Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Review: 'The King's Blood' by Daniel Abraham







War casts a shadow over the land dragons once ruled. Only the courage of a young woman with the mind of a gambler and loyalty to no one stands between hope and universal darkness. An age of madness and death approaches, with only a few doomed heroes to stand in its way.

The high and powerful will fall, the despised and broken shall rise up and everything will be remade.

And a jaded mercenary and renegade priest begin a terrible journey with an impossible goal: destroy a goddess before she eats the world.







The King’s Blood is the second book in Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series, and it follows on nicely from the events of The Dragon’s Path. Our favourite characters – Marcus Wester, Cithrin, Dawson, Clara, Geder – return to carry on the story, which takes a somewhat darker turn here than in the first book. I have to say, I’m really enjoying what I’ve read of this series so far.

I’ll start by saying that the blurb is a little misleading: the ‘young woman’ it mentions (Cithrin the banker) is still an important character in The King’s Blood, but, aside from in one particular instance, she isn’t a hugely pivotal part of the story. Instead, the central plot follows a city’s gradual descent into civil war, which we see from two main PoVs, each on a different side of the conflict. These two characters (who will remain unnamed for spoiler purposes) are really well-written: in The Dragon’s Path they were both likeable for different reasons, whereas now we’re presented with a different side to them. Both have their reasons for doing what they do, but it’s difficult to decide which is right and which is wrong. A much darker tone is layered over the story by the ambiguity of the characters and the fallout from their decisions, and I think it sets up the rest of the series brilliantly.

One of my favourite POV characters is Clara Kalliam, who receives a lot more page time here than in the first book. Clara is the middle-aged wife of Dawson Kalliam and mother to four children, whose main purpose is maintaining the house and participating in social events with other wives of the rich and powerful. This doesn’t sound like the makings of an interesting character, but in reality it’s a breath of fresh air from the morally ambiguous mercenaries and barbarians and thieves and soldiers that populate (and dominate) so much of modern fantasy. She has a unique perspective on events; she’s a very brave and sympathetic character, and the way she deals with her trials and tribulations while still remaining gracious is lovely to read about. She’s the only character I can say I’m 100% rooting for, especially as she appears to have put a bit of steel in her spine by the end of this book: I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The other main plotline, of course, is that of Marcus (the ‘jaded mercenary’) and Kit (the ‘renegade priest’), who have just embarked on a quest to find a magic sword and kill an evil goddess. Agreed, this sounds like the clichéd plot of an old role-playing game: but somehow, we don’t mind, probably because we want to see these two cool characters paired up on a wild adventure. The fact that Abraham acknowledges the cliché with a few dry remarks from Marcus just makes us wonder how he’s going to mess around with our expectations, and personally I can’t wait to see if and how he does it.


 4/5

Click here to view The King's Blood on Amazon UK
Click here to read my review of The Dragon's Path (Dagger and Coin #1)

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Review: 'Ex-Heroes' by Peter Clines





The Mighty Dragon. Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap.

They were superheroes fighting to make Los Angeles a better place.

Then the plague of living death spread. Billions died, civilization fell, and the City of Angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland.

But the ex-humans aren't the only threats the heroes face. Another group is amassing power . . . led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.





This is going to be a fairly short one: there really isn’t that much to say about Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes other than that it’s full of zombies, superheroes and fun. (Think ‘X-Men’ meets ‘The Walking Dead’.)

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where the majority of the world’s population are zombies, or ‘ex-humans’, a small community struggle to survive in their makeshift town: a converted film studio in Los Angeles. Beset from all sides by millions of ‘exes’ and the remnants of a mean LA gang called the SS, the survivors are almost wholly dependent on the help of a group of superheroes. Yes, that’s right. Superheroes.

