Sunday, 22 November 2015

Review: 'Pet Sematary' by Stephen King


 
 
The house looked right, felt right to Dr Louis Creed.

Rambling, old, unsmart and comfortable. A place where the family could settle; the children grow and play and explore. The rolling hills and meadows of Maine seemed a world away from the fume-choked dangers of Chicago.

Only the occasional big truck out on the two-lane highway, grinding up through the gears, hammering down the long gradients, growled out an intrusive threat.

But behind the house and far away from the road: that was safe. Just a carefully cleared path up into the woods where generations of local children have processed with the solemn innocence of the young, taking with them their dear departed pets for burial.

A sad place maybe, but safe. Surely a safe place. Not a place to seep into your dreams, to wake you, sweating with fear and foreboding . . .
 


Pet Sematary was one of the first 'adult' books I ever read. I must've been about thirteen years old when I got a bit tired of constantly re-reading Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, and Sabriel, and decided to go trawling my dad's bookshelves for something new. Of all the books in his modest collection (mostly Stephen King and James Herbert) I went with this one simply because of the title: not only does it have the word 'pet' in it (I've always been an animal-lover) but also the word 'sematary', intriguingly misspelt (yeah, I've also always been fairly morbid . . . and a spelling Nazi to boot).

It's fair to say that back then I was impressed by my first foray into the world of grown-up horror fiction; I must have been, given that I quickly moved on to devour some of the other books my dad had on offer. Re-reading Pet Sematary now - fifteen years or so since that first time, dear god I feel OLD - I found it just as enjoyable, yet can also appreciate just how much of it must have gone right over my head when I read it as a kid.

An example of this is the foreshadowing. Alright, so this time I had the advantage of a fairly solid recollection of most of the novel's key events, but still. So many things, both big and small - dreams, casual one-liners, omens and relentless symbolism throughout - conspire to make the story feel much more thrilling, and somehow much more than just the sum of its parts.

Another thing that took me by surprise is the sheer sense of tragedy that permeates the story right from the beginning. From a horrific death on protagonist Louis Creed's first day at work, along with both of his children suffering minor injuries on their first day in their new house, to his wife's traumatic past, and right up to the key events of the story, the whole thing is a rockslide of tragedy and pathos, gaining in momentum and horror as the story progresses. Although a bit slow to start, and with some relatively uneventful chapters throughout, I felt utterly compelled to read the last 150 pages or so all in one sitting.

Throw in creepy nightmares and disturbing local history, casual references to local superstitions and universal zombie-lore, gore-laden descriptions and settings that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end . . . yep, Pet Sematary is one hell of a horror story.


4/5

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Review: 'Best Served Cold' by Joe Abercrombie


Springtime in Styria. And that means war.

There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.

War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso's employ, it's a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular - a shade too popular for her employer's taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto's reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.

Her allies include Styria's least reliable drunkard, Styria's most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that's all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started...

Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge.


 
Damn, but I’d forgotten how bloody awesome this book is. Darker, bloodier and even more entertaining than Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is the ultimate tale of revenge, a tale packed with pain, fury and absurdity from its spectacular opening sequence to its final poignant pages.
 
The story is of course set in the world of First Law, though several years after the events of the original trilogy. Here we are introduced to the ‘exotic’ land of Styria, a fractured continent hosting a decades-long civil war at a time commonly referred to as the Years of Blood. Although Best Served Cold could probably be read as a standalone story, the sheer amount of references to the original trilogy that it contains – not to mention cameo appearances from several characters – means that those already familiar with the events of First Law will likely enjoy it considerably more than those new to Abercrombie’s world.
 
The premise of Best Served Cold is simple: heroine is betrayed - heroine gets back up again - heroine sets out to get revenge. And at first it really is that simple. Monza Murcatto, the infamous Butcher of Caprile, sets her sights on seven enemies, and vows to do anything she needs to in order to see them all dead. Recruiting a merry band of thugs – including a poisoner, a Northman and a torturer – she embarks on her glorious mission. But perhaps revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps the people she trusts are the ones holding the knives . . . and perhaps Monza herself isn’t quite everything she appears to be.
 
Best Served Cold is Abercrombie’s absurd and bloody take on the otherwise ordinary revenge trope: absurd because of its eclectic mix of characters, and bloody because of the chaos they cause. But it’s also an insanely fun and entertaining journey, with the plot taking something of a backseat to colourful characters who gradually reveal themselves to be so much more than the exaggerated caricatures they first appear to be. The world in which they live is equally colourful, with vicious politics and treacherous leaders continually influencing critical events. The settings in particular are fantastically vivid and immersive: even now I can clearly visualise every bloody sunset, picture every pane of glass in the roof of the Banking House of Valint and Balk, startle at the canal boats looming out of the fog in gloomy Sipani and wonder at the majesty of impregnable Fontezarmo. Though Styria is certainly not a place anyone in their right mind would choose to live, I found I could picture its various regions just as vividly as if I’d actually been there.
 
Although often dark and suffused with bleakness, Best Served Cold is also frequently hilarious, particularly those chapters told from the viewpoints of Nicomo Cosca and Castor Morveer. Ironic observations, humorous dialogue, self-deprecating comments and hilariously inappropriate remarks are particular specialties of Abercrombie’s, and Best Served Cold abounds with all of them. Abercrombie cleverly blends grit and gore with laughter and levity, all of which conspire to create a perfectly dark, gritty tale of revenge and ruin. This is Abercrombie at his absolute best.
 
