Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Killer Year: Stories To Die For", edited by Lee Child

A glorious collection of crime writing’s best new talent

Killer Year is the latest crime/thriller collection from MIRA Books, following the aptly-titled Thriller. The first volume contained a number of established writers – e.g. Brad Thor, John Lescroart, and also Lee Child, who edited this volume. Killer Year, on the other hand, is all about new blood.

It would be easy to write a great deal on each and every one of these 16 stories, but I shall limit myself to a quick nod to the best: Brett Battles’ tale of murder and revenge surrounding an exotic dancing establishment in the Phillippines contains his trademark keen eye for human characters and his brilliantly atmospheric locations. Allison Brennan’s story of grief and state-level politics is a cutting indictment of the privatisation of and the influence of money in government, showing how real people can suffer from politicians greed. Toni McGee Causey’s “A Failure To Communicate” introduces us to Bobbie Faye Sumrall, a true force-of-nature who refuses to play her appointed role as hostage. Other stories and authors to check out would be Jason Pinter’s “The Point Guard” (a botched robbery of a local convenience store has terrible repurcussions), Robert Gregory Browne’s “Bottom Deal” (a down-and-out cop comes to the aid of a friend), and Marcus Sakey’s “Gravity And Need” (a tale of the difference between what someone wants and what someone needs). These are just a handful of the stories contained in Killer Year.

Some of these stories are incredibly short (e.g. J.T. Ellison’s “Prodigal Me” is a mere nine pages long), while others clock in at a more weighty (though still brief) 20-30 pages. What struck me most is that they are all extremely well crafted; each contains enough detail to not leave the reader at sea, tight plotting, great characters, and each story is perfectly summed up. Despite their frugal length, though, every one of these tales is satisfying in itself. Though you will finish wanting more. The best thing about their length is that they lend themselves well to commutes, waiting rooms and lunch-hours.

If, like me, it can sometimes take a little push to try out new authors (if the Waterstone’s 3-for-2 didn’t already get you), Killer Year is the best thing to happen to crime fans. As Lee Child writes in his introduction, this is a “sampler” book, much like the CDs you get mounted on the covers of music magazines, with single tracks by certain up-and-coming bands, aimed at giving you a taste of what is to come. This book contains sample stories by up-and-coming authors, most of whom are likely to enjoy a good deal of success – both because they were included in here, and also because they are just so very good at what they do.

Punchy, expertly crafted thriller tales to whet your appetite for the latest crop of crime writers. Excellent.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"The Company", by K.J. Parker (Orbit)

The master of slow-burn series fantasy’s first standalone

The word that can best describe K.J. Parker’s approach to fantasy and writing is “slow”. In an age when everything is “blockbuster” or “fast-paced”, with novels leaving readers “breathless”, it’s rather refreshing to come across an author who takes their time with plotting and development. Parker’s widely acclaimed Engineer Trilogy seemed to many to move at a glacial speed, so the notion of reading a single-volume story from the author might be more appealing to those with limited free time or attention spans.

The war is over, and it’s time to return to normality, life as a mere civilian. Former General Teuche Kunessin returns to his hometown, Faralia, hoping to convince his former comrades to move their whole lives to an island that Kunessin’s managed to acquire (it technically belongs to the army Kunessin’s now left), in a hope to start over with a new colony. Of, course, they all do, and so they set off for a new life. Unfortunately for our protagonists, things don’t go as Kunessin planned. Partly this is due to the complex interpersonal relationships Parker has constructed for his characters.

Parker’s attention to detail is phenomenal. Nothing is left unexplained – whether it’s an explanation of how the tanning process works in Parker’s world, or ship-building, or renovating dilapidated buildings… Everything is explained as if Parker is somehow addicted to exposition; educating as well as entertaining his readers. This level of detail was both welcome and unwelcome. Welcome because I often feel that some authors would rather not craft a whole new world completely, relying on their plotting and characters to draw the readers' attention. Unwelcome because it slowed the book down quite a lot (it's something I'm battling to stop myself doing, too). The plot, back-stories, and characters unfold over the whole course of the novel, so we only get the full picture well into the book. Everything builds up to an ending that will leave some disappointed, others unhappy, but probably most will be fine with.