St. George can fly and breathe fire; Gorgon can drain the strength from his opponents just by making eye contact; Stealth is a super-fast ninja who can blend with her surroundings; Cerberus has a kick-ass metal suit with cannons loaded onto the arms; and Regenerator can heal both himself and others with a touch. And that’s not even all of them. They’re basically the Avengers, but somehow cooler. And they have to work together to protect the survivors against a new threat: someone is co-ordinating the ex-humans, giving minds to the mindless and making them more dangerous than ever. And this mysterious someone has a personal grudge against one of our heroes . . .

I honestly can’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book. I flew through the story in less than a day and was annoyed that I didn’t have the next book to hand. The heroes are all hugely likeable – my personal favourites were Gorgon, Zzzap, and of course St. George – and there’s a great blend of excitement, humour, horror and pathos. The action scenes are frequent and imaginative, and the author manages to strike a perfect balance between ridiculous and brilliant when it comes to the exaggerated powers of the superheroes. I can’t tell you how happy I am that there’s another three books in the series still waiting to be read.


5/5


Click here to view Ex-Heroes on Amazon UK

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Review: 'Red Moon' by Benjamin Percy

They live among us.

They are our neighbours, our mothers, our lovers.

They change.

When government agents kick down Claire Forrester's front door and murder her parents, Claire realizes just how different she is.

Patrick Gamble was nothing special until the day he got on a plane and hours later stepped off it, the only passenger left alive, a hero.

Chase Williams has sworn to protect the people of the United States from the menace in their midst, but he is becoming the very thing he has promised to destroy.

So far, the threat has been controlled by laws and violence and drugs. But the night of the red moon is coming, when an unrecognizable world will emerge...and the battle for humanity will begin.


I’m not generally a huge fan of paranormal fiction, but Red Moon – a dystopian, post-apocalyptic horror-thriller – isn't half bad. Set in something close to the present-day USA, the premise is that around 5% of the population are infected with Lobos, a prion that causes them to become werewolves, or lycans. Lycans – which are thought to have existed since around the 7th century – live amongst humans, but not as equals: most are feared and reviled, and a fierce political battle has been ongoing as to whether they should be treated as humans or second class citizens, people or dogs. Central to this debate is Chase Williams, a rebellious governor who has gained huge popular support due to his outspoken anti-lycan policies, which include forcing all lycans to sign a public register and declare their lycan status on all forms of ID. This sparks an escalating conflict between the American government and a small group of lycans led by the mysterious Balor, who will stop at nothing until the country belongs to the ‘superior’ lycan race.

The story is told from several characters’ point of view, the central ones being Claire (a lycan since birth who dreams of going to college and meeting boys), Patrick (whose father fought against the lycans in the great wars) and Chase, the aforementioned politician. Each of these characters start out being interesting and sympathetic, and the fact that they each have completely different backgrounds means we’re given varying insights into the social and political situation. Other point of view characters include Miriam, Claire’s kick-ass lycan aunt, and Neal Desai, a scientist who has been working with Patrick’s father for years to try and produce a vaccine against Lobos.

I said above that each of the main characters start out being interesting and sympathetic; unfortunately, for me, they didn’t really stay that way. Chase’s roguish disregard of everyone and everything other than himself was charming at first, but quickly became dull. Patrick switched from an insecure but likeable young man unsure of his place in the world to a flat and indistinct automaton. And, after her initial introduction, I found that I really didn’t sympathise much with Claire, and found her various shifts in personality (from her lack of emotion over her parent’s fates to her willingness to trust an entire fraternity of strange men to her sudden desire for revenge against her own race) to be very superficial and not developed thoroughly enough. This is partly a consequence of the many confusing time jumps, in which it’s often unclear exactly how much time has passed between events, resulting in seemingly unexplainable character personality shifts. Another aspect of the sequencing that jarred was the frequency of ‘fade to black’ moments, where the author seems to be building up to an exciting event only to suddenly end the chapter and have the character briefly recount the scene for us later, completely deflating the tension by insisting on telling rather than showing us what happened. I feel that, in this way, the author missed some crucial opportunities for making a good book great.

