Water Into Wine by Joyce Chng

Publisher  - Annorlunda Books

Published - Out Now

Price - £2.17 ebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

WaterintoWine_300.jpg

The Chalk Man by C J Tudor

Publisher - Penguin

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99

None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning.

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

Was it the terrible accident?

Or when they found the first body?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The-Chalk-Man-by-C-J-Tudor-195x300.jpg

The Testament of Loki by Joanne M Harris

Publisher - Gollancz

Published - Out Now

Price - £14.99 hardback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

loki.jpg

Slay by Kim Curran

Publisher - Usborne Publishing

Published - Out Now

Price - £6.99  paperback

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Slay_Front_Cvr_RGB-768x1179.jpg

Pacific Monsters edited by Margret Helgadottir

Publisher - Fox Spirit Books

Published - Out Now

Price - £10 paperback

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

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

 

Monster by Tina Makereti

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

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

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

The Hand Walker by Rue Karney

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

Grind by Michael Gray

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

Dinordis by Octavia Gade and illustrated by Dave Johnson

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

The Weight of Silence by Jeremy Szal

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

Above the Peppermint Trail by Simon Dewar

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

All My Relations by Bryan Kamoli Kuwada

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

Mudgerwokee by Kirstie Olley

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

Into the Sickly Light by AC Buchanan

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

 

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

 

 

pacific_size-300x300.jpg

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Publisher - HarperCollins

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99 hardback

Someone is living a lie…but who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cross-her-heart.jpg

Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

Publisher - Orbit

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99 hardback

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blackfish.jpg

The Poppy War by R F Kuang

Publisher  - Harper Voyager

Published - Out Now

Price - £16.99 hardcover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ThePoppyWar.png

The Bitter Twins by Jen Wlliams

Puclisher - Headline

Published - Out Now

Price - £14.99 trade paperback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the-bitter-twins-jen-williams-21-02-18.jpg

The Wolf by Leo Carew

Publisher - Wildfire

Published - Out Now

Price - £16.99 Hardcover

Violence and death have come to the land under the Northern Sky. The Anakim dwell in the desolate forests and mountains beyond the black river, the land under the Northern Sky. Their ancient ways are forged in Unthank silver and carved in the grey stone of their heartland, their lives measured out in the turning of centuries, not years. By contrast the Sutherners live in the moment, their vitality much more immediate and ephemeral than their Anakim neighbours. Fragile is the peace that has existed between these very different races – and that peace is shattered when the Suthern armies flood the lands to the north. These two races revive their age-old hatred, and fear of each other. Within the maelstrom of war, two leaders will rise to lead their people to victory. Only one will succeed.

 

Fantasy is often filled with tales of two sides bordering a land where sadly opportunities for war are ever likely. In this debut from Leo Carew we have the mighty Anakim (over seven-foot-tall, internally armoured strong giants) versus Sutherners (the humans). Intriguingly the series is more likely to have to you cheering on the giants for a change!

The story starts with the Anakim having their greatest ever defeat at the hands of the Sutherners in their own land. Subtle tactics and technology allow the Anakim to be mown down and their ruler Kynortas The Black Lord is slain. His son Roper seeing that his mighty army risks complete destruction orders the remaining army to do an unheard-of retreat into their fortress stronghold. This allow the Suthern nobles aided by a wily human Bellamus to start taking over more and more of the Anakim land. Roper, however returns to his citadel in disgrace not just for being viewed as a coward but also finding former friends of his father now seeing him as a mere obstacle to their own ambitions for the throne. Can he quickly learn the art of leading?

I think a reader who enjoys reading about different societies to humans will enjoy this book. There is a lot of focus on the Anakim way of life. A group of giants who can live two hundred years easily with no real written language, but an abundance of stories chanted down over the years really do across as different than just tall humans. Their way of life ranging from it’s secret societies to their views on war and fighting are made to stand out. It’s very much Roper’s story and we see him move from a simple henchman to someone who can command multiple factions and when his loved ones are threatened he is capable of exacting terrible revenge. It has a resemblance to the Godfather as the kind son slowly hardens to war and bloodshed.  Over the border we see his opposite number Bellamus himself work to his own goals as a commoner working to get nobles to do his bidding. Bellamus has studied the Anakim for many years and very much wants his own army to see him as a leader in waiting. The story attempts to contrast their rises in power working out various factions.

A strong part of the book is Roper’s internal battle with the mighty warrior Uvoren who has decided Roper is not suitable to lead and his own power base is more than ready to bring the new Black Lord down via loss of public support and if that fails more deadlier means. Roper gets tacit approval from The Anakim’s secret order that protects the wider integrity of society The Krptea and their archivists the Academy to try and beat Uvoren who they feel would be a disaster for the people. But he must do it on their own.  Carew really makes the society come alive and when the action focuses on these little group and bits of court drama the story feels most vibrant and watching Roper change over the course of the events is a curious mix of encouraging him on and then saying to yourself oh no don’t go down that path!!

