Monthly Archives: April 2012

Review of Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan


Tricia Sullivan is a wonderful talent – I was absolutely blown away by Dreaming of Smoke and Maul, but am disappointed – and shocked – to learn that only her latest book, Lightborn, is still in print. Hopefully, some farsighted epublishing company will be importuning her about releasing her back catalogue very soon.

Lightborn is a revolutionary new technology that has transformed the modern world. Better known as ‘shine’, it is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment – beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price. But what do you do if the shine in question has a mind of its own…?

lightbornYipee! At last – a blurb that actually does what it should – give the reader a brief insight into the book’s theme and subject matter WITHOUT blurting out a whole tranche of spoilers along the way. Gold star for Orbit.

We follow the fortunes of two youngsters, Roksana and Xavia as they struggle to cope when life in the Arizona town of Los Sombres falls apart as the adults all go mad. This being Sullivan, don’t expect classic dystopian, ‘Oh my God, the world is falling apart, isn’t this awful?’ What marks her out as such a joy to read, is that she is an author who assumes her readers are intelligent enough to keep up without having everything spelt out. So as we watch both Roksana and Xavia’s characters mature throughout the catastrophe and follow their personal griefs and coping strategies, their personal stories steadily unfold. They are both complex and interestingly three-dimensional – and Sullivan isn’t afraid to show their less likeable traits.

The role of parenthood and caring is examined as the children are forced to become responsible for their mentally damaged parents – and this being a Sullivan novel, there are no slick, tailor-made answers served up. Roksana’s father, a shine guru, is an inadequate parent who refuses to engage with her on an emotional level, despite his ability to provide protection against the lightborn. As people battle to rebuild their lives after the initial catastrophe, Sullivan also looks at what constitutes a functioning community by providing two quite distinct models – those survivors in Los Sombres scraping together a functioning existence from the wreckage, while also dodging the Government forces; and the community that the local Indian tribe have fostered on a ranch in the wilderness, as far away from the influence of the shine that they can get.

I am conscious that in teasing out these strands, I may have given the impression that the actual storyline is a worthy attempt to dissect these issues – and Lightborn is nothing of the sort. The books starts with a bang, whisking the reader immediately into the narrative and as there is no limited omniscient info-dump silting up the action, you need to pay attention, because this is a fast-paced book. The worldbuilding is absolutely fit for purpose – and if we would like more insights to the overarching political role of the near-future America in which this all plays out, then we fill in the blanks ourselves. As Xavier and Roksana aren’t concerned with how American interests mesh with the rest of the world, this isn’t an aspect that figures in the novel – and that’s fine with me.

Her writing, as ever, is wonderful. Dialogue is pitch perfect and the passages describing the sentient lightborn as it interacts with the human brain is brutal and beautiful. As you may have gathered, I highly rate this book. Any niggles? Nope. Not a single one. But don’t take my word for it – go find a copy and read it yourself. You won’t be sorry you did…

Review of Tongues of Serpents – Book 6 of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik


I’ve followed this delightful series in which the Napoleonic wars are conducted with fighting dragons. However in this sixth book – does Novik manage to sustain the freshness and quirky charm of the first books?

tonguesofserpentsConvicted of treason despite their heroic defence against Napolean’s invasion of Britain, Temeraire and Laurence – stripped of rank and standing – have been transported to the prison colony at New South Wales. With them travel three dragon eggs intended to help establish a covert in the colony, and destined to be handed over to second-rate undesirable officers willing to accept so remote an assignment.

But instead of leaving behind the political entanglements of the war, Laurence and Temeraire sail into a hornet’s nest of fresh corruption. The young Australian colony has been thrown into turmoil after the overthrow of the military governor, one William Bligh – formerly Captain Bligh, late of the HMS Bounty.

