Tuesday, March 30, 2010

“Shadow & Betrayal”, by Daniel Abraham (Orbit)

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The Long Price Quartet: Epic Fantasy at its best?

In a remote mountain academy, the politically expendable younger sons of the Great Houses study for an extraordinary task. Most will fail, some will die, but the reward for the dedicated few is great: mastery of the andat, and the rank of Poet.

Thanks to these men – part sorcerers, part scholars – the great city-states of the Khaiem enjoy wealth and power beyond measure, and the greatest of them all is Saraykeht: glittering jewel of the Summer Cities.

There are those in the world, however, who envy such wealth. There are great riches to be had in the Summer and Winter Cities, and only the threat of the andat unleashed holds the enemies of the Khaiem in check. Conflict is brewing in the world. Alliances will be broken and friends betrayed. The lowly will be raised up, the mighty will fall and innocents will be slaughtered. And two men, bound to each other by an act of kindness and an act of brutality, may be all that stands between the civilised world and war. War and something worse...Abraham-1-Shadow&BetrayalUS

Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quarter is a truly impressive,  epic undertaking. Shadow & Betrayal contains the first two novels that make up the quartet: A Shadow In Summer and A Betrayal In Winter.

The first novel suffers a little bit from first-fantasy-novel syndrome – i.e., there’s a fair amount of world-building going on that slows the flow of an already mid-paced novel. This is, however, no bad thing: the world Abraham has created is brilliant, and there’s a great attention to detail throughout, which means the reader should never feel ‘lost’ while reading. The synopsis above is actually just the first-novel’s synopsis – this is a weakness of including two novels in one volume: if you explain what happens in the second book, then you run the risk of spoiling the first 300 pages. However, that’s not always the case, so here is a truncated synopsis of A Betrayal in Winter:

As a boy, Otah Machi was exiled from his family, Machi’s ruling house. Decades later, he has witnessed and been part of world-changing events. Yet he has never returned to Machi. Now his father — the Khai, or ruler, of Machi — is dying and his eldest brother Biitrah has been assassinated. Otah realizes that he must return to Machi, for reasons not even he understands.

Tradition dictates that the sons of a dying Khai fall upon each other until only one remains to succeed his father. But something even worse is occurring in Machi. The Galts, an expansive empire, have allied with someone in the city’s aristocracy to bring down the ruling house. Otah is accused, the long-lost brother believed dead, with an all-too-obvious motive for murder. Meanwhile Maati, his friend from A Shadow in Summer, is on a mission to Machi from the Dai-kvo, the most powerful man alive, and head poet.

The second book is superior to the first, but mainly because we are now familiar with the world, so more attention can be paid to the story, politics and intrigue of the novel. But, there is something about Abraham’s writing that is faster, tighter and just overall more satisfying. The plot is a little faster, too.

The main characters in these two novels are well-crafted and complex, suffering all of humanity’s vices and flaws, but also plenty of strengths too. The relationships that form between the main characters – Otah, Maati and Liat in A Shadow In Summer, for example; and Maati and Cehmai, or Cehmai and Idaan in A Betrayal In Winter – are well written and believable, avoiding over-emoting and hyperbole. Every character is working to his or her own agenda and advantage, and the various layers of conspiracy all contribute to their actions, misinterpretations and subsequent reactions. The nature of the higher echelons of society is perfectly encapsulated by this short exchange between Amat and Wilsin – two of the main characters in A Shadow in Summer:

Amat: “What is this all about?”

Wilsin: “Money. Power. What else is there?”

Shadow & Betrayal has a lot going on within its pages, so I would definitely advise that you block out some proper time to start and read it – once you get into the story, it will become next-to-impossible to put it down. Unfortunately, I was unable to do this, so it took me longer than it perhaps should have to get to grips with the politics, world, characters and so forth. Needless to say, though, when I did I became completely immersed in the story, putting almost everything else on hold while I read it. Every day, I was kept awake well into the wee hours of the morning unable to put the book down, always wanting to read “just one more chapter”, which invariably became two or three more chapters. This is an addictive, immersive fantasy. If there are few books that justify the phrase “lost in a good book”, this is certainly one of them.

Abrahams has done an excellent job of creating a world distinct from our own, yet with elemental similarities – there’s no denying the Eastern influences throughout, for example. (Even Abraham’s descriptions of the weather were evocative: Saraykeht’s summer heat made me think of Japan’s oppressively muggy summers, for example.)

The Eastern/Oriental influence continues in other areas, including Abraham’s most intriguing creations: the andat. The andat are creatures crafted by the poets, bound thoughts and ideas, able to do incredible and miraculous things. In the first novel, Seedless (the andat of Saraykeht) is a mischievous, untrustworthy creature, twisting those around him for his own amusement and gain, playing protagonists and antagonists against each other – much the way demons and spirits do in Eastern mythology (and, it’s true, a lot of fantasy and sci-fi literature also). Stone-Made-Soft, the andat in the second novel, is a somewhat different creature with an opposite temperament. Maati, the young poet sent first to Saraykeht and then Machi, no longer has to deal with the “thousand-layered comments of Seedless” when around the andat of Machi, for he is more docile and taciturn, with a detached interest in humans and their interactions. (It was very hard not to become rather fond of the character, in fact.)

