Friday, December 26, 2008

“Coruscant Nights II: Street of Shadows”, by Michael Reeves (Arrow)


Jax Pavan and his compatriots return for a second outing

In this second installment of the Coruscant Night series, Jedis Jax Pavan and Laranth Tarak, now members of the underground rebel movement based on Coruscant, are pursuing a career in private investigation, along with the help of Den Daur and his near-sentient protocol droid, I-5. They are hired by Dejah Duare, assistant and partner of artist Ves Volette, to help uncover the truth of Volette’s murder. So far so good a premise – the idea of a classic PI novel, set in the Star Wars universe was very appealing. But, for some reason, this novel fails to truly satisfy.

It’s not the characters, as they are fine. The premise is a good one, helping to flesh out the time between Episodes III and IV, with plenty of exposition about Coruscant and background to the times. The rival strand of the novel, following the bounty hunter Aurra Sing, as she is hired by and takes on a job from Darth Vader, is very good, and at times a lot more interesting than the main strand.

What lets the book down, however, are two things. First, it’s the middle book of a trilogy, and not a very long one at that. It has the feel of too much filler, to get us from book one (Jedi Twilight) to book three (Patterns of the Force, out January 27th, 2009). This, to be fair, is an ailment that afflicts almost every second book in a trilogy. The second reason this book failed to truly grab my attention (though, after the rather long set-up, the second half of the book was very good), was because it felt rather over-written. For such a short book, this is a surprising thing to say. But there were plenty of sentences and exposition that just felt redundant – such as explaining certain elements of the Force, where everyone reading this novel will know that a Jedi has affinity for the force, so why tell us that Jax has this affinity, then, immediately after, tell us that Laranth does, too?

Perhaps I’m being harsh, having now become used to reading trilogies in one sitting, rather than reading them as and when installments are published. As I mentioned, this is a good book, only not as great as I would have hoped. The interaction between Den and I-5 is still interesting, and the droid is always good for some lighter moments – either when putting down a Coruscant CSI for asking pointless questions, or generally being fussy and completely un-droid-like. Jax’s specific connection to the Force also remains interesting, and we do get to know more about the main protagonists as the story progresses. Street of Shadows has plenty to offer fans of Star Wars, but perhaps the important content could have been incorporated into the first and final installments, and I would say this isn’t the best place for a casual reader of Star Wars fiction to start. (For that, I would recommend the X-Wing series and, especially, The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timpthy Zahn.)

With luck, Patterns of the Force will finish the series off well, indicating that Michael Reaves was not as the top of his game for just the one book (I’ve enjoyed his other Star Wars novels a great deal, and without exception; so Street of Shadows was surprising as a slight disappointment).

Monday, December 22, 2008

“The Judas Strain”, by James Rollins (Orion)


Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force team up with long-time rivals to help against a plague with no cure…

Secrets buried in jungle ruins, hidden in Vatican store-rooms, and an angelic language inscribed on an Egyptian obelisk… Things just keep getting more interesting for the Sigma Force, a sort-of paramilitary wing of DARPA, made up of highly educated (usually) ex-military types who are routinely dispatched around the globe to fight against looming scientific threats to civilisation, humankind, and so forth. To top things off, their nemesis, the shadowy criminal organisation known as the Guild, is after the same answers they are, only with far less altruistic motives, using far more brutal methods.

The Judas Strain surrounds the mystery of the contagion that afflicted Marco Polo’s crew when he returned from China, and the cryptic last line of his account (“I have not told half of what I saw”). It seems as though a super-virus is resurgent, reintroduced into the biosphere by a tsunami in East Asia, turning once-benign bacteria and organisms into lethal adversaries to everyone and everything.

Like all of Rollins’ novels, they are global in scope – the action takes place pretty much in all four corners of the globe (well, three of them, at any rate): we start in Venice, then on to Christmas Island, historic Turkey and Southeast Asia. Commander Pierce, joined by Vatican’s archive prefect Vigor Verona, and disgraced Guild operative Seichan, embark on a treasure hunt with truly world-threatening implications.

Filled with plenty of action, the occasional splash of light humour, great attention to detail (scientific, especially), and a well-developed skill at penning plots that will keep the reader with you (while suspending some belief), The Judas Strain is an entertaining action/adventure read that will, after just a slightly slow start, entertain you to the end.

Rollins is able to keep things interesting, writing the science much like the writers of the TV series House (I recognise necrotizing faciitis from the show…), giving enough to make it realistic without descending into turgid, dense over-explanation that would just bore the vast majority of readers, but still enough to ensure realism. The characters are believable and well-drawn, with only slightly over-done romantic feelings between a handful of the couples (I don’t know why, but all thriller writers make their characters overly emotional and soppy, when it comes to love interests - this especially means you, James Patterson...).

