Category Archives: grimdark

2016 Discovery Challenge – How Did I Do?

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After reading Jo Hall’s post here, I decided to join this challenge and set myself the target of reading and reviewing at least two books a month by women authors I’ve not previously encountered. For a variety of reasons, 2016 proved to be my best reading year, ever. So I actually read and reviewed 45 books by women I haven’t read before. There were so many great authors in that group and my top five are included in my outstanding books of 2016 – see here. So I want to feature my top five very near misses in no particular order:-

Radiance by Cathrynne M. Valente
radianceI enjoy being a Netgalley reader – it pushes me out of my comfort zone every so often. I’m not sure I would have picked up this offering if it hadn’t been on offer, given the description was a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood-and solar system-very different from our own. Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.

For starters, this is a novel with a fractured timeline, so the story skips around and is told in a mixture of interviews, gossip and through extracts of old classic film, among other narrative modes. Therefore you need to pay attention. Initially I wondered what I was getting myself into – for the sheer oddness of the world wasn’t anything I was prepared for, given that I’m allergic to reading any kind of blurb. Was it worth the effort? Oh, yes.

 

Machinations – Book 1 of the Machinations series by Hayley Stone
The machines have risen, but not out of malice. They were simply following a command: to stop the machinationsendless wars that have plagued the world throughout history. Their solution was perfectly logical. To end the fighting, they decided to end the human race. A potent symbol of the resistance, Rhona Long has served on the front lines of the conflict since the first Machinations began—until she is killed during a rescue mission gone wrong. Now Rhona awakens to find herself transported to a new body, complete with her DNA, her personality, even her memories. She is a clone . . . of herself. Trapped in the shadow of the life she once knew, the reincarnated Rhona must find her place among old friends and newfound enemies—and quickly. For the machines are inching closer to exterminating humans for good. And only Rhona, whoever she is now, can save them.

I also read and reviewed the second book, Counterpart in this intriguing series. There are indications that Stone is still feeling her way – this is, after all, her debut novel and the machines weren’t particularly vividly drawn – but I have never read a book where the issue of cloning has been so thoroughly and emotionally examined. Despite its flaws, this one has stayed with me.

 

The Fettered Flame – Book 2 of the Shkode series by E.D.E. Bell
thefetteredflameThe Fettered Flame is a genre-bending fantasy novel that continues the saga of two dying worlds, plagued by their own unique struggles for power. Follow the journeys of Cor – a woman striving to understand her powers of magic and how the connect to her past, Atesh – her contemplative dragon companion, and Jwala – a dragon plunged into a rebirth of ancient ideals. The Fettered Flame is the second instalment in the Shkode trilogy: a quirky and modern take on dragons and wizards, exploring themes of identity, prejudice, violence, compassion, and the ways we are all connected.

I was sufficiently impressed to seek out the first book, The Banished Craft, in this science fiction/fantasy mashup. The blurb may sound a bit gushy, but it is spot on. This is epic fantasy with a sci fi twist and I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment when it is released as I love the characters and Bell’s quirky, insightful take on the world she has created.

 

Rosemary and Rue – Book 1 of the Toby Daye series by Seanan McGuire
October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. rosemaryandrueAfter getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…

I loved McGuire’s writing and went on to read her wonderful novella Every Heart a Doorway. One of my promises to myself is to continue reading more of the Toby Daye series in 2017.

 

Rebel of the Sands – Book 1 of the Rebel of the Sands series by Alywn Hamilton
rebelofthesandsMortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can’t wait to escape from. Destined to wind up “wed or dead,” Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk, but things don’t go according to plan…

Hamilton’s punchy, accomplished writing grabbed me from the first page and didn’t let go until the end of this adrenaline-fuelled ride. Amani is a feisty heroine who attracts trouble like iron filings to a magnet and I found this one really hard to put down until it was finished and am very much looking forward to reading the sequel.

 

Given I nearly doubled the target number of women authors I read and reviewed, should I increase my goal for 2017? I’ve decided against doing so. One of the reasons why 2016 was such a bumper reading year was because I wasn’t writing. Editing and rewriting, yes – but I wrote nothing new. So reading became a refuge that I don’t normally crave so intensely as diving into a new world of my own for the first time tends to thoroughly tick that box. Therefore, I shall launch my 2017 Discovery Challenge with the target of reading and reviewing at least two books a month by women writers previously unknown to me. And if I have half as much joy in the coming year as I’ve had reading this year’s offerings, I shall be very happy, indeed.

What about you? Did you set yourself any reading challenges in 2016 – and if so, how have you got on? Do you intend to continue them into 2017?