5/5

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Review: 'A Natural History of Dragons' by Marie Brennan

 
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

 

I’ve got nothing against dragons, especially when they play such a vital part in so many awesome fantasy series. After all, dragons are integral to the whole mythos of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen; dragons feature prominently in such celebrated fantasy works as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Cycle; and of course the entire plot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit couldn’t have existed without that most iconic of dragons: the mighty Smaug.

This is all well and good; I’ve no objection to a few dragons here and there so long as they’re serving some kind of function within the story, be it as an awesome plot device or as a way of setting the scene. But when their presence in a novel seems to serve no other purpose than just sort of existing . . . well, that’s when dragons start to feel kind of stale. And ‘stale’ is not a word that should be used when referring to giant flying monsters.

And this is where the first of the Memoirs by Lady Trent makes its grand entrance. Here, Marie Brennan has accomplished something extraordinary: she has made dragons fresh and exciting again, no easy feat in today’s competitive and draconian-saturated SFF market. Remember when you first discovered fantasy, and felt that awesome thrill of wonder and possibility? A Natural History of Dragons takes us back to that giddy moment through the wonderful character of Isabella, and the captivating tale of her childhood passion for dragons.

Unlike so many modern female fantasy protagonists – who are often termed ‘strong’ characters as a result of their skills in either weaponry or manipulation – Isabella is strong in that she remains true to her own nature in the face of her male-dominated surroundings. Despite her outwardly ‘outrageous’ behaviour, Isabella retains her girlish charm and naïveté; she never compromises her femininity, in spite of her ongoing struggle against the social restrictions of a strictly patriarchal society; and most importantly of all, she continues to cling to her lifelong passion – the study of dragons – even when the pursuit of this passion seems like an impossible dream. She is, quite simply, a hugely likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Furthermore, Brennan’s narrative voice is beautifully elegant and consistently engaging. In fact, the entire novel is suffused with the observant wit and wry humour of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, with the fantastical subject matter providing an intriguing vehicle through which the author probes issues of class, gender and morality – though it never once sounds preachy.

Add to all this a delightful cast of secondary characters, continually subtle yet vivid settings – particularly the eastern-European-esque wilderness of Vystrana - and frequent injections of self-deprecating humour, and you have the essence of Marie Brennan’s wonderful tale. A Natural History of Dragons is always engaging and entirely charming, and abounds with moments of tension, humour and emotion. Isabella may just be my new hero, and the Memoirs by Lady Trent my new favourite series.

5/5

 

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Review: 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' by J.K. Rowling


The summer holidays are dragging on and Harry Potter can't wait for the start of the school year. It is his fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and there are spells to be learnt and (unluckily) Potions and Divination lessons to be attended. But Harry can't know that the atmosphere is darkening around him, and his worst enemy is preparing a fate that it seems will be inescapable...

 
As I opened my oft-read, yellowed and rather battered hardback copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I felt a thrill of excitement. As testified by its well-read condition (the corners are dog-eared, and the cover is held together with liberal amounts of sticky tape) this was one of my favourite books as a teenager. In fact, the only book I liked better back then was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. So it was with much excitement – and some trepidation – that I returned to it now. Would it be as good as I remembered? Or would it disappoint me like its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?

Reading Goblet of Fire felt like sinking down into a cosy and long-forgotten armchair, one that is loved for its familiarly threadbare exterior as much as for its comfort. From the first page until the very last I was enveloped in nostalgia, and charmed anew by the easy prose and lightly humorous tone that suffuses so much of this entire series. Furthermore, Goblet of Fire is the first Potter book to really start to explore social issues like class and racism (it’s been so long since I read the book I’d almost totally forgotten about S.P.E.W!), and also to introduce lots of new characters and concepts. After reading Prisoner of Azkaban I realised that that the series was beginning to feel kind of stale – after all, how much can you really do with just classrooms and Quidditch? – but this is remedied in Goblet of Fire, which is simply packed with tons of new stuff: foreign wizards, new students, exciting events, and more. From the very first chapter it feels different from the previous books: the Quidditch World Cup is not only fun to read about but also grants us an extended change of scenery from the usual Privet Drive/Hogwarts fare. The pacing is also new and different, with the Triwizard tasks providing exciting mini-climaxes at key points in the story. The whole book just feels fresh, yet also much more mature than each of the previous instalments.

Much as I loved Goblet of Fire I have to say I felt it outstayed its welcome towards the end, largely due to the pages and pages (and pages) of anticlimactic exposition. I found myself skimming the long, wordy monologues in the final few chapters, wherein certain characters take the opportunity to drone on about what feels like their entire life story. The last few chapters are essentially one long infodump, which is a real shame considering that the previous events are so exciting. Still, the actual main event is just as chillingly awesome as I remembered, and it’s quite possible that it’s only my total over-familiarity with the story that made the explanations seem dull.

Re-reading the books as an adult is something of an exercise in cynicism. All the way through Goblet of Fire I found myself asking questions such as: why does Harry *have* to compete in the Triwizard Tournament? What will happen if he doesn’t? And what exactly do the students from the other schools do during the months between tasks? Why couldn’t they go home and just come back again when they need to? Would Krum really miss Hermione more than his own parents? Really? And if Moody can see Harry’s socks through his robes, doesn’t that mean he can also see . . . everything else? (Parvati’s got a point: “that eye shouldn’t be allowed!”) Why isn’t Veritaserum used at criminal trials? How the hell was Karkaroff allowed to become headmaster of a school? Don’t they have a wizarding equivalent of a CRB check? Oh yeah, and how did they swap the dragons over so quickly during the first task? And what was the point of having everyone watching the second task when it was entirely underwater? Why can wizards arrive at Hogwarts via Portkey when they’re unable to use other methods like Apparition? And why on earth would that Portkey have been enchanted to return to Hogwarts? And most of all, why doesn’t any of this stuff stop me from thoroughly enjoying these books???