In an over-populated genre – and one that often can bore to tears as you read effectively the same story over and over – James Rollins stands out as an original voice, leading the pack. With the likes of Matthew Reilly and (early) Clive Cussler, you know that any book by James Rollins is going to be a thoroughly entertaining, action-packed read. As mentioned, this one is a little slower than normal to kick off, but once it does, the plot pulls you along with it, each thread of the story complimenting the rest, eventually pulled together in a very satisfying finale.

Interesting characters and an intriguing premise, all woven together by an author who really knows his business. Great fun.

For fans of: Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Will Adams, Matthew Reilly, Andy McDermott, James Twining, Steve Berry

Sunday, December 14, 2008

“Only In Death”, by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


The excellent, eleventh outing for Commissar Ibram Gaunt and his Tanith Ghosts

Dan Abnett’s writing (prolific as it is) has never failed to live up to expectations. From the quality on display in Only In Death, it’s also clear why the Gaunt’s Ghosts series remains the Black Library’s most popular and successful. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s perhaps one of only three of their series worth bothering with. The other two are Felix & Gotrek (fantasy, based in the Warhammer world) and the Horus Heresy series (a “historical” series based on the foundation of the Warhammer 40,000 universe – though, this has been rather disappointing of late).

Anyway, back to Only In Death. This time, Gaunt and his troops are far from the main battlefront in the crusade to liberate the Sabbatt Worlds, stuck on the fortress world of Jago, holed up in Hinzerhaus, an apparently haunted fortress. And then the enemy attacks…

As the Ghosts start jumping at, well, ghosts, Gaunt must keep his troops focused and on-mission. As always, the novel is told from a number of perspectives, including those of Gaunt, Dalin Criid (the son of two Ghosts, and the regiment’s first recruit-from-within) and his closest comrades, Viktor Hark (who’s having strange dreams), the reliable Larkin (who’s still slightly crazy, and coming to terms with his prosthetic leg – Gaunt cut off his real one in the previous novel, The Armour of Contempt), and a couple of other returning voices such as Varl (whose squad is perhaps the most amusing and quietly disobedient). The story is a slow-burning tale of suspense, brutal action and the classic theme of triumph-over-seemingly-unbeatable-odds, not to mention the Ghosts' continued streak of good luck.

Only In Death has the feel of a reliable friend; whenever you read a Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, there’s a comfort level that’s met – despite the situations Abnett puts his characters through. It’s a bit like re-watching The Matrix trilogy (if it was grittier, with a more fulfilling end): you know they’re going to win, but you also know that not everyone’s going to make it. Abnett’s still as talented as ever, this time writing a novel that is more suspenseful and creepy, though still with plenty of action. His ability to set a scene, create just the right atmosphere and believable characters (who speak in realistic dialogue), and keep the reader interested and turning the pages remains intact (perhaps even unsurpassed), and it’s not difficult to see why this series is so successful. Abnett’s distinct humour runs throughout, particularly in the patter between the troops; you’ll be amused plenty of times, though this isn’t intended to be a comedy, so don’t expect laugh-out-loud moments. Only In Death is a lot more suspenseful than the previous novels, which have usually been far more action-oriented.

If you haven’t read the rest of the series, then I’d recommend you do so before you read this. Not because you’ll be totally lost, but while these work as stand-alone novels, they are far more rewarding when read within context of the whole series – you’ll also find it very difficult not to get attached to the characters, which only gives the series and Abnett’s stories that much more impact. A return to form after a less-than-exceptional (though still very good) run. Here’s to hoping that Blood Pact, the next in the series (out May 2009), continues in such a good vein.

Top-quality sci-fi done right.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Best Fiction Releases of 2008

As it now seems to be an obligatory exercise for review sites and magazines, I thought I’d just provide a short, Top-10 list of the best fiction (from all genres) that were released in 2008. It’s been an excellent year for fiction, so it wasn’t easy to narrow it down to just ten, but I think I’ve managed to present a balanced and fair selection of this year’s finest. Finding a single novel as the tenth was impossible, so I’ve included three notables for my final selection:

1-3. Brent Weeks’ The Night Angel Trilogy (comprised of The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge and Beyond The Shadows). They take the top spot because they fulfill every criteria that goes into making an excellent read: plotting, characterization, pacing, interest, style, imagination and originality. Weeks does this while also side-stepping or completely avoiding criteria that would have ruined this series (cliché, needless exposition, and - as it’s fantasy – over abundant use of ridiculous, made-up words). A stunning achievement for a first time author. (Orbit Books)

BrentWeeks-WayOfShadows BrentWeeks-ShadowsEdge BrentWeeks-BeyondTheShadows

4. David Baldacci’s Stone Cold. Oliver Stone and the Camel Club return for their third novel, and this time they’re up against two frightening enemies, each with completely different motives and goals, all of which place our intrepid cast in serious danger. It also has a great closing scene which sets up beautifully for Divine Justice, which was released this year, but I haven’t managed to get reviewed yet. (Pan Books)

5-6. Jason Pinter’s The Mark and The Guilty. Just released this year through MIRA, these are the first two outings for new New York journalist hero, Henry Parker. Blending deft, tight plotting with great characters (even if the romantic scenes are a touch cliché and too-sweet), Pinter has proved with these that he’s a thriller writer to keep a very close eye on. (MIRA Books)

Baldacci-StoneCold Pinter-TheMark Pinter-TheGuilty

7. Brett Battles’ The Cleaner. Ticks all the boxes for making an excellent international thriller: betrayal, action, revenge, realistic dialogue and plotting, the occasional moment of levity. Highly recommended, and yet another author to watch closely. (Preface Publishing)

8. Richard North Patterson’s The Race. The most timely of American political thrillers from one of the most gifted author in the genre. Covering a fictional Republican Party primary season (in itself noteworthy, considering the Democrat-as-protagonist bias in political fiction), The Race is filled with plenty of social and political commentary, disguised as a gripping, well-paced thriller novel. Measured arguments (from both sides of the political spectrum) make this far from an opinion piece, but also provides plenty to make the reader think. (Pan Books)

9. Troy Denning’s Invincible. The final volume in the Star Wars: Legacy of the Force series, this brings all the plot-strand together into an explosive (and surprisingly, graphically brutal) conclusion. At the same time, it leaves the series wide open, as it’s not clear how things will proceed from here, or how main characters will recover from their various ordeals. (Well, ok, it actually is: Millennium Falcon is out now, and a new series follows, called Fate of the Jedi – with luck, we’ll be able to bring you reviews of these as they become available). (Arrow Books)


10. John Sandford’s Phantom Prey (Simon & Schuster); Mike Lawson’s Dead on Arrival (Harper Collins); Terry Pratchett’s Making Money (Corgi)

Sandford-PhantomPreyLawson-DeadOnArrival TerryPratchett-MakingMoney

Monday, December 08, 2008

“Shadow’s Edge” & “Beyond The Shadows”, by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

BrentWeeks-ShadowsEdgeFantasy’s best newcomer dazzles again with two more impeccable novels.

The final two installments in Brent Weeks’ exquisite Night Angel Trilogy arrive, and prove that he is a new master of the fantasy genre . While no review can truly do this series justice, here’s my humble attempt:

Having been completely blown away by The Way of Shadows, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the conclusion to the fantasy series. And in these two novels, Weeks has not only built on the superb world he’s created, but exhibited exceptional skill as a master storyteller.

Shadow’s Edge picks up about a week after the close of TWOS, as Kylar, Elene and Uly (the secret daughter of Kylar’s master Durzo and Cenaria’s head Madam, Momma K) prepare to leave their now-occupied city. They hope to start a new life together in Caernarvon, a city that is positively tame compared to the brutal districts of Cenaria. Many of the characters who survived The Way of Shadows make an appearance here, though not always in the situations one might imagine. The novel can be split into two parts; the first comprised of Kylar and Elene’s attempts at normalcy, struggling with the issues that effect most young couples (complicated, of course, by their unusual upbringings). We also find Kylar still struggling with himself, trying to find a balance between the man he is and the man Elene wants him to be; should he give up his nature to pursue a peaceful family life, or should he give in to his flair for destruction, embracing his identity as the Night Angel? In the second part of the novel, Kylar gives in to his destiny, accepting a contract to rescue his best friend, Logan Gyre, who he believed dead at the hands of the Godking, the tyrant who decimated Cenaria’s defences and ruling class. Logan has been existing in The Hole, the worst jail imaginable, struggling to stay alive amongst the worst Cenaria has to offer. We also get a shocking cliffhanger ending that will force you to buy the final installment of the series…

Beyond the Shadows follows briskly BrentWeeks-BeyondTheShadowson from the events of Shadow’s Edge, in the wake of Cenaria’s resumption of control of their city. The situation in Midcyru is coming to a boiling point. As the Godking’s armies are sent into retreat, other forces converge on Cenaria’s battered citizenry and threadbare army. Khalidor is thrown into civil war as the Godking’s vicious heirs try to wrest control for themselves, eventually falling into the hands of an unsuspected heir. Kylar continues to come to terms with his new immortality and its newly-discovered horrific costs, as well as the exhilarating boost in power that each death seems to bring him. His ultimate goal is still to install Logan on Cenaria’s throne, which is rightfully his but has been usurped by a power-hungry and Machiavellian new queen, using any and all means available to him, regardless of whether or not Logan’s morality can deal with the consequences. Culminating in an enormous battle (involving seven armies), Beyond the Shadows is a tour-de-force of fantasy, a true masterpiece that brings this series to an exceptional, explosive and in some ways surprising (though completely satisfying) close.

