Tag Archives: thriller

Review of Queen of Nowhere – Book 5 of the Hidden Empire series by Jaine Fenn

Standard

This is the fifth book in this excellent series – read my review of Principles of Angels here. So would it continue to be as gripping as the previous offerings? queenofnowhere

The Sidhe look like us. They live amongst us. They have fearsome mental abilities and considerable physical resources at their disposal. And their biggest advantage? No one believes they exist. Almost no one. Bez is fighting a secret war against them. Always one step ahead, never lingering in one place, she’s determined to bring them down. But she can’t expose the Hidden Empire alone and when her only ally fails her she must accept help from an unexpected quarter. Just one misstep, one incorrect assumption, and her Sidhe trap – her life’s work – could end in disaster. Worse, if Bez fails then humanity will be lost to the manipulative and deadly Sidhe…

As is apparent from the back cover blurb, this book veers away from the regular protagonists we have been following to date. Instead, solitary data-hacker genius Bez takes centre stage. I really enjoyed her spiky, paranoid personality as she tries to stay one step ahead from the authorities while fighting the Hidden Empire. Fenn pitches us right into the middle of the action from the beginning of the book, with the tension pinging off the page. Bez is not remotely cosy or particularly approachable and to make me care so much for her so quickly is a harder trick to pull off than Fenn makes it look.

That said, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Hidden Empire series, then don’t be afraid to jump aboard. While there is a considerable backstory, and you would clearly benefit from reading the other four excellent books, Fenn’s writing is too slick and accomplished to leave her readers flailing around in confusion.

I also enjoyed the fact that despite the epic nature of the story, which spans a number of worlds light years apart, Fenn manages to mostly keep the focus trained on a small handful of characters, thus raising the stakes for the reader. And the stakes are high, because like a growing number of speculative fiction authors, Fenn isn’t afraid to kill off major characters. I stayed up reading far later than I’d intended to discover what happened next. And yes, there are some big surprises along the way – and not all of them are happy ones. Did I see the finale coming? No. And I’m really looking forward to seeing where this interesting series is going to go next – because, being Fenn, this could go anywhere. 8/10

Review for Personal – Book 19 of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

Standard

If you have never read a Jack Reacher book before, and your taste runs to taut, well constructed thrillers, then give this one a go. And – no – you really don’t have to read the first eighteen to enjoy this one…

personalJack Reader walks alone. Once a go-to hard man in the US military police, now he’s a drifter of no fixed abode. But the army tracks him down. Because someone has taken a long-range shot at the French president. Only one man could have done it. And Reacher is the one man who can find him. The trail takes Reacher across the Atlantic to Paris – and then to London. He must track down a killer with a treacherous vendetta. The stakes have never been higher… because this time it’s personal.

As with any long-running series, the quality can vary from book to book. While I haven’t read them all, I’ve read enough to know that this is my favourite. Reacher’s voice bounces off the page in a laconic, clipped first person viewpoint that ticks all my boxes. I also love the way Child unpacks the story. If you want a masterclass in how to put together a page-turner, complete with a dangerous, maladjusted protagonist most of us would cross the road before looking him in the eyes, then study this book.

There are also some lighter moments – admittedly of the grimmer variety. But then, if you want cute and fluffy, you don’t look for it in a Jack Reacher novel. There are a pleasing array of villains, ranging from the lethally dangerous to the almost comically incompetent – and everything inbetween.

Another really nice touch is that in this story, Reacher is paired with a relatively inexperienced agent. Who is partly there to keep tabs on him, and partly to learn from one of the best – and it happens to be a young, attractive woman. So do they end up in bed together? Hm. I’ll leave you to find out. But I very much enjoyed the tension in their relationship and the struggle Reacher has to trust her further than he can throw her… What was very refreshing in this particular genre, is that Reacher doesn’t spend all his time clocking her firm young flesh. And the dynamic between them is far more interesting than having a fresh, know-nothing young thing falling into the arms of the grizzled vet because he’s… well – grizzled and knows what he’s doing.

