Monday, January 31, 2011

“Vampire Empire: The Greyfriar”, by Clay & Susan Griffith (Pyr)


A bleak, steampunk future; an endless struggle between humans and vampires threatening to erupt in all-out war

In the year 1870, a horrible plague of vampires swept over the northern regions of the world. Millions of humans were killed outright. Millions more died of disease and famine due to the havoc that followed. Within two years, once-great cities were shrouded by the gray empire of the vampire clans. Human refugees fled south to the tropics because vampires could not tolerate the constant heat there. They brought technology and a feverish drive to re-establish their shattered societies of steam and iron amid the mosques of Alexandria, the torrid quietude of Panama, or the green temples of Malaya.

It is now 2020 and a bloody reckoning is coming.

Princess Adele is heir to the Empire of Equatoria, a remnant of the old tropical British Empire. She is quick with her wit as well as with a sword or gun. She is eager for an adventure before she settles into a life of duty and political marriage to a man she does not know. But her quest turns black when she becomes the target of a merciless vampire clan. Her only protector is the Greyfriar, a mysterious hero who fights the vampires from deep within their territory. Their dangerous relationship plays out against an approaching war to the death between humankind and the vampire clans .

The Greyfriar is the first book in the Vampire Earth trilogy of steampunk-horror adventure and alternate history. I had seen an almost endless stream of positive reviews, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hype was not entirely misplaced (indeed, I only have one complaint), and this novel was an enjoyable start to a promising new series. Lots of action, stylishly steampunk, grand politics, an interesting and original take on vampire mythology, and a strong human element all combine to make The Greyfriar a solid and fun read.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“Last Stormlord” & “Stormlord Rising”, by Glenda Larke (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie


“Water is life, and the wells are running dry…”

The Last Stormlord and Stormlord Rising are the first two novels in Glenda Larke’s brilliant new Stormlord Trilogy. With an original world, and a gripping plot, these books are a pleasure to read (despite some early problems with pace), and should leave readers excited and impatient for the final volume.

More Dresden Files to come!

Orbit Books has acquired three new Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher. Commissioning Editor Bella Pagan bought UK and Commonwealth rights from Ritsuko Okumura at Penguin US.


The Dresden Files books have attracted a loyal army of fans and follow the trials and tribulations of Harry Dresden, the only Private Investigator wizard in the Chicago phonebook.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

“The Fallen Blade”, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit)

Untitled-4Act One of The Assassini – Assassins, Venice and Vampires

Venice, 1407. The city is at the height of its powers. In theory, Duke Marco commands, but Marco is a simpleton so his aunt and uncle rule in his stead. They seem all powerful, yet live in fear of assassins better than their own.

On the night their world changes, Marco’s young cousin prays in the family chapel for deliverance from a forced marriage. It is her misfortune to be alone when Mamluk pirates break in to abduct her – an act that will ultimately trigger war.

Elsewhere Atilo, the Duke’s chief assassin, cuts a man’s throat. Hearing a noise, he turns back to find a boy drinking from the victim’s wound. The speed with which the angel-faced boy dodges his dagger and scales a wall stuns Atilo. He knows then he must hunt him. Not to kill him, but because he’s finally found what he thought was impossible – someone fit to be his apprentice.

Award-winning author and master storyteller Jon Courtenay Grimwood turns his hand to fantasy for the first time – with impressive results. In The Fallen Blade, he blends history, politics supernatural fantasy and horror to create a compelling, addictive and dark vision of an alternative Venice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Casual Chat with James Enge (Pyr)

An interview with the creator of Morlock Ambrosius on characters, writing, mythology, and fantasy

James Enge’s third novel, The Wolf Age, was very recently published by Pyr Books. As a newcomer to his work, I thought I’d send him a few questions about his novels, writing and influences, and he was kind enough to take the time to answer them. So, without further ado, here’s the interview...


Morlock Ambrosius is quite an unusual protagonist. Could you tell us a little bit more about him, and also how you came up with the idea of him?

He’s the son of Merlin and Nimue; he’s a gifted maker of things (magical and mundane) with some personal issues (e.g. alcoholism and carrying a torch for his ex-wife); he’s a dangerous person who’s attended by an even darker halo of legends or slanders. As Blood of Ambrose opens he’s several centuries old, which is incredibly ancient by one standard. On the other hand, his father was a thousand years old when Morlock was born, so maybe he’s just hitting his stride.

“Heart’s Blood”, by Juliet Marillier (Tor)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie

Marillier-HeartsBloodAn engaging and original take on a favourite fairy-tale.

A haunted forest. A cursed mansion. One girl running from her past and one man who’s more than he seems to be. A stunning tale of love, betrayal and redemption.

Whistling Tor is a place of secrets, a mysterious, wooded hill housing the crumbling fortress of a chieftain whose name is spoken throughout the district in tones of revulsion and bitterness. A curse lies over Anluan’s family and his people; the woods hold a perilous force whose every whisper threatens doom.

And yet the derelict fortress, which houses both good and evil, is a safe haven for the troubled young scribe Caitrin who is fleeing her own demons. Despite Anluan’s tempers and the mysterious secrets housed in the dark corridors, this place, where nobody else is prepared to go, seems exactly what she needs.

As Caitrin comes to know Anluan and his home she realizes there is more to the broken young man than it first seems. And it is only through her love and determination that the curse can be broken and Anluan and his people set free…

In her adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast”, Juliet Marillier has, in some respects, taken a fairytale and turned it into a ghost story. Heart’s Blood has all the traditional elements of the story: a beautiful young woman, a curse to be broken, a bargain over a plant found in a charmed garden, and magic mirrors. However, Whistling Tor is not an enchanted castle with a monster for a master; it is unsettling more than anything else, and its chieftain is a human being warped by unhappiness. The curse has not turned him into a monster; rather, it has shackled him to a group of violent spirits he must struggle to control.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

“Empire in Black and Gold”, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)


Latecomer Review of the first in the great Shadows of the Apt series

The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilisation, prosperity and sophistication, protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbours.

But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, its killing Art… And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable.

Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people, before a black-and-gold tide sweeps down over the lowlands and burns away everything in its path.

But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.

The Shadows of the Apt novels have been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, and I finally decided that I didn’t want to put off reading it any more. February 2011 sees the release of the sixth book in the series, so I thought this review might also serve as an introduction to new readers. Over the course of the next few months, I intend to catch up and get as many of the novels read and reviewed as possible (in between newer releases).