Discovery Challenge Books I Read in 2016
1. The Puppet Boy of Warsaw by Eva Weaver
2. Truthwitch – Book 1 of the Witchlands series by Susan Dennard
3. Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
4. Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Book 1 of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor
5. Heart of Obsidian – Book 12 of the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh
6. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
7. Rosemary and Rue – Book 1 of the Toby Daye series by Seanan McGuire
8. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
9. The Sector – Book 1 of the Non-Compliance series by Paige Daniels
10. Brink’s Unfortunate Escape from Hell – Prequel to the Skycastle series by Andy Mulberry
11. The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
12. The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
13. Cinder – Book 1 of the Luna Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
14. Bright Blaze of Magic – Book 3 of the Black Blade series by Jennifer Estep
15. A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott
16. Queen of Hearts – Book 1 of the Queen of Hearts saga by Colleen Oakes
17. The Outliers – Book 1 of The Outliers trilogy by Kimberley McCreight
18. The Loneliness of Distant Beings by Kate Ling
19. Banished – Book 1 of the Blackhart trilogy by Liz de Jager
20. The Nothing Girl by Jodi Taylor
21. Change of Life – Book 2 of a Menopausal Superhero by Samantha Bryant
22. Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg
23. Speak by Louisa Hall
24. Inborn – Book 1 of The Birthright series by Amy Saunders
25. Machinations – Book 1 of The Machinations series by Hayley Stone
26. Woman of the Hour by Jane Lythell
27. Shift by Em Bailey
28. An Accident of Stars – Book 1 of The Manifold Worlds series by Foz Meadows
29. Across the Universe – Book 1 of the Across the Universe series by Beth Revis
30. The Thousandth Floor – Book 1 of The Thousandth Floor series by Katherine McGee
31. The Changeling by Christina Soontornvat
32. The Fettered Flame – Book 2 of the Shkode series by E.D.E. Bell
33. Aveline – Book 1 of The Lost Vegas series by Lizzy Ford
34. Escapology by Ren Warom
35. So Many Boots, So Little Time – Book 3 of the MisAdventures of Miss Lilly series by Kalan Chapman Lloyd
36. The Imlen Brat by Sarah Avery
37. Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb
38. A Darker Shade of Magic – Book 1 of the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab
39. Synners by Pat Cadigan
40. Renting Silence – A Roaring Twenties Mystery by Mary Miley
41. Split the Sun – Book 2 of the Inherit the Stars duology by Tessa Elwood
42. Rebel of the Sands – Book 1 of the Rebel of the Sands series by Alwyn Hamilton
43. Ever the Hunted – Book 1 of the Clash of Kingdoms series by Erin Summerill
44. The City of Ice – Book 2 of the Gates of the World series by K.M. McKinley
45. Graveyard Shift – Book 10 of the Pepper Martin series by Casey Daniels

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Review of KINDLE Ebook A Darker Shade of Magic – Book 1 of the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab

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This is another book that’s been tucked away in my TBR pile for far too long – so I gave myself a treat and dusted it off for a train journey to London. Would it keep me suitably engrossed?

adarkershadeofmagicKell is one of the last travelers–magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King–George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered–and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London–a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure. Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

That is most of the rather chatty blurb, which gives an idea of the intriguing backdrop to the mayhem. I  love the idea of the parallel worlds that have been influenced by an escape of magic, which is both sentient and hungry. If magic-wielders aren’t sufficiently powerful, or too dark, then the magic turns carnivorous with some nasty consequences.

When one of the most powerful magic-users in the land, used as a courier to hop between worlds, goes on indulging in some risky behaviour, he finally finds sufficient danger to satisfy him. Indeed, he finds more than he can cope with… Schwab’s characters are well depicted. Kell’s smuggling is depicted such that I found myself completely sympathising with him – and I generally have little sympathy with rule-breakers and rebels as protagonists. And I plain fell in love with Lila – madcap adrenaline junkie and dreamer who’d rather go out in a blaze of glory than continue trudging in gritted misery to make ends meet.

This grimdark fantasy quickly hooked my attention and as the body count started to rise and an evil plot was uncovered, I was hoping the train journey wouldn’t end too soon – not normally my attitude at the end of a packed day in London. The pace quickly picked up and the plot cantered along at a clip. While I generally don’t enjoy antagonists who revel in their wickedness – most people simply aren’t like that – there are occasions when a thoroughly psychotic villain does tick the box. In this book, there are a pair of them and it is a testament to Schwab’s imaginative ingenuity that she manages to give us a very powerful magic-user and then provides two terrifying characters who are capable of overwhelming him.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I look forward to getting caught up in the next slice of the adventure where this well thought out magic system prevails. If you haven’t yet encountered this one, then get hold of it – the magical laws and characters are a delight.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Twilight of Dragons – Book 2 of The Blood Dragon Empire by Andy Remic

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I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, The Dragon Engine – see my review here. It was a rip-roaring, if often dark and violent adventure where our band of heroes are flawed and all too vulnerable. Remic successfully balanced the grimdark elements with a vibrant charm that made this a memorable read – would Twilight of the Dragons continue the magic?