The brutal nature of the politics is conveyed expertly through the eyes of Abraham’s c haracters, those who have to live within it, those who merely watch from the sidelines, and those who get caught up in the bargains and power-plays. To go into any more detail would really give the game away, so I shall refrain from outlining story-points any further. The story throughout this volume is one of power struggles, heartbreak, manipulation, and greed – in other words, Abraham lays bear for us the core of human nature wrapped in an engrossing fantasy epic.

Filled with Machiavellian agendas, expertly crafted and complex characters, superb plotting, and intelligent writing, Shadow & Betrayal is superior epic fantasy in every way.

Very highly recommended.

For Fans of: George R.R. Martin, Tom Lloyd, Joe Abercrombie, Brian Ruckley, Brandon Sanderson, Blake Charlton, Adrian Tchaikovsky, J.R.R. Tolkien, Guy Garviel Kay

The original cover artwork (US):
Abraham-1-Shadow&BetrayalIndividualUS
[I will review the second volume, Season of War, very soon.]

Another Look: “Outcast”, by Aaron Allston (Arrow)

As it’s about to be released in paperback (29th April in the UK), I thought I would just re-post my review of Outcast, the first instalment in the Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi series.
I’ll soon be reading and reviewing the latest in the Lost Tribe of the Sith novellas by John Jackson Miller (Paragon), which provide background for some of the characters in the Fate of the Jedi. I will also review the next novel in the series, Backlash by Aaron Allston, immediately after that – both hopefully next month, as it is apparently Science Fiction Appreciation Month.
SW-201004 In the meantime, however, here’s Outcast again (originally published here)…
*     *     *
SW-FOTJ-Outcast A new chapter in the saga begins…
The Galactic Alliance is in crisis. Worse still, the very survival of the Jedi Order is under threat. In a shocking move, Chief of State Natasi Daala orders the arrest of Luke Skywalker for failing to prevent Jacen Solo's turn to the dark side. But it's only the first blow in an anti-Jedi backlash fuelled by a hostile government and a media-driven witch hunt.
Facing conviction, Luke must strike a bargain with the calculating Daala - his freedom in exchange for his exile from Coruscant and from the Jedi Order. Though forbidden to intervene in Jedi affairs, Luke is determined to keep history from being repeated. With his son, Ben, at his side, Luke sets out to unravel the shocking truth behind Jacen Solo's corruption and downfall. But the secrets he uncovers among the enigmatic Force mystics of the distant world Dorin may bring his quest – and life as he knows it – to a sudden end.
All the while, another Jedi Knight, consumed by a mysterious madness, is headed for Coruscant on a fearsome mission that could doom the Jedi Order... and devastate the entire galaxy.
Outcast follows directly in the footsteps of the Legacy of the Force series. The Galactic Alliance is in crisis following the death of Darth Caedus and the end of the Second Galactic Civil War. New Chief of State Natasi Daala (who first appeared in Jedi Search) orders the arrest of Luke Skywalker for failing to prevent Jacen Solo’s fall to the Dark Side. Behind this order is a growing backlash against the Jedi, as a result of media-fuelled resentment, and an increasingly hostile government, who decide that every Jedi should be accompanied by a government observer, to make sure they don’t take the law into their own hands, as usual. (In fact, when Daala is explaining this to Luke, she makes some interesting points about the episode in A New Hope, when Obi-Wan’s immediate reaction in the Mos Eisley Cantina is to chop off some limbs…)
After making a deal with Daala, Luke is exiled for ten years from Coruscant and contact with the Jedi Order he created – unless he can discover the cause of Jacen’s fall, and also put in place policies to help prevent history from repeating itself. Accompanied by his son Ben (from whose perspective much of the novel is written), Luke attempts to recreate the journey Jacen took in between the events of the New Jedi Order and Legacy of the Force series. His search brings him first to the planet Dorin, where his quest could have dire consequences for his life and his order, ending before it really has the opportunity to begin.
Meanwhile, two Jedi Knights have been affected with a strange condition, making them believe all other Jedi have been replaced with imposters. The causes of this are not revealed in Outcast, but they first appeared in Millennium Falcon, which suggests they will play a major part in the rest of this series.
There’s quite a lot that is set in motion in just one novel, but Allston has done a brilliant job of setting the scene for the eight books to come in the series, revealing just enough to get our interest piqued for future volumes. While Luke and Ben don’t feature as much in the novel as would be suggested by the main premise, their relationship has grown closer over the years, ever since Jacen tortured Ben in an attempt to turn him into a Sith. As previously mentioned, Ben gets a good deal of attention in this novel, perhaps slowly replacing Luke as a key character? Without knowing exactly how the series will progress, it’s difficult to be sure. The thread of the story involving Han and Leia doesn’t appear particularly relevant to the main storyline, but the fact that it’s included again suggests that all will be revealed later in the series.
Allston’s writing remains top-notch, and his prose is still tight and well-paced. Even though it is the first of nine, Outcast is a very engaging read, populated by some of our favourite characters, all of whom have grown and matured since we last read about them. There are obviously story-threads being laid out for future volumes, but they don’t feel forced, and instead will pique the readers’ interest for the series.
As an opening salvo in the next chapter of the Star Wars saga, Outcast will do exactly what it was intended to: grab your attention and make you eager for more. Exceptional sci-fi writing, Allston has proved that the Star Wars franchise has plenty of life left in it, and Fate of the Jedi is a promising addition to the ever-growing Star Wars canon, improving on the quality of the excellent Legacy of the Force.
Series Chronology: Outcast, Omen, Abyss, Backlash, #5-9 as yet untitled
For those wanting to get up-to-date quickly without having to wade through the ever-growing range of Star Wars novels, Del Ray have handily created this PDF primer to help set the scene.
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As I mentioned in my review of Abyss, the third novel in the series, I’m still not 100% on board with the wisdom of a nine-part series, but Fate of the Jedi has lived up to my expectations of enjoyable sci-fi reading. I hope the authors are able to keep up the good work and, even better, ratchet up the quality of story-telling. [A review of Omen, the second in the series, can be found here.]