And as for the final denouement… Well. I didn’t see that coming! At all. Which then had me flipping back through the pages for the clues – which is when you know that you’ve got a doozy of the final twist. And really elevates this to one of the best in a classy series of excellent thrillers.
10/10

Review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Standard

I always find it fascinating how a cluster of books often appear on the bookshelves at the same time dealing with a similar subject. Not the slew of copycat wannabes who turn up trying to replicate a runaway best-seller no one saw coming – I’m talking about when the timing means that several authors were working on similar projects at the same time, often with completely different themes or approaches. I’ve been reading a steady trickle of excellently written books by established writers about this particular theme – that of a particular character living parallel or recurrent lives. And this is the latest addition.

first 15 lives of Harry AugustHarry August is on his deathbed again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always restarts to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a live he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes. Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next – and what he did before – and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

That’s the blurb and for my money – that’s one of the best blurbs I’ve read. Ever. Kudos to Orbit for that effort and the clever book cover – does the book measure up?

It’s certainly different to North’s other work. She writes the Young Adult Horatio Lyle series as Catherine Webb and her adult fantasy Midnight Mayor series under the name of Kate Griffin – you can read my review of her first book in the series A Madness of Angels here. This book is more literary in tone, relying less on breathless immediacy and more on measured exposition with a slower narrative pace. And there’s nothing wrong in that – but be aware that if you’re expecting the same full-tilt adventure-packed deal she offers in her other fiction, this is a more nuanced, considered book and while there is plenty of action, it is differently packaged.

As it happens, North is visiting a very familiar science fiction trope – that of the trans-human who has shifted into something different by dint of having lived so long. The big difference is that trans-humans as depicted by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Greg Bear owe their longevity to scientific development, while Harry August and the handful of other returnees he encounters during his lifetimes, owe their existence to a genetic quirk.  As a kalachakra, after he dies, he goes straight back to the year of his first birth – 1918 – and relives his existence, with the memories of his previous lives impacting on his choices and decisions. For my money, Harry August is the most effectively depicted post-human I have yet encountered. While never forgetting his difference, North has managed to still make him sufficiently sympathetic that I really empathised and cared about him – a feat, as he has become something other than fully human and is certainly not particularly cuddly or even likeable at lot of the time.

What we get is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be human and the effects of determinism – how far can Harry influence or alter the events in his lives – alongside the cracking adventure story that steadily evolves. North crafts this story with consummate skill and subtlety. The denouement is gripping and shocking and if this book isn’t shortlisted for every award going as one of the best science fiction books of the year, then she will have been robbed. Give it a go. It’s a masterpiece.
10/10

Review of Indie EBOOK Below Mercury by Mark Anson

Standard

A really good space opera adventure takes a lot of skill to write. The characters have to be convincing and compelling; the adventure Space tug 090613 300dpihas to be engaging and above all the backdrop has to have a major impact on what is going on. Space adventures where it is all exactly like Earth, except for a few mentions of drifting and concerns about vacuum won’t cut it, but neither will I tolerate pages of techno-babble in omniscient viewpoint. So I approached this freebie I’d loaded on my Kindle on the strength of a cool cover and promising opening without too much anticipation.

BelowMercuryMercury – closest planet to the Sun. In the permanent darkness of Chao Meng-fu crater lie vast fields of ice that that have never seen the Sun, and the ruins of Erebus Mine, abandoned and forgotten after a devastating explosion that claimed the lives of 257 people. After an eight-year legal battle, the relatives of the victims have finally succeeded in forcing the Space Accidents Board to reopen its investigation. Matt Crawford, a mine engineer who escaped the disaster, joins a team sent back to the mine to discover the true cause of the accident. The team is led by Clare Foster, a pilot in the U.S. Astronautics Corps, who has taken on the mission in the hope of rebuilding her career after a near-miss incident. But as they set off for Mercury, they are unaware of a powerful enemy ranged against them…

Mark Anson cle71QOg-KZn7Larly knows his stuff and there is a wealth of detail for those who enjoy such things. But he also can write characters – including a convincing female protagonist, and keeps his cast of main characters small enough that we get to know them well, so that when the action kicks off we care about what will happen to them. And I really enjoyed the initial chapters where he sets up the reasons for the voyage back to Mercury – I felt the legal wrangling over the disaster was completely realistic.

