Monthly Archives: September 2011

Review of The Osiris Ritual – A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation by George Mann

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This enjoyable steampunk whodunit ticks all the boxes if you like your speculative fiction dosed with a liberal helping of Victoriana.  Death stalks London and the newspapers proclaim that a mummy’s curse has been unleashed. Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, is drawn into a web of occult intrigue as he attempts to solve the murders. And he soon finds himself on the trail of a rogue agent – a man who died to be reborn as a living weapon.

Newbury’s able assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, has her own mystery to unravel. Girls are going missing from a magician’s theatre osirusshow. But what appears to be a straightforward investigation puts Miss Hobbes in mortal danger.

Can Newbury save his assistant, solve the riddle of the mummy’s curse, capture the deadly man-machine – and stop the terrifying Osiris Ritual from reaching its infernal culmination?

This is the second book in this series, although I haven’t read the first offering. Does that matter? While the whodunit plotlines powering the book certainly are completely stand-alone and brought to a satisfactory conclusion, I did feel that Mann could have spared a bit more time and effort bonding his readership with his two protagonists. I certainly think the scene where Veronica Hobbes visits her sister should be earlier in the book than Chapter 8 – because that ongoing puzzle was the one that really caught my interest and lifted our plucky heroine from the obligatory female sidekick to a more three dimensional character.

Apart from that one grizzle, Mann clearly had a blast writing this book – his depiction of the world crackles with energy and he effectively captures the customs and speech rhythms of the era, without silting up the narrative pace. In fact, the story pitches forward at a fairly cracking rate with all sorts of mayhem ensuing. Mann deftly handles the various plotlines and writes the action scenes with plenty of clarity, while giving us a ringside seat of how all this is affecting his protagonists – a more technically challenging task than it looks.

If you are a fan of this sub-genre, with pea-soup fogs and steam-powered gismos doing it for you, then you’ll definitely enjoy pacing the cobbled streets along with Newton and Veronica. And if you occasionally venture into this corner of speculative fiction when you want a break from faster-than-light travel, or conflicted sword-waving misfits – you’ll find plenty here to provide page-turner appeal and whisk you back to an age where they don’t make ‘em like that, anymore.
8/10

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Review of Blood in the Water – Book 2 of The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution by Juliet E. McKenna

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Following on from Irons in the Fire, this is the second book in this interesting fantasy series, where McKenna attempts to chart a revolution from its inception through to the consequences in a more realistic, nuanced manner than the typical high fantasy – bad, evil Emperor/undead King has arisen after centuries of having been forgotten and the current, good populace and Ruling Family have to scramble to catch up, etc, etc….

Those exiles and rebels determined to bring peace to Lescar discover the true cost of war. Courage and friendships are tested to breaking point. Who will pay such heartbreaking penalties for their boldness? Who will pay the ultimate price? The dukes of Lescar aren’t about to give up their wealth and power without a fight. Nor will they pass up some chance to advance their own interests, if one of their rivals suffers in all this upheaval. The duchesses have their own part to play, more subtle but no less deadly.

blood_in_the_water_250x384That’s the blurb – and for starters, congratulations on all involved for not muddling the term ‘blurb’ with ‘synopsis’. I’ve become really fed up with the slew of books I’ve read recently that have given away major plot spoilers on the back cover – nothing of the sort going on here, I’m delighted to report.  So, the first question has to be – has McKenna succeeded in accurately depicting an uprising organised and funded by a handful of well-meaning people in a politically complex situation? The answer is ‘yes’. McKenna’s strength is world-building. She manages to produce a character-led story about a world with a labyrinthine historical and political backstory. While in the various viewpoints of her cast of characters, McKenna manages to lay out the various factions, each with a divergent set of loyalties driven by feuding, ambition and fear. We see how the conspirators begin to quarrel as events roll forward – and, importantly, we also see how the war affects protagonists on both sides of the conflict.

The story structure works well as the initial scene setting inevitably takes some time – something that didn’t bother me. What I did enjoy was the way the narrative pace steadily built to the series of gripping, well written battle scenes, which in no way glorified the business of warfare and its consequences. I particularly liked the premise that as the campaign wore on and the stakes became higher, those involved became ever more willing to consider less honourable tactics. The use of magic in the book was well handled. I liked the sense of discomfort shown when a scryer learnt intimate personal information leaked by his fellow magic user – it was also a handy device for keeping the plot moving along and giving the reader different takes on the same situation.

