Burning Sky by Weston Ochse

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

Publisher – Solaris

Price - £8.99

Published – Out now

Everything is dangerous in Afghanistan, nothing more so than the mission of a Tactical Support Team or TST. All veterans, these men and women spend seasons in hell, to not only try and fix what’s broken in each of them, but also to make enough bank to change their fortunes.

But seven months later, safely back on American soil, they feel like there’s something left undone. They’re meeting people who already know them, remembering things that haven’t happened, hearing words that don’t exist. And they’re all having the same dream…a dream of a sky that won’t stop burning.

I haven’t read much military SF recently and I will admit the idea of a group of men talking about their mighty weapons (snigger) tends to make me snooze but one of the best bits about reading is when you get surprised and this story gave me a lot of them aiming more for Jacob’s Ladder than the next Jack Ryan.

The story starts with the TST team out in Afghanistan; at this point it feels your standard hi-tech war thriller very much as the team are immediately shown in a dangerous part of the country escorting a General to a meeting. Lots of technical jargon and a team waiting for an attack but then glowing lights from the skies intervene and the story immediately time jumps to six months later and the TST is split up and back in the US. The first chapter hammered home that this was a group of seasoned albeit young professionals and now they’re shattered. The focus of this story is Bryan Starling (who uses the nickname Boy Scout) and he’s now surviving on drugs, alcohol and missions for gang bosses. An increasingly out of fit muscle for hire sent to silence a woman making trouble so he can make some money. For the reader very jarring to see this transition from someone we first met as a very by the book soldier and then things get even weirder – his intended target tells him he’s done this before and she knows what he will do to her. Bryan decides to make a stand for the guy he used to be and starts to bring the team together. During which he finds he’s not the only member to have gone off the rails and all of them seem to be having the same dreams and an ever-growing sense that something went horribly wrong on that last mission.

In many ways this is a book of three parts and how they connect is a major attraction.  The start could easily be one of several action thriller plots where an army veteran finds his skills more useful on the wrong side of the tracks but then a more unusual plot with hints of something much more supernatural make it becomes increasingly important that this troupe is put back together to go back. This section gives a me a feeling of a Jacob’s Ladder style plot where two narratives are fighting for control and reality becomes increasingly blurred with the fantastical and once the team get to Afghanistan the final reveal shows how this team all link into an ongoing mystical battle that has been running for centuries.  It’s a very unpredictable ride and avoids constant discussions of weapons and tactics swapping it for a more personal and for me more interesting dynamic.  This session is where it becomes a clash of fantasy horror and action which I think largely works as you’re not sure how the team can survive and where it will finally end.

The character dynamic was appealing.  This is a military team with two skilled and respected women operating alongside the men and the men themselves are a diverse group of backgrounds including former criminals and a gay man who again the team have no issues with.  It feels a refreshingly 21st century set-up.  Ultimately the TST enjoy what they do and while they all have their reasons for fighting and it is clear they complement and need each other on a very deep level.

My only reservation was the final reveal is a historical character who really set the ball rolling on the confrontation the team need to address.  That character is shown in a less than positive light and as far as I’ve been able to see he had no ulterior motives and instead is a respected literary figure to Persian culture.  Artistic licence must be expected in the genre but to base a story in Afghanistan and use a famous Muslim character as a potential antagonist (and to be fair their motives are still unclear, so this may be revealed in future stories as a red herring) I felt made this a little out of step with the rest of the book.

This is the start of a new series featuring the team (well whoever finally survives) and it’s a strong start to help launch what could be a very unusual series treading a line between military action and horror fantasy.  Really accomplished and I think if you enjoy action in your stories then this may be right up your attack zone.

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The Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99

Mehr is a girl trapped between two cultures. Her father comes form the ruling classes of the empire, but her mother’s people were outcasts – Amrithi nomads who worshipped the spirits of the sands.

Caught one night performing these forbidden rites, Mehr is brought to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, who try to force her into their service by way of an arranged marriage. If she fails in their bidding, the gods themselves may awaken and seek vengeance….