The novel is a fantasy novel, set as it is in a different world, but that’s about where it stops resembling what most would consider “fantasy”. It’s as if someone took a historical crime thriller/caper and transposed it onto a completely fictitious world. But really, Parker's work is much more about the characters he writes than the world they are set in. It makes me wonder if he wanted to be a psychologist at some point in his life.

Filled with the depth, complexity, wry one-liners (some really are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them), and an interest in the bleak nature of the human condition readers have come to expect from K.J. Parker. While I generally prefer a faster pace to my reading material, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy The Company. It was far more involved than many fantasy novels, which certainly made the reading experience different – Parker effectively writes literary fantasy. I would probably still recommend authors such as Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss to those with more of a casual interest in fantasy (they write at equal length, but manage to keep the pace going from the frist page to the last). For fantasy lovers looking for something a little more challenging, I’d definitely recommend Parker’s work.

The shorter form should attract new readers, but long-time fans will no doubt get just as much satisfaction out of The Company as Parker's previous trilogies. My final word on the novel? A very rewarding read.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Rising Moon" & "Hidden Moon", by Lori Handeland (PanMacMillan)

Buffy meets Mills & Boon?

Rising Moon and Hidden Moon are the latest titles in Lori Handeland's bestselling paranormal romance series. Both books feature a strong heroine, a tall dark and handsome stranger, and werewolves.

Rising Moon follows private eye Anne Lockhart to a jazz bar in New Orleans, on the trail of her missing sister. Handsome owner Jack Rodolfo is mysterious, blind and angst-ridden, and surely the attraction Anne feels for him is something more than natural. And then the bodies start to appear...

Hidden Moon's Claire Kennedy fled from her childhood home to escape her past. As mayor, she really shouldn't be falling for gypsy Malachi Cartwright, who rides into town with his strange carnival. But then a tourist is attacked by a wolf, and the only man who might have any answers is the last person Claire should trust.

Handeland's writing is evocative and atmospheric, particularly when it comes to recreating the smoky jazz club and carnival atmosphere of New Orleans. Both her heronies are strong and proactive, and her heroes sultry. She blends romance, suspense and the paranormal with ease and her love scenes are neither awkward nor stilted, some occasional clunky phraseology aside.

The two books share the same formula, and I'd be interested to see how Handeland deals with other supernatural creatures, but it's a formula that works well for her. The books are a little trashy, but well written. To be honest, the covers actually sell the books short: the tag lines "He awakens something wild in her..." and "He'll take her to the wild side..." just evoke trashy Mills & Boon novels, which Rising Moon and Hidden Moon are not. Handeland has more to offer than just soft-core porn/romance.

Less involved and literary than Anne Rice (though sharing the location of New Orleans), but also less trashy than some other supernatural-romance novels. Not bad. An entertaining, uncomplicated read.

For Fans Of: Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, Richelle Mead
Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Shock And Awe", by David Isaak (Pan Books)

One billionaire and his quest to take the War on Terror to a whole new level

Atwater has hatched a crazy plan to fight terrorist fire with fire. Recruiting Carla Smukowski, a former special forces operative struggling to come to terms with her brother’s murder at the hands of Islamic terrorists, and minuteman Boyce Hammond, Atwater provides the financial backing needed to take the war to Islam’s doorstep. Together, they come up with a plan that takes control of the war out of the hands at the Pentagon and White House, and puts it into private hands. Turning a nightmare scenario on its head, Carla and Boyce’s team hijack a shipment of nuclear material with the intent of creating a radiological “dirty bomb” to be used to maximum psychological effect.

Unfortunately for Atwater, Boyce is also an undercover FBI agent, having spent three years infiltrating the Ethan Allen Brigade.

