Friday, February 27, 2009

“A Madness of Angels”, by Kate Griffin (Orbit)

Griffin-MadnessOfAngelsAn exciting new voice in urban fantasy

There’s much more in London than life – there is power. It ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the city and hums with the rattle of trains and buses. It waxes and wanes with the patterns of the business day. It is a new kind of magic: it is urban magic.

Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, seek favours from the Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of the Bag Lady. Beings of power soar with the pigeons, scrabble with the rats, and seek insight in the half-whispered madness of the blue electric angels…

A Madness of Angels is part fantasy, part thriller with a twist. Sorcerer Matthew Swift is an intriguing character and the novel rattles along at a roaring pace as he tries to uncover the dark side of this London. This is an exceptional debut novel. Griffin writes with a tremendous sense of atmosphere, bringing the sights, sounds and smells of Swift’s London to life. Her imagery is vivid and unusual, especially when describing a pigeon-eye view, or one of the magical constructs of this city: a monster formed from rubbish – chip papers, gum and broken glass. Famous London landmarks appear, but are distorted or made unfamiliar, seen through Griffin’s eyes, reimagining the familiar in weird and wonderful ways.

Unlike in so many fantasy novels, the world she creates is gritty and realistic: our world, but distorted through a lens of urban magic. Her dialogue is well-crafted, often witty, but never gives too much away as she slowly weaves the tale together.

The voices of the blue electric angels, speaking through Swift, work well most of the time. However, if I do have one criticism of this otherwise excellent novel, it would be that this device sometimes becomes confusing – for example, the frequent switching between “I” and “we” within the same sentence.

Overall, though, Griffin’s fantasy world is unusual and distinctive, her authorial voice assured, her plot fast-paced and full of unexpected twists and turns. A Madness of Angels is a gripping and sometimes disturbing read that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Highly recommended.

For fans of: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Susannah Clarke, Jim Butcher, China Mieville’s UnLunDun, Ginn Hale.

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Monday, February 23, 2009

“Typhoon”, by Charles Cumming (Penguin)


The latest spy-thriller from the new master of the genre

It is 1997, only a few months before the British rule in Hong Kong comes to an end, and China retakes the reins. It is a city populated by every intelligence agency; each jostling for influence and the latest scoop or discovery – not unlike the journalist who narrates the tale.

When an elderly man, supposedly a university professor, emerges from the sea off Hong Kong, claiming he knows of secrets he will only divulge to the British Government, a series of events is set in motion that will have repercussions almost a decade after the story begins. A sinister and ambitious plot aimed at destabilizing the People’s Republic of China for monetary and political gain is hatched in the backrooms of power. Joe Lennox, a young British SIS operative, the first to talk with the Chinese professor, finds his career on the line, only his concerns for his job are dwarfed by the wider geopolitical ramifications. Yet he must still contend with a girlfriend – Isabella – his superiors don’t approve of, an American opposite he doesn’t fully trust but who wants Isabella for himself. His characters are flawed yet alluring, his eye for the faults of gweilos in Asia sharp and occasionally amusing.

Charles Cumming is easily one of the most gifted thriller writers on the scene today. He writes with an assured style, creating a compelling, addictive tale of espionage and deceit. Twisting real-world politics with fictional characters and events (some loosely based on real events), he weaves an exciting story. His pacing is swift, with trim prose and a good sense for writing realistic dialogue, Typhoon is a pleasure to read, and it will keep you up until the wee hours of the morning, as Cumming slowly reveals the wider implications of his story, as he jumps forward in time from 1997 to 2005.

A novel with a focus both on its individual characters and also the wider global situation, Typhoon has an original premise that is flawlessly executed and tightly written, with a panache and skill reminiscent of James Clavell’s Tai-Pan (one of the best novels of all time) and Nobel House. The novel is brilliantly researched, and Cumming’s attention to and understanding of the politics surrounding China’s place in the world is right on the button, giving the novel a contemporary relevance and sense of urgency.

For fans of: John le Carre, Daniel Silva, James Clavell (particularly Tai-Pan and Noble House), David Baldacci

Friday, February 20, 2009

“Small Favour”, by Jim Butcher (Orbit)


An old deal comes back to bite (and kick) Harry Dresden.

