Tuesday, 31 July 2007

‘The Last Days’ – Scott Westerfeld (Atom Books)

I am officially the least musical person I know; in fact the only thing I can play is my stereo (Get it? No? Oh well…). So when I’m sent a book about five teenagers and their band I automatically find myself at a disadvantage right from the start. I’ve got no idea about chord changes, melody or drum rhythms and these all take up a large part of the book. It’s a good thing that the rest of the story is something that can really be enjoyed whether you’re into music or not…
Scott Westerfeld set the scene for all of this in ‘Parasite Positive’, a tale of New York teetering on the edge of a supernatural apocalypse. As the reader ventures into ‘The Last Days’ it becomes clear that the problem has only worsened and is looking like it could soon be a global issue. Pearl, Moz and Zahler don’t really care though; all they are worried about is making their new band a success. But with a vampire singer and a drummer suffering from strange hallucinations, our band find that their music may have more of a part to play than they thought…
I’ve already mentioned that the parts of the book concerning the music really didn’t do anything for me. I skimmed them but I can imagine certain teenagers (learning to play the guitar for the first time) are going to get a lot out of it. What I personally enjoyed was the sense of creeping fear and paranoia that Westerfeld created over the course of the book. He handled the breakdown of society so convincingly that I’m half wondering if he was a vampire, in a post-apocalyptic New York, in a previous life. The band member’s almost blithe dismissal of what was happening in the background (preferring instead to concentrate on the music) somehow threw events in New York into sharp relief, leaving the reader in no doubt of the significance of various portents.
We meet a couple of familiar faces from ‘Parasite Positive’ which really established some continuity but I felt that although it was a short book, some characters could have done with more development. I’m thinking of the drummer Alana Ray, a lot was made of her in the blurb but you don’t really get to find out much about her visions in the book itself.
The ending suggests that there won’t be any more of these books and I’m glad I got a chance to read them. ‘The Last Days’ is a fun read that is brimming with atmosphere, it’s just a shame that I’m not the sort of person to fully appreciate the ‘music bits’.

Seven out of Ten

Monday, 30 July 2007

Aidan’s Blog: His article and my reaction...

Aidan has written a very good article over at his blog (‘A Dribble of Ink’, link’s on the right hand side, check it out!) about how the Internet is bringing writers and their fans closer together. In Aidan’s words, “a shift that is taking authors off their untouchable pedestals and placing them down among their fans”. As a blogger I agree with Aidan when he says that this is a good thing (and when he says it might a bad thing too but more of that later). If it wasn’t for the Internet and email etc, none of us bloggers would be doing what we’re doing right now. Instead of being able to interact with authors, their publicity agents and so on we would all be stuck reading interviews in magazines and thinking, ‘those aren’t the questions that I want answered’… I remember the buzz I got when I emailed an author, for the first time, and they answered (it was Tad Williams talking about the work he was doing on ‘Otherland’). I still get that buzz if an author, or someone connected to the business, emails me!
I was wondering though, are the broken barriers and redundant pedestals such a good thing? Part of the reason we all love reading sci-fi/fantasy so much is because it provides us with a means of escape from a mundane world and it’s troubles. Do we really want to tie these magical worlds to a person who has all the motivations, issues etc that we do?
Picture the scene; you’ve read a book of breath taking beauty and splendour. For however long it took to read you were transported to a world of marvels. You finish the book and while you’re sad that it’s over you know that you can go back anytime you like. Thanks to the Internet, you can bare your soul and tell the author exactly how their work made you feel. You find their blog/website and register a comment but what you don’t know is that the author is trying (unsuccessfully) to quit smoking and has battered their kitchen table into matchwood in a fit of temper at writers block.
What you get back is a comment saying that they really wanted to go into chartered accountancy but writing was a quick and easy way of making money… It’s an extreme example (and none of the authors I have spoken to came back with a comment like this!) but you know what I mean. Do any of us really want to know that the real tragedy of Elric was that he died so Michael Moorcock could replace a leaky roof on his shed?
Magical worlds are fragile, so fragile that they must be kept in books and only allowed to flower in your mind. I love talking to authors, the more the merrier in fact, but I think that I’ll keep them on a pedestal for a little longer…

‘Winterbirth’ – Brian Ruckley (Orbit Books)

‘Winterbirth’ was one of Orbit’s big releases last year and has finally found it’s way into mass market paperback format (makes it easier for people for me to read it on a packed commuter train). Judging by what I’ve seen on various forums, this is a book that people either really love or really aren’t that bothered about. Having just finished the book I can see what people mean… There is a lot to love but at the same time, a lot to trip a reader up.
In a land very much like medieval Scotland, the Thanes of the South battle against the Thanes of the Black Road (a religious schism) for domination of the land and spiritual salvation. Or do they? Undercurrents beneath the surface hint at more complicated schemes than at first meet the eye. While all this is going on, a power is awakening that will render all these schemes meaningless…
‘Winterbirth’ is the first in a trilogy and this shows in the early stages of the book where the introduction of various names (of people and places) can, and does, confuse the reader with their similarity. This makes for a stodgy read that can put the reader off. I also found the map hard to follow as it showed where people were fleeing to but not where they were fleeing from! If you’ve got this far, don’t give up as all sudden things click into place and step up a couple of gears. It’s almost as if Ruckley suddenly decides that the reader has got enough background information, to be going on with, and that they’re ready for the story!
And what a story it is! It has everything that a fan of high/epic fantasy could possibly want out of a book. Epic battles, mystical forests and long journeys with a hint of magic (but not too much!) waiting in the wings. Ruckley’s world is a harsh unforgiving place and he shows no compromise to the reader’s sensibilities by illustrating just exactly what this means to the inhabitants. No one is safe in a place where even the simple act of living through tumultuous times can have long lasting consequences. I particularly liked the air of ambiguity that Ruckley gives his characters, they all have good reasons for doing what they do and believe that they are right. Faced with such certainty on all sides, the reader really has to think about what side they will support (if any) and this makes me really look forward to the next book (‘The Blood Heir’) and what will happen next. I’m also a big fan of books where authors succeed in putting their own ‘spin’ on established fantasy archetypes, I thought Ruckley did this with great aplomb by introducing his readers to his ‘feral elves’, the Kyrinin.
‘Winterbirth’ is not without it’s flaws but if you persevere with it then I think you’ll be in for a treat of a read. I’d say that Brian Ruckley is definitely going to be one to watch out for in the future…