I really enjoyed this change of scene. Temeraire is a wonderful character who has steadily developed throughout the series and quickly pulls me into his various adventures with his singular dragon viewpoint. As I wasn’t attracted to the series through any particular knowledge of the Napoleonic campaigns, Novik’s necessary tweaks to fit her storyline with the historical facts don’t particularly disturb me. Neither was I worried that Temeraire was no longer fighting Napoleon – Novik’s tour of her version of the world is sufficiently engaging that I am perfectly relaxed about exploring it along with the protagonists. However, I did wonder if Laurence would have struggled more with the brutal reality of the penal colony. While I’m sure he would have coped physically with the hardship, I did think that he would have found the sense of his disgrace would have chafed – especially considering the circumstances that led to their transportation.

I liked Novik’s depiction of the Australian outback during Temeraire’s exploration of the continent. Her deft use of some of the Australian myths to produce some challenges to the dragons along the way manages to provide plenty of narrative tension, along with the surprises that await the expedition when they finally reach the other side of the continent.

All in all, I feel that Tongues of Serpentsis an entertaining addition to the series which I certainly wouldn’t characterise as a placeholder, and I’m looking to getting hold of Crucible of Gold, the next instalment.

Eastercon 2012 – Musing from one of the crowd – Part 2


Sunday 8th April
During the night, it occurred to me that I couldn’t be the only delegate in this large conference who had bought more books than I could carry home – so went to the Ops office to see if they could help. After the realisation struck that it being the Easter week-end, all postal services would be suspended, the lovely folks suggested that I post an ad in the conference newsletter appealing for help from someone who lived in my neck in the woods. Everyone was universally good humoured and helpful as I typed up my yell for help, which early on Sunday morning struck me as really impressive.

Met up with Susan and after brekkie, we made our way to the first panel of the day. It seemed the obvious choice in these days of media platforms and online self marketing.

Promoting Yourself Online
With Facebook, Google +, WordPress, eBlogger and Twitter all clamouring to pull you away from writing your Great Work, the first question raised was – which one really matters? Fortunately for the rest of us, everyone on the panel was very clear on that one – Twitter. If you don’t do anything else, getting a Twitter account and regularly tweeting is a useful way to allow your fans to get to know you. There was lots of useful advice about how to negotiate Twitterverse and areas to stay away from. Mhairi Simpson, YA writer and blogger, made some really useful contributions – to the extent that Paul Cornell suggested that she should be a panel member on the subject at a future conference.

Kaffeeklatsch with Cory Doctorow
Once more my complete lack of direction meant that I staggered into the infamously tucked-away Room 19 ten minutes late, somewhat wild-eyed. I love Cory’s work – Makers is one of the best near-future books I’ve yet to read and was interested to discover the person behind his clever, streetwise writing. He is clearly currently very engrossed in the issue of corporate stupidity – particularly banks and Government. It was a fascinating 45 minutes listening and watching the ideas pour out of his mouth. Think a Cory character will one day surface in one of my books – if I can do justice to his razorlike intelligence…

Wench! Fetch Yon Tankard Here…
This was another excellent session, with plenty of fun to be had along the way, as the panellists knocked around various terrible examples of what didn’t work – along with a number of useful tips that helped them in their own writing. I was impressed to see that although some of the contributors on the panels were clearly showing signs of wear and tear, they were still able to string together sentences that made sense.

After lunch, I went along to the book signing session with my copy of Lightborn – and found myself pouring out my sad story of how my publisher ran out of funds just before my debut novel was due to be printed… Tricia Sullivan was so very kind and wrote a lovely message in the front of my book. You sometimes meet up with people whose work you admire – and discover that they absolutely are all that their awesome writing implies. A very special moment.

I decided to give myself the afternoon off to slump in the bar and chat to friends. Mhairi gave me a lesson on how to use Tweetdeck, bless her! While I found myself gazing across the table at Fran Terminiello – an odd feeling to actually meet up with someone I’ve been busy exchanging tweets with since Fantasycon last year… Had a wonderful conversation with Rob and Jenny Haines about all sorts of stuff that I find really exciting and interesting – and was fascinated to learn that he was also one of the 22 who Angry Robot requested to see a full manuscript in their open submission session last year.

Eastercon2012 - Ned Stark's sexy starved look.  NotI attended Susan’s reading of her book, Lake of Destiny, a fantasy adventure set in the Middle Ages that I’ve enjoyed and reviewed.