Things are going rather well for Chicago-based professional wizard Harry Dresden. No one’s tried to kill him in a while. Life has more or less calmed down, and the only thing he has to contend with is his apprentice, Molly, as she becomes more and more confident in her magic.

After a cheerful intro, with Harry teaching Molly how to create magical shields (to deflect snowballs from Molly’s brothers and sisters), they are attacked by bull-like “whatsits”. Turns out, the peace and quiet was to be short-lived, and now Harry’s back in the dangerous world of magic. The problem is, he made a deal with Mab, the faerie monarch of the Winter Court and the Queen of Air and Darkness. Faeries are tricky blighters, and under the bargain, he owed her three favours. One was paid back in Summer Knight, while two remain. It’s time for him to pay off another… What follows is his attempt to live up to his end of the bargain while also keeping himself and those dear to him alive, not least from a series of increasingly deadly Billy Goats Gruff (which Harry finds to be no laughing matter). The “small favour” of the title is anything but, as Harry finds himself dealing with one of Chicago’s most nefarious mobsters, “Gentleman” Johnny Marcone, some coins linked with demon-possession, and Mab’s sister, Titania, having a different perspective on said demon-possession.

Having read the first four Dresden Files novels, I was intrigued to see how the characters had developed, and to see how Jim Butcher had developed as a writer. His imagination is still an amazing thing, and his use of various supernatural creatures and themes remains inspired and unusual. The first two novels (Storm Front and Fool Moon) were set to original and exciting premises, filled with supernatural adventure, peril and tension, and populated by strange and beguiling creatures. But the novels were let down by Butcher’s strange writing style, which at times was a little too slow, making them a frustrating read. Oddly, however, I was never much troubled by the author’s tendency not to finish each novel with everything tied up neatly in a bow: By creating many subplots, which span a number of novels, Butcher has been able to tie the series together much more easily, creating a decent sense of continuity throughout.

As the writing has improved over each subsequent installment, the novels have become more and more enjoyable, and with Small Favour (the 10th in the series), Butcher has really hit his stride – maintaining the sarcastic quips and outlook of Harry Dresden, and still keeping his character intact, only with writing and plotting that is much tighter, more fluid and assured, better paced and certainly more engaging and entertaining. This is not an unusual progression for an author – Terry Pratchett went through the same thing, all those years ago (and look how beloved and talented he is now!). The result is a novel with a protagonist that is both loveable and believable, truly heroic, and a story that hooks the reader very early on.

Bob the Skull remains one of the best characters in any fantasy series, but Butcher is able to populate his world (and Chicago) with a large cast of well-rounded, realistic supporting players to Dresden’s (mis)adventures, many of whom have appeared in previous Dresden Files novels (adding to the sense of continuity).

This is a superb addition to the series, with Jim Butcher easily joining the ranks of the better science-fiction authors writing today. The action is intense and frequent, the humour often and well-crafted. This is a great novel, with all the elements pulling together brilliantly. A great, fun read. Highly recommended.

Series Chronology: Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, Blood Rites, Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, White Night, Small Favour, Turn Coat (available April 2009)

For fans of: Mike Carey, David Devereux, Kelley Armstrong, Buffy & Angel

Monday, February 16, 2009

“Divine Justice”, by David Baldacci (Macmillan)


Oliver Stone is on the run, hiding out in rural Virginia. The CIA’s best investigator is set loose, only to have his loyalties tested.

After the tumultuous events of Stone Cold, our hero Oliver Stone/John Carr takes vengeance on the two responsible for so much death and horror throughout his own life and those of people close to him. Divine Justice opens immediately after Stone pulls the trigger, killing Carter Gray (a while after he also assassinated Senator Simpson), and chronicles his flight from Washington, as he tries to draw attention away from his friends in the Camel Club. After intervening in a dispute on an Amtrak train, he finds himself taking refuge in Divine, Virginia – a sleepy, back-end-of-nowhere, miner town. What Stone finds in Divine is anything but a sleepy rural town. Local intrigue and rivalries boil over, dragging Stone into a situation he has no wish to be involved in.

Hot on his heels is Joe Knox, a gifted, tenacious CIA investigator, called in to hunt down Stone. Knox, suspicious of his superiors, convinced their not telling him everything about his quarry, gets to work with a quiet focus; coupled with a hint of trepidation, he looks into connections between Stone and his immediate superior, Macklin Hayes. Coming up against the wall of loyalty Stone has inspired among his friends, Knox is forced to spread his net wider and increase the pressure.

