Saturday, May 29, 2010

“Bloodborn”, by Nathan Long (Black Library)


The First Ulrika the Vampire Adventure

Ulrika, recently turned as a vampire, attempts to adjust to her new way of life.

But when a fellow vampire is killed in Nuln, Ulrika and her mentor, Gabriella, are sent to investigate. Soon they find themselves facing danger from all sides as they attempt to solve a mystery that threatens the very existence of the Lahmian bloodline.

How can they hope to destroy something with the power to kill a vampire?

The first in another Gotrek & Felix spin-off series (the other being Thanquol & Boneripper), Bloodborn had a lot riding on it. Thankfully, it fails to disappoint.

The novel has the feel of some of the first Warhammer novels published; specifically, the Genevieve the Vampire series by Jack Yeovil. It leans a little more towards horror than fantasy, and has a darker, bloodier feel to it.

I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into the story, but Ulrika and her mistress, Gabriella have a relationship not unlike that between Louis and Lestat, in Anne Rice's classic Vampire Chronicles. Indeed, there appears to be some well-done homage to them in the Vampire lore here, as well as the Lahmians’ general strategy reminiscent of White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade. Hoffman and Ulrika enjoy something of a doomed Romeo & Juliet acquaintance, which leads to a touching and somewhat tragic ending.

The Lahmian vampires (predominantly women, who favour subtlety and guile to conquest and brutality) are clearly all so wrapped up in their own schemes that they see treachery and plotting behind every action. For Ulrika, it is a sharp and difficult education, so used to the blunt northern ways of her fellow Kislevites: Navigating the shifting loyalties and allegiances of her new vampire sorority can be treacherous and confusing, and forms a considerable amount of Bloodborn. Lady Hermione, for example, is utterly crazy, frequently acting like a spoiled child having a tantrum (for the most part, this was a good way of exhibiting the paranoid nature of the Lahmians, but at times it just comes across as childish, and Hermione was the only weak point in an otherwise excellent novel). I managed to figure out what was going on pretty quickly, but it didn’t ruin the story at all, and I enjoyed it right up until the last page.

As with Shamanslayer, Nathan Long has raised his game: his writing is much better and more assured, and the plot is more a thriller/mystery than an out-and-out adventure. Not only that, the author has managed to write something that has an original voice, distinct from the series that gave us Ulrika in the first place, while at the same time retaining the feel and atmosphere of the Warhammer world and other novels set in it.

The novel’s pace isn’t always as fast as one might hope, but when you get sucked into the story, you’ll fly through the novel. The ending was surprising, but also satisfying as Long avoided cliché, which would just have diminished the very nature and credibility of his characters. With vampire novels like this available, it is beyond me why people might read Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series… [More on this in a future article]

A very satisfying read, Bloodborn is well worth seeking out.

Also try: Jack Yeovil, The Vampire Genevieve; Steven Saville, The Vampire Wars; Anne Rice, The Vampire Chronicles; Nathan Long, Gotrek & Felix; Mike Lee, Nagash the Sorcerer & Nagash the Unbroken; Robert Earl, Ancient Blood

Nathan Long’s next novel for Black Library is the 12th Gotrek and Felix novel, Zombieslayer (November 2010), followed by the second Ulrika novel, Bloodforged (release date TBC – the artwork, printed on the inside cover of Bloodborn, is great!)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Weekly Acquisitions

Another post to let you know about books received and upcoming reviews. Another good week, with a broad range of books, here’s a quick run-down of what’s to come:


A mixture of fiction and non-fiction, first I’ll deal with the fiction.

Nathan Long, “Bloodborn” (Black Library)

Long-Bloodborn The first Ulrika novel

Ulrika, recently turned as a vampire, attempts to adjust to her new way of life.

But when a fellow vampire is killed in Nuln, Ulrika and her mentor, Gabriella, are sent to investigate. Soon they find themselves facing danger from all sides as they attempt to solve a mystery that threatens the very existence of the Lahmian bloodline.

How can they hope to destroy something with the power to kill a vampire?

I’m actually already half-way through this novel, so the review should be up by the end of the week. So far, I think it’s great – on the strength of this and Shamanslayer, I can definitely say that Long is growing as an author and really making these characters his own. Highly recommended.

Sam Bourne, “The Chosen One” (Harper)


A Presidential Campaign and a Shocking Scandal?

Bruised by years of disappointments, political advisor Maggie Costello is finally working for a leader she can believe in. She, along with the rest of America, has put her trust in President Stephen Baker, believing he can make the world a better place.

But suddenly an enemy surfaces: a man called Vic Forbes reveals first one scandal about the new president, and then another. He threatens a third revelation – one that will destroy Baker entirely. When Forbes is found dead, Maggie is thrown into turmoil.

Could the leader she idolizes have been behind Forbes's murder? Has she been duped by his message of change and hope? Who is the real Stephen Baker?

On the trail of the truth, Maggie is led into the roots of a massive conspiracy that reaches back into history - and goes right to the heart of the US establishment.

Ever since I read Sam Bourne’s previous release, The Final Reckoning, I’ve been eager to read more (especially after I discovered that it involved presidential politics and conspiracy). Frequently compared to Dan Brown, Bourne is so much better. If you like your thrillers exciting, involved and engaging, then you should really check Bourne’s novel out.

Robert Charles Wilson, “Julian Comstock” (Tor)

Wilson-JulianComstock A Story of 22nd Century America

In the reign of President Deklan Comstock, a reborn United States is struggling back to prosperity. Over a century after the Efflorescence of Oil, after the Fall of the Cities, after the False Tribulation, after the days of the Pious Presidents, the sixty stars and thirteen stripes wave from the plains of Athabaska to the national capital in New York. In Colorado Springs, the Dominion sees to the nation's spiritual needs. In Labrador, the Army wages war on the Dutch. America, unified, is rising once again.

Then out of Labrador come tales of the war hero “Captain Commongold.” The masses follow his adventures in the popular press. The Army adores him. The President is... troubled. Especially when the dashing Captain turns out to be his nephew Julian, son of the President’s late brother Bryce – a popular general who challenged the President’s power, and paid the ultimate price.

As Julian ascends to the pinnacle of power, his admiration for the works of the Secular Ancients sets him at fatal odds with the Dominion. Treachery and intrigue will dog him as he closes in on the accomplishment of his lifelong ambition: to make a film about the life of Charles Darwin.

I’ve never read anything by Wilson, but the above synopsis was just too intriguing to pass up, so I pre-ordered the book through Amazon. Not sure when I’ll have time to get ’round to it, but expect a review soon.

Christie Golden, “Star Wars: Allies” (Century)

SW-FOTJ-Allies Book 5 in the ongoing Fate of the Jedi series

What began as a quest for truth has become a struggle for survival for Luke Skywalker and his son, Ben. They have used the secrets of the Mindwalkers to transcend their own bodies and speak with the spirits of the fallen, risking their very lives in the process. They have faced a team of Sith assassins and beaten the odds to destroy them. And now the death squad’s sole survivor, Sith apprentice Vestara Khai, has summoned an entire fleet of Sith frigates to engage the embattled father and son. But the dark warriors come bearing a surprising proposition that will bring Jedi and Sith together in an unprecedented alliance against an evil more ancient and alien than they can imagine.

While the Skywalkers and their Sith allies set off on their joint mission into the treacherous web of black holes that is the Maw, Han and Leia Solo risk arrest and worse to aid the Jedi imprisoned back on Coruscant. Tyrannical Chief of State Natasi Daala has issued orders that will open a permanent schism between her government and the Jedi Order—a schism that could turn all Jedi into renegades and wanted criminals.

But it is in the depths of the Maw that the future of the galaxy will be decided. For there the Skywalkers and their Sith allies will engage a true monster in battle, and Luke will come face-to-face with a staggering truth.

Golden’s novels, while enjoyable, have thus far not been as good as those by the other authors currently writing for the Star Wars franchise. As this series progresses, and as events surrounding the Skywalkers and their allies hurtle towards what will hopefully be an explosive ending to the series, I am hoping Golden will be able to live up the expectations of the many readers and fans following the series. I’m confident, and after the quality of Aaron Allston’s Backlash, I’m pretty keen to get to this.

Thomas J. Sugrue, “Not Even Past” (Princeton)


Barack Obama and the Burden of Race

Barack Obama, in his acclaimed campaign speech discussing the troubling complexities of race in America today, quoted William Faulkner's famous remark "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." In Not Even Past, award-winning historian Thomas Sugrue examines the paradox of race in Obama's America and how President Obama intends to deal with it.

Obama's journey to the White House undoubtedly marks a watershed in the history of race in America. Yet even in what is being hailed as the post-civil rights era, racial divisions--particularly between blacks and whites--remain deeply entrenched in American life. Sugrue traces Obama's evolving understanding of race and racial inequality throughout his career, from his early days as a community organizer in Chicago, to his time as an attorney and scholar, to his spectacular rise to power as a charismatic and savvy politician, to his dramatic presidential campaign. Sugrue looks at Obama's place in the contested history of the civil rights struggle; his views about the root causes of black poverty in America; and the incredible challenges confronting his historic presidency.

Does Obama's presidency signal the end of race in American life? In Not Even Past, a leading historian of civil rights, race, and urban America offers a revealing and unflinchingly honest assessment of the culture and politics of race in the age of Obama, and of our prospects for a postracial America.

A short book about Obama and race. Don’t know too much about it, but I’ll give it a go, see if there’s anything interesting and innovative within.

Jonathan Alter, “The Promise” (Simon & Schuster)

Alter-Promise President Obama, Year One

Alter, a native of Chicago who has known Obama and his circle for nearly a decade, provides a fast-paced inside account of the breakneck speed with which President-elect Obama, and then President Obama, began making critical decisions and assuming the burdens of office amid the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

With dozens of exclusive details about everything from the selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state to the president’s secrets for running a good meeting, Alter paints a fresh and often surprising portrait of a highly disciplined and self-aware president and his colourful team.

We see a young president of extraordinary temperament grappling with the task of stimulating the economy, bailing out large banks, taking over the American auto industry, making the crucial decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan, deciding whether to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program, and fighting for a major reform of the country's health care system. Alter explains what Obama is like in private, how he operates, and why he is so insistent on leading the country and the world into a new era of wrenching change.

Yup, yet another book about President Obama. Unlike many of the books released in the past couple of years, Alter’s actually promises to be both interesting and engaging. As a senior editor for Newsweek, I am sure this will be an accessible and enjoyable read. This will be the next non-fiction book I read and review, so keep an eye on the other site.

David Farber, “The Rise & Fall of Modern American Conservatism” (Princeton)


A Short History from Robert Taft to George W. Bush

Farber tells the story of perhaps the most significant political force of our time through the lives and careers of six leading figures at the heart of the movement. Farber traces the history of modern conservatism from its revolt against New Deal liberalism, to its breathtaking resurgence under Ronald Reagan, to its spectacular defeat with the election of Barack Obama.

Farber paints vivid portraits of Robert Taft, William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. He shows how these outspoken, charismatic, and frequently controversial conservative leaders were united by a shared insistence on the primacy of social order, national security, and economic liberty. Farber demonstrates how they built a versatile movement capable of gaining and holding power, from Taft’s opposition to the New Deal to Buckley's founding of the National Review as the intellectual standard-bearer of modern conservatism; from Goldwater’s crusade against leftist politics and his failed 1964 bid for the presidency to Schlafly’s rejection of feminism in favour of traditional gender roles and family values; and from Reagan’s city upon a hill to conservatism’s downfall with Bush’s ambitious presidency.

The book provides rare insight into how conservatives captured the American political imagination by claiming moral superiority, downplaying economic inequality, relishing bellicosity, and embracing nationalism. This concise and accessible history reveals how these conservative leaders discovered a winning formula that enabled them to forge a powerful and formidable political majority.

This actually looks pretty interesting, and like Kim Phillips-Fein’s The Invisible Hands, takes a look at American Conservatism from other perspectives, as well as the presidents who embodied it. The book’s not too long, so I’m sure I’ll manage to get through it pretty quickly and hopefully pretty soon.

Bill Clinton, “My Life”

The 42nd President’s Autobiography

Clinton-MyLifeI’m sure I don’t really need to provide a synopsis for this, but I thought I’d include it for one simple reason: the hardback edition, in near-perfect condition, cost me only 99p! The benefits of browsing Oxfam’s bargain bins.

I’ve read a number of biographies on Clinton, but for some reason I never managed to get around to reading this. Now that I’ll be finishing the first full-draft of my PhD (on US foreign policy and the importance of the President, incidentally), I should be able to give this a go (it’s a bit of a beast).

So, another good week for books, keep an eye on the site for reviews. I should be able to keep up the review-rate, but there are quite a few mammoth-books in the works, so I expect the number of reviews and posts might dwindle over the next couple of months.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

“Angelology”, by Danielle Trussoni (Michael Joseph/Penguin)

Review by Emma Newrick

Trussoni-Angelology Are Angels the Next Big Thing in fiction?

“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4)

When Sister Evangeline finds mysterious correspondence between Mother Innocenta of the Saint Rose Convent and legendary philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller, it confirms Angels walked among us - and their descendants, the cruel Nephilim, still do.

Indeed, the Nephilim are hunting for artefacts concealed by Abigail Rockefeller during the Second World War - objects that will ultimately allow them to enslave mankind - and have so far been prevented from reaching their apocalyptic goal by one, clandestine organisation: The Angelology Society.

And if the Angelologists are to stand any chance of winning this new battle in the ages-old war, they must find the artefacts first. But their fate rests in the hands of innocent Sister Evangeline, who holds the key to unlocking Abigail Rockefeller's hiding places … and whose own destiny may yet find her prey to the terrifying Nephilim army, with horrifying consequences for humanity.

I really wanted to like this book, so my expectations were running high when it arrived for review. It has all the hallmarks of a bestseller: a Dan Brown-esque riddle, a secret society, a supernatural element, and an intriguing blend of fact and fiction. Sadly, the author’s lack of a developed literary skill makes this a rather dissatisfying read, as she succumbs to clumsy and over-long passages of exposition.

The plot is probably the book’s strongest element: simple, yet gripping and well-paced. However, the characters are – almost without exception – one-dimensional, and the author is unable to develop any sense of connection to them. For example, Verlaine (the ‘hero’ of the novel) wears vintage wing tips and has a favourite Hermes tie, because Trussoni wants us to think that he is an interesting person. He isn’t, and adding these small touches comes across like forced attempts to give him more depth, or make him more interesting; as if these extra touches might make him more believable. He is a private detective, hired by the (evil!) angel Percival Grigori, to investigate a convent and help Grigori’s family find a specific, important item.

Similarly, Evangeline just isn’t believable. How does a meek and obedient nun suddenly become a headstrong young woman determined to understand the mystery she has become entangled in? She doesn’t. It feels like her character alters simply because the author needs it to, and her growing romantic relationship with Verlaine seems contrived. Trussoni claims that Evangeline remained in the convent because of her love for her father. This isn’t how it feels; rather, it appears that she remained in the convent because it was essential to Trussoni’s plot that she did.

“Move over Stephanie Meyer. Angels are the new Vampires”, the press release declares in large, bold letters at the top. This is, sadly, premature and unwarranted. It would appear that Trussoni’s debut novel was bought on the strength of her memoir, Falling Through The Earth (indeed, much of the press release for this novel is about the author’s life and, oddly, also provides a biography for her husband...). Unfortunately for the author, her skills at writing fiction are just not up to the task of such intense publicity.

Despite finding myself frequently cringing at considerable tracts of exposition (such as the massive chunk of memoir narrated by a nun), I found myself continuing to read. Ultimately, Angelology has an excellent premise with great potential, unfortunately let down by the less-than convincing execution. The fact that every angel in the novel was ‘evil’, with no shades of grey, bothered me. Such a complex and interesting subject, not to mention one with endless possibilities, required more subtlety and nuance – both of which seemed utterly absent. It’s almost as if the novel was rushed from the planning stage to publication, before Trussoni was able to add the other layers needed to make this a novel worthy of the hype that surrounded its release.

This could have been so much better, but I feel it might be necessary to stick with the other big angel-related release of the year: Anne Rice’s Angel Time – at least Rice has an established voice in horror/supernatural fiction, and is known for her skills at plotting and realising her characters.

[Stefan will review Anne Rice’s Angel Time as soon as he gets a chance.]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Upcoming: Scott Lynch’s “Republic of Thieves”

I’m indebted to Speculative Horizons and A Dribble of Ink for posting this originally, but as a huge fan of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora series, I had to post it myself, too – if for no other reason than the artwork is gorgeous and should be shown to the world (or, at the very least, the tiny slice of it who visit this website…). What am I talking about? The new UK artwork for the third in Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard series, The Republic of Thieves:


I must say, I absolutely love it. The style is new and different from that which graces the covers of The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies (below), which I also liked very much.

Lynch-LOLL,RSURS-UK For those of you who have read the first two novels and are interested in the synopsis for The Republic of Thieves, keep reading:

After their adventures on the high seas, Locke and Jean are brought back to earth with a thump. Jean is mourning the loss of his lover and Locke must live with the fallout of crossing the all-powerful magical assassins the Bonds Magi. It is a fall-out that will pit both men against Locke’s own long lost love.

Sabetha is Locke’s childhood sweetheart, the love of Locke's life and now it is time for them to meet again. Employed on different sides of a vicious dispute between factions of the Bonds Sabetha has just one goal – to destroy Locke for ever.

This novel can’t come soon enough. I’ve missed the shenanigans of Locke and Jean, and this will be read the moment I can get my hands on it. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of Lynch’s novels, I strongly recommend you pick up The Lies of Locke Lamora and let yourself sink into the world and the characters’ adventures. You won’t regret it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

“The Executor”, by Jesse Kellerman (Sphere)

The Executor_B.indd

The latest psychological thriller from a new master of the genre.

Things aren’t going well for Joseph Geist. He’s broke. His graduate school advisor won’t talk to him. And his girlfriend has kicked him out of her apartment, leaving him homeless and alone.

It’s a tough spot for a philosopher to be in, and he’s ready to give up all hope of happiness when an ad in the local paper catches his eye.

“Conversationalist wanted,” it reads.

Which sounds perfect to Joseph. After all, he’s never done anything in his life except talk. And the woman behind the ad turns out to be the perfect employer: brilliant, generous, and willing to pay him for making conversation. Before long, Joseph has moved in with her, and has begun to feel very comfortable in her big, beautiful house.

So comfortable, in fact, that he would do anything to stay there—forever.

I first discovered Jesse Kellerman’s writing last year, when I read and reviewed The Brutal Art, a slow-burning noir-ish thriller set in New York City. When The Executor arrived, I was eager to get to it. As a (seemingly perpetual) postgraduate student myself, I could relate pretty quickly to the protagonist of the novel, Joseph Geist. Geist has over-run on his postgraduate studies, suffers from writers’ block, has a tyrannical supervisor (one difference between us – mine’s great), and he finds himself withdrawn from the academic community he is meant to be working within:

“It is proof of the extent of my alienation from colleagues and tutors that I avoided the place unless absolutely necessary, preferring to sequester myself in an abandoned corner of the sixth floor of Widener, where I sulked and pretended to write.”

Given the main character is a philosophy student, it is unsurprising that his research topic features prominently in the story – thankfully, Kellerman is mostly able to avoid the more dense academic jargon, but when he can’t he manages to incorporate it well enough into the story that it won’t detract if you don’t understand. That being said, I would say I even managed to learn a little something from the scenes of conversation between Alma and Joseph.

There’s a dry and often dark wit on display through the first three-quarters of the novel, and when this is coupled with Kellerman’s sparse prose and tight plotting, it makes for an exceptionally enjoyable reading experience.

“These days it's hard to be too suspicious, paranoia no longer a pathology but a mark of savvy.”

Considering that there are plenty of unsavoury topics discussed in the novel (from child abuse to body disposal), Kellerman manages to keep it engaging and interesting, not to mention enjoyable, throughout. The style is very much that of a first-person conversation with Joseph – except for a short section that switches into the second person. The pacing is interesting – despite the high level of dialogue and the generous print-spacing, the pace was more languid – very much like the conversations Joseph must have had with Alma, and I felt myself not getting through it as quickly as I thought, even though I didn’t feel like I was battling to get through it at all.

Joseph is a complex character: a product of an unhealthy family life, and yet still quite narcissistic. You get a sense of his genuine affection and protectiveness for Alma (dithering over where is best to leave her tray of food when she’s unwell, lest she be unable to reach it, or stumble over it), and certainly when it comes to Eric, her nephew. Even if it is predicated on her largesse and generosity, we feel it is still heartfelt. Later in the novel, a number of psychoses emerge, acute paranoia and a general preference for thinking the worse of people’s motivations. In himself, I can imagine many English Literature students would find plenty to write and study about Joseph, in terms of motivations, greed, dependency and so forth. He’s one of the most intricately-drawn characters I’ve read in a while – without the hint of a whiff of cliché about him. Greed cannot be disconnected from his eventual actions and state-of-mind:

“I had come to take for granted that I should have food and shelter and books and beautiful objects; I had come to possess these things in my mind, so that they were not luxuries to be wary of but necessities to plan around.”

Eric is an obnoxious character (interestingly, I dislike him for exactly the same reasons as Joseph does), and one who so obviously abuses his aunt’s generosity and sense of responsibility. In particular, during the conversation he has with Joseph at the Irish Pub over lunch, his true scheming  and selfish nature come fully realised. Predatory, somewhat sociopathic and opportunistic, he is an interesting (if not entirely opposite) foil for Joseph.

Alma is a great character. She has a cheeky wit, and you get a real sense of the sparkle that still infuses her (when she’s well). This makes her the perfect old lady, and exceptionally endearing – I almost wish my own grandmother was like her.

Kellerman’s writing is very good at making you care for characters. The events of pages 251-2, for example, almost brought a tear to my eye (not going to spoil it, you’ll just have to read the novel); this is something a book hasn’t done for many years, and something only three episodes of West Wing seem capable of. Perhaps I’m dead inside… Kellerman’s ability to make you care for his characters is his genius.

Joseph’s eventual predicament is interesting, his final state of peace not what one might expect. It follows a truly bizarre, fevered section that was uncomfortable to read, but as always with Kellerman, expertly written to create an atmosphere of disconnected confusion and paranoia, brilliantly rendering Joseph’s fractured state of mind, torturing himself and, in a way, those around him.

This is a superb novel, and Kellerman continues to grow and improve with each new release. After reading just two of his novels, Kellerman has become one of my favourite authors.

The Executor comes very highly recommended, and Kellerman is an exceptional talent.

“The Poison Throne”, by Celine Kiernan (Orbit)

 Review by Alyssa Mackenzie


The first instalment of the exciting new Moorehawke Trilogy

Young Wynter Moorehawke returns to court with her dying father. But her old home is cloaked in fear.

The once benevolent King Jonathon is now a violent despot, terrorising his people while his son Alberon plots a coup from exile. Then darkness spreads as the King appoints Alberon’s half-brother Razi as heir. Wynter must watch her friend obey his father’s untenable commands, as those they love are held to ransom.

And at the heart of matters lies a war machine so lethal that none dare speak of it. The kingdom would belong to its master, yet the consequences of using it are too dire to consider. But temptation has ever been the enemy of reason.

The narrative of The Poison Throne unfolds through the perspective of Wynter, a character who embodies many contradictions within her world. She is a woman and also a high-ranking apprentice to her father, a carpenter, and a commoner practicing a trade, with a title and a position in court. Most importantly, because she is returning to the court after a five-year absence, Wynter is at once a knowing insider, skilled in the arts and manoeuvres necessary for survival there, and a newcomer completely unprepared for the world in which she finds herself. Kiernan uses this aspect of Wynter’s perspective to great effect, developing the image of the kingdom as it once was through Wynter’s memories, even as she reveals the extent to which it has changed.

The atmosphere and pacing of the novel are both excellent. At first, the action unfolds slowly, as the strained and threatening mood of the court is revealed to both Wynter and the reader, but the pace quickly picks up, and it seems that every few pages, something is introduced to alter the stakes for the characters. This quick pacing adds to the atmosphere of the novel, creating a world in which everything is precarious. Each new event changes things dramatically for the characters, putting them in a constant state of instability, in which they are, as Wynter’s father Lorcan observes, constantly reacting rather than acting of their own accord:

“React, react, react. No time to plan, no time to organise any kind of defence, before the earth shifts, and the tides turn, and we’re on the move again.”

Kiernan’s characters are well-drawn, and their interactions complex. For me, one of the most compelling relationships in the novel is the one between Lorcan and Jonathon, which at once allows Jonathon the depth of character that prevents him from being merely a one-dimensional villain, and reveals a shared history that is crucial to the political situation at hand. Kiernan’s greatest strength is the extent to which she allows the essentially political action of her novel to play out through the relationships and actions of her characters. Because of the close relationships Wynter and her father have with King Jonathon and his family, each and every political act in the novel has, for them, a personal resonance, and each piece of information arrives charged with emotional as well as political significance.

Early in my reading of The Poison Throne, I had a few reservations. I found myself somewhat baffled by Wynter’s reactions to other characters; specifically, her initial distrust of Christopher, with very little real cause, and her intense devotion to Razi, who she has not seen or heard from for five years. However, as I read on, and the nature of the world of the court and Wynter’s history with Razi was revealed, these concerns faded away.

There are a few kinks in the writing that need to be ironed out (for example, a tendency to over-use specific adjectives when introducing new characters: “tomcat” for Christopher and “shock-haired” for Jerome occur all too often when these characters first appear).

Overall, however, this is a great read, and I look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

Highly recommended.

For Fans of: Trudi Canavan, Robin Hobb, N.K. Jemisin, Glenda Larke

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Quick Pratchett Update

Ah, it’s that time of year again, when more information is released about Terry Pratchett’s next release. This time, it’s another Tiffany Aching novel (young adult series), and it’s called I Shall Wear Midnight. Amazon UK have the artwork, which is below (sorry for the poor quality image, it’s a screen-capture):

Pratchett-IShallWearMidnight I’ve not been able to find a synopsis, although one frequent piece of information is that it is the “concluding” novel of the Tiffany Aching series.

I’ve also managed to find the possible US artwork:

Pratchett-IShallWearMidnightUSI’ve liked this series ever since the first book, The Wee Free Men. The story was great, the characters interesting and all with the Pratchett magic touch. Particularly for me, the Wee Free Men themselves – or, the Nac Mac Feegle, as they are really known – are a genius creation from an author who has already given us so many interesting creatures and so much entertainment.

I Shall Wear Midnight will apparently be released in the UK on September 2nd 2010 (Doubleday), and in the US on September 28th 2010 (HarperCollins).

So, anyway: Crivens!

[On a slightly-related note, the next Moist Van Lipwig novel will apparently be called Raising Taxes, but not sure when it will appear]

“Star Wars: Vector, Parts 1 & 2” (Dark Horse)

SW-Vector-1The first half of Dark Horse’s Era-Spanning Star Wars epic

I’ve never reviewed a graphic novel before, so I’m not entirely sure how to go about it. Also, given the number of people involved, it will require a slightly different format.

Star Wars: Vector is an attempt by the powers that be at Dark Horse to create their first era-spanning Star Wars story arc, in the same vein as the highly successful Marvel and DC cross-over series. It is comprised of four parts, each from one of the Star Wars comic book series: Knights of the Old Republic, Dark Times, Rebellion, and Legacy. I shall deal with each part separately here and in another review, which I will do in the future (more on that at the end of this post).

Part 1: Knights of the Old Republic, Vol.5


Story: John Jackson Miller

Pencils: Scott Hepburn

Inks: Joe Pimentel & Dan Parsons

Colours: Michael Atiyeh

Lettering: Michael Heisler

What begins as a vision of a Sith threat stretching far into the future becomes a dangerous mission for Jedi operative Celeste Morne. Dispatched to a war zone, Celeste must prevent the object from the vision – a Sith artifact known as the Muur Talisman – from falling into the hands of the Mandalorian invaders. But when she crosses paths with Zayne Carrick, a Jedi Padawan who has been framed for murder by Celeste’s masters, her mission begins to unravel, putting her on a collision course with the power of the Talisman and a Mandalorian army set to attack the Republic.

Being used to reading the novels set in the Star Wars universe, it took  a little longer for me to get used to the writing style – not to mention the comic medium – of Vector. The writing is a little more simple, and a little more sensational, which was disappointing, given that graphic novels are not just meant for kids. That being said, it was interesting to see how the Star Wars universe is portrayed in other mediums beyond the movies, video games and the novels.

Jackson’s script is interesting and the interaction between Zayne and Gryph is fun and adds a lighter touch to proceedings. Morne is highly serious, focussed and cranky, which adds an opposite voice and perspective. The end of the first chapter of Vector was certainly effecting, featuring a noble act of sacrifice and a terrible – yet necessary – act.

The art is intriguing, and certainly very colourful, bringing the universe to life on the page. I do have one criticism, though, and this is probably an odd one: chins. For some reason, everyone’s chin or jaw-line seems to distort quite dramatically at time, which makes Morne come across slightly simian in some panels. A minor point, but it’s something that niggled at me.

This part of the series actually made me really interesting in reading the rest of the Knights of the Old Republic series, but I’m not sure if I’ll get a chance to any time soon. I will certainly keep my eye out for the books, though.

Part 2: Dark Times, Vol.3

SW-DT-VectorStory: Mick Harrison

Art: Douglas Wheatley & Dave Ross

Colours: Dave McCaig

Lettering: Michael Heisler

More than four thousand years later, in the aftermath of the Republic’s transformation into the Empire, the potential power of the Talismn comes to the attention of Darth Vader. Luring the smugglers who are unwittingly in possession of the artefact to a remote moon, Vader plans to acquire the artefact for himself. But the Talisman – and the malevolent spirit of the ancient Sith which resides within – has not survived the centuries alone. To claim his prize, Vader must face not only powerful Sith magic, but the fury of a Jedi Knight of the Old Republic.

My immediate observation for this second chapter in the Vector line, is that it is a lot darker and grittier (at least, as much as Star Wars can get away with). Everything from Mick Harrison’s story, to Douglas Wheatley and Dave Ross’s art, and Dave McCaig’s colouring, gives this part a darker, gloomier and slightly sinister feel (appropriate, given the title of the timeline it’s in). The centrality of Vader is great – and should appeal to fans of The Force Unleashed (which, strangely, I still haven’t read; but I have recently purchased the game) and anything else Vader-related.

The story for this chapter of Vector is much shorter, which was a pity, given how well written and drawn it was. We learn a little more about Vader, a tiny bit more about the Talisman and the Dark Side. Just as with the first chapter in the series, I was sufficiently intrigued by the Dark Times setting that this is another series I would be interested in exploring more of.

Overall, then, I would say I’m glad I read this, and I’m glad I’ve got the second book already, as well as the first three Legacy books on the way. It’s been a really long time since I last read a proper graphic novel (the Obama one doesn’t count), and it was a very nostalgic experience. I don’t think they’ll ever replace novels, as they don’t feel as involved or as satisfying as a 300+ page novel.

As a big fan of the Star Wars universe and mythos, I certainly welcome anything new that can expand on the overall story. An interesting and rewarding reading experience.

*     *     *

The final two parts of the Vector timeline will be reviewed later, as I am also working on a review of the Legacy series, of which the final part of Vector forms a crucial part. In order to not spoil the story of Legacy, therefore, I will postpone the second Vector review until I catch up with Legacy.

(By then I might also have figured out a better way to review graphic novels…)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

“The Edge of the World”, by Kevin J. Anderson (Orbit)

Originally reviewed in June 2009, with the release of the mass market paperback edition and the sequel, The Map of all Things, I thought it worthwhile to re-post my review of The Edge of the World. So, here it is:


An exceptional start to a new fantasy series from an established master

After generations of friction, the leaders of two lands meet in the holy city of Ishalem to bring an end to the bloodshed and to divide the world between them.

Sadly, this new spirit of fellowship is short-lived. A single tragic accident destroys, in minutes, the peace that took years to build. The world is once more cast into the fires of war – and this time the flames may burn until nothing remains. From the highest lord to the lowest servant, no man or woman will be unchanged by the conflict.

But while war rages across both continents, a great quest will defy storms and sea serpents to venture beyond the horizon, where no maps exist – to search for a land out of legend. It is a perilous undertaking, but there will always be the impetuous, the brave and the mad who are willing to leave their homes to explore the unknown.

Even unto the edge of the world…

This is a gripping and immersive, multi-layered tale of war, adventure, sacrifice, loss, Machiavellian politics, revenge, and tragedy.

The Edge of the World is that rare fantasy novel that hooks you from the very beginning. Even though Anderson is creating a whole new world, the reader is never left feeling lost, and we quickly feel at home with his characters (so much so, that even minor characters who are killed off are a surprise). The story is told from a number of perspectives, each from different strata of Tierran and Urbecan society, with their own unique voices and approaches to the world around them: the rulers of the two nations and their offspring, witnessing events spiral out of control; Criston Vora, a young shipman on the Luminara; Adrea, Criston’s new wife, taken captive by Uraban raiders; Hannes, a former spy for Tierra’s church of Aiden, horribly burned and in the custody of an Uraban queen, trying to get home and serve his own, brutal version of his religion.

It’s actually very difficult to review this book: if I were to go into much detail, it would require describing and spoiling a good deal of the plot and some of the twists and surprises along the way. Needless to say, the work and imagination Anderson has poured into the novel is impressive. Over the course of the novel he slowly builds our understanding of the three cultures (the two previously mentioned, and also the Saedran) and their people. It is a fascinating world, and one that can’t fail to offer endless possibilities for the future.

What’s particularly interesting about this world and this novel, is Anderson’s ability to make the world feel familiar, even though it is so very different from our own. Universal issues, such as loss, religious zeal, love and vengeance are all major parts of Anderson’s story. The trials his characters endure help shape them and their trajectory through the story, each thread connecting at some point, just the right moment to send things in a new direction (particularly towards the end of the novel). Best of all, he’s managed to avoid pretty much every fantasy cliché, which makes for a highly original novel.

Anderson has managed to get the balance between the various strands right, and doesn’t chop and change too frequently between them. Rather, he gives us just enough to keep us reading, to keep us engaged and involved with the story, and also enough to become attached to all his characters. As the story progresses, over the span of a couple of decades, you will find yourself immersed in the story, eager to find out what happens, but equally not wanting it to end (that this is “book one” means it won’t end – at least for a long while, anyway).

Without doubt one of the best new fantasy series in many years, it belongs alongside the greats of the genre. From Anderson, who has written 46 international bestsellers, one would expect little else. Easily the most engaging fantasy novel released this year (thus far), and an immediate favourite of mine.

An engrossing, sweeping fantasy epic, The Edge of the World is essential reading for all.

Also try: Scott Lynch, Daniel Abraham, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, Richard Morgan, Brian Ruckley, Robert V.S. Redick

This Week’s Acquisitions

Just a quick post, highlighting some of the releases I’ve received this week for review. A lot from Orbit (always lovely), and a couple of others that were worth attention. First, however, a photo of the nice pile of books…

20100520-BookAcquisitionsThe bottom two are foreign policy/international relations books I’ve been sent for teaching/PhD, so probably not of as much interest to readers of this site. That being said, for those who are, Bruce Jentleson’s American Foreign Policy (Norton) is one of the best, accessible, and exhaustive introductions to US foreign policy available. This addition includes material on Obama’s presidency, and a few more case studies.

Now, to the fiction, which is far more interesting. (As before, I’ll provide synopses, artwork, and maybe a sentence or two of observation.)


Kevin J. Anderson, “The Map of All Things” (Orbit)

After terrible atrocities by both sides, the religious war between Tierra and Uraba has spread and intensified: the series of skirmishes erupting into a full-blown crusade.

Now that the Uraban leader Soldan-Shah Omra has captured the ruined city of Ishalem, his construction teams discover a priceless ancient map in an underground vault – a map that can guide brave explorers to the mysterious Key to Creation. Omra dispatches his adoptive son Saan to sail east across the uncharted Middlesea on a quest to find it.

In Tierra, Captain Criston Vora has built a grand new vessel, and sets out to explore the great unknown and find the fabled land of Terravitae. But Criston cannot forget his previous voyage that ended in shipwreck and disaster . . . and the loss of his beloved wife Adrea – who is now the wife of the soldan-shah in far-off Uraba, fighting to survive against palace intrigues and constant threats against her life.

The sequel to The Edge of the World, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this novel ever since I finished the first in the series, which is one of my favourite fantasy novels ever. I imagine this will be reviewed pretty soon (it’s rather long, which is great, but does slow down the reviewing process…). Anticipation for this is very high indeed.


Mira Grant, “Feed” (Orbit)

The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop. The infection spread, virus blocks taking over bodies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED.

Now, twenty years after the Rising, bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives – the dark conspiracy behind the infected. The truth will get out, even if it kills them.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of zombie movies or books, but I’ve bee hearing an almost unanimously positive buzz surrounding this book. I shall endeavour to get to this as soon as possible, but I must admit that it’s not the highest on my priority list.


K.J. Parker, “The Folding Knife” (Orbit)

Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. Basso the Murderer. The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic is an extra-ordinary man.

He is ruthless, cunning and, above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he’s only ever made one mistake.

One mistake, though, can be enough.

I’ve always thought the premises of Parker’s novels are great. I’ve not read many, but The Company was very good, if a little slow. This, unfortunately, seems to be a standard criticism of Parker’s writing – that it can sometimes slow to an unbearable crawl. That being said, I love the political-intrigue-in-a-pseudo-Rome premise of The Folding Knife, so again this will be reviewed hopefully pretty soon.

Untitled-8Rachel Neumeier, “Lord of the Changing Winds” (Orbit)

The desert winds have come to the village of Menas Ford. Griffins, creatures of fire, have appeared in a burning haze, turning the sky a blazing golden-red and the land to dry, cracked earth. These majestic beasts, half-lion, half-eagle, spread the arid desert wherever they roam.

Iaor, the King of Feierabiand, will not tolerate the destruction of his people’s farmland. Sending forth his army, he means to rid the griffins from his domain – whether by negotiation or brute force.

But not all those who encounter the griffins fear them. Kes, a timid village girl with hidden mage powers, is summoned to heal the King of the Griffins himself. She will discover her affinity with these creatures, and may be the only one to understand the importance of their presence. For they are fleeing a menace which poses a greater threat to her people than even the blazing fires of the desert.

I’ve never heard of Rachel Neumeier before, but I’ve also not heard of much fantasy fiction where griffins take a central role. So, through perceived originality, I’m quite interested in giving this a try. It’s not too long, and the start of a series (The Griffin Mage), so there’s potential for long reading enjoyment if it’s well written.

Newton-CityOfRuin Mark Charan Newton, “City of Ruin” (Tor)

Villiren: a city of sin that is being torn apart from the inside. Hybrid creatures shamble through shadows and barely human gangs fight turf wars for control of the streets.

Amidst this chaos, Commander Brynd Lathraea, commander of the Night Guard, must plan the defence of Viliren against a race that has broken through from some other realm and already slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the Empire’s people.

When a Night Guard soldier goes missing, Brynd requests help from the recently arrived Inqusitor Jeryd. He discovers this is not the only disapearance the streets of Villiren. It seems that a serial killer of the most horrific kind is on the loose, taking hundreds of people from their own homes. A killer that cannot possibly be human.

The entire population of Villiren must unite to face an impossible surge of violent and unnatural enemies or the city will fall. But how can anyone save a city that is already a ruin?

I really enjoyed The Nights of Villjamur (which was one of the earliest books I reviewed for the site), the first in the Legends of the Red Sun series, even if it did take a little getting used to. This is, however, very high up on my to-read list, so expect the review just after I do Kevin J. Anderson’s The Map of All Things.


“Star Wars: Vector, Parts 1 & 2” (Dark Horse)

Era-Spanning Star Wars Graphic Novel Epic

From the ancient past of ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ through to the grim, post-Yuuzhan Vong War future of ‘Legacy’, this is the ultimate "Star Wars" event!

When the secret Jedi Covenant are horrified by a vision of the far future, operative Celeste Morne is despatched to the planet Taris, where she encounters an ancient Sith artefact, a Mandalorian army, and rogue Padawan Zayne Carrick. Then, four thousand years later, the crew of the Uhumele also meet Celeste Morne - and the dread Sith lord Darth Vader.

Taking in every period of "Star Wars" comics continuity, ‘Vector’ stands both as a thrilling tale in its own right and a superb introduction to the "Star Wars" comics universe!

I’ve never reviewed a graphic novel before, but I’ve got a lot of Star Wars books coming in the near future, so I figured I’d review them for the site. (I had to take out all the “!”s in the synopsis, tone it down, because it was a little ridiculous.) First up, Part 1 of Vector, which I should do sometime this week, work permitting. I’ll review part 2 later, as it falls in the middle of the Legacy story, which I won’t have for a little while, but will be reviewed on here. It’s also a long time since I read any Star Wars graphic novels, so it will be a rather nostalgic endeavour, I’m sure.


Justin Cronin, “The Passage” (Orion)

Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she's the most important person in the whole world. She is.

Anthony Carter doesn't think he could ever be in a worse place than Death Row. He's wrong.

FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming. It is.

Deep in the jungles of eastern Colombia, Professor Jonas Lear has finally found what he's been searching for - and wishes to God he hadn't. In Memphis, Tennessee, a six-year-old girl called Amy is left at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and wonders why her mother has abandoned her. In a maximum security jail in Nevada, a convicted murderer called Giles Babcock has the same strange nightmare, over and over again, while he waits for a lethal injection. In a remote community in the California mountains, a young man called Peter waits for his beloved brother to return home, so he can kill him.

Bound together in ways they cannot comprehend, for each of them a door is about to open into a future they could not have imagined. And a journey is about to begin. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man's darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human.

And beyond.

This is a much-hyped beast of a novel from debut author Cronin. I’m not 100% sure what sort of novel it is, but the buzz surrounding it is hard to ignore. I received this through Amazon’s Vine Program, so I’ll get to it pretty soon, with luck, but considering the roster of other weighty tomes that need to be read before this, it might still take some time. I’m eager to get to it, though.

*   *   *

So, those are the books that deserve the most attention of late (there are others, but I’ll be reviewing them before these, so thought they didn’t need quite as much exposure).

Needless to say, I am going to be busy happily reading through all of these over the next couple of months.

Monday, May 17, 2010

“Shadow of Power”, by Steve Martini (Harper)

Martini-ShadowOfPowerAn Intelligent Thriller, let down by unfortunate Pacing Issues

A writer is savagely slain while on a publicity tour – a literary provocateur who craved headlines, but whose last book may have gone too far. His revelations about secret language buried in the U.S. Constitution – and hints about an explosive missing letter of Thomas Jefferson’s – may be enough to cause an irreparable tear in the fabric of the nation… and perhaps drove a volatile youth to homicide.

But Paul Madriani thinks a troubled young man with dark connections has been chosen as a scapegoat to cover up something far deadlier that festers in America’s political heart. And in the wake of the strange disappearance of a Supreme Court Judge, Madriani must survive long enough to find the devastating answers hidden in the shadow of power.

I must first admit to taking a long time to figure out what all the fuss is about, here. The ‘firebrand’ author has written a book about the fact that the language of slavery (the 3/5ths rule, the Fugitive Slave Clause, and so forth) is still in the US Constitution, even though Amendments have made it ‘dead letter law’. Because of this book, riots and new calls for revolution are reverberating around the media and agitated and concerned citizens. Ok, fine. But why is it such a big deal? As lead protagonist Madriani says, “Since none of this is new – that language has been there for what, going on two and a half centuries? – why now?” Thankfully, Martini does do a good job of explaining it, even though I do consider it a weaker premise than could have been formulated.

One thing that I noticed very early on is that Martini is a very gifted writer: his prose, while not as fast-paced as Grisham’s or Sandford’s, are crafted to draw you along with the story; offering just enough to keep you reading; revealing just enough to keep you guessing. The historical detail is superb, and because of my own existing interest in all things American, added another element and further layers to the novel that engaged me. Equally, Martini offers lots of commentary and explanation of legal practices, tactics and specifics, which certainly helped expand my knowledge of US criminal law.

For this reason, the afterword is also excellent, shining a light on the history of the ‘Jefferson Letter’ and the Founding Fathers’ deliberations and struggles with the slavery issue. I must say, I always like it when authors provide such afterwords (James Rollins and David Baldacci's are always of particular interest).

That being said, there was one major weakness with the novel, and that’s the issue of pacing. Specifically, that it is uneven: at times, things move along briskly and I found myself sinking into the story, but at other times it dragged as the author gets bogged down in passages of detail, legalities, and history - all interesting, but at times the delivery was overly clunky. The scenes in the courtroom, too, sometimes drag on, as Madriani seems to play ‘gotcha’ with almost all the witnesses for the prosecution. The most interesting bits were in between court scenes, as Madriani and his partners search for Justice Ginnis and the ‘J Letter’, when the novel was more ‘political intrigue’ and less ‘legal thriller’.

If the pacing had been streamlined, then Shadow of Power would have been an excellent novel: believable characters, and interesting and intelligent plot, and excellent prose-writing.

This was my first novel by Martini, and I’d be willing to accept that I was perhaps hoping for something more akin to John Grisham and John Sandford, something more thrilling. I will, however, be reading at least one more novel by the author: I already own the eBook for the next in the series, Guardian of Lies, which appears to be another thriller with historical roots (that the CIA is involved in the conspiracy only makes it more enticing).

For Fans of: John Sandford, John Grisham, Scott Turow, Kyle Mills, James Twining, David Baldacci, William Bernhardt, Stuart Woods, Richard North Patterson, David Silva, Christopher Reich

Book Reading Habits Meme

I know a lot of bloggers have been posting answers to these questions (I have no clue where they originated, now), but saw them on Genre Reader and Walker of Worlds, thought their answers were quite interesting, started thinking of my own answers, so figured I would post them here, in case you’re interested.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snack:

I don’t think I have any specific favourite. Tiffins are always nice, but really I’ve always got a book in my hand, so chances are I’ll eat something while reading. Fruit is actually probably quite high up there. Apples, School Bars (not just for kids!), and perhaps popcorn or crisps/chips.

What is your favorite drink while reading?

Easily coffee, but peppermint tea will suffice if I think I’ve had enough caffeine for one day. (It would be an understatement to say I am fond on coffee.)

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

Mark or write in any of my books and you will die. I barely open them to read, so many of mine (unless I lent them to my sister) are still pristine. Treat them well, they’ll last longer. (This, actually, is one wonderful side-benefit of eBooks – can’t ruin them!)

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?

Usually use one of those post-it sticky note thing (the thin ones, sometimes they look like arrows). Means I can put the marker directly on the paragraph I need to start at next time. If I’m just stopping for a moment, I may carefully place them open on bed/chair/desk.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?

Everything. Usually I’ll have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go, but because I’m doing a PhD, I usually have about three or four non-fiction on the go. Fiction is a nice escape, but I never have more than one on the go.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?

Depends on the book. In the evenings, unless I’m falling asleep while reading, I’ll get to the end of the chapter. During the day, it all depends on what I’m doing. Also, some authors don’t do chapters! Terry Pratchett never used to, so I got used to just stopping at the end of scenes.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

No, I’ll just quietly close it, and put it on the Bottom Shelf of Book Doom (where books go to be forgotten), until I do an Oxfam clear-out.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

Not really. If I’m really stuck, and there’s nobody around to ask (I know a lot of English Literature/Studies PhD students), then I’ll just keep reading. Good authors can make the meaning clear through the rest of the scene. I honestly can’t think of the last time I didn’t understand a (real) word, though.

What are you currently reading?

Martini-ShadowOfPower Steve Martini’s Shadow of Power (first one of his I’ve ever read, and it’s good if unevenly paced). I’m also about to start Laura Bush’s memoir, Spoken From The Heart. For my PhD, I have Julian Zelizer’s Arsenals of Democracy and Stephen Graubard’s The Presidents on the go.

What is the last book you bought?

James Mann’s The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan and Sam Sykes’s The Tome of the Undergates

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?

Oops, already answered this – see the “Fiction, non-fiction, both?” answer.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?

Anytime and anywhere. I particularly like to read on trains and planes, but also in coffee shops. I do most of my pleasure reading in the evening in bed, though.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?

Don’t think I have a preference. For reviews, I prefer stand-alones or new series, because I often don’t have the chance to catch up with entire, long series. That being said, the character development allowed through series is something I do love. So, I guess no preference.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

Fiction: Terry Pratchett, Anne Rice, Kevin J. Anderson, Timothy Zahn, Scott Lynch

Non-Fiction: David Lampton, Stefan Halper, James Mann, Robert Dallek, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger

How do you organize your books?

By author, but I do split Non-Fiction and Fiction. I really hate it when people move things, too…

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

“Shamanslayer”, by Nathan Long (Black Library)

Long-ShamanslayerThe ever-entertaining adventures of Gotrek and Felix continue into the 11th novel!

When Gotrek and Felix travel north to seek the remaining members of the Order of the Fiery Heart, they find themselves with new companions and allegiances.

Of course they have heard the rumours of beastmen lurking in the Drakwald, but there is far more to the story than they could have imagined.

The malignant forces of Chaos are at work, and Gotrek and Felix find themselves battling not only for their honour, but for the very future of the Empire itself.

Picking up almost immediately after the end of Elfslayer, we find Felix at the doors of his father’s home in Altdorf, seeking closure and answers to what he discovered in his previous adventure. Events, as always, have a tendency to get in the way of the best-laid plans, and he is confronted by a Knight of the Order of the Fiery Heart, who lays claim to the sword he has carried since the earliest short-stories to feature our indomitable heroes. Thanks to the intervention of an enthusiastic squire, however, Felix is granted custody of the sword in return for helping Teobalt, the last remaining, elderly knight of the Order. The other members of his Order rode north to battle the invading forces of Chaos, but no word has been heard of or from them for some time, so Teobalt is insistent that Felix and Gotrek must retrieve the Order’s sacred relics. After a brief, violent stay in a northern town under the thumb of a corrupt former soldier, our heroes head off in pursuit of the band of beastman the Order supposedly was hunting before they disappeared.

Some of the new characters we’re introduced to are welcome additions to the series. Specifically, knightly novitiate Ortwin’s admiration of Felix and Gotrek, based on his reading of My Travels With Gotrek (the great work Felix is turning Gotrek’s tale into), makes Felix uncomfortable, and unable to dissuade Ortwin of the folly of thinking adventuring to be grand and romantic; Felix takes on a sense of responsibility for the squire, which offers up some amusing moments as our heroes’ world-weary cynicism comes face-to-face with Ortwin’s youthful enthusiasms and worldly innocence.

A couple of previously-featured characters return, too. Snorri Nosebiter, the fiercely-loyal yet slightly simple and addled slayer who has accompanied Gotrek and Felix in many past adventures – now suffering the ravages of age on a mind and body that has been put through some of the most brutal punishment imaginable. Snorri’s predicament occupies Gotrek’s mind a fair bit, as he sees his friend struggle and silently suffer; it’s a touching aspect added to Gotrek’s usually stony character. Kat – last seen as a 7 year old orphan in Trollslayer – has grown up to be an adventurer and smiter of Chaos beasts herself, and is another youth in awe of Felix and Gotrek’s achievements. In Shamanslayer, she also plays the role of love-interest, which makes Felix somewhat conflicted; and, as often is the case, saves Felix’s life a couple times.

One thing that is almost immediately apparent with this eleventh novel in the series, is that Nathan Long seems to have located the classic fun and feel that characterised earlier volumes. Shamanslayer was, for me, more reminiscent of William King’s first handful of novels (particularly Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer and Dragonslayer) than some of the other recent novels: the mixture of swashbuckling-yet-realistic adventure, a good sense of humour, and a well-paced plot all mesh perfectly to create an exciting, engaging and enjoyable read.

Another considerable improvement is the author’s description of the atmosphere and environments experienced on the quest – they are far more evocative than in Elfslayer (a good, if slightly uneven instalment of the series), and I found it easy to imagine almost every scene in great detail. The close, dark menace of the beast-populated Drakwald Forest is brought brilliantly to life on the page, and it’s easy to appreciate the disorienting nature of it as Felix and friends at times run blindly through it at night, pursued by enemies.

The action scenes are well-written and fast-paced, therefore not ruining the quick pace of the plot (it’s a frequent problem when they are over-written); the antagonists (be they human or beast) are satisfyingly portrayed, just evil or bad enough to make us dislike them while avoiding cartoon-like villainy; and our heroes remain grounded and realistic. The particularly ‘special’ aspect of the beastman herd in the novel is a pretty horrific ability (not to mention an inventive one), and one that would truly have dire consequences for the Empire if allowed to travel further into its territory.

Overall, then, this is exemplary and gripping fantasy writing. Irrespective of whether or not you are a fan of the world, or familiar with the setting, Shamanslayer is a great fantasy adventure.

Entertaining, yet also detailed and thoughtful, this is a very highly recommended novel and an excellent addition to the series.

Series Chronology: Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer, Beastslayer, Vampireslayer, Giantslayer, Orcslayer, Manslayer, Elfslayer, Shamanslayer, Zombieslayer (released)

[If you would like to purchase any books in the Gotrek & Felix series, or the new spin-off series featuring some favourite characters, visit Black Library’s web-store, here.]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

“Circus of Sins”, by Natasha Rhodes (Solaris)


Vampires, Werewolves, and the end of the World… A recipe for excellence?