Also took a few pics of the hotel and the mandatory snaps of me sitting on THE throne, looking as completely unlike Ned Stark as it is physically possible to get.

Do I have anything to report about the BSFA Awards Ceremony and the fuss thereof? No – I wasn’t there so don’t feel qualified to comment. What I can report is as a single woman wandering around the conference, at no time did I feel vulnerable. It was great to see so many families with children around the place and the balance of men and women – and the number of young people of both sexes.

Attending this panel was something of a last minute decision – but I’m really glad that I did. Gerry – a larger than life character, who also proved to be a real scientist – was making the case for our leaving the planet Earth and continuing to evolve up in space in a fleet of Worldships. He provided drawings and designs that would be viable once humanity attained a solar system economy. By the end of the thoroughly entertaining session, he had me half convinced… And determined to find out a lot more about the British Interplanetary Society.

Monday 9th April
Had a note under my door from Julian who lived in Brighton, that he would be prepared to ferry my bag of books home – and deliver them. Be honest – when I’d typed up my short ad in the conference newsletter, I’d not really expected a response so was blown away that someone had thought to break their stride to help out a stranger whose lack of planning had got her in a hole of her own making…

In the meantime, back to the panels. As ever there were far more on offer than I could actually get to, and again, I wanted some chill time.

When Science Meets SF
An outstanding offering. All the panellists were happy to discuss how they researched their ideas and where they felt their weaknesses lay. Jaine Fenn had studied Linguistics and Astronomy, but found Maths challenging. Tricia Sullivan strongly recommended the Khan Academy, a free online series of excellent quality tutorials on the main subjects – including Maths up to calculus and everyone suggested that The New Scientist was a reasonably reliable all-round magazine for keeping up with the latest scientific developments. It was also pointed out that it didn’t necessarily pay to get too precise with your scientific gizmos, as some of the science fiction written back in the 1940’s and 50’s now is seriously dated for that very reason, whereas the stories with a ‘softer’ science fiction approach often still seem relevant.

I wasn’t initially terribly interested in going to the Hay Lecture, but when everyone around me seemed keen, I tagged along…

Invisible Women? Scientists People Don’t See
This talk was given by Lesley Hall and was something of a shock. I’m a historian by training who is accustomed to the notion of women having been eased out of a lot of mainstream history. I also read a reasonable amount of popular science periodicals and books. However, I was completely ignorant about the majority of the women on the Powerpoint display as Lesley Hall gave us a potted history of some of their lives and their contributions to science. She is a witty, accomplished speaker and this talk was both informative and interesting. And depressing.

The Data Deluge and the End of Science
I’m no mathematician or computer specialist. But when the likes of Alliette de Bodard, David L. Clements, Lesley Hall and Nicholas Jackson – as well as a number of the audience – started seriously discussing the sheer scale of the problem, my jaw hit the ground. I was dimly aware that there was an issue, of course I was… But when they all talked about the huge volume of raw data generated by automated space travel and the likes of the Hadron collider and how much processing power it takes to crunch it down into findings scientists are looking for, it was mind boggling. The sheer physical space required to store such a huge amount of data is one problem. Then there is the media. Parchment is proven to last anything up to 500 years. A floppy disc can significantly degrade within a decade – if you still have the hardware to run it, that is… And CD’s and DVD’s are also unreliable for storing anything long term. Quite often the original raw data is simply destroyed after scientists have quarried it for their research purposes as the cost involved in keeping it is prohibitive – thus preventing anyone returning to the original data to either double-check their results, or start a new line of enquiry in the light of alternative hypotheses raised further down the line… You don’t have to be a Nobel prizewinner to see the possible catastrophic consequences of THAT practice, given the eye-watering costs of obtaining that data in the first place.

The only real downside to this eye-opening panel, is that the room was stiflingly hot and terribly overcrowded. I suppose it was a tribute to the conference overall that this wasn’t a problem I encountered in the huge majority of the panels – but it was a shame.

