Category Archives: godpunk

Favourite Fantasy Worlds – Part 2

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I posted my first five Favourite Fantasy Worlds a few weeks ago, so here are the next group. All of these worlds are well developed, nicely complex and provide satisfying backdrops for the stories. It’s no accident they are all series. One of the reasons I really enjoy multi-book story arcs is the extra layers of detail that can be built into the worldbuilding.

The Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
This original, remarkable series is set in the equivalent age of the Tudors, with horse-drawn conveyances Touchstoneand charts the fortunes of a magical travelling theatre company. In the first book, Touchstone, they form their group and the next three books in the series records their highs and lows as they steadily get more prosperous and successful. Though that brings its own pressures. The glass thorns of the series title, are the drugs the actors dose themselves with, in order to heighten their emotions – or help them relax after the excitement of performance. I eagerly await each book and so far, have not been disappointed at the unfolding drama of these enormously talented, difficult people battling to produce their best work in less than ideal circumstances.

The Worlds of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones
This series of books covers the adventures of the state-appointed enchanter Chrestomanci, who is taskedCharmedLife with keeping law and order amongst the magical community. I have read most of these books to my granddaughter, after having devoured them myself several decades ago – my favourite is Charmed Life. And rereading them aloud has not only proved they can stand the test of time, but increased my respect at the quality of the writing, the crafting of the story arcs and the sheer quirky genius of Jones’ imagination. Yes – I know they are supposed to be for children, but give them a go if you appreciate magical mayhem. They are a joy for any age group.

The Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong
nohumansinvolvedThis world is extensively portrayed in the thirteen-book series, with a number of accompanying novellas and short stories. It all kicks off with Bitten, where werewolf Clay accidentally bites his girlfriend – and her life is never the same again. But don’t go away with the idea that the series is all about werewolves – it also encompasses witches, necromancers and vampires. In short, anyone who dabbles with the paranormal or magic. Read my review of No Humans Involved. The world is enjoyable – I love the way Armstrong manages to slide from everyday normality into something else.

Einarinn by Juliet E. McKenna
Again, this extensive, detailed world has been produced over a long period of time through several series dangerous watersof books – there are five books within The Tales of Einarinn; four books in The Aldabreshin Compass; three books and a novella in The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and her latest trilogy, still set within the same world – The Hadrumal Crisis. Juliet provides an excellent explanation of her world on her blog. They are all great reads – but my personal favourites are The Aldabreshin Compass series and The Hadrumal Crisis – see my review of Dangerous Waters.

The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
thehundredthousandkingdomsThis is an extraordinary series – particularly the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms which is set in the city Sky where gods and mortal co-exist. See my review here. The book is pervaded by the sense of threat and a feeling that a set of rules apply here that our protagonist needs to know, but doesn’t fully understand. The second book, The Broken Kingdoms had me in tears at the end – and that doesn’t happen all that often, these days. If you like remarkable fantasy on an epic scale focusing on gods, then give it a go.

And there you have it… a few of my favourite fantasy worlds to date. What are your favourite fantastic worlds?

Favourite Alternate History Worlds

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This interesting sub-genre that intersects with both science fiction and fantasy, is a real favourite of mine. I’m a sucker for a well-constructed alternate history that posits some of the more fascinating ‘what ifs’. And these are the best ones I’ve encountered so far. Again, in no particular order…

Ghosts of Columbia by L.E. Modesitt Jr
This nifty omnibus edition contains the first two books in the series – Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost ghostsofcolumbiaof the Revelator. This is a world where people who are killed violently or accidentally with sufficient time to realise that they are about to die, become ghosts. So large battles become undesirable – battlefields overrun with hordes of ghosts make an area uninhabitable until they fade. The point at which history has also diverged is when the colonists from the Mayflower landing in the New World succumb to the plague, denying England any foothold on the American continent. Which means a chunk of Canada and North America is settled by the Dutch, in a nation called Columbia with New France down in the south and the Mormon state of Deseret jostling in an uneasy truce. For the time being…

Drop into this interestingly original world, ex-espionage agent and political minister Johan Eschbach, now living quietly in New Bruges and working as a lecturer on Environmental Studies at the Vanderaak Centre who tells his story in first person POV.
The story and espionage are well constructed – but what sticks in my memory is this wonderful world Modesitt has created. I love the details he produces about the weather, Johan’s shopping habits and what he has for breakfast – so that when it does all kick off, the violence is all the more shocking. Read my full review here.

 

Farthing – Book 1 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton
In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the farthingupper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…

As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.