twilightofthedragonsDuring a recent dwarf civil-war deep under the Karamakkos Mountains, the magick-enslaved dragonlords have broken free from centuries of imprisonment and slaughtered tens of thousands throughout the Five Havens before exploding from the mountain and heading in fire and vengeance for the lands of Vagandrak. Two once-noble war heroes of Vagandrak – Dakeroth and his wife Jonti Tal, an archer and scholar, the Axeman, the White Witch and a Kaalesh combat expert find themselves in a unique position: for they have discovered the ancient dragon city of Wyrmblood, and a thousand unhatched dragon eggs. Dakeroth and his companions must work with their enemies, Skalg and the Church of Hate, in order to bring down the dragonlords and save the world of men and dwarves. But there is no bartering with these ancient dragons; for they seek to hatch their eggs and rebuild the cruel Wyrmblood Empire of legend.

Actually, there are two sets of heroes – our original band of plucky adventurers, roaming around in the underworld domain of the dwarves and another set of equally violent adventurers who find themselves pitted against the lethal dragons. Is it confusing? Yes. The narrative is fractured with a fair amount of flashback as our hapless protagonists ricochet from one nasty situation to another – and Remic has not allowed for any bonding moment, providing a chance for us to reconnect with the protagonists who featured in The Dragon Engine, other than a few scattered recollections. I would have liked more than a hurried nod to the lovely scene at the start of the first book, where the whole hare-brained scheme is hatched out, reminding us why we care about these characters and their initial reasons for getting into this mess. As it was, I struggled to recall my connection with the original band of marauders – apart from anything else, those dragons are far too distracting.

The destructiveness and sheer power of Remic’s dragons is vividly described – to the extent that we are in the head of a small girl moments before she is crunched into small pieces. Far more enjoyable is one of our fighting band’s frantic efforts to injure or at least slow down on of the dragons by engaging her in conversation in an attempt to divert her before launching an attack. For me, that single storyline managed to recapture some of the charisma evident throughout The Dragon Engine. It’s not that this is a bad book – but that was a really exceptional adventure romp. While this one has plenty mayhem and violence, featuring many of the characters established in the first book, the humour and charm isn’t so evident. For me, this meant the constant swearing graunched and I winced at some of the more bloodily graphic battle scenes. The writing isn’t as smooth or accomplished, either.

That said, do I still want to know what happens next? Oh yes – Remic once more manages to take the story off into a completely different direction right at the end, leaving me fascinated as to what happens next. I just hope that in the next book he manages to find the rhythm that made The Dragon Engine such an exciting, memorable read.
7/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Nevernight – Book 1 of The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff

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I really liked the premise for this and was fortunate enough to have my request accepted via NetGalley for an arc in return for an honest review.

nevernightIn a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family. Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

I really enjoyed Mia’s character – the backstory that steadily emerges during her time at assassins’ school is compelling that had me engrossed and thoroughly on her side. I’m a sucker for coming of age stories set in training establishments, anyway – though Hogwarts it ain’t. The world is very effectively depicted and we get to meet a number of vivid supporting characters, who are all chilling in a world where dishonesty, cunning and trickery are prized over love, compassion and empathy – indeed the latter are regarded as weaknesses. I enjoyed the way that Kristoff demonstrates the cumulative dehumanising process of the assassins’ school as Mia continues to master the necessary skills.

This book is firmly in the grimdark section of fantasy – though in common with a number of other books with plenty of visceral violence and a cynical immorality, there is a fair amount of grindark humour running through it. I enjoyed most of it, although during the first section there were a number of apparently humorous footnotes I could have done without. It didn’t help that they thoroughly messed with the formatting of the Kindle ebook, so kept cropping up in the middle of the text in completely the wrong place. Besides, after the late, great Pratchett’s ownership of the device, I do feel other authors should give them a very wide berth. That said, they weren’t dealbreakers and I was relieved to note they disappeared in the second half of the book.

The plotting is well judged and despite a number of flashbacks and interruptions in the narrative flow, I was never yanked out of the story or confused (other than when the aforementioned footnotes made an appearance). There were several enjoyable plot twists I didn’t see coming – especially the doozy before the climactic end section which is really well done. I simply didn’t want to put the book down for the finale, having no idea how it was all going to end. All in all, a really enjoyable read.

However, I do have concern. This book has been categorised as a YA read – presumably because the protagonist is a teen and the book features her at ‘school’. I’m aware that many YA books deal with difficult issues, such as underage sex, internet porn, drugs and family breakup. In an ideal world youngsters shouldn’t have to confront these problems while grappling with the tricky business of growing up – but they do, so their fiction should also address these subjects. However, this book’s dark, amoral treatment of violence, family breakup and the very explicit sex scenes means that if you are in the habit of providing YA books for the youngsters in your life, I strongly advise you to vet this one first.