I hadn’t attended the Opening Ceremony, reasoning that it would probably be a lot of fluffle, but decided to go to the Closing do as I’d had such an enjoyable time, I wanted to clap and cheer the hard-working souls who’d made it happen. As predicted, there was a lot of clapping and cheering going on. And prizes handed out. And handing over the responsibility from the worn shoulders of Rita Medany to Juliet E. McKenna, who has a hard act to follow… And as icing on the cake, there was an inspiring film of views of Earth taken from the cupola of the space station by a variety of the astronauts. Very moving.

As I prepared to hand over my bag of books to Julian in the atrium after the closing ceremony, Howard hurried over and introduced himself. It appears that he lives less than a mile away and was prepared to taxi my books home for me. Wonderful!

After dinner, Mhairi and I attended the screening of Buffy the Musical, complete with words and belted out the songs with a roomful of other people. Great fun!

From Fan to Pro
This was amazing. It started out as an examination of how true fans manage to become writers and professional editors, featuring Paul Cornell, Kari Sperring, Charles Stross as the advertised panel – immediately joined by Jo Walton and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor of Tor. This session quickly turned into a series of interesting anecdotes by the panellists triggered by questions from the floor and proved so riveting that a fair number of us were still sitting in the room at 11.30 pm – an hour and a half after the panel should have finished. And we then adjourned to the bar…

Everyone was approachable and friendly and after once more mentioning my unfortunate experience with my debut-novel-that-wasn’t, Charles Stross, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Jo Walton all were generous with advice about what I should do next.

And this last experience summed up what conventions are all about. How often in any walk of life these days, do you get a chance to meet up with people whose work is known around the world? And yet in our genre, conventions give fans a chance to talk to authors about what they’ve written and discuss all aspects – often in head-swivelling detail. What we discover is that well known, successful writers are just like us – people who love escaping into other worlds and exploring other possibilities…

Regrets… Yes – I would have liked to have a chance to talk to more people. AND attend more panels. The ones that got away:-
How To Knit a Dalek – the finished result was so very cool…
The Imaginary Gripe session – this really appealed to the grumpy git in me.
At least I still have my dignity – I figured this one about hard drinking fans would have been wonderfully indiscreet…
You Got Your Robot Elf Sex in my SF – Who wouldn’t want to attend a session with a title like that??

Maybe by next year, I’ll have those clones sorted out.

Eastercon 2012 – Musings from one of the crowd…


Friday 6th April
My first Eastercon. I staggered through the huge revolving door of the conference hotel after an epic journey from the south coast Bullet-riddled puppies on water-Eastercon 2012that started at stupid o’clock involving two coach trips and three train changes. So wasn’t at my shiny best. Didn’t even initially notice THE throne from the TV series. However I cheered up at the sight of the atrium, where bullet-riddled puppy sculptures perched over pools of water cris-crossed by hump-backed bridges. The quirky effect seemed entirely suitable for a science fiction and fantasy conference.

Sorting out which panels to attend was a brain-boggling experience and some painful decisions had to be made as there was an extensive choice in a programme that started – most days – at 10 am and went right through until 9 pm. Where was that clone when you needed one? So I settled on the ones below and hoped for the best:-

Is Europe Winning the Space Race?
Um… probably not, but ESA is doing better than you might think. Everyone on the panel, who were all enthusiastic and articulate, felt that China was the One To Watch. I got the sense that NASA was having difficulty in coping with the downsizing of American political ambitions. While financial and resource limitations meant that USA spacefaring efforts needed to be part of a multi-national team, it seemed that NASA wasn’t accustomed to considering their partners when altering mission targets – with some unfortunate results.

Kaffeeklatsch with Tricia Sullivan
She’s a wonderful writer and I had promised myself to get a signed copy of her latest book Lightborn. So I couldn’t resist this session, which for the uninitiated, is a chance to get to listen to an author chatting in a small group over a cup of coffee. This session was one of the highlights of the whole conference. Tricia spoke frankly of the tension between her raw creative drive to explore ideas through her characters and the need to craft her writing into a coherent plot. I found her honesty and advice inspirational.