Before discussing the plot of Empire in Black and Gold, it’s necessary to spend just a little time explaining the most distinctive feature of Tchaikovsky’s creation, and that is the “kinden”: humans in this world display insect characteristics

The Empire in Black and Gold predominantly follows three main paths. The first is that of Stenwold and Tisamon, as their long-held fears of the Wasp Empire slowly become realised. After an initial push of invasion and conquest, the Wasps have been distracted from the Lowlands by a protracted war with the less-advanced Commonweal (the home of Spider-, Mantis-, and Moth-kinden), as well as distracted by uprisings and revolts in newly-subjugated regions. Sadly for Stenwold, who has single-handedly led attempts to awaken his colleagues and peers to the pending threat of invasion, he is pushing against an immovable, entrenched indifference of those comfortable in their knowledge and long-held misperceptions, while also up against the unmovable profiteering manufacturers of Helleron, who are blinded by the business opportunities the Wasp Empire offers.

“The Wasp-kinden, who are described in our oldest records as barbarians primarily interested in cutting each other’s heads off, are an empire now.”

[Incidentally, this is not unlike the reality-check the Chinese and Japanese experienced in the mid-1800s when the ‘Western barbarians’ came knocking at their gates, and imposed the Open Door on them.]

For Stenwold and Tisamon, the novel is a journey come full circle, as the feared Wasp Empire they battled against seventeen years ago is once again rearing its bellicose head.

The novel also follows the journey of four companions after they are sent out from Collegium to gather intelligence on the expanding Wasp Empire: Cheerwell, Stenwold’s Beetle-kinden niece; Tynisa, a spider-kinden adopted by Stenwold; Salma, a confident-yet-enigmatic Dragonfly-kinden and duelling partner of Tynisa and Che; and finally Totho, a mixed-breed engineer who was part of the group’s duelling club and also taught by Stenwold. For the students, Empire in Black and Gold is a coming-of-age story.

The final main narrative of the novel is from Thalric’s perspective, the Wasp Captain and main antagonist of our heroes. Throughout the novel, Thalric must balance his two roles as a Captain in the Imperial army and also as a Rekef Outlander – effectively the Wasp Empire’s secret service and Inquisition. This leads him to question the nature of his loyalty to the Empire and just how far he is willing to go to preserve it.

The novel is certainly eventful, but it never feels over-done, and the experiences of our heroes – particularly the younger four – are all important to illustrate the evolution the characters go through, as they venture from the cloistered, safe world of academic Collegium, and out into the real world. There is something of classical Roman and Greek culture about the Collegium: it is a city-state ruled by a moneyed merchant class and professors, and when Stenwold addresses the ‘Amphiophos’, paintings of the Roman Senate and Forum are easily brought to mind by the scene.

As an introductory novel, Empire in Black and Gold delves into a number of the issues of the world – not just the expanding Wasp Empire, but also social issues that permeate the world’s cultures. Specifically, race and not a little bigotry that informs many inter-species relations. Totho, the ant-beetle halfbreed is a victim of the society in which he lives. Even Stenwold, the elderly sage and mentor of our four young heroes, is not immune to the inherent biases of his people, much to Totho’s disappointment:

“at Collegium he had acquired scholarship and skills, but the weight of his ancestry was like a chain about his ankles. He had all the written rules on his side, and all the unwritten ones working against him.”

My only real issue with the novel was that it took a little long to get going – not relative to the length of the novel (600+ pages), but I was still wondering if things would pick up around page 100 – especially after the great introductory paragraph, which saw Stenwold’s flight from a besieged Myna, seventeen years before the bulk of the novel takes place. When the story picks up, however, I became addicted to both the plot and also the characters: despite their alien insect-natures, Tchaikovsky writes them all in a way guaranteed to engender sympathy for their various plights – be it Cheerwell’s bad luck at getting into dangerous scrapes; Tynisa’s difficult acceptance of her parental heritage; Totho’s struggles with being a half-breed; or Stenwold’s fear for his charges, who he has put into ever-more dangerous position.

The world Tchaikovsky has created, and the characters he has peopled it with, are engaging and brilliantly realised. The ‘insect-kinden’ aspect of his world is inspired and – as far as I’m aware – utterly original. The amount of research and preparation that must have gone in to creating this world is phenomenal. (While reading the book I did discover that Tchaikovsky studied zoology at university, so this would certainly have helped.) After finishing the novel, I was surprised that there was still a lot about the Apt and Art that was left unwritten. This is no bad thing, as it promises future revelations and greater understanding of this trait in other volumes of the series. However, I’d be lying if at times I wasn’t a little confused, particularly towards the beginning of the novel, as aspects of the Apt and Art that I thought were species-specific appeared not to be. I’m eager to start reading the rest of this series as soon as I can. (I’ve heard that, not only does Tchaikovsky explain the Apt in more detail, but he frequently introduces more species of kinden – the possibilities he’s opened his world and novels up to are almost limitless.)

The story is grand in scope, featuring both classic fantasy as well as classic historical themes – I saw some surprising allusions and echoes of classical history in the novel, which were very welcome in a genre that seems to prioritise Machiavelli as its predominant political inspiration (which, don’t get me wrong, is no bad thing in and of itself). Some of the plot elements – the invading outsiders, the personal journeys characters experience, the clockwork/steam-powered technology level, and so forth – may be popular and familiar in the genre, but when you add this to the original genetics and (limited) magic-system, this is a wholly original work of fantasy.

Tchaikovsky’s writing and world-building are superb, and his narrative wraps itself around your imagination like a comforting blanket, and it is oh-so-easy to lose yourself to the story. The pacing of the novel is quite varied – there are more-languid chapters, but the action sequences are great, and the intrigue on all sides is expertly crafted as the plot unfolds.

This is a brilliant fantasy creation, and with many more novels already published and on the horizon, I imagine Tchaikovsky’s work will be delighting fans for many years to come. Knowing that the series continues for a good number of books will also prepare you for the ending – it sets up the rest of the series, and many of the characters in Empire in Black and Gold are recurring in future volumes.

Highly recommended.

Shadows of the Apt: Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, Salute the Dark, The Scarab Path, The Sea Watch (February 2011), Heirs of the Blade (August 2011)

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Website

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fuel for Authors?

Many authors are fuelled by coffee (not to mention academics, journalists, professionals, nurses, transport staff… well, ok, almost everyone), but this is perhaps not the best piece of news.

Starbucks has recently announced a new size of iced drink:


It’s a 31-ounce/916ml drink… That’s huge. The Denver Post has put things into perspective, with this handy graphic:


Frankly, that is an obscene amount of anything, let alone coffee.

The drink would be… well, old by the time you got to the final quarter, so ultimately it would be a complete waste of time and money. The fact that this new size will become available is a sorry indictment of the American “bigger is better” mentality.

Also, is it just me, or can anyone else see a future law-suit about a baby stuck in one of these cups…?

That being said, I do love a good amount of coffee…

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Most Unusual Fantasy Map

So, it’s common for Fantasy novels to come with a map or two printed in the front of the book to give the reader a sense of this new and unfamiliar geography we are about to delve into. Some are exquisite pieces of cartography, complete with major features, cities and the like; or perhaps an intricate street-map of a major metropolis integral to the story. Others are clearly cobbled together because it’s expected, and therefore are less-than-inspiring or interesting.