That said, I found it a blast and will be definitely looking out for the next in this series.
8/10

Sunday Post – 7th August

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Sunday Post

This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Book Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

Oscar has been staying with me this week. I don’t normally have a chance to spend long periods of time with him alone as he is the younger grandchild, so it has been a treat. He is a bright six-year-old who loves games, so as the weather has kept us indoors and we haven’t been able to have the car, we have been playing Dobble and Junior Scrabble and I have also begun teaching him the chess moves – he has picked them all up very fast, except for the pawns, which he finds very frustrating as they won’t do what he wants them to do! We went to see Finding Dory on Thursday and botfindingdoryh thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the beautiful underwater scenes and strong characterisation. The only grizzle I have is that Nemo’s bent fin – such an issue in the first film – now seems to be absolutely fine, which is a bit disappointing continuity-wise.

Yesterday afternoon, Oscar and I went to see Tim perform in Jungle Book, playing the part of Shere Khan at the Alexandra Theatre in Bognor Regis. He was a wonderfully convincing baddie, growling and snarling his way through the show – and to think that just over a year ago, he wouldn’t consider playing anyone who was ‘nasty’ or ‘unhappy’. The speed he is progressing is amazing – it was wonderful seeing him on the stage enjoying himself and giving such a very strong performance.

This week I’ve managed to read:
The Dark Dream – Book 4 of The Beaver Towers series by Nigel Hinton
thedarkdreamIn this fourth BEAVER TOWERS adventure, Philip and old Mr Edgar set off on their travels so that Philip can learn how to use his powers to fight evil. But while they are away, the island itself is under threat from a strange creature named Retson. This time it is up to Baby B, the little beaver and Nick, the hedgehog, to save the day.
This is the final book in the series and once more, Hinton manages to up the stakes with one of the main protagonists putting the community of Beaver Towers in danger due to his own silly behaviour. While the Dark Lord is always more than willing to take advantage of any weakness. I shall be reviewing this book in due course.

 

Nevernight – Book 1 of The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff
In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking nevernightvengeance against the powers who destroyed her family. Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Another gem from NetGalley, I have thoroughly enjoyed this one. Think of a very dark dystopian version of Hogwarts and you come slightly close to the atmosphere at the assassins’ school in the Red Church – please ignore the YA classification and keep this out of the hands of your younger teens before you have at least vetted it. This non-YA reader loved it…

 

The Steal – Book 3 of Star Wars Adventures in Wild Space by Cavan Scott
thestealStill on the hunt for their kidnapped parents, Milo and Lina Graf head to Lothal in search of an ally. But when something precious is stolen from them, they have to embark on their most dangerous mission yet. Will they succeed in THE STEAL?
Another children’s read – this is yet another slice in the ongoing travails endured by poor Milo and Lina in the desperate hunt for their parents. And this one leaves the pair on the real cliffhanger making me very glad I’ve got the next book for us to move onto.

 

 

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Church of Armes of the Light has battled the forces of Darkness for as long as anyone can spiderlightremember. The great prophecy has foretold that a band of misfits, led by a high priestess will defeat the Dark Lord Darvezian, armed with their wits, the blessing of the Light and an artifact stolen from the merciless Spider Queen. Their journey will be long, hard and fraught with danger. Allies will become enemies; enemies will become allies. And the Dark Lord will be waiting, always waiting…

This is a joy. Tchaikovsky has taken some of the main tropes in epic fantasy – the struggle between Dark and Light; religious intolerance and infighting; a prophesy about a chosen one – and put his own unique spin on them. He is an intelligent, accomplished writer who also assumes his readers can keep up. So far 2016 has proved to be an amazing year – I can’t recall reading so many books of such quality – and this is yet another.

My posts last week:
Sunday Post – 31st July

Review of After You Book 2 of the Me Before You series by JoJo Moyes

Teaser Tuesday – featuring Nevernight – Book 1 of The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of An Accident of Stars – Book 1 of The Manifold Worlds by Foz Meadows

Review of Solar Express by L.E. Modesitt Jr

Friday Faceoff – The First Men in the Moon featuring the book by H.G. Wells

Shoot for the Moon Challenge 2016 – July Roundup

Other interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

Over-Booked – the San Diego Comic Con 2016 Edition! http://booksbonesbuffy.com/2016/07/30/over-booked-53-the-san-diego-comic-con-2016-edition/ Tammy really provides a slice of what it is to be a fan at a busy con in this enjoyable article.

Lake Tekapo is the Sanctury You Need on a South Island Road Trip https://memoirsonthemove.com/2016/08/02/lake-tekapo-is-the-sanctuary-you-need-on-a-south-island-road-trip/ One of the joys of social media is being able to vicariously travel alongside folks experiencing the real thing, thanks to their gift for photography and word pictures. This is a stunning example.

Writers’ Other Hobbies: Polymer Clay http://melfka.com/archives/1895 I have all the artistic ability of a doorknob, so I am delighted to see what other people do with the slices of time they spend away from their computer screens.