At this point I visited the Dealer’s Room. Sooo many wonderful books! And such low prices! In no time flat I had bought ten… which should have made me jump for joy. Except that never having cultivated the art of travelling light, during my epic journey I had staggered off and on all those coaches and trains with a suitcase the size and weight of a small house, along with a hefty handbag and shoulder bag for all those necessities that wouldn’t be crammed into said case. How on earth was I (and my rather dodgy back) going to cope with a carrier bag full of books on the return journey? Unable to work this one out, I returned to the panels.

There’s a hole in my plot
Joe Abercrombie’s sharp wit is always good value on any panel. I was impressed at how ably newbie Elspeth Cooper managed to cope with the shafts of humour coming her way. Jenni Hill’s moderating skills were given a thorough workout when dealing with the Gavin Smith/Joe Abercrombie double act. All in all, great fun.

What is I?
This was a panel which only really came to life when a very knowledgeable member of the audience joined in. This discussion was addressing some of the issues raised by the latest findings that suggest the brain is very reliant on sensory input, rather than an isolated region that defines us.

Beyond Red Mars
After Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy describing terraforming Mars, this panel was addressing how humanity would approach a migration to other planets. Some of the alternative locations were food for thought – I think it was Mary Turzillo – who proposed the upper atmosphere of Venus as a suitable site. It was a lively and informative discussion that concluded humanity would need to be prepared to undergo some radical genetic alteration in order to survive the rigors of radiation and differing gravities. It was interesting to see that a fair number of the audience were quite happy to seriously consider putting themselves up for such experimentation. However, when asked if they would be prepared to donate their children – all the hands went down…

After all those panels, I decided to attend the Ceilidh which was great fun – and where I met Alice and later, Jennifer and Rachael.  No… I never did get to discover their surnames…  We had a hilarious and not entirely coherent drinking session in which superglue featured – and I finally returned to my hotel room at 4 am.

Saturday 7th April
I wasn’t actually staying at the Radisson Edwardian hotel, but at the Marriott next door. However, the Radisson had provided tea, coffee, bottled water, fruit and snacks in the atrium all for £1 each. So brekkie was a slice of fruit flapjack and a cup of tea. The evening meal was a two course meal for £10 which was mostly filling and tasty – with scrummy little puddings that you could have seconds, or third helpings… However, they didn’t provide a vegetarian option for the first two nights, or if they did, it was the option that sold out early on.

The sheer scale of the place meant that despite the fact that there were 1300+ of us, it was rarely uncomfortably crowded. The downside was that the layout was challenging, with a series of conference rooms dotted around the place. The organisers had thoughtfully provided very clear maps – which I am sure were really helpful for those who can read them. I can’t. So I tended to arrive on average 5 minutes late to most panels. Which is why I’m not mentioning too much about panel members and their contributions – I mostly got to see the tops of their heads and hear their voices, rather than clearly see them.

Ethics of AI
This was one of the outstanding panels. The panellists were all well informed and raised some interesting issues that I had not even considered – for instance, never mind about protecting AI’s from exploitation, what about the fact that humans seem hardwired to hand over far too much responsibility to systems that are actually quite limited. Think of the people who nearly go off a cliff while slavishly following their Satnav, for instance… What do you do to protect children from bonding too closely to the AI toy that had been produced to act as babysitter and informal educator?

How Pseudo do You Like Your Medieval?
This was another excellent offering – and one of the big keynote events that was duly packed. George R.R. Martin, the guest of honour, was on this panel along with Juliet E. McKenna, Jacey Bedford and Anne Lyle with Anne C. Perry as moderator.
I generally avoided the other Martin events as I’m allergic to A Song of Ice and Fire, though if you haven’t come across his novella Fevre Dream, hunt it down. It is an absolute gem. Martin came across as a genuinely nice man who took the furore surrounding the Game of Thrones in his stride. All the panellists provided some useful tips for anyone in the audience attempting to build a medieval world, as well as some insights into the ongoing attraction of this particular historical period.

