Wednesday, April 28, 2010

“Backlash”, by Aaron Allston (Century)


The Fate of the Jedi continues

Repercussions from the dark side’s fatal seduction of Jacen Solo and the mysterious plague of madness afflicting young Jedi continue to wreak havoc in the galaxy.

After narrowly escaping the deranged Force worshippers known as the Mind Walkers and a deadly Sith hit squad, Luke and Ben Skywalker are in pursuit of the now-Masterless Sith apprentice. It is a chase that leads to the forbidding planet Dathomir, where an enclave of powerful dark side Force-wielders will give Vestara the edge she needs to escape — and where the Skywalkers will be forced into combat for their quarry and their lives.

Meanwhile, Han and Leia Solo have completed their own desperate mission, shuttling madness-stricken Jedi from Coruscant to a safe haven in the Transitory Mists, beyond the grasp of Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala. But the bold manoeuvre has intensified Daala’s fury, and she is determined to shatter Jedi Order resistance once and for all.

Yet no greater threat exists than that which still waits in the depths of the distant Maw Cluster: A being of pure, ravenous dark-side energy named Abeloth, who calls out across the stars to Jedi and Sith alike. For some it may be the ultimate source of answers crucial to their survival. For others it could be the ultimate weapon of conquest. But for all, it is a game-changing — and life-altering — encounter of untold magnitude and a tactical gambit with unimaginable consequences.

Backlash is the fourth book in a projected nine-book series, and one that has – for the main – entertained thus far. Just to get my main concern about the series out of the way quickly, let me just write this: Like all middle-books, it suffers from the expected (and delivered) lack of any conclusions. This is something that plagued the middle books in the previous nine-book sequence, Legacy of the Force, and does make me question the wisdom of sticking to the nine-book formula. In my own humble opinion, trilogies and duologies might prove the better routes to take in the future. That being said, I shall now return to my review of Backlash which is, thus far, the best book in the Fate of the Jedi sequence.

Like every book in the Star Wars series of novels, this one took a few chapters to get in to; not because Allston’s writing is in anyway deficient – far from it, he’s easily one of the best authors that have ever been attached to this universe (I bet he could have done a great job re-writing the scripts for episodes I, II and III, for example…). The problem is the size of the main cast of characters: there are now perhaps too many ‘main’ perspectives, which if you’re starting a novel you need to indicate and (re-)introduce to the readers. We have Luke and Ben Skywalker; Han and Leia Solo; Allana/Amelia Solo; Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala; Jedi Jaina Solo and Empire Chief of State Jagged Fel; some Imperial conspirators; and the Jedi under siege in their Temple on Coruscant. For the first 50 or so pages, the perspective of the novel shifted almost every page, which made it very stop-start and difficult to sink in to.

I think what bothers me most about the over-frequent switches in perspective is a comparison with the older novels, such as Kevin J Anderson's and Timothy Zahn's, which had smaller casts. Not by much (the ‘classic’ characters were all still there, of course), but enough that you got a story from maybe 5 perspectives, rather than 10+.

Anyway, that’s really only an issue for the first few chapters as, when Allston finally let’s the story flow, sticking with single perspectives for entire chapters or more, Backlash is utterly gripping and Allston’s prose drag the reader on through events. Whether it’s the tense events on Dathomir, back with the embattled Jedi order on Coruscant, or Daala’s and Fel’s continued troubles with conspirators, if given a decent amount of space, Allston's writing and plotting are exceptional and the reader will find themselves hooked. There’s plenty of action (for once there’s no dogfighting in space, which was overly-featured in previous sequences) and the pace never really lets up; after all, as Jaina Solo says herself in the novel:

“One good thing about the Solos and Skywalkers. We never run out of things to do.”

The Jedi and Galactic Alliance are only slowly coming to terms with the new, greater threat of the new Tribe of the Sith that at last made first contact with the Skywalkers at the end of Abyss, surprised at their different tactics and apparently guiding principles:

“Sith are at large in the Maw... But these do not follow the Sith Rule of Two. They apparently follow a Sith rule of However Many They Need.”

There are lighter moments in the novel, something that Allston does well and in all of his Star Wars novels, and they will make you smile from time to time: for example, when Han gets his hands on a flamethrower, or the single scene written from R2-D2's point of view.

Having referred to previous novels in the series, I should say that reading Backlash put me pleasantly in mind of reading other, older novels set in the Star Wars universe, with the same sense of adventure and excellent approach to action and intrigue. Specifically, and largely due to the setting of Dathomir, Backlash reminded me of Dave Wolverton’s The Courtship of Princess Leia (1995), as well as Roger MacBride Allen’s Corellian Trilogy (Ambush at Corellia, Assault at Selonia, and Showdown at Centerpoint) – this latter more to do with pacing and atmosphere, rather than the same setting.

Overall, Backlash is a satisfying and entertaining read that bodes well for the next in the series, Christie Golden’s Allies (published May 27th), especially given the cliff-hanger ending.

Recommended for all fans of the genre and overall series.

Monday, April 26, 2010

CR’s Quest for Global Domination!

Well, that title’s a little misleading… I’ve been using a website traffic tracker to let me know who visits my websites – not in a creepy way, just in terms of geographical location. I’ve been tracking the traffic for just over a month (since March 25th), and it’s kind of interesting to see where visitors are from. So, I’ve decided to share the maps with you, below.

First, for this site. The Americas:

CR Visitors 20100325-0426

And the rest of the World:

CR Visitors 20100325-0426 

Interestingly, visitors to our our non-fiction site have a slightly different geographical make-up:

CR2 Visitors 20100325-0426

CR2 Visitors 20100325-0426

Not sure if the pictures are as clear as they could be, to be honest, but you can more-or-less make out all the red dots.

Anyway, just thought this was interesting.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

“Vanished”, by Joseph Finder (Headline)


[ UK   /   US ]

A new action/thriller hero makes his debut, as he searches for his brother

Lauren Heller and her husband, Roger, are out to dinner one night when they’re brutally attacked. Twenty-four hours later, Lauren awakes in the hospital to find that her husband has vanished without a trace. The only one who has any chance of finding him is his brother, Nick, a high-powered investigator with a private intelligence firm.

Nick Heller is tough, smart, and stubborn. Trained in the Special Forces, he specializes in digging up secrets that powerful people would rather keep hidden. He and his brother have been estranged ever since the imprisonment of their notorious billionaire father. But Nick will do anything to protect Lauren and her son, Gabe. He never backs down. Even if it means taking on the most lethal enemies he’s ever had to face.

Plunged headlong into a desperate chase, Nick begins making shocking discoveries about his brother's life — and about the giant defense contractor he works for. Now, in order to keep Lauren and her teenage son alive, Nick must take on a powerful and deadly conspiracy that will stop at nothing to protect its secrets.

One of the great things about Joseph Finder’s novels is that they are populated by believable characters. They are neither overly-good nor overly-bad, they have realistic and natural flaws (even if they’re only vocalised internally, as with Nick Heller). In order to introduce us to the main characters, Finder writes what appears to be an unrelated opening chapter (the relevance of which only becomes clear as the story progresses). Nick's investigation at the airport is a good introduction to what we can come to expect from him: he’s tenacious, detail-oriented, and very good at thinking on his feet (all skills that will serve him well throughout Vanished).

“See, that's my problem. Kind of a personal failing. I get my hooks into something, I can't stop. Sort of an obsessive-compulsive thing.”

Heller's initial job has wider implications, however, and is a reference to one of the greatest scandals and blunders by the Bush administration and the US occupation of Iraq after 2003; namely, the pallets of billions of dollars in cash sent to Iraq as bribe-money for locals and contractors. I remember reading articles about this, thinking it was the most ridiculous policy in a sea of idiocy.

Heller’s job gives us a glimpse into the world of K Street, as Heller works his contacts to get his way and further his investigation, which in turn offers some commentary on corporate and Washington practices and norms. Finder’s considerable attention to detail is on display here. When coupled with his grasp of fine, gripping writing, he manages to make everything sound interesting and worthwhile, never making the reader think they're being attacked by an info-dump. The level of detail did mean Vanished started pretty slow, but I was nevertheless hooked by Finder's prose-style. A rare gift.

“After five years of working the dark side of Washington, D.C., both in the government and out, I had a pretty good Rolodex... I knew someone in just about every three-letter government agency.”

There's some light, gentle comedy whenever Nick is talking with Gabe, unsure how the kid can do anything while listening to bands like Slipknot. Nick’s interactions with Gabe and Lauren show the other side to the novel – as well as a contemporary thriller, with commentary on corporatism and Washington lobbying, the novel takes a good look at the humans involved. Lauren’s fear of Nick discovering the family scandals, Nick’s own issues with his incarcerated father and the brother he grew to dislike but still needs to find and possibly save.

The only thing that remotely disappointed me was the misuse of the word “mates” from a British character (it always comes across unnatural, when written by an American author. It's weird). Other than this, the dialogue in Vanished is always natural and realistic.

Overall, this is a very fine contemporary thriller, introducing a great new protagonist. Finder is very good at setting the scene, introducing us to his characters in ways that let the reader know what to expect (even if it is obvious this is what he’s doing), and also developing the characters so we actual care about them. There’s some good action, tension and a well-developed back-story. I’ve only read one of Finder’s other novels (2008’s Power Play), which I also enjoyed a great deal, but Vanished is even better.

Vanished stands out from a lot of other thrillers because it’s not the most action-packed, and there’s more attention paid to the investigative side of things – in this way, more like David Baldacci and Mike Lawson, rather than Vince Flynn or Brad Thor. This might make the story too slow for some, but I found myself sinking into the novel, eager to see how Nick’s investigation developed and getting to the bottom of the conspiracy.

Finder should be recognised as being in the top echelon of contemporary thriller authors. Highly recommended.

For Fans of: Mike Lawson, David Baldacci, John Sandford, Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, Lee Child, Brad Thor, Andrew Britton, Alex Berenson, Barry Eisler, Brett Battles

Vanished is published by St. Martin’s Press in the USA

The second Nick Heller novel, Buried Secrets, will be released in the UK in July 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Am I an Anti-Urban Fantasy Snob?

You have to be totally dense to have missed the ‘Urban Fantasy’/‘Paranormal Romance’ (‘UF’/‘PR’) genre crazy that has followed in the wake of Stephanie Meyer’s phenomenally successful Twilight series. I was rather turned off by the extreme hype that surrounded it, finding the swooning teenage girls irritating and the sudden blanket publicity rather oppressive (I only watched the first Twilight movie a couple months ago), andtwilightteams have until now pretty much tarred every novel pigeonholed in the genre with the same negative brush. Now that New Moon has been released, and the prevalence of the ‘Team Edward’  and ‘Team Jacob’ merchandise (see right), I’m even more wary of the genre and have even considered crossing the road to get away from the occasional rabid fan.

Have I been narrow-minded? Quite possibly. Ignoring the fact that I know postgraduate literature students who are fond of the Twilight novels (not all of them in an ‘ironic’ way – and don’t get me started on that), in some ways there are things that characterise these novels that I potentially could like very much. Reading some of the synopses or blurbs printed on the backs, I am put in mind of Buffy and Angel knock-offs in book-form. (One of Kelley Armstrong’s books was, after all, described as “mak[ing] Buffy look fluffy”, which I thought boded well.)

Being a fan of these two shows – not to mention Supernatural and Sanctuary, I’ve found myself thinking about giving some UF a try. After all, the books could benefit from the ‘unconstrained’ book format; less susceptible to network demands or controls, no need to worry about prime time taboos, and so forth.

I remain cautious, however. An awful lot of these novels sound like… well, soft-werewolf/vampire-porn trash. Sorry, but it’s true. Also, having flicked through some of them on the shelves of my local bookstore, I can certainly say that the ‘love’ scenes contained within are utterly laughable, and the least ‘erotic’ or ‘sensual’ things I’ve ever read, packed full of cliché and hyperbole, not to mention the unlikely fact that everyone in them appears to be an absolute master in the bedroom (or in the alley, on the desk, in back of the car, etc.), reading them makes me cringe. I’m no prude, but seriously – there’s a reason the Friends episode about Chandler’s romance-writer mother was so funny.

So where am I going with all this? Well, I’ve decided to swallow my prejudices – and pride – and read some urban fantasy novels. Thanks to the lovely people at Orbit and Solaris, I have a couple to start with. [At least, I think these count as Urban Fantasy…]

Rhodes-CircusOfSins First off, Solaris sent me Natasha Rhodes’s Circus of Sins today, so I shall probably start with this one (it’ll still be a little while before I get to it, but thought I’d write something now anyway). The book’s design reminds me of a semi-horror novel I owned years ago, by Kristin Kathryn Rusch (Sins of the Blood), so it caught my attention. Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

When young Vampire-Hunter Kayla Steele is bitten by a werewolf, she thinks it’s the end of her world. However, little does she know that the real end of the world is not that far away. Master Vampire Harlequin has made a deal with the Devil and is now planning to commit the ultimate sin – killing an angel – which will trigger an ancient curse and bring about war in heaven.

If that happens, it will be the end of mankind forever.

Kayla’s only hope now lies in a mysterious stranger named Niki, who knows where the angel is being kept. Together, they must rescue the angel before midnight on Sunday in order to stave off Armageddon. But unless Niki is who he claims to be, the stakes just got one hell of a lot higher…

This is actually book three in the series (which started with Dante’s Girl and then The Last Angel – both also released through Solaris), but for once I’m not obsessive enough to insist on reading the entire series: there’s bound to be some form of catch-up passage in here, so I will just stick with that. It sounds very much like a grander Buffy plot, so I’m actually rather looking forward to this. I might bump it up the review roster/timetable, depending on my mood when I finish my current read (Joseph Finder’s excellent thriller, Vanished). I will also happily admit to being swayed by the testimonial from Dan Abnett (one of my favourite authors), who is quoted on the back cover:

“Taut and gripping. Natasha Rhodes’s prose is that precious thing: the stuff you just can’t put down…”

Untitled-2 The second novel is a slightly different: Marjorie M. Liu’s The Iron Hunt, which is the first in her Hunter Kiss series. Despite the terrible tag-line that graces the top-right of the artwork (“Dark Blood Will Flow”), it again has a rather interesting premise:

During the day, Maxine’s tattoos are her armour and she is invincible. At night, they peel from her skin to take on forms of their own, leaving her human and vulnerable – and showing themselves to be demons sleeping beneath her skin. But these demons are the best friends and bodyguards a woman can have. And Maxine needs bodyguards. She is the last in a line of women with power in their blood, trained to keep the world safe from malignant beings who would do us harm.

But ten thousand years after its creation, the prison dimension that kept the worst of these from us is failing, and all the Wardens save Maxine are dead. She must bear the burden of her bloodline and join the last wild hunt against the enemy.

It sounds rather like Buffy again (“The last of her kind, a Warrior awaits the call”), and the “prison dimension” put me in mind of the ‘Phantom Zone’ of the Superman mythos. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of the living tattoos (one assumes it will be an idea better executed than the fellow in the Elektra movie with the living tattoos). So, again: rather interested in reading this one.

Frostbitten_B.indd The final UF I have lined up is Kelley Armstrong’s Frostbitten. I’m not strictly sure if this is actually UF, but it seems to be lumped in to the genre all too often, so it’ll count (I think the same can be said for Laura K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series). I’m actually less cautious about reading this, as I have already read one of Armstrong’s thrillers, Exit Strategy, which I thought was very good and written in an interesting, and quirky style (at least, quirky for a thriller). Armstrong’s UF series, however, are both more popular and more established. Here’s the synopsis of Frostbitten:

After years of struggle, Elena Michaels has finally accepted her life as a werewolf, and learned how to control her wild side.

At least, that’s what she believes when she sets off to investigate a series of gruesome murders outside Anchorage. The truth, however, is more complicated. Trapped in a frozen, unforgiving terrain, Elena is forced to confront a deadly secret, and her own, untamed nature…

The third book in series sequence, which has recently been re-packaged by Orbit, Armstrong’s books are clearly being aimed at the Twilight market. The press literature that came with Frostbitten even mentions that “partly in thanks to the explosion of the Twilight phenomenon, sales of Bitten have doubled recently”.  The first in the series, Bitten, was published in 1999 in a previously non-existent (practically) ‘paranormal fiction’ genre. The success of Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series opened the door for authors like Meyer and Charlaine Harris (whose novels have now been turned into HBO series True Blood). The Women of the Otherworld series is now pretty long, featuring eleven books: Bitten, Stolen, Dime Store Magic, Industrial Magic, Haunted, Broken, No Humans Allowed, Personal Demon, Men of the Otherworld, Living With The Dead, Tales of the Otherworld, and Frostbitten. The next in the series, Waking The Witch, will be released on August 5th 2010, through Orbit.

Armstrong-WakingTheWitch [  Canada  /  US  / UK  ]

So. Urban Fantasy – the jury’s still out, but I’ll read the three novels mentioned above, and get back to you. Should be an interesting couple of weeks, at any rate – who knows, I might even be sucked in to the genre and read everything in it!

*        *        *

Rice-VampireLestatAs a side-note, I wonder if, had they been released today, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles would have been listed as ‘Urban Fantasy’ or ‘Paranormal Romance’?

Certainly, books such as Blood & Gold, Pandora, Vittorio the Vampire, and The Vampire Armand are sufficiently… well, tame to appeal to the Twilight crowd, even if they are certainly more ‘grown-up’ ( despite the overuse of the word “love” in these novels, to an extent where I now raise an eyebrow at its every use).

Rice’s output pretty much fizzled out after Memnoch the Devil (book five of the Chronicles), sadly. Merrick was the last one to really grab me from start to finish. The other novels in the series never really felt as necessary, engrossing or bewitching as earlier volumes, despite remaining good reads – this is largely down to Rice-QueenOfTheDamnedRice’s gift for writing atmospheric scenes and making you feel almost present in the novel.

The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned remain two of my favourite books of all time, though, so expect a retrospective review soon. Probably quite soon, as I’ve recently re-watched the superb Interview With A Vampire and the less-superb Queen of the Damned.

I do seem to be in the mood for vampire-related media, recently: I watched all three Underworld movies last week, and I intend to work my way through the Blade trilogy as well next week.

Friday, April 16, 2010

“True Blue”, by David Baldacci (Macmillan)

Baldacci-TrueBlue[  UK  /  US  ]

A mysterious pair of seemingly-unrelated homicides in the nation's capital and a disgraced cop collide with the darker side of National Security

Mason “Mace” Perry was a firebrand cop on the D.C. police force until she was kidnapped and framed for a crime. She lost everything — her badge, her career, her freedom — and spent two years in prison. Now she’s back on the outside and is focused on one mission: to be a cop once more.

Her only shot to be a true blue again is to solve a major case on her own, and prove she has the right to wear the uniform. But even with her police chief sister on her side, she has to work in the shadows: a vindictive US attorney is looking for any reason to send her back behind bars.

Then Roy Kingman enters her life. Kingman is a young lawyer who aided the poor until he took a high-paying job at a law firm in Washington. Mace and Roy meet after he discovers the dead body of a female partner at the firm.

Their investigation into the lawyer's death reveals surprising secrets from both the private and public world of the nation's capital, and what began as a fairly routine homicide investigation takes a terrifying and unexpected turn into something complex, diabolical, and possibly lethal.

I was a little apprehensive about True Blue, it must be said. The main reason is that I tend not to like female protagonists written by men. Perhaps with the one exception of Arthur Goldman’s geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha, I don’t recall ever reading a main female protagonist who was anything other than a caricature of women. Take Lindsey Boxer, for example, from James Patterson’s wildly successful Women’s Murder Club series – she’s overly emotional to the point of ridiculousness (no woman I know cries that much and about half the things she cries about), and I have been unable to read any volume in the series since 5th Horseman (the ninth instalment of the series will be released soon).

In True Blue, Mace Perry is an entirely different woman. Firstly, and more importantly, she’s entirely realistic. She’s tough without being mannish, she doesn’t cry at everything, and she’s just… well, normal. Mostly. Her single-minded interest in becoming re-instated adds colour and explanation to her unwise actions, as she breaks and bends rules left-and-right (not to mention her abuse of her sister’s position as D.C. policy chief) to prove she is still good enough to be a Blue.

Roy Kingman is an equally appealing character, idealistic but also not immune to the lure of money (which is why he quit his CJA job for a cushy position in a law firm specialising in out-of-court deals). The dynamic that develops between Mace & Roy is interesting. It's not really made clear why he tags along with her to begin with, although it could be because his job is dull and that can’t be an easy thing for a former basketball star or CJA to live with – so maybe his interest in her starts as a result of boredom, as she barges in and accuses him (twice) of murdering his colleague. What happens between the two of them seems perfectly natural, and there’s no ridiculous or frothy puppy-love or swooning which, considering Baldacci is oh-so frequently (and erroneously) placed alongside Patterson, is a most welcome thing.

Even the ‘bad-guys’ aren't as uncomplicated as that might suggest. Questions about national security, black-ops, doing what’s necessary, the ease with which these can be manipulated (through malicious intent or not)... All these are themes that are brought up in True Blue. A couple of the antagonists are also humanised when we see them in their home/family environment, questioning their superiors and worrying about the morality of their mission.

Baldacci is really very good at writing thrillers that reveal just enough to keep you guessing, just enough to keep you reading, and yet still have an attention to detail and character development that makes this a satisfying, intelligent, and engaging read.

All new authors wishing to make it in this genre should read this and take notes. I still think he’s one of the best in the business. The plot is very good, rattling along at typically fast pace – Baldacci’s books are usually typified by excellent pacing and tight writing, and this is no exception.

Very highly recommended, this is one of Baldacci’s finest.

For fans of: John Sandford, Kyle Mills, Andrew Britton, Tom Clancy, Alex Berenson, Brett Battles

Monday, April 12, 2010

“The Accused”, by Mark Gimenez (Sphere)


The hero from The Colour of Law returns for a most-personal court battle

“Scott, it’s Rebecca. I need you.”

After years of silence, Texan lawyer Scott Fenney receives a devastating phone call from his ex-wife. She has been accused of murdering her boyfriend, Trey – the man she left Scott for – and is being held in a police cell. Now she is begging Scott to defend her.

Scott is used to high-stakes cases, but this one is bigger than anything he has handled before. If Rebecca is found guilty, under Texan law she will be sentenced to death. He will have her blood on his hands. As he prepares to take the stand in the most dramatic courtroom appearance of his life, Scott is forced to question everything he believes to get to the truth - to save the life of the ex-wife he still loves...

This is the second novel by Texas-native Gimenez to feature A. Scott Fenney. It’s not necessary to have read The Colour of Law, as Gimenez fills in the blanks just enough with some short passages of re-cap; there’s not too much detail to bore readers (those familiar and unfamiliar with The Colour of Law), and not enough to ruin reading the first novel should you wish to go back and do so – something I’d recommend you do.

As with all Gimenez novels, the author manages to include plenty of social commentary in his novels: wrapped in the narrative of the legal case and Fenney’s daily life in Texas, he drops in comments about the rich-poor divide, the influence of money on American society, and also issues of race (related to money, politics and so forth). While his commentary is not arch or particularly in-depth (this isn’t a lecture), it adds a good element to his writing that helps create a better picture of the US and Texas in particular, as well as provide a little bit more intellectual depth to his stories – in this way, he really is “the next Grisham”, as The Times have dubbed him. The author’s clear affection and interest in his home comes across well, and you almost feel familiar and at home in the novel, even if – like myself – you’ve never been to Texas.

The Accused is, in many ways, predominantly a study in character. Fenney has to contend with everything life throws at him: two young daughters (one adopted), mounting bills, financial constraints, braces, single parenthood, Ford Stevens (his former employer) trying to lure him back with tempting offers that would solve all his problems for the price of his soul… It’s clear to see that Fenney’s got a full plate. When Rebecca calls, however, his life only becomes more complicated.

The novel offers up some pretty interesting characters – Fenney's support team is a diverse bunch, and it’s impossible not to immediately like the world-weary Galveston District Attorney, Rex, who’s trying to train his shoe-in (political patronage & legacy) replacement in what the law’s really about. Not all of the characters are likeable – Rebecca comes across as spoiled and ‘hipster-tortured’, talking about how “the walls had been closing in” on her, when Scott had been doing fabulously, giving her everything she ever wanted (particularly shoes), so I never learned to sympathise with her. In a way, this made Scott’s devotion to her difficult to swallow all the time, but it certainly helped bolster his image as a latter-day saint (the Galveston assistant DA makes a quip about this early on, and plenty of disbelieving comments are voiced when people hear he’s defending the ex-wife who publicly cheated on him). Of course, a celebrity murder trial brings with it other obstacles Scott must deal with: a pitbull-with-lipstick reporter, with few scruples; a politically ambitious judge, interested in little more than the exposure she’ll get from allowing total TV access to cable news (another character I instantly disliked); angry golfers and their WAGS; the mob and a drug cartel. Oddly, some of the more decent and interesting people he meets are these latter career criminals…

There are echoes of the ongoing Tiger Woods scandal: the beloved, all-American golf hero (and murder victim), Trey, is unveiled as not at all as wholesome as the media would have us believe. There is a mention of Tiger’s ill-advised texting of a mistress, so The Accused was written after the story broke, and it certainly makes this a timely release, allowing Gimenez to write some commentary on the cult of celebrity and the sheer amount of money sloshing about in professional sport in the US.

Despite the occasional minor lapse into schmaltz or over-emoting, The Accused is an engaging and character-led legal thriller. Gimenez’s dialogue and prose are as fluid and natural as we’ve come to expect, and the pacing of the plot will keep pulling you along. When we’re finally brought into the court-room, the author actually makes it gripping and tense, even though we’ve been following Scott and his team’s investigation every step of the way. The Accused, therefore, offers the reader everything they could want from a thriller, and is a very satisfying read.

If you haven’t yet discovered Mark Gimenez, then you should really make it your next thriller priority.

For Fans Of: John Grisham, Kyle Mills, John Sandford, James Patterson, Scott Turow, Steve Martini

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Retrospective: “Tai-Pan”, by James Clavell (Hodder)

Clavell-TaiPanGrand, epic historical fiction set in 19th Century Asia

Set in the turbulent days of the founding of Hong Kong in the 1840s, Tai-Pan is the story of Dirk Struan, the ruler – the Tai-Pan – of the most powerful trading company in the Far East. Struan is also a pirate, an opium smuggler, and a master manipulator of men.

This is the story of his fight to establish himself and his dynasty as the undisputed masters of the Orient.

James Clavell’s magisterial Tai-Pan, the second book in his Asian Saga, was the first book to completely gripped me. First published in 1966, it is a historical novel that is, for me, the benchmark for all future novels that I’ve read.

The novel begins in the aftermath of the British victory in the first Opium War (1839-1842) and the subsequent seizure of Hong Kong (it would remain in British hands until 1997). The island’s large natural harbour was believed to be of the utmost import by both the British government and the various trading companies who, for all intents and purposes, ran the Empire – not least for the relative cover it provided in the typhoon-prone region. Much like modern corporations today, these trading companies and the British government were hoping to use Hong Kong as a staging point for trade with mainland China – then, as now, a highly lucrative market.

The novel features a grand cast of characters, but it is Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock, former shipmates and the owners of two of the largest trading companies in Asia who form the main focal points of the novel (as well as those in their immediate orbit). Their shared history as seamen, and the difficult relationship they had, initiated an intense sense of competition. In a theme that would be later echoed in Jeffrey Archer’s Kane & Abel (1979), the novel is largely about the competition between these two men and their trading houses as they try to dominate their markets and industry. Both men continually seek to destroy each other in both business and personal matters. These two trading family are actually based on real entities. Dirk Struan is loosely based on William Jardine (1784-1843), a ship surgeon who went on to co-found Jardine, Matheson Holdings Limited (est.1832), a huge Scottish trading company, and the inspiration for Struan’s ‘Noble House’, which remains highly active in Asia today. The Brock Family is supposedly based on the Dent family, and their company Dent & Co (1824-1867).

As the head of the largest trading company in Asia, Struan is referred to as the titular Tai-Pan. The conflict between Struan and Brock boils effectively boils down to a Machiavellian quest for power maximisation and prestige. The story of the Struan family and their trading company was continued in Clavell’s 1981 novel, Noble House (which I sadly have yet to find time to read). Struan’s affection for Asia is particularly well portrayed, as he rejects certain elements of his European heritage, supplementing his lifestyle and beliefs with some he acquires in his long years in Asia – he ‘goes native’, but not completely, showing how foreigners can be shaped and affected by their adopted homes and cultures.

I read Tai-Pan while still quite young, so I have no doubt that I would get a lot more from a re-reading of the novel, and I would get greater enjoyment from and understanding of the politics, history and themes that lie behind the story (especially given my degree in East Asian history and studies in international relations). My memory of reading Tai-Pan, however, is that I was utterly hooked. Clavell’s prose are so well-crafted, so engaging, and coupled with multi-layered plotting that dragged me on through the story, reading well into the night – I was actually on a family vacation at the time, much to my parents’ annoyance, as I was more interested in reading the novel than getting the most out of Bali (we lived in Malaysia at the time). It truly felt like the book had got its hooks into me and I was, to put it bluntly, utterly addicted to the story and reading about the characters. It’s considerable heft also made me feel like I could sink into the story, getting to know the characters intimately.

Perhaps the only recent novel that has truly recalled Tai-Pan’s and Clavell’s expert portrayal and re-creation of Asia on the page is Charles Cumming’s Typhoon – Clavell’s Asia comes alive and fully realised on the page, and even without experience of the region you will almost be able to taste the humidity of monsoon season, hear the sounds of 19th Century Hong Kong, and in all likelihood wish you could have lived there and then.

If you have yet to read anything by Clavell, then I would strongly urge you to read Tai-Pan. Utterly engaging, it is an epic, near-flawless work of historical fiction. Easily one of my top-five novels of all time.

The cover artwork of the edition I own (1982):


Friday, April 09, 2010

Utterly Striking Cover Artwork (N.K. Jemisin)

I was blown away by N.K. Jemisin’s debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (review here). After reading the interview contained in the back of the book, I became eager to read the second book in the series (rather obnoxiously eager, if I’m honest). The artwork for the novel, The Broken Kingdoms, just screams out to be shared and admired. So, I shall let the art do the talking, and here it is:


In my humble opinion, this is stunning. Lauren Panepinto (designer) and Cliff Nielsen (artist) have done an exception job.

Scouring the interwebs for information on the book, it would appear that it’ll be released in the UK in November 2010 (Amazon UK claims the 4th November), and here’s the short synopsis I was able to find:

In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortal-kind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. However, this act of kindness is to engulf Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city. Oree’s peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger - but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?

I have no doubt that The Broken Kingdoms will live up to expectations. (If artwork denoted writing quality – this is a lock.)

Brandon Sanderson’s Next Novel

I must admit to never having read a single novel by Brandon Sanderson, even though I’ve only ever really heard good or great things about his work (except for one review, but the reviewer doesn’t appear to like anything, so can probably be discounted).

The cover artwork for the UK edition has just recently been released (thanks to Aidan at A Dribble of Ink for posting it). As I thought it was rather striking, I decided I’d use this opportunity to post a little something about the novel.

First off, here’s the UK artwork:

Sanderson-WayOfKingsUK Obviously, they’re sticking with the formula that worked for the UK editions of Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy:

The US artwork fits in better with the style that is favoured over there – although, as I’m sure I’ve said before, it’s rare for me to prefer a US cover. Here it is:

Sanderson-WayOfKingsUS To finish off, here’s the synopsis of The Way of Kings, from the publisher’s catalog:

The Way of Kings introduces the three protagonists who will be our windows on the strange and wondrous world of Roshar and the drama about to unfold there:
Dalinar, the assassinated king’s brother and uncle of the new one, is an old soldier who is weary of fighting. He is plagued by dreams of ancient times and legendary wars, visions that may force him into a new role he could never have imagined.
Merin, a highborn young man who has been brought low, indeed to the most miserable level of military slavery, and like Ben Hur must suffer and struggle to survive and rise again.
Shallan, a naïve but brave and brilliant young woman who will do anything to save her impoverished noble house from ruin.
These are people we will come to know deeply and take to our hearts. But just as important to The Way of Kings is a fourth key ‘character,’ the unique world of Roshar itself, a richly imagined setting as real as science fiction’s Dune, as unforgettable as epic fantasy’s Middle Earth. Through all the volumes of The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson will make Roshar a realm we are eager to visit.

I’m certainly interested to try The Way of Kings, a series by Sanderson I can get into from the ground up. With luck, I’ll be able to get you a review ASAP.

[The Way of Kings will be released in the US by Tor, and in the UK by Gollancz]

Monday, April 05, 2010

“Spellwright”, by Blake Charlton (Voyager)


[UK    /    US]

One of the most hotly-anticipated fantasy debuts of 2010

In a world where words can come to life, an inability to spell can be a dangerous thing…

No one knows this better than apprentice wizard Nicodemus Weal. Nicodemus is a cacographer, unable to reproduce even simple magical texts without ‘misspelling’, a mistake that can have deadly consequences. He was supposed to be the Halcyon, a magic-user of unsurpassed power, destined to save the world. Instead, he is restricted to menial tasks, and mocked for his failure to live up to the prophecy.

But not everyone interprets prophecy in the same way. There are some factions who believe a cacographer such as Nicodemus could hold great power – power that might be used as easily for evil as for good. And when two of the wizards closest to Nicodemus are found dead, it becomes clear that some of those factions will stop at nothing to find the apprentice and bend him to their will.

There’s no doubt that anticipation for Spellwright has been running high for months – in a half-year that seems dominated by hotly-tipped fantasy debuts, Blake Charlton’s novel would need to be particularly good to stand out from an already crowded field of new genre upstarts. Thankfully, on the basis of its wholly original (as far as I’m aware) magic system, Spellwright does indeed deserve your attention.

Taking a lot of classic themes that have been key elements of fantasy for decades (if not longer, when including myths and legends), and coupling them with an obvious love for and fascination with language, Charlton has managed to avoid pitfalls and cliché. Nicodemus is at a magic school, has a mysterious mark that may or may not mean something important (a keloid scar), a ‘disability’ that holds him back (something he must overcome to assume his true potential), and a plethora of other fantasy classics: dragons, gargoyles, magic tomes, and a mysterious killer stalking our protagonist. There is a shade of Harry Potter in here, but don’t take this to mean Spellwright is the same – this is very different, and wholly Charlton’s own wonderful creation.

To write about this book without looking at the magic system would be folly – even if it might seem clichéd or over-done to anyone who has read other reviews: it is so integral to the story and plot, that to gloss over it would leave the reader wholly unprepared for the story they are about to read. The magic in Charlton’s world is based around language and a magician’s literacy in the main magical languages: Magnus and Numinous being the main two ‘higher’ languages (there are more, but these two crop up the most), as well as the mythical ‘Language Prime’ – believed to have been used by the Creator. Charlton’s magic system is not only highly original and interesting, but also very well written – there was always the possibility that a description of any complex or new system would be turgid and boring. Charlton manages to use the setting of a magic school to great effect, giving us more explanation as and when we need it, sprinkled throughout the novel, without making it feel like we’re about to receive an annoying or clunky ‘info-dump’. The way the magic can be used to form constructs is inspired, and adds additional flavour to the world Nicodemus inhabits. [The US cover actually incorporated this better than the UK artwork, and Charlton’s thoughts on that can be found here.]

I found myself sinking into the story easily and pretty much immediately whenever I picked up the book (sadly, life intruded on my reading this in more-or-less one go). Short chapters, coupled with the author’s clipped prose and realistic, believable dialogue make this a quick read. All of his characters are engaging and well-crafted (although I must admit to not initially liking the inclusion of Devin and Simple John). If there is one thing I would pick up on, it’s Nicodemus himself: he has a tendency to over-emote at times, which is confusing as he’s meant to be an adult, so his naïveté is not always understandable or welcome. This is, however, mostly forgivable, given his condition and relative youth compared to the other wizards that feature in the story (his mentor, Shannon, is about 200 years old, for example). In the next novel in the series, Spellbound, I’m sure most of this will have been ironed out.