Debut author Sam Sykes, on the other hand, has something a little different to offer. The UK and US editions of his highly-acclaimed debut novel, Tome of the Undergates (book one in his Aeon Gates series), did not include a map. His German publisher, however, has requested one. So he went about putting one together…

If you haven’t read the novel, then you should know it’s a dark, twisted quest/journey of a band of disparate, bitchy, and flawed characters. It takes many fantasy tropes and gleefully dashes them across the rocks of the author’s twisted imagination, making them new and a good deal more disturbing (in a very, very good way). Or, as his publisher describes it: “a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage”.

This map really suits the novel and the slightly warped mind of its author. So, here it is, the map to go with Tome of the Undergates, created with the help of Michael Lee Lunsford:



Frankly, I think this is brilliant.


Tome of the Undergates is out now through Gollancz (UK) and Pyr (US), and the sequel – Black Halo – will be published in March and June 2011 (US and UK, respectively).


Sam Sykes Website

Michael Lee Lunsford’s Site & Webcomic

Friday, January 14, 2011

Artwork & Series Spotlight: “The Border Lords”, by T Jefferson Parker (Dutton)

I’ve never read any of his work, but T Jefferson Parker is a very highly praised crime writer in the US (I’ve never really noticed him in the UK), and I just stumbled across information about his latest book, The Border Lords, which comes complete with this striking artwork:


ATF agent Sean Ozburn is deep undercover supporting the sicarios of the Baja Cartel when he suddenly goes completely dark, his only communications being the haunting digital videos he sends to his desperately worried wife, Seliah. Charlie Hood must determine if Oz is simply chasing demons deeper undercover than anyone has ever gone, or whether his friend has suffered a permanent break with his mission and his moral compass.

A crime novel of unprecedented scope and unrivalled storytelling ambition by one of our most treasured talents, The Border Lords revisits the fevered landscape of America’s southern border-and confronts the unexplored depths of humanity's dark soul.

The cover artwork is reminiscent of something you might find connected with Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row, but there’s no denying that it’s eye-catching.

I’m not sure that I’ll get the chance to read this anytime soon, having not read anything else in the series, but the premise is interesting if a little heavy on the genre (and political) tropes. That it’s set in the Southern USA is a draw, however, as my thriller/crime fiction tastes usually lead me to read authors whose work is set in or around Washington, D.C., New York and also Minnesota (that last would be John Sandford, my favourite crime writer).

The Border Lords is the fourth Charlie Hood novel, following in the wake of LA Outlaws (2008), The Renegades (2009), and Iron River (2010). All four novels revolve around US-Mexico border issues.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

“American Assassin”, by Vince Flynn (Simon & Schuster)

Flynn-AmericanAssassinUKWhat type of man is willing to kill for his country, without putting on a uniform? The education and evolution of a CIA Assassin

With tensions simmering in the Middle East, CIA Director Irene Kennedy is instructed to form a new group of clandestine operatives – men who work under the radar and do not exist. She finds just the candidate in the wake of the Pan Am Lockerbie terrorist attack.

Two hundred and seventy souls perished that cold December night, with thousands of friends and family left searching for comfort. Gifted college student Mitch Rapp was one of them. But he wasn’t interested in solace. He wanted revenge.

Six months later, after intense training, Mitch finds himself in Istanbul where he tracks down the arms dealer who sold the explosives used in the attack. Rapp then moves on to Europe, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. All roads lead to Beirut, though, and what Rapp doesn’t know is that the enemy is aware of his existence and has prepared a trap.

The hunter is to become the hunted, and Rapp will need every ounce of skill and cunning if he is to survive…

After a short teaser-introduction set in Beirut, Flynn takes us back to the beginning of Rapp’s CIA career, and the punishing training he is put through. After an eye-brow-raising note stating that this began only a year before the Beirut job (surely it takes longer than that to train an assassin?), I quickly found myself swept up by the driven pace Flynn gives his story. It certainly helps that I’ve read every single one of Flynn’s novels, so the characters are familiar for me already, but there is no denying Flynn’s skills as an author – this is thriller writing at its best and most addictive.

Flynn takes us straight to the training camp, and how Rapp learns to fit in with the army and special forces recruits. Without any military service, he has some catching up to do in firearms, but in every other area he surprises and excels. A common thriller trope, there is also an antagonistic good guy – someone the reader will come to hate, and seems to be there just to torment our hero. In this case, it’s Victor. When the inevitable face-off takes place, I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a sinister thrill and quietly cheer when Rapp takes him down. After his training, Rapp is dispatched on his first mission (in Istanbul), and we are taken along for the ride. As we can expect from the genre, Rapp is a bit of a loose-cannon, and takes it upon himself to do things ‘his way’.

When the team are sent on their first missions, the novel’s story ratchets up a notch, as Rapp and the other operatives of Team Orion get to grips with their new lives. They go chasing terrorists and sympathisers in Istanbul, Zurich, Hamburg and Beirut. All the while, Rapp starts to realise why his CIA instructor, Hurley, has been such a bastard during training, and the lessons he’s learned are put to the test. American Assassin offers some interesting insight into the lives of special, covert operatives; the provisions they need to make, the risks they have to take, the secrets they have to keep (from friends, family, and also their own employers).

I wonder if Flynn’s decision to take us back to the beginning of Rapp’s career for his 12th novel (the 11th to feature Rapp) is a commentary on the thriller genre as a whole – after so many novels by so many authors, the US (or UK, in some instances) hero going after Islamic Terrorists in a post-9/11 world was starting to look worn around the edges. There are a number of successful authors writing in this genre who are now well-established – alongside Flynn, authors like Brad Thor and Alex Berenson are the most noteworthy and skilled authors (but far from only) writing near-exclusively about terrorism. Others, like Kyle Mills, spread their net a little wider.

Flynn’s writing and plotting are excellent, and the novel whips along at a pleasantly brisk pace. Everything about the novel and the characters is realistic and engaging – the institutional, geographical, and operational detail is superb and totally realistic. There’s no apparent exaggeration in the events that take place over the course of the novel, giving the novel an all-too-real feel.

There is, however, one thing that niggled: Rapp is a little too good. Sayyed, in Beirut, is also a little cliché for an Islamic Fundamentalist Bad Guy (he doesn’t actually feature as much in the novel as one might expect – most of the first half is from Rapp’s perspective). Flynn knows his audience: we’re not supposed to sympathise with the monster, or anyone connected with them, but we are supposed to find comfort in the knowledge that the US has supremely capable (super)men like Rapp who are willing to take any step necessary, and give the last full measure of devotion for the cause, if needs be.

“So, if it comes down to it... you don’t think you’d have a problem taking another man's life?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“Who the guy is, and more important, what he’s guilty of.”