Eight out of Ten

Saturday, 28 July 2007

‘Mr Hands’ - Gary A. Braunbeck

I was lying in bed this morning wishing that the book I was reading was a little closer to hand (really couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed and get it…). I reached out and grabbed the first thing that came to hand and (no pun intended) it was Gary Braunbeck’s ‘Mr Hands’. I figured I’d give it a go and I’m glad I did as I reckon this could be the best horror book I read this year.
The spirit of a well meaning serial killer (sounds weird I know but read the book) comes into contact with the grief stricken madness of a woman, whose daughter was murdered, and the murderous power of ‘Mr Hands’ is born. Mr Hands is the instrument of the woman’s quest for justice but a mistake is made and she must now fight to save an innocent life…
The deliberately ambiguous opening draws you in without realising it, before I knew what was happening I was well engrossed in the story of Ronnie Williamson, Lucy Thompson and Randy Patterson. You don’t actually see a lot of Mr Hands and this only serves to make his presence all the more powerful when he finally hits the page. Braunbeck shows the reader that the real horror comes from what lies behind the everyday occurrences in the story (and what could lie behind the houses on your street). A murderous doll is scary on the page but when you realise that other things in the book actually happen in real life (child abuse and people fighting insanity), these actions take on more significance and strike a chord with the reader. Redemption is always within reach but Braunbeck makes it clear that there is a real price to pay and that price will inevitably be high. It is through making this point that the ending is somehow emotionally hard hitting yet anti-climactic at the same time. It turns out that a huge unstoppable killing machine can be killed far too easily… However, this was just a minor issue in a book that had me solidly gripped, for a couple of hours, until I finished it. I particularly liked the shelf, in Grant’s bar, where everything on it had a different story behind it. The novella ‘Kiss of the Mudman’ (included in the book) tells the story of the broken guitar, hopefully more of these stories will follow.
There’s a lot more to intelligent, character driven horror these days than just the usual suspects. Gary Braunbeck is a little gem that any horror fan should search out.
Thanks again to Erin Galloway for sending me a copy of this book.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Friday, 27 July 2007

‘Transformers – The Movie’ (2007)

One of the great things about being into sci-fi/fantasy etc is that my inner child has never had to grow up and get a job in the same way that his real-life counterpart has. My inner child is a happy little fellow. He wants comic books? He gets them. He wants Star Wars figures? He gets them too. I really look after him and because he’d been especially good over the last couple of days, I took him to see the new Transformers Movie yesterday… We both absolutely loved it (although I found out that my inner child does not like jalapeno peppers on his nachos…).
The story can be (and will be) summed up in just one sentence. Giant transforming robots fight over mystical alien artefact. That is the entire plot behind a two and a bit hour film but do we care? No we don’t and let me tell you why. We don’t care about the plot because what we’re all after is seeing giant robots (that we played with as kids) beating seven shades of something out of each other on the screen. Michael Bay delivers this in true Hollywood style. From the opening scenes (Decepticons ‘Blackout’ and ‘Scorponok’ take on the US military) to the final showdown between Optimus Prime and Megatron, Bay uses every cinematic trick at his disposal to get the viewer’s adrenaline pumping and by the end of the film I was left in awe at what I had just seen. There is a lot of background history to draw upon (when making a film like this) so the issue of continuity was always going to crop up. By keeping the story simple I thought Bay side-stepped a lot of these issues, I was even happy with most of the more ‘modern’ transformations that the robots took on. There’s no arguing the fact that ‘Bumblebee’ looks a lot better as a Camaro than he ever did as a VW Beetle, same goes for Jazz in his new Porsche guise. I wasn’t too sure about ‘Soundwave’ being a portable stereo though, at the very least they should have kept his ‘cartoon voice’ instead the new one they give him… The only (very minor) quibble I had was that epic robot battles can sometimes be so loud that you can’t actually hear what’s being said. Having said that though, when you’re being treated to the spectacle of Starscream taking on the US Air Force (or Prime and Frenzy’s fight on the freeway) you don’t really care about what’s being said…
Without giving away the ending, things are left fairly open ended for a sequel and I reckon there will be at least one more film (I hope!). ‘Transformers’ is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon in London and (unless you prefer black and white films where all the dialogue is in Russian) I don’t think you’ll see a better movie this year…

Ten out of Ten

Thursday, 26 July 2007

‘Dying Words’ - Shaun Hutson (Orbit Books)