My major gripe, however, was something I just couldn’t get away from. As a general rule I absolutely despise books written in the present tense: I find them jarring, annoying and totally non-immersive. There are very few exceptions to this rule, and unfortunately Red Moon is not one of them. This, coupled with the occasionally confusing timeline, did sometimes seem to make the book a bit of a chore to read; however, I appreciate that this is entirely a matter of personal preference.

This may all seem a little harsh, but believe me, there’s also plenty to like here. The numerous scientific explanations of the Lobos infection are fascinating; I felt they were one of the novel’s strongest points, as they gave credence to the whole setup and occasionally had me sitting back and thinking, ‘yeah, this could totally happen!’. I mentioned above that I’m not usually a fan of werewolf stories, but the fact that the explanation for their transformation was scientific rather than paranormal made it a lot more palatable to me. Because of this I really enjoyed Neal Desai’s chapters, although unfortunately they are few and far between. He is easy to sympathise with, he has strong motives for everything he does, and the way he is coerced into joining Chase’s political campaign is really interesting. It’s just a shame he didn’t have more page time: I think the author really could have made something of him as a main character by focusing on his search for a cure. As it is, it never really feels like there’s that much at stake with regards to the vaccine, whereas I would have preferred to see this plotline built up a lot more.

I did like the plentiful amount of subtext in the book, which was fairly ‘in your face’ yet not too preachy. The author manages to sneak in plenty of astute political and social commentary and criticism, from the politicians who only care about tragedy in terms of how it affects their campaign, to the terrorists who are somehow worse because they’re lycan terrorists, to the ‘big brother’-style state of domestic surveillance, to the ongoing battle between the US and the ‘Lycan Republic’ that they occupy.  The beauty of the werewolf tale in general is that it works on many levels: as an allegory for race, social class, religion, you name it, it works. I think what I liked most about this particular use of such allegory was that it hammered home the point that there are bad people in every group, that it’s our actions rather than our race that determine whether we are human or monster, and that entire groups shouldn’t be demonised just for the actions of a few.

Serious bits aside, the other main attraction of the book is that lots of things happen. It starts strongly with an opening scene full of great tension and visuals, and continues with generally strong, fast pacing throughout. The action is plentiful, fun and bloody, and there are some brilliantly gory and memorable images: those that particularly stand out are the massacre at the hot springs, the lycan attack on the plane, and of course the grisly human larder in the secret base.  I have to say, though, it turns pretty bleak towards the end, although I think the author did well to avoid a clichéd ending (such as that in the movie adaptation of World War Z).  And, despite its bleakness, I have to say I really liked the post-apocalyptic turn towards the end, set mainly in the newly-created, lycan-inhabited Ghostlands following a nuclear explosion. But, while the ending is open for a sequel, the main point of the ending is that we don’t know what will happen to humanity: I think, as an ending, it has way more impact if the author keeps it that way.


My rating: 3/5

Click here to view Red Moon on Amazon UK

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Review: 'The Emperor's Blades' by Brian Staveley

The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again . . .

The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy.

His son Valyn, training for the empire's deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several 'accidents' and a dying soldier's warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action, he must survive the mercenaries' brutal final initiation.

Meanwhile, the Emperor's daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father's murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice.

And Kaden, heir to the empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God's disciples teach their harsh ways - which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he's learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?


I have to admit, I very nearly didn’t make it past the first 100 pages of The Emperor’s Blades. An intriguing prologue and opening chapter were quickly followed by pages and pages of fantasy clichés: a corrupt religious organisation threatening to overthrow the kingdom, two royal male protagonists (who are just normal, humble guys, honestly!), a soldier-in-training (in the most elite fighting force in the world, of course), a long-extinct race of evil immortals that are clearly going to be revealed not to be extinct, etc., etc.