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Series Spotlight: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ‘Shadows of the Apt’ (Tor)

I’m going to be writing the occasional post about series I have either been sent to review or already read, in order to highlight some of the other excellent books and authors, which I may otherwise not have the opportunity to read at or near the time of release. For the first post, I’ll be looking at Adrian Tchaikovsky’s very-well-received fantasy series, The Shadows of the Apt, released in the UK by Tor.

[Be aware: there are probably some spoilers in here!]

Tchaikovsky-ShadowsOfApt 1-4 Tchaikovsky’s series is a pretty great one – he has taken some classic fantasy elements and added a unique (as far as I’m aware) twist and element to his characters and the world, and that is the insect-aspects. Here’s the synopsis of the first book, Empire In Black and Gold, which explains things (specifically, the part in bold):

Seventeen years ago Stenwold witnessed the Wasp Empire storming the city of Myna in a brutal war of conquest. Since then he has preached vainly against this threat in his home city of Collegium, but now the Empire is on the march, with its spies and its armies everywhere, and the Lowlands lie directly in its path. All the while, Stenwold has been training youthful agents to fight the Wasp advance, and the latest recruits include his niece, Che, and his mysterious ward, Tynisa. When his home is violently attacked, he is forced to send them ahead of him and, hotly pursued, they fly by airship to Helleron, the first city in line for the latest Wasp invasion.

Stenwold and Che are Beetle-kinden, one of many human races that take their powers and inspiration each from a totem insect, but he also has allies of many breeds: Mantis, Spider, Ant, with their own particular skills. Foremost is the deadly Mantis-kinden warrior, Tisamon, but other very unlikely allies also join the cause. As things go from bad to worse amid escalating dangers, Stenwold learns that the Wasps intend to use the newly completed railroad between Helleron and Collegium to launch a lightning strike into the heart of the Lowlands. Then he gathers all of his agents to force a final showdown in the engine yard…

It seems, from the few reviews I have read of these novels, that Tchaikovsky has created a world that blends epic fantasy and technology (one reviewer referred to a ‘steampunk’ storyline), drawing on plenty of plots (warfare, intrigue, love, and so forth). Unfortunately, I can’t find the text of the Amazon UK interview the author did last month, as some of his responses would have illuminated what he hopes the series does, what much of it means, and also a useful description of the aspects and what they mean for the world. SFReader had this to say about the kinden:

“Tchaikovsky manages to blend these insect characteristics with human traits convincingly, giving a fresh slant to the inhabitants of his classic tale. The steampunk technology also has some enjoyable ‘insect’ twists.”

While Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review also found the insect aspects to be an interesting and innovative addition:

“the underlying insect cultures do add freshness to the proceedings”

Dragonfly Falling, the second in the series, doesn’t appear to have received quite the glowing reviews of its predecessor, though this is not to say it was received badly; it appears that it suffered, as many sophomore releases do, from gap-filling syndrome. Strange Horizons, which seems to be on the fence about the series, described it as “something you can enjoy without completely losing faith in humanity”.

Here is the synopsis:

Two young companions, Totho and Salma, arrive at Tark to spy on the menacing Wasp army, but are there mistakenly apprehended as enemy agents. By the time they are freed, the city is already under siege. Over in the imperial capital the young emperor, Alvdan, is becoming captivated by a remarkable slave, the vampiric Uctebri, who claims he knows of magic that can grant eternal life.