I think Shaun Hutson could write a very good crime novel (and he has, take a look at ‘Exit Wounds’). He has also proved that he can corner the market in ‘pulp terror’ with books like ‘Assassin’, ‘Slugs’ and ‘Breeding Ground’. It’s when he makes the two genres cross over that the results can be a little hit and miss. This is one of those books.
Detective Inspector David Birch is investigating a series of killings that revolve around the classic ‘locked room’ scenario. This time however, there really was no way the killer could have entered or left the room… or was there? Books by horror author John Paxton and biographer Megan Hunter keep turning up at the scene of the crimes. Is there a connection? There is and the connection that Birch finds will threaten his very sanity…
Right from the very first page, Hutson shifts into top gear and the plot rattles along at break neck speed with a frantic car chase through the streets of London. I was hooked until the climactic scene on the London Underground, and that was just the first couple of chapters! Great stuff. Things then slow down with the introduction of the murders that form the basis of the book. Hutson delivers a lesson in how to write gripping detective fiction that builds up the tension with each page. The reader gets a real sense of the conflict between Birch’s determination to crack the case and his mounting unease at the circumstances surrounding each crime. The revealing of the main plot device (how the crimes are committed) is deftly done over several chapters but it is at this point that things started to come apart for me. While the climactic battle is handled in true ‘Hutson style’ (think buckets of gore and bullets); I felt that Hutson glossed over a couple of important points in getting there, namely ‘how do you convince an elite police firearms unit to follow you into battle against a supernatural killer’… Is it something they do all the time? Were they sceptical but followed orders anyway? It seemed really important to me that this was dealt with in a manner that fitted the ‘crime’ and ‘horror’ elements together in a plausible way and I don’t think that Hutson really addressed the issue. That section of the book felt clunky as a result.
If you’re a Hutson fan then I think you’ll enjoy this. I enjoyed it but was looking for elements in the writing that just weren’t there on this occasion.

Six and a Half out of Ten

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

‘Dead Sea’ – Brian Keene

Zombies on the high seas!! Again? Yes but this time they’re not Napoleonic zombies (see my review of ‘Death Hulk’) or zombies with machine guns. These are a more ‘old school’ style of zombie with just enough intelligence to shamble around and look for brains to eat. Although they’re easy enough to get away from; it’s not so easy when you’re stuck on a boat with them (especially when there’s zombie killer whales swimming around)… This is the premise of Brian Keene’s latest foray into the world of the undead. I love it and if you’re a fan of zombies (in any shape or form) then I suggest you get yourself a copy of this straight away.
When he’s not foraging for food, Lamar Reed sits in his Baltimore house and waits for the end to come. Outside, ‘Hamelin’s Revenge’ (the zombie epidemic) has a deathgrip on the city and it’s not human corpses that are looking for lunch, undead pets, rats and even cattle are looking for a meal as well. Events force Lamar out of his house and eventually into an old coast guard ship heading out for open sea. Surely the safest thing to do, in a situation like this, is to put miles of water between you and the mainland? You would have thought so wouldn’t you…?
His last two novels (‘The Conqueror Worms’ and ‘Ghoul’) were first rate stuff but, for me, Keene returns to what he does best in this book and delivers a heart-pumping tale of terror and heroism in a post apocalyptic world. In a world where the slightest hint of infected blood can kill (and then reanimate…) Keene does not hold back in his visceral descriptions of life at the sharp end of a zombie onslaught. If you’ve read his other stuff then you know what to expect, if you haven’t then you may want to consider reading this on an empty stomach! It’s not all gore though, Keene displays a more thoughtful side to his fiction when he asks the question ‘at what point do the odds against you become so high that you just stop fighting?’ All of the characters answer this question in their own way but the main focus of the story is on Lamar’s move towards ‘hero status’. This is the only part of the book where I felt that Keene laboured the point a little too much. Actions speak louder than words and I don’t think the reader really needs a detailed exposition, from one of the other characters, as to why Lamar is a hero. ‘Purist’ zombie fans may not like how the epidemic spreads but I think it’s a very plausible idea and am surprised not to see more evidence of this in the genre.
Keene is also gradually developing a mythos (‘The Labyrinth’) that will tie all his books together and, as a fan, it was good to see evidence of this continuity in ‘Dead Sea’. Definitely good to see old faces and names and names again!
At times ‘Dead Sea’ tries to explain itself a little too much but is ultimately a great example of zombie fiction. Romero’s ‘Land of the Dead’ and Stephen King’s ‘Cell’ are looking on enviously and wishing that they got similar treatment…

Nine out of Ten

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Read excerpts of 'Crystal Rain' & 'Ragamuffin' (and not have to pay for the privilege!)

Everyday, I fall in love with the internet a little bit more... Today's reason for loving the net is because it gives you the chance to read books (or bits of books) that you wouldn't normally find in your local bookstore. Simon Spurrier has recently done it with his book 'Contract' (www.itsallaboutthemoney.co.uk) and Tobias S. Buckell is getting in on the act by making excerpts from his two books available on his blog. Have a click on the links below and read some great action packed sci-fi, I've already read them and I think they're well worth a look...


Monday, 23 July 2007

‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ – J.K.Rowling (Bloomsbury Books)

Some of us have been waiting for this since we were children and now the time has finally come. It’s already grossed millions of dollars world-wide and the money doesn’t look like it’s going to stop coming in just yet. One of the most eagerly anticipated events of its kind, now it’s arrived things will never quite seem the same again… But that’s enough about the new ‘Transformers’ movie (can you tell how excited I am?), J.K. Rowling’s final instalment of the ‘Harry Potter’ series hit the shops this weekend to predictable scenes of fans queuing up outside bookshops dressed as wizards etc. I wasn’t in one of those queues preferring instead to get a good night’s sleep and pick up my copy while doing the grocery shopping on Saturday morning. I did have other books on the go but there’s something about a Harry Potter book that makes you pick it up the first chance you get (after my wife had finished with it)…
The first thing that struck me was that Rowling had taken it upon herself to tie up every single little tiny loose end from the last few books, considering how hefty the last three books were that’s a lot of loose ends to pack into 607 pages! A sign that there won’t be any sequels? Maybe… The end result though is a book that’s absolutely crammed full of information, heaven for the die-hard Potter fan but (at times) like trudging through molasses for this reader. Being far more interested in the actual story, rather than the intimate details of wand mechanics and horcrux manufacture, I’ll admit that I skimmed certain passages where it didn’t look like I’d miss out by not reading them…
‘Deathly Hallows’ will go down as the bloodiest of the ‘Harry Potter’ books. It’s the wrong book for any of the characters to have a connection with Potter as the resulting odds of them dying, or being tortured, shoot through the roof! I’ll play a quick game with you. Name a supporting character. Named one? They’re dead. However, Rowling’s ruthless cull of the supporting cast only serves to highlight her unwillingness to go for the emotional jugular and ‘off’ more of the main characters. Without mentioning names, two of the big characters bite the bullet but I think Rowling missed a great chance here to really go out with a bang.
It’s not all bad though, Rowling does what she does best and delivers a book full of humour and pathos that reaches the standards set by her earlier work. You can tell that she really cares about all her characters (even ‘you know who’) and has worked her hardest to do them all justice on the page. The ‘not quite a love triangle but still awkward for all concerned’ between Harry, Ron and Hermione is captivating and really makes you feel for all concerned. Harry himself also becomes the character we were all rooting for in the earliest books rather than the whining teenager he’s been recently.
Rowling may have ultimately bitten off more than she could chew in this final chapter but I don’t think too many of her fans will be complaining. A fitting end to the journey but a bumpy ride along the way.

