together in the far arctic while most of the rest of the world is drowned or uninhabitable. As often is the case it brings all of humanity’s darker impulses but the stand-out message I got from this was a sense of hope making it a truly remarkable start to what I hope is a fascinating series.

Qaanaaq is a fascinating place ruled by AIs but also purely there to make the people feel better there are human officials (who do little) and at its heart (as always) the powerful and the wealthy protected from everything. People have biological communicators but are still may be squashed with many others into decaying living quarters that may be next to billionaire’s empty holiday home. A vibrant black market thrives; regional tensions still exist in miniature and cross the wrong person you may find yourself throw in the freezing ocean waters. Initially this is exactly what you would expect from a future world where the cataclysms we fear finally occur.

The story primarily focuses on the lives of four characters from all parts of the society. Fil is a young gay man who comes from the richer side of society. A lost soul who tries to renounce his past he is suddenly shocked to find he appears to be infected with a new disease that means you are connected to all those previously infected; “The Breaks” means you increasingly are experiencing time our of reality. Then we have Ankit who has slowly worked her way up through government and is working hard to get her candidate re-elected but suddenly finding a child with The Breaks she realises her conscience wants to help people rather than simply say what people want to hear – this was not the wisest move. 

At the other end of the spectrum we have Kaev who as he has a severe issue with communication and apparent emotion has found himself as a journeyman fighter constantly having to lose games to allow hot young marketable talent to win and when not doing that works for the an up and coming gangling boss he fell in love with. Finally, we have a non-binary character in young So who has been building a reputation as a fearless deliverer of ahem questionable goods but finally has found himself with an opportunity to work for Go who finds him a promising new worker. Impressively and quite organically these four characters will build up your understanding of the world and cultures that resides in Qaanaaq and slowly we see the dotted lines as each one crosses paths with the others discovering many connections which as a reader I loved how it wasn’t simply spoon-fed in exposition. The way the group then bonds felt completely logical and it’s a team you really route for and fear for their survival.

Into this city of standard competing factions comes the rogue element – an orcamancer. Someone mentally bonded with an animal through a form of biochemistry science. Many years ago, this was deemed as heretical science and those who had received it would often find themselves hunted and destroyed. However, as our unnamed Orcamancer is a vicious fighter aided by both a killer whale and polar bear the few factions who try to pick up the mantle of executioner soon find it was a bloody bad idea…emphasis on blood. Our quartet and the Orcamancer however do have work to do and this will challenge the city’s power struggles which will result in retaliation...

At first, you really do think you’ve heard this one before and it just appears beautifully realised. All the characters stand out in their personalities and the way it has been plotted where they cross paths is done subtly and really is quite stunning in how easily the world and its history is explained. But what I feel is the books selling point is that this book becomes much more about a found family as the characters start to work together and slowly its less about purely grasping for power but doing the right thing for the better of humanity. It’s a book that asks the question that if we did truly lose most of the world do we really need to carry on all the conflicts and social rules we have created, or could we work to be better?  Is that our only source of hope for the future? This really creates a freshness and then slowly you look at the city and realise people are evolving learning other languages, cultures and crossing boundaries. Add to that potential changes in technology and while it’s a story with deceptions, lies and violence there is a sense of optimism that a future can be developed although it will have to be hard-won.

This is one of those novels I’ve been mentally coming back to several times since I finished it exploring why it capture my attention so much. My impression is that its taken a verrrrrrry familiar idea in SF and given it in these darkened times a more progressive outlook than we have had for a while with a sense of hope is something we all need right now. Strongly recommended to SF fans out there to pick up now

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The Poppy War by R F Kuang

Publisher  - Harper Voyager

Published - Out Now

Price - £16.99 hardcover

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

When Rin aced the keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating to Rin’s Guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself…..Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive….Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity…and that it may already be too late.

Fantasy by definition being genre we tend to decide that certain tropes mean that the story obviously must be an x, y or z plot. We know the theme and expect the story to run along the same lines. For me the best stories are those that subvert or build upon these well-trodden ideas and gives us a fresh perspective. In this fantastic debut what appears at first to be a story of a young teenager discovering magic and fighting the prejudices of her society becomes a much bigger epic tale examining war and its consequences.