In Collegium, meanwhile, Stenwold is still trying to persuade the city magnates to take seriously the Wasp Empire’s imminent threat to their survival.

Blood of the Mantis, which according to Graeme’s Fantasy Review “switches from epic battles and sieges to the cut-throat espionage that is going on behind the scenes”, seems to up the ante and improve on writing quality. As Graeme writes,

“While Tchaikovsky writes a decent battle, he really comes into his own with descriptions of covert activity in the marsh town of Jerez and the lake towns of Exalsee.”

Here’s the synopsis for the third instalment:

Driven by the ghosts of the Darakyon, Achaeos has tracked the stolen Shadow Box to the marsh-town of Jerez, but he has only days before the magical box is lost to him forever.

Meanwhile, the forces of the Empire are mustering over winter for their great offensive, gathering their soldiers and perfecting their new weapons. Stenwold and his followers have only a short time to gather what allies they can before the Wasp armies march again, conquering everything in their path. If they cannot throw back the Wasps this spring then the imperial black-and-gold flag will fly over every city in the Lowlands before the year's end.

In Jerez begins a fierce struggle over the Shadow Box, as lake creatures, secret police and renegade magicians compete to take possession. If it falls into the hands of the Wasp Emperor, however, then no amount of fighting will suffice to save the world from his relentless ambition.

The latest volume released thus far, Salute the Dark, which takes a darker turn (obviously, given the title…). Fantasy Book Critic wrote that the book was

“brutal with the characters who are treated mercilessly as befits persons caught in total war, while the atmosphere is tensioned and menacing almost end to end, keeping me to the edge until the final denouements”

From a quick glance at the reviews online, it certainly sounds like Tchaikovsky yet-again surpassed expectations with the fourth instalment of the series. Again, a synopsis:

The vampiric sorcerer Uctebri has at last got his hands on the Shadow Box and can finally begin his dark ritual - a ritual that the Wasp-kinden Emperor believes will grant him immortality - but Uctebri has his own plans both for the Emperor and the Empire.

The massed Wasp armies are on the march, and the spymaster Stenwold must see which of his allies will stand now that the war has finally arrived. This time the Empire will not stop until a black and gold flag waves over Stenwold's own home city of Collegium.

Tisamon the Weaponsmaster is faced with a terrible choice: a path that could lead him to abandon his friends and his daughter, to face degradation and loss, but that might possibly bring him before the Wasp Emperor with a blade in his hand - but is he being driven by Mantis-kinden honour, or manipulated by something more sinister?

Needless to say, my short ‘research’ on the series has really whet my appetite to read it. As I have a couple more review projects in the works, however, I shall have to put it to one side for a month or two. I shall, of course, post a review as soon as I am able to.

The fifth book in the series, Book of Whispers, will be released in Tchaikovsky-5-BookOfWhispers the UK in August 2010, and here’s the synopsis (artwork on the right):

The war with the Wasp Empire has ended in a bitter stalemate, and Collegium has nothing to show for it but wounded veterans. Cheerwell Maker finds herself crippled in ways no doctor can mend, haunted by ghosts of the past that she cannot appease, seeking for meaning in a city that no longer seems like home.

The Empress Seda is regaining control over those imperial cities who refused to bow the knee to her, but she draws her power from something more sinister than mere armies and war machines. Only her consort, the former spymaster Thalric, knows the truth, and now the assassins are coming and he finds his life and his loyalties under threat yet again.

Out past the desert of the Nem the ancient city of Khanaphes awaits them both, with a terrible secret entombed beneath its stones...

Again, a premise to whet the fantasy-lovers appetite. Just to ensure that we’re not ignoring our US and Canadian readers, it should be mentioned that Tchaikovsky’s series is also available in the US. As per usual, there’s different artwork, to work within US fantasy tastes and expectations. For once, I actually quite like the US covers – not as much as the UK editions, but they are still pretty cool (particularly the Blood of the Mantis and Salure the Dark artwork):

Tchaikovsky-ShadowsOfApt 1-2 US Tchaikovsky-ShadowsOfApt 3-4 USI hope this post has piqued your interest in the series. As mentioned earlier, I shall endeavour to get the series reviewed ASAP. If you have read the books, please feel free to leave your own views and opinions in a comment.

“King Maker”, by Maurice Broaddus (Angry Robot)

Broaddus-KingMaker

King Arthur’s legend gets dragged into 21st Century Inner-City Gang Culture

On the streets of Indianapolis, the ancient Arthurian cycle is replaying in the lives of rival street gangs.

Told through the eyes of King, as he gathers like-minded friends and warriors around him to venture into the fastness of Dred, the notorious crime lord, this is a stunning mix of myth and harsh reality.