In a cast of characters of this size, there is inevitably going to be one or more who stand out from the crowd. I really enjoyed Litasse and her gutsy reaction to her numerous reverses of fortune. The other character particularly well drawn, is Ameril. It is always difficult to portray a character who has a severe disability and McKenna conveys his physical frailty and pain convincingly without holding up the plotline.

Any niggles? Given the scope of the book and the number of protagonists, it is a very big ask for all to work equally well. While McKenna has all the military and political machinations impressively nailed, I felt less convinced about some of her characters’ private lives. The relationship between Tathrin and Failla seemed rather lifeless in an environment where personal feelings tend to be heightened by the danger. I was also rather confused as to the scope and severity of Branca’s injuries at the end of the story. But, taken as a whole, these are minor concerns set against what the book is trying to achieve. It is an ambitious series that largely succeeds and I’m looking forward to reading the final instalment.
9/10

Review of Among Thieves – A Tale of the Kin by Douglas Hulick

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I get a bit blasé about claims that a new writer is ‘the best thing since Scott Lynch/Brent Weeks/Joe Abercrombie’ – all of which have been said about Douglas Hulick, who has been heaped with praise for his debut novel Among Thieves.

Ildrecca is a dangerous city, if you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes a canny hand and a wary eye to run these streets and amongthievessurvive. Fortunately, Drothe has both. He has been a member of the Kin for years, rubbing elbows with thieves and murderers from the dirtiest of alleys to the finest of neighbourhoods. Working for a crime lord, he finds and takes care of trouble inside his boss’s organisation – while smuggling relics on the side.

But when his boss orders Drothe to track down whoever is leaning on his organisation’s people, he stumbles upon a much bigger mystery. There’s a book, a relic any number of deadly people seem to be looking for – a book that just might bring down emperors and shatter the criminal underworld. A book now inconveniently in Drothe’s hands…

Hulick certainly went with the notion of starting this tale of nefarious dealings with a bang – a torture scene where his protagonist is the torturer. It’s a big risk. And a testament to Hulick’s writing skill that despite such a start, I ended up thoroughly liking Drothe, who turns out to be a dependable chap – in a squirrelly, sneaking back-handed way…. The story is told in first person viewpoint. As well as getting to know Drothe’s interestingly complex character, we also are treated to a front row seat as this Nose is pitchforked into the middle of a plot with more twists than a corkscrew.

Hulick’s other strength is his depiction of the world. Ildrecca is wonderfully described, particularly the revolting slum that is Ten Ways. This is a complex world, with plenty of politics and religion, along with a magic called glimmer. However, we learn of it in manageable slices as the plot whips along – there’s no dreary two-page exposition. I also love the way that some of Drothe’s assumptions are completely undercut by the end of the book. In addition to Drothe, there is an entertaining cast of characters – as this is apparently the start of a series, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Christiana, Drothe’s enigmatic sister, who has managed to marry into nobility.

An aspect of the book that I particularly enjoyed, was Hulick’s use of language. This is something, in my opinion, not enough fantasy/science fiction authors consider sufficiently. It always grates with me when I hear a 20th century idiom roll off the tongue of an otherworldly wizard, or a posthuman character travelling faster-than-light. Hulick addresses this issue with his Cant. There are those readers who profess to have found it off-putting and claim that it got in the way of the story. I’m scratching my head over that one. Once I got into the rhythm of the writing, I found that I rarely had to stop and think about exactly what was being said – and if I did, surely it isn’t necessarily a major problem? If he’d made the whole language completely impenetrable, I could see why readers might have grounds for protesting, but in the act of picking up a book I expect to engage with it. As a reader, I do prefer an author who presupposes that I am intelligent and capable of joining up some of the dots myself.