You’ll be hard-pressed to not feel supportive of Rin our main character the story focuses on. As a young woman she is ‘fostered’ by the local village opium dealers who believe she will make a fine young bride/bribe for the local middle-aged single government official. Rin finds just one single way out – she must pass her local exam and get herself a free scholarship into the nation’s best school at Sineguard. There she can find the skills to make a future for itself. It’s not too spoilerish to find that after a brutal few months of cramming that she passes and then finds herself the only non-noble in her year. In this academy skills such as Combat, Strategy and even Medicine are covered to make the students into the best soldiers but Rin’s temperament and approach to life attracts her to the Academy’s less than salubrious Master of Lore Jiang who feels Rin is a prime candidate to learn about shamanism where drugs do work…to show you what reality really comprises or to bring the humans to the attention of the local Pantheon of Gods.

The Poppy War almost like it’s title in this first third is deceptively beautiful. Rin is a hard-working student; there is the standard teenage banter and even a local school bully and a hostile teacher to face while in Jiang we have a friendly slightly stoned mentor guiding Rin to a better understanding.  Cheering Rin on as she develops her confidence and fights back is a joy; but this is not Hogwarts and while the school setting is an excellent way to smuggle in world building explaining the social strata and history of the Nikaran people and their enemies the reader starts to notice that ultimately this school turns people into weapons for the state. The culture is one of competition; Rin is happy to burn her own skin to stay awake for exams; Students are encouraged to fight and maim each other, and the magic can just as easily send you mad as give you new insights. Rin arrives just as war with the historic enemies in Mugen becomes a talking point. By the time this first third of the book ends we understand the approaching conflict and find Rin’s future is closely involved with the battle to come.

The second part of the book explores Rin joining a secretive division in the Empire known as the Cike now managed by one of Rin’s school heroes - Altan This small but deadly group is now tasked with a major defence against the Muginese forces on their way to invade the country. Rin must learn how her powers can bolster the group, but she finds she shares far more in common with Altan than she ever dared hoped but at the same time finds her destiny is one that will potentially cause far more death and destruction than her teachers ever hoped for.

This is a hard story to describe and it’s a testament to Kuang’s skill as an author that that school setting allows you to understand the nature of the country, it’s power structures and magic systems. All done smartly as lessons or conversations between various school factions so that it never feels like pure exposition and always serves the plot at the time; the pace of the story never feels to have been slowed down either. Just as Rin learns how the world works so does the reader and once Rin leaves her school as wartime requires her to join the Cike we understand their role and potentially how her magical skills can aid her people. In many ways the reader can be reassured with classic signs of fantasy – the motley mercenaries with amazing skills; the noble but tragic squad commander but slowly we also get these almost deconstructed. Our mercenaries are not simply mavericks but people to whom magical abilities are having huge psychological impacts on; the noble Empire is riven with politics and feuding and is the aim to protect your country or to just finally avenge the results of the last war?

Kuang has created some fascinating characters that appear often as one thing only to turn into the virtual opposite over the story. Enemies can become friends, the mad can be sane and the noble can be ruthless. It’s tempting to call this grimdark but for me that title is almost a genre that delights in showing off moral ambiguity and indulging in the joy of violence. Here violence is shown as ugly, immoral and often perpetrated by all sides There is no joy being taken in the death and destruction we are witnessing which gets darker and more graphic. For me this is an epic fantasy war story examine how a society creates war and the soldiers to fight it.

The latter half of the book examines the merciless nature of battle and I did wonder if there were some parallels with WW2 and the invasion of China with Japan and some of the atrocities performed in that time in the name of an Emperor. My only caveat is that it really does show the starkness of battle and the horrific aftermath creates scenes that some readers may find too upsetting. This also led to the question as to what you need to do to stop the war and is that decision and what it will then unleash justifying the means? In a fantasy environment this means allowing Gods to exert their powers on earth – is that choice justified. Kuang does not make the decision easy and nor is it clear certainly in this first volume that the right answer was used. There are signs an even larger game is being played between these forces and a theme is made about choices – we decide what we want to do, and we must then be responsible for our actions and what that means for our world.  Can we still support Rin and her path at the end?