There are however two main issue that get in the way of the story. The first is that a lot of the time Roper gets to win things easily. Starting off in total disgrace he swiftly gets allied to a major faction and married to one of the more interesting characters in the novel – the funny, clever and charming Keturah who swiftly proves an equal at leadership to Roper. But its all done in a single scene where Roper’s good intentions win over a powerful backer. A lot of the time there is no doubt that Roper’s plan (although often a cunning one!) will succeed. That lack of tension does make a lot of the threats he has to fend off a less than satisfying experience.  The idea of focusing on politics and winning the people is one I wish more books took to heart but its not as well developed as I’d have liked to see.

The other issue is the pacing. There is a lot of wandering in fields as Roper prepares to fight the Sutherners and sometimes the way characters tell stories of the past to inspire leadership or explain the plot again suck the energy from the tale. Often these scenes are to help Roper decide what action he must next take but it feels mechanical that a tale about an army prank leads to his stunning victory. A slightly tighter pace would allow the story to soar past these moments and often you can see the pieces being moved around the board.  Hopefully as the series progresses Carew will now find that after setting the world and factions up he can focus more on the story than explaining the world.

It’s a promising debut with some original ideas and a desire to be more than just a tale of two armies killing each other.  A focus on how a society operates with political intrigue is always welcomed but I think in future tales there needs to be a bit more danger to our leads if a few more risks are taken in future novels it could become a much more interesting series to recommend.

 

wolf.jpg

One Way by S J Morden

Publisher - Gollancz

Published - Out Now

Price - £13.99 Paperback

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

Eight Astronauts. One killer. No way home.

Frank Kittridge is serving life for murdering his son’s drug dealer, so when he’s offered a deal by Xenosystems Operations – the corporation that owns the prison – he takes it. He’s been selected to help build the first permanent base on Mars. Unfortunately, his crewmates are just as guilty of their crimes as he is. As the convicts set to work on the frozen wastes of Mars the accidents multiply. Until Frank begins to suspect they, might not be accidents at all…

Mars may be the next final frontier as we start to think about human exploration beyond the moon and often we think of those future astronauts as a mix of scientists and fighter pilots. In this entertaining SF thriller from SJ Morden we get a slightly more blue-collar view take. Can eight seemingly less than perfect people create the first Martian base?  Will anyone but the murderer be alive at the end?

Our focus in on middle aged Frank Kittridge; serving a maximum life sentence for killing his son’s dealer has now lost contact with his family and he is keeping a low profile until the day he dies in prison. However, in his previous life Frank was an engineer and got thinks built and this means the vast corporation that both owns his prison and has just won a contract to create the first Martian base means he is a useful asset. Frank gets the offer to make something special of his life with seven other criminals who bring a set of skills that could make this plan work.  They’re all expendable but they have a chance to make a name for themselves. Over the next year we see Frank train, learn to bond with his team and finally set foot on Mars. Sadly, while that happens we also start to see people begin to die – Mars is a dangerous place, but the level of accidents suggests something more than bad luck is at play. When everyone you know is a convicted criminal are you not likely to have a more dangerous person with you and with the nearest police officer is a few million miles away how can you investigate?

Morden really works hard to get you into what appears to be a slightly strange idea for the first Martian base. It’s incredibly risky so why not use convicts and you can easily imagine a corporation working out they’re cheaper labour. The science and importantly the people dynamics of the crew are a highlight. A simple crew of eight people need a variety of skills from driving to wiring to make a base work and the idea of everyone having to learn other skills and work under pressure - firstly on earth and then on Mars feels authentic. Frank becomes the de facto foreman able to work with anyone and see the bigger picture plus he perhaps out of all the team sees a form of redemption in the idea. When the action moves to Mars Modern makes the place seem alive and alien at the same time. Huge mountains a buggy must scale; dust twisters that can wipe you away and endless seas of nothing where you’re protected from boiling your body away in the cold by only a space suit or a flimsy base wall.

I got really sold on the idea that a well-designed base that’s disassembled and sent to mars could be made up by people who’ve learnt exactly how it all fits together. Its also made realistic that such corporations would make mistakes and its up to the crew to devise how to heat the building. Lots of clever engineering tricks that when you’re on your own really are impressive to read. The idea of level headed team leader like Frank who can cajole and boost his team is quite sensible as the real type of person you may want on another planet to help you. In comparison with The Martian where one-man battles survival I think preferred seeing how people must learn to co-operate and perhaps find within themselves a new life. I got swept along with the sense of adventure and quite invested in their survival.

This leads me though to the murder mystery aspect of the book. The first half builds up a sense of mystery as we see these rather horrific escalating ‘accidents’ that underline how alone this crew and it has a classic murder mystery feel of a locked house with one killer hiding among the suspects. But I think most experienced SF fans may find their suspicions proved right as to what is really going on and I think a few more curveballs or surprises may have helped keep me guessing for longer. The resolution is logical and makes sense, but I’d loved to have worked harder to guess the prime suspect.

Overall this is a fast and really engaging bit of Martian SF. Morden I think is a writer to watch as making science come alive and add a human dimension is a rare gift. A perfectly engaging read while you gaze up at the summer night skies and dream of the future.

 

 

Morden_One-Way_PB.jpg

The Silenced by Stephen Lloyd Jones

Publisher - Headline

Published - Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback

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

Mallory Grace just killed a man. To survive the next hour, she’ll have to kill again. To survive the night, she’ll need a miracle. Obadiah Macintosh doesn’t seem like a miracle. He is a recluse who works alone at an animal sanctuary, and he has a secret. When the dogs in his care alert him to intruders hidden by the darkness he knows they are coming for him. Mallory and Obadiah were strangers, brought together for one purpose. To give new light to a terrifying world. But now they are on the run, and evil intends to find them.