The fight scenes are well handled – although if I’ve got a grizzle, there’s probably a couple too many for my taste – however that said, I’m aware that solid fans of this sub-genre really appreciate all the dashing and slashing with sharp, pointy weapons. And the major twist at the end was one I really didn’t see coming. All in all, for once I find myself nodding at the favourable comparisons with Lynch, Weeks et al… In fact, chaps, I think you’ll need to look to your laurels. If this series fulfils its promise – I can see newcomer Hulick being a real contender.
10/10

How Vine Leaves Stuffed Nemesis

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‘You’d be much more attractive if you didn’t have that cloud of midges buzzing around your head,’ I grumbled, waving away the pesky insects. I smoothed out the frown lines that weren’t doing a lot for my wonderful Grecian brow, or high perfect forehead. I leant closer to the still pool, awed and lovestruck-

A fish jumped, disturbing the wonderful reflection in the limpid water. I wriggled, suddenly aware that the river bank was uncomfortably damp and I was rather stiff. I stretched and looked back down into the pond. Ah… That straight nose… those fine, flashing eyes… the strong jawline….

‘You’re so beautiful,’ I whispered, my heart thudding with desire as I stared into those mesmerising eyes. ‘I’ll stay here. Always. Just for you.’

The reflection rippled as my golden curls were ruffled by the wind. Which – come to think of it – was getting decidedly chilly. Blinking, I sat up and looked around. It was a shock to see that Apollo’s chariot was heading westwards, towards the horizon. Where had the day gone? Surely, it was only a couple of hours ago just after daybreak that I’d rushed to this spot on the bank and once more lost myself in the beauty of the face that stared back at me? No wonder my beautifully toned belly was growling.

I settled back on the bank and smiled down at the smooth surface of the water, realising that all too soon, I’d have to tear myself away from this vision of beauty as the light faded.  Those finely moulded lips parted, showing perfect teeth as I wondered if Mother had started cooking supper. What was that drool doing dribbling down my chiselled chin? I sucked it up fast, hoping that the water nymphs hadn’t noticed such an unfortunate blot on my perfection. They often gathered to admire my heart-stopping good looks, sighing soft wordless sounds of love, while I gazed and gazed at the most beautiful sight in all the world-

“Nar-CIS-sus.” Mother’s warbling three-note cry split the air.

A rustling shiver from the nearby reedbed, followed by discreet splashes told me that I had, indeed, had an audience of admirers. Which Mother had now driven away.  I sat up again, feeling thoroughly peeved. And wishing – not for the first time – that I had the sort of mother someone with my shining looks deserved. A woman full of grace. Slim, with moonlight-silver hair, who wore her matron’s robes with decorum and dignity-

“Oh, there you are!” Mother crashed through the vegetation with all the finesse of a water buffalo. “This nonsense really has to stop, son. You keep staring at yourself in the river all day, you’ll fade away to nothing.”

Gazing at her red, perspiring face, stout figure and frizzed hair was a horrible contrast after having spent so long engrossed with my own sublime looks. I shivered with disgust. Until, catching sight of my reflection, I realised my brow was wrinkled in an unbecoming frown.

“…cooked your very favourite meal, tonight.”

“Stuffed vine leaves?” I was a bit shocked at how croaky and unattractive my voice sounded. But then, I hadn’t spoken today. Other than whisper words of love to my own reflection.

Mother’s face split into a greasy grin. “And though I do say so myself, they are fit for Zeus Almighty. Ambrosia wouldn’t taste better. But don’t take my word for it…” She held out a small wrapped packet.

Saliva flooded my mouth. She mightn’t look all that special, but one thing Mother did better than anyone, was cook – especially stuffed vine leaves. The smell wafted towards me in the late evening breeze.

The reeds in the river rattled gently as, kneeling up, I took another long look at my reflection. For the first time, I noticed that those flawlessly smooth cheeks were looking a tad sunken. And – Zeus Almighty! I looked down at the muddy mess plastering the front of my tunic. How had that happened?

Mother tutted. ‘You go on staining all your clothes with river mud, Narcissus, you’ll have nothing decent to wear when you take Echo to the Festival next week. Do you want these stuffed vines leaves? Because if not…’ She started unwrapping them.

I glanced once more at the reflection gazing up at me… pleading… dribbling… The ache in my guts twisted sharply and I snatched the vines leaves out of Mother’s hand.

Of course, it was very gratifying to be so handsome. I knew that there would never be anyone else I’d love as much as my own perfect face. But the truth was, it was beginning to get just a little bit boring staring at it all day. And damp. And very muddy. As for those insects – flying up my nostrils and crawling into my ears.