We tend to go large in Fantasy. The operatic vistas and battles of a thousand soldiers can of course be a thing of violent beauty but I do think on occasion we forget the power of the more personal closed story. By focusing on the world in miniature you can also gain a huge insight into the cultures and emotional journeys our characters are all on. In Tasha Suri’s enthralling debut, we are given a fascinating intensely personal story that is one of the most engrossing debuts of this year.

The Ambhan Empire has been maintained for centuries through the armed might of the Emperor and the mystical powers of the mysterious Maha. The Maha maintains the Emperor’s control and his powers can lead to the death of entire cities or their populations if felt a threat to the Empire’s prosperity.  It’s an Empire of different traditions and there are tensions.  The ruling Ambhan groups have governorships to control towns and on the edge in Irinah the nomadic Amrithi tribe are increasingly viewed as a superstitious remnant of the past.

Mehr is the daughter of an Ambhan Governor and an Amrithi nomad who briefly fell in love but found their relationship didn’t work. Her mother moved into the desert while Mehr and her sister Arwa after a few years find themselves with an Ambhan step-mother who feels that only Arwa has the potential to be passed off as a member of true society. Mehr instead must rely on her mother’s friend to understand the traditions and rites of her own heritage. When her friend goes mysteriously missing Mehr is seen performing Amrithi customs and her father decides to prevent any more disgrace to the family, that Mehr needs to be sent away to get married.  Unfortunately, the Maha appears to have been expecting this and sent his mystics across the desert to immediately get Mehr married to the mysterious Amun and then whisked back to the Maha’s desert palace.  Mehr then finds out how the Maha has maintained power and why he is always hunting down the Amrithi. Amun and Mehr may be the only people capable of stopping him but the cost may be too high.

There is a huge amount to love in this story. Our central character Mehr is human; capable but prone to acting without thinking. Far more comfortable with her mother’s heritage she is fiercely protective of her sister and increasingly aware as one of her oldest friends is having to flee her town that the Empire is not quite what she expected. Her loyalty to her sister and father makes her take the decision to get married to Amun but then the book has a fascinating relationship between her and Amun. She quickly finds Amun is far more than just one of the Maha’s mystics; the others in the group of suspicious of him; the Maha values his powers but forces his obedience and he soon turns out to be Amrithi himself. There is an intriguing view on communication as Amun has had to find ways around the Maha’s godlike control his use of language masks his true intents, but he is shocked to discover that Mehr reads his body language far better than he is used to. Their relationship is a combination of learning to reveal each other’s motives and their deepening trust is the emotional core of the book. Two key characters that will really make you both fear for their survival and hope for that moment they admit what they’re secretly feeling for each other.

The villains in the story are equally well drawn. Mehr’s stepmother and father could be your default cruel parents but, in this story, there is a depth where you realise the Empire has shaped their behaviours. It’s a world where women must be veiled when in public and her only actual choice is who she marries.  Power and status are sought subtly and while you may not approve of their behaviour you understand this. The true villain and one of the most terrifying in how he is both incredibly still and yet hinting at explosive violence is the Maha. He’s the most powerful person in the empire having been there for most of its existence; his mystics are unswervingly loyal and chillingly willing to follow his orders. Even a simple dinner scene is tense as Mehr, Amun and the Maha try to work out who knows what and the consequences if found out will be deadly.

This leads to one of the most impressive aspects of the book. Rather than endless pages of exposition to explain the world and its history the focus is more on the personal and the lives of the characters and this gives you so much more insight into how people live. A simple early scene at the beginning focusing on a scared child at night allows Mehr to explain the mysterious entities known as the daiva that dominate the book’s secrets. A strangely sad wedding scene explains the society that divides men from women and the culture where a woman’s face never to be revealed to anyone bar family and husband and even a simple scene where the women who live in the Maha’s palace have a night of games and betting suddenly makes you see that the Maha’s followers are wonderfully human and you care about what may happen to them. The whole world feels lived in and just full of myths and magical places to explore further.

This one of the most impressive debuts this year and is a startlingly well-developed world and Suri’s use of character and style grips the reader.It’s beautifully paced with revelations and reveals that make you want to reach the end.I am very pleased that there is to be another instalment (focusing on a very different lead character) next year.I definitely think this is a fantasy series you should look to start reading now because I’m intrigued where this goes next.

