Monthly Archives: December 2012

Review of Shift by Kim Curran


When your average loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not so average after all. Turns out he’s a ‘Shifter’ – he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made.

At first, he thinks the power to Shift is pretty cool. But as his world quickly starts to unravel around him he realises that each time he uses his power, it has terrible unforeseen consequences. In a world where anything can change with a single thought, Scott has to decide exactly where he stands.

And that’s the blurb – hats off to Strange Chemistry for not blurting a slew of spoilers in their back jacket sales pitch – it’s a refreshing change, these days. So… a young male protagonist written by a female author. Does she pull this off? And does the engaging concept and cool cover signal that newcomer Strange Chemistry is a publisher with the same solid credentials as parent company Angry Robot?

shiftThis is a rite of passage novel with geeky Scott an outsider – until he gets a rush of blood to the head and attempts a stupid stunt that goes badly wrong to impress a beautiful girl and finds himself Shifting… And before you know it, he’s pitchforked into a weird parallel world where he is learning skills he’d never dreamed of. However, these skills have downsides – big ones. There are a raft of unpleasant, highly dangerous folks out there, and this book may be YA, but it’s very much at the crossover end of that age range – there’s a fair amount of graphic violence.

Scott is a solidly satisfying protagonist – he has sufficient vulnerability and bloody-minded spikiness to be appealing without coming across as unrealistically ‘special’. The book’s pace whips along at a fair rate. In the initial chapters, I’d pegged it as a college coming-of-age story, but it soon morphed into a broader storyline. Curran manages to set the parameters of her world, while the bodies start stacking up and Scott finds himself in the middle of the action, without easing up on the whirlwind pace or dropping the tension. I sat down, intending to dip into the book during a free half-hour – and became hooked.

Curran has a gift for writing characters you care about – I also thoroughly enjoyed reading about Aubrey. One of the rules about Shifters is that the ability manifests itself when they are children, but once they become adults, they lose it. So this secret organisation, charged with some highly secret and responsible tasks, is reliant on children and young teenagers – it really is a very enjoyable concept that I’m hoping Curran will continue to expand in future books.

There was a lot that could have gone badly wrong in a book packed with action, with a science fiction twist on teleporting that has certainly been done before in the likes of Stephen Gould’s Jumper. The fact that Curran manages to produce her own version of this concept with such authority and verve is a testament to her skill as an author. If you enjoyed urban fantasy, but are now heartily sick of vampires, wolves and various supernatural beings, give Shift a go. There may not be a space ship in sight, but this science fiction adventure is great fun – and you don’t have to be a teenager to thoroughly enjoy it.

Review of Hammered – Book 3 of The Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne


Having already read the first two books in this enjoyable series, Hounded and Hexed, I settled down for more of the same kind of mischief from Atticus O’Sullivan, who is the last of the old Druids – twenty one centuries old – living in Tempe, Arizona. But I was in for a surprise. Hearne has suddenly taken a left turn in this third book and instead of more high jinks in and around Tempe, where ancient gods collide with modern America, Atticus has undertaken to confront one of the most powerful and famous old gods on his home turf. So… does the series – whose initial success rests heavily on the drama and humour around that collision of cultures – still seem as fresh and original once Atticus and his team invade Asgard for a bloody showdown?

hammeredThor, the Norse god of thunder, is worse than a blowhard and a bully – he’s ruined countless lives and killed scores of innocents. After centuries, Viking vampire Leif Helgarson is ready to get his vengeance, and he’s asked his friend Atticus O’Sullivan, the last of the Druids, to help take down this Norse nightmare.  One survival strategy has worked for Atticus for more than two thousand years: stay away from the guy with the lightning bolts. But things are heating up in Atticus’s home base of Tempe, Arizona. There’s a vampire turf war brewing, and Russian demon hunters who call themselves the Hammers of God are running rampant. Despite multiple warnings and portents of dire consequences, Atticus and Leif journey to the Norse plane of Asgard, where they team up with a werewolf, a sorcerer, and an army of frost giants for an epic showdown against vicious Valkyries, angry gods, and the hammer-wielding Thunder Thug himself.