The taste of the meat and rich sauce exploded in my mouth and I sighed with pleasure. This was beauty… perfection… heart-stopping wonder…

Mother gazed at me and for the first time, I could see the family resemblance. Her expression was soft and loving. ‘Come home, son. There’s plenty more vines leaves waiting for you to tuck into. You’ve been wasting away. Stuck here on this old river bank.’

She’s right…. I licked my fingers and followed her back home, resolving to stay away from pools of still water. Maybe,I’d get Mother to teach me how to make stuffed vine leaves, after I’d had some seconds. And thirds.

*

High on Olympus, Nemesis, shrew-faced goddess, kicked one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and swore. It was so unfair. She’d planned to gift the world with a small nodding flower, blooming by streams and rivers. Along with its showier golden cousin heralding Spring. And now an interfering mother had messed up her whole scheme and she’d have to think of another way of gaining everlasting fame. Honestly, this goddess business was a lot harder than these mortals thought.

While in another Time and Place, the struggling poet, William Wordsworth moodily trudged along a lakeside path, wondering why his poem Bluebells hadn’t sold….

 

Review of Sow and You Shall Reap by B.P. Smythe

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Horror isn’t my favourite genre as I’m prone to nightmares – and the very effective and grisly cover did nothing to alleviate my initial concerns. However, the author assured me that it wasn’t gratuitously violent, so I took a deep breath and dived in. He was right – and I found this an enjoyable, engrossing tale with plenty happening.

All is not well at Gossmoor Park Care Home. Too many residents are dying and Matron Elizabeth Waverly, along with her lover, Norman, who works as a nurse, have a brutal grip on the frail people in their care. Some of the other staff are growing increasingly concerned – but who will stand up to the menacing couple?
sow&reapAnd that – or something similar – is what should be on the back cover. Instead, the two short paragraphs contain enough spoilers that give away a good third of the plot – so my first piece of advice is do NOT read the back. Fortunately, as I’ve read far too many blurting blurbs I skipped it till the end, but I have to say I think this example is one of the worst – which is a real shame. Because one of Smythe’s strengths as a writer is his ability to weave a convincing plot with plenty of pace – along with some twists I didn’t see coming, but are posted all too clearly on the back of the book.

Smythe’s evil protagonists are a product of their own miserable, abusive childhoods and he manages to make us aware of their vulnerabilities, so that although we may not like them we do understand what drives them. The uncertain start rapidly picks up pace and confidence as we learn about Norman’s childhood. While this is definitely a horror tale with a steadily growing body count, there are flashes of humour that at times approach farce, particularly near the end of the book during the Halloween celebrations. Smythe is an entertaining writer with an inbuilt sense of when to pick up the pace and when he needs to slow it down. In a book where events – along with the body count – start accelerating, it would have been all too easy to lose control of the plotline and characters. But Smythe kept firm control of his wicked protagonists, which had me turning the pages wondering what could possibly happen next.

That said, I would recommend that Smythe gets a good editor for his next book. There are some places where the writing is a bit uneven and there are too many typos – complement instead of compliment, for instance, and a scattering of oddly placed question marks. On the plus side, the book is well produced to a high quality and as I’ve mentioned, the cover is outstanding.

But, once a train of events is unleashed in this genre and starts gathering momentum, the biggie has to be – does the ending pack a sufficient punch to make the investment of time and effort in reading the book worth it? Apart from being rather too squeamish, this is one of the reasons why this isn’t my favourite genre – too many times all the tension and fear fizzles out… Or turns into something so preposterously grotesque, there is no sense of horror left. To be genuinely chilling, there has to be a sense of everyday as the action descends into ever greater chaos – something that Smythe has understood. The ending was completely satisfying, while leaving the reader slightly off balance. This interesting debut novel definitely marks Smythe as one to watch.
7/10

Review of Making History by Stephen Fry

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This is the first time I’ve picked up a Stephen Fry novel, and it was an enjoyable, if slightly uneven, experience. Thumbing through the opening pages, I noticed that this book was first published in 1996, which begins to make sense when considering some of the faultlines running through this alternate history offering.

Michael Young is convinced his brilliant history thesis will win him a doctorate, a pleasant academic post, a venerable academic publisher and his beloved girlfriend Jane. A historian should know better than to imagine that he can predict the future.

making historyLeo Zuckerman is an ageing physicist obsessed with the darkest period in human history, utterly driven by his fanatical hatred of one man. A lover’s childish revenge and the breaking of a rotten clasp cause the two men to meet in a blizzard of swirling pages. Pages of history. When they come together nothing – past, present or future – will ever be the same again.