5/5

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: 'Last Argument of Kings' by Joe Abercrombie


 


The end is coming. Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him but it's going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there's only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It's past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.

With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no one is safe, and no one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It's a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough.

Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it.

While the King of the Union lies on his deathbed, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law...



 I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Logen Ninefingers and Sand dan Glokta are two of my favourite fictional characters ever, and re-reading the third instalment of the First Law trilogy has firmly cemented my opinion. Glokta’s sardonic internal monologues are a continual source of entertainment, and he continues to shine as a despicable yet pitiable anti-hero; while Logen’s increasingly difficult struggle against his own nature provides a sympathetic and captivating counterpoint to Glokta’s dry wit. Almost as enthralling are Jezal dan Luthar and Major West, each of whom are interesting, sympathetic and likeable in different ways; and of course let’s not forget the jewel that is Ardee West. As always the dialogue is superb, totally engaging and frequently funny, and Abercrombie has an incredible knack of conveying a huge amount of character information through just one or two lines of conversation.
 
So, as far as characters go, Last Argument of Kings is almost faultless. But is the plot up to scratch? I said in my reviews of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged that, although entertaining, both books were considerably lacking in action. Not so with Last Argument. Here, everything set up during the first two books finally – finally! – comes to a head. In short: stuff happens. And it’s awesome.
 
Gone is the endless travelling; gone is the continual bickering between characters. We’re no longer being prepared for huge events: we’re being thrust into the centre of them. Goodbye setup, hello payoff! Last Argument is full to the brim with spectacular set pieces, bloody battles and malevolent magic, not to mention a plot twist or three. Having read the book before, albeit several years ago, I was able to fully appreciate the way the final events were set up: the pacing is outstanding, and if anything I enjoyed the twists even more because this time I was able to spot all the little clues and hints leading up to them.
 
I’ve said before that Abercrombie is a master at pulling the rug out from beneath us, and has frequently shown a fondness for manipulating characters and events in ways that totally shock (and sometimes outrage) his readers; Last Argument is the first, and perhaps finest, example of his skill at doing this. Readers of the First Law trilogy will have known from the beginning that none of the protagonists are squeaky-clean (far from it!); in fact, pretty much every single character we meet is highly flawed in some way or another. However, we as readers like to believe that we know exactly who is a ‘goodie’ and who is a ‘baddie’ . . . and this is the point where Abercrombie kicks us where it really hurts. Last Argument makes it agonisingly obvious that the characters we all know, and love, and root for . . . are actually rather despicable. And vice versa: those characters we love to hate may indeed be better human beings than those we previously identified with the most. In short, our heroic protagonists are, in fact, pitiful wretches, with one or two who could accurately be labelled as villains.
 
Last Argument is where Abercrombie really begins to show his (rather gloomy) fascination with the futility of attempting to change one’s nature, a theme continued in Best Served Cold. It makes for a truly engaging and captivating read – as long as you’re not too bothered about happy endings, of course. Abercrombie characteristically ensures that not everyone gets what they deserve: he rewards the ruthless, screws over the virtuous, and even sends a fair few unlucky ones back to the mud.
 
Revisiting the original First Law trilogy has been insanely enjoyable. I actually felt kind of sad as I neared the end of this Last Argument re-read – as though I was saying farewell to old friends, despite knowing that a few of them reappear in later books. Abercrombie's latest project is a collection of short stories set in the world of First Law, which is bound to be completely awesome, and I already can't wait to be reacquainted with some of my old favourites.
5/5

Monday, 14 September 2015

Review: 'The Final Empire' by Brandon Sanderson



A thousand years ago evil came to the land and has ruled with an iron hand ever since. The sun shines fitfully under clouds of ash that float down endlessly from the constant eruption of volcanoes. A dark lord rules through the aristocratic families and ordinary folk are condemned to lives in servitude, sold as goods, labouring in the ash fields.

But now a troublemaker has arrived and there is rumour of revolt. A revolt that depends on a criminal that no-one can trust and a young girl who must master Allomancy - the magic that lies in all metals.
 

 


Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. Those four words right there are one of two main reasons I’ve shied away from reading anything by Brandon Sanderson until now (the other reason being a contrary streak in my nature that makes me resist recommendations of prolific, well-loved authors until I bloody well choose to read them – against all logic and good sense, I know). To me, the words ‘laws’ and ‘magic’ have no right being in such close proximity to one another: magic, by its very definition, is nebulous, mysterious and unknowable. Fair enough, most fantasy stories wouldn’t be very interesting if magic didn’t have limitations and consequences; however, imposing strict rules and providing detailed definitions turns magic . . . into science. And correct me if I’m wrong, but most people who read fantasy are drawn to its, well, fantastical nature. They want to read about what is possible, not what isn’t.

Anyway. The disgruntled part of me – the part that knows that amazing books such as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are awesome precisely because of magic’s vagueness and unpredictability – expected to dislike this first outing with Sanderson, and to feel fully justified in continuing my grumbles about ‘laws’ and ‘magic’ into the foreseeable future. However . . . I really, really enjoyed The Final Empire.