Six and a Half out of Ten

Saturday, 21 July 2007


I reviewed Steph Swainston's 'The Year of Our War' not so long ago; it was a very good read but (at the time) I did wonder why technology seemed to race ahead in some areas but not in others. Well, thanks to the miracle of the internet Steph emailed me to set my mind at rest on this issue. Here's what she said...

To reply to your question,
you said: “The only issue I had was that while technology had made rapid
advances in some areas, it felt like it was deliberately held back in other
areas so as to make the war against the Insects more difficult for humanity
to win.”
Ah, maybe this is one of the Emperor’s intentions. Or maybe it is an
accidental by-product of the fact the Fourlands has immortals and an
unending war. The many factors influencing the Fourlands’ level of
technology is something I have spent a long time working out.
Their world has evolved up to date along its own lines. Everything they
have is possible with small incremental improvements – for example, weaving
machines running on waterpower. But they have had no great revolutions (no
industrial evolution) owing to the presence of the immortals and the
structure of their society which holds things back. Hacilith city teeters
on the edge of an industrial revolution but never quite completes it. The
technology of the Fourlands seems to us (but not to them, obviously) to be a
mix of ancient and modern - but this reflects the fact that its development
has followed a different path than ours. Weapons development is retarded by
its immortal custodians, fossil fuels will never be an impetus for massive
change, but other areas move on, fashions rise and fall... so why not jeans
and a broadsword?
You can read more about this industrial evolution here, fifth question down:
There is more in THE MODERN WORLD about how the Emperor and the immortals
have shaped the Fourlands and so much is changed during the book that one
has a sense of wonder about 'what next??!'

That does make things clearer in my head and I'm looking forward to getting onto 'No Present Like Time' and seeing what happens next.
The release of Tom Lloyd's new book, 'The Twilight Herald', has been moved back until August but that didn't stop the back room of the Phoenix Bar (in London) filling up with people determined to celebrate the launch anyway! I was there and hopefully not looking as drunk as I actually was. To be fair, everyone else was well into the beer (apart from Joe Abercrombie who very responsibly did not want to turn up for work the next day with a hangover!)The bar certainly looks different since people can't smoke in it anymore, you can actually see things now! Both Tom Lloyd and David Devereux had to make use of the 'al fresco' smoking facilities (a very hospitable pavement) and bore up very well under the circumstances. If you want to see my reviews of Tom, Joe and David's respective books then just click on the 'fantasy' and 'urban fantasy' labels at the side of the page.
In other news, PS Publishing have just launched their very own 'news blog' full of everything that the discerning book fan needs to know about what's going on at this award winning independent publishers. Being a big Steven Erikson fan (his 'Korbal Broach and Bauchelain' novellas are published through PS) I had a look and I think the blog is rather great. I've included a link on here (with all the others) so if you fancy finding out what's going on at PS Publishing then head on over!
As far as this blog goes, expect to see a review of Brian Keene's new book 'Dead Sea' posted in the next couple of days, it's an absolute 'must' for fans of Keene and zombie fans in general (that's me on both counts). After that? Well, you'll have to wait and see...
Have a great weekend guys!

Friday, 20 July 2007

‘Ragamuffin’ – Tobias S. Buckell (Tor Books)