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A Hidden Hope by Laura Ambrose

Publisher – Penglass Publishing

Published – Out Now

Price - £2.29 Kindle ebook

Natalie and El used to be writing critique partners, sharing their work chapter by chapter. Falling in love off-page was like the next part of the story. But after a huge falling out, three years have passed in bitter silence.

When they both appear at a science fiction convention in London, Natalie, a struggling writer, wants nothing to do with El, the hot debut novelist who sold her book at auction under a male pseudonym. But over the weekend, ignoring each other – and their attraction – proves impossible, not least because they have several panels together. Can El hope to atone for the mistakes of their past, and is Natalie willing to let hope fly?

Back in January (2018 has been a lonnnng year has it not?) I did say I wanted to read outside my wheelhouse from time to time so other book types will appear. Laura Ambrose is more familiar to me for her charming Pantomime YA books and her near future cyberpunk thrillers (please look them up they’re great) so she is now an author I am on the look-out for in terms of new projects and when she announced new romances I was intrigued.  Pleased to say it was a charming and at times passionate story of rekindled love plus its at a science fiction convention!!

Welcome to Londcom a large science fiction convention where two US guests have been invited for panels.  Unknown to the organisers El and Natalie knew each other in their early writing days El learnt to love the SF genre and Natalie loved El’s use of language.  Talking through the web ld to friendship and ultimately romance but El slammed down the gates and it’s been quiet.  Natalie is therefore alarmed that El is revealed to be the new hot debut author no one knows who is about to be unveiled as a woman to the SF community.  Natalie however is more a mid-list author going through the grind of having enough ideas for the next book to be commissioned.  A conflict is inevitably on the cards but El would like a chance to explain herself.

I really liked the structure of the romance based around panels. Any convention goer is going to recognise the subjects and some of the guests (including humourless white male author wanting things the old way) and we start off with our two main characters in conflict. El the verbose author and Natalie the initially more reserved character but as these two orbit each other and have an important chance to communicate it’s clear that both has had an impact on the course of their lives. Despite the current conflict there is a sense that these two really do work for each other on many levels means the ultimate resolutions are totally appropriate for the characters we spend time with individually. 

There is a key set piece where the two characters go on a secret cinema date and the choice of venue and the atmosphere it creates for their potentially final ever date is beautifully played.  Totally suitable for two geeks with an evocative setting. I can’t spoil this scene too much but it’s worth it.  The final aspect to win me over was the focus on need for people to talk to each other and partnerships are ultimately based on communication; even if people eventually decide it may not be enough.

This is a beautiful, sensual and at time very penetrating look at the world of cons and publishing that establishes its reality well and then allows for the romance of the two leads to progress and win the reader over so you’re rooting for these two women to sort things out.  I will definitely look out for future novels from Laura Ambrose in future.

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Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

I would like to thank Nazia from Orbit for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Orbit

Price - £18.99 hardcover

Its thirty years from now, and we have colonised the moon.

American Fred Fredericks is making his first trip, his purpose to install a communications system for the Chinese Lunar Authority. But hours after his arrival, he witnesses a murder and is forced into hiding.

It is also the first visit for celebrity travel reporter Ta Shu. He has contacts and influence, but he too will find the moon can be a perilous place for any traveller.

Finally, there is Chan Qi. She is the daughter of the minister of finance, and without doubt a person of interest to those in power. She is on the moon for reasons of her own, but when she attempts to return to China, in secret, the events that unfold will change everything – on the moon, and on Earth.

Kim Stanley Robinson is rightly considered a giant in current science fiction from his ground-breaking Mars trilogy to his more recent environmental books such as 2312. He is very interested in looking at how the science of now can be adapted and the impact it will have on humanity plus where it could limit our growth as well.  In this novel; in which looks to be a new potential sequence of books, he brings his love of science, his eye for our cultures and its current political issues (including those of China) and mixes it with our satellite the Moon to give us a new glimpse of what may come to pass.