Rapp’s ‘perfection’ is addressed in the novel, as Kennedy and Lewis (the CIA shrink) aren’t sure what to make of Rapp’s abilities and overall manner and psyche. But, in a world of flawed anti-heroes, there’s something comforting about having a proper, heroic and seemingly perfect protagonist; someone utterly patriotic and focussed. In previous novels, Rapp was older and his life was a procession of decisions of varying-shades-of-grey, the line between black and white, good and bad, ever-more blurred – although, his relationship with Anna (who he meets in his first outing, Transfer of Power) did mellow his character slightly, until her unfortunate and distressing demise in Consent to Kill (2005). In American Assassin, Rapp is still young, has just been recruited into the CIA, and is far more idealistic. He’s not yet the granite-hard, experienced killing machine the CIA shaped him into, but he is, perhaps, a little too ready for all of this. It’s a minor quibble, but I know some people will take more exception to this, so thought I’d mention it and place it in context.

Rapp doesn’t fit into the CIA culture of the time (something that stays with him over the course of the series): He’s unpredictable, freakishly quick-thinking and strategic, and not a little lucky. It’s quite fun to watch as the aged Hurley (instructor, grizzled veteran, and all-round bad-ass, oft-cussing field captain) and Irene Kennedy (straight-laced, proper and methodical) are frequently flummoxed or caught out by Rapp’s general manner and his inattention to authority and operational norms. It’s a clear commentary on the restricted, bureaucratic and operationally unimaginative impression some have of any governmental department – but particularly US governmental bureaucracies – that is far more interested in covering its collective asses than achieving or doing what is right for the country.

The “lion” in Beirut, the man everybody’s scared of, liable to show his displeasure from the barrel of a gun, Sayyed is very different when he meets with his Russian financial and material benefactors: he is meek, deferential and definitely the lesser partner, while still distrustful and paranoid about the Russians’ intentions and commitment to the cause. It’s an interesting dynamic, even if it’s a commonly-used thriller trope.

It is perhaps surprising how long it took Flynn to give us more details about Rapp’s girlfriend, Mary, whose death is the defining event that lead him to accept Kennedy’s recruitment overtures in the first place. For those familiar with the series, the basic facts are already known, but in American Assassin we get a fuller picture of Rapp’s upbringing and just a little insight into his evolution from All-American superstar-athlete to deadly, ruthlessly efficient CIA killer.

It’s been a while since I read anything in this genre – the last thriller I read was Dan Twining’s unfortunately less-than-satisfying The Geneva Deception. Reading American Assassin, though, I’m reminded of why I love the genre in the first place.

As with all of Flynn’s novels, there’s some commentary on the frustrating Washington, D.C., work environment – the need for secrecy, deniability, and endless bureaucratic manoeuvrings to get anything done is clearly frustrating. Flynn clearly retains his cynicism and disappointment of Beltway Politics and society. The setting, early 1990s (no date is ever specified) is well-drawn, and the differences between pre- and post-9/11 are stark, and Flynn’s portrayal of the pre-Global War on Terrorism era, with more rough-and-tumble, unpolished counterterrorism operations, is both interesting and ably realised.

Realistic, thoughtful, and gripping, American Assassin is a brilliant piece of thriller fiction, and a fine way to start the year. Flynn is a master of the genre, and still at the top of his game. Each of his Rapp novels is worthy of attention, and while they’re not as long as they used to be, they maintain a high standard. In fact, American Assassin could have afforded to be longer and I can’t imagine Flynn could have ruined the pace or flow, let alone lost reader attention.

New readers will be introduced to a series of already-available novels to enjoy and become addicted to, while established readers will learn a bit more about the past and evolution of a great, engaging character.

Very highly recommended.

For fans of: Alex Berenson, Brad Thor, Kyle Mills, Andrew Britton, Brett Battles, Tom Clancy, Chris Ryan, David Ignatius

Sunday, January 09, 2011

“Prospero Burns”, by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


The Wolves unleashed

The Emperor is enraged. Primarch Magnus the Red of the Thousand Sons Legion has made a terrible mistake that endangers the very safety of Terra. With no other choice, the Emperor charges Leman Russ, Primarch of the Space Wolves, with the apprehension of his brother from the Thousand Sons home world of Prospero.

This planet of sorcerers will not be easy to overcome, but Russ and his Space Wolves are not easily deterred. With wrath in his heart, Russ is determined to bring Magnus to justice and bring about the fall of Prospero.

Picking up the story of A Thousand Sons from a different perspective, Prospero Burns is the long-awaited Space Wolves novel from one of Black Library’s most established and defining authors. Needless to say, the wait has been more than worth it – this is a superb sci-fi war novel written with depth, intelligence, and considerable panache.

What continues to amaze me about Mr Abnett is the breadth of his writing ability – whether it is a Horus Heresy novel, a Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, a Warhammer fantasy novel, or something entirely of his own creation (e.g., Triumff): the most consistent trait is that it is always of extremely high quality. Each of his Horus Heresy novels (Horus Rising, Legion, and now this novel) feels different from the last but is always engaging, interesting, utterly addictive, and invariably raises the bar yet again for both the series and also the quality of (oft-maligned) tie-in fiction as a whole. He also has a tendency to expand the Warhammer 40,000 lexicon, adding ever-more phraseology that will be used in many future novels by other authors.

To begin with, I wasn’t sure how Abnett was going to make the first chapter relevant to the plot synopsis. It was certainly interesting, because it added another great layer to our understanding of the century and a half following the start of the Wars of Unification; as well as a good account of what life on Fenris is like for non-Space Wolves. Apart from a single, fleeting mention of the Thousand Sons, however, there was no connection to what I was expecting the novel to be about.

Hawser, an Imperial archaeologist, is assimilated by the Space Wolves after he arrives (well, crashes) on Fenris. He is adopted as an oral historian (skjald), and his position is to record, remember and regale Legion actions. The majority of the novel is from his perspective (another aspect that makes this a very different Horus Heresy novel). The attention Abnett pays to Hawser’s pre-Fenris life, and its importance to the story, slowly becomes apparent as he builds the readers familiarity and relationship with Hawser and a handful of Space Wolves.

Abnett’s gift for atmospheric description is evident throughout the novel: Norse and sagaic influences come through in the dream-like passages in the first quarter of the novel, as Hawser struggles to survive the harsh Fenrisian environment. The author’s treatment of the Space Wolves is superb, also: they are a very different ‘loyalist’ legion to what we’re used to reading about. They are paganistic, ritualistic and much rougher around the (blade-)edges. Their manner is one of sublime brutality. The Fang, or “Aett” as they call it, is a Stygian fortress from an outsider’s nightmare, brilliant realised on the page. One would be forgiven for thinking the Wolves and not the Thousand Sons would be most likely to fall: a simplistic description could see this as a gang of brutal thugs being sent after scholar-sages. Abnett does a superb job of bringing the Space Wolves to life in the novel, showing us their distinct blend of proud, martial bearing and barbarian savagery through our glimpses into their traditions and rituals.