The first book in Sanderson’s bestselling Mistborn series, The Final Empire is of course based around a strongly defined magic system. ‘Allomancy’ is the practice of swallowing metal and then ‘burning’ it in order to access magical powers, with different types of metal granting different kinds of power. It sounds ridiculous (I myself spent much of the novel with a nagging voice in the back of my mind whispering, “that can’t be healthy!”) but it’s actually very innovative, though at times it feels as though we’re being lectured about it in place of seeing it in action. Indeed there are large parts of the beginning of the story that consist of pages of exposition regarding the finer points of allomancy, giving it the feel of a scientific journal rather than an exciting fantasy (there’s even a helpful table included as an appendix, in case readers want to brush up on internal vs. external metals, and which ‘group’ they fall into). There’s too much telling and not enough showing, at least at the beginning.

I found myself feeling similarly spoon-fed as the main characters first came together to discuss the ‘grand plan’ that is the focus of the story. Not only do characters repeat certain points over and over again, but the main character also writes the main points of this super-secret plan in clear bullet points on a big blackboard, as though spelling things out s-l-o-w-l-y for us dull-witted readers. I also found the first few demonstrations of allomancy in action to be similarly repetitive, with almost each new paragraph of a fight scene beginning with the phrase, “Kelsier burned [insert appropriate metal here] and then [insert appropriate action here],” which became somewhat tedious.

Happily, the novel improves vastly as it progresses, and as we become more involved with its main characters. The two protagonists of The Final Empire are radically different: one is a reckless, egotistical man, cocky and confident in his mastery of allomancy; the other is a young fearful street girl, struggling to accept that she too has powers, and fighting against her natural instinct to distrust everyone around her. Although I know plenty of people are huge fans of Kelsier I found him to be irritating and unsympathetic for the majority of the novel, despite his tragic background and supposed charisma. My favourite character by far is Vin, and I really liked the way her character is developed: she gradually comes into her own as a main character rather than being thrust into the limelight, and I enjoyed the way that Kelsier begins to take a narrative backseat to allow Vin to come to the forefront instead. The allomantic combat scenes also become much more complex and exciting as the story focuses more and more on Vin, who is discovering new and interesting ways to apply her myriad powers to any problem she encounters.

Aside from the numerous exposition scenes at the beginning there is never a dull moment in The Final Empire. The characters are always busy setting things in motion, and the settings they occupy are varied and vivid, whether it’s a dingy mine, a royal ballroom or a mist-shrouded city street. The steadily increasing pace makes for an especially climactic build-up to the final events, and there are a few surprises along the way that keep the momentum rolling along nicely. The last couple of hundred pages in particular are full of just one more chapter-type excitement – not at all the stuffy, rule-obsessed pedantry I thought it would be – and I can’t wait to get hold of the next Mistborn book, The Well of Ascension. Against all expectations I now openly declare myself a Sanderson convert, and highly recommend The Final Empire to anyone who hasn’t yet tried his books.

4/5

Monday, 7 September 2015

Review: 'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch


 
 
My name is Peter Grant. Until January I was just another probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service, and to everyone else as the Filth. My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from a man who was dead, but disturbingly voluble, and that brought me to the attention of Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. And that, as they say, is where the story begins.

Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated. I'm dealing with nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden - and that's just routine. There's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious, vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.

The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying. Which, I don't mind telling you, would involve a hell of a lot of paperwork.

 
As a born-and-bred northerner I’ll admit I had doubts about how much I’d enjoy a book centred entirely around the life and culture of London . . . but against all my natural instincts I found myself completely charmed by Rivers of London.

Actually, perhaps ‘charmed’ isn’t quite the right word; rather, being whisked along on this peculiar journey down unfamiliar streets has left me blinking and befuddled – in a good way. Rivers of London is refreshing in that it never pretends to be anything other than it is: a shamelessly daft, irreverent and slightly ridiculous story told through a funny and engaging first person narrator.

Peter Grant is a regular dogsbody in the London Met until, in the face of all probability, he’s informed that “yer a wizard, ‘arry!” and roped into joining the hidden arm of the police dealing with cases of supernatural lawbreaking. Grant’s first case as a real copper is to find out who – or what – is snatching bodies and forcing innocent people to do unspeakable things. One of the first things that stands out about the book is that Aaronovitch doesn’t shy away from violence and swearing: both are fairly prolific, yet fitting with the characters and circumstances, and the swearing never feels gratuitous despite being used largely for humorous effect.

The plot of Rivers of London is enjoyably bizarre and for the most part very entertaining. There are moments of disjointedness where it feels as though the story may be losing its thread, but it always picks up again and for the most part skips along smoothly. The novel’s irreverent tone and down-to-earth characters go a long way towards combating stereotypes, as does the author’s self-awareness of the clichés he is drawing on (cue sarcastic comments and humorous Harry Potter references). To his credit, though, Aaronovitch mostly steers clear of clichés and tends instead to go for the unexpected. Ghosts? Yep, they’re real, only they’re a lot chattier and, well, cockney-er than you’ve ever seen them before. The goddess of the river Thames? She’s a Nigerian woman with a huge family and a fondness for custard creams. And the villain? Well, I won’t say anything about them, except that I never saw that coming. The way the protagonist just goes along with it all, resigning himself to his fate with a sigh, actually makes the magical aspects feel normal and totally credible: every time something new happens, be it a nest of vampires or a time-travelling ghost, instead of rolling their eyes the reader just shrugs and thinks, ‘oh, okay, cool.’