While I’ve read one or two reviews who felt the initial pacing was slow, I was quite happy to relax into Anson’s fluid style as he steadily ramps up the tension. The depiction of the mine at the bottom of the crater and the economic and political background is strong and his descriptions are vivid and compelling. I was reading late into the night to discover what happened to the investigating team once everything began to go wrong.  He is also a talented artist, who produces a series of meticulous drawings and maps to support his detailed, well depicted world – a couple of examples of these drawings are here and show up really well on my basic-model Kindle.

While the story denouement wasn’t totally unexpected, Anson produces enough twists and shocks along the way that kept me hooked to the end. And I am reassured to hear this is the first in a planned series, as I will be making a point of looking out for more from this indie author. Anson is One To Watch in a demanding genre where it is difficult to achieve a truly readable, well written book – particularly without the support of a publishing house and professional editor.
8/10

Review of Sister by Rosamund Lupton

Standard

This author was recommended to me by one of my friends on the West Sussex Writers’ committee – and a week later, I managed to pick up a paperback copy at a secondhand book shop, so it was clearly meant to be.

Nothing can break the bond between sisters…

When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first flight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face.  The police, Beatrice’s fiancé and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

sisterI picked this book up, idly skimmed down the first page – and was caught. I was already reading a book, with several others queuing up behind in the correct order (not that I’m obsessive, or anything) and I have views on books pushing in and upsetting the carefully arranged variety I have already organised. But this book wasn’t going to wait.

The strong first person viewpoint and constant tension, coupled with the fine writing had me utterly engrossed, so that I gorged on the book in two hefty sittings. Though I did have to break off at one stage to find some tissues because I was weeping… The protagonist is beautifully handled as we follow her desperate search for her sister, which entails finding out a series of very uncomfortable truths about herself. Lupton is adept at braiding the surroundings, weather and cast of well depicted, vivid characters through Beatrice’s consciousness, so that she is one of the strongest and most interesting protagonists I’ve read for a while.

But, of course, if you’ve read the book, I’m sure you’re waiting to hear what I have to say about the ending. Well – wow. I wasn’t expecting that. I actually dropped the book, and lost my place. And no, I’m not saying anything else about it, as I’m allergic to spoilers and the whole structure of the book hinges around this one.

Does it work? Um. Still not sure, actually. But it certainly makes this book an outstanding read that I’m sure I’ll still remember when a lot of other so-called enthralling reads have melted into the mush at the bottom of my cranium’s crevices. Because this really is a gripping book, and if you get a chance to read it, do so. If nothing else, so that you can weigh in with your opinion about the ending – I’d appreciate any feedback on it. I think she pulled it off, but it really is an audacious move…
10/10

Review of The Rise of the Iron Moon – Book 3 of The Jackelian Series by Stephen Hunt

Standard

ironmoodThis steampunk epic has the rip-roaring enthusiasm that we’ve come to expect from this particular sub-genre, but given that I’d managed to pick up the third book in a series, would it be a constant struggle to understand what is going on?

Born into captivity as a product of the Royal Breeding House, lonely orphan Purity Drake suddenly finds herself on the run with a foreign vagrant after accidentally killing one of her guards. Her mysterious rescuer claims to have escaped from terrible forces who mean to enslave the Kingdom of Jackals as they conquered his own nation. Purity doubts the story, until reports begin to filter through from Jackals’ neighbours of a murderous Army of Shadows, marching across the continent and sweeping all before them.

But there’s more to Purity Drake than meets the eye. And as Jackals girds itself for war against a near-indestructible army, it soon becomes clear that the Kingdom’s only hope is a strange little orphan girl and the last, desperate plan of an escaped slave from a land far, far away.