Meanwhile, the remaining members of the Camel Club – Annabelle, Reuben and Caleb – decide to get themselves involved, to repay Stone for the times he saved their lives. So, they start shadowing Knox, hoping to catch a break and find Stone first. The chase and the hunt are on…

It’s unusual for a thriller novel to feature characters like Stone and Knox as central figures. They’re both pushing 60, having served in Vietnam. This doesn’t exactly promise James Bond-levels of action and adventure (though, I’m pretty sure Stone could take Bond easily), but Baldacci still manages to cram a lot of action (and just a few gun battles) into Divine Justice. The novel is populated by a cast of interesting, believable characters; from Danny, the former college quarterback who seems to be a key part of the goings on in Divine; Abby, Danny’s mother and love interest for Stone; Tyree, the local sheriff who has unclear motives of his own. The novel and the relationships between all the characters unfolds in a natural way, with nothing in the writing or the dialogue appearing forced or synthetic. Baldacci really knows how to make it feel like you’re right there, observing the events of the story.

Baldacci’s skill at spinning a gripping, intelligent thriller is still intact. With Divine Justice, we get the usual thriller elements, with the tension jacked up to a higher level. Unveiling just enough to keep the reader hooked and turning the pages, Baldacci takes hold of our attention and refuses to let us go. Gripping and tense, this is perhaps Baldacci’s best novel yet. Essential reading for all thriller lovers.

For fans of: Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, Brad Thor, Richard North Patterson, John Grisham, Lee Child

Series Chronology: The Camel Club, The Collectors, Stone Cold, Divine Justice

Thursday, February 12, 2009

“The Abstinence Teacher”, by Tom Perrotta (Harper)


“Some people enjoy it”; four words that changed Ruth’s life and job. Ruth is a Sex Education teacher at Stonewood Heights high, beloved of her students for telling them the way things are, rather than spouting politically correct curriculum talking points and ideologically-charged falsehoods.

Then the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth church and its Pastor Dennis get involved, conducting their “crusade to cleanse Stonewood Heights of all manner of godlessness and moral decay, as if this sleepy bedroom community was an abomination unto the Lord,” predicated on Pastor Dennis’s belief that current society is the way it is because “they’ve given the inmates control of the asylum” (something that could all too easily be turned back on his people). Ruth’s classes are taken over by the Abstinence Only program – government funded, “officially sanctioned ignorance”, and she is forced to endure them as unbearable ordeals.

The Abstinence Teacher is effectively two novels. One is about the encroaching influence that Evangelical Christians have in American society and politics. In this, Perrotta is superb, writing with a wit and eye for pointing out the absurd, narrow-minded and oft-nasty beliefs and methods of this growing sect. Ruth’s classes become vehicles for disseminating unsubstantiated myth and fallacy, all shepherded by people like JoAnn, who can only charitably be described as Abstinence Barbie.

The other side of the novel is Ruth’s life – she’s divorced, lonely, now dissatisfied with her work, and looking for love. She finds it in the most unlikely of places – Tim Mason, a member of the Tabernacle church, whose first encounter with Ruth is far from pleasant. Ruth is a good heroine for the novel, and the reader will find themselves caring about her. Perrotta’s style also allows for the novel to progress at a fair clip (even though not a whole lot happens in the first 80 pages or so, after the initial oral-sex confession).

This was a good book. However, I can’t help thinking I was more interested in it because of the politics discussed and my interest in the US culture wars and politics as a whole, and that is what kept me reading (with only a short break to read the previously reviewed Vince Flynn book). The political side of the novel was interesting, while the other side wasn’t particularly inspiring or original. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of amusing one-liners, dialogues, and so forth (and Ruth is endearingly practical), but otherwise the novel didn’t stand out as something exceptional. In terms of discussions about sex and its place in young people’s lives in America, I would probably recommend Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons before this.

It was a good read, as I’ve said, but I just wasn’t gripped by it. As I’ve been devouring thrillers of late, it might be that I’ve just got into the mood for something quicker and more exciting. Perrotta is undoubtedly a gifted writer, but The Abstinence Teacher failed to move me as much as I’d hoped. I’ll return to it at a later date, but in this instance, I was underwhelmed.