Placeholder https://ginnibites.wordpress.com/2016/08/04/placeholder/ This sharp-edged, beautifully observed poem by Ginni is a gem.

The Problem with Female Protagonists – http://writerunboxed.com/2016/08/06/the-problem-with-female-protagonists/ If you haven’t yet visited this site and you are a writer, I recommend you do. And this depressing, articulate article may account for the reason that woman are regarded as secondary in far too many walks of life. Still.

Many thanks for visiting and taking the time and trouble to comment – and may you have a wonderful reading and blogging week.

Teaser Tuesday – 2nd August, 2016

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Teaser

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This is my choice of the day:
Nevernight – Book 1 of The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff
79% Mia glanced sidelong at the apprentices around her. Though each pretended to be busy with their nevernightmeal, she could sense them listening. Feel their eyes. Staring at this shade of Mia Corvere they’d never really seen. Liar. Snake. Fox.

BLURB: In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

This is a coming of age story set in an Assassins’ School. Think of Hogwarts with more lethal tricks, every master as charming as Snape, without the bluff honesty of dear old Hagrid. Students die and our feisty protagonist has a tragic and compelling backstory. It should be a great deal grimmer than it is, because there are also shafts of humour and delightful plot twists peppering the narrative. I’m thoroughly enjoying this one and will be reviewing it in due course.

My Outstanding Reads of 2015

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It was a cracking year, particularly for science fiction and fantasy. I read 121 books this year, wrote 108 reviews and these are the best – the books that have stayed with me long after I’d closed them up and written a review about them.

Fool’s Assassin – Book 1 of Fitz and the Fool by Robin Hobb
Hobb is one of my favourite authors anyhow, so I was delighted when she revisited Fitz and took his story further. And this new adventure didn’t disappoint.

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly thesefoolsassassin many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown. But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more… On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing. Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger? Suddenly Fitz’s violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe. See my full review here.

 

The Straight Razor Cure – Book 1 of The Low Town series by Daniel Polansky
Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer, now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and straightrazorcurea way of inviting danger. You’d struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his. But then a missing child murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley. And then another. With a mind as sharp as a blade, and an old but powerful friend in the city, Warden’s the only man with a hope of finding the killer. If the killer doesn’t find him first.
I’ll grant you the blurb isn’t full of joie de vivre – but this book is more fun than it sounds. Mostly because Warden is written in first person viewpoint and his grumpy, cutting narration throughout the story is often amusing and manages to render the more revolting bits less so. This is a strong start to a remarkable trilogy, which has stayed with me throughout the year and if you like your fantasy gritty with a strong protagonist, then I highly recommend this offering. See my full review here.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This was recommended to me by a couple of my students – and it didn’t disappoint. But whatever you do, don’t look up the reviews written in The Guardian or The Telegraph because they have seen fit to provide the main spoiler which makes a big difference to how you’d read the book.Weareallcompletelybesideourselves

What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
As soon as I started reading, the surefooted first person voice pulled me in – and then about a quarter of the way in, came the revelation which I didn’t see coming. At all. This is such a clever, original book. What you think must be the themes when you start reading about the fallout surrounding Fern’s disappearance on her family, once you get past That Point, you realise there is another agenda alongside the expected issues of loss and identity. See my full review here.

 

Mars Evacuees – Book 1 of the Mars Evacuees series by Sophia McDougall
The fact that someone had decided I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and mars evacueesSORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well. I’d been worried I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm. And despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. because until you’ve been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by a laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived. If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.
Yes… I know it’s aimed at children – but this book enchanted me as well as my grandchildren and we are now all looking forward to reading the next slice of the adventure in 2016. See my full review here.

 

The Detective’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Detective’s Daughter series by Lesley Thomson
Kate Rokesmith’s decision to go to the river changed the lives of many. Her murder shocked the nation in the throes thedetectivesdaughterof celebrating the wedding of Charles and Diana. Her husband, never charged, moved abroad under a cloud of suspicion. Her son, just four years old, grew up in a loveless boarding school. And Detective Inspector Darnell, vowing to leave no stone unturned in the search for her killer, began to lose his only daughter, as young Stella Darnell grew to resent the dead Kate Rokesmith.
The theme of love and loss threads through this poignant, thoughtful book, which took me in so many different directions that I soon stopped trying to second-guess where Thomson would take me next and simply enjoyed the ride. It’s a happy feeling when I can sit back and revel in the story and the author’s skill in telling it. See my full review here.

 

The Future Falls – Book 3 of The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
When Charlotte Gale’s aunt warns their magical family of an approaching asteroid, they scramble to keep humanity thefuturefallsfrom going the way of the dinosaurs. Although between Charlie’s complicated relationship with sorcerer Jack, her cousin Allie’s hormones, the Courts having way too much fun at the end of days, and Jack’s sudden desire to sacrifice himself for the good of the many, Charlie’s fairly certain that the asteroid is the least of her problems. This could have so easily been an adrenaline junkie’s dream with constant action-packed pages of chases… scary magical confrontations ending in blood and gore – and it would have still been an engrossing read. But the cool, ironic tone of the blurb nicely echoes the emotional tenor of the books.