Rivers of London is a lot of fun. I can already tell the books in this series are going to be the sort of fast, fun reads that I can turn to whenever I need rescuing from a reading slump, or as a reprieve after reading something tome-ish. I get the impression that Rivers of London has barely scratched the surface of Aaronovitch’s crazy world, and I’m really, really excited to get my hands on book two, Moon Over Soho.

4/5

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Review: 'Abaddon's Gate' by James S.A. Corey


 
For generations, the solar system -- Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt -- was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has appeared in Uranus's orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante a
re part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

 

I’m starting to feel like a stuck record when it comes to The Expanse. Having just finished the third instalment, Abaddon’s Gate, I can do little but repeat what I’ve said about the other books in the series: I described both Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War as fun, fast-paced and accessible SF adventures, and that’s exactly what Abaddon’s Gate is as well.

The mysterious protomolecule has been busy since we last saw it at the end of Caliban’s War. After spending a year lurking beneath the gas clouds of Venus it has now emerged in full force and established an eerie manifestation near Uranus referred to by scientists only as ‘the Ring’. Anyone stupid enough to enter the Ring either disappears or is killed instantly. In a fragile alliance the three major forces of the solar system – Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance – embark on a research mission to try and determine what the protomolecule is really up to. But when hostilities break out once more between the allied forces the research mission becomes a race against time: figure out what the protomolecule wants, or be trapped inside the Ring forever.

The physical scale of the story in Abaddon’s Gate is larger than ever before, both in terms of the space travelled and the settings. Much of the book is set on a colossal starship known as the Behemoth – formerly the Nauvoo, a generation ship built to sustain human life for hundreds of years with the aim of colonising the far side of the solar system. However, there’s also plenty of the dizzying vacuum and stifling tunnel-crawling we’ve become accustomed to throughout the first two books, which is once again effectively used to create scenes of both claustrophobic desperation and pulse-pounding excitement.

On the whole I felt that Abaddon’s Gate suffered ever-so-slightly slightly in comparison to its awesome predecessor, Caliban’s War, though this is largely due to the absence of my two favourite characters from that book. Once again the only recurring POV character here is Jim Holden – who is thankfully just as likeable as ever, as are the trusty crew members of his ship the Rocinante. Although the other three main characters are also very engaging and sympathetic (albeit to vastly different extents) I just didn’t quite connect with any of them as much as I did with the characters from the first two books, although I have to admit that the way the relationship between Anna and Melba played out was fantastic.

That said, Abaddon’s Gate captured my interest totally from beginning to end. It’s a fast, fun, exciting, slightly OTT space adventure and once again I look forward to devouring the next book in the series, Cibola Burn.

4/5


Sunday, 23 August 2015

Review: 'Ancillary Justice' by Ann Leckie




On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

 



Ancillary Justice won about a million SFF awards last year; and while I haven’t read enough of the other contenders’ work to judge whether this one truly deserved all the top spots, I can say that it had me rooting for the unlikely protagonist throughout, and left me wanting more. Ancillary Justice plays with futuristic possibilities of science and technology, and subverts the way we think about concepts such as humanity, social inequality and gender.

In Leckie’s future, ancillaries are a common feature on many ships. Created by fusing the AI of a spaceship with the body of a human being, ancillaries are intelligent yet inhuman extensions of a ship’s consciousness. But although they are looked down upon by society and treated merely as pieces of equipment by those they serve, there is much more to some ancillaries than their creators could have anticipated: the protagonist of Ancillary Justice is (as the title suggests) an ancillary who is on a personal mission to exact revenge on the individual who betrayed her captain and destroyed her ship. Breq proves to be far more than simply a slave of the Radch, and is moulded yet not defined by her complicated interactions with those around her. As a protagonist she is unusual, intriguing and more than a little likeable.

I initially found the plot of Ancillary Justice to be slightly confusing, although this probably says more about my own lack of familiarity with the genre and its tropes than it does about the novel itself. However, I would have been prepared to endure even more confusion if it meant avoiding the infrequent yet unwarranted infodumps scattered throughout the beginning of the book. This doesn’t happen often enough to really detract from the story, but it has to be said that there are one or two awkward instances of the old ‘let’s have a detailed conversation about lots of things we as characters clearly already know about,’ where I would have preferred a gradual drip-feed of information instead. My usual diet of traditional fantasy doesn’t generally stretch my brain in these sorts of directions, and I find figuring things out for myself to be fun rather than frustrating.

The main thing I struggled to get my head around was the concept of the novel’s antagonist, largely due to the somewhat bewildering use of pronouns used by characters with multiple embodiments. Thankfully things became much clearer as the novel progressed, as did the subtle differences between the three different incarnations of the protagonist herself: I came to really appreciate the divergences in her behaviour between the past and the present. In fact, I would love to read Ancillary Justice again in the future having finally got my head around the way things work in the Radch.

A point of interest within Ancillary Justice is the lack of gender in the imperial language of the Radch. As a result the first person narrator Breq refers to everyone as ‘she’, regardless of their actual gender. While this does lead to some confusion – namely in the instances where Breq is speaking in another language and is forced to try and pinpoint others’ gender in order to correctly address them – eventually it becomes such a natural part of the narrative that you stop even trying to figure out whether a character is a man or a woman because, in Leckie’s world, it simply doesn’t matter.

