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.

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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

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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Arm of the Sphinx (The Books of Babel 2) by Josiah Bancroft

Publisher - Orbit

Published - Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback

Forced by necessity into a life of piracy, Senlin and his eclectic crew struggle to survive aboard their stolen airship as the hunt for his lost wife continues. But the Tower of Babel is proving to be as difficult to re-enter as it was to escape.

Hopeless and desolate, they turn to a legend of the Tower, the mysterious Sphinx. But help from the Sphinx doesn’t come cheaply and, as Senlin knows, debts aren’t always what they seem in the Tower of Babel.

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

Warning – some spoilers for Senlin Ascends (Tower of Babel Book 1)

Back in January I was really impressed with Josiah Bancroft’s debut novel Senlin Ascends where an uptight schoolmaster (Senlin) took his wife to the mysterious Tower of Babel that dominates the lands as it climbs into the clouds. Very quickly they are separated and Senlin discovers the Tower has a much darker side.  I was impressed with both the inventive inner world of the Tower and its theme of the elite preying on the wider population. In this adventure focused sequel, we now see Senlin start to take the initiative.

We now have Senlin in command of a pilot flying ship with a small crew he has picked up during his earlier adventures. His first mate is Edith a woman who the tower punished so severely that she ended up needing a mysterious mechanical arm; Iren the enforcer of a local gangster that switched loyalties due to Senlin’s kindness and the sister/brother duo of Violeta and Adam (the latter of whom has betrayed Senlin twice in efforts to free his sister). There has been a slight time-jump and in his new guise of Captain Mudd he is fighting for survival by attacking ships for supplies while also evading his would-be captors. Senlin in possession of a portrait that is incredibly important to the future of his tower.  Slowly he decides that the Sphinx who is known to have created the machines that power the tower as well as Edith’s new arm may be the only force able to help Senlin overcome the powerful families he now believes that have his wife within the Tower’s upper rings.

While Senlin Ascends gave me a feel of a quest for one man through many levels of would could be a gilded prison this book is a very different beast this is an adventure tale that allows the focus to move away from Senlin and across the rest of his crew.  The action is focused on two of the Rings (floors) within the tower. The mysterious abandoned Silk Gardens and the hidden world of the Sphinx. The former is beautifully creepy.  Now largely left to its own devices its filled with spiders (for silk) and large bad-tempered beasts that hunt them while t the same time there are abandoned robotic amusements in a zoo. Senlin finds a new force to challenge the existing orders is lurking there but it may not be making plans to help everybody. It’s a darker world and there are some great sequences of the crew having to fend off natural and unnatural threats.  They slowly realise that their Captain however is battling his inner demons (and unknown to them a mysterious apparition of his wife). Add in flying gunships keen to bring Senlin to account for his transgressions its very much a fast-moving sequence.

The second world we see is that of the Sphinx.  The most unusual encountered yet! Filled with talking and thinking automaton; designs for myriad Rings and in it all the mysteriously tall, masked and mocking Sphinx. He has decided to test the crew and the second half of the novel explores how they all interact when they lose Senlin.  It’s a voyage of temptation and will the crew give in to their desires? The focus of the novel is allowing the reader to know and understand the crew better. In the first novel the action was focused more on Senlin and all characters were seen through his eyes.  This time we get to understand the motivations and fears of the crew. Edith who has become Senlin’s first mate is the most interesting – she is recovering from having to have been working on a much nastier pirate vessel and a murkier deal with the Sphinx.  Obviously fond of Senlin through their previous encounter she is not afraid to challenge him and offer him a counterpoint.  Easily my favourite character she puts her crew first and when she encounters the Sphinx again there is a tacit recognition that Edith is probably the strongest character there.  Iren is shown to have developed unusual feelings for her crew that after years of being feared is finding the transition to being valued and loved a strain.  The pair we find the most about is the brother and sister duo.  Adam finds himself pained that he is no longer trusted and now he has rescued his sister at last finds she may not actually need his protection.  Violetta on the other hand after being locked up is revelling in freedom to do whatever she wants so being part of a crew relying on her starts to create new tensions and dangers.  The Sphinx is a tempter for all but as to their own agenda in the Tower’s power games it’s not clear. The interplay between the cast is a highpoint and the character dynamics feel well thought out.  The Sphinx allows them to see themselves in the mirror and decide as to who they really are (helped by his helpful mirrored mask!).