“Extreme Measures”, by Vince Flynn (Simon & Schuster)


The latest political thriller from the master of the genre

In Extreme Measures, Flynn has brought us a new protagonist. Mike Nash, protégé of Mitch Rapp, and CIA operative. Opening with an interrogation at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, Rapp and Nash find themselves caught in the political circus of Washington D.C., as Senator Barbara Lonsdale, chairwoman of the Judicial Committee, sets her sight on Rapp, hoping to make an example of him. A typical liberal, Lonsdale is constantly, sanctimoniously spouting about how the US is a “nation of laws”, questioning who’s going to stick up for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Rapp decides to straighten her out, to educate her on the way the world really works.

Much of the novel is set in Washington D.C., and is not as action-packed as Flynn’s previous Rapp novels. This is not to say that the book is slow of boring, far from it. Like Richard North Patterson, Flynn can make even the most boring side of American politics (committee hearings) seem interesting and filled with suspense and drama. In Mike Nash we get a different temperament and approach to the world of clandestine operatives. Unlike Rapp, he has a family: the scenes when he’s at home are touching and, frequently, hilarious; particularly those involving his newborn son, Charlie. The differences between the two characters is stark, with Rapp appearing more blunt and brutal than he has before, when put next to Nash.

Extreme Measures is far more political novel than action thriller, as Flynn tackles the subject of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the role of the CIA in the war on terror. In another twist of literature, the arguments outlined by Rapp and his colleagues are more eloquent and rational than anything you might hear on C-Span or read in the newspapers. The social commentary is spot on, too.

While the political machinations in D.C. unfold, Karim Nour-al-Din is plotting an attack on the US. A disenfranchised member of al-Qaeda, Karim has taken it upon himself to teach the Great Satan a lesson, unaided by al-Qaeda’s leadership. Unlike Rapp’s previous opponents, though, Karim has studied the US military, training up a group of fellow jihadists using techniques of the US special forces (specifically the Navy SEALs). Karim is an intriguing enemy, quietly unhinged, completely psychotic (he’s a little too light on the trigger when it comes to his own men), and as a result lethal. Through his meticulous planning, the novel slowly comes to a boil and ends on an explosive finish, setting the scene for the next in the series.

With Extreme Measures, Flynn has transcended all of his previous output. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the new exemplar of what a political thriller should be. While the genre is populated by some truly talented authors, Vince Flynn is truly the master – perhaps only able to count David Baldacci as a peer.

An absolutely essential read, Extreme Measures is simply superb: engaging, thrilling, intelligent, and impossible to put down.

For fans of: Richard North Patterson, Brad Thor, Alex Berenson, Kyle Mills, David Baldacci, Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsythe

Series chronology: Term Limits, Transfer of Power, The Third Option, Separation of Power, Executive Power, Memorial Day, Consent to Kill, Act of Treason, Protect & Defend

Sunday, February 08, 2009

“Luke Skywalker & The Shadows of Mindor”, by Matthew Stover (Century)

SW-ShadowsOfMindor (Stover)

A welcome return to the earlier days, following the defeat of the Empire…

With most Star Wars novels now set either in the prequel years or way beyond the events of the movies, Luke Skywalker & The Shadows of Mindor is based on events set after The Return of the Jedi, featuring all the main characters from the movies. This should be refreshing for many fans, who have become disappointed that the leads from the movies are increasingly sidelined by their offspring and completely new characters.

The story starts with Luke Skywalker still enjoying the unprecedented renown and awe from defeating the Emperor and Darth Vader. Skywalker is also struggling to come to terms with other people’s opinion of what a Jedi is and can do, which makes his job as a general pretty difficult, as his subordinates kowtow to almost everything he says through a misunderstanding about the extent of his powers. Skywalker is put in charge of the New Republic’s Rapid Response Tactical Force. His mission is to confront and defeat the elusive, mysterious Lord Shadowspawn, residing in the Mindor system. Unfortunately for our hero, his enemy is not at all what he first appeared, and is far more cunning and ruthless than any could have imagined. Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia (as well as R2-D2 and C-3PO) come rushing to Luke’s aid, only to find the situation far more precarious and lethal than expected.