This new shift in surroundings also meant that a raft of established characters I’d grown to like were relegated to bit parts and we were introduced to some new protagonists. It took me a couple of chapters before I fully relaxed into the new scenario – but once I did, it was a complete blast. Hearne certainly knows how and when to blend humour into action scenes and I also get the strong impression that he knows about sword fighting, rather than having just Googled it…

Hearne also mixes up genre conventions – urban fantasy is generally fast-paced and snappy with a linear narrative. In this book, however, there is a long section where each of the team who are set to invade Asgard embark on a slice of their life story to explain to the others their personal grudge against Thor. It’s a neat device to bond us with the characters and also give us a greater emotional investment in wanting to see Thor’s death, given that in both Hounded and Hexed, the Norse god has been regularly mentioned as a total jerk, but only in terms of telling rather than showing us. So when the big climax comes, we are now fully involved in the plot and eager to see the end of such a callous, unpleasant character.

Hearne takes some big risks in this third instalment and they all pay off – including the deaths of some major characters. Hammered is arguably the best book in the series so far – the stakes keep getting higher and Atticus manages to keep ahead. Just. Meanwhile, Hearne steps away from the backdrop that established this series as One To Watch and turns it into something else completely, while adding yet another twist to this original take on urban fantasy.

Any quibbles? Well, I’ll confess to finding the drinking session with Jesus uncomfortable. Yep. I know – I’ve happily seen all sorts of other gods wheeled out for my entertainment. But, this is my pantheon and I discovered I didn’t much enjoy seeing it messed around with – despite the fact that Hearne has depicted Him in a very positive light…

Hammered has taken a series that could have cruised along with more of the same for at least another book – and shaken it up into something else, making Tricked, the next book in the series, a must-have addition to my already insanely long reading list… I’d already marked Kevin Hearne has a significant addition to the cadre of authors who are establishing this period as a golden age for urban fantasy – Hammered absolutely confirms that he should be right up there with the likes of Jim Butcher and Charlaine Harris.

Review of The Bridge by Janine Ellen Young


This book was nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award – and after reading it, I can see why…

When the Ring aliens first thought to contact other worlds, they gave no consideration to the fact that other species might be constructed differently from them. Deep-space dwellers, more like large and complex bundles of genetic information than physical entities, they sent their probes off into the night hoping to build a bridge between their dark and beautiful society and others. Most probes vanished into the infinite ways of space, but one found Earth. And one was all it took to utterly disrupt life as we know it for all time…

And that’s all I’m going to give you of the very chatty blurb – because after this point we are into serious Spoiler territory. No point inthebridge ranting about it in the hope that the publisher might change their ways, though – Earthlight no longer exists.

Suffice to say that after the probe lands, Humanity is left completely altered by the experience and a portion of the survivors emerge with an unswerving drive to respond to the aliens’ invitation and build a star vessel capable of reaching them. While others come through the upheaval with a very different agenda, and want nothing more than to try and reclaim normality as best they can.

Young charts the lives of her main characters and shows how they are shaped by what befalls them. Of necessity, this book is written in multiple viewpoint and given the span of years and distance she is covering, there are big leaps in the narrative time where the characters have moved on. Despite my strong preference for in-depth characters in first person viewpoint (I), this book gripped me to the end. Young is a highly talented writer with an amazing ability to provide a big emotional wallop to her characters in a relatively small scene. Jude’s helpless, desperate love for Valerie, his best friend’s wife, is visceral – which matters as this drives a lot of his motivation through the rest of the story. I also found Varouna absolutely riveting in the early stages of the book – and would have liked a few more scenes in her viewpoint later in the book near the climax, although I do accept that Young had to make some hard choices in order to keep this book from developing into a sprawling, unwieldy mess, which it never does.

In fact, given the epic subject and the scale on which she is operating, the structure is very tightly focused on her viewpoint characters. Through them, we get some fascinating glimpses of how human society has changed after the probe landed, and I have read some readers grumbling that they wanted her to enlarge this aspect of the book. But this book isn’t focused on what happens on Earth, it is all about the building of the Bridge.