So, the good news is that in 2048 we are still here but the centre is not holding.  In the US people are rejecting capitalism and an economic crash is potentially on the cards.  In the other superpower of China, it is time for a new President to be chosen and infighting between the potential candidates is fierce while ‘the billion’ all those workers from around China without any real representation are starting to gain their own political momentum.  The strong feeling comes across that we are reaching a global tipping point and unusually it’s a small base on the Moon that provides that final adjustment to the balance. Fred Frederick is in the process of dropping off a quantum phone when he finds himself under suspicion of the assassination of a local politician and at the same time finds himself stuck with the pregnant daughter of one of the presidential candidates. They soon find themselves on the run and the chase moves across earth and the moon several times.

I’m going to get my biggest issue with the story out of the way first - the characters of Fred and Qi and the political thriller they find themselves in s probably the weakest part of the book.  Fred is portrayed as autistic and ignorant of Chinese politics while Qi (who we find out is the quasi-leader of the billion) comes across as a sullen and reserved politician in the making.  A good quarter of the book is these two on the run and in the process swapping a lot of information on the history of Chinese politics and quantum computing.  While the information was always interesting it never felt like a natural dialogue and more that the reader needed to know key plot points. Very little real character emerged, and I struggled to see Qi as the future leader of a revolution.  Scenes of capture or release would often materialise off screen and ultimately, I never felt invested into these two’s survival and the thriller often lacked actual thrills. Happily the book gives a lot more to chew on.

Firstly, the colonised Moon of the future.  If you consider that most of our mental images are the grainy pics of the Apollo Mission, we seem to have lost our vision of what the Moon is actually like now multiple unmanned missions have been there. Robinson really gives you a feel for the spectacle of the place with huge craters, ice mines and a landscape were rocks are weathered not by air but by moonlight. On top of this we have lunar life where the bases are now starting humanity’s preparation for further adventures like Venus and beyond. A completely artificial world but where animals can be seen and in one dazzling scene an opera sung by the people in a vast aerial landscape -  it feels the start of something new although noted a lot of the inhabitants appear to be the very rich. A very different character in the form of Ta Shu is for me the heart and conscience of the book. A man who has lived through the 21st century and strives to look for the beauty in it but also assessing the flaws in the society. He acts as a bridge between Qi and Fred and the various forces coalescing in China. His scenes feel more natural explaining China’s history and culture and when he is centre stage the story really flows.

The last half of the book moves a little beyond a simple thriller and moves into a bigger scale review of 21st century culture with a sense that capitalism and the type of representational democracy/or dictatorship we’ve used so far has run their course.  This leads the question as to what is next?  Watching a new Chinese revolution despite the Great Firewall and in the 21st century it’s prototype surveillance AI Little Eyeball seems a daunting and scary prospect, but Robinson portrays a way past these barriers; not everyone in the system believes it will carry on and importantly technology brings about ways that a critical mass of people can act together.  These ideas are fascinating, and I hope explored further in future books.  Annoyingly a few times there are several scenes of revolution being relayed between characters from a distance, so we don’t really get enough of a handle on the scale of the change at the coalface back on earth.

So overall, I think this is an intriguing read if you are interested in the ideas of where politics and economics are heading or a discussion of what our lunar satellite now has to offer; the political thriller element is probably it’s least successful thread but overall enough balance to recommend it to SG fans. Hopefully now that the groundwork of this universe has been built in a future novel we may get even more sight of what Earth’s potential can truly be.

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Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

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

Publisher - Orbit

Price - £8.99 paperback

Published – Out Now

Live fast, die young.

Tam Hasford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown.

When the biggest mercenary bad of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard. It’s adventure she wants – and adventure she gets as the crew embarks on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death.

Fantasy, SF and rock music do seem to go together well. Highlander without Queen’s soundtrack falls over (just look at the sequels) and Led Zeppelin definitely stole a few legends into their own storytelling. A music that appeals to the inner soul and can go truly epic and up to 11 easily fits with fantasy’s various kingdoms of the ice and snow and riders approaching cities while the wolf begins to howl…. (notes cease and desist letter from lawyers) …ahem. But Nicholas Eames has in this book examined the life of the fantasy heroes and heroines and imagined that there may be quite a few similarities with those of the stars of the bands themselves. In Bloody Rose there is a fantastic examination of what such a life may look like.