 

You’ll remember the opening of The Silenced for a long time. It’s a really good cold opening with Mallory working out how to deal with a dead man in her bathroom. The reader doesn’t know what on earth is going on. It’s a technically skilful thriller that crosses the globe and human history but while it delivers on action and locations I think it is more a mixed bag in terms of characters you can understand and want to care about.

Mallory Grace (not her real name) has been on the run for many years and her pursuers have finally found a way to trace her. A chance meeting in Cornwall outside a science fiction convention has led to an event that means to some groups Mallory and Obadiah must die. The duo then run across the UK and Europe to hide from this group pursued most viscously by Aylah who has personally sworn an end to Mallory and will stop at nothing to see her die.

Lloyd Jones has an amazing cinematic style and really knows how to flow action and wider scenes together. You can easily see this as a film where Mallory flees from a London suburb across beautiful locations such as Cornwall, The Alps and every scene is well pictured. So, once you start in that scene with a body its propels you at high speed and there is a great set of tension as the reader sees Mallory’s pursuers are both technically very powerful and ruthless. The teasing mysteries as to why Mallory must die are what propels the first half of the story along and its fun watching the introverted, skilled and often violent Mallory with the ultra-relaxed and geeky Obadiah. Watching their relationship thaw out is a nice bit of character building

Unfortunately, I found two major issues with the story. The McGuffin as to why Mallory is targeted really pushes belief and for me these days has a staler taste of women being valued for what they can produce rather than an active character.  It just isn’t sold that effectively to believe that all this violence is being committed for such a flimsy reason. My other issue is that while pace and action is non-stop for most of the novel character development seems slight. Mallory is the skilled fighter who can hide anywhere, and Obadiah is the geeky but kind companion (although his geeky tastes resemble more those of a 40-year-old!) their characters don’t stand out and sadly for me mean once the central mystery is relieved I cared much less for their survival. The one exception was the main villain Aliya – her motivations for Mallory’s death are much more personal than worshiping an ancient tradition and her story is fascinating.  You’re not sure right up to the end where she is going.

Overall while I think the story is well paced I didn’t find myself rooting for our heroes and it didn’t for me stand out or take any surprises. I would recommend it if you want a fast-paced action thriller to turn the brain off for but I’m not sure like all good movies it will leave a lasting impression.

The Silenced.jpg

Not So Stories edited by David Thomas Moore

Publisher - Solaris

Published - Out Now

Price - £9.99 paperback

Thanks to the Publisher for an advance copy in exchange for a fair and honest review

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was one of the first true children’s books in the English Language, a timeless classic that continues to delight readers to this day. Beautiful, evocative and playful, the stories of How the Whale Got His Throat or How the First Letter Was Written paint a world of magic and wonder.

It’s also deeply rooted in British colonialism. Kipling saw the Empire as a benign, civilising force in a way that’s troubling to modern readers. Not So Stories attempts to redress the balance, bringing together new and established writers of colour from around the world to take the Just So Stories back, to interrogate, challenge and celebrate their legacy

To me as a child The Just So Stories were just a BBC cartoon series with weird sixties animation, Sir Michael Holdern’s voice and a playful version of how animals got various characteristics. Kipling was the guy who made the Jungle Book and these jolly stories, so I associated him with only kid’s stories. But as I got older I became more aware of his love of the British Empire and for him how that was a good thing that brought order and joy to all it conquered. The impacts of the empire and how we see the rest of the world are still felt today. I think the UK’s ever -increasing tendency to look back with red white and blue-tinted spectacles leaves much to be desired.  Just look at how the citizens of Windrush are being treated second class now. The stories of Empire and colonialism are often just told from the ruler’s perspectives. This refreshing set of stories edited by David Thomas Moore and with an insightful foreword from Nikesh Shukla remind everyone that we still need to remember what that time did and what consequences have spilled forth.

How the Spider Got its legs by Cassandra Khaw

There is a very strong opening story told very much in the style of Kipling with mentions of ‘Best Beloved’ but with a much sharper bite. Here Spiders were Long Ago one legged and prey to all, but Spider works out to save her children, but Man realises her joy is a threat. It’s a tale of arrogance and a need to rule ending up as fuel for revenge. You may praise spiders afterwards!

Queen by Joseph E Cole

A Queen narrates to a human child her life and how she was treated by humans when captured. It’s a poignant story of how someone when mistreated can firstly decide survival for themselves is the only purpose but as time passes this can teach someone to rebel for others. Really strong story and you will want to know exactly how the Queen go to her current position. Haunting as we see her character develop and change as her experiences impact her.

Best Beloved by Wayne Santos

Here is a very different story focused less on the anthropologic animals but how at the time the British treated and saw their colonies. In 19th Century Singapore Seah Yuan Ching has fallen for Adam a sophisticated British man keen to read to her and declare his love for her. Yuan Ching finds balancing her time with her lover and his world balanced with her own role in Singapore as a spiritual guardian. It’s a ghost story where it explores Britain’s shameful role in the Opium trade and this story is about how people are possessions or pawns in a global game.