Mainstream published SF & F
This was an interesting panel which considered how an increasing amount of speculative fiction had escaped from the genre paddock and was now freely grazing in the mainstream meadow. It was generally agreed that this was a good thing and that the rise and rise of YA fiction could only help increase the popularity of fantasy and science fiction.

Depressingly, it was noted that Mariella Frostrup, who presents the Radio Four book programme Open Book, absolutely hates sci fi, horror and fantasy genre fiction. I also added my thoughts on the snobbery demonstrated on the More 4 TV Bookclub when describing Matt Haig’s wonderful take on vampires, The Radleys.

How To Get Published
After losing my publisher just before Christmas, this panel was particularly pertinent. John Jarrold, Ian Drury, Bella Pagan, Gillian Redfearn and Gale Sebold were all willing to give plenty of advice on how to make the best submission possible. I found it interesting to note the variation on attitudes to the dreaded synopsis.

The Fantastic Landscape
This was one of the more disappointing panels, despite having the wonderful Jaine Fenn and Paul McAuley on there. Inexplicably, Lewisham High Street got namechecked. While I’ve never been there I’m fairly convinced that it doesn’t qualify as remotely fantastical. And like an unwanted lover, thereafter kept popping back into the discussion – to the extent that a member of the audience saw fit to inform the rest of us about plans to uncover the River Quaggy… Oh well.

How Not to Suppress Women’s Writing
This is – obviously – something of a burning issue for those of us women who write science fiction and to a lesser extent, fantasy. It was agreed that there was a systemic problem somewhere along the line. It was also felt that there was a number of older men who constitute a significant chunk of the book-buying public who still yearn for the ‘golden age’ of science fiction which was very much technology oriented. The problem is compounded when it was noted that male reviewers don’t tend to review women writers, while female reviewers do cover male authors.

This panel ended on a slightly strident note, which made me wince. There were a significant number of men in the audience and I found myself wondering what their thoughts were – and whether the angry tone that developed would encourage them to rush out and sample any of the excellent writing from the likes of Tricia Sullivan and Jaine Fenn.

Worldbuilding (When, how and how much?)
Have to say that I was struggling by this time. It didn’t help that this was the 7th panel of the day I’d attended and I think I’d reached my limit.

After having tea, I staggered off to bed intending to have a short nap and recharge my batteries and meet up with some friends in the bar. And woke at 4 am…

Review of Moon Over Soho – Book 2 of the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich


Ben Aaronovich’s first book, Rivers of London, garnered a great deal of critical acclaim and positive attention from reviewers and critics alike. I certainly enjoyed it. So, does the sequel, released only a few months later by those busy folks at Orion, live up to the high standard set by the first book?

The song. That’s what London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant first notices when he examines the corpse of Cyrus moonoversohoWilkins, part-time jazz drummer and full-time accountant, who dropped dead of a heart attack while playing a gig at Soho’s 606 Club. The notes of the old jazz standard are rising from the body—a sure sign that something about the man’s death was not at all natural but instead supernatural.

Body and soul – they’re also what Peter will risk as he investigates a pattern of similar deaths in and around Soho. With the help of his superior officer, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, and the assistance of beautiful jazz aficionado Simone Fitzwilliam, Peter will uncover a deadly magical menace – one that leads right to his own doorstep and to the squandered promise of a young jazz musician: a talented trumpet player named Richard “Lord” Grant – otherwise known as Peter’s dear old dad.

Apart from the fact that this book reaffirms Aaronovich’s detailed research/knowledge of London’s tucked-away corners and we learn that he is also a jazz nut – it also firmly establishes this series as One To Watch. Peter Grant is a delightful protagonist – funny, slightly vulnerable and insatiably curious. And someone who seems to trip over trouble with great frequency. I liked the way this book immediately picks up the threads from Rivers of London, so we get to see more of the engaging cast of characters. Molly is a standout favourite and I’m waiting to see her get a lot more action. Peter’s long-suffering mentor, DCI Nightingale is still recovering from the injuries he sustained at the climactic ending of Rivers of London, as is PC Lesley May, Peter’s girlfriend. We also get to see more of the river deities at the heart of this series and the adventure with Ash is one of the more exuberant set pieces in the middle of this fast-paced whodunit. It is a relief to have an urban fantasy protagonist who isn’t nursing all sorts of major emotional damage due to a dysfunctional upbringing. While Peter was raised in a tough part of town, he also has a strong, loving family around him – even if it was rather haphazard.