The aunts bake when they get together, and are often squabbling and eccentric. But as with any entity that is extremely powerful and knows it – they are also dangerous. Huff never lets us forget this. It’s a nifty trick to pull off. I love the fact that the Gale family never comes across as too cosy, or let the fact they are run by a matriarchy means they are kinder or softer… Understanding, maybe, but not kind. They can’t afford to be – they are running a family with sufficient power to level the world. And this is another trick Huff has pulled off – the Gales are something beyond human and the more we see about their adventures, the more alien they are. See my full review here.

 

Window Wall – Book 4 of The Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
For nearly two years, Cade has been rejecting his Elsewhens, the Fae gift that grants him prescient glimpses of possible futures, by simply refusing to experience them. But the strain is driving a wedge between him and his windowwalltheatre troupe, Touchstone, and making him erratic on stage and off. It takes his best friend Mieka to force Cade into accepting the visions again, but when he does, he witnesses a terrible attack, though he cannot see who is responsible. Cade knows the future he sees can be changed, and when he finally discovers the truth behind the attack, he takes the knowledge to the only man in the Kingdom who can prevent it: his deadly enemy.
Meanwhile Touchstone is poised to become the best theatrical troupe in the country, though that isn’t the end of their problems. As Cade is wrestling with his own magical talents, Touchstone still have issues of their own to sort out – domestic life collides with the demands of touring; the pressure of constantly providing new, exciting plays; betrayal by someone they thought they could trust… So there is no trace of this series running out of steam – if anything it just goes on getting better. Though whatever you do, don’t pick up Window Wall first. You need to go back to the start to get a real flavour of this original, outstanding series and it would be a crime to do anything else. See my full review here.

 

Embassytown by China Miéville
EmbassytownEmbassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerse, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.

It is a huge challenge, both imaginatively and technically to write convincingly about another species that has never been seen on our home planet. No problem for Miéville, though. He nails it. See my full review here.

 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship the-long-way-666x1024that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

So is all the buzz about this book merited? Oh yes, without a doubt. If you enjoyed Firefly then give this book a go, as it manages to recreate the same vibe that had so many of us tuning in to see what would happen next to the crew. While Rosemary is the protagonist, this tale is as much about the varied crew and their fortunes as they serve aboard the Wayfarer. Chambers manages to deftly sidestep pages of description by focusing on the fascinating different alien lifeforms peopling the ship. See my full review here.

 

The Shepherd’s Crown – the final Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
Deep in the Chalk, something is stirring. The owls and the foxes can sense it, and Tiffany Aching feels it in her boots. theshepherdscrownAn old enemy is gathering strength. This is a time of endings and beginnings, old friends and a new, a blurring of the edges and a shifting of power. Now Tiffany stands between the light and the dark, the good and the bad. As the fairy horde prepares for invasion, Tiffany must summon all the witches to stand with her. To protect the land. Her land. There will be a reckoning…

The story trips along at a good clip, providing all the unique Pratchett touches his fans know and love, including the whacky footnotes and the formerly obnoxious character that reveals a nicer side to her nature – a feat Pratchett regularly pulled off throughout this long-running series. And the ending provides plenty of action and excitement with a thoroughly enjoyable, wholly satisfying conclusion. Is this a detached, unbiased review? Probably not. I am discussing the last, the very last Discworld novel, ever. The series that has given me more pleasure over the years than any other. Wherever you are, Mr Pratchett, thank you for this last gem. The magic persists. See my full review here.

 

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Cary
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.

The viewpoint is masterful, as is the pacing. I’m not going to mention any more about the story development, thegirlwithallthegiftsbecause Carey has deliberately constructed it so the reader goes on discovering more about the world as the story progresses. I personally love that particular style of storytelling above all others and devoured this book in three greedy gulps, reading when I should have been sleeping. Or editing. Or writing lesson plans. Or organising my trip to Bristolcon. In short, I broke one of my golden rules – I read for pure enjoyment during the day, rather to relax and unwind as a present to myself after a long day’s work. See my full review here.

 

Lock In by John Scalzi
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. Most of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever lockinand headaches. A few suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1 per cent find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. It may not seem like a lot. But in the US alone that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’… including the President’s wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering. America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in, but two new technologies emerge to help. One is a virtual-reality environment, ‘The Agora’, where the locked in can interact with other humans. The second is the discovery that a few rare individuals have minds that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing the locked in to occasionally use their bodies as if they were their own. This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

Yes, yes – I know – the blurb goes on forever. But you need to know this stuff to fully appreciate and understand the world, because Scalzi doesn’t hang about giving long-winded explanations. This book hits the ground running in first person viewpoint, as Chris Shane walks into the FBI building on his first day as a fully-fledged agent. He is coping with more than the usual first day nerves – Chris Shane is a Haden, whose helpless body is back in his parents’ home being cared for, while his consciousness is uploaded into a threep – a robotic body that allows him to talk, hear, see and move. See my full review here.