The blurb has chosen to tease out one particular plotline running through this book – and while Purity is certainly one the main protagonists, there are also a handful of others that ensure this book is bristling with a variety of strong characters, each of whom arguably deserve a book to themselves. Which is probably what Hunt is providing with the other novels in this series… His world is detailed and – in common with many other books in this genre – bears a striking resemblance to the Victorian era. There are some entertaining additions, however. I particularly enjoyed Coppertracks and the notion of a race of sentient machines that have established their own independent Kingdom.

The characterisation is strong and each of these striking protagonists packs a punch – and is probably why the pace in the first third of the book was slightly slow, as far as I was concerned. There was a fair amount of scene setting and establishing the main players and hats off to Hunt – he didn’t see fit to resort to chunks of exposition. But that did mean that the actual story took a while before it really picked up the pace and got going.

However, at no point did I find I was floundering, despite that The Rise of the Iron Moon is the third in a series – so this is probably the price to pay for ensuring readers can do silly things like starting an established series in completely the wrong place. Once the story did shift out of second gear, though, it galloped forward at a breathless pace with more twists and turns than a corkscrew and had me hooked right to the end.

If you enjoy your Fantasy vividly epic, but are more than a tad tired of elves and dwarves trudging through a medieval landscape, then give Hunt’s world a go – you’re in for a roller-coaster ride.
8/10

Review of “Slow Lightning” by Jack McDevitt

Standard

I don’t know quite how it’s happened – but this is the first Jack McDevitt book I’ve read.  This seems a great big black hole in my book list.  Worse – I encountered him by accident.   However, after wandering around the house with a mile-wide grin on my face after completing Slow Lightning, I’m not about to forget him.

slowlightningKim Brandywine, sister and clone of dead Emily, cannot let go of her sister’s ideals.  Despite a thousand years of intensive searching, Space seems dead – other than humankind.  But Emily didn’t believe it, convinced that other intelligent species were out there.  Right up to her final mission, which ended in disaster and disgrace for the returning survivors.  Kim has always suspected that the official version didn’t tell the whole story; and twenty-six years later, finally determines to get to the bottom of what really happened.   Maybe, if she’d realised what a trail of death and damage she was unleashing, she would have never started this quest.  But by the time she is counting the cost, events are out of her control…

This sci-fi thriller is a fascinating take on how we might just blunder into another space-travelling civilisation.  McDevitt also examines the idea of loss and grief in a time when the bereaved can summon up images of their loved ones and talk to them.  His main protagonist never recovers from the death of her charismatic sister – and Kim’s investigation into what exactly happened on that last, mysterious mission, is as much an attempt to deal with her feelings about Emily.

McDevitt’s narrative sweeps Kim along into a morass of cover-ups, lies and sheer happenstance that I found compelling and believable.  The world is beautifully depicted, with flashes of wry humour that give the moments of horror an extra dimension.   The layers of futuristic detail were a joy to read – placing the story solidly in the McDevitt’s world without slowing the narrative or impeding a very tightly plotted storyline.  It takes a confident writer very sure of his ability to pull off the steady build-up of suspense that characterises the first half of the book.  There is action aplenty for the reader – but you have to work for it.  McDevitt isn’t in the business of gun-toting heroes blasting away at one-dimensional villains three lines into the first chapter.  Told in third person POV, we are nevertheless right inside Kim’s head as she tries to piece together the fragments of fact from an event that happened over a quarter of a century earlier.

There are a lot of science fiction books on the shelves boasting that this author is ‘the logical heir to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov’.  This one is no exception.  However, I think – for once – that boast is justified.  McDevitt writes every bit as well as those giants – and in the same classical tradition.  If you’ve been tempted in the last few years to shake your head while declaiming that science fiction novels aren’t what they used to be – go and read Slow Lightning.  And while you’re doing that, I’m hunting down every other McDevitt title I can get my hands on….

10/10