I sort of guessed who was responsible for killing off the jazz musicians well before the denouement – though that didn’t really matter. I hadn’t seen the how and besides there’s another case where the threat is even more deadly and is clearly going to be taking up Peter’s time in the next book. The humour threading through the story immediately drew me in and held me. I read the book in a single sitting – however, in devouring it so greedily I’m conscious that I’m selling this novel short. There is a wealth of detail packed alongside the engrossing storyline – descriptions of London haunts; snippets of magical lore and delightfully irreverent insights into police procedure. So you can pounce on it and gorge on the story, but I think this is also a book that would benefit from being reread at a slower pace to fully appreciate what Aaronovich has crafted and I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Whispers Under Ground.

Review of The Island – A Noreela novel by Tim Lebbon


Tim Lebbon’s name keeps cropping up in chats with speculative fiction fans, so when I saw this book on the shelves, I decided it would be worth a read.

theislandKel Boon thinks he has managed to escape his past as an agent in the secret organisation the Core, protecting the blissfully unaware Noreelans from the threat of the lizard-like Strangers – creatures from beyond the known world capable of untold destruction. In the sleepy fishing village of Pavmouth Breaks, Kel has become a woodcarver, leaving fighting behind and forming a tentative relationship with trainee witch Namior.  But a storm is brewing and at its centre the witches sense something dark and deadly. What follows the wake of the storm threatens the Noreelans’ very way of life. With the people and land he loves in terrible danger, Kel quickly realises that he cannot escape his past.

Yes… I know it sounds fairly run of the mill – but it isn’t. For starters, Lebbon is excellent at delivering tension-filled fear without slowing down the action – partly because he is an extremely competent writer who keeps all the action centred around Kel and Namior. The terrible storm and the havoc it wreaks on the fishing community is very well portrayed as the villagers struggle to come to terms with the devastating waves that sweep away their homes, families and livelihoods. Kel is conscious that he doesn’t belong as he watches everyone around him grapple with the enormity of the disaster – and it is that sense of detachment, along with his Core training, that has him already alert for any possible threats. That and the inexplicable disappearance of magic… This tale is a real genre mash-up – dark fantasy, swords and sorcery and steampunk. I have seen claims that it qualifies as science fiction, but I personally think that there would need to be more emphasis on the technology to tick that box. Not that it really matters – it doesn’t stop this being a cracking read. While Lebbon has written other books set in this world, he has ensured that it is a standalone novel, so no one will find their enjoyment blunted by picking up this book before visiting any of the other Noreela books.

Kel’s character leaps off the page right from the start and his hopes, personal demons and increasing concern at what is happening was, for me, the reason to keep turning the pages. Namior, his lover and young witch who has been born and raised in the small community all her life, wasn’t quite as strong. She certainly suffers in comparison to O’Peeria, Kel’s former Core partner. Although we only learn about O’Peeria in flashbacks through Kel’s point of view, the gutsy, foul-mouthed fighter immediately engaged my attention and loyalty in a way that Namior didn’t until much further into the book. However, this is a minor niggle and didn’t stop me staying up way into the night to discover what would happen next.

Lebbon can definitely weave an engrossing tale, full of menace and punctuated by bursts of sudden violence. I enjoyed the fact that though Kel is a trained killer, the fight scenes are less about swashing buckles and much more about the gritted business of surviving any encounter without major injury or death. The world-building is exceptional and I loved the descriptions of the island and the stricken fishing village, which were depicted with cinematic clarity. Overall, this is an outstanding tale. Now knowing why Lebbon is regarded with such respect by committed speculative fiction fans, I will be looking for his other work.