The Space Wolves are a dark Legion, there’s no doubt about it – by their own admission and acceptance, they were created to be the Emperor’s executioners. When Hawser comes before the Jarl currently in charge at the Fang, he is told:

“Life and death. That’s what we’re about, Upplander... Life and death, and the place where they meet up. That place, that’s where we do business. That’s the space we inhabit.”

Abnett offers other outside opinions of the Wolves, further deepening our understanding of their reputation, and also adding depth to the novel. An Imperial Guard soldier recounts fighting alongside the Space Wolves, suggesting the Emperor had “gone too far... and made things he should not have made”:

“They were animals, those things that fought with us... They killed everything, and destroyed everything and, worst of all, they took great relish in the apocalypse they had brought down upon their foe. They just left a sick taste in the mouth as if, by calling on their help, we had somehow demeaned ourselves in an effort to win.”

He has come to the Space Wolves to learn about them, to learn about their history and their ways, and much of the first three-quarters of the novel is about Hawser’s getting to know his hosts and protectors. They want to help him understand the Legion – that yes, they are brutish killing machines, but also so much more.

“Their reputation helped. No one expected brutes who looked like ritual-obsessed, bestial clansmen to be underpinned by peerless combat intelligence.”

This desire to be understood comes through most clearly when Hawser is invited to observe a Space Wolf captain’s dealing with arrogant and prickly (though still afraid) human commanders, and he explains why it’s important that an outside chronicler sees him – and by extension, the Space Wolves – follow the rules of war:

“We are known for our ferocity. We are thought to be feral and undisciplined. Even brother legions consider us to be wild and bestial... But if that was our natural state, we’d all be dead by now... It takes a vast amount of self-control to be this dangerous.”

As the chronicler gets to know the Wolves, the reader quickly understands why Abnett gave us such a long intro about the lives of native Fenrisians, the harsh eternal-winter environment and what it means: “That means learning about survival. About killing.”

“The Wolves liked to wrap themselves in a cloak of mystery and solemn, supernatural power, but such nonsense was the superstitious talk, of barbarians, inherited from the Fenrisians they drew their strength from.”

There is another, key element to Prospero Burns – that of the importance of knowledge. Hawser, as a conservator of knowledge, both ancient and contemporary, has built a life and career around knowing and understanding the universe and its inhabitants. There is a poignant irony that such a man is accepted into the Space Wolf community, only for the Legion to be unleashed on their most knowledge-obsessed brother-Legion. The flashbacks to Hawser’s archaeological career are also important, as they include a good deal of discussion about the importance of discovering, preserving, and understanding knowledge of the past.

Prospero Burns was not the novel I was expecting. The majority of the book is not actually about Prospero, the Thousand Sons and the Emperor’s sanction of Magnus the Red at all, really. Rather, it is an account of the Space Wolves – their psychology, their traditions and manner, the roots and ironies of their reputation and purpose. When the story does bring us finally to the Council of Nikaea and the Space Wolves siege of Prospero, we get more layers added to the story started in A Thousand Sons, and a look at what went on behind-the-scenes at the trial, and also meet Leman Russ – Abnett writes him brilliantly, and it’s a great characterisation of such a fearsome Primarch. Hawser’s account of the battle on Prospero is very personal as he struggles to reconcile the fact that brother has been pitted against brother, the tragic fall of one of the Emperor’s Legions, and also his first battle as a warrior.

Prospero Burns is a thoughtful and intelligent novel, with a multitude of themes running through it, as well as expanding our understanding of the time leading up to the Heresy. The novel easily maintains the quality of writing and plotting we’ve come to expect from Abnett, despite it taking just a little bit longer to get going than I usual find with his novels. As always, the author’s ability to convey atmosphere and the maelstrom of war is peerless.

Abnett has once again taken a Black Library series and contributed a work of complete originality that yet fits perfectly within the whole. His approach is unorthodox, but thanks to his prose and authorial skill, you will lose yourself in this utterly engaging story, and it will leave an impression long after you stop reading. After the slow start, Prospero Burns evolved into one of the stand-out novels in the series, once again making it clear why Abnett’s work is so beloved.

Very highly recommended, this is intelligent and gripping military science fiction at its best. I only wish it had been longer.

The Horus Heresy: Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, Flight of the Eisenstein, Fulgrim, Descent of Angels, Legion, Battle for the Abyss, Mechanicum, Tales of Heresy, Fallen Angels, A Thousand Sons, Nemesis, The First Heretic, Prospero Burns, Age of Darkness (May 2011), Deliverance Lost (January 2012)

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Breaking News! As of this writing, Prospero Burns has entered the New York Times Bestseller List at #16! This makes it the fourth Horus Heresy novel in a row to feature on the list!

[Incidentally, Dan’s next original-setting work of fiction will be released later this year: Embedded will be published by Angry Robot Books in May 2011, and is one of CR’s Most-Anticipated novels of the year.]


Thursday, January 06, 2011

“The Rebel Prince”, by Celine Kiernan (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie


The gripping conclusion to The Moorehawke Trilogy

Wynter is at last reunited with the exiled Prince Alberon, as he plots insurgency from his forest encampment. But she is losing faith with her companions, as they attempt to drive Alberon’s plans in different directions.

Caught between Razi’s complex diplomacy, Alberon’s desire for martial strength and Christopher’s fierce personal loyalty, Wynter finds herself torn. Can she combine these philosophies, and find a way to heal the rift between king and heir? Or will each side destroy the other, causing Wynter to lose everything she holds dear? She fears the answers lie veiled in conflict and loss.

Regular readers of this site will know that I loved the first two books of the Moorehawke Trilogy. With a gift for building both personal and political conflict, Kiernan set herself a hefty task for her final volume – at the end of The Crowded Shadows, there seemed to be innumerable questions and problems to be resolved, all in some way depending on the ambiguous figure of Alberon, the necessary final confrontation with Jonathan, and the ‘bloody machine’ that haunted the first two books. In this last book, Kiernan ably rises to the challenge she has set herself – The Rebel Prince does not disappoint.

