Sunday, December 20, 2009

“Pursuit of Honor”, by Vince Flynn (Simon & Schuster)


Rapp faces terrorists loose in the US, a CIA mole, and a hostile political climate

Pursuit of Honor picks up six days after the events that brought Extreme Measures to a close: A series of explosions has ripped through Washington, D.C., targeting the National Counterterrorism Center and other government officials – and, as a result of a particularly evil tactic, the attacks have killed almost 200 people, including public officials, CIA employees, and rescue workers. It was an act of considerable violence that calls for extreme measures in response from elite counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp and his trusted team member and protégé, Mike Nash.

Now that the initial shock of the attack has passed, key Washington officials are up in arms over whether to go after the agents who put their lives on the line and stepped into the path of the enemy’s bullets, saving countless American lives, without any thought of potential legal consequences. Not for the first time, Rapp finds himself in the infuriating position of having to explain the realities of national security to career politicians whose comfortable view from the sidelines is inevitably obstructed and heavily influenced by their own parochial, electoral and media concerns. On top of this, someone is leaking secrets about CIA operations to the press and elected officials, both intent on making the most of their big scoops, and putting Rapp and his team in the spotlight – as scapegoats if possible – right in the middle of the “blood sport” that is D.C. politics.

Meanwhile, three of the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the attacks in D.C. are still at large, holed up in an isolated part of Iowa. Rapp and his team have been unofficially ordered to find them by any means necessary. Cracks are opening in the relationship between the terrorists – one, a well-educated and –travelled man, other other a blinkered, rash zealot without a clue about the real world, having spent too much of his life being brainwashed in a Madrasah.

All is not well, however, when Rapp sees that Nash is cracking under the pressure of the mission, the memories of what he witnessed during the terrorist attack haunting him. To save his friend and calm the naysayers on Capitol Hill, he makes a decision to push Nash temporarily out of the main action; to get his head straight before it’s too late, and to protect his family life. Nash seems to have been brought into the series to serve as Rapp’s conscience or moderating influence – he’s younger, more idealistic, and certainly less of a loose cannon.

Pursuit of Honor has a slower start than previous Rapp novels. Rapp comes across as more introspective and perhaps even nostalgic, as he reminisces about his training and his murdered wife, Anna Reilly. Despite this change in pace, the author’s prose is still extremely tight, and coupled with the excellent plotting, make for an engrossing and relatively-quick read.

A recent article in The New Republic, “The Beck Supremacy”, was about Pursuit of Honor and political thrillers as a whole. The author argued that the genre had been ‘hijacked’ by the right. While it is clear that Flynn leans right, he does not do so in a way that alienates centrist or left-leaning readers. In fact, like the best in his genre, Flynn is able to make all sides of any argument that crops up in his novels sound pretty reasonable, avoiding any temptation to make his characters come across like buffoons or two-dimensional. Flynn is not quite as good at this as Kyle Mills, but it must be said that Mills has an exceptional talent for this.

[More on this can be found here.]

Flynn makes frequent reference to “the opportunists on Capitol Hill” who think the CIA is the “fascist wing of the American government”, but (justifiably) pulls no punches when taking a look at Congressional motives and methods, and his negative opinions of Capitol politics:

“this 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.”

A political thriller as political thrillers should be, Pursuit of Honor is one of the best novels of the year. Timely, engaging, well-crafted, and believable, there’s little more we could ask of any thriller author.

Highly recommended for all fans of thrillers and political novels.

For Fans of: Kyle Mills, Christopher Reich, Joseph Finder, Tom Clancy, John Sandford, Daniel Silva, James Twining, James Patterson, Andrew Britton, Robert Ludlum, James Rollins, Matthew Reilly

(UK Cover : Released January 7th 2010)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

“The Associate”, by John Grisham (Arrow)

Grisham-TheAssociateBlackmail and Corporate Espionage in the Big Apple, and a law-grad in over his head

Kyle McAvoy is one of the outstanding legal students of his generation: good looking, a brilliant and driven legal mind, and a future of endless possibility ahead of him.

He also has a secret from his undergraduate days, a secret that resurfaces and threatens to destroy his fledgling career even before it’s begun.

Kyle is confronted with a compromising video of the incident that haunts him. The men who show it to him make it clear to Kyle that they now control his future - that he must do as they tell him, or the video will be made public.

Strangely, the price they ask of Kyle is to do exactly what any ambitious young lawyer would want to do: take a job as a legal associate at the largest law firm in New York – a job that is fantastically well paid and, with mammoth hours and outrageous billing, could lead to partnership and a fortune. The catch is that Kyle won't be working for the firm, but against it – passing on secrets of the company's biggest trial to date to his blackmailers. The case is a dispute between two defence contractors, the outcome worth billions of dollars to the victor.

Kyle is caught between the forces manipulating him and the FBI, who would love to unmask the conspiracy. Will his intellect, cunning and bravery (and new-found love of spy-novels) be enough to save himself?

I’ve been a fan of John Grisham’s novels ever since I picked up The Brethren in New York. I burned my way through as many Grisham novels as I could lay my hands on. Most were excellent, gripping and entertaining (The Partner, The Broker, Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief – to name but a few). The occasional one or two weren’t (The Street Lawyer I had difficulty getting into, for example).

The Associate falls somewhere in the middle. Grisham’s writing is still superb, but this novel seriously falls down with the initial blackmail. The ‘evidence’ his blackmailers present Kyle with doesn’t implicate him at all. They even say so! The fact that Kyle agrees to do their bidding was ridiculous, and coloured my opinion of the book for quite a few more chapters. Such a clunky plot device from Grisham is especially disappointing.

After Kyle actually joins the firm in New York (which doesn’t happen that quickly), the novel improves a good deal, as our protagonist starts to think of ways to save himself. The interaction between Kyle and his handler is certainly interesting, as we get to see both sides of the bluffing – each thinks he has the upper hand by knowing something the other doesn’t, but it’s never entirely clear who really is in a better position.

A slower plot to unfold, and with a big problem at the beginning, The Associate is, nevertheless, a good read, and I found myself burning through the pages at a considerable rate, often reading well into the night and wee hours of the morning. There’s plenty of commentary on US legal practice and the life of law-graduates and the hellacious grind they’re put through upon taking a position at one of the mega-firms. The ending was sign-posted quite early on, and was a little obvious, but it’s still a good finish.

Not his best, but certainly still better than a lot of stuff out there. If you love Grisham already, you’ll certainly love this, reminiscent as it is of The Firm (in some ways, anyway).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Couple of Exciting Things That Arrived in the Post Today…

Mieville-TheCity&TheCityPBUKTwo interesting books arrived today in the post, both from Pan Macmillan. The first is the paperback of China Mieville’s The City & The City (left), which means I can finally get around to reading it myself (Emma has the hardback and should be getting me a review ASAP, so we’ll do a double if possible).

The second parcel that came in the post is something I had never even heard of. To begin with, it didn’t even look like a book at first. After tearing open the jiffy bag with the enthusiasm of a small child on Christmas day who’d just discovered coffee, this is what I found:

11122009176So far, so confused. I delved deeper into this shiny tin box…

11122009177Ah, now this is very interesting. Certainly one of the more interesting promotional items I’ve ever received. It’s the first book in Sam Fisher’s new action/adventure series, E Force. It’s described as “"Mainstream super hero action adventure with the appeal of Heroes, The X-Men and GI Joe.” So far, so very interesting.

I’ve got a couple of books now in this sort of genre (i.e. books described as being akin to X-Men), so I shall review them together – this one (State of Emergency) and also Ben Horton’s Monster Republic (Corgi):



Sunday, December 06, 2009

Coming Up in 2010…

Just an excuse for some more cover artwork on the site (and because I’m being painfully slow with reviewing of late), here’s a short list of fiction, sci-fi and fantasy titles that are hotly anticipated for next year (I’ll do a couple more posts like this as cover art becomes available ):



Buchanan-Farlander Butcher-5-PrincepsFury


Lynch-RepublicOfThieves Various-WarriorsUS Lachlan-Wolfsangel

Just a small selection, more to come. Hopefully complete with reviews, too.

Brent Weeks Returns (Well, Soon-ish)

Brent Weeks stormed onto the fantasy market last year with his Night Angel Trilogy (reviews here and here), which were in our top-ten best novels of 2008. So, this released cover image of his next book (perhaps tentative) is very exciting, if samey:Weeks-BlackPrism

Saturday, December 05, 2009

“Elfslayer”, by Nathan Long (Black Library)


The latest adventure from the Black Library’s oldest duo

Trollslayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his human companion Felix Jaegar reluctantly travel to the port city of Marienburg to fulfil a last request from Felix's dying father, hoping to save the reputation of the Jaegar family name. However, a chance meeting with their old acquaintance Max Schreiber (who was a recurring character earlier in the series, and a rival for another recurring character, Ulrika’s attentions) knocks them well off course, after an initial, disastrous attempt to fulfil their supposedly simple task.

Max, the Imperial wizard has been sent by his college to investigate some disturbing magical phenomena off the northern coast of the Empire. Bringing along with him an impressionable seeress, who immediately becomes infatuated with Felix (who doesn’t want her attentions, and keeps finding himself in situations resulting in a reprimand from Max).

Pretty soon, the heroic duo and their companions find themselves caught up in a deadly situation, with seemingly no escape. As enemies old and new keep cropping up, Felix and Gotrek face their latest, perhaps greatest adventure.

When the novel opens, Gotrek has descended further into an alcoholic slump, and Felix is spinning his heels, waiting for something to happen. It’s amazing how quickly one gets back into the swing of the series, familiarising ourselves again with the characters almost instantly. It’s a bit of a slow start, and it takes a long while for the elves to actually show up, but the novel takes some interesting twists and turns, and Nathan Long’s writing is solid throughout. There’s a little more delving into Gotrek and Felix themselves and how they’ve managed to survive so long, with barely any evidence of time affecting them. The jokes and quips are still amusing, adding a lightness to the novel that makes it all the more enjoyable.

It took me a long time to work my way through the novel, because of a number of unavoidable distractions, so it’s possible that I could have enjoyed it a great deal more had I had the freedom to just sit down and read it.

If you are a fan of the series, or Warhammer as a whole, then you should certainly enjoy this novel. The next in the series, Shamanslayer is already out, too, so you won’t need to wait at all for your next fix.

A solid addition to the series.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

“Triumff”, by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot Books)


It’s Abnett, sire, just not how we know him…

Sir Rupert Triumff: Adventurer, fighter, drinker, successful ladies-man. Could he also be the saviour of the Unity?

Triumff is a tongue-in-cheek historical fantasy set in a clockwork-powered version of our present day, predominantly in London, only things are very different indeed. Currently ruled by Queen Elizabeth XXX, the sun has never set on the Elizabethan Age. After the Re-Awakening, magic is accepted as real, with the Church having moved to control it (naturally). Her Divine Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX rules over the Anglo-Hispanic Unity, a huge empire that has progressed little technologically – the magic has, effectively, taken the place of electricity and other technological advances. While the plebs might be happy to just live their lives, political intrigue, subterfuge, and backstabbing are rife in the upper echelons of society. Factions vie for ever-more control, power, and, of course, wealth. Even Triumff isn’t without a Ploy up his sleeve. As Triumff’s plans and those of a shadowy cabal of elite plotters collide, the streets of London start to ring with the sounds of violence.

Triumff is an amalgam of Flashman and Blackadder, in some ways - “seafarer, Constable of the Gravesend Basin and celebrated discoverer of Australia”. He is clearly a wastrel (we first meet him in a drunken duel), with a keen sense of self-preservation (an almost uncanny luck in this department); yet also fiercely loyal to Queen and country. It is another golden age of discovery and exploration, with huge fortunes ready to be made by those brave enough to venture forth and, ultimately, lay the seeds for conquer, plunder, and exploitation. As mentioned above, Triumff discovered Australia, which he hasn’t quite ‘finished’, thereby causing a whole host of problems for men who are chomping at the bit, ready to exploit the hell out of it. As Triumff drinks and brawls his way through the pages of this book, we see some truly unique fights (Public Baths, anyone?), which Abnett has always been skilled at writing.

This is a considerable departure from Abnett’s previous output. Having been a long-time fan of his Gaunt’s Ghosts series for the Black Library, I was interested to see what he might come up with when given complete free-rein and the opportunity to spread his own novelist’s wings.

The world he has created is an interesting one, and Abnett does an excellent job of realising it on the page. His inventions and creations within the world are also pretty interesting. For example, the all-purpose Swiss-army arsenal (the “Cantripwork Couteau Suisse”), is an inspired invention which adds frequent humorous asides as Triumff attempts to select the correct weapon for the latest scrape he’s managed to get himself tangled up in.

There are certainly absurdist elements to the novel (something that usually turns me off), but they are never over-done or excessive, providing just the right amount of oddity to intrigue without alienating the reader who might not think ‘humour’ begins and ends with Douglas Adams’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Abnett’s dialogue is frequently witty, sometimes daft, with some groan-while-you-smile puns. Even if the concept might be strange, the characters are well-created and written, with each complimenting the others, as well as fulfilling their roles perfectly. (Agnew, Triumff’s man-servant, reminds me a little of Wodehouse’s Jeeves.)

A difficult book to review, but one that is very enjoyable to read (after you get used to it being very different). If I had one criticism, it would the same as my criticism of Terry Pratchett’s early novels: it’s a little too joke-/pun-heavy. The exposition is understandably high, as Abnett introduces us to his new world, but while sometimes it can slow the plot (certainly at the beginning of the novel), it helps set the context very well. The present-day allusions are well-used and add a wry element to the storytelling.

Overall, not what I expected – but in a good way. Triumff is a swashbuckling adventure, in an alternative universe, which will entertain, amuse and engage the reader. It will certainly be interesting to see where the author takes the series in the future.

If you want something a bit more fun, something that takes itself and the genre a lot less seriously, Triumff comes highly recommended.

For Fans of: Joe Abercrombie, Blackadder, Terry Pratchett, George MacDonald Fraser, Douglas Adams, Michael Rubens

Monday, November 09, 2009

“Unseen Academicals”, by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday)


Football Comes to the Discworld, and something strange is afoot…

I suppose it was inevitable, but football has finally come to the ancient city of Ankh-Morpork. This is not the old fashioned, violent, grubby, pushing-and-shoving football. No, this is a new, faster football. There are proper goals, a new football that beguilingly goes ‘gloing’ when you drop it, and soars through the air, unlike the rock-solid old type which broke feet and heads equally.

Because of an obscure, old bequest made to the Unseen University (Ankh-Morpork’s school of Wizards), the wizards must win a football match, without using any magic. Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully delegates the organisation and training of UU’s team (much like he delegates everything else) to Ponder Stibbons who holds, by his own reckoning, the majority vote on any University Council meeting he must decide to hold (simply because he fulfils so many positions within the university).

The prospect of the Big Match draws in a myriad of characters from the streets of Ankh-Morpork and also the servants quarters of the University. Trev Likely, a street urchin with a talent for kicking a tin can; Glenda, who makes lots of jolly good pies for the Wizards; Juliet, Glenda’s dim but beautiful young colleague in the Night Kitchen (with an awful, Holly Golightly accent), who might just turn out to be the greatest fashion model there has ever been. And then there is the mysterious, erudite, and eternally eloquent Mr. Nutt. No one knows much of anything about Mr. Nutt, not even himself, worryingly. All he knows is that he must attain worth, and can do pretty much anything. Then Ponder Stibbons asks him to help with the football preparations…

Unseen Academicals, the 37th Discworld novel, is a wonderful return to Unseen University. After a considerable absence, it was nice to finally be among the wizards again. The faculty continue to amuse, parodies as they are of university Dons and Fellows. Even poor Rincewind – the star of the first handful of Discworld novels, as well as others – who, as the new “Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography” has “no students and no real duties other than to stay out of trouble”. The whole cast of them remains wonderfully inept and food-obsessed. Add to this the fact that the Dean has moved on to head a rival university, and tensions (not to mention Ridcully’s blood-pressure) are high. I was disappointed that they seemed to fade a bit out of the story in the second half, though.

The cast below-decks – Trev, Glenda, Juliet, and Mr. Nutt – provide a different approach to Unseen University, as we are given a glimpse into how things actually work, and what sort of people keep the place running. Each character is different and very well rounded. Nutt, especially, is one of the best additions to the Discworld in a long time (though, Moist Von Lipwig is pretty great, too).

I laughed a lot more while reading Unseen Academicals than I remember with some of the more recent Discworld novels. However, the plot didn’t seem as gripping as some of his previous Discworld outings. There’s a lot going on, for sure, but the story doesn’t move along at the sort of pace we’ve become used to with Pratchett’s writing. This might have something to do with the increased frequency with which we switch between perspectives, and the number of people’s eyes we see through. The characters remain intriguing and interesting – the Patrician and Librarian remaining two of the best characters ever created, by anyone. The dialogue is sharp and amusing throughout (his social commentary, certainly with regards to football fans, remains very keen also), filled with clever allusions and puns that will make you chuckle knowingly.

All in all, not one of the best Discworld novels, but Pratchett remains a superior author even with his ‘off’ days. Unseen Academicals will entertain you throughout – and that’s all we can ask from one of the UK’s greatest living writers.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

“Blood Pact”, by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


Far from the Front, trouble comes for the resting Tanith First & Only

Kicking their heels on Balhaut, far from the warfront, the Tanith First & Only are awaiting their next deployment. After the bloody events of Only In Death, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt is recovering well, and getting used to his augmetics. While he finds himself slipping with ease into the easier life away from battle, the same cannot be said for his men: masters at war, unequalled in their given specialty (infiltration, scouting, and so forth), it turns out they don’t do well as a garrison force. As Commissars Hark and Ludd (Gaunt’s junior officers) discover, the more time spent with nothing-in-particular to do only makes restless Guardsmen go crazy, pushing the envelope and boundaries of what is allowed from Imperial forces.

All is going moderately well until Gaunt is called in by Section (the HQ of the Commissariat on Balhaut) to take part in the interrogation of a high-level prisoner. As events escalate to violence, Gaunt must navigate through the web of intrigue (on both sides of the conflict) to discover just what is so valuable about the prisoner’s knowledge. Without knowing who can be trusted, he has to rely on his wits and a small core of the Ghosts to survive and get to the bottom of things. The legacy of the Gereon campaign (in Traitor General and The Armour of Contempt) makes him distrusted by his superiors, and the Inquisition is sniffing about the Ghosts, looking for anything damning. Gaunt just needs to stay alive, keep his prisoner from being killed, and discover the truth that, supposedly, could help decide the fate of the Crusade. As Gaunt hunkers down, the various factions looking for him and his companions draw nearer, culminating in an explosive finale.

Each new Gaunt’s Ghosts novel is an event. Each time Abnett turns his attention back to Gaunt and company, he goes some way to reimagining the science-fiction war novel. He has been referred to as the “master of war”, which is a pretty good description: no other author can bring you into the mindset of the grunts on the ground, while retaining a keen eye on characterization, character development, and superb story-telling. Whenever there is a switch in perspectives, you really get a sense of the person’s character and voice. The author manages to keep things fresh and exciting each and every time (the only novel of his that I couldn’t really get into was Double Eagle, a stand-alone).

For Blood Pact, things are a little different in terms of style. For one, it’s is a slower novel, with the action only really starting quite a way into the book. The novel has a more thriller-feel to it, as he slowly unravels the story for the reader. From the very beginning, I was hooked by the story (it can sometimes take a couple of chapters for me to become truly taken with Black Library releases), and the plotting is expertly crafted for maximum effect. There’s a fair amount going on in every chapter – and, if it’s been a long time since you’ve read any of the previous Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, it might take a moment to remember who all the characters are – but the pace is balanced and there is never a lull in the story.

The second big departure is the more nuanced approach to the Imperials and Chaos/Archenemy forces. The Blood Pact soldiers of the title aren’t portrayed as mindless minions – rather they are presented in a more three-dimensional manner. Eyl in particular is a clinical, sociopathic adversary for Gaunt, frighteningly focused, with the perspective of a true believer. That the Imperials have taken an agent of Chaos prisoner, rather than execute him on the spot is also a new take on the galactic crusade that forms the backdrop of the whole series, and allows the author to take a look at the Imperium’s approach to non-combat warfare. Indeed, the author’s approach to the whole Warhammer 40,000 universe feels very different from other authors who take up the task of writing about it – things are more nuanced as a whole, deeper, and often far more intelligent and original, relying more on his own imagination than the information and background laid out by the army books. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if Abnett’s novels have gone a long way in redefining the universe he writes about.

Abnett’s sense of humour comes through well, without coming across as forced or out of place – it is almost Pratchett-esque, made up as it is of amusing asides and sarcastic remarks, slightly impish in nature; the interactions between different troopers and members of the regiment, as well as Ayanti Zweil and Dr Kolding adds further colour to the novel. Considering it’s set in a fictional future, it all feels very realistic, and Abnett’s skill at writing characters will make you care about each and every one of the Ghosts.

It’s difficult to go into much detail about the book without ruining the story, so I won’t go into the plot any more. Needless to say, Abnett has written another winner – perhaps the best so far – and any fan of his writing should snap this up ASAP. His writing is broad in scope, with a keen eye for human nature and the effects war can have on someone – not to mention the effects of reentry away from the battlefield.

Blood Pact should definitely appeal to readers of the Black Library’s wider catalogue, but also to fans of science fiction as a whole. Abnett’s noir-tinged war tales are exciting, engaging, and far more enjoyable than anything else in this genre. I also can’t help thinking that this is how good the writers of Battlestar Galactica wish their show had been (I was not a fan).

Military sci-fi at its peerless, superior best. Highly recommended.

Series Chronology: First & Only, Ghostmaker, Necropolis, Honour Guard, The Guns of Tanith, Straight Silver, Sabbat Martyr, Traitor General, His Last Command, The Armour of Contempt, Only in Death, Blood Pact

Abnett’s Other WH40K novels: Eisenhorn Trilogy, Ravenor Trilogy

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Angry Robot eBooks!

Just a quick news flash: Angry Robots, the new imprint from Harper Collins, dedicated to releasing slightly more… esoteric fiction has made some of its titles available as eBooks in the UK!

They can all be found through a simple search on Waterstone’s website, but here are the covers of those currently available:

AngryRobotReleasesBest of all, they are all competitively priced, more in the range that many people would hope eBooks would be priced. No idea if this is just an initial, introductory price, though.

Reviews of Kell’s Legend, Angel of Death, and Nekropolis are in the works – there was no way I was passing up the offer…

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

“The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown (Random House)


Mr. Langdon goes to Washington

Much has been made of this novel’s release in the press, so allow me just a quick run-down of what this novel is actually about (which is usually forgotten amid all the hype):

Robert Langdon has been called to Washington, D.C., through a ruse put into place by our antagonist, “Mal’akh”. Mal’akh, the overly-tattooed evil mastermind of the piece, has recently managed to become inducted into the highest ranks of the Freemasons, as part of his quest to uncover a hidden mystery and the legendary power that comes with solving it. This secret is protected by the Masons, which explains his obsession with Peter Solomon – one of Langdon’s best friends and mentor. As Mal’akh manipulates Langdon through a series of twisted and convoluted clues throughout Washington D.C., his attention is also drawn to Katherine Solomon’s work in neotics. Eventually, Langdon and Katherine are thrown together to solve the puzzle, and hopefully prevent Mal’akh from achieving his goal. All the while, other factions vie for control of the secret, and Langdon finds himself, once again, put in situations no mild-mannered professor would ever actively seek out…

So, that’s the plot, but is The Lost Symbol any good? Brown has a tendency to polarise the reading public – be it through his questionable use of science and mythology (which, actually, isn’t much different to many other authors, but the Vatican took exception to Brown’s work), or his less-than-stellar gift for prose.

The Da Vinci Code was a fair book, with some good ideas let down by his rather sophomoric writing style (I couldn’t get into Angels & Demons, more due to my mood at the time than any failing on Brown’s behalf). What surprised me the most when it came to reading The Lost Symbol is that it’s both a good book and much better written. The author has managed to speed up his prose, improve the dialogue (there weren’t anywhere near as many clangers this time around), and write another interesting and engaging plot. In fact, this book did exactly what a novel in this genre should do – it manipulated mythology and science, mashing them together to make something new and interesting, it was populated by interesting characters that weren’t totally one-dimensional, and it held my attention.

There is, however, one considerable failing here. Brown seems to have a need to explain everything. Nothing can be left to the readers’ imaginations. Some might say this is because Brown had a particular vision that he wanted to re-create in our minds, which is all well and good when describing something Langdon has to study in order to solve a mystery or puzzle (which Brown does). But, for example, when Mal’akh is just striding through his home, and we’re told he’s walking through a corridor filled with expensive Italian art, why does Brown need to then list a number of obscure pieces of art that (chances are very high) most of his readers won’t know? It feels like showing off, somehow. And consistently referring to a character by his entire title is just annoying (“CIA field agent…” every time!). I can’t believe Brown was paid by the word, but reading this you could easily be forgiven for thinking that. A book that is meant to span only a few hours shouldn’t ever feel drawn-out.

Anyway, those are small niggles, that reduced the impact of the novel by making it far longer than it needed to be. By streamlining the content, pruning back the exposition, The Lost Symbol could well have been nearly perfect – and I wouldn’t have frequently thought “get on with it!” while reading.

Many people will roll their eyes at the prospect of anyone enjoying this novel. Many will outright refuse to even contemplate reading it. Some might read it, enjoy it, but not admit it to their friends and peers. These people are all missing out. Brown’s novels do exactly what they are supposed to do: entertain. The overdone and exaggerated reactions to Da Vinci Code are addressed in passing at the start of Lost Symbol, as Langdon comments on his surprise at the ferocious response to his work: “Scandal wasn’t my intention”, he tells a fan.

I enjoyed this novel, and if you have even a passing interest in novels that delve into science and mysticism, then The Lost Symbol will likely be right up your street.


Also try: Matthew Reilly, James Twining, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, Tom Grace

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

“The Spire”, by Richard North Patterson (Henry Holt/Macmillan)


Death and trouble on campus…

The story of Mark Darrow’s youth is a classic overcoming-hardship tale, complete with academic mentor and football scholarship.

He’s from an extremely poor area in Ohio, playing football to escape his life, when Professor Lionel Farr steps into his life and offers him the chance to go to Caldwell College – to become something more than a manual labourer or factory worker. The chance to really make something of his life. Darrow, taken in by Farr’s family life and what he sees on a visit to the campus (the professor has him over for dinner), decides he wants more from life and applies himself to his studies. So far, so up-from-your-bootstraps.

However, during his time at Caldwell, there is an accident after an alcohol-and-drug fuelled fraternity party, involving a black girl and one of Darrow’s best friends, Steve Tillmann. She is found dead at the foot of the Spire, which dominates the college aesthetic and mythology. As police investigate, Mark does everything he can not to implicate his friend, but the evidence (such as it is) mounts up and Steve is sent away for life without possibility of parole.

Sixteen years pass by, and Caldwell is in trouble again; this time, the college is suffering from an embezzlement scandal, after former president Clark Durbin appears to have siphoned off nearly a million dollars into a Swiss bank account. Farr approaches Darrow, now a highly successful trial lawyer in Boston, to return to Caldwell as its new president, in the hope of reviving the college’s ailing reputation and finances. After returning to Caldwell, Mark finds himself pulled back into the investigation, unable to assuage his guilt for not helping his friend at the time. The further he delves into the evidence and testimonies, the more he is convinced Steve didn’t do it, and he sets out to prove it, while also juggling his busy schedule as college president.

As always, Richard North Patterson has managed to use real-life conditions (difficulties of a small academic establishment) as a vehicle to discuss American society, all wrapped up in a perfectly-written thriller package. While the story of The Spire isn’t as politically charged as his Kerry Kilcannon trilogy (No Safe Place, Protect & Defend and Balance of Power) or The Race, Patterson is still able to write a plot filled with social commentary (black-white relations in small-town America) while retaining the readability of the best thriller writers. He has been described as the ‘thinking-man’s thriller writer’, which I would certainly have to agree with.

I found myself blitzing my way through the story, so fluid and expertly crafted were his prose and plotting (one sitting kept me up until 4am, as I rattled my way through the bulk of the novel, finishing it this morning before work). In Mark Darrow we may have a pretty typical protagonist for this type of novel (not to mention highly unlucky in his personal life), but he is written sufficiently well that you won’t really mind. The relationship between Darrow and Farr is interesting, with the elderly professor clearly the only man Darrow feels the need to impress or please, and whose respect he needs. Sure, the situation is one of those idealistic mentor-pupil relationships, which are basically unheard of in reality, but again the story is written in a way that you don’t care about any of the slightly clichéd thriller tropes used within. Equally, the relationship that develops between Mark and Taylor (Farr’s estranged daughter) was a given, but again expertly written.

Patterson continues to write excellent novels, and while this doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by Balance of Power and reaffirmed by The Race, it is nonetheless a great and very enjoyable read throughout. The pace never slackens, and the writing is tight and gripping throughout.

Highly recommended to all fans of thrillers and intelligent writing.

For Fans of: Mark Gimenez, John Sandford, David Baldacci, Lee Child, Michael Connelly

Other Great Campus-Related Fiction: Stephen White, The Siege (2009); Philip Roth, Indignation (2009); Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2006)

The Spire will be released in the UK February 5th 2010 by Macmillan:


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

“Retribution Falls”, by Chris Wooding (Gollancz)


An excellent sci-fi adventure, from one of the world’s best authors in the field

Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, a ship he loves more than any man or beast. Accompanied by a small (and disparate, highly dysfunctional) band of vagabonds, he plies his trade on the wrong side of the law (but quietly, and in a fashion that is in no way flashy). An inveterate womaniser and rogue, Frey and his gang spend a lot of energy avoiding the heavily armed flying frigates of the Coalition Navy (not to mention any other police force they happen to be near – such as the celebrity-enforcers, the Century Knights). With their trio of ragged, yet expertly-piloted fighter craft, they run contraband, rob airships and generally make a nuisance of themselves without drawing too much attention to their activities or persons.

Following a hot tip about a ship carrying a cargo of valuables, Frey finds that he has been set up; what was supposed to be a routine piracy job (board, plunder, skedaddle) is anything but, and suddenly Frey has gone from ‘minor nuisance’ to public enemy number one. This is the story of Frey and his motley band of companions as they set out to discover who, and why, someone wants everyone hunting them.

This is my first novel by Chris Wooding, and it has been a revelation. The author’s imagination is a wonderful thing, and Retribution Falls benefits from Wooding’s ability to underline the action and contemporary sci-fi tropes with a deeper examination of his characters – be it Frey’s sociopathic and slight misanthropic tendencies, or Crake’s earnest concern for morality and his fellow men covering his own deep guilt over his past. Each character is the product of complex, difficult and varied pasts – the details of which are only alluded to, with ever more revealed as the story unfolds.

Frey and his crew’s adventures are a perfect way to introduce us to this new setting, and even when Wooding is providing some obvious exposition, it never detracts from the enjoyment of the novel, or the pace of the plot. In fact, his characters and his prose feel eminently natural and easy to read – a welcome change from some epic sci-fi/fantasy novels that are highly over-written – Retribution Falls has more in common with thrillers than its genre peers, when it comes to style (clipped, almost journalistic passages of clear prose).

Wooding’s plotting and characterisation are great – from the opening few pages’ Mexican stand-off, I was hooked, eager to read more of Frey and company’s exploits and (mis)adventures. A dark, mischievous sense of humour runs throughout the book, without overshadowing the more serious elements to the story. Each of the characters is considerably different, making this a varied and intriguing read, as the perspective switches (predominantly) between Frey, Crake, Jez, and other members of the crew – even the cat, Slag, is personified and provides some humour through his internal monologue and generally unpleasant outlook on everything. There’s a lot more going on in Retribution Falls than a mere futuristic piracy tale, yet it remains entertaining and addictive throughout.

It’s almost cliché to write so glowingly of this novel (just take a look at the book’s Amazon UK page), but Wooding is an exceptional author, and Retribution Falls is one of those rare books that makes you hate anyone who interrupts your reading it.

Very highly recommended, this is a great science-fiction novel, and certainly one of the best I’ve read this year.

For fans of: Firefly & Serenity

Monday, September 21, 2009

“The Drowning City”, by Amanda Downum (Orbit)


Politics, mercenaries, revolution, and restless dead...

Amanda Downum’s debut novel, set in the dangerous, dark alleyways of a port city on the edge of a corrupt empire, is an intriguing and promising series beginning from a gifted new voice on the fantasy scene; one filled with original takes on popular fantasy tropes, an eye for detail, and an excellent, evocative writing style.

Isyllt Iskaldur, our protagonist, must find and finance a growing number of rumoured revolutionaries in the city of Symir, a home to exiles and expatriates, smugglers and pirates. On behalf of her country, who fears the Emperor’s attention has turned northwards, with an eye to conquest, Isyllt must help the eclectically-mixed Symir people bring down their distant Imperial rulers. A necromancer and a spy, accompanied by two unfamiliar mercenaries, she must find a way to complete her mission, topple the palaces of Symir, and prove herself to the crown and her mentor, Kiril (who seems to be the real power behind the throne, as someone actually aware of the international political environment). But, in a land where even the dead are plotting (a great addition to the story), and revolutionaries are not all on the same page, Isyllt will be lucky to escape with her life intact.

The Drowning City is filled with very interesting and inspired twists on familiar and popular fantasy tropes. Necromancy, for example, seems to be far more related to ghosts and spirits, rather than reanimation and zombies (though possession remains a concern). Downum has created a very intriguing system of magic in general, too – it is more functional than flashy, and isn’t used as a plot crutch when things get difficult. Her characters are well-rounded and almost uniformly complex and slightly damaged, which makes for engaging dialogue and internal monologues, as well as hidden motivations. From Isyllt’s lack of self-confidence, Xinai’s ruthless hunger for revenge, and Adam’s wariness around Isyllt (not to mention the complicating relationship between Adam and Xinai), the cast of characters are interesting enough and complex enough to offer plenty of scope for later instalments of the series.

The world Downum has created is more Asian in style and influences, which makes for another inspired and refreshing difference, evocatively brought to life in her prose. All too frequently, fantasy authors will create their worlds around an Italian-city-state base, or medieval European (though, to be fair, authors like Scott Lynch do this very well indeed), which makes The Drowning City a breath of fresh air. As someone who has lived in a number of Asian countries (just as Downum has), I think the author has captured the feel and flavours of Asian cities and locales extremely well, expertly transferring them to her world.

So far, so good. Indeed, the author’s approach to the supernatural and occult is also original and very well done: ghosts, for example, are actually scary, vindictive and everywhere. Nobody seems to be safe from their attempts at mischief and/or violence towards the living – for this reason, the whole city of Symir is warded against spiritual incursions. If you are familiar with the TV series Supernatural, you will appreciate Downum’s approach to ghosts and beasties.

Downum’s plot and feel for political intrigue is assured and well-executed, making this a far more involved read than many fantasy novels. However, it is also where the book suffers. For an opening novel, The Drowning City is actually surprisingly short given the task Downum has set herself. Traditionally, fantasy series start with a mammoth tome (600+ pages – just look at Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamorra and Kevin J. Anderson’s The Edge of the World). Some find these unwieldy and slow – which is often a reasonable opinion. However, given the amount of information presented to the reader in opening chapters of The Drowning City, I can’t help wishing Downum had written a longer book, taken more time to outline the factions and nations involved – the first two chapters were far too loaded with names and information, without leaving much opportunity for it all to percolate into our minds before bombarding us with some more! A minor gripe, but I did find myself flicking back to the handy map at the beginning to make sure I was thinking of the right nation(s).

Needless to say, this is a great opening volume in a series that promises a great deal. I’d recommend you leave yourself a good solid amount of time (minus interruptions) to get your teeth stuck into this, as it is a rewarding and original fantasy. Political intrigue, idealistic (read “naive”) revolutionaries exploited as puppets for greater powers, and a cast of interesting and complex characters, make The Drowning City a very satisfying read.

Also try: Gail Z. Martin, The Chronicles of the Necromancer; Peter V. Brett, The Painted Man; Scott Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamorra; Brent Weeks, Night Angel Trilogy; anything by Maria V. Snyder; anything by Karen Miller; Chris Wooding, The Braided Path series

Thursday, September 17, 2009

“Emperor’s Mercy”, by Henry Zou (Black Library)


Behind enemy lines, Inquisitor Roth attempts to thwart the machinations of the Archenemy

Inquisitor Obadiah Roth and his band of henchman have been sent to the worlds of the Medina Corridor to investigate the motives of the invading Ironclads – an armada of Chaos raiders and traitors. Roth’s mission is to uncover the location and potential of a set of ancient artefacts, known as the Old Kings of Medina, infiltrating a number of worlds subjugated by Chaos. Meanwhile, the Ironclads have invaded the subsector in search of these artefacts, naturally ensuring that the Inquisition will do anything and everything to deny them this goal – even though Roth and his team know nothing of the whereabouts or characteristics of the artefacts. With the Ironclads' indomitable army crushing all before it, interference from the Lord High Marshall of the Medina fleet, and internal Imperial politics, will Roth be able to find the artefacts in time to prevent a cataclysm from engulfing the Medina worlds?

Henry Zou is one of the Black Library’s most-hotly-anticipated new authors, and this is his first novel for the publisher. Drawing on some of the standard tropes of Warhammer 40,000 novels, the action in plentiful and detailed, and the background politics and intrigue well-constructed. It is, however, a somewhat frustrating read.

Zou has an incredible imagination and, coupled with his knowledge of the military and combat (he’s in the New Zealand army) has created a series that is far more developed and original than most, while still faithfully set in the familiar WH40k. The worlds Roth is despatched to are well-formed, intriguing locales for his characters to explore and survive – Middle Eastern, Asian and other influences are on display, but with Zou’s original twist and merging of them all to create something truly unique and special. Roth and his team are an interesting, diverse selection of characters – huntsman Bastiel Silverstein, Roth’s oldest companion; untested fellow Inquisitor Celeminé, far deadlier than she appears; and Roth’s young adjutant, Captain Pradal. The Ironclads are a gruesome, brutal enemy for our protagonists, and they are well portrayed in Zou’s writing. This is also true of the action and battle scenes and sequences, which are well-paced and authentically written. The premise of the story made me want to snap this up as soon as I first read about it, with expectations of more in the vein of Dan Abnett’s Ravenor and Eisenhorn series – i.e. with a focus on individual Inquisitiors and their missions.

Why, then, is Emperor’s Mercy a frustrating read? Well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the author’s obsessive attention to detail makes the novel feel over-written, as he provides more than necessary (too much) to set his scenes. Zou seems to want the reader to see exactly what he saw in his mind when writing – an admirable goal, but an unrealistic one, which has this negative side-effect. This is not necessarily always a bad thing, but there are times when he lets the exposition run away from him, and it’s clear that his editor decided that streamlining of Zou’s prose was optional – sometimes, we don’t need everything described (especially weaponry). He would have done a better job if he’d reined himself in a bit, increasing the pace and in-turn increasing the tension and intensity. The dialogue, too, can sometimes feel a bit off. The second issue is, ironically considering the first, that Inquisitor Roth is never fully fleshed out in the novel. I assume we’ll get a little more character development over the course of the series (even though the next book, Flesh & Iron – out April 2010, is a prequel).

Despite these two points, Henry Zou shows a huge amount of promise to rise to the upper ranks of Black Library’s roster, maybe just behind Dan Abnett and William King – the best authors writing in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes (Nathan Long is getting a lot better, too). As a debut, Emperor’s Mercy shows a gifted author finding his feet, and I have no doubt that, over the course of his writing career, he will improve in leaps and bounds – if he can reign in the tautology, and keep his inventive premises, there’s no reason he shouldn’t become an essential read for wider sci-fi fans, too.

This review has a more-negative tone than intended: the novel contains quite a few flashes of genius (be they plot- or style-related), but there’s definitely a little way to go before Zou’s writing can really be considered ‘excellent’ or, given a little more time, ‘exceptional’.

An great new voice on the publisher’s roster, Zou’s writing will breathe some new life into the Warhammer 40,000 universe. A very promising debut, Zou is one an author to watch.

Also try: Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn and Ravenor series (available as omnibus editions); Sandy Mitchell’s Scourge the Heretic and Innocence Proves Nothing (released Nov.2009)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

“Abyss”, by Troy Denning (Century)


Part Three of the Fate of the Jedi sequence

The search to understand Jacen’s slide into the Dark Side continues, as Luke and Ben Skywalker journey deep into the Maw – a deadly cluster of black holes, in the centre of which a powerful evil has taken refuge; it is enormously strong and has its own special plans for Luke Skywalker. Father and son are not alone in their quest, however, as a Sith Master and her apprentice (along with a ship-load of Sith warriors) have been tracking “Ship”, a Sith meditation sphere, as well as the Skywalkers, intent on killing the Jedi and recovering the sphere.

Meanwhile, back on Coruscant, the mysterious illness afflicting young Jedi continues to confound Leia, Han and the Jedi medical teams. Leads emerge, perhaps linking the illness to Shelter, the hidden base where young Jedi were protected during the recent galactic civil war (detailed in the events of the Legacy of the Force series), which was located in the Maw. While struggling to find a cure, our heroes (aided by Jagged Fel, the Chief of State of the Imperial Remnant) must also navigate Coruscant politics and the devious maneuvering of Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala, who remains intent on bringing the Jedi Order to heel. On top of this, a particularly unscrupulous and determined journalist has been shadowing Jedi, broadcasting every fault and slip.

Troy Denning is certainly one of the better authors working on the Star Wars series (and we can therefore forgive his tendency to come up with awful ‘futuristic’ swear-words), and Abyss lived up to my expectations in terms of the quality of the writing – in fact, slightly exceeding them. The novel takes a slightly darker turn, as Luke and Ben are confronted with some decidedly twisted, utterly alien and horrific things while in the Maw.

The thread involving the Jedi-sickness is finally linked with Luke and Ben’s journey, which will be of interest to those who thought it was becoming a little repetitive and aimless (after only two books); there are only so many times you can read that another Jedi has been struck demented, with no cure in sight, before it starts to look like a pointless plot device to keep Han and Leia in the story. This plot-thread does remain the weaker part of the series, it must be said (see later, though).

The increased attention given to Vestara and her Sith leaders and comrades is welcome, as we learn more about the Lost Tribe of the Sith and their motivations (introduced in the eBook novella series of the same name, reviewed here and here) – one thing that comes across here is that, if the Sith weren’t so intent on their personal Machiavellian politics, they might get a bit more conquering and subjugating done, instead of expending so much energy on bickering and infighting.

Denning’s prose are fluid and tightly-written, the plotting is very fast-paced (I read this book very quickly indeed), with a healthy balance between action, occasional wit, and ever-more detail of the Star Wars universe and those who inhabit it. I would have preferred if the plot and series as a whole were more focused on Luke and Ben’s journey, as I believe all three writers for this series have managed to create and maintain an interesting dynamic between father and son hitherto unexplored in much detail. It’s clear that Ben is going to be a major (if not the major) character in the future, so it would make sense to develop him further.

I still harbour a few doubts over the wisdom of a nine-book series, rather than taught trilogies – just compare the quality of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, Kevin J. Andersen’s Jedi Academy trilogy, and Roger MacBride Allen’s Corellian Trilogy to some recent novels (the Coruscant Nights trilogy comes to mind), and you’ll see a huge difference. The Fate of the Jedi series, it must be said, is proving far more interesting and intriguing, with more potential than its predecessor – while the Legacy of the Force was still a very good series, with hindsight I can’t avoid the impression that the story was dragged out a longer than necessary: the ending was a foregone conclusion, therefore nine novels seemed excessive. Abyss, however, has done a lot to persuade me that a longer, more-epic series like this can work, as Luke and Ben’s discoveries in the Maw (and a few surprises nearing the end of the novel) have considerable potential to drastically effect the Jedi and the galaxy.

Fate of the Jedi has, therefore, plenty of opportunity and scope to develop in a number of ways. This should make it an exceptional addition to the Star Wars canon, and keep long-time fans satisfied and coming back for more, while also gaining the attention of new or skeptical readers. Abyss does an admirable job of answering some questions while also posing new ones, ensuring interest in the series remains high, with Denning’s writing showing that this expectation is well-deserved.

Sci-fi action in the classic style we’ve come to love and expect from the Star Wars brand, mixed with a greater attention to the political and philosophical (though without becoming pretentious or Trek-y), Abyss is a very enjoyable read. I would certainly recommend it to all fans of the Star Wars franchise, and I think new fans will also get a great deal of enjoyment from reading this series.

Series Chronology: Outcast, Omen, Abyss, Backlash (Feb.2010), Allies (Apr.2010), Vortex (Aug.2010), Conviction (Nov.2010), FotJ #8 (Jan.2011), FotJ #9 (Apr.2011)

To judge a book…

It’s the oldest piece of advice in the world, not to judge a book by its cover, but in these fantasy-novel cases it’s almost impossible not to be completely taken with them before you’ve had any opportunity to see them in stores, let alone read them. So, a minor break away from reviewing, here’s a post of previews.

1. Mark Charan Newton’s City of Ruin, the second volume in the Legends of the Red Sun series (synopsis, etc., can be found at the author’s website, here):


2. Also from Tor/PanMacmillan is Col Buchanan’s upcoming Farlander (March 2010). It’s not quite as eye-popping as Newton’s, but there’s something about it that is darkly, beautifully evocative:


3. From Orbit, we have Daniel Abraham’s re-released The Long Price series, Shadow & Betrayal and Seasons of War (January 21st 2010). Some people on the blogosphere have said the covers don’t reflect the content or story of the book, but I think they’re great. Bit Hollywood, perhaps, but I think they work perfectly well.  Untitled-2 Abraham-SeasonsOfWar












4.  It’s almost that time of year again, when the world benefits from the latest of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. This time, in Unseen Academicals (October 1st 2009), I believe the wizards at Unseen University discover football (or soccer, for our friends across the pond).


5. The next non-Games Workshop-related release from the excellent Dan Abnett, released through new publishing imprint Angry Robot, is Triumff (October 1st 2009), in which Mr Abnett messes about with history and introduces us to an excellent eponymous new protagonist:

Abnett-Triumff6. Finally, a novel that’s actually already out (review pending), but one with an excellent cover, and that’s Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City (Orbit):


With luck, we’ll get you reviews of all of these at the earliest moment possible. Happy reading in the meantime.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

“Cursor’s Fury” & “Captain’s Fury”, by Jim Butcher (Orbit)


A new command for Tavi; and a growing threat comes to Alera

Alera is a perilous world, where the forces of nature can take physical form. But even magic can’t halt the corruption spreading across the land.

Cursor’s Fury follows Tavi as he joins the First Lord of Alera’s elite spies. The Crown is facing rebellion by the ruthless High Lord of Kalare, which could destroy Alera’s delicate power-balance.

Tavi is ordered to a lonely post with an inexperienced legion, far removed from the fighting, when Kalare does the unthinkable by uniting with the savage Canim, Alera’s oldest enemies. When an brutal act of treason decimates the army’s command structure, Tavi finds himself leading the legion against the Canim horde, outmaneuvering them at any costs.

Untitled-1 Captain’s Fury, the fourth book in the series, jumps forward in time, and catches up with Tavi after he has been leading the Legion for about two years. He has discovered that the Canim invaders are harbingers of a much greater threat; they are not merely belligerent invaders, but are in fact fleeing a savage race that has forced them from their homeland. In the face of this knowledge, Tavi proposes a radical solution: Alera must join forces with the Canim in an alliance against the greater threat. Unfortunately, the Senate’s new military commander, Arnos, is single-mindedly determined to eradicate the Canim and any Aleran slaves allied with them.

The task of reconciling the various factions – Aleran and Canim, slavemaster and slave, Citizen and Proletarian – is left to Tavi. If there is to be any hope for Alera and its citizens, he must lead his Legion in defiance of the Law, forging his own path.

Butcher’s lesser-known series (after the Dresden Files) continues in very fine style, easily maintaining the pace and power of the first two books. In Tavi, he has created a character as appealing as Harry Dresden, with a gift for wisecracks and the complexity that comes from having a flaw: in Tavi’s case, his lack of furies (the ability to manipulate the elements by means of an attendant spirit), as well as a shadowy past. Tavi has matured significantly since the first two volumes – he may not have what passes for magic in Alera, but he is quick, clever and has developed qualities that make him just as dangerous as any furycrafter, as well as a gifted leader for his newly acquired legion.

The author handles a complex plot and a large cast of well-rounded characters with confidence and aplomb. His characters mature over time: especially Tavi (as mentioned above), but also his relationships with Kitai (Tavi’s partner) and Isana (Tavi’s aunt), and the relationship between the Cursor Amara and Tavi’s uncle, Bernard. The plot is full of twists, as Tavi finally discovers who he really is, and I especially liked the development of the character of the mysterious slave Fade, and that of the traitor Fidelias, both of whom are not what they seem.

Given the complexity and scope of the novels, and the Codex as a whole, it is difficult to go into much more depth without spoiling many of the twists and turns Butcher has woven into the story. The plot is fast-paced, filled with realistic action and witty dialogue, and it never felt like the pace flagged.

Overall, these two books are an excellent continuation of the Codex Alera, and I can’t wait for the next installment, Princep’s Fury.

Reviewed by Emma

Series Chronology: Furies of Calderon, Academ’s Fury, Cursor’s Fury, Captain’s Fury, Princep’s Fury (UK release: December 3rd 2009), First Lord’s Fury (UK release: May 6th 2010)

For Fans of: The Dresden Files, Garth Nix

“God of Clocks”, by Alan Campbell (Tor/Macmillan)


War, rebellion, betrayal… But the worst is still to come.

Scar Night introduced us to the dark and decaying world in which the city of Deepgate hangs in chains over the abyss in which dwelled the god Ulcis. Iron Angel detailed the protagonists’ difficult journey away from the ruined city, across a dangerous wilderness. God Of Clocks continues the story, as Dill and Rachel rush towards a final confrontation with King Menoa, Lord of the Maze. Rachel has rejoined the blood magician Mina Greene and her demonic dog Basilis. Carried in the jaw of a debased angel, they race to the defensive stronghold of the god of clocks, pursued by the twelve arconites – Menoa’s merciless automatons (the iron angels of the previous book). Meanwhile, John Anchor pulls Cospinol’s skyship into Hell itself to meet Menoa on his own ground. But neither Heaven nor Hell is anything they could have expected…

For this final installment to the series, Campbell’s writing has become even darker. His previous occupation as a video-game designer really comes through, as his writing is incredibly atmospheric and evocative – it’s clear that creating a complete picture for the reader is very important to him. He creates a dark and disturbing world, and as the characters journey into Hell, they find ever-more twisted and debased creatures. Campbell blurs the lines between good and evil: even relatively benevolent characters, such as Cospinol, deal in casual cruelty. This is a world in which no one can be trusted: neither gods, nor men, and certainly not any of the demons who inhabit Hell. Nothing is as it seems, keeping the characters, and the reader, guessing throughout.

The wide cast of diverse characters, well-created, does sometimes become a little unwieldy, as we try to keep track of the various story-threads. This is not, however, too much of a problem – and one that might be mitigated by reading the series in one go, rather than having to wait a year between books (something a lot of fantasy fans do, with trilogies). Another slight problem was the ending, which didn’t tie up nearly as many loose-ends as it perhaps should. Sure, not everything can be tied off, but it does make me wonder if this is actually the last in the series… (anyone?) It would also have been nice to know a little more about the Deepgate Codex, which is only alluded to a couple of times, but never in too much detail.

Rachel is a great, strong female character (she kicks ass, basically). The god Hasp is a complex yet appealing character. I liked the way the author subverts the traditional ‘bad-guy’ tropes of fantasy; for example, both Mina Greene and Alice Harper are morally dubious, but even they turn out to be psychologically rounded characters – it’s clear why they do what they do, playing the hand they’ve been dealt.