Thanks to Dot Lin, at Tor Books, for sending me this book to review. It’s not just any old book either; it’s a ‘Sci-Fi Essential’, part of a collaboration between Tor Books and the Sci-Fi Channel to highlight the best in new sci-fi/fantasy literature. I’m one of those people who really don’t like being told what is essential for them to read so I’ll admit that I approached this one with my customary cynicism. By the time I’d finished it, all cynicism had been thrown out of the window and replaced with that warm feeling you get when you’ve read a really good book. I want to read more of Tobias Buckell’s stuff!
The Benevolent Satrapy rules over forty-eight worlds that are connected by a system of wormholes. The only thing is that the Satrapy isn’t that benevolent any more, humans have always been repressed (and denied vital technology) but now the Satrapy is moving to wipe humanity out once and for all. A woman called Nashara is one of the reasons this is happening, not only has she killed one of the alien Gahe but she is also carrying proscribed technology within her, technology that could cause chaos across the galaxy. Ragamuffin smugglers are another reason; descended from the islands of a long lost earth these people have created their own way of life, outside Satrap rule, and now the Satrapy have decided to tighten their grip. Things will come to a head above the Chilo wormhole in a battle for technology that could either save the galaxy or close it off forever…
The front cover looks suspiciously ‘young adult’ but don’t let that put you off. Once you look inside you’ll be entering a world of death, revenge and heartbreak that is definitely for an adult audience, a dangerous galaxy that is the perfect backdrop for the story that sits in it. And what a story it is! Hard hitting and fast moving, ‘Ragamuffin’ sucked me in at the first page and left me gasping for breath by the time it finished. On the whole, the plot was sleek with no frills but there was one part that made me wonder why it had been included. The scenes on Agathonosis served their initial purpose (ship needed refuelling) but I was left wondering why the two children ended up tagging along and why they were a part of things in the first place. Buckell gets them on the ship and then it seems like he doesn’t really know what to do with them afterwards. One is dumped in a medical pod and the other pretty much left to get on with it on the periphery of things. It felt to me like a token attempt to tie up a loose end. Although a slight irritant, this did not spoil my overall enjoyment of the tale itself. The characters were deftly drawn and compelling in their actions, a trait of one particular character means there could be scope for sequels and I wouldn’t complain if this happened. The world building (or even galaxy building) was superb, just enough detail to immerse the reader in their surroundings without swamping them with too much information. The Caribbean element of the story was refreshing in it’s originality (I may be wrong but I haven’t read that much Caribbean sci-fi!) and gave this slice of space opera a neat little twist.
‘Ragamuffin’ was great fun to read and I look forward to seeing more of Tobias Buckell’s work in the future.

Nine out of Ten

Thursday, 19 July 2007

‘Unmarked Graves’ – Shaun Hutson (Orbit Books)

Shaun Hutson is probably a nice guy in real life. You know the sort; always polite to the neighbours, does volunteer work for charity, that kind of thing. Shaun Hutson has a secret though; he knows the exact effect a gunshot will have on any part of the human body. Don’t believe me? Read ‘Unmarked Graves’ and see for yourself. I’m glad I didn’t have to do his research…
Nick Pearson is an investigative journalist who is sent to cover rising racial tensions in a Hertfordshire town. Things are pretty bad between the African immigrants and white town dwellers and rising levels of violence soon include fire bombings and attempted murder. It’s about to get worse though with the arrival of a man out of Africa’s bloodiest past. Can Pearson, the police or even the white gangs fight the powers of voodoo?
In some of his other books, Hutson acknowledges Tobe Hooper, Sam Peckinpah and John Carpenter. Having read ‘Unmarked Graves’, it is easy to see where he gets his inspiration from and why he feels the need for these thanks. ‘Unmarked Graves’ actually reads like an action/horror movie written on paper, a fast moving, gut wrenching roller coaster ride of gore, mania and terror. For me though this approach proved to be unfulfilling. There are only so many ways that limbs can be broken, windpipes crushed and eyeballs gouged. I got to a point where what was meant to be horror (through extreme violence) actually ceased to do anything for me, I was already wondering what would happen next rather than concentrating on what was happening now. I used to wonder what ‘show not tell’ meant and now I know. Some ‘film moments’ do not translate well into written prose.
The ‘Omen 2’ style ending did not sit well either. While it may have provided a really visual ‘twist in the tale’ style end to a film it did not work in a book where perhaps a bit more explanation to the ending was required. It struck me as not really doing anything for the plot and left me confused as to what had really been going on.
One thing I will say for Shaun Hutson though is that some of his character studies really make you think about the evil that men do and why they do it. In characters like Kirkland and Mowende (in particular) Hutson shows the read where the real horror lies in both his stories and life in general. This is a real sobering point.
An entertaining pulp read that suffers from thinking it’s a film.

Five out of Ten

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

'Odalisque' Competition - Winners!

Thanks to everyone who entered but unfortunately there could only be ten winners. The lucky folks who will be receiving a copy of ‘Odalisque’ (very soon) are…

Robert Thompson, Washington, USA
Daniel Minett, Manchester, England
Emily Hutchinson, Harrogate, England
Gustav Nylund, Sweden
Jason Farrell, Florida, USA
Zoe Hodgkins, Ireland
Joshua Lew, New York, USA
Charles Franz, Vancouver, USA
Nicola Manning, Ontario, Canada
Josh Meyer, Utah, USA

I hope to run more competitions in the near future so stick around if you fancy your chances at winning free sci-fi and fantasy books!

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

‘Celtika’ – Robert Holdstock (Gollancz Books)

One thing I haven’t got the hang of, just yet, is reviewing ‘Book Three’ of a trilogy without having read the other two first. That’s a lot of story to try and get your head around! Robert Holdstock’s ‘The Broken Kings’ has been sat on the shelf (for a while now) for that very reason so I thought I’d buy myself a copy of ‘Celtika’ (first in the ‘Merlin Codex’ series) and start from there. Having read ‘Celtika’, I have to say that I’m not sure whether I’ll read any more…
Any wizard or sorcerer that you find in a fantasy book will inevitably derive from one aspect (or another) of the Merlin ‘myth’, you can’t get away from the man! Holdstock takes the myth in a bold new direction and begins to tell the story of Merlin’s youth and the times before he met King Arthur. I use the term ‘youth’ in its loosest sense, as Merlin is already thousands of years old when we first meet him! He is on a quest to find his friend Jason (as in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’) and put right a wrong that took place in Antiquity. Merlin’s magic will be in great demand but every time he uses it he will have to surrender some of his carefully protected youth…
I am in awe of the concept behind this book, King Arthur’s ‘Merlin’ was always a mysterious figure and ‘Celtika’ fleshes out some of the background information in a way that appears consistent with what we already know. I also really liked the way that Holdstock used characters like Merlin and Jason to bridge the gap between Antiquity and the Dark Ages, I thought it was a great idea and very much like a more sober version of the superhero ‘team ups’ that you find in comics.
Having said all this though, I found it a real shame that the tone Holdstock employs does not do the story justice (considering it’s potential). It’s a very dry and scholarly affair that does not adequately reflect the passions that you know must be running through the characters. I also thought that some of the more descriptive passages could have been pruned, allowing the plot to take centre stage. It’s almost as if Holdstock wrote a book in the classic ‘saga’ style but forgot that his audience was from the 21st century… It was a real chore to read and what made it worse was that flashes of brilliance only served to remind me how good the story could have been.
A great concept but flawed in it’s execution, I may still read ‘The Broken Kings’ but there isn’t a lot to recommend it so far…

Four out of Ten.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

What's coming up this week?