The Man Who Played with the Crab by Adiwijaya Iskandar

A young girl and her father’s life as guardians to a Queen find a white man arrives and cruelly threatens both with his electric wands.  The tale winds to a fascinating battle between the Queen and the man exposing his weaknesses behind his desire to destroy and rule. It adds a new dimension to how one group came by their name, but it also shows the attitude colonists loved to show to those they thought were natural servants.

Samsara by Georgina Kamsika

Nina is a 21st century whose white father and Indian mother have divorced. She returns to the home of her estranged Nanna. Nina and her mother are then finding a spirit unhappy with choices made by her family. Really beautiful story where the consequences of not exploring your culture are discussed. Really heart-warming

Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger by Zedeck Siew

This is one of the most thought-provoking stories weaving what looks to be a Malay legend with a story about a Queen at the mercy of two villages and a battle between anthropology and government. Who writes the stories we here and why? Will today’s victors decide certain stories are no longer suitable to support the narrative they now want you to consume? These themes are skilfully weaved together, and the result is unsettling

How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic by Jeannette Ng

A seemingly joyful story of how Village traditions of wish making is balanced with the History of Hong Kong. It’s merciless in how the people are treated and the final beautiful dark line really packs a punch.

How the Ants Got Their Queen by Stewart Hotson

Various Ant colonies are bemused by the arrival of a pangolin from far away lands. One Ant sees the power of the Pangolin as a perfect way to redress the balance in various local conflicts. Hotson shows the full impact of Colonialism in a sobering allegory from how some seek to use a colonist’s power, how it decimates a people and how ultimately even those who rescue a land can end up being its next dictator.  Quite heart-breaking when you realise how the story will end

How the Snake Lost Its Spine by Tauriq Moosa

A snake holds up the sky and protect all who are under their protection, but White Devils believe they have a way to finally bring their enemy down. This is a well told reminder that Empires don’t always purely invade but they undermine leaders already in place to make the new regime be welcomed with open arms until too late.   

The cat Who Walked by Herself by Achala Upendran

Ina tale of Long Ago a Woman is caught by A Mn to do his bidding. This darker story sees a woman try to avoid the fate of Men deciding she is just as much a possession as Dog, Cow or Horse. The final reveal and its reminder to fight back against those who seek to own you is well done and reminder that sometimes you need to rescue yourself from a prison you’ve made.

Strays Like Us by Zina Hutton

Bastet still walks among us after thousands of years but without her followers. A very short tale of how gods survive. Not sure it quite fits but yes it does have a quick point about Neil Gaiman! Always enjoy a tale of what gods do after their time in the sun!

How the Simurgh Won Their Tale by Ali Nouraei

In a hospital battling to keep power for the patients a grandfather walks up to the ward to see his young daughter with cancer. He reads her a story which itself explores through animals and tress the power of mercy, the need to oppress and having hope for the future. Beautifully told and one that ends with a sense of one day humanity seeing sense.

There is Such a Thing as a Whizzy-Gang by Raymond Gates

A young child discovers his uncle’s joke about a monster in the bushes isn’t quite as fake as you’d think. It’s a very visceral little horror story…skin may itch.

How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off by Paul Krueger

The final story takes a more humorous look at what next happened to the Camel. Trapped in a soulless office with other animals working for HR who doesn’t really care about any other culture Camel is fighting to get Time off for a powerful da in her world. Kipling who rewarded the camel for working now has the story inverted and Camel’s other trait of stubbornness perhaps also is a reminder that rebellion can get results!

A brilliant collection of stories ranging from horror to grief to hope that I think any reader who enjoys the power of story used to reflect our world and perhaps remind us how the horrors of the past have got us to now and a need to ensure they are never repeated. Strongly recommended and another superb Solaris anthology.

 

 

not so.jpg

The Tea Master and The Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Publisher - Jaberwocky Literary Agency

Published - Out now

Price - £3.49 kindle

Welcome to the Scattered Pearl’s Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appearance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood. A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow’s Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow’s Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow’s Child with her. As they dig deep into the victim’s path, The Shadow’s Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau’s own murky past and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars…

Sherlock Holmes and science fiction have an interesting relationship. While a focus more on logical thinking than on technology SF has seen tributes in many worlds from holodecks in star trek to the many variations seen in short stories from Neil Gaiman all the way to Emma Newman. Aliette de Bodard now brings a refreshing far future version of the tale which is fully worth your time.

Our lead in character is The Shadow’s Child who being an injured war veteran is clearly our Watson but is unique in being actually a mindship a starship AI that can also appear as a holographic avatar within your room. Following a deep space attack, she lost her family crew and has decided to lurk on a space station making drugs/teas that can assist human space travellers overcome the weird effects of deep space travel.  She is a lost soul not sure of her purpose anymore. In sharp contrast is her client Long Chau – apparently cold, logical and with enough arrogance to make you doubt she is human. The Shadow’s Child initially think her visit is for tea, but it becomes a well-paid science trip into deep space to look at wrecks and pull in a body. Of course, this turns into a lot more and a murder most horrible has been located. The Shadow’s Child starts to suspect her detective and a web of intrigue involving humans and mindships starts to unravel.