The one niggle I have is the focus on the crew removes means we don’t see as much of the Tower as in the first book and consequently I think it loses some of the depth of social commentary that was in the first book.  Ewe do find a lot more about the Tower and this tale really does set up a new direction for the crew where the Tower may be seen as much more than a tourist attraction but there was a sense of this book setting up many new ideas but we will have to wait until the next volume (happily not long) before we see more.  Overall this is continuing to be a fascinating series and with an increased and diverse crew I’m very keen to see where the Tower leads to.

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Dracula - Rise of the Beast (edited by David Thomas Moore)

Publisher - Rebellion

Published - Out Now

Price - £9.99 paperback/£4.99 kindle ebook

Anthology of stories exploring the secret history of the world’s most iconic monster. That the cruel ambitious monster of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel was once Vlad III Dracula, Voivode of Wallachia – The Impaler, to his enemies – is known. A warleader in a warlike time, brilliant, charismatic, pious, ferociously devoted to his country. But what came of him? What drove him to become a creature of darkness – an un-Dead – and what use did he make of this power, through the centuries before his downfall?

Decades after the monster’s death Jonathan and Mina Harker’s son Quincey pieces together the story, dusty old manuscripts, court reports from the Holy Roman Empire at its height, oral traditions among the Szygany Roma people who once served the monster.

I received a free advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

 

Dracula has cast a long caped shadow across horror across all mediums for well over a century now. He’s been updated, mocked and remade in many ways but this anthology looks to plug some gaps in to his earlier life.  What exactly was the Count doing before he decided to take a slow boat to Whitby?  In this excellent anthology five authors tell us a mix of tales that gives us both a larger narrative about where our favourite vampire came from but also shows some new and refreshingly modern aspects to Dracula that the reader will not expect.

The first tale “The Souls of Those Gone Astray From the Path” by Bogi Takacs gives us a strong new origin story. In a series of 15th century court reports we see the release of Vlad the Impaler from the imprisonment of King Matyas in Hungary. The King on the one hand is happy to now use Vlad to assist in an ongoing battle against the Turkish empire but at the same time has a much more personal interest in Vlad who appears to be changing in many ways after his time with the King. Although the infamy of Vlad the Impaler have been used in other stories to explain the Dracula legend Takacs gives us two new elements. Firstly, this is very much a tale of court politics rather than horror and the observations of the various key figures is done via a focus on the observations of those representing the Jewish population who are trying hard to cement their own place in Hungary.  The reader must try and work out the various agendas being played and what is the endgame. Takacs also adds a new dimension is Vlad’s relationship with King Matyas and the abilities that vampirism bestow onto a user in terms of shape-shifting not just into animals but also gender and his relationship with Matyas in particular.  I found this a fresh and innovative opening and the tale has repercussions that will be felt throughout the rest of the novel.  Its also interesting to contrast the stories about vampires with the way Jews were demonised – there is almost a form of kinship in the way the two outsiders start to view each other.

Adrian Tchaikovsky in contrast moves the tale a hundred year on in “Noblesse Oblige” focusing more on the impact Dracula can have on others. In this case a line is drawn from Dracula to the infamous Hungarian noble Elizabeth Bathory who infamously of legend bathed in blood. In this tale a chance encounter with Dracula sets Elizabeth on a path to match and potentially fight the vampire on equal terms. Elizabeth is a focused aristocrat who puts family above all else apart from her growing obsession with age when she continually gets reminders that Dracula appears eternal. This for me is the most chilling tale in the novel as Elizabeth grows increasingly drawn to discovering the power of blood and experiments with local young women as to how best to obtain it.  Knowing Bathory was a real human monster means as the reader sees her clinical detachment at the various torments she creates but notes in her diaries is where we are reminded that the biggest monsters in the world don’t all have pointed teeth. Even Dracula may draw the line at how far some will go to match his skills.