The key conceit of the story is simple.  Heroes join up as Bands (of warriors) and go on tour around the lands fighting monsters for fees and gaining fans as tales of their exploits go far and wide. As time has moved on now towns have arenas where monsters are put in place of the acts to fuight (or be killed) alongside waiting for the call for a slightly wilder adventure. And listening to this in a tavern is Tam Hashford herself the daughter of a now deceased Band Bard and she wants to go outside that village her father has stopped her from leaving. When she hears the infamous Band, Fable is auditioning for their next bard she seizes the chance and is soon working with her new leader ‘Bloody’ Rose to go on what may be the most lucrative score of all.  However, all other bands are going in the other direction to fight a new power preparing to invade the land.   

Tam finds herself with Rose – the taciturn but fiercely protective heart of the band herself following in a famous parent’s footsteps; there is her lover the druin Freecloud from a mysterious and magical immortal lineage; backing these up is the Shaman Brune who can shapeshift but struggles with controlling his wilder side and then the Summoner Cura who uses her tattoos to summon powerful creations to fight her battles and loves to live on the edge. Behind the scenes is the flamboyant and often still drunk Roderick organising the tour. A tight unit that understands each other but now needing to find out if Tam can be accepted.  Imagine a rock tour but with bigger dangers than cut-throat agents.

I had not got around to Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames last year (too many books and too little time) I was aware of this idea of Bands and was intrigued what it would mean.  In some ways this initially feels like a fantasy take on Almost Famous as Tam is slotted into this group of living legends and starts to find out what an actual life on tour means.  The Bard’s role is to sit back and sing about how heroic her Band is and yes it does appear a life of living on the edge where any moment you can die but the roar of the crowd, the groupies and copious amounts of sex and drugs is the reward. Exactly what kind of person does this attract?

Eames is great at humorously deconstructing the standard fantasy tropes and exploring the type of people heroes probably are when they’re not standing in the arena soaking in the adulation after the next kill. As Tam herself realises that role requires a certain type of person and their motivation as to why they’re doing this needs to be understood in order to better know that person. As with many rock stars their background informs why they decided to seek the stage and possibly escape. Rose for example has a very strong emotional relationship with Freecloud but also a constant desire to be proving herself against the living legend that her father is; Bruin and Cura have both felt this lifestyle is probably safer than her home and Roderick feels like this is one of the few places he can be himself. The first half of the book is a series of escapades and adventures as the band travels where we get to learn and love this group and understand the world it is part of.  Its successful and can range from the laugh out loud funny to the heart-breaking.  Ultimately this is a found family story of how these people bond and care for each other.

But this is still epic fantasy and very skilfully there is a midway turning point where Fable’s mission turns out to have far huger consequences for the entire world than anyone can imagine. This is where that build up really succeeds because now the group we are so invested in are going to be right in the middle of a huge confrontation. By putting themselves on the line the band really must show they have the right stuff and sometimes that’s the only time you can truly earn your true moment of glory but there may be consequences as this lifestyle isn’t always going to mean a happy ending. Eames has a fluid style of writing and he can do small character scenes which make you understand the people you are meeting but then he can easily swing to the epic battle with huge monsters; swirling action and at times some beautiful moments of pathos and solidarity.  The final battle in the book is expertly plotted both tactically and emotionally the latter something I wish was thought about a lot more in fight scenes.

One last thing I really enjoyed was the progressive look   fantasy.  This wasn’t just in the range of characters. Our lead Tam is gay, and this seems to be broadly accepted in this world but there is an examination of the way the human races treat all the other creatures they live alongside.  In the aftermath of the last war creatures such as gorgons, orcs and goblins can now find themselves sold as battle fodder in the arenas and ultimately Tam starts to think the myth of the band life may be better than the real thing. Especially when this attitude starts to ferment the next war. There is an interesting side commentary on fantasy (a bit like Rock) playing with the worlds of the older generation; perhaps going a little crazy and then asking if there are other ways to live/write than eternal bloodshed for the audience using stock battles ad infinitum?

I found this an engrossing read that mixes some great ideas with a great writing and characters all doing something different to the expected. I will definite be catching up on Kings of the Wyld soon, but I think this series could end up another entry in what a golden period in recent new fantasy authors has been.  Strongly recommended but be warned urge to grab a sword or guitar and play to crowds may take place.