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…

Circus of Sin is based on an excellent premise, and reading about the book I was very interested in getting into it. Sadly, however, it proved a lot more difficult than expected.

It took me quite some time to warm up to the heroin, or sink into the story – thankfully, Rhodes offers some condensed exposition and catch-up for new readers. But, considering this takes place a mere three weeks after the second book in the series, The Last Angel, it was almost inevitable that it might take a while to get into it; I felt a little like someone who had arrived late to the party, and definitely that I’d missed out by not reading the first two books in the series.

There are other issues, however. Namely, that the novel unfortunately comes across as over-written at times, and sometimes repetitive in redundant and annoying ways, as the author resorts to tautologies: for example, making a point of describing Harlequin as the master vampire twice within two pages, as if we might have forgotten who he was (and that he’s prominently mentioned in the back-cover synopsis...). At another point, she uses three (not great) analogies, in a row, to explain who the Seekers/Avenging Angels. Sadly, none of the analogies feel fully formed, and this might explain why three were attempted. One of them is:

“In case you don’t know what they do, imagine humanity as a screaming two-year-old having a tantrum and God as the Father. Avenging Angels are God’s belt, a tool he uses to dispense justice to the world.”

There are moments in the novel where I was thrown a little – not always a bad thing, as it sometimes made me chuckle – as Rhodes threw the plot or a specific situation in a direction I had not been expecting. For an amusing example, take she identifies some werewolves: Harlem, Flame, Jackdoor, and... um... Mitzi. The latter, by the way, is male. This made me smile, and is a good indicator of the quirky sense of humour that runs throughout the novel, one that Rhodes injects into the novel at decent intervals and to good effect.

One thing that cannot go without being mentioned, however, is the must-be-meant-to-be-Cockney accent that Monster sometimes has. It’s irritating in the extreme; “Stone the bleedin’ crows... What the ’ell happened to you?” British people don’t all speak like this!

Overall, and as already mentioned, I had difficulty getting into this novel. It feels over-written and in desperate need of another editorial do-over, or at least a little more input from the editor, who should have helped streamline the novel by utilising his/her red pen to greater effect. Dan Abnett’s recommendation on the back of the book was sadly off the mark: “Taut and gripping. Natasha Rhodes’s prose is that precious thing: the stuff you just can’t put down…” Unfortunately, I had a little bit of trouble picking them up in the first place, and the ‘tautness’ of the novel is certainly up for debate.

The premise promised so much potential for an interesting and original supernatural thriller, but it was sadly let down by the writing itself, though not all of it. Rhodes has a great imagination, and has created some interesting characters and a world filled with possibilities for dark fantasy fun. The book could, however, probably have done with losing 100 pages or so.

I wanted to like this novel, but sadly I just couldn’t get to the point of feeling involved in it, or invested in the characters. Therefore, a cautious recommendation; only try this if you’re prepared to give it the time and – unfortunate to have to use this word – effort. Maybe with time Rhodes and her editor will become a little more confident in cutting tautologies and extraneous or superfluous passages that hinder the flow and pace of the novel.

(N.B. I will happily accept that I’m not overly familiar with the genre, so don’t know how this measures up to others of its ilk. So, if I have somehow just ‘not got it’, then I recommend seeking other opinions and reviews from those more versed in the ways of supernatural thrillers/urban fantasy.)

[If anyone has an alternative perspective or opinion, I will happily publish it on here if you email it to me, or post it as a comment.]

Monday, May 10, 2010

“The Anniversary Man”, by R.J. Ellory (Orion)


A gripping, slow-burning, and dark thriller set in New York City

Twenty years ago, John Costello's life, as he knew it, ended. He and his beautiful girlfriend, Nadia, were victims of the deranged ‘Hammer of God’ killer who terrorised New Jersey City throughout the summer of 1984. Nadia was killed instantly. John survived, but withdrew from society, emerging only to work as a crime researcher for a major newspaper. Damaged he may be, but no one in New Jersey knows more about serial killers than John Costello.

Then a new spate of murders starts – all seemingly random and unrelated – until John discovers a complex pattern that links them. But could this dark knowledge be about to threaten his life?

The serial killer to end all serial killers is out there and only one person in the whole city knows it...

This is the first novel by Ellory that I’ve ever read – for some reason, despite the considerable advertising and excellent reviews I’ve read for books such as A Quiet Belief in Angels and A Simple Act of Violence (which I have recently bought in eBook format), I just never got around to reading one of his books. So, I finally put everything else aside and picked up The Anniversary Man (which I had, actually, been waiting for in paperback). Given the considerable encomiums that Ellory’s writing receives, I came to the novel expecting to be slightly disappointed, but hopeful that it would live up to the hype. Thankfully, The Anniversary Man proved a very satisfying read.

One thing that struck me is how strange it was that the introduction to the novel was 43-pages long, only for the rest of the novel to be made up of short, punchy chapters. It slowed down the start of the novel, especially the hectic structure of the intro, jumping from Costello’s perspective to newspaper articles, to the moment of his attempted murder, and back again. I thought the frequent switching between the past and present in the intro might be frustrating, but it was not – you really get a sense of the character and how the events shaped him, effected him, in some ways broke his mind. It’s very good writing and, even though it’s not quickly paced, I found myself sinking into the narrative.

Everything starts to really fall into place around page 81, with the plot thickening, tension on the rise, and the serial killer angle really kicking in. Ellory’s done a phenomenal amount of research into serial killers and the dark sub-culture that has grown around them; and you’ll learn plenty of disturbing information about America’s worst citizens.

Even though Costello is mentioned prominently in the synopsis, the novel is actually written almost exclusively from the detective in charge of the investigation, Ray Irving’s perspective, as he struggles to solve the growing number of grisly murders, aided by information from Costello, who is not entirely above suspicion given his extensive knowledge of serial murderers and his intimate knowledge of the killings taking place.

The politics of policing, and how they limit Irving’s ability to do his job properly – the lack of support from the department until the story breaks, trumping the electoral necessities – paints a sorry picture of how understaffed the NYPD is, not to mention showing a rather worrying workload for the already stressed and over-worked detectives in New York.

The pacing of the novel felt uneven – it might be, however, that you just need to ensure you have time for the novel. For the first 150 pages or so I was actually pretty busy, so I was only able to read about 20 pages at a time, which stopped me from really sinking into the novel. But, after I managed to block out some proper time for it, I really got sucked into the story and finished it in two (long) sittings. Some passages felt quick and urgent, while others felt slow; with hindsight, this was probably intentional, highlighting the frantic pace Irving worked at in the immediate time after a murder, followed by the suffocating slowness of the waiting and lack of progress between them (the novel takes place from June until December, so you know it’s not going to be as fast-paced as a Patterson or even Sandford novel). The book has the strange characteristic of being both intimate (everyone is named, for example) and yet also slightly detached, which might further explain the peculiar pacing.

The end is sudden, and wasn’t entirely what I expected. This is no bad thing, as I’m disappointed with endings that are predictable or cop-out. With hindsight, the novel could only have ended this way, and Ellory does a good job of making the reader care enough about his characters that the reader should feel a sense of loss as the last few chapters unfold. Any other ending would have felt disappointing or half-cocked, I imagine.

Overall, this was a very satisfying read, and one that – allowed proper time – drew me in until the very end. Ellory’s prose are well crafted and fluid, his dialogue always realistic and completely devoid of cliché or clunky phraseology.

A very gifted writer, I can’t help wondering why it’s taken so long for my to hear about him. It wasn’t until the PR A Quiet Belief In Angels received for being a Richard & Judy Book Club choice that he seemed to get properly noticed.

The Anniversary Man is well worth your time.

For Fans of: John Sandford, early James Patterson, Linwood Barclay, John Grisham

[I’ll be reading and reviewing another of Ellory’s books - A Simple Act Of Violence – very soon, time willing.]