For the first two volumes of the trilogy, Alberon emerges as a contradictory character. On the one hand, he is the sweet, loving boy who had been Wynter’s playmate and Razi’s devoted younger brother Kiernan showed through Wynter’s memories. On the other, he is the apparent betrayer of his father, forming alliances with enemies to Jonathan’s crown and plotting his overthrow. True to form, when she does bring him to the page in person, Kiernan does a fine job of creating a nuanced, authentic character. ‘Albi’ is not always appealing; he is harsh, arrogant, and uncompromising. However, in every respect, we see how his character – both the good and the bad – has been formed by the life experience that has differed markedly from that of Razi or Wynter. He is politically pragmatic, occasionally to the point of ruthlessness, in sharp contrast to Wynter’s and Razi’s idealism. While Wynter and Razi see his actions as the cause of the instability of the kingdom, Albi is aware that their position has always been unstable:

“Our own great-grandfather wrest this kingdom from William of Comber. Our historians now call it a legitimate reclamation of title, but let us for one moment admit it for what it actually was, shall we? Two men with big sticks pummeling each other over land – and the man with the biggest stick won. A king only remains a king for as long as he can outsmart, outrun or outfight his opponents ….”

Wynter at one point describes Jonathan’s kingdom as “This small island of tolerance. This little flame of hope in the dark.” The questions that each of the characters in The Rebel Prince must grapple with are what they are prepared to sacrifice – whether it be pride, power, or principle – in order to preserve it, and whether they risk destroying the very kingdom they hold dear in their attempts to keep it safe. In politics – in war – do the ends justify the means? Does political expediency outweigh personal betrayal? Kiernan deftly raises these questions through her narrative, as each character struggles to come to terms with the crisis at hand while also trying not to lose sight of their own ends.

As soon as Wynter and her companions arrive at Alberon’s camp, the plot begins to move quickly. Events build to an almost break-neck speed, with situations constantly changing and circumstances becoming more dire, whether through errors on the part of characters or sheer bad luck. As in the earlier books in the trilogy, Kiernan constantly raises the stakes and increases the danger for her characters. There was actually a point at which I thought to myself, “Ok, things are already so bad, from now on nothing more can possibly go wrong” – and then, of course, something did. The story races towards its climax with the building momentum of a boulder rolling down a hill – the final hundred pages are impossible to read slowly.

As satisfying as I found the book as a whole, I must admit to being at first a little disappointed with the war machine when it was finally explained. I had built it up in my head to be some impossibly twisted and potentially mystical device of torture. However, in keeping with Kiernan’s world – where magical elements like ghosts, talking cats, and werewolves are present but not paramount – the reality is at once more prosaic and more chilling. It is a testament to Kiernan’s writing that the horror with which she invests the machine does not, by the end of the novel, seem remotely unwarranted.

With a fast-placed plot, well-drawn characters, and a brilliantly-imagined world, The Rebel Prince is a pleasure to read. Kiernan is a gifted storyteller, and The Moorehawke Trilogy is a debut series to be reckoned with.

Highly recommended.

The Moorehawke Trilogy: The Poison Throne, The Crowded Shadows, The Rebel Prince

Celine Kiernan’s Website

Upcoming: “Latecomer” Reviews on CR

As some readers may already know, I’ve not been reading fantasy or science fiction for very long. Because of this, most of my SF/F reviews have been of newly or recently released titles.

In 2011, this will change.

I’m not going to stop reading and reviewing new titles (far from it – there are just too many exciting novels published this year to forgo), but I am going to do something I’ve been meaning to do for some time now – that is, catch up on the ‘classic’, ‘great’, and established fantasy titles and series. The reviews will all be prefixed as “Latecomer”, so should be easy to find as and when they start arriving.

I haven’t got them all picked out, yet, but here is a first selection of titles I’ll be reading (please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments):


James Barclay, Dawnthief (Gollancz)

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (Voyager)

Tad Williams, Shadowmarch & The Dragonbone Chair (Orbit)


Neal Asher, Gridlinked (Tor)

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Empire in Black and Gold (Tor)

Joe Abercombie, The Blade Itself (Gollancz)

Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice (Voyager)


Brandon Sanderson, The Final Empire (Gollancz)

Tom Lloyd, Stormcaller (Gollancz)

Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World (Orbit)

Steven Brust, The Book of Jhereg (Ace)

Whether or not I get to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series will depend on how much I like the latter’s The Way of Kings, which I have already bought for my Kindle.

So, there’s the selection I’ve come up with for the moment. I’m sure there are others, and there’s no set order in which I’m going to read them, and there’s no guarantee that I will end up in the mood for them, but they’re all series I’ve been meaning to read for some time, and I just don’t want to keep putting them off for much longer. If I had to put money on it, I’d say James Barclay and Joe Abercrombie are the certainties, with Tom Lloyd and Adrian Tchaikovsky the two most likely after them.

Anyway, watch this space…

Monday, January 03, 2011

New Year’s Pledge for 2011

It’s always dangerous when I start devising plans and strategies for my site – they invariably go right out of the window at the first sign of an exciting new novel. But, I’m starting to think this is a problem. When I started writing Civilian-Reader, my aim was to just scribble some thoughts down about books I’ve read and enjoyed or loved, on the off-chance that someone might read it and decide to check this or that book out for themselves.

(This, incidentally, should also explain to new readers of the site why the reviews I post are almost, unfailingly positive – not necessarily glowing, but I try to focus on the positives of every book I read. If there are no redeeming features, it simply won’t feature on the site. I only have so much time to read for pleasure, so I don’t want to struggle through something that doesn’t fire my enthusiasm or interest.)

To begin with, I read a greater mix of new releases and ‘old’ novels – frequently just working my way through an author’s back-catalogue (for example, after reading my first Richard North Patterson book, I proceeded to read three more, and despite being convinced that I reviewed one of them – partly because it was 10 years old and the politics contained within still resonated at the time, but also because it was a great book – I just can’t find the review… Which is rather weird.)

I also only wrote infrequently – in 2007, for example, I only wrote nine reviews; not because I wasn’t reading all the time, but because I was only just getting interested in blogging and reviewing on a larger scale and wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to devote much time to.

Actually, if I’m honest, the first reviews for the site were heavily Star Wars-related, because that’s what I happened to be reading at the time. I worked my way through the long, rather exhausting New Jedi Order series, and decided to ramble about it for a bit. Then, things grew and I started reviewing other novels and it’s snowballed from there. When publishers started sending me advance copies of novels, I was able to discover a huge number of authors I would never have considered trying out previously – this, in my mind, is the best thing about being a book-blogger: what can be nicer than discovering either a new (or established-but-new-for-you) author because someone sent it to you out of the blue? Not only that, but it opened my eyes to a wider range of genre fiction – particularly fantasy, which I now read more than anything else. Before I started writing reviews and whatnot, I was almost exclusively reading shelf-loads of political-/crime-thrillers, Terry Pratchett, Star Wars and Black Library novels, with the occasional random selection thrown in as well. I also read a lot of non-fiction for pleasure (which is why I have the non-fiction site, too). Actually, it’s not only because of reviews that I started to read more fantasy – this was also considerably helped along by my introduction to Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series (Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies).