So, does Young succeed in adequately covering her subject and give us a sufficiently complex and plausible experience in this very ambitious novel? In my opinion, yes she does. This is why science fiction really is my favourite genre – at its best, it poses mind-expanding ‘what if’ scenarios and then goes on to explore them, weaving contemporary concerns and issues into an entertaining storyline. Young’s ‘what if’ is how our world could unite sufficiently to provide the huge resources necessary to build a deep-space vessel. If you enjoy an intelligently written epic science fiction story peopled with some memorable characters, keep a look out for The Bridge – it’s a cracking read.

Review of A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder


Mark Hodder, known for his successful Victorian steampunk Burton and Swinburne series, has now given us this offering, due to be published in 2013.

Transported to the alien world of Ptallaya by a strange and terrifying ritual, Victorian missionary Aiden Fleischer and his brilliant but damaged assistant, Clarissa Stark, are stranded. Befriended by the Yatsill, a race of bizarre telepathic alien mimics, the travellers watch in amazement as the society around them transforms into a parody of London. But as the dual yellow suns of this new world slowly set, a red sun is also rising, and with it come the Blood Gods, an ancient and indestructible evil…

aredsunalsorisesAnd there you have it… At least a tiny slice – because Hodder is very adept as covering a lot of story in a relatively short space. This – in the best tradition of the genre – is certainly action-packed and Hodder manages many nods to the original derring-do adventure stories that some of us were brought up on, without jarring modern sensibilities. It’s a very neat trick and lot harder to pull off than Hodder makes it look.

As well as ensuring that his writing style has the right period feel, which means that he can’t use all those nifty modern words with their snappy punch – he also manages to give us a real insight into Fleischer’s disturbed mental landscape. Fleischer is well and truly messed up… a failing vicar, whose parishioners appeal to be deserting him in droves, he opens the door to a vagabond woman and takes her in – which proves to be a life-changing moment. The historical backstory that he provides at the start of the book provides extra poignancy by the end, when we really care about Aiden Fleischer. While ensuring that the main character is suitably complex and interestingly flawed, Hodder also whisks us along a truly out of this world story at a breathless pace, throwing in all sorts of interesting twists so that the reader is constantly having to revise her initial impression of what is going on, as the protagonist learns more about the situation(s) that he is trying to grapple with.

Clarissa Stark is Aiden’s fascinating sidekick. There is a certain tongue in cheek treatment of this female paragon, which I found amusing and works well, given Aiden’s evident inexperience with the opposite sex. As for the world in which they find themselves stranded – an awful lot happens. And it is to Hodder’s credit that I managed to keep track of it all – with the possible exception of some of those fiendishly complicated alien names…

The faux London is a delight – there were all sorts of little details that the aliens included which poked fun at the Victorian era, while fully exploiting this period of gung hoe exploration, where intrepid Brits swarmed over the planet, heedless of some shocking conditions… Hodder’s protagonists show the same dauntless spirit here, and there were a couple of times when I read the list of injuries they had endured and yet still managed to march ever forward. Did it matter that in reality, they probably would have pegged out during the first night? Not in the slightest.

All in all, this is a delightful read. I’m not the most ardent fan of steampunk and yet found it an enjoyable, engrossing adventure. I’ll certainly be looking out for the sequel.

Review of Dodger by Terry Pratchett


This is another of Terry Pratchett’s YA offerings, which ticks the boxes for many adults, too…

Dodger is a tosher – a sewer scavenger living in the squalor of Dickensian London. Everyone who is nobody knows him. Anyone who is anybody doesn’t. He used to know his future; it involved a lot of brick-lined tunnels and plenty of filth. But when he rescues a young girl from a beating, things start to get really messy. Now everyone who is anyone wants to get their hands on Dodger.

This is something of a departure for Pratchett – there isn’t a single fantastical detail in this adventure. Although, his version of dodgerVictorian London bears more than a passing resemblance to Ankh-Morpork, the bustling city state of his Discworld series – so much so, I was half expecting Corporal Carrot to come marching around the corner accompanied by a troll and a werewolf to investigate the whole business. However, this time around, we have to make do with the likes of Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew and Sir Robert Peel. So… is Pratchett’s foray into historical fiction successful?