Isaak’s characters are compellingly flawed. Be it Carla’s alcoholism and near-fatalistic approach to her duties for Atwater, or Boyce’s not entirely gentlemanly appreciation of Earlene, the woman he has come to be with during his time undercover. These are not characters you’d find in a James Patterson novel, all of whom tend to be a little too clean, or Hollywood-polished.

Global locales and gritty action, Shock & Awe is a very modern political/global thriller (or “terrorist fiction” as the genre has come to be called). Isaak’s knowledge of the international energy world is obvious, but rather than delving too far into minutiae or boring detail, he manages to keep the pace of the story up, as well as avoiding many of the usual pitfalls that trouble many first-time authors (cliché, excessive exposition, and so forth).

With a good, sparse writing style, this novel will keep you up well into the night. Plenty of action, political insight and a host of complex characters you’ll care about, Shock & Awe is a compelling start from a new voice in thriller fiction.

For fans of: David Baldacci, Alex Berenson, Jack Henderson, Gregg Hurwitz, Stephen Leather

Monday, October 06, 2008

"The Riven Kingdom", by Karen Miller (Orbit Books)

One woman's fight to claim her crown, in a country torn apart by civil war

The Riven Kingdom is the eagerly anticipated second book in bestselling author Karen Miller’s Godspeaker Trilogy. Book One, Empress, follows Hekat as she transforms herself from nameless slave into Empress of the kingdom of Mijak, and concludes with her determination to win not only Mijak but the rest of the world for her god.

The Riven Kingdom focuses on a different, broad cast of characters whose lives are nevertheless inextricably linked with those of Hekat and her two sons, Zandakar and Dmitrak, and their quest for world domination. Princess Rhian’s father, the King of Ethrea is dying, and will leave her as his only heir. Prolate Marlan and many of the other lords are opposed to a Queen as sole ruler, and Rhian must defeat all attempts to deny her the crown. Her unlikely allies are Dexterity Jones, a toymaker, who is guided by the spirit of his dead wife; Ursa, the acerbic healer; and Zandakar, a mysterious exile from Mijak.

Almost 700 pages, Miller manages to sustain the pace and an intricate plot, interspersed with reminders of the importance of Ethrea to Hekat’s plans. Rhian is a more immediately appealing character than Hekat, and the relationship between Dexterity and Ursa is touching and sharply observed. The reader is drawn into Rhian’s battle to assert her identity as Princess and then Queen, and Dexterity’s struggle to understand Zandakar. Marlan, cruel and unpredictable, in certain scenes is truly chilling. Miller’s characters are all conflicted to some extent: one of her great strengths is her ability to illustrate the capacity for good and evil in each human. Certainly no character in The Riven Kingdom gives the impression that they exist simply as a plot device: even fairly minor characters often turn out to have an important part to play, and a complexity that goes beyond their space on the page.

Miller is perhaps best known for her book The Innocent Mage, and certainly the Godspeaker trilogy does bear comparison with fellow Australian Trudi Canavan’s Age of the Five trilogy. The Riven Kingdom is a less uncomfortable read than Empress, largely because of the differences in personality between the two main protagonists. Hekat is so consumed by her desire to please the god and her rise to power that she frequently seems inhuman. As so much of Empress is spent inside Hekat’s head, the reader is left feeling unclean and unsettled by her careless disregard for others. Miller also spends a lot of time building the world of Mijak, which is very firmly an alternate universe. The constant reference to “godspeakers”, “godbells” and various other customs and rituals became wearing and could perhaps have been edited down. The Riven Kingdom, on the other hand, is an easier read partly because it doesn’t feel like hard work: Miller has clearly put a lot of effort into fleshing out Hekat’s world. Now that she has laid the groundwork, this second volume feels less strained in contrast.

If you can get past the slightly laboured world of Empress, with its difficult if darkly attractive heronie, then The Riven Kingdom is a gripping instalment in an intriguing series. The ending left me impatient for book three, Hammer of God (published January 2009).

A definite improvement on volume one.

Review by Emma Newrick

Also try: Trudi Canavan's The Black Magician & Age of the Five trilogies; Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy.