Thursday, September 30, 2010

“Zombieslayer”, by Nathan Long (Black Library)

Long-ZombieslayerThe dead rise, Gotrek & Felix put them back down

Pursued by the dark forces of Necromancer Heinrich Kemmler, Gotrek and Felix arrive at Castle Reikgard, where they must hold out against the zombie hordes.

The brutality of the siege is unremitting as wave after wave of horrific creatures, led by the undead champion Krell, attempt to take the walls. With supplies running low and morale sinking, the defenders begin to hear terrible whispers and endure awful nightmares. Suspicion and paranoia run rampant within the castle walls, and the defence seems impossible.

Somehow Gotrek and Felix must unite the forces of the Empire against Kemmler’s ever-growing legion until help arrives, or will the Slayer find his doom amidst the unrelenting undead…?

Picking up immediately after the events of Shamanslayer, this novel drops the reader right into the thick of it. The battle against the marauding beastman horde is over, but now the dead are starting to rise, and our already-weary heroes must fight once more. ‘Hans the Hermit’ from Shamanslayer is not at all who he seemed – instead of a vagrant old tramp, he is actually Heinrich Kemmler, one of the most powerful and feared necromancers in the world.

Felix, Gotrek and their companions are caught up in the retreat from the battlefield – after mistakenly being accused of killing a nobleman’s son (actually already dead and resurrected as a zombie) – and are then dragooned into helping with the re-fortification of Castle Reikgard as it comes under siege by a ten-thousand-strong army of the undead. While sabotage hurts the garrison’s ability to defend and turn back the tide of undead, the dwarfs set to work rebuilding the walls and other features, Felix twists himself in knots trying to figure out who Kemmler’s mole is inside the castle at the same time as navigating the internal politics and rivalries of the human armies.

Nathan Long has done an admirable job of conveying the tense atmosphere inside the castle; the proud but scared defenders beset by an implacable, relentless enemy, succumbing to paranoia and starvation as their situation worsens and their enemy matches them move for move. As the saboteur does more damage, suspicions spread throughout the human ranks, threatening to tear the garrison apart in a fit of paranoid irrationality. Felix and Kat find themselves disgusted and frustrated with their fellow men, but eager to help diffuse any situation that could lead to worse conditions within the castle walls.

With each novel, the author improves and appears more comfortable with his characters. With great writing, the series continues to entertain, and Zombieslayer – like Shamanslayer before – has the same adventurous feel of Will King’s first handful of Gotrek & Felix novels. Not only that, the novels are longer, which means there’s more fun and action. The series is an excellent example of adventure-filled, character-driven fantasy.

I’m never sure to what extent my familiarity with the characters and setting make this a better and quicker read. While it’s obvious that familiarity with the setting will ease understanding and acceptance of the premise, it still shouldn’t prevent me from making a decent judgement on the novel. After all, not all of the Gotrek & Felix novels have been brilliant, and a couple have been quite slow and disappointing. I wouldn’t suggest diving into the series at this point, because I think a new reader might feel somewhat adrift – particularly regarding the subplot involving Snorri Nosebiter’s memory loss and what this means for Felix’s oath to Gotrek (which forms the foundation of the whole series). Considering the superb price of the omnibus editions, however, for only a couple more pounds a new reader can get their hands on the first three novels, so it’s not as if catching up is an insurmountable goal.

Zombieslayer is an entertaining novel. The gentle humour is not quite as prominent as in previous volumes (certainly not as frequent as King’s original novels), but the atmospheric setting is well-crafted and -conveyed, and the characters well-rounded and realistically rendered. The siege is never boring, and Long manages to keep events interesting and fresh throughout. If you’re a fan of the series, then I highly recommend you keep reading the adventures of Gotrek & Felix, and if you’re a newcomer, then you should really go out and buy the first omnibus.

I’m incredibly fond of the Gotrek & Felix novels and its off-shoots, as I’m sure is plain from this and previous reviews on the site. It has everything one could ask from both a Black Library/Warhammer novel, and also from the fantasy genre as a whole. It benefits from a long-established setting, and anyone familiar with it should sink straight into the novel.

A pleasure to read, from an ever-improving author, Zombieslayer is a worthy addition to one of Black Library’s flagship Warhammer series.

Books On Film: “Accidental Billionaires”, by Ben Mezrich (Random House)

TheSocialNetworkPoster2010 This review was originally posted quite a while back on my non-fiction blog, here. I decided to re-post it because of the high-profile movie adaptation (The Social Network) that is released very soon (October 1st in the USA). The script was also written by my favourite TV/Movie Screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Charlie Wilson’s War), so I also wanted to do my bit to increase awareness even just a little bit.

Giving us the history of an internet tool so many millions of people have come to rely on (or just become addicted to), in a manner that is entertaining and more-or-less without bias, Mezrich has written a book worthy of out attention, whether you use Facebook or not.

Here’s what I had to say after reading the book (with just a few tweaks and additions, and the movie trailer at the end)…

*     *     *

Mezrich-AccidentalBillionaires They just wanted to meet girls…

At Harvard, social acceptance and success with the opposite sex had to be applied for. In the absence of family money or innate charisma, misfit and maths prodigy Eduardo Saverin deamed of joining one of Harvard’s elite Final clubs. His best friend, painfully shy computer genius Mark Zuckerberg, turned instead to his natural talents, hacking into the university’s computer system to create a rateable database of every female student on campus.

Narrowly escaping expulsion after 80% of Harvard’s population voted in just two hours, crashing the entire computer system, Mark and Eduardo together refocused the site into something less controversial – ‘The Facebook’ – which spread like wildfire across campuses around the country. Within months, hundreds of thousands of college kids had signed up.

Suddenly Eduardo and Mark were getting nods not just from the female population, but from venture capitalists too. It was then, amidst the dizzying levels of cash and the promise of unbelievable power, that the first cracks in their friendship started to appear, and what began as a simple argument spiralled into an out-and-out war. The great irony is that Facebook succeeded by bringing people together – but its very success tore two best friends apart.

In Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich (author of Bringing Down the House) tells us the story of Facebook – from its creation and first steps all the way to world domination. It is the story of two guys at Harvard trying to improve their social standing, to meet girls – one, Eduardo Saverin, through “punching” a Final Club; the other, Mark Zuckerberg, by making a “killer app” to impress others.

From the first Harvard-based website Zuckerberg wrote – “Facemash”, a late-night reaction to a girl dumping him – to his limited work on a soon-to-be rival website, “HarvardConnection”, and on to Facebook’s incredible rise in the internet world, the story takes us through every step of Zuckerberg and Saverin’s journey – the highs, the lows, the betrayals and the attacks. Saverin had the business savvy Zuckerberg needed to get the site launched, and was arguably his best friend at Harvard. The story is also a refutation, in this age, of Saverin’s initial belief that

“You didn’t get popular by writing computer code. A computer program couldn’t get you laid”

His partnership with Zuckerberg would change both of their lives forever, and make them far more popular and famous than they could have imagined.

Facemash had the unfortunate effect of crashing the university servers as 80% of Harvard students voted on who they believed was the hottest girl on campus (something that didn’t exactly endear its creator to the administration or campus feminists). Narrowly avoiding expulsion, Zuckerberg was approached by Divya Narendra and identical rowing twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, to help them with their own networking site (meant to make hooking up more time-efficient). Zuckerberg agreed, but never really did any work for them, instead focusing on his own site, “”. The Winklevoss twins and Divya saw thefacebook as a theft of their idea, and they eventually filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg, obviously not succeeding in their aim of shutting Facebook down, which instead spread like wildfire through campuses across America, and then beyond.

The author explains how, to Mark, rather than the potential for social betterment,

“it’s likely that the cool thing [about Facebook] was the math that was going to go into it – the computer science of the task, the code at the heart of the Web-site idea.”

Zuckerberg comes across as a strange character – a true hacker-geek, somewhat disinterested in money, more interested in the world online than out in the real world. His character develops and changes as thefacebook grows – at times he comes across as cold, even ruthless when countering accusations of plagiarism in the site; other times he appears disconnected from the world; at other times he seems mischievous. His is clearly a personality that is difficult to nail down or decipher – bizarre for the person who has created the ultimate online socialising tool. Equally ironic, and tragic, is the fact that, while their creation brought hundreds of thousands of people closer, their rapid and unprecedented success ultimately tore their friendship apart as a simple disagreement spiralled out of control into out-and-out war.

This narrative account (which the author admits to taking a pinch of authorial license to create a proper chronological flow) was drawn from hundreds of interviews, emails and conversations with some of those involved – most remain anonymous, though Eduardo Saverin and Tyler Winklevoss seem to have been considerable and loquacious sources, while Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed at all for the book. The absence of Zuckerberg’s input is noticeable, and there’s no doubt that the book would have benefited from his perspective – especially with regards to the lawsuits, personal relationships, and those times when he was away from his colleagues and friends. Despite the bad blood between the Facebook founders, Saverin’s portrayal of Zuckerberg remains largely positive, or at least neutral, throughout the book – which is a good testament to Saverin’s character.

As well as the story of Facebook, Accidental Billionaires gives the reader an interesting window into Ivy League campus life and also the world of Harvard’s Final Clubs – the exclusive university fraternities, membership to which can change anyone’s life, both at college and after. With names like Phoenix and Porcellian, it’s a little difficult to take them seriously at first glance. But, when you consider that the latter (sometimes referred to as “The Porc”) counts President Teddy Roosevelt and a considerable number of highly influential US politicians from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as members, it’s clear that they’re a social force to be reckoned with.

Mezrich shows how, in many ways, Facebook is just an online distillation of what defines college life: sex. Regardless of your social standing, the author posits, there is nothing that can’t be linked with this drive.

“Even at Harvard, the most exclusive school in the world, it was all really about sex. Getting it, or not getting it.”

Thefacebook would have an “undercurrent of sex”, while not being as explicit about it as other, existing networking sites (e.g. The website’s “Looking For”, “Relationship Status” and “Interested Features” were basically “the résumé items that were at the heart of [the] college experience”. While the site has evolved into something much more varied and… well, perhaps ‘high-brow’ is not the word, but it’s certainly about more than just sex. At some universities and colleges, it remains the principle tool for social-climbing, ramping up the number of “friends” you have, making connections, and so forth. But now it is so much more – it’s become a place for reconnecting with long-lost or forgotten school friends, getting to know new friends, Facebook stalking, and sharing interesting or amusing internet content (editorial cartoons, articles, music videos, and let’s not forget book reviews, of course). Saverin and Zuckerberg gave birth to an internet juggernaut, one that keeps evolving and spreading, and truly changed the way millions of people live their lives and interact with others – whether this is a good or bad development is up to you to decide.

Overall, Accidental Billionaires is a very well written, engaging book. Mezrich’s style is very accessible, conversational and manages to make the story of a website actually quite gripping. The book is a very fast read, Mezrich’s writing just pulls you along, with frequently funny and illuminating passages and anecdotes. Accidental Billionaires is as addictively readable as its subject matter is usable, and is one of the most intriguing and enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time.

Highly recommended to all.

Also try: Scott Turow, One L (1997); Philip Delves-Broughton, What They Teach At Harvard Business School (2007); Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2005); John Battelle, The Search (2008)

By the Same Author: Bringing Down the House, Ugly Americans, Busting Vegas, Rigged (and others)

*     *     *

Monday, September 27, 2010

Capsule Review: “Frostbitten”, by Kelley Armstrong (Orbit)

Reviewed by Shevaun Fergus

Frostbitten_B.inddBook 10 of the hugely popular Women of the Otherworld series

After years of struggle, Elena Michaels (journalist, investigator, werewolf) has finally come to terms with her strange fate, and learned how to control her wild side.

At least, that’s what she believes when she sets off to Alaska with her partner Clay. A series of gruesome maulings and murders outside Anchorage seem to implicate a rogue band of werewolves. But the truth is far more complicated. Trapped in a frozen, unforgiving terrain, they are forced to confront a deadly secret, and their own, untamed nature…

Continuing the story of Elena, the only female werewolf in the world, this is a gripping, supernatural read. Elena and her mate, Clay, travel to Alaska in order to investigate some reported deaths from wolf-attack. Unfortunately for the werewolf couple, real wolves are the least of the problems facing the residents of Anchorage…

Lots of blood, guts and gore ensue, and we meet some new monsters to add to the already impressive Otherworld bestiary.

A great piece of ‘urban fantasy’ fiction (to use the catch-all genre name for such novels), Frostbitten effortlessly combines the real world and the paranormal in a way that really brings it to life on the page. Armstrong’s characters are well defined and believable, which just makes it all the more engrossing (as one might expect after so many successful previous volumes – which I have not actually read, I must admit – something that shall be rectified ASAP).

Fast paced and great fun, I couldn’t put this down. Highly recommended for fans of both the author and urban fantasy/werewolf fiction as a whole.

Series Chronology: Bitten (2001), Stolen (2003), Dime Store Magic (2004), Industrial Magic (2004), Haunted (2005), Broken (2006), No Humans Involved (2007), Personal Demon (2008), Living with the Dead (2008), Frostbitten (2009), Waking the Witch (2010)

Also by Armstrong: Nadia Stafford thrillers (Exit Strategy & Made To Be Broken); The Darkest Powers Series (The Summoning, The Awakening, The Reckoning & The Gathering – April 2011)

Capsule Review: “Bearers of the Black Staff”, by Terry Brooks (Orbit Books)

Reviewed by Shevaun Fergus


A new chapter in the Shannara chronicles

Five hundred years have passed since the devastating demon-led war that almost exterminated humankind. Those who escaped the carnage were led to sanctuary by the boy saviour known as Hawk: the gypsy morph. But now, the unimaginable has come to pass: the cocoon of protective magic surrounding the valley has vanished.

When Sider Ament, last surviving Knight of the Word, detects unknown predators stalking the valley, and Trackers from the human village of Glensk Wood, find two of their own gruesomely killed, there can be no doubt: the once safe haven of generations has been laid bare. Together, the young Trackers, the aging Knight, and a daring Elf princess race to spread word of the encroaching danger. But suspicion and hostility among their countrymen threaten to doom their efforts from within, while beyond the breached borders, a ruthless Troll army masses for invasion. Standing firm between the two, the last wielder of the black staff and its awesome magic must find a successor to carry on the fight against the cresting new wave of evil…

First there was the Word and the Void, then there were Armageddon’s Children. The Great Wars are over, a small group of the Races, led by the boy Hawk, have been sheltered by magic in a hidden valley for five centuries, and the walls are coming down. Now the valley’s sheltered charges must face the outside world and all the dangerous creatures that have evolved in five hundred years of radiation and toxic waste. They must learn fast in order to survive.

Master storyteller Brooks returns to exceptional form with this latest instalment in his epic tale. Bearers of the Black Staff is the first in a new sequence, The Legends of Shannara.

The world we know from previous books in the series is gone, and this new chapter tells of the birth of the world we know as the world of The Sword of Shannara.  As can be expected from a Brooks novel, we get engaging plot twists and a host of interesting new characters and peoples to explore.  The characters are all too human, with real failings and strengths, unlike those in many fantasy novels, and you find yourself cheering them on their endeavours.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

“Sabbat Worlds Anthology”, edited by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


Short Stories set in and around the Gaunt’s Ghosts systems

Across the Sabbat Worlds, a bitter conflict is fought, a conflict that can only end in victory or annihilation. The innumerable forces of the Arch enemy attack without mercy, and planet after planet burns with the flames of war.

Yet even amidst this nightmare, the Imperial Guard stand stoic against their foes. The Phantine Air Corps battle the enemies of mankind across burning skies, while the Gereon resistance tries to break the foothold of Chaos on their beleaguered world and the legendary Gaunt’s Ghosts fight in the most violent and bloody of warzones.

Edited by Gaunt’s Ghosts creator (and frequent Horus Heresy author) Dan Abnett, this anthology “opens the gateway to the Sabbat Worlds”, featuring eight brand new stories from some of the Black Library’s best-known authors including Abnett himself, New York Times best-selling author Graham McNeill, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Sandy Mitchell, Nik Vincent, Matt Farrer and Nick Kyme. Each short story is preceded by a short intro by Abnett, which locates the stories in both the worlds he’s created and also the timeline of the military campaigns set in the Sabbat Worlds (a handy addition for anyone who, like myself, sometimes forgets salient details of novels released in the mid-1990s).

As with previous anthology reviews, I’ll deal with each story individually, then sum-up at the end. I’ll try to avoid as many spoilers as possible.

“Apostle’s Creed”, by Graham McNeill

Life with the Apostles – hard flying aces, they are tough, detached and extremely aloof. The distance they create between themselves and other fliers is not only arrogance, it is also through necessity, as Larice discovers in this tale.

Larice is still getting to know the ways of her new unit, trying to fit into the squadron’s habits and ways, despite it being a squadron that doesn’t want people to fit in with it.

Great writing, as can be expected from McNeill, but I’m still not sold on long aerial dogfight scenes (which were a serious weakness in the Star Wars: New Jedi Order series). I did, however, really liked this, which made me wonder why I didn’t love Double Eagle when I read it all those years ago...

It’s a story about the effect war has on the idealistic, how loss can manifest itself in many forms. And, of course, dogfights.

Mr McNeill has a surprising fondness for the word “viffing”…

“The Headstone and the Hammerstone Kings”, by Matthew Farrer

A story set in the aftermath of an invasion, on a planet that is no longer on the frontlines. Delicate and controversial clean-up operations concerning the enemy’s “woe machines” (nasty contraptions with innumerable ways of killing and maiming the unwary and enemy) are underway, and the economic forces of the region want a piece of the action and are suspicious and jealous of the Mechanicum forces who have a monopoly on the salvaged tech. Meanwhile, an insurgency has its own plans for the machines.

Farrer’s latest work seems to be characterised by ambiguity – “Faces” in Fear The Alien and now this one. It’s a good style, and makes a difference from straightforward short stories, but because of the length, I sometimes wonder if being less ambiguous might be a better thing. It’s a good read, nonetheless.

“Regicide”, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

After the glowing introduction from Abnett (in which Bowden’s work is described as “pant-damaging pieces of writing awesomeness”), what follows is a truly superb story, and possibly the best in the collection.

Set twenty-five years before the Gaunt’s Ghosts timeline, Bowden takes us back to the beginning of the crusade, to first contact with the Blood Pact. The perspective is that of the Warmaster’s Argentum, his personal bodyguards. Also, it’s Warmaster Slaydo, not Macaroth as it is in Gaunt’s novels. Slaydo is brilliantly rendered, and it’s not hard at all to believe that such a general would instil such loyalty in his men.

His prose drag you on through the story, and you go willingly. Bowden’s description of events and characters is enough to paint a vivid picture without distracting from the tale being told. He also has a bit of a dark sense of humour, which is entirely welcome.

Utterly brilliant and satisfying, if this story doesn’t make you buy the author’s other work… well, I just wouldn’t believe you have good taste.

“The Iron Star”, by Dan Abnett

This is the first Gaunt’s Ghosts novella in the anthology, and it’s quite a different type of story than you might expect. Like a drug-fuelled dream sequence (if filmed, it might be in the style of The Sopranos or Max Payne), this is set in the aftermath of Only In Death, which preceded Blood Pact.

It’s a strange read, but it became clear relatively early on what was going on, and it’s well constructed and written. An original story, from an unusual perspective, it adds something very different to other Gaunt’s Ghosts stories.

“Cell”, by Nik Vincent

Resistance fighters are staging an insurgency on an Archenemy-occupied world, Reredos. Vincent gives us a glimpse into the brutal, short lives of guerrilla resistance fighters and their struggles against the occupying enemy (presented as truly repellent animals), and clandestine forces within. The insurgents are not only trying to keep their life and creed alive, but do anything to hinder the operations of the occupying forces.

It’s a great story, and the author has a gift for portraying the hostile and tense atmosphere. (Don’t want to give anything else away, so I won’t go into any more detail.)

The story has a lot in common with Traitor General, which covers a lot of the same insurgency-themes and an ill-equipped force’s struggles against an occupying force.

“Blueblood”, by Nick Kyme

This story takes the Imperial Guard Volpone 50th “Bluebloods” and brings them front and centre. A long-standing, bitter rivalry has existed between the Bluebloods and Ghosts since their first appearance in Ghostmaker.

Regara, the regimental leader of the Bluebloods at the centre of this story, is an arrogant, quite obnoxious bastard. It makes for a refreshing change in perspective to be rooting for a regiment that are arrogant in the extreme.

His distaste for his assignment, his non-Volpone colleagues, his location, everything (shared by his subordinates) is palpable. This is a man with high standards and a very high opinion of himself. Nonetheless, the garrison is slowly going crazy: guardsmen suddenly turning on their comrades, and the Bluebloods take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and put a stop to the madness. They are led to discover a cunning and unexpected plot, one that could hold dire consequences for the Sabbat Crusades as a whole.

Kyme realises the world and characters deftly on the page, and his prose draw you on through the story. The Volpone are aristocratic, but anything but foppish. They have a cold, viscious streak that breeds results but also resentment.

It’s a very good story, with a great ending and a great sense of the characters he’s created – one thinks the events of the story might in some way change the regiment’s outlook, but if it does it is only minutely.

“A Good Man”, by Sandy Mitchell

Sandy Mitchell writes a WH40k series – the Ciaphas Cain novels – that many perhaps think would not appeal, let alone belong in the universe. Mitchell’s novels are written with a subversive humour at its core, and I eagerly wanted to see what he would do in this setting. While “A Good Man” is not as overtly funny as the Cain novels, it has a charm all its own.

The story is set on Verghast, in the aftermath of events chronicled in Necropolis, the third Ghosts novel. A munitorum scribe, Linder, has been sent to Verghast to help restore the place to working order. He is set the task of sifting through and organising and repairing reams of paperwork that have been backed up, damaged, lost, misfiled, and so on. It takes a special mind to do this without going nuts, and Linder is exactly the right person – he is fussy, slightly prissy, and fastidious in his work. A friend has gone missing, however, and he is drawn into the Arbites investigation, complete with some surprising and – for a scribe – unconscionable accusations.

All the great elements of a classic noir crime thriller are here – a dame, a hard-working cop, a betrayal, and a tricky case to crack. Mitchell’s done a great job of writing a story with a different feel for the WH40k universe, and has once again shown us the broad scope of his considerable writing talent.

“Of Their Lives in the Ruins of their Cities”, by Dan Abnett

This is the entirely new Gaunt’s Ghosts novella. As Abnett’s introduction suggests, this is a pretty special story, and one that can easily be spoiled by too much description.

Needless to say, Abnett keeps getting better with each new Ghosts story. Blood Pact is one of my favourite books from 2009, and this story – set early on the Tanith First & Only’s history, is written to the same, very high standard. I can’t wait for the next Ghosts novel, and this has only made me more eager to find out what happens next. Equally, the story’s made me want to re-start the series over again (it’s over a decade, after all, since I last read the first few novels).

This is an excellent sci-fi short, with expertly portrayed action, excellent characters (admittedly benefiting from familiarity), and a great premise. Abnett’s writing is brilliant, of course, with a real eye for detail, pacing, characterisation, and atmosphere.


*     *     *

Overall, this is a great collection of short stories, in a setting that many fans of Warhammer 40,000 fiction will be familiar with. To see how some of the Black Library’s best authors have approached the worlds, units and characters created by Abnett is both interesting and entertaining, adding another layer to an already intricate and well-realised universe. Dan should be both proud of his overall creation, and also pleased that he’s influenced so many writers.

I’m not as keen on short stories as I used to be. I’ve become far more enamoured by full-length novels – the chance to sink into a narrative, get to know the characters… it appeals to me (something I’ve exactly not kept hidden, considering this blog…). Short stories always seem insufficient and sometimes incomplete. Black Library shorts, however, still hold considerable interest for me. Not only are they of top quality, but they remind me of the Inferno! years, when I would eagerly await the latest bimonthly collection of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000-related fiction (indeed, I think I may still have my favourite issue lying about, somewhere). This was before the first Gaunt’s Ghosts or Gotrek & Felix novel was published, but it fired my interest in fantasy and science fiction at the time, and I’ve retained a strong fondness for the settings ever since. It was in Inferno! that I first stumbled across Gaunt’s Ghosts, and I’ve been an ardent follower of Abnett’s ever since. To get two more shorts in this anthology was great, and also nostalgic.

The other work in here is also excellent, and should certainly appeal to all fans of the series. I think we know that many people will get this for Abnett’s two contributions, but there is so much in here to interest fans of the WH40k universe. If you give these authors and their stories a chance, you will not be disappointed and, if it makes you seek out other novels by the authors herein, then it will have fulfilled a great purpose.

Not perfect, but still highly recommended, The Sabbat Worlds anthology will help tide you over until the next Gaunt’s Ghosts novel is released, as well as expand your image and understanding of the setting Abnett has created – a setting that has been hugely influential to all authors currently writing fiction set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Long may he continue to inspire others, and long may some of his comrades in this collection continue to entertain humble sci-fi fans the world over.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

“House Justice”, by Mike Lawson (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Lawson-HouseJustice A press-leak, a CIA asset killed, a quest for vengeance and accountability

An American defence contractor attempts to sell US missile technology to the Iranians — and the CIA knows all about it thanks to a spy in Tehran. But then the story is leaked to an ambitious journalist and the spy is exposed, brutally tortured, and executed.

Furious, CIA Director Jake LaFountaine isn’t about to let the death of his spy go unpunished. A valuable asset has been callously sacrificed, and he’s going to find out who did it no matter how many rules he has to break. DeMarco’s boss, Speaker of the House John Fitzpatrick Mahoney has his own reasons to get to the bottom of the leak: he once had a fling with the journalist, and now that she’s in jail for refusing to reveal her source, she’s threatening to expose their affair unless he helps get her out.

DeMarco and the CIA aren’t the only ones looking for the source of the leak. Someone else wants to avenge the spy’s death and is tailing DeMarco, hoping DeMarco will lead him to his prey.

A CIA asset in Iran has been outed and executed. The culprit needs to be found. The Tyler & Tyler firm, attempting to negotiate an arms technology deal with Iran, getting them the tech they need to improve guidance systems of their missiles, seems to be in the middle of the political shit-storm that erupts.

Sandra Whitmore, the author of the news piece that revealed the identity of the CIA spy, has suggested it was a member of the CIA who gave her the asset’s name, and that the spooks had been covering up the story and operation.

What gets Joe DeMarco (and his irascible boss) involved in the case, is when the Director of the CIA goes on television and points the finger instead at Congress, who were briefed and fully aware of the operation. Naturally, DeMarco’s boss, John Fitzpatrick Mahoney, Speaker of the House wants to prevent any embarrasment for his party and also Congress as a whole (experiencing, as in real life, rock-bottom support from the public). Mahoney is a great character. The best description of him is offered by his secretary of almost thirty years, Mavis:

“He was an alcoholic and womanizer and played dangerous games with the taxpayers’ money, money that he treated as his own. He was lucky other people didn’t know what she knew; if they did, he would probably be serving time in federal prison.”

There is something of the Judith Miller scandal (also re-created in a Kate Beckinsale movie) to the first half of this novel. The Miller-Plame case is mentioned, but instead of just naming a spy, as Miller did, Whitmore’s story results in a spy’s death. In other words, a whole new world of trouble. It’s cases like these that really show the arrogance and self-important, self-serving martyr complex of certain journalistic ‘celebrities’. Lawson deals with this very well. Despite her wish to be a paragon of journalistic martyrdom, Whitmore doesn’t want to be in prison, so she is blackmailing Mahoney (they conducted an affair, back in the day) to pull strings to get her sprung. Enter DeMarco, who’s sent by the Speaker to stop her talking and try to free her. As DeMarco sneers at her, “So you wanna be a martyr but you’re not willing to burn at the stake.”

The CIA and Mahoney are not the only factions interested in the case, however, which makes life difficult and dangerous for DeMarco. An assassin we only know as “The Florist” has been pulled out of retirement to do a job involving the Whitmore case – specifically, to avenge the death of the spy. After he discovers DeMarco’s visit to Whitmore, he starts taking an interest in Joe’s own investigation, and starts to follow him. Meanwhile, members of Tyler & Tyler, and various peripheral associates and hired-guns, are trying to cover their tracks by tying up loose ends and silencing potential leaks. Eventually, DeMarco is paired up with a CIA agent to exact revenge on those who caused Mahata’s death. Joe finds himself experiencing serious reservations about both the CIA’s methods and also ultimate objectives. It’s certainly a look at the darker, less-idealised side of American politics and homeland defence.

Lawson’s novels are dependable thrillers: interesting, detailed, with realistic characters, great Washington politics and intrigue. The author has a great gift for portraying DC politics: it’s not comical, it’s not caricatured, but it also doesn’t put a shine on things that do anything but sparkle.

House Justice is a novel of two parts – events around the middle set DeMarco on a different course, with a different investigation and agenda (the result of a CIA-Mahoney alliance). The stakes are higher and the enemy more deadly. Lawson does a good job of keeping the novel rattling along, but when the first ‘part’ was over, there was a slight dip in momentum as the second part picks up and is developed. It’s a pity, as usually I can sit and read a DeMarco novel very quickly. House Justice therefore has a different feel to previous novels, but it is by no means less enjoyable.

House Justice is a classic DeMarco thriller: fascinating and realistic characters, inside-the-beltway intrigue, and a well-thought-out plot sprinkled with surprises. I must admit that I tend to prefer my thrillers with a little more pace, and this is where House Justice differs from previous volumes in the series. At times this felt a little too leisurely for the genre, but it does help set a tone for DeMarco’s jobs (nowhere near as exciting in real life as we’re led to believe by Hollywood). The plot feels spun-out, but the ending is satisfying as all the threads are pulled together well.

If you like Washington-based political thrillers, then House Justice should certainly appeal. Lawson is one of the better authors producing such novels, and even though this novel was slower than I might have hoped, he continues to display why he is ahead of the pack.

For fans of: Kyle Mills, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Joseph Finder, Tom Clancy, Andrew Britton, James Twining

Who ‘Owns’ Political Thrillers?

This was originally posted as “Grumbling in a fit of Pique” on my other blog, in response to an article from the The New Republic (cite frequently below). As I’m getting ready for a slew of thriller reviews, I thought I would re-post it here, with some more thoughtful commentary and expansion.

CR used to be far more about thriller and crime novels than fantasy and science-fiction, and I thought it was time to focus a bit more on these genres for a bit. Ever since 2002, when I read James Patterson’s Violets Are Blue while living in Japan, I’ve been addicted to crime and thriller novels, always searching for new authors to discover and follow. (Before this, I actually didn’t read anywhere near as much as I do now, tending towards books by Terry Pratchett, Bernard Cornwell, Anne Rice, and the occasional other author who might be connected to these three.)

Thrillers (as novels, movies or TV shows) held so much for me: the realistic and varied characters; a puzzle to solve and (hopefully) make the reader think; and action to entertain. As someone who has always wanted to live in the United States, I read almost exclusively novels set in the US, therefore offering more insight and information on the country and its society, politics and people. Anyway, that’s just a little bit of background before getting to the main point of this post, which I’ll now turn my attention to...

BeckSupremacyZengerle Almost a year ago, I read an article about the ‘right-wing strangle-hold’ on political/spy thriller fiction. The article – “The Beck Supremacy: How a right-wing conspiracy hijacked the thriller genre”, by Jason Zengerle – bothered me a great deal at the time, and it made me think more about what the thriller market actually is, and what it requires from the authors. I decided to catch up with reading political thrillers, most specifically the novel Zengerle used as the bedrock of his article.

A good deal of what Zengerle writes is perfectly valid and hard to refute, but it is not without flaws. His article takes Vince Flynn’s Pursuit of Honor as the central ‘proof’ of his argument. That Flynn “is to the war on terrorism what Tom Clancy was to the cold war”, as Zengerle suggests, is probably true. His Mitch Rapp novels (as well as the stand-alone novel Fade) are brilliant, thrilling offerings of spy-and-terrorist fiction. His main protagonist is a CIA-trained assassin, involved in (pitch-)black ops, and quite possibly the hardest character ever written. The novels are thoroughly entertaining, and I rarely take more than a couple days to read each one as soon as I get my hands on it.


Zengerle’s article focuses on something from Flynn’s promotional campaign/tour for Pursuit of Honor. The author sent Rush Limbaugh (the obnoxious-in-every-way right-wing radio ‘personality’) a copy of the novel, and included with it a note trumpeting the conservative pandering call-to-arms in Chapter 50 of the novel. I’d be lying if I said this revelation was not a little disappointing, but then I thought about it and realised I didn’t care.

Zengerle makes a case that “Flynn appears to be angling for a new level of conservative street cred” with each new novel, and by pitching the promotion of the novel in such a manner certainly suggests this may well be the case. Is there anything wrong with this? I personally don’t think so. If Flynn is genuinely a fan of Limbaugh’s and is a staunch conservative... so what? Is the Zengerle’s point that conservatives only produce entertainment for other conservatives? This is an incredibly pompous assumption, and ignores the fact that many people of all political stripes read thrillers. Also, before reading this article, it never once occurred to me to even consider what an author’s political ideology might be.

However, this isn’t where I started to go off the author of the article. That happened when I read his characterisation of thriller fans:

“[They are] the type of reader who, like Limbaugh, watches the TV show 24 not just for entertainment value but also for political lessons.”

24 Series 7 ( was shot for Series 6 but never used)
Keifer Sutherland
©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

I watch 24 because it’s entertaining (even if my interest has diminished with each new series). Entertainment is the same reason I read Flynn’s novels; not to mention Tom Clancy, David Baldacci, Kyle Mills, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, Alex Berenson, Ian Flemming, Joseph Finder, Andrew Britton (RIP), Mike Lawson, Sean Black, to name but a handful – it’s one of my favourite fiction genres. Here’s another thing I have a problem with:

“the protagonist of Flynn’s novels, CIA counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp, exhibits such a talent for maiming, torturing, and killing Muslim bad guys that he makes Jack Bauer look like a simpering ACLU attorney”

This makes me think Zengerle has not, in fact, read many of Flynn’s books (it would not surprise me at all if he only considered Pursuit of Honor because of this note to Limbaugh). While it is true that Rapp does have a particular skill at extracting information, frequently using extreme measures, Flynn is very clear about Rapp’s psyche – he is not a sociopath or psychopath, who derives enjoyment out of doing any of these things. Indeed, in the first 100 pages of Pursuit of Honor, Rapp is explicitly described as doing only what is necessary, not what he enjoys. Not only that, also early in the novel, Rapp is concerned about his protégé, Nash, who seems to be cracking under the pressure of the job. So here is a supposed psychopath, caring for his colleague’s mental state because of the horrible things they have to do, not to mention one that does have second thoughts about having to kill, maim, or torture anyone.

There are certainly snatches of the novel that clearly exhibit Flynn’s (or, at least, the right’s) political preferences and views, including the snippet Flynn mentioned to Limbaugh, when Rapp is being grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee:

“This is where we not only say it’s perfectly okay for a doctor to kill a full-term baby, but we think taxpayers should help pay for it... And you call me a barbarian.”

Zengerle also seems to take offense at Rapp/Flynn’s characterisation of Carol Ogden, a senator in the novel (who bears a resemblance to Barbara Boxer of California). Ogden is a senator who, as Rapp puts it,

“moved in the elite circles of her party, listening to the trial lawyers, academics, and the nuttiest of the crazy special-interest groups”

Well, this isn’t exactly unfair. Whether or not Boxer was the inspiration for Ogden, it has to be said that many Senators and Congressmen are beholden to special interests – Boxer herself is rather beholden to the defence industry, which has a considerable presence in Southern California, a very important area of her constituency (see Robert Scheer’s The Pornography of Power for more on this). As for the “nuttiest of the crazy special-interest groups”, well this could just as easily be directed at the nuttier wing of the Republican Party (which appears to be growing).

The second half of the article chills out, thankfully, and starts to pay attention to the more left-leaning thriller authors, but by then the damage is done. If you consider that most articles are never finished (last statistic I was told, by a former producer of Newsnight, was upward-of-80% are never read to the end), this is really quite unfair and irresponsible. If he was only interested in dispelling the idea that thrillers are right-wing, or only appeal to arch-conservatives, why didn’t he say so earlier?

After getting to this point, and pointing out a couple of left-leaning authors (John le Carré, Robert Ludlum), as well as identifying Allen Drury as the “arch-conservative” originator of the genre, Zengerle says that,

“while Drury, le Carré, and other thriller writers of their era may have let their politics inform their fiction writing, they did not allow their politics to dominate it.”

Well, neither do most of the authors writing in the genre today. Flynn is just as able (if not, actually, better able) to articulate an intelligent liberal position or perspective as he is a conservative. His liberal characters are not buffoons or cartoons of liberals, unless they absolutely have to be – i.e. if he needs a political enemy of the CIA (who, as a whole, seem to be of the liberal ilk). And what’s wrong with identifying bad arguments? Many liberal arguments are thin sound-bites poorly argued by someone just interested in getting more face time on the morning talk-shows. Just as many Republican/conservative arguments are as vapid if not more so. Perhaps the author who is most gifted at showing all sides of an argument is Kyle Mills, whose Mark Beamon series will have you thinking seriously about issues in ways you never thought you would – the war on drugs and religion in politics to name but two stand-outs – not to mention condoning (even if in just an armchair way) some pretty extreme policies.


There are far more statements in Pursuit of Honor that are general jabs at government as a whole, bipartisan in their direction and intent, and his negative (bipartisan) opinion of Capitol politics, and how the bickering and constant one-upmanship of D.C. politics gets in the way of proper governance:

“[the] partisan game that everyone wants to play in Washington. Republican versus Democrat… liberal versus conservative… none of that matters… the only thing we’re supposed to concern ourselves with is national security” (p.148)

In some ways, Flynn has done a better job here than Zengerle has. The above quote is but one instance of Flynn’s characters bemoaning the state of American politics into a right-versus-left battle for influence and political stardom. There are other times when it feels like Flynn is merely saying what we all wish we could say, but are afraid to because of the hyper-PC environment in the US (and the UK) – particularly when Rapp complains about how it drives him crazy that

“there are people in [Washington] who think the way to peace is to afford tolerance to an intolerant group of bigoted Muslim men” (p.222).

Here’s another passage from Zengerle’s article that’s a problem for me:

“But there is an underlying fear and paranoia running through Flynn and Thor’s political thrillers that was missing from Clancy’s. It’s that sense of menace — as much as any sense of reassurance — that accounts for these books’ popularity with right-wing talk-show hosts, who, after all, are in the business of convincing listeners and viewers that both they and their country are in constant peril.”

Yes, right-wing hosts are in the business of hyperbole (see Glen Beck as a perfect example of this, if you absolutely have to...), but it was the George W. Bush administration that pushed this sense of fear and menace to begin with, more than anyone else. (And let’s not forget all the liberal media outlets who bought into it following 9/11.) Is it so strange that authors, writing about contemporary events, are using the sense of the times? World War I and II novels, Cold War novels (not to mention movies) also had the feel and temperaments of their times. Certainly Vietnam movies and books did and still do.

After all, consider the thematic tendencies of the genre. Frequent plot-lines focus on either an anti-establishment, maverick protagonist who has a tendency to buck orders and go his (or, occasionally, her) way, or on someone who is thrust into unfamiliar territory and has to overcome some deadly obstacles or whatnot. Invariably, there is a conspiracy of some sort (see Charles Pierce’s Idiot America for an excellent account of conspiracies and cranks through American history). The novels might take an anti-governmental or anti-corporate approach; or even take issue with Eisenhower’s biggest concern, the military-industrial complex. Other popular topics are human corruption and espionage (the classic, original focus of the genre). These grand themes always remain, in one form or another, regardless of the time in which the novel may be set. The human aspect of the story (personal struggle, predominantly) is the most important, with contemporary (geo)politics as a backdrop.

Zengerle says Clancy’s novels were overtly ideological – exhibiting a “We’re the toughest guys in the world, and our guys can beat their guys” mentality. Is this really ‘ideological’? Who actually wants to read a novel (or many novels, for that matter, given Clancy’s back catalogue) that has a “we’re bastards, and weak ones at that” approach?

Thrillers are meant to entertain – otherwise they would surely have to be called ‘downers’. Who cares if the author is a conservative or liberal? I have no doubt that there are some novels out there that lean overtly one way or another (maybe some that do so scarily), but in order to be a truly successful thriller, it will need to offer as much as possible for as wide an audience as possible.

If the novel is entertaining, and actually thrills, then I’m likely going to read it. If Jason Zengerle doesn’t understand this, then he really has no business writing about the genre. He does understand this, though, as he explains how Flynn and Thor’s novels have a comfort value to them – they make us feel better because the ‘good guys’ beat the ‘bad guys’. There are so many instances in the article when Zengerle sits on the fence or plays devil’s advocate that it’s difficult to really understand the point of the article. Is he trying to get the liberal media to pay more attention to thrillers? Or is he genuinely arguing that the right-wing has taken over the genre to advance its own political agenda?

Zengerle at one point blames Right-Wing talking heads for the success of political thrillers. Well, this one I’ll happily give him – liberal talk shows just don’t invite thriller authors. Joseph Finder, in the same article, says this and says it’s disappointing because he’s not a conservative. Why don’t liberal news sources invite these authors? Is it a case that liberal presenters can’t allow themselves to enjoy books like this as entertainment, because it doesn’t contain the same values they espouse on their shows? That, frankly, is idiotic.

“Political thrillers are seldom reviewed in The New York Times; and, while their authors used to pop up for interviews on the Today show or Larry King’s old radio program, those days are gone. Meanwhile, the new breed of liberal television pundit isn’t interested in hosting political thriller writers, either.”

The New York Times did, actually, once have a regular thriller/spy novel review column, but after the end of the Cold War it was stopped. This seems somewhat disingenuous of Zengerle to write, pointing the finger at other liberal hosts and outlets. It’s not, after all, like The New Republic has reviewed many thrillers, or has much time for the genre in general. (To be fair, TNR is somewhat politically neutral or ambiguous, which I like.) In fact, their fiction reviews tend to focus on books most people have never read, never heard of, and probably will never read (literary for the main, unless there’s no way of getting away without a review – for example, Dan Brown). To pass up any opportunity to promote a book would be folly. If conservative talk-shows are all that’s left (an odd turn of phrase, in this case...), then you go where you can.

Fair enough, Flynn’s pandering to Limbaugh and Beck is off-putting to someone who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot (to take Al Franken’s words) and Glenn Beck is a cretinous buffoon, and may certainly suggest that Flynn is trying to push a political agenda. But, as I’ve mentioned, if you read the book this is not the case, unless you really want to see it. Kyle Mills, for example, is probably left-leaning in his politics, but his novels are so well balanced that you can’t help thinking that all sides are reasonable and on to something. (Mills is excellent at presenting convincing arguments for all sides.)

Here’s Joseph Finder (author of Power Play, and most recently The Vanished) on thriller authors:

“Most thriller writers tend not to be politically identified — not publicly, anyway, because they want to sell books and not turn off potential readers,” says Finder. “But I’ve noticed that those few who are open about their politics tend to be conservative, largely because the market favors that.”

Is it the book-buying market or the media market that favours conservative politics and thriller writers? Again, I think it’s more a case of the media pundits find it easier to sell thrillers to conservatives, because of the clichéd belief that conservatives are the only ones who like to take action, rather than sit around and have a casual chat to sort things out. This, of course, is another thing to take into account when considering the thriller genre: How many authors could ever hope to make a truly liberal or Democratic approach to almost any contemporary issue thrilling to read? I think it would make for a thoroughly boring book, totally lacking in thrills. [If you disagree, please point me in the direction of a novel that bucks this assumption!]

Zengerle, while he makes some very good points (Thor and Flynn, neither of whom were in governmental or military service, should not be called upon as foreign policy experts – it is dishonest and utterly irresponsible), is not clear what he’s actually trying to achieve with the article. He also clearly doesn’t ‘get’ the political thriller genre. There are lefties out there, writing thrillers. But, if they’re not thrilling, then they don’t belong in the genre. Action and violence are key staples of popular- and mass-entertainment: just look at Hollywood, the favourite whipping-boy of the Conservative right wing of American politics and the number of action movies they produce every year. I’m not saying that I (or any other thriller fan) needs the violence in order to enjoy a novel, but there’s a reason action movies and these novels are so popular. That they focus on contemporary issues only makes them more relevant – in many cases, the authors are able to produce some excellent social and political commentary, lacking in many mainstream news media publications or broadcasts.

I am neither a nutty right-winger, nor an uneducated hick. I don’t think Limbaugh is worth the air he breathes, and Beck, rather than being the comedian he has been described as, is actually Fox’s biggest joke perpetrated on the American people. But, I love political and action thrillers. They’re entertaining, and at times thought-provoking. The convention of the genre existed well before Flynn and Thor, and while it is certainly possible to read thrillers through a conservative lens, there is no necessary connection between the thriller genre and conservative politics (or liberal politics).

I don’t always agree with the politics on display or the decisions characters take, but they do what we expect them to do. If they make the reader think more about political, economic, or social issues, then they should be applauded, not relegated to the same intellectually-stunted, ideological pile as Beck and Limbaugh.

[All page numbers from Pursuit of Honor are from the eBook edition]

Friday, September 17, 2010

I’m Not Dead Yet…!

While I do not for a minute believe people eagerly await posts, reviews, and articles on CR, I just wanted to say: I’m not dead!

I’m struggling with a particularly stubborn illness and concurrent PhD re-writes at the moment (I have approximately nine weeks until I submit my thesis), so the website’s had to take a slight back seat for the moment. I have not, however, been totally idle, and here’s a quick list of things you can (hopefully) look forward to in the upcoming week or two:

- An article/rant about the politics in political thrillers and how people are coming to view the genre (I use ‘political thriller’ as a catch-all for spy- and international thrillers, also).

- Reviews by me of Mike Lawson’s House Justice (Atlantic Monthly Press), Nathan Long’s Zombieslayer, and the Sabbat Worlds anthology edited by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


- Reviews of Celine Kiernan’s The Crowded Shadows, Gail Carriger’s Soulless (Orbit Books), and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan & Behemoth (Simon & Schuster) from Alyssa.


I’ll try to get some more posts and reviews written and thrown up here whenever I can manage it. Normal service should resume in a couple of weeks or so.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Missing, presumed…

That’s a bit of a vague title, I know. Just thought I’d write a quick post to highlight some glaring oversights in the Amazon Kindle UK Store. To be fair, that it’s a “glaring oversight” is completely my own opinion, as I’m sure there are other novels and series that are higher priority for… well, probably everyone, but maybe if I write this, someone will notice…

1. John Sandford, Prey Series

Sandford-1-RulesOfPrey I’m a huge fan of Sandford’s writing, and the Lucas Davenport/Prey series is easily my favourite crime thriller series. The characters are brilliantly rendered, the setting is not one I’m familiar with (Minnesota and sometimes Wisconsin), yet the author can bring the locations to life. From the very first in the series (Rules of Prey) to the latest (Storm Prey), I’ve always been engrossed and entertained by the books. That the author has managed to maintain the quality for a staggering 20 books is amazing, and matched by very few authors. Add to this the Virgil Flowers companion series (Bad Blood, the fourth in the series, will be released soon), and the four, beloved Kidd novels, and Sandford is one of the best crime authors in the world. He seems to be largely unknown in the UK, however (or, at the least, insufficiently promoted).

I would love to get all of Sandford’s novels for my Kindle, so I can start reading them again.

2. Anne Rice, Vampire Chronicles

Specifically, I’m talking about the first five books: Interview With the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, Tale of the Body Thief, and Memnoch the Devil. I first read these when I was 16yrs old, and I was enthralled by Rice’s gift for writing atmospheric, intriguing and thoughtful novels about vampires (yes, I know, not much vampire fiction is particularly deep, these days…). Rice touches on such a wide range of issues in her novels – religion, violence, sociopathy, love, humanity, power, to name but a handful – that it’s impossible for these novels to not get under your skin. Rice isn’t opposed to writing passages or about themes that will make the reader squirm, forcing us to think about or confront uncomfortable or taboo subjects.

Sure, they’re also highly entertaining, too, but I guarantee you’ll get more from reading these five books than you ever will from Charlaine Harris, Stephanie Meyer, or any other producer of the new Vampire-fiction crowd.


3. Jonathan Franzen

Franzen-FreedomUK Strangely, given how successful and popular this author is, neither The Corrections or new opus Freedom appear to be available for the UK Kindle. In what can only be a happy coup for Sony, they are available through their eBookstore.

This is annoying for two reasons: First, because I really want to know what all the fuss is about; and second, the books are huge, and I just don’t have space for two more brick-sized volumes in my already tiny living quarters.

*     *     *

On a happier note, however, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are almost all available for the Kindle, so that’s got to be a good thing! Other publishers who seem to be embracing the platform are Pyr (I’ll be buying lots of their releases), Orbit (can now take some of my favourite fantasy novels travelling with me), and bit-by-bit Gollancz/Orion.

Larsson-GirlWithDragonTattoo I imagine I will finally give Stieg Larsson’s novels a try, too. The Kindle versions are really cheap, and the Kindle Sample option will allow me to try-before-I-buy. It really is a great service, and Amazon should be applauded for adding/developing it.

I’m actually surprised I haven’t tried the Millennium Trilogy sooner – if for no other reason than the tattoo depicted on the cover is very similar to my own. Not the best reason to try a book, I know, but still…

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Books on Film: “Going Postal”, by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett-GoingPostalDVD The third Discworld live-action adaptation

Moist von Lipwig is an exceptional con artist faced with a difficult life-choice: the hangman’s noose or Lord Vetinari’s offer to become Ankh-Morpork’s next postmaster.

Hoping for an easy escape, Lipwig chooses the Post Office, but soon discovers that it’s understaffed, overflowing with undelivered mail and notoriously hazardous to a would-be postmaster’s health. But you can’t keep a good conman down and, despite the best efforts of Clacks’ Chairman, the devious Reacher Gilt, Lipwig is determined to turn around the fortunes of the ailing postal system.

It’s not going to be easy, but assisted by Junior Postman Groat, pin-obsessed Stanley, beautiful chain-smokeing Adora Belle Dearheart, and an army of golems, there’s always a plan for a man who’s prepared to push the envelope…

This is the third TV adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel and, finally, they seem to have got it mostly right. Hogfather was pretty good, even if the acting was a little too hammy for my taste; and The Colour of Magic was rather terrible, which meant I never finished watching it (the actors hammed it up way too much, and even Jeremy Irons was a huge disappointment).

The actors cast in Going Postal, however, are quite brilliant. Richard Coyle’s Moist Von Lipwig is totally believable as a loveable rogue, pulling of the role with only a hint of overdoing it; David Suchet (onetime Poirot) is dastardly villainous as Reacher Gilt – featuring more in the second episode than the first; Claire Foy’s Adora Belle Dearheart is superb, and is extremely close to how I imagined the character, getting just the right mix of righteousness and goth-laden charm; Charles Dance is brilliant as Lord Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, and certainly miles better than Jeremy Irons’s portrayal in The Colour of Magic, which was surprisingly stupid (with an utterly ridiculous lisp thrown in for gods-only-know-what-reason). The only character that bothered me was the banshee, but I also can’t think how else to have done him. The golems are well-designed, and Mr Pump is both intimidating and (at the end) rather sweet.

Of course, even at three-hours long, everything from the novel couldn’t be covered or included, but the producers have done a great job of teasing out the main elements needed to make the story work in the short time-frame. Some of the best jokes are missing (the case in all adaptations of Pratchett’s work – whether live-action, or in the cringe-worthy cartoon versions), but that’s not a problem – Going Postal is still funny, wry, extremely watchable, and never dragged.


For those who buy the 2-DVD special edition, here’s a list of the extras/bonus content included:

•  Exclusive Terry Pratchett Introduction
•  Deleted Scenes
•  Blooper Reel
•  Image Gallery: props, set drawings, storyboards
•  Cast, Crew and Terry Pratchett interviews
•  Director audio commentary

A must-see for all fans of the Discworld novels, this is certainly the best adaptation thus-far, and is thoroughly entertaining. The cast, the writing, and also the production are superb – the attention to detail that has gone into making the set is phenomenal, and everything just works so well, bringing the Discworld vividly and realistically to life.

Adaptations always fall short of expectations, and will never be as enjoyable or as loved as the novels. Going Postal comes close, but still falls just short. That being said, I really hope they adapt the next Moist Von Lipwig novel (Making Money) in the near future. Or maybe the City Guards novels.

“Deadlock”, by Sean Black (Bantam)


A deadly mission uncovers a deadlier plot to sow the seeds of terror and anarchy in America.

The notorious California supermax State Prison at Pelican Bay houses three and a half thousand of America’s most dangerous prisoners. Three thousand, four hundred and ninety nine of them want the remaining inmate dead. Your job is to keep him alive until he testifies...

Elite bodyguard Ryan Lock and his trusted friend, Ty Johnson, have just become convicted felons, sentenced to twenty years in Pelican Bay. Or at least that’s what the FBI and the United States Justice Department want everyone to believe.

Their mission should be straightforward: to keep one man alive for one week. But the inmate, Frank ‘Reaper’ Hays, is a founding member of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, who’s about to give evidence against members of his own gang for the brutal slaying of an undercover ATF agent and his family. And just to make an already trying job next to impossible, Hays point blank refuses to go into protective custody. In a world dominated by violent gangs where alliances are constantly shifting and no one can be trusted, Lock knows that he faces the toughest assignment of his career — just to stay alive...

The second outing for Ryan Lock – all-round hero and bodyguard extraordinaire – sees him taking on a lethal job protecting the leader of a white supremacist prison gang. The job is only meant to last five days, but all plans have a tendency to fall off the rails, and this is no exception. Navigating the internal race-politics that characterise life in Pelican Bay is tough work, and Ryan and Ty don’t come away unscathed. After their job is done, they realise the real plot behind Reaper’s testimony, and eventually the deadly plans of a violent fringe group emerge, and Ryan must do everything in his power to prevent it.

Deadlock came at just the right time for me: I had recently watched The Shawshank Redemption and the TV series Prison Break, so the prison and escape premise appealed (of course, the more I read, the more it became clear that the job in Pelican Bay was just the tip of the iceberg). Also, because of other recent reading (No Angel) and viewing material (Sons of Anarchy), America’s scary fringe-criminals hold a certain peculiar fascination for me. So, it was a timely novel.

The novel has a very short preamble – within a few pages, Lock and Ty are entering the prison. This was a very good decision – Black has kept exposition and repeating the events of Lock Down to a bare minimum, allowing new readers to feel at home quickly, and adding nothing that might slow the exhilarating pace of the novel. In Deadlock, Black’s writing is even slicker than before, and I blitzed my way through this novel in just two sittings – even quicker than Lock Down, which was a pleasant surprise. This, in truth, is Black’s main skill – he has a screenwriter’s gift of and appreciation for pacing, feeding the reader just enough to keep them reading from beginning to end. It’s engrossing, so stripped and spare is his prose style.

The realism remains in his characters, and once again every one of them feels real and considered. The white supremacists aren’t cartoony – rather, they are pretty damn scary. If real neo-Nazis are this clever and well-organised, then America is looking like a pretty scary place. There’s a little less humour in this novel, which matches the grim situations Ryan and Ty find themselves in. There is, however, a great scene that distils everyone’s frustrations with US Transport Security Agency ‘protocols’ at airports, and Lock handles it in the way I’m sure everyone wishes they could. In an example of Black’s wry characterisation, here’s how he describes the Aryan Brotherhood’s leadership:

“They looked like the senior members of a Deadwood appreciation society who'd taken the construction of their respective personas just a little too seriously.”

Ryan Lock isn’t quite as perfect as he was made out to be in Lock Down, which was a blessing – he came across a little too sanctimonious and all-American in his debut. Carrie, on the other hand, was a disappointment, and perhaps the weakest character in the novel (odd, as she seemed well-constructed – if peripheral – in Lock Down). Their relationship feels a little strained, as if it was used to make Lock appear more human – when, in fact, his internal monologue, his actions, and his general world-view make him appear perfectly human.

It’s difficult to describe or locate this novel within the thriller genre without coming across condescending or derogatory. In many ways, Deadlock could be described as a “disposable thriller” or an “airport thriller” – it’ll keep you reading through a flight or long train ride, but won’t last much more than that. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – not every novel needs to be big enough to double as a weighty doorstop (indeed, nowadays it’s not common to find a crime thriller that nears 400 pages). For the author’s purposes, however, he has done an excellent job of streamlining his novel for maximum impact. I imagine this is almost how a novelisation of a series of 24 might read: there’s a prison break, a manhunt, a mole, and a violent ending.

Regardless of what label you wish to put on it, Deadlock entertained me from start to finish; the tension and the stakes are higher, and it’s very well written. If you’re looking for a quick, entertaining, action-oriented read, then Deadlock is a great candidate.

For Fans of: Joseph Finder, Mike Lawson, Vince Flynn, Andrew Grant, Lee Child, Chris Ryan, Kyle Mills, James Patterson, Harlan Coben

Friday, September 10, 2010

Gav Thorpe Beats Dan Brown!

Ok, this isn’t to say Gav Thorpe has been in a fight with mega-selling author Dan Brown. Rather, Thorpe’s audiobook, Raven’s Flight has outsold the audiobook of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. This is quite a feat for both the author and also a great coup for publisher Black Library.

Along with the Horus Heresy series making frequent appearances on the New York Times Bestseller list, this success a great development for the publisher.

Here’s an image of the sales tables:

201008 - AudiobookListings

So, Raven’s Flight sold 4,173 units, where The Lost Symbol sold 3,562. Not bad!

Congratulations to both Gav Thorpe and Black Library.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Upcoming: “The First Heretic”, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

The First Heretic is not quite ready for a review (it’s not released until November, so I’m saving it for next month), but the author has filmed a short video introducing and describing the latest instalment to the New York Times bestselling Horus Heresy series. After two exceptional titles – A Thousand Sons and Nemesis – there is a lot of expectation riding on The First Heretic, and I for one can’t wait to read it.

Anyway, here’s the video:

Also, because I can never resist including the great artwork Black Library gets for its novels, here’s the novel synopsis and art:

Amidst the galaxy-wide war of the Great Crusade, the Emperor castigates the Word Bearers for their worship. Distraught at this judgement, Lorgar and his Legion seek another path while devastating world after world, venting their fury and fervour on the battlefield. Their search for a new purpose leads them to the edge of the material universe, where they meet ancient forces far more powerful than they could have imagined. Having set out to illuminate the Imperium, the corruption of Chaos takes hold and their path to damnation begins.
Unbeknownst to the Word Bearers, their quest for truth contains the very roots of heresy…
With any luck, I’ll get to this novel very soon. The Horus Heresy novels, as I’ve said many times on this blog, are just getting better and better. If you haven’t read them yet, then I strongly advise you to start!
The next Black Library review will be for Nathan Long’s Zombieslayer, the next instalment in the Gotrek & Felix Warhammer series.

“Fear the Alien”, edited by Christian Dunn (Black Library)


Here come the aliens! A selection of stories dealing with the future alien menace faced by Man in the Grim Far Future

The Imperium of Man has many enemies among the stars, but none are reviled so much as the alien. Dangerous races seek to destroy humanity wherever they turn –the brutish Orks, the ravening hordes of the Tyranid, the unrelenting Necrons and the mysterious forces of the tau and the Eldar. Across the universe, humanity and their defenders, the Space Marines, seek to eradicate these xenos threats. Yet all they can hope for is another day of survival – for to stand against the alien is to enter an unending war...

Featuring stories by Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Nick Kyme, Juliet McKenna, C.L. Werner and many more, Fear the Alien is an unmissable collection for fans of Warhammer 40,000 and military science fiction.

Nothing characterises the Warhammer 40,000 universe more than the struggle between the Imperium of man and the hordes of aliens massing at and within its borders. In this anthology, we have ten short stories that focus on the theme of “alien” – whether in the guise of the truly alien xenos species that are a constant threat to mankind, or a general “otherness”, these stories all have something original to add to the existing literature set in the 40k universe.

All the stories are quite varied and different, so I’ve dealt with them individually. So, without further ado…


Dan Abnett, “Gardens of Tycho”

This was a fun short story, like a quick murder-mystery, with the feel of Bones if it was set in 40k universe. Drusher is a poor, put-upon academic, called in to help solve a string of brutal and messy deaths.

There’s a rather gentle pace to the story, and not exactly what you’d expect from an opening story to such an anthology, so maybe it should have been located later in the book? Still, it’s very well written and enjoyable, with well-constructed characters. I’d be interested in reading more stories (short or otherwise) about this character, though I’m not sure how it would be spun out to novel-length. A slow-paced opener, it’s definitely worth a read.

Juliet E. McKenna, “Fear Itself”

Tyranids, the most alien enemies to be feared… Catmos, an Imperial Guard medicae, finds himself on the frontlines, as endless swarms of alien killers hurl themselves at the Imperial positions. Catmos is left to deal with the leftovers, which when the Tyranids are involved, is sadly plentiful.

McKenna’s description of the tyranid beasties evokes a particularly frightening picture, and we get a good sense of the fear and despair the Guardsmen must feel from the seemingly unending tide of alien, living killing machines. It’s a little predictable, but then when dealing with these aliens, that’s sort of a given…

A good story, from an author I’ve never read before.

Nick Kyme, “Prometheus Requiem”

This story is a tie-in Kyme’s his Salamander series (which I sadly have yet to read). I rather enjoyed “Prometheus Requiem” – it’s one of the better novelizations of what I imagine a game of Space Hulk would feel like if narrated. Kyme’s got a good eye for atmospherics and putting them into punchy prose, and creates a real sense of menace and tension for the Marines on the hulk that I thought worked rather well.

The team of Space Marines is taken from a number of squads, it seems, and they don’t all get on very well. Makes for a tense working relationship, as well as some unhelpful baiting and contest between the battle brothers. It doesn’t help that many of them seem to be carrying some pretty heavy emotional baggage. I’d certainly be interested in trying his longer fiction, featuring the same Legion, if only to figure out a little bit more of what was mentioned in this story – there seemed to be a lot more going on than I caught (mainly in those moments when the ship’s warp-taint effects the Marines), based on what happened in the Salamander novels.

A solid story, and well written. It ties in with Dembski-Bowden’s contribution to the anthology, too. (See below.)

Braden Campbell, “Mistress Baeda’s Gift”

This is a tale about a delightfully demented Dark Eldar lord (or “Archon”), trying to come to grips with and understand his love for a newly arrived lady. It’s an interesting short story, one that presents a totally different approach to love and relationships (the Dark Eldar understanding of ‘love’ is based around possession and domination), in the perspective of a race that welcomes pain and agony, prioritising dominance and ownership above all else. It’s pretty well written, too. The courting rituals of the Dark Eldar are not for the faint of heart, the social mores very different from our own high-society traditions. Malwrack’s obsession leads him down a dangerous path, as he keeps trying to win her attentions.

It’s Jane Austen, if she wrote on crack and was into domination... Given his good writing style and the demented characters he can write, I’d certainly be interested in reading more from Campbell, whatever length.

C.L. Werner, “Iron Inferno”

After a brief intro written from the perspective of an Imperial Guardsman officer planning his defences, this story switches to the ork point of view. Thankfully (some might say mercifully), the dialogue is not scripted; this could have become tedious and irritating very quickly. Instead, Werner manages to portray the ork kommandos’ actions, orders, and mindset brilliantly in the third person and internally.

Basically, for orks, it’s all about being and acting tough and, of course, fighting. A lot. For the orks’ smaller cousins, the gretchin, it’s about survival and not taking more beatings than absolutely necessary.

It’s a good, very short story, about the folly of man’s propensity for projecting one’s own beliefs, temperament and psyche onto something utterly alien. (Interestingly, it alludes to, in a very minor fashion, an enduring dilemma in the study of international relations.) The story manages to raise a few smiles without detracting from the moment (including, for example, a very brief explanations of why they were all wearing red boots – as everyone knows, red ones are faster). Simple touches like this will appeal to those familiar with Warhammer 40,000 orks, but also won’t lose newcomers to the universe and setting.

Mark Clapham, “Sanctified”

An enginseer, in his mechanical, calm and logical manner, comes into contact with xenos for the very first time. On his own, Kaspel has to expel an invading band of Dark Eldar, lest they cause any more damage to or violations of the Imperial cruiser and its technology that he has been tasked to repair.

It’s a strange perspective – the clinical enginseer, peeved more at the alien technology than the actual fact that they’re trying to steal the ship, or here in the first place. While the Dark Eldar are, of course, sado-masochistic aliens, Kaspel’s perspective offers another ‘otherness’, as his approach is almost too calculating and clinical.

An interesting story, from an author I had not read before.

Matthew Farrer, “Faces”

I must sadly admit to being rather confused by this one. I wouldn’t even feel confident saying exactly what it was about. After finishing it, things become a little easier to understand, but Farrer’s approach to the enigmatic Eldar Harlequins matches the subjects themselves: ethereal and somewhat incomprehensible.

One of the Harlequins, it seems, possibly a psychic one, is struggling as its dreams begin to bleed into reality. I think if I could remember more of the background info on the Harlequins, this would be easier understood – I remember reading something about the dances and rituals these warriors perform to decide who plays which role in their troubadour-approach to war. It’s a little weird, anyway.

It’s a long story, one of the longer in the anthology, and perhaps this wasn’t the wisest move. It’s certainly well written, and Farrer’s adept at working Jann’s confusion into the narrative atmosphere. The style is very different from the Farrer’s better-known Shira Calpurnia novels which I’m more familiar with, so at least it showcases what the author can do.

Alien? Sure. Comprehensible? Um...

James Gilmer, “Unity”

Gesar, a Raven Guard Astartes (“a study in patience and potential violence”), is saddled with an Imperial Guardsman sniper, Tam. They have become separated from their respective forces, and are trying to find their way back. At the same time, they are up against the Japanese-/Oriental-styled, quasi-communist Tau and their allied corps of animalistic Kroot mercenaries and human traitors.

It made a nice change to have the Raven Guard as the featured Space Marines – it’s not a legion I’ve read much about (I would still like to know more about the original twenty legions, their primarchs and traits). There are two levels of alien in this story: first, and most obviously, Tam experiences the considerable ‘otherness’ of the Tau forces (and he really does experience it at the end); secondly, there is also his Raven Guard companion, so different physically and in temperament, that it would be almost impossible not to consider him ‘alien’.

The story is well-crafted and builds to a fine ending. Gilmer’s writing is great, reminiscent of thriller writers as much as sci-fi authors. Would be interesting to see what he could do with something novel-length.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden, “The Core”

I’ve really missed out by not yet reading Soul Hunter… In this story, a group of Night Lords Chaos Space Marines investigate a massive Space Hulk – it is the same as that featured in Kyme’s story (above). They are on a salvage mission, when they come face-to-face with the slumbering horde of Genestealers and the loyalist Salamander Space Marines.

The characters are quite varied – some disciplined and focused, others wild and addicted to the hunt. The Raptor squad in particular (Bleeding Eyes) were interesting, less human than the others, having become more animalistic as the decades have gone by. Even though they are battling genestealers (along with tyranids, the most alien creatures in WH40k universe), the Chaos Marines are themselves pretty alien.

Bowden’s writing is great, and the characters are certainly interesting and well-crafted. In just a short space, he is able to make us care for these characters, and despite their ‘traitor’ nature and Chaos affiliation, they are far from two-dimensional ‘baddies’. Talos is a particularly interesting character, breaking with the standard impression of what a Chaos leader might be like.

I really liked this story, especially because it tied into another in the volume. I would say this was probably my favourite in the book, alongside Abnett’s (though they’re quite different from each other). “The Core” just works on every level. Excellent story.

Andy Hoare, “Ambition Knows No Bounds”

An ambitious scion of an Imperial Rogue Trader clan stumbles across a Necron tomb, and decides to rob it.

The story has some classic tomb raiding elements to it, complete with hubristic protagonists, and an unerring (almost single-minded), all-too-human avarice (particularly at the end). The story’s pretty good, and quite atmospheric. There’s not much characterisation, but the members of Brielle's team are realistic and dedicated, and Hoare is certainly able to convey the tension and underlying, menacing atmosphere of the tomb.

Perhaps not the best close to the anthology, after the previous story, but it’s certainly a good addition and well worth reading.

*     *     *

All in all, this was an interesting anthology, with a couple of great stories. For me, it served as an introduction to some new authors writing for Black Library; as well as an intro to some more established authors I had yet to try out (Dembski-Bowden being the most notable and unforgivable oversight on my part). And, as always, it’s nice to read more work by Dan Abnett, C.L. Werner, and Matthew Farrer.

While not the best anthology they’ve ever published, this is still yet another solid release from the Black Library. These ten tales are great fillers for the time between novels, and also great vignettes set in the grim, war-dominated future. For those new to the setting, Fear the Alien is a great introduction to the species that populate the universe and how they effect the continued existence of mankind.

Good fun and varied, this is a recommended sci-fi anthology full of action and interesting characters.