 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Run away, one drowsy summer’s afternoon, with Holly Sykes: wayward teenager, broken-hearted rebel and unwitting pawn in a titanic, hidden conflict. Over six decades, the consequences of a moment’s impulse unfold, theboneclocksdrawing an ordinary woman into a world far beyond her imagining.

Right from the first page, I was drawn into this episodic narrative. Holly has run away after discovering her best friend in bed with her boyfriend. Though I was reading it on an autumn night, I was whisked away to the blistering heat as Holly has an emotional meltdown. And during this starting point, events unspool during that particular afternoon that go on having consequences for decades to come. The next five episodes that comprise the whole narrative all circle around that primary event, in one way or another as we also chart Holly’s life. It’s a difficult life. Being singled out doesn’t make for an easy time of it. But Mitchell does what he does best – provide a series of sharply written, beautifully crafted slices of action that allow us to join up the dots and provide the overarching narrative. See my full review here.

Favourite Dragons in Literature

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I’ve read one or three fantasy books in my time and decided to give a quick roundup of my favourite dragons. I happen to have a really soft spot for these critters and am always fascinated how different authors approach them. So, in no particular order…

Tintaglia from The Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobbdragonkeeper
I love this superbly arrogant blue dragon and the whole backstory of how the dragons come back into being, starting with the Live Ship Traders trilogy and then continuing through the Rain Wilds Chronicles quartet. I’m not in the business of giving spoilers, so I won’t say too much more. But if you have a weakness for dragons and enjoy a really intelligent, nuanced world featuring them, then consider reading Hobb’s books.

TheWhiteDragon(1stEd)Ruth from the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey
This clever blend of science fiction and fantasy features dragons used in the fight against Thread, a terrible alien infestation that periodically threatens to wipe out the colonists. The alliance between riders and dragons is very close and a number of dragons are featured throughout the series, but the little white, Ruth, stole my heart. This classic series has stood the test of time and is highly recommended for anyone who has not yet encountered it.

Toothless from the How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowellhow to train your dragon
Yes, I know these are children’s books. Yes, I know you’ve probably seen the films. But if you have, don’t go away with the idea that Cowell’s version of Toothless is remotely like the cool, sensible creature depicted in the films. Toothless in the books is snarky and disobedient, only coming to Hiccup’s rescue when their lives depend upon it. Indeed, the relationship between the Viking youngsters and the dragons in the books is far more nuanced and chaotically funny than the rather tepid versions depicted in the films. Reading sessions of these books with grandchildren regularly descend into giggles.

TemeraireTemeraire from the series by Naomi Novik
This alternate historical series is starts off during the Napoleonic Wars, where dragons are used as men of war by both the English and French. Temeraire is a dragon that hatches prematurely so that his rider and lifelong companion is William Laurence, a Royal Navy captain. Novik has moved the story arc on, having her intrepid duo ranging all over the globe during their enjoyable, well written adventures.

The Blessed Penn from Tooth and Claw by Jo Waltontooth and claw
This marvellous gem from Walton, which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2004, is set in a world not dissimilar to Anthony Trollop’s Framley Parsonage. But you don’t need to have read Trollop’s book to appreciate Tooth and Claw, which inserts dragons and their need for meat and ambition into a world bounded by Victorian sensibilities. It is wonderfully observed, full of delightfully witty touches and one of my most memorable reads.

Other strong contenders – I love Gralen from White Mountain by Sophie E. Tallis, whose strong, outspoken character provides some delightful moments in this enjoyable epic fantasy read. I also really enjoy Jack from The Future FallsBook 3 of The Enchantment Emporium series by Tanya Huff – though I am cheating a little here, because he is somewhere between a dragon and a person. The other dragon series worthy of mention is Stephen Deas’ riveting, if disturbing series The Memory of Flames, where the rather unpleasant humans have been subduing the dragons by magical means…

What about your favourite dragons in literature? Who have I left off this list that has you wincing in disgust? I’d love to hear from you!

Review of Happy Hour in Hell – Book 2 of the Bobby Dollar series by Tad Williams

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I enjoyed Tad Williams’ Otherland series, so when I saw the funky cover and realised it was a new series, I scooped it off the shelves. Would I enjoy it as much as the epic fantasy door-stoppers I’m more used to reading from him?

happyhourinhellBobby Dollar, angel on Earth, has a couple of epic problems. Problem One: Bobby has fallen in love with Casimira, Countess of Cold Hants, who just happens to be Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell’s girlfriend. Problem Two: the Grand Duke, aware of the first problem, has whisked Casimira off to the Bottomless Pit itself, telling Bobby he will never see her again unless Bobby hands over a golden feather that Eligor desires more than anything else. But Bobby, long-time veteran of the endless war between above and below, is not the type of guy to be intimidated. All he has to do is toss on a demon’s body, sneak through the infernal gates, work out why Eligor wants the feather, and rescue the girl. Saving the day should just be a matter of an eon or two of anguish, mutilation and horror. If only it were that easy.