I would probably never have bought this novel if not for a bored evening spent searching for potential new reads using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature. The beginning of Ancillary Justice – a chance meeting in suspicious circumstances with someone the protagonist has not seen in a thousand years – was sufficiently intriguing to hook me into buying, as was the clearly unconventional nature of the protagonist herself. The rest of the story is engaging and continues in a way that keeps the reader intrigued: it’s well-paced and nicely structured, with chapters that alternate between past and present to gradually reveal more and more about events leading up to the main plot. Furthermore the reader is made to care about secondary characters, including those not central to the main plot, despite the fact that we’re encountering them through the impassive filter of an ‘inhuman’ AI. And of course there’s the AI herself: she’s the main focus of the novel and I really came to care about her story, enough that I want to immediately grab the next book in the series to see what’s next for Breq. Bring on Ancillary Sword!

4/5

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Review: 'A Darker Shade of Magic' by V.E Schwab


 Kell is one of the last travellers — magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There’s Grey London, without magic and ruled by the mad King George III. Red London – where magic is revered, and where Kell was raised alongside the heir to the empire. White London – where people fight to control the remaining magic and magic fights back. And once there was Black London . . .

Officially, Kell is the Red traveller, carrying letters between the monarchs of each London. Unofficially he is a smuggler, a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences. His escape to Grey London leads to a run-in with Delilah, a cutpurse with lofty aspirations, who forces Kell to take her on a proper adventure. But perilous magic is afoot, treachery lurks at every turn, and an adventure becomes a mission to save all of the worlds.



 
I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I bought this book solely because of its cover. It- Actually, no, I’m not embarrassed at all: that’s what covers are for, isn’t it? And that is one seriously gorgeous cover.

Luckily there’s an equally gorgeous story lying behind it. A Darker Shade of Magic is filled with beautiful settings and bloody magic, cross-dressing thieves and nefarious villains, magical utopias and fearsome dystopias, not to mention fun adventures and several heroic attempts to save the world. Or I should say worlds, of which there are four. Each of the four worlds – closed off from one another after terrible past events – are completely different, yet all have a single common point: the city of London. Each of these Londons (not all of which are actually called London) is vastly different from the others: Red London is a magic-infused paradise, Grey London is akin to early 19th century England, White London is dangerous and filled with half-starved cannibals, and the less said about Black London the better.

A Darker Shade of Magic focuses on two incredibly likeable characters: Kell, a powerful magician and adopted member of the Red London royal family; and Lila, a dirt-poor thief from Grey London who dreams of adventure. An unlikely pairing, but one which must work together to travel between Londons and thwart those trying to bring doom upon both their worlds. The relationship between Kell and Lila forms a large part of the story, and much of the novel’s humour arises from their interactions and the dry way in which they antagonise one another. However, their relationship is not the sole focus of the story – much to the author’s credit. A romance storyline between the two could easily have taken centre stage, and yet this particular element is remarkably downplayed and subtle. Instead it’s more about how Kell and Lila gradually come to trust one another, and how their initially antagonistic relationship becomes something stronger through their mutual desire to put things right and save the worlds. There’s just a hint or two that there may be more than just friendship on the horizon, which is both realistic and lovely at the same time.

No, the true focus of the novel is on its plot rather than its characters; and while I would have liked to have been given more insight into each of the characters as individuals, the author nonetheless does a credible job of developing them both whilst remaining focused on the events. The plot itself is relatively straightforward, but with enough twists and turns thrown in to keep the reader guessing; and the writing is flowing and engaging. In fact certain parts of the prose – not to mention the setting, as well as the somewhat nebulous nature of the magic itself – put me in mind of Susanna Clarke’s excellent novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Schwab’s novel is not as accomplished nor as ambitious as Clarke’s behemoth – indeed, A Darker Shade of Magic’s strength is in its fast pacing and tightly-focused plot – but its spirit is much the same, as is its focus on magic’s darker, subtler side and its potential to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

While many aspects of the novel are somewhat dark and sinister (as the title suggests), the story itself is a whole lot of fun. The strong pacing and short chapters – as well as the likeable characters and compelling plot – conspired to make me finish the book in just two sittings, and I’m really happy to have discovered a new author as a result of my shallow over-appreciation of fine cover art. Even better, a look at the author’s website tells me that there’s a sequel due out next year. I’m confident it will be just as good, if not better, than book one . . . I can only cross my fingers and hope it looks just as pretty on my shelf!

4/5

Monday, 10 August 2015

Review: 'When the Heavens Fall' by Marc Turner

 
If you pick a fight with Shroud, Lord of the Dead, you had better ensure your victory, else death will mark only the beginning of your suffering.

A book giving its wielder power over the dead has been stolen from a fellowship of mages that has kept the powerful relic dormant for centuries. The thief, a crafty, power-hungry necromancer, intends to use the Book of Lost Souls to resurrect an ancient race and challenge Shroud for dominion of the underworld. Shroud counters by sending his most formidable servants to seize the artefact at all cost.

However, the god is not the only one interested in the Book, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the powerful magic that has been unleashed. Among them is a reluctant Guardian commissioned by the Emperor to find the stolen Book, a troubled prince who battles enemies both personal and political, and a young girl of great power, whose past uniquely prepares her for an encounter with Shroud.
 


I both love it and hate it when I enjoy the first book in a new series. I love it because I have the thrill of knowing that even when I reach the last page there’s still plenty more where that came from . . . and I hate it because what do you mean I have to wait until next year for the second one?!