I think like any Holmes story the chemistry between the two leads is important to capture and de Bodard brings us two unique characters. The Shadow’s Child although a mindship comes across the most human suffering from a version of PTSD that other ships worry about her progress. Kind, troubled and capable to use her AI and bots to investigate not just the murder for her new consulting detective client. Long Chau carries the trademark aloofness and arrogance of Holmes matched with a fierce diagnostic intelligence and her own almost computer like ability to absorb information, but she also brings the often-missing sense of justice and a desire to bring the victim’s killers to account no matter what. The blending of her zeal and Shadow Child’s compassion becomes a powerful force in the novella and its fascinating to watch the two learn to understand and trust each other.

The other key component in a Holmes tale is the world and mystery that comes out of it. Here Victorian London is replaced with a huge space station where groups and faction vie for power or enlightenment. The investigation takes them to a seemingly helpful Church that takes the poor and oppressed under their wing. While Conan Doyle focused on the elites generally Long Chau seems far more focused on those not able to have a voice against such powers. How this connects to the eerie time-distorting world of hyperspace is where the investigation leads and is Long Chau completely honest about where she comes from? The Scattered Pearls have been now explored in many of de Bodard’s work and there constantly seems to be so much more to find out about them.

This was a fantastic reading experience and I think any fan of Holmes stories would be well to pick it up.  It takes the core spine of the tales and adds something new and progressive into the mix.  Fascinating and I really hope we get to see the investigative pair on other cases in the future.

 

 

 

tea.jpg

I Still Dream by James Smythe

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

Publisher - Harpercollins

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99 hardcover Kindle £7.99

1997. 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first its intended to be a sounding board for her teenage frustrations, a surrogate best friend; but as she grows older. Organon develops with her. As the world becomes a very different place, technology changes the way we live, love and die; massive corporations develop rival intelligences to Laura’s. ones without safety barriers or morals; and Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, she knows, its power could be abused. But what if Organon is the only thing that can stop humanity hurting itself irreparably?

I think it’s safe to say that in the last few weeks we have perhaps become more than aware of our relationship with technology and its weaknesses. Facebook that started out as a way to connect to friends and share daily updates has recently been shown to be a global power that can now shape the marketing of election candidates using the amassed choices of millions to profile our behaviours.  In this amazingly prescient novel James Smythe both looks back at how we got to this point and where it may eventually take us while at the same time giving us a reminder that behind technology sits humanity and our strengths and weaknesses can easily be replicated in what we create using those experiences.

In 1997 I remember at university actually being taught about the world wide web and this new weird concept of electronic mail. Smythe stunningly replicates this pre-digital age when music on tape was bought in shops and if you wanted to connect to others online you would await the joys of a screeching modem and dread the landline phone bill arriving that your parents are starting to want to have a world with you about.  This allows us to bond with Laura Bow in sixth form and already starting to grasp how computer code can create the intelligence. While technically brilliant as with any teenager she is grappling with growing up be that an uneasy relationship with her parents, an absent biological father she never really knew who has left a shadow that drives her into the world of computers. Experiencing self-harm, she has decided to create a programme that talks back to her and while non-judgemental helps her discuss her feelings. From this her life will never be the same again.

The novel examines Laura’s world every ten years told through a variety of narrators including Laura. We see 2007 when tech companies are starting to realise the potential future. Its startling to remind ourselves that the concept of artificial intelligence has been deployed in technology been back then and while not quite Skynet its used to manage IT systems and companies all scramble to become the next Apple or Windows. Laura works at a company related to her father’s work and here finds herself unwillingly in competition with SCION the company’s own AI which her very recent ex Charlie is responsible for. A theme of the book then develops that technology that evolves from corporate mindset – one that is focused primarily on winning and protecting itself at all costs is perhaps the best model for something we plunge all our life choices and experiences into. SCION is taught to win and control while Organon is focused more on talking, listening and working out what you want.  A subtle but powerful difference that as we move forward in time then has startling choices for the world.

As time then moves on as well as seeing the world we know it posits a very believable future we are moving into. From the blogs of the past (waaah) to a world where twitter, Facebooks and can FastTrack news stories. Laura starts to use her increasingly powerful profile to send warnings that a badly made AI that purely looks at our rage can perhaps decide we may be a threat and Smythe gives us a unique apocalypse to face – what is the worst thing The Cloud could throw at us? While clearly a tale of SF it’s not positing that in the next fifty years are big technology a la spaceships but the more increasing involvement of these AIs that record our choices. When this goes wrong the results are both startling and ultimately very plausible.  Laura’s counterbalancing Organon we see as having that key difference empathy. An ability to understand why we act like we do and not perhaps seeing us as a threat and more someone to help. Where that technology then could lead us is a potentially much more hopeful world.

I think the reason this novel works so well isn’t purely its examination of the way we’ve recently embraced these AIs into our digital world but that we are given a human face into it. Laura is not a mystical guru she is a flawed person trying to make sense of life just as happy to listen to her mixtapes as she is coding. Her character development is extremely well portrayed moving from from school misfit to a troubled genius and then finally someone able to make choices for herself while at the same time having enough self-awareness to realise her earlier life was caused as much by her decisions as those made to her and becoming that person makes her ready to start helping the world when it is needed. Her family and relationships all highlight that to truly know someone you need to look at everyone’s view of that person which the book uses both as a narrative device and as a theme of Organon’s development. Sometimes what you need is not necessarily what you want e.g. not sending that drunken message in the wee hours of the morning!  This theme of empathy and emotional intelligence not simply artificial intelligence gives some serious food for thoughts about where we are heading and what we may need to do to protect ourselves from our worst attributes.