Anyway, I am digressing quite a bit. The point of this post was to let you know my proposed Pledge for 2011. I’m just not entirely sure what I want this pledge to be. I was leaning towards a promise to review an ‘old’ novel for every four new or upcoming releases I read and reviewed. This sounded pretty reasonable to me – looking over the main publishers whose authors I follow, there are perhaps two or three new novels each month that I’m particularly interested in.

This should, in theory, leave me with time to review older stuff that has either…

… been gathering dust on my shelves for a while – for example, Joe Abercrombie and Michael Chabon;

… is something I stumble across in either a bookstore, charity shop, or was recommended by someone else – for example, Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series;

… is a novel or series I want to re-read – such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, maybe a couple of Pratchett’s Guards novels, and also some of the earlier Star Wars novels.

That’s the plan, anyway. But, of course, everybody knows about the best laid plans…

Sunday, January 02, 2011

“Travellers’ Rest”, by James Enge (Pyr)


A quick spotlight on the new Morlock Ambrosius Novella

Travellers’ Rest is a short novella set a few years before the events of Enge’s Morlock Ambrosius novels, which has a growing, loyal fan base. It’s a bit difficult to review without ruining the story, but here’s the general gist:

Morlock and his trusty apprentice, the dwarf Wyrth, are on one of their many travels, and find themselves at a quiet roadside inn. The hosteller acts quite shifty from the moment they arrive, but we’re not left wondering for long what exactly is going on. All is going well until, while they wait for their lunch, a stranger comes in and demands the hostel owner give up his daughter. Morlock steps in, and takes it upon himself to investigate what has been going on. As it turns out, the settlement has been held hostage to a long-ago bargain with a bizarre, sadistic sorcerer who lives in the hills. This novella explains what happens when Morlock and Wyrth confront the sorcerer.

Travellers’ Rest is a very short introduction to Enge’s protagonist, the strange and unconventional Morlock Ambrosius. To borrow from Lou Anders’s introduction to the novella,

“Morlock is a swordsman, an exile, a hunchback, a drunk, and a wizard, though he himself would use the term ‘Maker’.”

Morlock is also a legend and the source of countless myths (not all good) about him. He is, after all, immortal. He’s certainly a most unconventional ‘hero’. In Travellers’ Rest we don’t really get too much of a sense of him, as he comes across as mainly taciturn and not entirely connected to the world around him.

The novella is a good introduction to Enge’s signature writing style, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best introduction to his character – that being said, Enge is a very good writer, so chances are you’ll want to give the novels a try after reading this. The short story in the Swords & Dark Magic collection (“The Singing Spear”) is probably a better introduction to the character, despite that story taking place after at least one of the novels.

[I am in the process of reading Blood of Ambrose, the first full-length Morlock novel, so expect a review at some time in the near future.]

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If you would like to read Travellers’ Rest, a free ePub version is available here. It is also available for Kindle (or, to use the author’s phrase, as “Kindling”) for US and UK readers.

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The Morlock Ambrosius series:


2010: A Retrospective – Fantasy & Sci-Fi

I know every blog, magazine and newspaper does one of these, but because 2010 was quite a bumper year for reading, I thought I’d offer a quick run-down of my favourites. I’m not going to reiterate why I thought these books were the best of the year – instead, I’m just going take this as an opportunity to link to the reviews I already posted during the year. And last year was quite busy.

Not only was there a considerable increase in posting (in part thanks to Alyssa joining the reviewing team), but I’ve also been able to get so many books read (including non-fiction, I’ve read 109 books in 2010). Thinking about this post, however, I realise how much my reading habits are changing – I have read and enjoyed far more fantasy novels than thrillers, which makes this the first year I’ve had difficulty coming up with the ‘Best Thrillers’ selection (which I posted earlier today). Also, given the wealth of fantasy novels I’ve read this year, whittling them down to just ten was impossible, so I’ve mentioned all the ones that really stood out (in no particular order).



Chris Wooding, The Black Lung Captain (Gollancz)

(I should to take this opportunity to say another big “Thank You!” to Alyssa for giving me this novel. I loved it!)

Col Buchanan, Farlander (Tor)

Kevin J. Anderson, The Map Of All Things (Orbit)


Daniel Abraham, Shadow & Betrayal (Orbit)

Blake Charlton, Spellwright (Harper/Voyager)

Brent Weeks, The Black Prism (Orbit)


N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms & The Broken Kingdoms (Orbit)


Graham McNeill, A Thousand Sons / James Swallow, Nemesis / Aaron Dembski-Bowden, The First Heretic

(Black Library)


MD Lachlan, Wolfsangel (Gollancz)

Lachlan was also kind enough to answer a few questions for me, and his was the first interview we’ve done on the site.

Ari Marmell, The Conqueror’s Shadow (Gollancz)

In addition to the review, Marmell agreed to do a short interview, which can be found here.

(As I mentioned at the end of the Lachlan interview, I’ll be trying to get as many short interviews with authors as possible – either with authors whose books have been reviewed on the site, or exciting upcoming authors, if at all possible.)

There are many more fantasy novels, and a couple more sci-fi novels that could easily have made the cut (for example, Sam Sykes’s Tome of the Undergates, Amanda Downum’s The Bone Palace, and CL Werner’s Wulfrik). But, in order to keep the post as short as possible, and to properly highlight the best of a very good year, I shall leave it at that. Feel free to use the comments to add your own. There are, as with every year, a number of novels I was unable to read. I will catch up on those that were missed, where possible and time permitting.

Anyway. It is time to start looking to the present, and 2011 looks like it will be a very good year for readers of every genre. Keep checking back for more reviews, interviews, artwork, and asides!

2010: A Retrospective – Thrillers

The top five thrillers published in 2010 that I’ve read

The year hasn’t been one filled with much thriller-reading for me. Those that I did read didn’t always excite my passion for the genre, and there were some disappointments. To make sure the notable ones are mentioned, however, here are the five that really stood out, in no particular order:


Matthew Reilly, Five Greatest Warriors (Orion)

Jesse Kellerman, The Executor (Sphere)

Joseph Finder, The Vanished (Headline)


Mark Gimenez, The Accused (Sphere)

John Grisham, The Confession (Century)

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A (longer) post highlighting the top fantasy and science-fiction novels that I read in 2010 will follow very shortly…

Saturday, January 01, 2011

“Vortex”, by Troy Denning (Century)

SW-FOTJ-Vortex(Denning)Book Six in the on-going Fate of the Jedi series

In a stunning turn of events, Luke Skywalker and his son, Ben, joined forces with members of the Sith armada sent to kill them – and turned their combined might against the monstrous being Abeloth, whose power was causing young Jedi Knights to go insane. With Abeloth gone and the Knights sane again, the Sith reverted to form, making a treacherous attempt on Luke’s life.