After just a few pages I knew that the Chronicles of the Exile would be (yet another) series I’d be following. I’d seen this book reviewed on several blogs I follow, and was completely pulled in by the overwhelmingly positive comments as well as numerous comparisons to Steven Erikson (my favourite author) and Glen Cook. And I can totally see where these comparisons are coming from. For a start there’s a whole host of crazy-powerful supernatural beings, the understated yet chilling descriptions of which strongly reminded me of the Taken in Cook’s Black Company. Then there are the sort of quirky, rock-hard, darkly humorous characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Erikson’s Malazan series, not to mention long-lost ancient races and interfering gods using the world as their own personal chess board. And there’s also a dark, gritty undertone – the sort of grimdark sensation that none of the characters are ever going to catch a break – that put me in mind of Joe Abercrombie’s excellent First Law trilogy.

But, as easy as it is to say “fans of Cook/Erikson/Abercrombie will love this book,” When the Heavens Fall is not as easily pigeonholed as that. Turner has taken many much-loved aspects of these kinds of fantasy and has used them to embellish rather than define his own work; a sort of homage as opposed to a blueprint. While admittedly it was these kinds of parallels that drew me in from the beginning, the thing that actually kept me reading was the patient and gradual build-up to a final convergence which, while not quite as climactic as I’d hoped, was nonetheless well-done and satisfying. The climax itself and the form it will take is deliberately signposted right from the beginning, but the routes by which our characters arrive there are sufficiently twisted that, while we can guess what will happen, we’re entirely unable to predict how it will happen. Having the entire plot of the novel building up to a single moment is somewhat risky – especially with sequels on the horizon – but I found it refreshing, a bold change from the many sprawling fantasy epics I usually read. The author uses the alternating points-of-view of a small handful of characters to great effect, switching between them at varying points within each chapter to build momentum and create tension. I personally found all four point-of-view characters to be unfathomable and unpredictable: while this meant that I didn’t quite connect with the characters as much as I would have liked, it did keep me constantly guessing what they would do next, with many pleasant (and nasty!) surprises as a result.

Yes, When the Heavens Fall is somewhat slow to begin with. But once it gets going there’s no stopping it; and it really gets going once it hits the halfway point. There’s a notable change of pace at around the two-fifty page-mark, and the story shifts up several gears from the moment the characters’ stories first begin to overlap. The characters themselves are compelling if not always sympathetic: a particular favourite of mine is Romany, the self-indulgent-yet-badass high priestess whose witty and irreverent verbal exchanges are a constant source of entertainment. The big climax is enjoyable if slightly drawn out, and for every problem resolved there are another ten questions still needing answers: the author has done a great job of making his readers clamour for the next book without quite leaving us on a cliffhanger.

What do you mean I have to wait until next year for the second one?! 

4/5

Many thanks to Marc Turner and Titan for providing a copy of When the Heavens Fall for review.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Review: 'The Girl with All the Gifts' by M.R. Carey



Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her "our little genius."

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.



 
The above blurb is as ominous as it is deliberately vague, and I’m not one for hedging and hinting; so if you haven’t read this book yet and don’t want to know any more details about its premise, then read no further. You have been warned.

We’re in southern England. It’s twenty years on from the cataclysmic outbreak that devastated the world and turned all those it infected into mindless, unstoppable killing machines known as ‘hungries’. In one of the country’s last remaining military outposts a group of children are kept under armed guard; children who only need to eat once a week, are kept underground in steel cells, and who people are only able to approach after coating themselves in scent-blocking chemicals. The children have never thought to question why this might be. Every now and again a child will be wheeled away to the research laboratory, never to return. It’s only when the outpost is overrun that those inside realise the true dangers of the world they live in, and that not all the hungries are the monsters they’re presumed to be.

The Girl with All the Gifts is a wonderfully character-centred tale, set in a post-apocalyptic future and focusing on a rag-tag group of survivors with bucketloads of heart, conflict and chemistry. The main focus of the story is Melanie, a ‘hungry’ who retains her own personality and has a genius-level IQ, yet becomes a slavering monster at the barest scent of human flesh. The relationship between the girl Melanie and her former teacher Miss Justineau is the driving force behind much of the novel, and it’s a lovely thing to behold. In a novel filled with violence and despair – a novel that could just as easily have been written as an outright horror story – its focus on human relationships, particularly those based around children, makes it really compelling. It also creates a strong foundation of sympathy for the characters of Melanie and Miss Justineau, particularly when it becomes clear the astonishing lengths to which they will go to protect one another, and how determined they are to stay together against all odds. Almost as heartwarming is seeing how the other characters gradually come to change their outlook, all of which is based around little Melanie. That said, I would have liked a little more insight into the characters of Parks and Gallagher; their military background added a different perspective on the survivalist situation, but they remained very much supporting characters throughout.

Another aspect of The Girl with All the Gifts that makes it so absorbing is the fact that it’s written in the present tense. This creates a real sense of urgency and immediacy that keeps the reader constantly on their toes. It makes for a lot of tense moments, one or two in particular involving hungry-infested streets that had me literally holding my breath. Yet another thing I really liked, and that brought the story to life all the more, was how much time the author spent detailing the ‘how and why’ of the infection, most notably through the character of the psychopathic yet brilliant Dr Caldwell. Not only was all the conjecture fascinating, it also sounds totally believable: the cause of the infection has its roots in an existing natural phenomenon (I Googled it!) which sounds both plausible and terrifying.