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Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Publisher – Atlantic Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £3.79 kindle ebook

Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouth-watering sourdough bread. Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive.

Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer’s market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show. When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people exactly?

I was reminded this weekend that we all believe in food. Food is important to us as both as a ritual and a fuel. A lot of our day revolves about it and everyone has a view on it. In this story Robin Sloan looks our the 21st century view on food and uses it to look at our ever-increasing love of technology, battle for capitalism and obsession. It is an incredibly tasty mixture.

The story focuses on Lois a young hard-working programmer who has moved out to San Francisco to work for one of the world’s up and coming tech firms. She works, and she sleeps, and she works. Life is ordered, her teammates are persuading her to move into a liquid nutrient diet perfectly designed for a well-balanced working life. Her kitchen is empty and she has become a creature of routine. But as with all things a takeaway service can always make a difference (mmm pizza) . In this case however, spicy soup and a piece of sourdough delivered every day from her Mediterranean delivery man gives her a moment away from it all. Sadly, the American government cracks down on the staff’s lack of green card and a restaurant closure beckons but noting her daily routine the restaurant gives their best customer the recipe for the sourdough bread handed down the generations and most importantly the ‘starter’; a micro-organism culture that the dough is mixed with to make it rise. Suddenly Lois finds a new talent and potentially a new calling as a baker.

I thought I knew the type of book I was getting when I started this book as the standard Generation/Y/Z tale of people discovering there is more to life than a computer and a desk through the power of a non-technical life aka dough. But while it does skewer the culture of people only living to work its also has a satirical glance at those who have gone to the other extreme. The multi-million-dollar world of artisan cooking where Lois finds herself fighting to get into precious baking markets – while the goods may be more natural the business can be as mercenary and hard-going as the tech world (just with more flour). Lois must learn about pitches and is sucked into a world where you must spend hours before and after work just baking and baking.

The fantasy element of the novel (I bet you wondered why this has grabbed me!) is in how the starter culture Lois turns out to be a bit demanding. It needs the music of the Mazg homeland played through headphones and if you don’t pay it attention the bread will suffer. As Lois gets sucked into the secret world of hi-tech food where meat is grown, vegetables are genetically modified and insect food protein is heralded as the next best thing then Lois must merge her robotic skills and her new baking into a new thrilling concept. Lois finds that she is being increasingly targeted by the rich and powerful to support their own plans. The starter though sees this as an opportunity to spread its own influence…

It’s a very inventive story and Sloane has a way of creating a very extreme situation that is both funny and making some pointed comments on obsession and the desire to win in business at all costs. Lois is the classic character looking to find where they fit in and trying to work out why she thinks something in her life is missing. Is food a power source, a hobby or a new income stream that can change your life? I can’t really say much more about the plot as the surprises as to why this starter acts the way it does is part of the fun, but the story’s logic is internally sound and really comes together in a very memorable conclusion. his was a pleasant surprise of a read giving me a setting and a story I found made me look at the world of food and business with a slightly more raised eyebrow and a reminder that everyone wants to fit in somewhere. Well worth a look but you may find yourself with a bread craving afterwards.

 

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In The Vanisher's Palace by Aliette de Bodard

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

Publisher – Jabberwocky Literary Agency

Published - Out Now

Price - £4.99 kindle eBook

In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned, and beings of nightmares roam the land…

A woman betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world. A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference. When failed scholar Yen is sold to Vu Con, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Con’s amusement. But Vu Con, it turns out, has a use for Yen: she needs a scholar to tutor her unruly children. She takes Yen back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death.

Vu Con seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yen comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yen will have to decide where her own happiness lies and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Con’s dark unspeakable secret.

We often like to call a fairy story a timeless classic; the tales of a long time ago can be reshaped and re-told to suit today’s times and perspectives but we tend to always set the story in the past of a mysterious land where magic is real.  Aliette de Bodard however has taken a different approach of transplanting the story of Beauty and the Beast to a very futuristic world where the science can easily appear to be magic; despite this change of scene it is still an enticing story with some important points about today’s world.

