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