And then you have the plethora of ridiculously generic fantasy names. Seriously, the majority of the character names sound like they were sourced from an RPG name generator: in the first fifty pages or so we have Micijah Ut, Crenchan Xaw, Ran il Tornja, Heqet, Meshkent, Bilkun Hellel, Tan’is, Csestriim, Ashk’lan, Uinian, Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian, Akiil, Valyn, and many more. On top of this you have the term “’Kent-kissing” at least twenty eight times on every page, which gets kind of annoying. To clarify: ‘Kent’ is an abbreviation of the god ‘Ashkent’, and ‘Kent-kissing’ is used as a curse, as in the phrase “if I see that ‘Kent-kissing term used one more time in this dialogue I’m going to hurl this book through the window”.

Anyway, I’d positioned myself next to the window (ready for the next ‘Kent-kissing use of the term that shall not be spoken), when something happened.

What happened?

It got better.

That’s it, really. I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why, but after around 100 pages or so I really started to get interested. I cared a lot about what was going to happen with Valyn, I cared almost as much about what was happening to Kaden, and even managed to care a tiny bit about what was going on with Adare.

The story has three central protagonists, all of whom are the children of the emperor and all of whom appear to be around eighteen years old. Valyn is the eldest, and has spent eight years training as an elite mercenary; Kaden is the royal heir (although he is younger, he has the ‘fiery eyes’ that indicate the right to rule) and has spent eight years as a peaceful monk; and Adare has spent her life at court, and will never be allowed to rule despite also having golden eyes.  The whole setup reminded me of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia in that it follows the separate lives of three siblings and explores how their radically different upbringings has changed them, for better or worse. While it was good to know immediately how all the main characters were connected, I felt it would have been a bit more interesting to explore this further by making at least one of them at least a little bit morally ambiguous; as it is, they’re all pretty much perfect. Kaden is disciplined, Valyn is brave and Adare is (sort of) intelligent, and they’re all presented as being completely loyal and heroic in their own ways. I kept waiting for the conflict that would come, either when they reunited or when one of them lost their way or was led astray, but it never happened, and I felt that made the characters sort of flat where they were otherwise fairly well-defined.

My other main gripe was that Adare, the only female protagonist, is severely underemphasized (she only has around three or four chapters in total), and is not very relatable, or even particularly sympathetic. It’s made clear from the beginning that she’s frustrated about her position in society – as a woman, she is not allowed to rule the kingdom, despite being the only royal personage present in the capital at the time, and someone else has been appointed to rule until her brother returns. However, her father, the emperor, did make her Minister of Finance when he died, to the chagrin of most of the more traditionalist society. This storyline had some great potential: I thought, brilliant, he’s going to show how she struggles against the patriarchal society by showing how strong and competent she is at doing a ‘man’s’ job and change everyone’s minds! But no: we see absolutely no evidence of her actually doing her job, despite it seeming like such a big deal, and instead she acts frustratingly how everyone expects her to act. She gets over-emotional at meetings, she throws herself carelessly into an affair with a man she barely knows – the man who is ruling in her stead, no less! – and, worst of all, she takes the painfully over-obvious circumstances of her father’s murder at face value, then acts prematurely and recklessly to avenge him without bothering to try and investigate what really happened. Her position at court – royal heir yet not allowed to rule, possessed of dangerous knowledge but not yet in a position to do anything about it – was not played out to full effect, and as such I never really felt invested in her chapters.

Believe it or not, there was way more to like about this book than not: the pacing is fairly strong once it gets going, the settings and scenes are really vivid, and there’s a whole tonne of action. There are some really great scenes and images in there, including a brilliant sequence underground in a slarn lair, and the subplots and mysteries bring a nice variety and change of pace to the story. It’s easier to talk about things you don’t like than things you do, which is why so much of this review seems so critical, but I honestly enjoyed reading this book. I even stayed up until 1.30am just to finish it – and on a ‘Kent-kissing work night, too!


4/5

Click here to view The Emperor's Blades on Amazon UK

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review: 'Lexicon' by Max Barry


Sticks and stones break bones . . . Words kill.

Two years ago, something terrible was unleashed in an Australian mining town called Broken Hill. Thousands died.


Few people know what really happened.