The novel this book most closely reminds me of is The Fifth Season (one of my all-time favourite series) in that it examines how a society gets to where it is and the consequences due to the structure and prejudices created by it. This first volume perhaps has focused more on the build-up and at the end of it we have a very different set-up to the one we joined, and I’m intrigued how the aftermath of these choices will be handled. One of the most impressive fantasy of the year and I think well worth your time.

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The Bitter Twins by Jen Wlliams

Puclisher - Headline

Published - Out Now

Price - £14.99 trade paperback

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

The Ninth Rain has fallen. The Jure’lia are awake. Nothing can be the same again.

Tormalin the Oathless and the fell-witch Noon have their work cut out rallying the first war-beasts to be born in Ebora for three centuries. But these are not the great winged warriors of old. Hatched too soon and with no memory of their past incarnations, these one-time defenders of Sarn can hardly stop bickering, let alone face an ancient enemy who grow stronger each day.

The key to uniting them, according to the scholar Vintage, may lie in a part of Sarn no one really believes exists – a distant island, mysteriously connected to the fate of two legendary Eborans who disappeared long ago.

But finding it will mean a perilous journey in a time of war, while new monsters lie in wait for those left behind.

Last year I was really impressed with the start of this epic fantasy series from Jen Williams. Continuing the trend for delivering excellent casts of (largely female) characters, great dialogue and fast paced action with a pleasing mix of SF within a standard fantasy world with the return of the off world Jure’lia and setting up a battle between magical beasts and spaceships. Now the second part of the Winnowing Flame Trilogy asks the question what happens next?

So, the action bursts from the start with a group of the insect like Jure’lia launching their many different components mercilessly on a village to be stopped partially by our heroes who have started to bond with the war-beasts including a feather dragon and a flying giant cat. It’s not a simple battle even though the Jure’lia are weak from being asleep and injured for many centuries. The war-beasts while strong largely don’t have the skills and honed ability they usually have upon erupting from their eggs and their choice of riders isn’t going smoothly easily either. They’re not a team and this can mean lives are lost. So eventually Tormalin and Noon are sent on a mission to try and find out if there is a way to find the war-beasts lost memories while back in Ebora the remainder of the team are themselves split between assisting a village in need and trying to guard the remaining treasures and war beast eggs within the palace.

As always with Williams the characters are a highlight. We have the new war beasts making an impact from Vostok the Dragon who remembers the old times and believes they are the one who should be in charge to the more independent large cat Kirune who is not entirely pleased he must bond with Tor. Each have their own personality and either complement or antagonise their host. This is a novel where we see relationships build or even burn from Tor and Noon’s uneasy romance to Vintage finding that her returned Eboran lover Nanthema is not quite the woman she remembers and also a reminder that she too is no longer the young woman they last were too and then finally the blossoming relationship between Bern the warrior and Alasdair the seemingly absent minded Eboran slowly coming back to the world he has been hiding from. The emotional interplay between these characters is what really propels the story and you’ll be invested into how they continue to change, and can they survive.

This time the book is also keen to explore the history of Sarn including the relationship between the Eborans and the Jure’lia. Tor and Noon’s journey takes them to meet ancient legends of Ebora and find a sinister side hiding in paradise. On the Jure’lia’s main ship Tor’s sister Hestillion is debating whether she made the right choices while she too now has a rather weak War Beast Celaphon to look after. This allows her to watch how the Jure’lian Queen works and she finds they are cooking up even worse monsters to bring about the end of the world.  Further battles commence and this time not everyone can survive…

There is a sense of many ancient factions now colliding and going to be settled once and for all. The one issue with the tale is that it has set up what looks like a truly epic final volume to come but you are conscious that is the middle volume and doesn’t always feel like a complete adventure but ultimately that is a key part of epic fantasy trilogies. But I suspect most readers will be more than familiar with William’s ability to deliver great characters, progressive societies and interesting world so if we must read another book to understand the bigger picture I don’t consider that a hardship!!  Overall, another strong entry from one of our most interesting British fantasy authors and by the way did I mention it still has giant bats?

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