Thus, leads to a final running theme in the novel our memories. This covers the haunted half remembered parent of childhood who vanished without reason to watching our loved one’s struggle to recall the past. Our memories compel us and Smythe posits that technology in the future could gives us opportunities to speak to our pasts and what benefits that may ultimately give us. The idea of all our actions and thoughts being sent into this digital universe means we may leave far more of an echo than you’d think.

In summary this is one of my reading highlights in 2018 so far. Weaving past present and future into a story of how our symbiotic relationship with Technology has developed and what dangers and opportunities awaits. If it was purely a novel focused on the history of computers and the geniuses that created it would have been an interesting novel but to explore the humanity (or lack of) in such people and why this needs careful consideration as to their future development means this is an amazing science fiction story I think is fully worth your attention as one of the novels of the year.

 

 

dream.jpg

Womblings - What I did in February and March!

Soooo when last I did a wombling I was just enjoying a really productive January.  This quickly went South!  Three work projects trying to be done at once and a slight sense of panic at the idea of putting my flat up for sale did me in reading wise. That very quickly upset my reading schedule and then things got a bit panicky. Ultimately, I had to prioritise and make a big decision to plunge into a final spruce of the flats; pack even more books into storage (cries) and now I seem to be on the road to imminent new place for books I mean a home.

So, reading was a tad fragmented and this meant Spurious Chaos got a tad side-tracked with some ARCs I needed to get up and out. Without further ado here is a list of what I read

 

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

Review to follow - A fantastic horror story of one girl’s quest to find out who she is and who is trying to kill her

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

An interesting Discworld where the story I felt was far less important than the host of incidental characters that later books would focus far more on.

Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

Reviewed - A fantastic YA story that mixes Frankenstein with a future Ireland and a young woman who does not give into tradition.  Strongly recommended

Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig

Reviewed - Gritty noir tale of gods and one man’s quest to reunite his family.

Blood of Assassins by R J Barker

Reviewed - Superb sequel where Girton Clubfoot returns to the scene of the first book and discovers you can go Home again but you’re never the same person.  Excellent!

Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby

Reviewed – Fun tale of a fire fighter who gets to take on dragons in the future. Takes some interesting choices which is always recommended

A Hero Born by Jin Yong

Reviewed – Fantastic start to a series in China that equals the Lord of the Rings in popularity. Martial Art sects, Genghis Khan and wandering Tao Monks all combine to something that rattles along but gives you a great story.  Well worth seeking out.

Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Reviewed – Senlin moves from climbing the floors of the Tower to mastering a steampunk pirate ship.  Setting up the next element in this series but a fun ride.

Dracula: Rise of the Beast edited by David Thomas Moore

Reviewed – Five unique takes on the story before Dracula; really clever and diverse takes that can chill and warm the blood.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson

Reviewed – short Icelandic noir tale of one detective’s final case. 

Lumberjanes Vol 7 – Shannon Watters

A lot of fun as the troupe take on giant Rocs and magical cats

Why We Sleep by Matthew P Walker

Did feel this was telling me a lot of stuff I already knew but some interesting thoughts on how lack of sleep affects health

The Starlit Wood edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Reviewed – Gorgeous set of 18 revised fairy tales making them ready for a modern audience.  Some absolute classics to discover in here

The Black Tides of Heaven by J Y Yang

Review to follow – First novella in an SF series where a set of twins may be about to bring on change to an empire ruled tyrannically by their mother.

The Night Lies Dreaming by M D Lachlan

DNF Review – Nazis and werewolves but not really giving me much to chew on and a boring main character.  Not for me

 

Spurious Chaos Update

Despite my much slower progress the reviewers are slowly getting through the mountain of books before Nineworlds.  What strikes me is that each of us has our own particular type of writing style that appeals and not sure we’ve had complete consensus on any one book but at the same time the discussions as to how a book has or has not work have been really illuminating. Plan is for April to get back on this!!

The Starlit Wood edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Publisher - Saga Press

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.18 paperback

Once upon a time in the desert, in a tower, on a spaceship, in the other country…

For centuries, storytellers have crafted timeless tales that have always found a place in our hearts. Here, a new generation of critically acclaimed, award-winning writers have taken up their mantle and shaped traditional and extraordinary fairy tales into something startling and electrifying.

From castles to canyons, from a post-human landscape to pixelated dungeon, from the far future to fantastical realms, The Starlit Wood transforms eighteen stories you thought you knew and takes you on a journey at once unexpected and familiar across time, space, and amazing new worlds

I do enjoy being told a good story and as a keen reader I’m also fascinated by how stories change through time, geography and culture. Most of us are aware that the classic fairy tale has evolved into something less dark than when told by the camp fire however those tales also have elements that now don’t work at all for modern times. In this excellent anthology Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe bring some unique takes on the classics. As always not all stories work for some readers, but my favourites included the following: -

In the Desert Like A Bone by Seanan McGuire

The infamous trickster Coyote takes under his wing a girl with a red hat. They seek a man for reasons unclear. Here Red gets to take control of the situation and it’s a mix of empowerment and haunting – quite impressed how the western desert enhances the mythic feeling of the story.