Luke and Ben have no time for retaliation. A new and even more insidious threat is rising, one that endangers not only the Jedi but the entire Galactic Alliance. Unless the Skywalkers survive to sound the alarm – and to pass along the secrets they have learned about Abeloth and the Sith – the galaxy will suffer as it has never suffered before. But the reinforcements they need remain grounded on Coruscant, where the political battle of wills between the Jedi Council and Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala has reached a boiling point.

Now Luke and Ben must go on the run, taking along the inscrutable and dangerous Sith apprentice, Vestara Khai. With a host of Sith warriors in hot pursuit, the Skywalkers soon find themselves trapped on the moon Pydyr, caught between their former allies and a mob of angry Fallanassi. A new truce may be their only hope. But can a Sith ever be trusted?

With the Jedi’s most famous father-and-son team outnumbered and outgunned, the countdown to galactic disaster has begun – and time is running out.

Vortex throws you straight in at the moment the previous volume, Allies, ended. It’s been a while since I read that novel, so it took a couple pages to remember everything that had gone on leading up to this point, but after that I found myself sinking into the story again and my reading pace picked up considerably. I should say at the outset that I did enjoy reading Vortex a good deal – I’m an unapologetic post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars novel fanboy. However, it was not without its faults...

Vortex has a number of plot-threads that run through the novel – most of which have appeared in at least one of the other Fate of the Jedi novels. However, the structure of the novel can sometimes be frustrating. After a long pair of opening chapters that focussed exclusively on a pirate-ambush of Jaina and Lando, the novel gave us a couple of chapters on the Luke-Ben-Vestara story. After this, however, the novel jumps more frequently, and never really gives us the time to sink into the story – just as we’re getting comfortable in one setting, the perspective changes to another. This was somewhat frustrating.

The political machinations on Coruscant are not the strongest thread of the story, as the pace is rather slow and it’s not entirely clear why certain things are happening or why, in the case of the slave uprising, governmental reactions are so exaggerated. Some questions are answered as the novel comes to its more action-packed and exciting conclusion, but it’s difficult to ignore some of the shaky progressions over the course of the whole series.

Tahiri’s trial for the assassination of Imperial Admiral Pellaeon is still going on, but each time the books visits it, it just feels like it’s treading water (although, her lawyer’s inaction did provide a moment of levity at one point). The trial does picks up, just as every thread does, but it still feels a bit drawn-out. I really like the idea of a Star Wars-based courtroom drama forming a greater portion of a future novel – when the trial was unfolding on the page, it felt quite like a well-written contemporary courtroom drama. I’m not sure how this would actually work, but I think it would have considerable cross-over appeal.

This was rather distressing, actually, as in earlier novels, Han and Leia storylines were frequently the more interesting (for example, Dave Wolverton’s The Courtship of Princess Leia, Roger MacBride Allen’s Corellia Trilogy), with Luke’s threads sometimes becoming a little repetitive. I also think the courtroom element had potential to be explored in greater detail and at greater length. Towards the end of the novel, however, Han, Leia and Jaina Solo stage a prison break for two ‘mad’ Jedi who have been frozen in carbonite by Chief of State Daala. It’s a nice, if over-long, action sequence to wake us up after being a rather slow-going plot-thread.

After many long years of war, the galaxy is mostly at peace, and Chief of State Daala is doing everything in her power to keep it that way – including overreacting. Partly this is due to her understandable fear of the Jedi, an order she still doesn't fully understand, and - as we all know - the fear of the unknown can make even the most rational actor to do something irrational. The development of this story thread has been a bit uneven over the past five novels, and because less of Vortex is from Daala’s perspective, events seem to devolve rather quicker than one might expect.

The ‘Crazy Jedi’ epidemic that marked much of the trouble in the first five novels of the series seems to have been brought to an end, thanks to the apparent demise of Abeloth. Vortex at first feels like a post-action lull, but when Luke and his Sith allies realise they have been duped, they must race across the galaxy to an unexpected destination from Luke’s past, and learn more about Abeloth’s horrific nature. Sith apprentice Vestara’s allegiance and loyalties are frequently tested as she continues to spend time with Luke and Ben, and experiences the considerable contrasts between their working relationship and the one she “enjoys” with her father and Lord Taalon (the Lost Tribe expeditionary fleet’s commander). Despite Vestara’s constant betrayals, and Luke’s recognition of her Sithly ways, she is repeatedly able to take advantage of either Luke’s sympathy for her, or Ben's obvious and growing attraction and affection for her:

“though he remained convinced that forbearance was wasted on Vestara or any of the Lost Tribe Sith – Luke could not help admiring the [Ben]’s compassion and determination to give others a second chance, or even a third.”

The problem is, with this being book six, and the third with Vestara featuring prominently with Ben and Luke, the back-and-forth betrayals and eternally-noted distrust between the Jedi and Sith, was becoming a bit tediously cyclical. Thankfully, some pretty momentous events happen, which sets the series up for a possibly action-packed final three novels. (The final Fate of the Jedi novel, also by Denning, is titled Apocalypse, so one assumes things are going to kick off between the Jedi and growing Sith forces.)

There’s a real surprise with regards to the Jedi leadership on Coruscant (Luke was exiled in the first Fate of the Jedi novel, Outcast). This was a big surprise (I won’t spoil it). Hamner’s evolution as a character has been a bit strange, from the dependable sage and warrior, to a paranoid, not-particularly-adept political operative – it also suggests Luke has seriously bad judgement. His squabbles with the rest of the Jedi Council form a good deal of the novel, and events come to a head towards the end of the novel.

I love that novels in the Star Wars universe are still being released: I’m a huge fan of the original trilogy of movies, and I’ve read almost all of the post-Return of the Jedi novels and quite a few of the graphic novels (thanks to my sister and her former boyfriend for introducing me to them, back in the late 1990s) – revisiting the setting from time to time is like spending time with an old friend for a while. Indeed, while I don’t read much sci-fi, I would happily say that some of my favourite novels in that genre are from this universe (specifically, those written by Kevin J. Anderson and Timothy Zahn).

The novel threatened to be pure filler for the first half; the second half of the novel saw a lot of threads come together with some good action and writing; and the final 150 pages of the novel are packed with action and a couple of stunning revelations and events – it really picks up on all fronts, which was very pleasing as I had been starting to get frustrated (as you can perhaps tell from much of this review).

Overall, this is a good Star Wars novel, by one of the best authors writing in the setting. However, this is book six of nine, and despite some good content and writing, it feels too much like filler, and while reading it I knew there weren’t going to be any proper conclusions. I will certainly be reading the final three volumes in the Fate of the Jedi story, but I am once again left feeling like this novel was a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Shorter overall story arcs are, I think, advisable.

Die-hard fans will lap this up, and it’s a good and enjoyable addition to the series. It’ll be interesting to see where they take the story next.

Series Chronology: Outcast, Omen, Abyss, Backlash, Allies, Vortex, Conviction (May 2011), Ascension (August 2011), Apocalypse (November 2011)