Emily Ruff is one of them. She belongs to an elite organisation of 'poets': masters of manipulation who use language to warp others to their will. She was one of their most promising recruits - until she made a catastrophic mistake.

Wil Parke knows the truth too, only he doesn't remember it. And he doesn't know why he's immune to the poets' powers. But he knows he needs to run.

There's a word, they say. It shouldn't have got out. But it did.

And they want it back...


Let me start by saying that this novel has one of the most striking beginnings I’ve read in a long time. It’s horrifying and intriguing and fascinating all at the same time, and it dragged me in to the story immediately. As soon as I read page one I expected big and exciting things from Lexicon; and, for the most part, it did a great job in delivering them.

Lexicon is a bit of a mixed bag genre-wise: the general set-up and pacing marks it out as a thriller, but there are elements of dystopia and SF in there as well. I don’t often read thrillers, but I found that the plot here – namely the idea of a secret society of ‘poets’ using language to manipulate others – kept me hooked. The pacing is great, the characters are likeable enough, and the setting (Australia) is vivid and easily imagined. I also thought it clever how the author inserted fictional excerpts such as blog posts, emails and news articles, in between chapters: it really makes the idea of language manipulation within everyday society worryingly relevant.

The main point of the story is that a ‘bareword’ – a word so powerful that it overrides all impulses and counter-acts the poets’ regular manipulations of language – is stolen from the society, where it is then used to devastating effect against an entire town of people. Much of the novel flits about in time between the two central protagonists: their stories eventually begin to converge until we finally uncover the mystery of what really happened at Broken Hill.

The writer does a good job of building momentum throughout (although it does seem to stall a little, particularly at a point near the end where the story is drawn out into a needless final act). I also would have liked more details of the ‘magic’ words themselves, how they came to be found, and how the poets managed to acquire this particular word. The story suggests that a new ‘bareword’ is found roughly once every 800 years or so, and that the poets go hunting for them in areas of archaeological or geological significance.  Since the words themselves supposedly originate with the Bible I think more historical details about how they were first acquired and used would have given the story an extra dimension.

Still, I had a lot of fun reading Lexicon, which is Max Barry’s fifth novel. I’ll definitely be checking out others by him in the future.


4/5

Click here to view Lexicon on Amazon UK

Max Barry is the author of four previous novels, including New York Times Notable Book Jennifer Government, and Syrup, soon to be a major film. He is also the creator of the internet mini-phenomenon NationStates, an online political simulation game. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. He is a cat person.

Visit Max Barry's website at maxbarry.com, find him at facebook.com/maxbarry or follow him on twitter.com/maxbarry.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Review: 'Blood Song' by Anthony Ryan

Vaelin Al Sorna's life changes forever the day his father abandons him at the gates of the Sixth Order, a secretive military arm of the Faith. Together with his fellow initiates, Vaelin undertakes a brutal training regime - where the price of failure is often death. Under the tutelage of the Order's masters, he learns how to forge a blade, survive the wilds and kill a man quickly and quietly.

Now his new skills will be put to the test. War is coming. Vaelin is the Sixth Order's deadliest weapon and the Realm's only hope. He must draw upon the very essence of his strength and cunning if he is to survive the coming conflict. Yet as the world teeters on the edge of chaos, Vaelin will learn that the truth can cut deeper than any sword.


Wow. I opened this book prepared to be disappointed: I knew it had received literally thousands of perfect scores on Amazon and Goodreads, and was somehow convinced that it couldn’t actually be that good. But . . . it really is. Wow.

Blood Song is the first instalment in Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow series (the second book, Tower Lord, is out later this year), and it’s simply a stunning start to what will undoubtedly be an amazing series. The world and its mythology are vividly established, the story is exciting and, most importantly, the characters are impeccably introduced and developed. The main group of characters, the Order brothers, are almost as awesome as Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards, and the main character, Vaelin, is now firmly established in my Top 10 Favourite Fantasy Protagonists (somewhere between Kvothe and Jorg).