Comparisons with Mervyn Peake (author of Gormenghast) are certainly justified, but Campbell brings a contemporary twist to a Peake-style gothic world – it’s certainly something new, strange and compelling.

Overall, an excellent series, but I would love to know if this is, in fact, going to be the last volume. I shall be watching eagerly for Campbell’s next book.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Emma

Series Chronology: Scar Night (2007), Iron Angel (2008), God of Clocks (2009)

For Fans of: Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, Mervyn Peake, George R.R. Martin, Richard Morgan

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

“The Steel Remains”, by Richard Morgan (Gollancz)


An excellent, bleak new entry in the modern fantasy genre

The Steel Remains is the story of three heroes, all comrades in and veterans of the recent, devastating war against the Lizard Folk, dealing with their new lives in a suffering, barely recovered land. They gave everything for a nation who now has given little, if anything, back in gratitude. All are conflicted, with their own agendas, scarred by their experiences. A new evil is rising in the land, unbeknownst to our heroes or their kinsmen.

Ringil, the hero of the slaughter at Gallows Gap, wielder of the mighty Kiriath blade, Ravensfriend, selling his tale for a pittance and a roof over his head at a rural tavern. Archeth, the last of her race, in the unpleasant employ of tyrannical Emperor Jhiral. Egar Dragonbane, clanmaster of a steppe-nomad tribe, struggling to consolidate what he saw and experienced as a mercenary. Each has his or her own thread of the story, seemingly unconnected at first.

Ringil is employed by his mother, at cross-purposes to his father’s own goals, to find a relative recently sold into slavery. Unfortunately for Ringil, the politics of Trelayne have changed considerably since he left, and power has shifted to new quarters where once he could have operated with impunity. With the tables turned, alliances shifting and malleable, Ringil finds himself battling a changed administration and walls thrown up to thwart him at almost every turn. His time away also allowed him to bury unpleasant memories from his youth, but when he returns they come back to him in a rush, forcing him to battle his own demons along with those living in the city.

Archeth is sent on her own mission to Khangset, to investigate some supposed reaver activity. Upon her arrival at the still-burning Khangset, however, it’s clear that something far more deadly than a band of pirates attacked the city. Picking up on the mad ramblings of a survivor, Archeth must unravel what befell the city and report back to Jhiral.

Egar, permanently effected by his time away from his people in the more cosmopolitan and civilised South, has to navigate the local, petty politics of his clan, entertained only by girls half his age with no interest outside their existing world (the former a positive, the latter an unfortunate negative). Egar also struggles with Poltar, the clan shaman, who bemoans the decline in tradition and respect for the old ways and nurtures a visceral hatred for Egar. Poltar wants a return to when his station was held in the utmost regard, before Egar went away to the South, when tradition and respect were important. Then the Gods start to talk to him…

Morgan’s approach to the fantasy genre is uncompromising and new. He has created a brutal world, still struggling to recover from its recent war, populated by a multitude of suffering lives. The people are hardened, and there are plenty of former soldiers now unemployed and, in many cases, destitute – abandoned by those they fought to protect. His three heroes are very different, and each adds a certain slant to their respective stories. Ringil, the disappointing third son of house Eskiath, with no taste or patience for courtly etiquette required of a man of his station (plenty notables are met with his fist, for example), his cynicism and sarcasm help add the occasional touch of dark humour to an otherwise bleak world and story. Archeth, the long-suffering pawn of Jhiral, struggling to find a place for herself in a land her people have abandoned her to. Egar, worldly and cynical of traditions and customs, trying to make sense of the parochial ways, needs and superstitions of his people.

The author’s approach to writing is very sparse – exposition and description are kept to a minimum, allowing the readers’ imaginations to fill out the details of the world he has created. The novel is, therefore, shorter than is normal for a fantasy debut, though it doesn’t in any way suffer from its brevity. In fact, Morgan’s prose will drag you on through the story, making any and all interruption irritating and unwelcome, so engaging is his plotting and characterisation. Some might not be comfortable with the directions he sometimes takes his characters and the story in (the scenes in the dwendas’ realm are frequently weird), and he is occasionally more graphic than expected. One thing that is for sure, this is fantasy for adults. The action and battle scenes are expertly crafted, and the author is able to portray the breathless unreality of them extremely well – it’s cliché to say so, but Morgan is able to make the reader feel as if they are right there, observing the action.

Showing that he is as adept at writing fantasy as he is science fiction, Morgan has introduced an engaging and complex group of protagonists, in a brutal and interesting world. He has taken many common tropes of fantasy and made them wholly his own (sometimes by sometimes twisting them beyond recognition), making The Steel Remains a fresh and original, contemporary fantasy. Coupled with his excellent and immersive writing style, there should be nothing to keep this series from being very successful.

Highly recommended, The Steel Remains is, in a word, superb. It certainly deserves to stand alongside the fantasy greats on everyone’s bookshelf.

For Fans of: Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, Kevin J. Anderson (The Edge of the World), Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, Stephen Deas, Alan Campbell, Mark Charan Newton, Robert V.S. Redick

The next book in the series, The Dark Commands, will be released July 15th 2010 (UK)

Friday, August 28, 2009

“Even”, by Andrew Grant (Macmillan)


An exciting, important new voice in the thriller genre

After stumbling across a dead body in a Manhattan alley, things go from bad to worse for David Trevellyan. In New York working for the British Consulate (on a “communications” contract), Trevellyan has no way of knowing how much trouble he’s about to be in. He is arrested at the scene, accused of murder (complete with bogus “witness”), and held in lockup for an eventful night with Dereck the Nazi. Then the FBI get involved and his employers (the British Government) wash their hands of him. This all happens within the first couple of chapters – so far, so very intriguing.

As accusations and his supposed crimes escalate, and seeing no way to clear his name through legitimate, normal channels, Trevellyan decides to take matters into his own hands, despite the risks this entails; relying on his special forces skills and training to run down the true murderer and uncover whatever conspiracy decided he needed to take a fall. Dodging bad-guys and bullets, this is the story of how he got even with those who betrayed him.

Andrew Grant has written a truly excellent thriller. That this is Grant's debut makes it all the more impressive; his plotting is expertly and perfectly paced, his characters are well-defined and realistic, and the antagonists are suitably sociopathic (Lesley, in particular, is psychopathic). David Trevellyan is one of the best new protagonists to come along since Mitch Rapp (Vince Flynn) or Mark Beamon (Kyle Mills): tough, cynical, gung-ho, sarcastic, and sometimes emotionally cold (to a frightening extent on the last page). The story is great – a classic tale of a lone wolf looking for revenge, with a modern and edgy twist that will keep you hooked until the surprising last paragraph. In fact, this is more like two stories – halfway through, it seems like the story could be wrapped up, but instead a new thread opens (slightly related to the first), and the action ratchets up again as the scope is broadened.

Even has the feel of the first two episodes of a TV series – one in which the main character could be described as the international equivalent of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – it introduces us to the character, shows us his motivations and quite a bit of background detail (done at the beginning of every chapter as short asides, related to the coming events). If Even doesn’t set the author up for a long, successful career, then there is something very wrong in the world of publishing.

I would recommend you block out quite some time for starting this - it's impossible just to dip in and out; it’s highly likely that you will be swept up from the very beginning. Grant's writing style is fast and engaging, so you will be up late into the night.

Grant has introduced us to an excellent new hero, and can write a damn fine action thriller. In my opinion, this is better than Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series.

Very highly recommended.

For Fans of: Brett Battles, Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, Daniel Silva, Lee Child, Robert Ludlum, Ian Flemming, Charles Cumming