But that sense of order being re-established is entirely false – as we get to discover in the two ensuing books… This is a storming start to an excellent trilogy by one of the most versatile, interesting speculative fiction writers around today. Read my full review here.

 

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy doomsdayand science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…

When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out. Mr Dunsworthy – who opposed the whole hare-brained notion of Kivrin going back to this particular time, yet somehow found himself caught up in helping her – is an outstanding character. The book is largely in his and Kivrin’s viewpoint and as the situation in both timelines slides away into chaos, it is these two main characters on whom the whole story arc rests.

Willis lays bare the internecine struggles within the famous University with a sense of gentleness that is refreshing in a genre which often exposes human frailty with ruthless savagery. There are a couple of characters who resort to petty rule-hugging in order to protect themselves, but most of the people depicted step up and do their best in increasingly awful circumstances. Read my full review here.

 

Age of Aztec – Book 4 of the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove
The date is 4 Jaguar 1 Monday 1 House; November 25th 2012 by the old reckoning. The Aztec Empire rules the world, in the name of Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent – and her brother gods. The Aztec ageofaztecreign is one of cruel and ruthless oppression, fuelled by regular human sacrifice. In the jungle-infested city of London, one man defies them: the masked vigilante known as the Conquistador. Mal Vaughan, one of the Jaguar Warriors, who police affairs in London, is determined to track down and put a stop to the Conquistador – a determination honed by the knowledge that if she doesn’t deliver, her life will be forfeit…

We follow the exploits of the Conquistador as he rebels against the might of the Aztec Empire for his own reasons – a personal tragedy that sums up, for him, all that is wrong with the current regime. Britain had been one of the last countries on the planet to fall under Aztec domination and as a patriot, the Conquistador – or Stuart Reston, to use his everyday identity – yearns for the country’s lost freedom. But as the chase between Stuart and Mal intensifies, the unique twists that Lovegrove has made his own in this series transform this book into something far cleverer and more memorable. Read my full review here.

 

Dominion by C.J. Sansom
Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany dominionafter Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.

What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading. In this Britain there has been a prolonged period of financial stagnation, leading to widespread poverty without any Welfare State. This is a world where the BBC is strictly censored with newspapers, television and radio staying silent when violent protest spills into death – and morris dancing is upheld as a national dance… But perhaps the most startling demonstration of the difference is when young Queen Elizabeth – still unmarried – is commemorating Remembrance Sunday, with Rommel stepping forward and propping on the cenotaph a large poppy wreath, complete with a swastika.

This is a strong read for anyone interested in exploring alternative historical landscapes and Sansom has beautifully conveyed the fog-shrouded desperation of a country slowly grinding to a halt under a punitive rule. Read my review here.

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* KINDLE Ebook of Staked – Book 8 of The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne

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It seems far too long since I was in the middle of this entertaining world of druids, food-obsessed hounds and a head-swivelling range of infuriated gods and fae, in Shattered. Would this latest slice of the adventure manage to sustain the fun and excitement?

stakedWhen a druid has lived for two thousand years like Atticus, he’s bound to run afoul of a few vampires. Make that legions of them. Even his former friend and legal counsel turned out to be a bloodsucking backstabber. Now the toothy troublemakers – led by power-mad Theophilus – have become a huge problem requiring a solution. It’s time to make a stand. As always, Atticus wouldn’t mind a little backup. But his allies have problems of their own. Ill-tempered archdruid Owen Kennedy is having a wee bit of troll trouble: turns out when you stiff a troll, it’s not water under the bridge. Meanwhile, Granuaile is desperate to free herself of the Norse god Loki’s mark and elude his powers of divination – a quest that will bring her face to face with several Slavic nightmares.

This particular tale features Atticus, Owen and Granuaile, who each feature in their own chapters, so the story unfolds in multiple first person viewpoint. Hearne has also broken with modern trends and provided a Story So Far roundup of each book. I was very thankful to get a quick, well-told reminder of what had gone on before – and those who haven’t yet had the pleasure also have the option not to read it. I’d like to see authors of other long-running series, where the story progression relies on the books being read in order, also adopting this tactic. It certainly contributed to this reader’s enjoyment.

Those of you who have read any of The Iron Druid Chronicles will know there are slices of humour running through the adventures, so now that the stakes (no pun intended…) have inevitably been cranked up, has that sense of fun dissipated, as happened in both the Harry Dresden and Sookie Stackhouse series? No, it hasn’t. I’m delighted to report that Oberon, Atticus’ trusty hound, still brings most life and death topics back to sausages whenever he can, and archdruid Owen, who has only recently been reawakened after being in stasis for a looong time, also provides plenty of humour in his delightfully sour asides on modern life and customs.