Loads of stuff, that's what! I'm reading Robert Holdstock's 'Celtika' right now and am looking to have a review up in the next couple of days. After that, things will be going in a slightly different direction with a look at some of Shaun Hutson's latest offerings...
I haven't been watching enough TV lately and it's about time that changed I think! It's back to watching 'Lexx' (which seems to have been left at the wayside lately) and anything else that looks good too :o) Having a blog like this is also a great excuse to go to the pictures so expect a film review this week as well!
Stay tuned guys!

Friday, 13 July 2007

‘The Black Company’ – Glen Cook

Have you ever read ‘Lord of the Rings’ and wondered if the orcs ever sat round their campfires and spouted elvish poetry (like the Fellowship always seem to do, seriously…)? Do you nod your head when someone says that it takes an evil overlord to actually get things done? Have you ever wondered what mercenaries actually do (other than act all swarthy and have their way with women who should know better)? If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions then I would suggest that you go to your local bookshop, get yourself a copy of ‘The Black Company’ and get reading. It’s a ten book series but don’t let that put you off. The longest only weighs in at 400(ish) pages, nothing like the more chunky tomes we’re used to seeing these days.
The Black Company is the last of the Twelve True Companies that marched out of Khatovar. Their original purpose has been long forgotten and now they will fight for whoever pays them. Croaker is the Keeper of the Company Annals and it is his voice that guides us through what turns out to be the Black Company’s final campaign, from the Lady’s Tower at Charm to Khatovar itself…
The ‘Black Company’ books are blunt and gritty affairs that make no allowance for what the reader may usually want out of a fantasy book. No florid prose here; what you see is what you get and if you can’t handle the things that the Black Company does then the life of a mercenary is not for you. Life is tough; it would be when you’re working for an evil Queen (The Lady) who believes she is the only one capable of keeping her much more powerful husband in his grave. Therein lies one of the questions that the series asks, would you ally yourself with evil in order to do good and find redemption? Redemption proves to be a key theme throughout the series as the Company leaves the Northern continent and heads south towards its home. Each book brings it own trials and decisions must be made between doing the right thing and doing what you have been paid for. Croaker’s voice holds things together to the extent where if he takes a break from the story telling (and he does), things don’t seem quite right and the quality of the tale seems to drop. While Cook does not overload the reader with descriptive prose, his rendition of a world weary soldier (with nothing left but the brotherhood of the Company) is strangely poignant and Croaker’s character will find his way into your list of favourites.
It’s not all bleak and grim though. A romance (a strange couple!) will play a pivotal role as the series progresses and the attempts of Goblin and One-Eye to outdo each other, in magical combat and practical jokes, will never fail to make you laugh.
If you live in the UK it’s not quite so easy to find these books (Forbidden Planet in London is your best bet) but they are well worth seeking out. Although not so well known, the ‘Black Company’ books have proved influential to many authors (not least Steven Erikson) and fully deserve a place in the pantheon of great fantasy literature.

‘The Black Company’ – Books

‘The Black Company’ (The First Chronicle)
‘Shadows Linger’ (The Second Chronicle)
‘The White Rose’ (The Third Chronicle)
‘The Silver Spike’
‘Shadow Games’ (The First Book of the South)
‘Dreams of Steel’ (The Second Book of the South)
‘Bleak Seasons’ (Book One of Glittering Stone)
‘She is the Darkness’ (Book Two of Glittering Stone)
‘Water Sleeps’ (Book Three of Glittering Stone)
‘Soldiers Live’ (Book Four of Glittering Stone)
‘A Pitiless Rain’ (To be published)
‘Port of Shadows’ (To be published)

Thursday, 12 July 2007

‘The Harlequin’ – Laurell K. Hamilton (Orbit Books)

When you were little and you fell off your bike for the first time, did you get straight back on? I hated my bike and had to be forcibly put back on the saddle and told to try again… This is how I felt when the next book on the ‘to read’ pile was Laurell K. Hamilton’s ‘The Harlequin’. As you may already know, I’m currently trying to claim back the hours of my life that I wasted reading ‘Danse Macabre’ (always keep your receipts!) so the thought of reading the next instalment didn’t exactly fill me with joy. However; I’m made of sterner stuff than to let a mere book get the better of me and with this in mind I got on with the task at hand…
I was pleasantly surprised to find that unlike its predecessor, ‘Harlequin’ actually sets out with a story to tell. The head of the Vampire Church comes to Anita Blake for help; someone is killing humans and framing members of his congregation. It turns out that that the Harlequin (a vampire secret police) are using him to get at Anita and further their own designs on the city… Sounds good doesn’t it? I thought so until, that is, I read further. Hamilton then proceeds to lose the plot; quite literally in fact as the main plot is left to one side until the final couple of chapters. What we get in the meantime is the kind of padding that Hamilton appears to be only too well known for.
Anita is worried because she won’t tie up one of her boyfriends, during sex, and she’s afraid he will leave her. Another of her boyfriends is the jealous type and hates her other boyfriends. That’s ok though as the sex is pretty good but was it really worth the pages of angst that followed afterwards? Anita is still dealing with the ardeur, which means that despite the imminent danger of the Harlequin, every vampire and were-creature in St Louis still wants to get in bed with her first. If this wasn’t bad enough, the Harlequin are able play on the emotions of their victims, guess what that means to a were-creature that finds her slightly attractive… You get the picture by now and this is a real shame considering how well the story opens. I thought I was in for a horror/detective story, that’s what you get but you really have to dig through a morass of sexual tension and emotional angst to get to it.
I have to ask; if a book is 99% sex and 1% vampire can it really be called a ‘Vampire Book’? Certain scenes add nothing to the story and only appear to be there so that a certain target audience doesn’t have to feel embarrassed at getting their kicks in less subtle ways.
Fans will no doubt lap this up and anyone else who is in for the long haul will grit their teeth and hope that things actually start to happen in the next book. I for one will not be reading any more though, not until Anita Blake finally sorts her life out and the city gets itself an undead Agony Aunt…
I’m giving ‘The Harlequin’ an extra point for actually trying to tell a story but that’s about all it deserves.