Throughout both of these novels, Weeks shows himself to be a writer of exceptional skill. Exhibiting a Talent for plotting, he reveals and introduces threads to the overall story that sometimes might appear unrelated to the main plot, only to be pulled together superbly at just the right moment, as myriad characters meet or collide, moving the plot along. The reader is kept guessing throughout, as it’s never obvious what twist the tale will take. Weeks manages to juggle the various groups of characters and story arcs beautifully, using the various strands to expand our knowledge and understanding of Midcyru – specifically its politics and magic – without getting bogged down with pace-shattering exposition.

With both volumes, I was hooked from the very first page. As with The Way of Shadows, they simply refused to relinquish their grip – I was consistently up until the wee hours, unwilling to leave this new world. There’s a word often ascribed to new computer games, “immersive”; the experience of reading this series could easily also deserve such a description, as the reader is swept up in the tale. Despite my desire to discover what happens to the cast, I also never wanted the story to end. With such compelling characters and story-telling, coupled with Weeks’ fast-paced and action-packed sequences, it’s nigh-on impossible to put these books down.

With prose that occasionally border on lyrical (in a good way), The Night Angel Trilogy is a delight and pleasure to read. Unforgettable characters, an intriguing new fantasy world, awesome action, a twisting plot and broad scope (the entire series covers well over 10 years of Kylar’s life), and superior story-telling make this easily one of the best fantasy series… well, ever.

Addictive, phenomenal, essential. Brent Weeks is clearly one of fantasy’s new masters, and the Night Angel Trilogy is easily my pick for best of the year.

For fans of: Alan Campbell, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Richard Morgan

Friday, December 05, 2008

“Poison Study” & “Magic Study”, by Maria V. Synder (MIRA Books)

Snyder-PoisonStudyThe first two novels in a compelling new fantasy series

Poison Study: Yelena has a choice: be executed for murder, or become food taster to the Commander of Ixia. The story then follows her journey from prison cell to her new role as first-defence against assassination attempts. She leaps at the chance for survival, but her relief may be short-lived. Life in the palace is full of hazards and secrets. Wily and smart, Yelena must learn to identify poisons before they kill her, work out who she can trust, and spy on those she can’t. Who is the mysterious Southern sorceress who can read her mind? Things get even more dangerous when Yelena realises she has magical powers of her own, for using magic in Ixia is punishable by death…

I couldn’t put this book down. Sarcastic and troubled, Yelena is far more than a one dimensional character, and is proactive in determining her own fate, making her an appealing and complex character. Throughout the novel, Snyder constantly teases the reader with glimpses of her past, forcing you to piece it together slowly. Yelena’s world is intricately realised, particularly, and appropriately for a food taster, the smells and flavours she encounters. The developing relationship between Yelena and Valek is sharply observed, in a book in which no character’s intentions are clear. Snyder keeps us guessing right up until the final page. A gripping read.

Snyder-MagicStudy Magic Study: In this eagerly-anticipated sequel to Poison Study, Yelena has returned to Sitia and been reunited with her long-lost family. However, she doesn’t fit in, and her brother is less than delighted to see her again, resenting her return to the family. She also needs to learn to control her magical powers, before she accidentally blows herself (and others) up. And there’s also the small matter of the order for her execution in Ixia. So Yelena travels to the Magicians Keep to begin her apprenticeship. But trouble keeps on following her. As she struggles to understand who and what she is, a rogue magician is abducting and killing girls, and it looks like Yelena is next on his list.

Magic Study is just as gripping as its predecessor. Yelena is a thoroughly modern heroine who battles magicians but also worries about relating to a family she hardly knows. The action is fast-paced and full of twists and turns, and Snyder delights in turning the reader’s preconceived opinions about her characters upside down. A fairly large cast of characters is kept firmly in check, and again her flair for description illuminates the differences between the countries and people of Sitia and Ixia. Part adventure, part detective story as Yelena and the other magicians race against time to find the killer, Magic Study will keep you spellbound. Highly recommended.

With such good plotting, quality writing, and a superb new heroine, Poison Study and Magic Study mark the beginning of something great from a promising new voice in fantasy fiction.

The journey concludes in Fire Study, which is out through MIRA books in January 2009 (we will bring you a review of this, too).

Reviewed by Emma Newrick