This novel has everything needed to make a good Star Wars tale: space dogfights, lightsaber action, a delightfully twisted (and most intriguing) enemy, plenty of peril, adventure, and witty banter between Chewie and Han. Stover’s writing and plotting are far better than in his previous Star Wars novel, Traitor, which was part of the seemingly-never-ending New Jedi Order series.

The novel brings new elements of the Star Wars universe for the reader to think about, specifically the use of political propaganda (which Lord Shadowspawn uses with great skill), and also a little more detail of the Sith and their various types of alchemy (building on what we’ve learned from Drew Karpyshyn’s Darth Bane series). Unfortunately, Stover is one of the novelists who insist on spelling out Wookie growls and R2’s warbles, making for some cringe-worthy and irritating passages of dialogue. Speaking of R2-D2, though, the passages that are written from the loyal droid's perspective were superb. Some of the allusions and references to previous novels and comics were a little lost on me, too (Luke’s previous interactions with former-Emperor’s Hand Blackhole, for example, were completely new to me, though a rather important part of the story). As the only weaknesses of the novel, they are minor ones, for sure.

Despite it’s rather clunky title (why not simply, “The Shadows of Mindor”?), this is one of the best new Star Wars novels in quite some time. Stover’s writing is far tighter and quicker than some other novelists employed to expand the Star Wars canon and universe, and I burned my way through this in two sittings. From the opening page until the final chapter I was hooked and thoroughly entertained, unhappy whenever life got in the way of reading.

Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor has breathed new life into the series, which had given some worrisome indications that it might be flagging, groaning under the weight of an ever-expanding cast and myriad different factions and side-stories.

Highly recommended for all fans of the movies and the genre as a whole.

Preceded by: “Truce at Bakura”, by Kathy Tyers

Followed by: “Rogue Squadron”, by Michael Stackpole

Friday, February 06, 2009

“The Accidental Sorcerer”, by K.E. Mills (Orbit)


The Worst Witch meets Terry Pratchett…

Gerald Dunwoody is a wizard, but not a particularly good one. He’s blown up a factory, lost his job, and there’s a chance that he’s not really a Third Grade wizard after all. With the help of an influential friend, it’s off to New Ottosland to be the new Court Wizard for King Lional. His sidekick, an ensorcelled bird with a mysterious past and a lot of loud opinions, seems sceptical. But it’s New Ottosland or nothing. Unfortunately, King Lional isn’t the vain, self-centred young man he appeared to be. With a frumpy princess in danger and a kingdom to save, Gerald suspects he might be out of his depth. And if he can’t keep this job, how is he supposed to become the wizard he’s meant to be?

Bestselling author Karen Miller, writing as K.E. Mills, pulls off an entertaining take on the classic wizard fantasy novel. Inept wizard Gerald Dunwoody (and what a name to conjure with) muddles along as a Third Grade, third rate wizard, is employed by the Department of Thaumaturgy as a civil servant in a dead-end job. The Accidental Sorcerer follows Gerald’s career in international wizarding.

Mills’ plot is tight and well-paced; her characters believable and (mostly) endearing. The relationship between Gerald and Reg, the irascible enchanted raven, is affectionate and funny. The dialogue between them is witty, sarcastic and realistic. Reading about the interplay among King Lional’s dysfunctional family is delightful: a butterfly-obsessed prince and a princess whose twinset you’ll need to pry from her cold, dead hands.

If I have two quibbles, it is that there are certain passages in The Accidental Sorcerer which skirt perhaps a little too closely to Terry Pratchett’s style and creations. In particular, “Bearhuggers Brandy” is too similar to “Bearhuggers Whisky”, available in Pratchett’s Discworld.

Written under a different pen-name, it’s clear that the author is distancing this from her more well-known series (Godspeaker and Kingmaker-Kingbreaker) and also her work on the Star Wars Clone Wars series. There are some similarities (for example, the dark undertones throughout); she has a penchant for introducing truly fantastical tribes and gods. While we know this is fantasy, it can sometimes come across as contrived.

Despite these issues, the book was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys their fantasy quirky and unusual, while still filled with interesting and engaging characters.

Also try: Terry Pratchett, Karen Miller, Maria Snyder, Robert Rankin, Jill Murphy (for younger readers)

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

(This will be Second-Reviewed by Stefan in the near future)