King Maker has an awesome premise, and for the main Broaddus is able to pull it off with aplomb and skill. His characters are realistic and well-crafted, the dialogue authentic and gritty, the environment and city expertly realised on the page. The story is interesting, even if you’re not overly familiar with Arthurian legend, and there’s enough in it to keep you reading until the end. Broaddus has done a fantastic job of reinterpreting the characters from the legend. Uther Pendragon becomes Luther King; Arthur becomes King James White; Merlin is the odd white guy, Merle.

In a great example of mashing-together genres, Broaddus mixes in some great social and racial commentary in King Maker, avoiding clichéd approaches and comments, making it an intelligent as well as fantastical read.

I have to be honest, though – this wasn’t the easiest book to get into. The prose style, rhythm and pacing don’t make this initially the quickest or easiest read; things unravel slowly (the prologue is over-long, for example), but this does have the benefit of letting us get to know the characters. King and his crew are interesting, well-crafted, and three-dimensional, again avoiding clichés and cringe-worthy tropes.

This is really a great idea for a series, and I would recommend it to anyone, though I would also have to add the caveat that it’s not the easiest book to get into, and doesn’t necessarily grip you as quickly as the premise might suggest it would. The book has been described as The Wire meets Excalibur – an apt description, but I’d add some of The Sopranos, too.

As a first instalment of a trilogy, this is very much the various pieces being moved into position on the chess board, awaiting further story development (in the forthcoming King’s Justice and King’s War). An interesting new voice in urban fantasy, and one that deserves your attention.

“American Adulterer”, by Jed Mercurio (Vintage)

Mercurio-AmericanAdulterer

A provocative new novel about the life and times – & sexual dalliances – of JFK during his administration

Like any womanizer, the subject of this novel must go to extraordinary lengths to hide his affairs from his wife and colleagues. But this is no ordinary adulterer – he is John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. Yet he is also a virtuous man enslaved by an uncontrollable vice.

With empathy and a dark wit, American Adulterer takes inspiration from the tantalising details surrounding President Kennedy’s sex life and medical secrets to weave a provocatively intimate portrait if the man’s affairs, illness, courage and idealism – and in JFK’s love for his wife, recreates one of history’s most fascinatingly enigmatic marriages.

JFK is one of the presidents I actually know the least about – the over-exposure of his presidency, his assassination and his place in popular culture always made him less interesting to me, beyond Oliver Stone’s superb movie, JFK (date). Given my considerable interest in the US presidents and their characters as well as their actions while in office, however, I thought this novelisation of JFK’s personal life might be worth a look, and be a more entertaining reading experience.

Sadly, having gone through it, I’m not really sure I liked it. The premise is interesting – Mercurio writes in the style of a clinical or psychiatric appraisal of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. This lends itself to a somewhat detached novel, always referring to JFK as “the subject”, but never really by name (Jackie merely referred to as “the First Lady” or “the subject’s wife”). This proved to be an interesting and intriguing read to begin with, but it quickly lost its novelty and started to become tedious – by its detached nature, it was difficult to care much about “the subject” after a while, even though the first chapter I found really very good.

Mercurio provides a short bibliography at the back and, being somewhat familiar with many of them, it becomes clear which sections of American Adulterer were influenced by which books. The more negative passages, scenes and scenarios were (in all likelihood) influenced by Seymour Hersch’s The Dark Side of Camelot, while the more complimentary segments were probably inspired and adapted from Robert Dallek’s superb An Unfinished Life. Mercurio notes that he’s taken some artistic license to write this book, which is completely fine and understandable (not to mention necessary, given the lack of a JFK autobiography).

This does not excuse some of his overly florid prose at times, whenever he veers away from the clinical detachment he seems to have wanted to maintain. For example, in a scene between JFK and Marilyn Monroe, Mercurio writes this (which frankly is just terrible):

“He glances at her blonde hair and the heft of her breasts, and soon he coughs his poison into her.”

There are interesting chapters – Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, but ultimately this is a book you will definitely need to be in the mood for, and I wouldn’t say this is anywhere near everyone’s taste. I imagine the fact that JFK is the subject helped get this book published and a fair amount of attention from the press (the laudatory pull-quotes on the cover are… misleading, in my opinion).

Thoughtful and insightful passages sprinkled among some pretty weird sections and scenarios; a weird writing style; and an erratic portrayal of the Subject make this a strange book that, while readable, will probably leave you either disturbed or irritated. When Mercurio tells us about JFK’s sense of entrapment, living in the presidential bubble – as opposed to the freedom he had pre-election when he could pursue his compulsive philandering without scrutiny, greater autonomy and freedom – the reader is instilled with some sense of empathy for JFK, but ultimately this is short-lived.

Not for everyone, I’d recommend reading one of the non-fiction biographies of JFK – definitely the aforementioned An Unfinished Life, but also the most recent, Vincent Bzdek’s The Kennedy Legacy, which discusses all the Kennedy brothers.

Could have been a lot better, but ultimately a flawed execution of an intriguing premise.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“The Bricklayer”, by Noah Boyd (Harper)

Boyd-BricklayerUS-UK[ US / UK ]

A woman steps out of the shower in her Los Angeles home and is startled by an intruder sitting calmly in her bedroom holding a gun. But she is frozen with fear by what he has to say about the FBI – and what he says he must do…

A young agent slips into the night water off a rocky beach. He's been instructed to swim to a nearby island to deposit a million dollars demanded by a blackmailer. But his mission is riddled with hazardous tests, as if someone wanted to destroy him rather than collect the money…

Steve Vail, an ex-FBI agent fired for insubordination, has resigned himself to his dismissal and is content with his life as a bricklayer. But the FBI, especially Deputy Assistant Director Kate Bannon, needs help with a shadowy group that has initiated a brilliant extortion plot. The group will keep killing their targets until the agency pays them off, the amount and number of bodies escalating each time the FBI fails. One thing is clear: someone who knows a little too much about the inner workings of the Bureau is very clever – and very angry – and will kill and kill again if it means he can disgrace the FBI.

Vail's options, and his time to find answers, are swiftly running out.

One thing is for sure: this is a pretty quick read. The story is quickly-paced, and the dialogue clipped and pretty realistic. The premise is an interesting one, and I’ve been looking forward to reading the novel ever since I saw it featured on the Sony eBookstore website a couple months ago.

There are, however, a couple of issues with The Bricklayer. First off, Vail is a little too… “perfect” would be the wrong word; he’s too modest, too cool, too noble, and a little too ideal. He’s a bit clichéd, as anti-authority and –establishment types go. In general, the characters that populate the novel aren’t as compelling as some of the more-established crime thriller protagonists – be they Harry Bosch (Michael Connolly), Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers (John Sandford), or Jack Reacher (Lee Child), all of which had depth and multiple, non-contrived layers even in their first outings.

Kate’s attraction to Vail is almost immediate, the progression of their relationship (personal and professional) is almost clock-work and highly predictable (wait until you get to the last page – it’s exactly what you’ll be expecting). The attraction she feels for him is perhaps understandable (he’s the typical brooding, noble type – which would actually make him rather boring to be around in real life), but it leads to some pretty weird statements and observations, like this one:

“Vail turned back toward her, and she could see his heart beating against the lean muscle of his chest”

Really? Wouldn’t his rib-cage get in the way of this? It’s simple things like this that make The Bricklayer stand-out as an obvious debut novel. I sometimes imagine I might write like this… Before an editor hit me over the head and told me to re-write it…

There’s plenty in here that is good, interesting, original, and almost all of it shows promise. But to really break out from the pack of “other thriller authors”, Boyd will have to become more comfortable writing, play less to genre tropes, and flesh out his characters more to make us care about them.

The Bricklayer is written with a good degree of authenticity, thanks to the author’s past as an FBI investigator. His prose are very clipped and well-paced, and there’s very little chaff to slow down the story. The case unfurls at a decent clip, more or less always making sense, and there are some pretty interesting and original elements included in the story.

Not the best thriller I’ve ever read, but certainly not the worst. This, sadly, is not enough. With so many great thriller authors out there – both established (like those mentioned above), and up-and-coming authors, it’s difficult to see Boyd really breaking out of the pack for the time being, or at least on the strength of The Bricklayer alone. I’ll be keeping an eye on Mr Boyd’s writing in the future, and I hope he becomes more comfortable in the genre to experiment a little more, delve a little deeper into character-building. If he manages that, he will become a thriller-force to be reckoned with.

I don’t like to post negative reviews, but I just wasn’t taken with this novel. Boyd didn’t make me care enough about the characters.

It’s a promising debut, but there’s still a way to go.

For Fans of: Lee Child, Kyle Mills, John Sandford, Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, James Patterson (predominantly the stuff he does with others), Peter de Jonge, Andrew Gross

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Great News for “A Thousand Sons”!

Just another excuse to draw your attention to this great novel, but Graham McNeill’s A Thousand Sons has charted at #22 on the New York Times mass-market paperback fiction chart! This places him above such mass-market luminaries as Greg Iles, John Grisham, Robert B. Parker, and just below Jeffrey Deaver! This is great news for both Graham and also Black Library, making their debut on the chart.

Many congratularions to Mr. McNeill, I hope it helps raise awareness of his work.

My review of A Thousand Sons is below.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

“A Thousand Sons”, by Graham McNeill (Black Library)

McNeill-ThousandSonsIntroducing the enigmatic, psychic, and misunderstood Sons of Magnus

Censured at the Council of Nikea for his flagrant use of sorcery, Magnus the Red and his Thousand Sons Legion retreat to their home-world of Prospero to continue their use of the arcane arts in secret. But when the ill-fated primarch foresees the treachery of Warmaster Horus and warns the Emperor with the very powers he was forbidden to use, the Master of Mankind dispatches fellow primarch Leman Russ to attack Prospero itself. But Magnus has seen more than the betrayal of Horus, and the witnessed revelations will change the fate of his fallen Legion, and its primarch, forever.