While the first person narration is humorously laconic, the overall tone puts the grrr into grimdark. Bobby spends a significant slice of the book in Hell, which Williams has managed to make convincingly hellish. Needless to say, this book isn’t suitable for your younger teens as Williams – known for inventive, detailed worldbuilding – doesn’t hold back when depicting the worst place on the planet. He has taken some of the classic representations of Hell, built on them and given them his own imaginative spin. The result is a graphic examination of hopelessness and despair. One of the grimmer details is that a fair number of its inhabitants don’t really deserve to be there – or the fact they are trapped there for Eternity. And the reason why I’ve capitalised it, is that is a very, very long time. One of the scenes that will haunt me for a while is the Forest of Suicides…

Any niggles? Well, I did feel a bit uncomfortable about the torture – while it wasn’t as graphically described as the backdrop, there were enough details for it to have been extreme. Bobby manages to prevail because of his unwavering belief in his love for Caz and the fact he’s an angel. If he’d been human, he would have folded like wet paper under a fraction of the abuse he endured, which is something that I felt should have been more explicit. But this isn’t a dealbreaker.

It is an original, dark and visceral take on the fight between Good and Evil – the ending wasn’t what I was expecting. But I certainly want to read the next slice of the adventure, Sleeping Late on Judgement Day. If you have enjoyed Tad Williams in the past and haven’t yet picked up this series, I recommend you do so – it is urban fantasy splashed with Williams’ own magic formula.
9/10

Review of KINDLE EBOOK The Dragon Engine – Book 1 of The Dragon Blood Empire by Andy Remic

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Andy Remic has written a slew of science fiction and fantasy books with a military emphasis, so would I enjoy this latest offering by Angry Robot, set in the same world of his Rage of Kings duology?

thedragonengineFive noble war heroes of Vagandrak get drunk one night and sign a contract – to journey to the Karamakkos in search of the Five Havens where, it is written, there is untold, abandoned wealth and, more importantly, the three Dragon Heads – jewels claimed to give unspeakable power and everlasting life to those who wield them. But the Dragon Heads aren’t what they think, and the world has not encountered their like in generations… Think Smaug was fierce? You ain’t seen nothing!

And there you have the blurb. And do the dragons put Smaug into the shade? Oh yes – Remic’s specialty is writing full-on action and he does it very well. Once it all kicks off, he has the numerous fights bouncing off the page, packed with gory detail and yet managing to keep the narrative plunging forward. It’s a whole lot harder to pull off than Remic makes it look.

One of the issues I often have with full-tilt action stories is the fighting and mayhem comes at the expense of the characterisation and backstory – a potential trap that Remic manages to sidestep. This grimdark fantasy starts out with a band of heroes getting together a number of years after they had successfully fought off a terrible enemy threatening to sweep through the kingdom. When fearsome axeman Beetrax persuades his former comrades in arms to accompany him to search the network of mines left by the dwarves, now long extinct, to find the fabled hoard of the three dragons, I was under the impression I was about to get another Tolkeinesque adventure. And on one level, I did. There was more than enough danger to go around, often erupting when I wasn’t expecting it.

But this was so much more. Remic’s violence has consequences. People get hurt and are altered by what happens to them. The group dynamic is impacted, depending on who did what to whom. Great bravery doesn’t necessarily mean nice or generous-spirited. Beetrax may be hugely courageous, but he is also vain, greedy and selfish. Which didn’t stop me holding my breath on several occasions when I was convinced he was about to die, because Remic isn’t above offing one of his main protagonists, either. And despite his less likeable traits, Beetrax pinged off the page such that I cared what happened to him. The backdrop was well depicted, and kicked up a notch once we plunged under the mountain, deep in the mines with the dwarves, where the storyline took me by surprise. What eventually went down was unexpected and shocking.

If you are squeamish, then this isn’t for you. And if you have youngsters in the house, occasionally attracted to cool dragonish book covers to want to pick up your Fantasy offerings in passing, then keep this one out of their reach. The language is explicit and so is the violence. People get damaged – physically and emotionally. And we are pulled into their lives to care. I read the book on my Kindle on a train journey in a couple of sessions. I often find books read under those conditions don’t stick, but this one did. Remic is clearly a writer right at the top of his game, and while this subgenre isn’t my favourite, I’m certainly going to track down the next book in this series because I want to know what happens to Beetrax and his surviving companions. And those dragons…

My copy of this book was provided by the publishers through Netgalley, while my review is entirely my own work and opinion.
9/10