Two out of Ten

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

‘Odalisque’ – Fiona McIntosh (Orbit Books), Review and Giveaway!

I read the first chapter of Fiona McIntosh’s ‘Myrren’s Gift’ (Orbit were giving out these ‘taster’ books with snippets of stuff from new Australian authors) and I have to say that I wasn’t all that impressed. To be fair, it was her first book but the quality of the prose (workmanlike) made reading it a chore for me. With this in mind, I wasn’t too happy to be picking up the first book of her new trilogy but having finished it I have to say that it’s actually rather good.
‘Odalisque’ transplants medieval Turkey into a fantasy setting; a world of harems, sly eunuchs and scheming viziers. Following his father’s death, fifteen-year-old Boaz is the new Zar of Percheron and must contend with the scheming of a fractured nobility fighting for a share of the power. He does not face this alone though, a mad court jester (who is not as mad as he appears) and his late father’s right hand man provide what guidance they can but will it be enough when faced with the devilish scheming of their opponents? If this wasn’t enough, trouble is brewing between the avatars of two gods and the time has come once again for battle to be joined. Now more than ever, no one is quite what they seem…
‘Odalisque’ is one of those books that you feel you ought to hate but end up secretly enjoying. I know I did and now I really want to read the sequel… It seems that every fantasy cliché finds a home in these pages; a hideous dwarf with a secret, a handsome warrior with a secret, a beautiful woman with a secret and a young boy with a … sorry, a young boy who comes to power too soon. Considering this is the beginning of a trilogy, McIntosh lets far too much slip too early. We are pretty much told what is going to happen (and even how it will end) and the joy of finding our own way through the story disappears along the way. The male/female theme is overplayed as well and the dividing line is too distinctive to be truly plausible.
Despite this, I found myself racing through the book to find out how it ended and now I want to read more. McIntosh has created a cast of characters that get under your skin and stay there; relationships are vividly drawn and made this reader want to work through to their conclusions. The villains are all particularly evil in their excesses and will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, one scene in particular is guaranteed to make any male reader wince…
You can see the ending coming but you don’t want it to arrive. Whilst the main plot is clearly signposted, there are still more than a few devilish schemes and valiant defences to get through before the end.
A good light read that doesn’t ask too much of you and will keep you entertained.

Seven and a half (almost Eight actually) out of Ten

Who wants a signed copy of 'Odalisque'?

You do! Thanks to the kind folk at Orbit Books, I have ten signed copies to give away and here's what you need to do if you want one... Send me an email (the address is at the top right hand corner of the screen) telling me who you are, your mailing address and if you frequent any forums or message boards. I'll anounce the winners next Wednesday so if you're planning on entering you need to let me know by next Tuesday...
Good luck!

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

'Saturn Returns' Competition - Winners!

Thanks to everyone who entered the ‘Saturn Returns’ competition (and thanks to George Walkley, from Orbit Books, for supplying the books!). One day I’ll be able to give a book to everyone who enters my competitions (although that would mean they're not really competitions…) but right now only ten people can win a book.
The lucky winners are,

Jamie Starbuck, Plymouth, England
Eric Munscher, Jacksonville, USA
Jeff Timmers, Colorado, USA
Michael J. Bell, Kansas City, USA
Shane McGrath, Cork, Ireland
Stephanie Toland, Illinois, USA (I really need your address otherwise you don’t get your book!)
Julie Uldall Jensen, Denmark
Syed Zaidi, London, England
Lance Lowe, Ilkeston, England
Naomi Sweeney, Hazelbrook, Australia

Well done guys, your books are on the way! Everyone else – there are more competitions in the pipeline (including two in the next few days) so stick around if you fancy another chance at winning free stuff…

Monday, 9 July 2007

‘The Good People’ – Steve Cockayne (Atom Books)