In a fine counterbalance to this Milena Benini in “A Stake Too Far” gives us a much warmer and lighter tale in 18th Century Austria. Although it could be read as a straightforward rale of vampire and witch hunters this is an interesting mix of comedy and drama. Dracula appears to have taken a well-deserved spa break but as we can expect he may have his own agenda. Add in a new servant; crooked priests trying to evict the local priest and a very green would be vampire hunter and birdwatchers it manages to avoid becoming pastiche by adding in a very different human side to Dracula who we will see had a very personal reason for his travels. It takes a very matter of fact approach with the world of the supernatural and is very likely to raise some smiles and unexpected moments of tragedy and loss.

The question as to why Dracula eventually thought London would make a good new home is answered in Emil Minchev’s “Children of the Night” told by Dracula himself. A chance encounter with a beautiful woman in the ice turns into an unexpected folk tale of love and horror. Minchev weaves Dracula with another infamous Eastern European creature of legend (which I won’t spoil) but in this we see Dracula’s sense of romance…safe to say it’s not going to be flowers and chocolates. In turns disturbing, enchanting and haunting. All done with a strong sense of folklore and this could easily be read as an ancient folktale too.  Michev gives us a Dracula who is all strong emotions and even can give the reader a sense of pity for our lovelorn undead.

We then move into the aftermath of Dracula with Caren Gussuf Sumption’s “The Woman” this is the final story set after Dracula’s death focusing on the Szgany Romany clan that in Dracula swore eternal loyalty. It’s a clever story linking to a running theme throughout the other stories of Dracula’s life with others of his kind and at the same time the role of women. Three distinct generations recount how their family has served/fled the vampires and this tale starts to focus on the last of the generation who must decide if these legends are true and what must be done if it is.  Sumption I thought created a bookend to Takacs’ tale exploring similar themes of gender identity as well as a using three forms of storytelling to weave a tale across centuries, am oral history, letters to a friend and finally a 21st century blogger. All of which (and the theme of letters and notes is throughout the novel) is a big nod to Stoker’s own style.

A good anthology should be able to surprise the reader around a central theme and with credit to David Thomas Moore’s editing we have five unique stories adding modern styles and themes to a legend many of us have thought we have seen everything done to date.  It’s an extremely well-crafted anthology and Rebellion should be praised for how often they create anthologies that take familiar aspects of genre and give such refreshing spins sitting alongside recent successes with Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare.  Well worth a read while wearing garlic and a religious emblem of your choice.

 

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

Publisher - Maclehose Press

Published - Out Now

Price £14.99 paperback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby

Publisher - Angry Robot

Published - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback/£6.99 e-book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blood of Assassins by R J Barker

Publisher Orbit

Published - Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback

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

To Save a King, Kill A King…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unclean Spirits (Gods and Monsters) by Chuck Wendig

Publisher - Rebellion

Published - 13th February

Price - £7.99 paperback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

Publisher - Titan

Published - 6th February

Price - £8.99 paperback

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

Nell Crane has never held a boy’s hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Publisher - Hamish Hamilton

Published - Out Now

Price - £14.99 Hardcover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Bastard Legion by Gavin Smith

Publisher - Gollancz

Price - £9.99 paperback

Published - Out Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

 

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January Reading!

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

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

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

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

 

So, what did I read?

Novels (5 from last year’s TBR attacked)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Uncanny Magazine Issue 20 – loved the mix!

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

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

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

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

Lonely Planet Pocket Barcelona – I did not get lost

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

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

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

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

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

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Paris Adrift by EJ Swift

Published - 6th February

Publisher  - Rebellion

Paperback - £9.99

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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