The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest by Charlie Jane Anders

A land were animals and even sausages have consciousness after some interesting human engineering.  A bird, a mouse and a sausage must have learnt to work together in a dangerous world. A simple fairy tale given a much hopeful ending but with glimpses of a darker world where if you lose your friends you may be lost completely.  Strange but works really well as you invest yourselves in the fates of the trio.

Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Monhar

One of my favourites in the collection. Tabitha to help a lost love is walking in seven pairs of iron shoes while Amira sits completely still on a glass hill waiting for a suitor who can scale it.  This mixes two older stories and gives us a tale of women helping one another and being more than simple rewards for inadequate men.  Brilliant and totally worth your time.

Badgirl, The Deadman and The Wheel of Fortune by Catherynne M Valente

One of the darker tales in the anthology is how the young Badgirl watches a man deliver weekly to her father a ‘cup of sugar’ to help him survive the week. The deliverer known as Deadman however has eyes on a different prize.  This story gives you a rising sense of dread and as the reader starts to fill in the gaps it takes on a very bleak shape but its delivered perfectly.

Penny for a Match, Mister by Garth Nix

The sad tale of the Little Match Girl is transformed into a western about a vengeful spirit who sets her enemies aflame.  Another western style story but the sense of magic and mystery really enhances it.  A very different take and much more empowering than the original!

The Thousand Eyes by Jeffrey Ford

A painter relates his tale to see a bar known for the Voice of Death singing.  It’s the most traditional of the stories but it is still very effectively a ghost story. A night time crooner lulling he audience to their deaths – exactly what you would expect but expertly delivered.

The Briar and The Rose by Marjorie Liu

Another of my favourites as it’s a story of many twists and surprises. A woman known mainly as The Duellist guards a witch in a far-off city. The Duellist discovers all is not what it seems and then must work out how to rescue the love of her life.  A tale of two women battling forces to secure their love is done magically moving from violence to romance to horror easily. A much better look at Sleeping Beauty but also reminds the reader of the horrors the original tale often omits these days.

The Other Thea by Theadora Goss

A young witch who has graduated from a school of magic finds herself at a loss in life. Her former teachers send her on a mission to the Castle of Mother Night to find her lost shadow. As well as painting a fantastic picture of a magical school, talking cats and magic as poetry this story looks at themes of depression and our need for a darker side to help us through trying time. For me the standout in the whole anthology.

Pearl by Aliette de Bodard

In a future Viet empire, a young man bonds with a small AI robot known as Pearl. She allows him to have access to previously unseen knowledge but ultimately, he focuses too much on his own ambition leading to a desperate attempt to try and rescue her friendship. One of the sadder tales in the piece but the SF setting doesn’t lose the sense of magic at all.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Another of the stronger tales in the collection tells us of Miryem the daughter of a poor moneylender who decides to save her family by taking control f the family business but in the process making her colder to deal with. Her new-found wealth and money-making skills means she is asked by the Staryk (a winter wood force) to make silver turn into gold. Fans of Uprooted will be pleased to see Novik again tells a tale that feels both familiar and very modern with the focus on Miryem and not afraid to highlight that her ambition puts her in a dangerous place.

 

I loved the balance of the tales and the selection of authors - some of whom I’m very fond of and others I am keen to seek more work from. Overall a very strong anthology and one I think readers who enjoy progressive diverse fiction should quickly seek out.

starlit-wood-1.jpg

The Night Lies Bleeding by M D Lachlan

Publisher - Gollancz

Published - Out Now

Price  - £9.99 ebook

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

The world is at war again. London is suffering from the German Blitz. For an immortal werewolf, the war means little. He knows he will soon have to give up his identity once more, begin a new life. Before the wold emerges. But a chance conversation leads him to the scene of a gruesome murder, and the realisation that another war is being fought. The runes want to be together, and when they are the wolf’s story will end.

This was a very rare DNF for me (a Did not Finish) I always think this is more my fault than the books and so for me I think I hold my hands up and as it’s the fifth book in a  series over a thousand years I realised I’m coming late into the tale so some elements gave me a sense of having missed the party.  The other main issues for me was the main character of Craw the immortal was he didn’t feel much of a character I struggled with a thousand year old character who still felt he was a noble man’s son and hadn’t adapted to changes.  The use of the SS seeking out dark magics was a familiar trope, but I felt it was more for shock effect than any real examination of a true force of evil. Rather noticeably well over a quarter of the book for more than one female character to appear. Not for me

Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher - Solaris

Published - Out Now

Price - £4.72 Kindle ebook

Scions have no limits

Scions do not die

Scions do not disappear

Sergeant Ted Regan has a problem. A song of one of the great corporate families, a Scion, has gone missing at the front. He should have been protected by his Ironclad – the lethal battle suits that make the Scions masters of war – but something has gone catastrophically wrong.

Now Regan and his men, ill-equipped and demoralised, must go behind enemy lines, find the missing Scion, and uncover how his suit failed. Is there a new Ironclad killer out there? And how are common soldiers lacking the protection afforded the rich supposed to survive the battlefield of tomorrow?