However, there has to be a balance – this is a godpunk fantasy adventure, so do the characters convince? Is the supernatural aspect of the world suitably depicted with plenty of complexity and depth? Is the action exciting? This three-stranded approach worked really well – I like all three characters and Hearne has each one nailed, though these days, I suppose my favourite has to be Owen, who bounces off the page with his grumpy, individual take on the world. I also enjoyed watching Granuaile gain more confidence as she is off on a quest of her own – and making decisions she is aware won’t necessarily please Atticus. As for the Iron Druid himself – his talent for upsetting the wrong people is still getting him into more trouble than he knows what to do with. And I really liked watching him genuinely flail and agonise over some of the decisions he has to make.

In amongst the mayhem and humour, were also some darker moments and once more we lost a major character who has regularly helped Atticus out in the past , which was a shock. Although, it shouldn’t have been – Hearne has never been afraid to kill off a steady stream of major players throughout the series. It’s a trick that certainly keeps me paying attention during the battle scenes.

As for the climax of the book – a set piece battle in the heart of a European city that worked really well and provided plenty of thrills and spills. Oh yes, I really enjoyed this offering – all the more because it is the penultimate book in the series and I’m aware that this blast of pleasure will continue only once more. But if you haven’t yet followed Atticus through his various scrapes with other supernatural beings, then whatever you do – don’t go looking for Staked – instead, get hold of Hounded.
10/10

Review of The Shadow Pavilion – Book 4 of The Inspector Chen series by Liz Williams

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I first published this review back when a very select few were visiting my blog, so thought I’d recycle it as it has only been seen by a handful of visitors…

shadowpavilionA bit fed up with your urban fantasy detectives? Well, if you do fancy a change from the plethora of vampires and/or werewolves that frequent city streets righting wrongs – then look no further than the Inspector Chen books by Liz Williams.

Set in a near-futuristic city, Singapore Three, Inspector Chen is a Chinese police officer whose remit takes him into Heaven and Hell to investigate crimes. Having said that, the vivid characters surrounding him easily eclipse our self-effacing hero. Chen’s wife is a half-demon on the run from Hell and her pet protector is a badger whose lethal persistence are matched only by his bite and ability to turn himself into a teakettle. Williams even manages to make the Celestial Emperor, Mhara, an intriguing personality – which is a feat. Ineffable goodness, while very pleasant, is often rather boring, except in Williams’ hands…

Singapore Three, Heaven and Hell are described with panache in Williams’ vivid prose. This particular story follows the adventures of a Bollywood director who summons up a Tiger demoness to star in one of his films. However, when he tries to send her back, a trail of destruction is unleashed that pulls in Chen’s partner and the badger. And if that wasn’t enough, the fabled Shadow Pavilion houses a formidable assassin, Lord Lady Seijin, contracted to kill an extremely important personage. If Seijin succeeds, the fragile stability of Heaven, Hell and Earth will dissolve into chaos…

Williams’ lush prose whips this story along at a cracking pace. Now that I’ve read previous Inspector Chen novels, know the characters and fully appreciate the world she has created, I was able to relax and thoroughly enjoy the ride. But – and it’s a major But – I didn’t start this series with the first book and I nearly didn’t bother finishing it. This world is so very different with its richly textured Eastern origins, that I was frankly floundering until I read the first novel, Snake Agent. So do, please, read these books in order, or you won’t get the best out of Williams’ entertaining, sophisticated writing.
8/10

Review of The Age of Odin by James Lovegrove

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I’ve been promising myself this treat for a while – though what with one thing and another, I simply didn’t get around to it. But based on the other offerings in this intriguing godpunk series – see my review of the Age of Aztec here, and my review of The Age of Ra here – I was in for a thoroughly enjoyable read. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, this isn’t a series where you need to read these books in any particular order. The only common theme is that they are about a pantheon of gods – each story is set in a completely different world with unrelated, disparate protagonists.

ageofodinGideon Coxall was a good soldier but bad at everything else, until a roadside explosive device leaves him with one deaf ear and a British Army half-pension. So when he hears about the Valhalla Project, it’s like a dream come true. They’re recruiting former service personnel for excellent pay, no questions asked, to take part in unspecified combat operations. The last thing Gid expects is to find himself fighting alongside ancient Viking gods. The world is in the grip of one of the worst winters it has ever known, and Ragnarők – the fabled final conflict of the Sagas – is looming.