Dodger, who spends a lot of his time down sewers combing the mud for lost coins and jewellery, is a street kid who has found a home with an elderly Jewish man called Solomon Cohen. And, no – this version doesn’t break into songs about picking pockets, or try to entangle Dodger in any criminal schemes. Quite the opposite, in fact – this old man leads a quiet orderly life mending watches and musical boxes in Seven Dials, which is definitely not one of the better neighbourhoods, and after Dodger saves him from a beating, invites the boy to live with him. Pratchett has the knack of producing a vivid backdrop that not only gives a memorable setting to all his action, but somehow manages to become another distinctive character in its own right – a very neat trick to pull off. So the wealth of historical detail woven into the story becomes part of the fun. And, this, being Pratchett, is fun…

Which disguises what is actually a grim tale. Of poverty and desperation. Of cynical seduction and the callous disposal of a beautiful young girl, once her rich, powerful husband tires of her. Of an intelligent boy whose future at one point, was to live a short life roaming the sewers, but wrapped up in the adventure story of a beautiful girl needing to be rescued – and Dodger rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mister Charlie and his notebook (Dickens, as if you hadn’t already guessed…) this story romps along at a good clip, garnished with plenty of Pratchett wit and humour.

There is more than a nod in the direction of Dickens with the unfolding storyline, but ultimately, it is Pratchett’s own themes that surface – his dislike of the complacent rich, his loathing of social injustice, the belief that one person with a burning sense of what is right can change a system – even if the result is often not what was originally intended… And above all, his affection for humanity, which suffuses this offering. Once again, I think the category of YA is somewhat superfluous – this is Pratchett. Those Young Adults have youth and the future on their side – they can’t go hogging one of our greatest living authors, as well…

Review of The Villa by Rosanna Ley


Rosanna Ley, aka Jan Henley, has been through several incarnations during her writing career – and this enjoyable slice of escapism is certainly attracting attention as the book steadily climbed the best-seller lists during the summer.

When Tess Angel receives a solicitor’s letter inviting her to claim her inheritance – the Villa Sirena, perched on a clifftop in Sicily – she is stunned. Her only link to the island is through her mother, Flavia, who left Sicily during World War II and cut all contact with her family.  Initially resistant to Tess going back to her roots, Flavia realises the secrets from her past are about to be revealed and decides to try to explain actions. Meanwhile, Tess’ teenage daughter Ginny is stressed by college, by her blooming sexuality and filled with questions that she longs to ask her father, if only she knew where he was.

the villaSo this book has three protagonists – Flavia, Tess and Ginny. It’s a big ask to be able to pull off writing convincingly as a seventy-something and as a seventeen year old – and Ley manages it. Ginny’s chippy comments are both poignant and funny, while the story that Flavia gradually reveals, along with Sicilian recipes is both remarkable and believable. While her stay in Sicily allows Tess the space to finally decide what she wants from life, after struggling to raise Ginny as a single parent.

This book has the potential to be an almighty mess – balancing three separate stories spanning over half a century, with a backdrop straddling modern Britain and a remote Sicilian village certainly is harder to achieve than Ley makes it look. In addition, Ley has further challenged modern tastes by insisting on slowing the pace down, particularly during the Sicilian interludes. We are treated to lengthy descriptive passages and detailed instructions on how to make several classic Sicilian dishes – in effect a substantial section of this book is an homage to a slower, simpler pace of life. However, Ley is also at pains not to paint too cosy a picture of these tough, touchy people, who are quick to take offence and very slow to forgive – with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

While there is a love interest, this isn’t the engine that drives this book forward – it is the tension running through all three generations of strong-minded women in trying to find some kind of peace and happiness. Do they succeed? What is the mystery that has torn apart two families who had been friends for generations? And why is Flavia so determined never to return to the land of her birth? How can Ginny negotiate the demands of her friends, along with those of her boyfriend?

This isn’t the sort of book I generally read and enjoy – but I stayed up reading into the small hours, unwilling to put The Villa down as I was drawn into the story and wanted to know what happened next. And while the cover blurb repeatedly suggests it is an ideal summer read, I think it would be also be one to curl up with in the dead of winter, where those vivid descriptions of the baking Sicilian landscape may help to keep you warm…