War, huh, what is it good for? Well science fiction would a be a lot quieter without it for a start. How they start, how they finish and what causes them are fears that we definitely worry about each morning at them moment in the twenty first century and how many of us like to check our social media feeds just to confirm all is still as it was before we slept? In this fast-paced novella Adrian Tchaikovsky gives a near future SF military thriller where a small team of soldiers are plunged into a very dangerous international conflict.

Later in our century a series of global conflicts have erupted around the world. The US Government is now bolstered by the powerful corporations and attempts to remove their power and attempt to deliver anything that could be described as democratic socialism are being ruthlessly stamped out be in Canada, The US or in this particular novel Scandinavia! While the US is always happy to throw standard military units into battle their cutting edge is literally supplied by the power of the ironclads. Corporations have created supreme battle suits/exo-skeletons for the Heads of Corporations to a) destroy all opposition and b) protect themselves as they take the lead in combat. One of the Scions can turn a battle into your favour so they’re highly prized. The Scions are however disturbed when one going to a recent conflict zone in Finland vanishes.  This is not supposed to happen…ever. S small and quite dysfunctional team of soldiers are assembled, and their simple finish seek and retrieve a Scion.

It’s a disturbingly plausible Europe riven by brexits ahem splits and countries and corporations vying for power.  All too believable that the world has gone down the track of dog eat dog. Tchaikovsky adds in clever SF twists such as insect drone swarms and in particular the mysterious Finns who seem to have embraced complex biological science. A worthy threat for the robotic Scions who until now are the shock troops able to destroy simpler armies single handed.

All of this is told through Regan who has an upfront honesty about the world they live in and perhaps has learnt initially at least not to ask many questions. He serves as a reminder that for all the world and business leaders scrambling in armour the average joe still wants to survive and make a living. As the story progresses we see he and his group are not seen as much more than a tool but perhaps they too are underestimated. My only reservation is the way the book paints this world and all its future history such as the US/Canadian wars you almost wish we could take a step back but that would probably overstep the bounds of what a novella can do.

As always with Tchaikovsky take its clever, has something to say about humanity and a well-crafted story.  While a short tale I think most readers will be more than happy to take a trip to Scandinavia with the troops and then be glad they can return to the future.

 

Ironclads-Adrian-Tchaikovsky-small.jpg

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson

Publisher - Penguin

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99 Hardcover

A young woman is found dead on a remote Icelandic beach.

She came looking for safety, but instead she found a watery grave.

A hasty police inspector determines her death as a suicide…

When Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik police is forced into early retirement, she is told she can investigate one last case of her choice – and she knows which one.

What she discovers is far darker than suicide…and no one is telling Hulda the whole story.

When her own colleagues try to put the brakes on her investigation, Hulda has just days to discover the truth. A truth she will risk her own life to find.

 

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when a police officer in fiction is near retirement they rarely are just going to get the carriage clock and vouchers. In this tale from Ragnar Jonasson (translated by Victoria Cribb) we see a familiar tale this time told in Iceland a land of remote lava fields and snow where people could easily vanish and combined with tales of secrets and loss.  A noir tale with a very cold ending to match the setting.

In many ways this book is a character study with Hulda at the centre. She lost her husband long ago; has no close relatives and has been largely living for the job as a capable investigator. She has perhaps kept retirement to one side but suddenly finds her less than helpful Boss has decided she can go in two weeks rather than the several months she expected. Deciding upon one apparently cold case she moves into finding out how a Russian asylum seeker ended up drowned on a beach. Once she finds Elena had been told she was granted asylum the day before she vanished and then must quickly unpiece the real story a careless colleague ignored.

I really enjoyed the unravelling the mysteries of Hulda who we see in a variety of flashbacks had a quite hard childhood and the circumstances leading to the break up of her actual family have made her in many ways a trapped person.  Tied to the job, eating fast food and ignoring a potential new relationship it’s refreshing to have a book focused on a 65-year-old woman rather than the usual anti-hero men crime in the past have focused on. Importantly she is not at all perfect and one theme in the book is that her battles with her childhood and the ingrained sexism of the police force mean her isolation and stresses have made her prone to rushing and making mistakes.  She has a keen sense of justice but has in these last weeks started to react which means she puts herself in all sorts of firing lines.

Another impressive part of the book is the feel for Iceland.  Its not simply a geographical joy it’s a place people live and die. While murder is unusual (one or two a year) there is a sense of something darker under the service. The book raises themes of how asylum seekers are treated and ignored.  Few recall Elena she was just a cog in the machine that spits people out.  There are also glimpses of more conservative times when a child born out of wedlock was a disgrace and mothers could find themselves separated from children with their families’ blessing.  It’s a darker side to Iceland than many may have expected and adds a bitter noir flavour to the tale.

My one issue is that the crime itself and how this gets resolved I felt gets lost in the character study of Hulda. It felt sometimes more like a short story or novella where I think the detective is often far more interesting than the crime and in the last third of the book it came across as rushed reaching a very disturbing conclusion.  Its memorable but never comforting.  This is a crime tale with a focus on the consequences of secrets and its starkness will not be for all.  There will not be a clean resolution but a reminder that our past can cause us great harm.  Worth a read for those who enjoy noir at its darkest.

 

darknes.jpg