And there you have the blurb. The book contains an intriguing premise – two men decide, for very different reasons, to tamper with history by ensuring the one man responsible for the rise of Nazi Germany is never born. However, the result isn’t what they bargained for… As a former history student, I thoroughly enjoyed Fry’s thorough approach to the historical content and had no problem with the leisurely start. And the conclusion that Fry comes to is certainly thought provoking – I’ve been thinking a lot about the book since I put it down.

Fry successfully establishes Michael’s character as a wunderkind bedevilled with increasing insecurities as his peers are rapidly catching up, if not overhauling his precocious giftedness. Inevitably, given the sub-genre, the narrative timeline is speckled with flashbacks which are ably handled. And it goes without saying that the writing is excellent – actually, that shouldn’t go without saying. Excellent writing should always be acknowledged and I’d be selling Fry short if I just gave a nod in that direction because we all know that the man has an intellect the size of Greece’s overdraft.

So far, so good. The protagonist has been well established, with plenty of depth. We have met with Leo and there’s been a couple of interesting plot twists – and then the novel prose comes to abrupt end and I was confronted with a film script. The action immediately speeded up as I witnessed a major emotional confrontation spool through in this script mode – feeling completely unconnected to the characters. Later in the novel, there is another, longer film script interlude, which also had the effect of alienating me from the action – a real shame as I’d really enjoyed the book up to this point.

I am aware that my extreme aversion to this literary device is subjective – probably connected to the fact that books are my first and major love, while films are okay, I suppose…. However, I did find the film script sections really spoilt the book for me. Having said that, up to the point it all went Courier I found the depiction of the alternate world engrossing and chilling in equal measure. Fry is good at writing minor characters memorably and the flashes of humour helped alleviate what could have been a grim read, given the subject matter.

All in all, it’s an interesting book with a fascinating premise and if you enjoy alternate histories, I highly recommend it. Who knows – you may even enjoy the scripted sections…
8/10

Review of Blood Price – Book 1 of The Blood series by Tanya Huff

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This novel is the first in the successful series by Tanya Huff featuring her female PI, Vicki Nelson, one of the earlier urban fantasy/horror offerings that helped to popularise the hordes of vampires and demons stalking our streets.

It began with blood and death. And Vicki Nelson, PI was at the scene. The victim had been brutally, inhumanly opened up. Messy work. She’d had to cover the corpse with her coat. It had sort of made her feel involved.

bloodpriceNow Vicki is caught up in the deadly pursuit of a mass murderer with an inhuman appetite for mayhem and destruction. And her advisor on the case is doing nothing to dampen her growing sense of foreboding. But then, with a being of unspeakable evil stalking the city, only Vicki Nelson would ally herself with Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate child of Henry VIII and five hundred years a vampire.

When the novel opens, Vicki is struggling to come to terms with an incurable eye condition that is affecting her vision, bringing her career as a successful homicide detective to an end. Henry Fitzroy finds his daily routine is becoming lonely and boring in equal measure, tempting him to start taking silly risks. Until the headlines in the local Toronto papers start screaming about vampire attacks and he realises that if he doesn’t start using his superhuman speed and strength to hunt this creature, this unwelcome attention may well grow.

Huff deftly pulls the reader into this solidly constructed vamp tale. Vicki Nelson makes a satisfying protagonist with plenty of edges and a bumpy relationship with her former colleague and sometime lover, Mike Celluci. I also found Fitzroy a convincing vampire who has managed to carve out a niche for himself, yet still yearns for a closer relationship. Huff quickly builds a sense of tension as we gradually learn exactly what the nature of the evil is as the body count goes on growing.

I enjoyed the apparent contradiction between the apparent harmlessness of the instigator of all the mayhem and the damage he managed to inflict. Evil doesn’t always look coolly menacing, or revoltingly grotesque – it can just as easily be gawky and slightly pathetic.

The series was turned into the short-lived TV series, Blood Ties. However, don’t let memories of that lacklustre effort hinder you from seeking out the books – as is often the case, the screen version was a limp shadow of Huff’s characters and world. If you haven’t yet encountered this series and enjoy a good supernatural murder mystery, you’re in for a treat.
8/10