I’ve been waiting a long time for this novel. Ever since the Black Library announced the Horus Heresy series, I’ve been eagerly awaiting coverage of a number of key events: from the initial descent of Horus (in Horus Rising, False Gods and Galaxy in Flames), the war on Mars (Mechanicum), and also the Space Wolves-Thousand Sons conflict. In A Thousand Sons, Graham McNeill offers us the story from the perspective of the eponymous legion (Dan Abnett’s Prospero Burns will give us the perspective of the Space Wolves).

The novel opens well before the events described in the blurb, which I thought strange, but it’s also good as it allows McNeill plenty of space to flesh out the Thousand Sons and the history of the period. To begin with, Magnus’s legion are on the desert-world of Aghoru, investigating an ancient, psychically-charged, malevolent force buried beneath the world.

It takes a little while to get used to the different terminology used by the Thousand Sons (each legion has its own quirky jargon for legion-related things such as hierarchy, structure, practices, traditions, and so forth), but we quickly figure out what is being referred to. The author brings the Thousand Sons to life on the pages, one of the more strange and eccentric Space Marine legions. McNeill manages to balance the clear Egyptian influences that make up a lot of the Thousand Sons’ iconography with the more standard imagery of the Warhammer 40,000 universe as a whole, as well as convey their ‘otherness’ perfectly. The differences are particularly stark when compared with the Space Wolves, one of the more feral legions (think Norsemen and Vikings, only with really, really big guns and swords…). The scenes featuring Magnus and Leman Russ, the Primarch of the Space Wolves, are particularly interesting, as the friction and animosity between the two is palpable, and McNeill is very adept at portraying the tensions through his writing. Indeed, it is always interesting to see the Primarchs brought to life on the pages of this series; so impossible and impressive they are, so legendary, it is a testament to the quality of Graham McNeill (and also Dan Abnett) to have made them such realistic, flawed and three-dimensional characters.

The story is not rushed, as befits the legion’s methodical, calm, scholarly approach to all things. The story is, actually, utterly absorbing, and kept me up well into the night – it’s one of the longer Horus Heresy novels, clocking in at over 500 pages, though this didn’t seem to matter at all – whereas in the past I have been put off by some of the longer Black Library releases, McNeill’s writing, the plot, and the intriguing characters all helped make this easily one of my favourite Sci-Fi novels, period, let alone just Black Library releases.

The novel is enjoyable, though not without one minor flaw. It’s a common sci-fi trope, rather than anything that can be blamed on Graham McNeill alone. It’s also not really that much of an issue, but given that it occurred on page one, it bugged me (and the length that I discuss this should not detract from the other 99% of the novel that I loved). Specifically, it’s the insistence on writing the “science” into science fiction. Take this excerpt from the first page:

“Though its people had no knowledge of geology, the titanic forces of orogenic movement, compressional energies and isostatic uplift, they knew enough to know that the Mountain was too vast, too monumental, to be a natural formation.”

For me, the emphasised text should have been left out – including it doesn’t make me think the author’s done his homework (which, to be fair, he has), but rather that someone was trying to make the novel sound more impressive. McNeill is a great author, who doesn’t need to rely on such devices to make us like his work. This isn’t a text book. Having said all this, however, the decision to use this style does start to make sense – it is perfectly in keeping with the temperament and character of the Astartes of the Thousand Sons, who progress through the ranks by ridding themselves of ego and favouring learning, with intellectual prowess as important as their marshal prowess.

This very minor quibble aside (and, again, it’s true for many sci-fi authors), this is a great addition to the series. We are shown how one of the most loyal and least bloodthirsty legions fell out of favour through suspicion, betrayal, and misunderstanding – unlike the Sons of Horus, who fell through hubris; the Emperor’s Children who fell through decadence and arrogance; and various other reasons that afflicted the other fallen legions. The story of the Thousand Sons is perhaps the most tragic of all the legions.

The Horus Heresy series has been, for the main, a very enjoyable reading experience. The first three novels, for example, proved to be amazing, bringing the age into amazing, violent and chaotic life. A Thousand Sons belongs not only in the upper echelons of the series, but is one of the best novels released by the Black Library thus far.

To sum up: an utterly absorbing, exciting and expertly-crafted novel.

Series Chronology (thus far): Dan Abnett, Horus Rising; Graham McNeill, False Gods; Ben Counter, Galaxy in Flames; James Swallow, The Flight of the Eisenstein; Graham McNeill, Fulgrim; Mitch Scanlon, Descent of Angels; Dan Abnett, Legion; Ben Counter, Battle for the Abyss; Graham McNeill, Mechanicum; Various, Tales of Heresy; Mike Lee, Fallen Angels; Graham McNeill, A Thousand Sons; James Swallow, Nemesis (August 2010); Aaron Dembski-Bowden, The First Heretic (November 2010); Dan Abnett, Prospero Burns (January 2011)

To order A Thousand Sons, click here.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

And one more for Mr. Weeks (Orbit)

It would appear that Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism has had a re-design. While I had no problem with the original cover (it matched the style of his Night Angel Trilogy), the new cover artwork is a lot more atmospheric and, now that we know a little bit more about what the novel’s actually about, it seems to match better.