Although I really enjoyed reading it, The Girl with All the Gifts was not what I expected, possibly because I had mixed signals about what to expect in the first place. I’ve heard it frequently described as a horror novel, yet the cover describes it as a thriller. I have to admit I was a little bit disappointed because, to me, it wasn’t quite either of these. Not that it isn’t thrilling (it is, frequently), and not that it isn’t frightening (it is, often), but there isn’t quite enough of either to give it that smack-in-the-gob impact I was expecting. In actuality it’s more of a post-apocalyptic road novel, philosophic and dystopian yet suffused with elements of horror. Which is absolutely fine (it’s actually incredibly effective) . . . it just doesn’t quite reflect the way it’s marketed.

This aside, I’d highly recommend The Girl with All the Gifts and really look forward to seeing the film adaptation when it’s released next year.

4/5

Saturday, 1 August 2015

100th Review! 'Ruin' by John Gwynne


The Banished Lands are engulfed in war and chaos. The cunning Queen Rhin has conquered the west and High King Nathair has the cauldron, most powerful of the seven treasures. At his back stands the scheming Calidus and a warband of the Kadoshim, dread demons of the Otherworld. They plan to bring Asroth and his host of the Fallen into the world of flesh, but to do so they need the seven treasures. Nathair has been deceived but now he knows the truth. He has choices to make, choices that will determine the fate of the Banished Lands.

Elsewhere the flame of resistance is growing - Queen Edana finds allies in the swamps of Ardan. Maquin is loose in Tenebral, hunted by Lykos and his corsairs. Here he will witness the birth of a rebellion in Nathair's own realm.

Corban has been swept along by the tide of war. He has suffered, lost loved ones, sought only safety from the darkness. But he will run no more. He has seen the face of evil and he has set his will to fight it. The question is, how? With a disparate band gathered about him - his family, friends, giants, fanatical warriors, an angel and a talking crow he begins the journey to Drassil, the fabled fortress hidden deep in the heart of Forn Forest. For in Drassil lies the spear of Skald, one of the seven treasures, and here it is prophesied that the Bright Star will stand against the Black Sun.



It’s not often that I care enough about a book to feel physically sick with nerves as I turn the pages, waiting to see what will happen to a beloved character. It’s also not often that a book makes me cry like a baby. Ruin drove me to both of these, leaving me a sobbing wreck after reading the final line. But I won’t hold that against it, seeing as it’s also an awesomely epic and ambitious tale that delivered everything it promised and more.

Ruin is the third book in John Gwynne’s fantastic The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy quartet, a series which has so far woven an incredibly dense, complex and engaging story. Although the books appear to be getting longer and longer they are also becoming easier and easier to read, a testament to the author’s flowing style and continually improving writing skills. Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters – FOURTEEN!! – reflecting the epic scale of the series. Far from being confusing, this actually enables us to see the events of the story from conflicting perspectives; and while it’s clear who the true ‘baddies’ are, many characters are formed in shades of grey and it’s fascinating to see their internal conflicts and motivations. Ruin is also notably populated with strong female characters – such as Cywen, Coralen, Fidele, Laith, Brina, and Kulla – who serve important roles even when relegated to the background. Although there are so many characters to keep track of, and although it’s been over a year since reading Valour, I found that I immediately remembered most characters from previous books, which just goes to show how much I’ve become invested in them during the many hundreds of pages of their story so far.

While I’m still not overly-fond of the A Song of Ice and Fire-style ‘named chapters’ in general, I have to admit that it really, really works here. Many chapters are fairly short and rapidly alternating, creating a sense of adrenaline and setting a breathless pace that had me fumbling to turn the pages faster and mumbling to myself, “just one more chapter”. Other chapters are longer and more detailed explorations of individual characters’ motives and emotions, providing intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter becomes a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to each and every character, whether ‘good’, ‘evil’, or in-between.

I said in my review of Malice that I’d like to see future battle scenes to be more personal and character-driven, and wow has that wish been granted. The prophesied God-War has finally begun in earnest, but Ruin shows the true face of what this kind of war would entail. Gwynne tells an incredible story of unlikely heroes, well-meaning villains and tired refugees; a story packed with messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; a story of confusing conflicts, with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes, with losses slowly adding up and constant fighting taking its toll both physically and mentally. The action comes thick and fast and it feels as though the reader is there in the midst of it all, sweating and bleeding and dodging attacks from every quarter. The character-driven narratives and their focus on the immediacy of each situation makes it feel a lot less glorious, but a lot more real.

Needless to say Ruin is much grimmer and gorier than its predecessors. The Banished Lands are at war: no longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening, with large parts of the novel set in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting giant ruins. This makes for some weird and wonderful imagery, and creates a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. In fact there’s a real gritty feel to the entire story, and I think the point the author is making here with Ruin is: shit just got real. Despite this, Gwynne manages to create a sense of grimness and overwhelming odds without resorting to the George R R Martin method of mass-murdering every character in sight. Ruin’s underlying tone is, surprisingly, one of optimism: its characters are strong and determined, working together to cope with their losses and continue their attempts to achieve the impossible. Although bleak in places and sickeningly violent in others, grimdark this ain’t. And I like that.

It’s dark, thrilling and bloody. But Ruin’s strongest point is, for me, its characters. The author takes character relationships crafted throughout the first two novels – between friends, family, loved ones and, especially, animals – and brings them beautifully to the fore without overstating them, whilst also forging new ones along the way. He never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity, and that’s what makes it such an engaging and sometimes emotional read. Gwynne has really, really upped his writing game with Ruin, and I have every confidence that the final instalment of The Faithful and the Fallen will continue to thrill, continue to astound . . . and, of course, continue to make me cry like a baby.

5/5