The story begins in a land where the all-powerful rulers could change matter, bodies and energy at by the power of words (or more accurately spells). But at some point these mysterious people moved on from the world (and hence are known as the Vanishers); not everyone on the world was a Vanisher and there are small settlements across the world who are having to live in a chaotic world where the powers are now uncontrolled; harvests are patchy, diseases are rampant and ever mutating; life for those on the edges of society is hard. If you cannot be of use to your village you may find yourself stripped to your molecular components. In Yen’s village her mother the healer desperate to save the life of an important person in the village summons one of the most powerful remaining forces in the world Vu Con an entity that can be both a dragon or appear human. Vu Con agrees to assist but only in exchange for another life and this turns out to be Yen herself. Vu Con is known for having a bloodthirsty streak, so Yen expects her trip to Vu Con’s realm to be short and painful.   But Yen is about to get a much better view of what led to the world she knows being created and her presence will make Vu Con start to look at the humans in the world with new eyes.

Into this we have in the lead roles two very intelligent women working out their relationship. Yen wants more than village life, she seeks knowledge and a purpose but is hurt as she was forced into a form of servitude by her own family. Vu Con is someone who changes form at will (or under great emotional turmoil) a holder of the Vanisher’s secrets her powers can heal, or she may decide to kill those she deems a danger to the rest of the world. Hence finding Vu Con has two children both equally powerful but not yet fully emotionally mature enough to venture into the rest of the world adds a surprising dimension to the almost demonic tyrant we were led to suspect she was. While both characetrs want something from the other - a continued existence and to show the children that power should be used responsibly and while there is tension because of their roles of ruler and servant there is also an undeniable attraction between these two women that will make them question their approach as to how to live in this world. A key point in this is that Vu Con needs to learn to recognise Yen is not an obsession or a servant but ultimately someone she needs to learn to have a consensual relationship based on trust with. It’s so refreshing to see a mainstream fantasy tale that makes a growing relationship between its two female leads both incredibly sensual, normal  and true to the nature of the characters.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this novella is we are in a very different world to the standard medieval European village setting western readers are so used to. The world outside Vu Con’s world is analogous to south east Asian culture but also one that is verging towards a dystopian apocalypse while Vu Con’s realm is a mysterious fractal every changing dimension with rooms that lead anywhere and shift contents and structure at any time its owner requests. These two extremes highlight both what the Vanishers were capable of at their best but also a reminder that they seemed to be very absent landlords. It is a very thoughtful comment about the dangers of very advanced powers deciding to own and toy with people with colonisation for their own purposes but then leaving those people to then deal with the consequences of that invasion.

The language of the entire tale echoes the world it’s gorgeously colourful, powerful and the whole tale has a fluidity and energy that matches the flowing and ever-changing world that Yen finds herself in.  There is a risk that because we all know the original story (or to eb more honest its most com mon 21st century interpretation) that the story will lack any surprises, but I think the final third of the novel provides new threats and revelations that make this story its own delight. That’s a voyage I really think any reader who loves a modern look at the classics should take.  I definitely think de Bodard is one of the most talented storytellers we have around now, and this is a fine addition to her work.

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Petra McDonald & The Queen of the Fae

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price – £8.99

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

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

Rosewater is a town on the edge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

Publisher – Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Published – Out Now

Price - £5.62 kindle eBook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark

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

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 (Hardcover)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starfang - Will of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published – Out Now

Price – £7.99 paperback £TBC ebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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King of Assassins by R J Barker

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

Publisher – Orbit

Price – £9.99

Published – Out Now

The King is Dead, Long Live the King…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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City of Lies by Sam Hawke

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

Publisher – Bantam Press

Price - £12.99 Hardcover

Published – Out Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £5.99 eBook/£9.99 paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Glimmer of Silver by Juliet Kemp

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

Publisher – The Book Smugglers

Published – Out Now

Price - £3.80 eBook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Publisher - Del Ray

Price - £8.99 paperback

Published - Out Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The War In The Dark by Nick Setchfield

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

Publisher – Titan Books

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Godblind by Anna Stephens

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price – £8.99

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starfang II - Claw of the Clan by Joyce Chng

Publisher – Fox Spirit Books

Published - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback/ebook to follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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