The original, leaked artwork:

Weeks-BlackPrism(Old) And the newer, slightly Prince of Persia-esque artwork:

Weeks-TheBlackPrism And here’s the synopsis:

Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. But Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live: Five years to achieve five impossible goals.

But when Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he’s willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart.

I must admit to not being 100% sure about having the protagonist named Gavin, as it seems a little… I don’t know… not entirely heroic. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, though. (What a terrible bias to have…)

Thanks to the excellent A Dribble of Ink for posting about this – otherwise, I wouldn’t have known about it. I have since found the original post on Orbit’s website. Although I do disagree with Adrian – I like this cover quite a bit. It’s simple, and more in keeping with the UK market (as far as I can tell). It’s clear, though, that we have different tastes when it comes to cover artwork, as I personally don’t like the new artwork for Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which is done in the US style.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Coming soon(ish) from Orbit Books

Ok, so I know that’s way in the future, but saw this cover on Amazon UK, so thought I’d share it:

Downum-BonePalace Amanda Downum, The Bone Palace (January 2011)

Death is no stranger in the city of Erisin, but some deaths attract more attention than others. When a prostitute dies carrying a royal signet, Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and agent of the Crown, is called to investigate. Her search leads to desecrated tombs below the palace, and the lightless vaults of the vampiric vrykoloi deep beneath the city. But worse things than vampires are plotting in Erisin - a long-dead sorceress is making a bid not only for renewed life but for the throne as well, and Isyllt's former lover is caught in her schemes. Soon Isyllt is torn between the living and the dead, between the man she still loves, and the royal family she's sworn to defend.

As a sorcerous plague sweeps the city and demons stalk the streets, Isyllt must decide who she's prepared to betray, before the city built on bones falls into blood and fire.

(CR review of The Drowning City can be found here.)

Interestingly, Orbit’s website has posted a slightly different cover artwork:

Downum-BonePalace2 This also got me thinking about other books that are heading to shelves soon, so here’s a quick run-down of some other upcoming Orbit titles…

Parker-FoldingKnife K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife (June 2010)

Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. Basso the Murderer. The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic is an extraordinary man. He is ruthless, cunning and, above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he's only ever made one mistake. One mistake, though, can be enough.

I’ve only read one book by K.J, Parker, The Company (review here), and it was very good, even if Parker’s prose style can lean towards the ponderous. Always good, but sometimes one can find oneself wishing for something a little faster-paced.

Larke-StormlordRising Glenda Larke, Stormlord Rising (August 2010)

The last Stormlord is dead. War has come to the cities of the Quartern. The violent, nomadic Redunners have put every rainlord they could find to the sword and the cities are left without hope.

Shale has been betrayed, drugged, and left at the feet of his greatest enemy. Now, he must decide to work with those who have plotted against him or let thousands of the waterless die. He has great power but is no Stormlord. At least, not yet…

Terelle has escaped the Scarpen in search of her homeland and her people, the mysterious Watergivers. But a desperate message will send her back to find Shale and face her worst fears.

The people of the Scarpen are in danger. Shale and Terelle must find a way to save their people and punish those who have destroyed all they ever loved.

I recently received The Last Stormlord in the post, so expect a review of this very soon. I only have one or two books before it in the queue, so hopefully within a couple weeks.

Jamieson-DeathMostDefinite Trent Jamieson, Death Most Definite (August 2010)

Steven de Selby has a hangover. Bright lights, loud noise, and lots of exercise are the last thing he wants. But that’s exactly what he gets when someone starts shooting at him.

Steven is no stranger to death-Mr. D’s his boss after all-but when a dead girl saves him from sharing her fate, he finds himself on the wrong end of the barrel. His job is to guide the restless dead to the underworld but now his clients are his own colleagues, friends, and family.

Mr. D’s gone missing and with no one in charge, the dead start to rise, the living are hunted, and the whole city teeters on the brink of a regional apocalypse-unless Steven can shake his hangover, not fall for the dead girl, and find out what happened to his boss- that is, Death himself.

This sounds a little like Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man, only set in the contemporary world, rather than the Discworld. Here’s part of the blurb for Reaper Man:

Death is missing - presumed... er... gone - which leads to the kind of chaos you always get when an important public service is withdrawn.

I am still really looking forward to this.

Another two notable, eagerly-awaited (and forthcoming) Orbit releases are Kevin J Anderson’s The Map of All Things (June 2010), and Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism (August 2010).