One of the main things I loved about the story was how it was entirely focused on one POV: that of Vaelin, abandoned as a child at the gates of a monastery by his father. Blood Song follows Vaelin’s journey as he and his new-found ‘brothers’ are trained and initiated into the order of battle-priests, where they are forced to undergo rigorous and dangerous tests of survival and skill. The rivalries and camaraderie between the boys is continually a joy to read, and I loved watching them develop as a group throughout years of training, during which their loyalty is tested as they confront dark plots and assassination attempts against their Order, and each endure personal trials of their own. The characters develop brilliantly, the battles are fantastically plotted and exciting, and the gradual reveal of the underlying plot is spectacular.

The main story itself is framed by another narrative, written in first person from the POV of the man to whom Vaelin is narrating his story. This reminded me very strongly of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, which is by no means a bad thing: as with Rothfuss, the switches are infrequent enough to not be annoying, and serve to show us more about Vaelin while also teasing us with hints about things we have yet to learn about. The ending – which came around far too soon despite the book’s 728 pages – is a perfect balance of resolution and cliffhanger, and I can’t wait for the release of Tower Lord later this year.


5/5

Click here to view Blood Song on Amazon UK

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Review: 'Boneshaker' by Cherie Priest

Ezekiel Blue’s father committed a crime, unleashing a deadly menace into steampowered Seattle. And his bereaved family has paid the price. Now, Ezekiel is determined to clear his father’s name, risking death and the undead in the attempt.

Sixteen years ago, as the American Civil War dawned, gold brought hordes to the frozen Klondike. Fanatical in their greed, Russian prospectors commissioned Dr Leviticus Blue to create a great machine, to mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus the Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine was born.

But the Boneshaker went awry, destroying downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas, anyone who breathed its fumes turning into the living dead. The devastated city is now walled in to contain the blight. But unknown to Briar, his widowed mother, Ezekiel is going in. His quest will take him into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.


Let me start by saying that this is most definitely not a zombie novel, although it is sometimes marketed as such. I picked this book up thinking “zombies? Awesome!”, and at first I was disappointed that they were such a minor aspect of the story.

However, I quickly became enthralled in the plot, despite the disappointing dearth of zombie action. Priest does a great job of setting the scene, and paints a very vivid picture of the misery of day-to-day life outside the walls of Blighted Seattle. The scenes within the walled city itself, especially those on the streets, are brilliantly eerie and atmospheric, and the fact that we see it all through the restrictions of the characters’ gas mask (with limited peripheral vision and the echoing of their own breathing distorting their hearing) makes it very, very creepy. The highlight of the first half of the novel is really the tension that comes from entering the unknown, and I must admit reading these scenes made me quite jumpy.

The rest of the novel is much more action-focused. We meet several other characters (some more nefarious than others) who scrape a living in the walled city, and the pace picks up quite a lot towards the end, with a three-way underground war and the big reveal of a dirty family secret. I wouldn’t say that the actual ending was brilliant, and the big ‘secret’ isn’t exactly hard to figure out, but I did find myself keen to read more of the series, particularly as the steampunk elements are a lot of fun and the scene-setting is so strong.

The characters are fairly strong too, particularly the main character of Briar: she’s easy to both admire and feel sorry for (probably because she rarely feels sorry for herself): she’s a strong female character, but she’s also a realistic one, kept alive as much through the help of others as well as her own practicality, and driven only by her desire to protect her son (who, I must say, I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for).

One of the downsides was, I felt, the lack of explanation about the Blight. Despite the eerie atmosphere created by the mystery of it and the fear of what to expect, I had hoped to learn much more about the undead, about the Blight and where it came from, but we never actually get any real answers on this front, which feels a little disappointing and unsatisfactory. I’d love to see further novels in the Clockwork Century series return to Seattle and stop the Blight once and for all. Until then, I’ll definitely continue with the rest of the series: I’m a big fan of Priest’s writing style, scene setting and suspense building, and look forward to reading more.


4/5

Click here to view Boneshaker on Amazon UK