The story is revealed at a gradual, well-timed pace, without clunky info-dumps, unveiling more and more about the factions and players, the politics and nations involved. The author’s style is great at dragging the reader along, making it difficult to put Spellwright down, and most chapters end on a hook that will force you to read “just one more” (although we know how that always goes). Charlton’s interest and enthusiasm for language itself is inherent throughout the novel, and his obvious enjoyment in writing the book is passed on to the reader.

Different to the more ‘gritty’ fantasy authors currently writing today (think Abercrombie, Sykes, Newton, Morgan and so forth), this book doesn’t veer into graphic violence or other themes that might make some readers uncomfortable; Spellwright is far more classic in feel.

Highly original and an absolute pleasure to read, Spellwright comes very highly recommended. This is a wonderful work of fantasy escapism and world-building.

For Fans of: Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman, Christopher Paolini, Tad Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Karen Miller, Trudi Canavan

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Trudi Canavan: New & Forthcoming (Orbit)

With the paperback release of The Magician’s Apprentice imminent, I thought it would be a good idea to bring you some news about the author’s next release, The Ambassador’s Mission (book one in a new trilogy, The Traitor Spy Trilogy), and also re-post Emma’s review of The Magician’s Apprentice, from May 2009.

Canavan-TTS-1-TheAmbassadorsMissionFirst, the synopsis and cover art for the new novel:

Sonea, former street urchin, now a Black Magician of Kyralia, is horrified when her son, Lorkin, volunteers to assist Dannyl in his new role as Guild Ambassador to Sachaka, a land still ruled by cruel black magicians.

When word comes that Lorkin has gone missing Sonea is desperate to find him, but if she leaves the city she will be exiled forever, and besides, her old friend Cery needs her help. Most of his family has been murdered – the latest in a long line of assassinations to plague the leading Thieves.

There has always been rivalry, but lately it seems the Thieves have been waging a deadly underworld war, and now it appears they have been doing so with magical assistance...

Sounds like it could shape up to be an interesting series. The Ambassador’s Mission will be released in the UK in May 2010.

*     *     *

Here again is Emma’s review of The Magician’s Apprentice:

Canavan-MagiciansApprentice The Epic Prequel to Canavan’s acclaimed Black Magician Trilogy

In the remote village of Mandryn, Tessia serves as assistant to her father, the village Healer - much to the frustration of her mother, who would rather she found a husband. Despite knowing that women aren’t readily accepted by the Guild of Healers, Tessia is determined to follow in her father’s footsteps. But her life is about to take a very unexpected turn.

When treating a patient at the residence of the local magician, Lord Dakon, Tessia is forced to fight off the advances of a visiting Sachakan mage - and instinctively uses magic. She now finds herself facing an entirely different future as Lord Dakon’s apprentice.

Although there are long hours of study and self-discipline, Tessia’s new life also offers more opportunities than she had ever hoped for, and an exciting new world opens up to her. There are fine clothes and servants - and, she is delighted to learn - regular trips to the great city of Imardin.

But along with the excitement and privilege, Tessia is about to discover that her magical gifts bring with them a great deal of responsibility. Events are brewing that will lead nations into war, rival magicians into conflict, and spark an act of sorcery so

brutal that its effects will be felt for centuries…

The Magician’s Apprentice is certainly epic, both in size and scope. At just short of 600 pages, it deals with the build-up to the war and the war itself from the viewpoints of Tessia in Kyralia, and Stara, a woman who also has an unexpected gift for magic and must find her feet in an unfamiliar world, this time in Sachaka. The author also dips in and out of several other viewpoints, including Dakon, Hanara the slave, and Jayan, Dakon’s jealous other apprentice. Although this adds other dimensions to the plot, it can make things confusing, and it can be frustrating when Canavan leaves Tessia in the middle of an exciting situation and then shifts to Stara learning about Sachakan customs, or vice versa. This happens far too often unfortunately, and made me want to skip ahead in places because I was impatient to get back to the action. Also, knowing Jayan’s true intentions lessens the impact of Tessia finding out what he is really like: it sometimes seems as though Canavan spells out too much for the reader when it comes to their relationship.

That being said, the parallels between Stara and Tessia are intriguing, and when the action does get going, the story certainly becomes gripping. She is largely successful at ranging across the two countries and really brings the land and characters to life. In particular, Canavan manages to create two strong and appealing female characters in Tessia and Stara, which is no mean feat considering they more or less share the book, and usually I would expect to like one viewpoint significantly more than the other.

The author also presents an in-depth exploration of war and the moral dilemma faced by the Kyralian magicians, without over-simplifying matters or really favouring one side over the other.

The book might have benefited from some more fearless editing: both plot and pace suffered from the sheer length of The Magician's Apprentice, and some of the detail could have been tightened up or eliminated altogether.

The Magician’s Apprentice is still a good read though, certainly for those who have read the bestselling Black Magician trilogy. Covering events several hundred years before that trilogy, the novel sets the scene for the formation of the Guild.

In general, Canavan’s writing is assured, her characters are well-rounded and varied, and she holds the story together over such a large canvas with reasonable success.

A recommended read.

Followed by: The Magician’s Guild, Novice, The High Lord

Also try: Maria Snyder’s Poison Study, Magic Study, Fire Study; Trudi Canavan’s Age of The Five series (Priestess of the White, Last of the Wilds, Voice of the Gods)

Reviewed by Emma Newrick