Gideon bounces off the page right the start. His sarcastic commentary on the ashes of his life after his terrible accident pulled me in and had me fiercely on his side – which is just as well, because as the story progresses he does some unpleasant things. Of course he does – this is war. And Lovegrove isn’t going to provide us with all the military excitement through some prism that sanitises the bloody brutality of it all. Be warned – Lovegrove also isn’t afraid of killing off main characters.

However, I learnt several books ago, if you relax into the journey and trust this author, he doesn’t disappoint or let you down. And once more, he majorly delivered. This world of the Norse gods has Odin, haunted by past mistakes and grittedly determined not to let the forces ranged against this diminished version of Valhalla get the better of them. I loved that Odin’s pragmatic attitude means they now use mechanical means instead of some of the dire beasts of the past. So the Valkyries swoop across the snowscape on souped-up snowmobiles, and the fabled eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, is replaced by a huge helicopter. It doesn’t mean that all magical creatures are gone, though. The Jotun, the ice giants, are all too evident in this world, as are trolls and packs of ravenous wolves.

Lovegrove weaves a tale of desperate odds and savage encounters – not dissimilar to the flavour of the old Norse legends, themselves. And it is this echo of the original myths that makes Lovegrove’s godpunk such a joy. His style allows readers to easily access his stories on the level of joyous adventure – but there are also tongue-in-cheek allusions and humorous extras for those who know the gods and their stories well enough. As you may have gathered, I’m something of a fan – and this book has only increased my  appreciation of this author. In my opinion, he’s one of the sharpest, best writers in speculative fiction we have. Don’t take my word for it – go and track down one of his books and see for yourself…

10/10

Review of Shattered – Book 7 of the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne

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This long-running and established godpunk series is still going strong, with a number of short stories and novellas also adding to the main novels, which is why this sixth novel is regarded as the seventh addition to the series. So has Hearne managed to sustain the quality and chirpy energy that characterised the earlier books? Though if you haven’t yet read any of these books, please don’t start with Shattered as this series is simply too good to dive in and try to pick up the complicated and action-packed backstory – go and track down the first book, Hounded, see my review here. I’ve also reviewed the third book, Hammered here.

For nearly two thousand years, there was only one Druid left walking the earth – Atticus O’Sullivan, whose sharp wit and sharp swordshattered kept him alive when pursued by a pantheon of hostil deities. Now he’s got company. Atticus’s apprentice, Granuaile, is finally a full Druid herself. What’s more, Atticus has defrosted an archdruid long ago frozen in time, a father figure (of sorts) who goes by the name Owen Kennedy. Between busting Atticus’s chops and trying to fathom a cell phone, Owen has some catching up to do. For Atticus, the jury’s still out on whether he’ll be an asset in the battle with Norse god Loki – or merely a pain in the arse. As the trio deals with pestilence-spreading demons and frenzied Fae, they’re hoping that this time… three’s a charm.

There are relatively few series that I follow longer than Book 4, because they all tend to get steadily grimmer with each book – for the very good reason that in order to keep readers entertained, the stakes have to continue to be raised. However Hearne has managed to pull off a really clever trick – despite the fact that the Big Bad is definitely closing in, the sparky humour that characterised the earlier books is still very much in evidence. Partly this is because of Atticus’s relationship with his hound, Oberon, who has a thing for sausages and poodles, and partly because Owen’s voice in this particular book just bounces off the page. After being defrosted after two thousand years, he is the ultimate grumpy old git and the friction with his former pupil, who he clearly ruled with the ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ method of training provides an entertaining extra twist of conflict. It was interesting to see his interaction with characters who treat Atticus with caution, or outright hostility and gave us another take on some of the characters who we have only ever regarded previously as potential enemies.

I really enjoyed the three-way first person narrative by the main protagonists. It certainly keeps the plot humming while we swing between them as they face different challenges and dangers. It takes real skill to be able to give each character a different voice, but Hearne pulls it off. As ever, the world is vividly depicted with a host of intriguing, dangerous and capricious gods, goddesses and other supernatural beings – even Jesus makes an appearance.

The other main character is Atticus’s apprentice and in this book, when she is off adventuring in her own right, we also get a slice of her backstory. I really enjoyed her character progression – the fact that she is very environmentally aware and worries about killing in a way that simply doesn’t affect either Atticus or Owen marks her out as more modern. Her story that is the one which has stayed with me – and the dangling plotpoint that leaves her dealing with a major problem means I shall be eagerly waiting for the next book, Staked. Not to mention getting to sample more of fecking Owen Kennedy… This is a series that just goes on getting better.
10/10