The blog has been up and running for a few months now and I’ve read quite a few books in the meantime. I’ve read some great books and I’ve read a few books that were absolutely useless (I even took one of these and burnt it in the back garden…). Out of all the books I’ve read though, none of them have left me feeling quite so disturbed as ‘The Good People’ did…
Kenneth Storey and his brother are teenagers in the Britain of World War 2. They are fighting another battle though; through a gate in the garden wall lies the land of Arboria and an ongoing conflict between the Arborians and their barbarian enemies. As World War 2 draws to its conclusion; other teenagers will discover Arboria and then leave it behind but not Kenneth though. Kenneth is the Lore Keeper of Arboria and will use the knowledge, gathered by children before him, to keep the land safe at any cost. However, the conflict between Kenneth’s teenage emotions and his desire to protect Arboria will have severe repercussions both in Arboria and our world…
This is a poignant ‘rites of passage’ book that will strike a chord with both teenagers and anyone who was once a teenager, we’ve all been in the situations that Kenneth deals with and you almost hurt on his behalf when you see what is coming. A sense of loss also pervades the book as various characters leave childhood behind and move onto a more adult life, Kenneth is unable to do this and you feel the loss doubly so as his childhood friends desert him. Finally, there is a sense of tragedy as Kenneth’s inability to reconcile Arboria and the real world lead him to cover up something terrible and then commit a monstrous crime. As a character study this book is compelling and so well written that Kenneth’s descent into madness stayed with me for a long time afterwards (hence being disturbed). Where it fell down for me though was Cockayne’s treatment of the more magical elements in the story. The inhabitants of Arboria were very much seen out of the corner of the eye, this is how it should be seeing as the emphasis was on it being a world of make believe. But then Cockayne introduces the ‘Good People’, a mysterious fairy race who have lived in the forest since before the Romans. Kenneth’s state of mind doesn’t really allow the reader to make much sense of the ‘Good People’, are they real or bought on by delirium? This in turn made this reader question Arboria instead of just accepting it for what it was. Perhaps the story would have been better with just one of these elements instead of mixing the two in together, maybe it needs another read to fully appreciate it. On this read though, it took the edge off what was otherwise a gripping tale that leaves you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading.

Seven out of Ten

Friday, 6 July 2007

I don't normally tell people about book competitions I've entered...

After all, what if they won and I didn't? I prefer the odds to be in my favour... This time however, I'm going to let you guys know about a great little competition that Rob is running over at FantasyBookCritic
'The Lies of Locke Lamora' was last year's book that you absolutely had to read and the signs are that the sequel, 'Red Seas under Red Skies', is just as good. FantasyBookCritic are offering three lucky readers the chance to save their money and win a free copy of 'Red Seas under Red Skies'. It's open to all so don't hang around, head over there now and register your entry!
The question I'm asking now is, will doing the decent thing increase my chances of winning a copy for myself?

Thursday, 5 July 2007

‘The Atrocity Archives’ – Charles Stross (Orbit Books)

Do you work in an office? Do you spend your day trying not to catch the boss’ eye just in case he dumps more work on your desk? I know the feeling. Still, it’s better than having to do the extra work for little or no recognition… isn’t it?
Bob Howard didn’t think so, he was tired of dealing with broken down servers and password resets so put in a request for active service in the field. Bob doesn’t work in any old office though. When you’re working for a secret government agency (the ‘Laundry’) that defends the UK against dimensional incursions (through misuse of maths), ‘active service’ can involve Lovecraftian monsters, dimension-hopping Nazis and a ‘Medusa-hybrid’ CCTV system. Even this can be better than staying in the office though, especially an office where audits and quality control take on a murderous twist and you really don’t want to know what the disciplinary procedure involves…
If the number of fresh ideas (crammed into 300 pages) is anything to go by, Charles Stross must be bouncing off the walls trying to get them all onto paper. The pace is frantic and I guarantee that if you blink you will miss something. Maybe there is a little too much ‘info-dumping’, and in some cases assumptions are made on the readers general knowledge, but I am already looking forward to the re-read so I can get things straight in my head. If you’ve ever worked in an office then you will meet characters in the book that you’ve worked with in real life, especially if you work for the government. If you’ve ever shared a house with slightly weird housemates then you will wince (and laugh a little) at Bob’s experiences with Pinky and the Brain. A tight, fast paced plot (split into two short stories, novellas?) leaves the reader guessing and rounds off a book that has something for everyone. Maybe it is a little too densely packed but you’ll be enjoying it too much to really notice.
If conspiracy theory is as exciting as this then I wouldn’t want to live Bob’s life but I’m glad that I get to read about it. I’d love to see more books about Bob, and the ‘Laundry’, but given the number of different stories that Charles has written already I’m not sure what the chances are of another ‘Bob Howard Book’ being published. This is a real shame but I’ll be looking out for other books by Charles Stross in the meantime.

Nine out of Ten

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

'Saturn Returns' Competition. Now bigger and better than ever!

Yesterday, I announced a competition to win a copy of 'Saturn Returns' by Sean Williams, a good book that's well worth reading. It turns out that a lot can change in a day and that includes this competition...
It's not just one book that I'm giving away, thanks to Orbit Books I now have ten copies of 'Saturn Returns' for ten lucky people. Not only that but they are signed copies as well. Sounds good doesn't it? I thought it might... I'll be announcing the winners next Monday so there's still plenty of time to enter (send me an email at the above address).
Good luck folks!

Monday, 2 July 2007

‘Saturn Returns’ – Sean Williams (Orbit Books), Review and Giveaway!

Do you judge a book by its cover? I used to and would never pick up a book where the cover looked like it had been made out of tin foil. I realised I was wrong when I started reading Richard Morgan’s books and found that there were actually some great books hidden behind silvery shiny covers. I’ve just finished reading ‘Saturn Returns’ and it’s the same again, a lovely shiny cover and a great little story inside.
Imre Bergamasc used to be a mercenary commander fighting wars across the galaxy of the 879th Millennium. He can’t remember what happened in the intervening time but he now finds himself resurrected (from the remnants of a partially destroyed time capsule) by a Hive Mind and sitting rather uncomfortably in the body of a woman. Imre’s quest for answers will lead him across a galaxy wracked by civil war in the aftermath of a disaster that he was either trying to stop or he is ultimately responsible for. His old team-mates (from the mercenary Corps) are on hand to help, or are they? Imre didn’t part from them on good terms and their own agendas will come to light in the most unexpected of places…
With science fiction; it seems that the more space travel a character needs to undertake, the ‘harder’ the tone will be. This is certainly the case here with characters handily able to adjust their body tempo, in order to travel vast distances, and talk of the complexity of sending communications across the galaxy. I’m not a fan of ‘hard sci-fi’ and will admit that any talk of ‘relativity’ or ‘the warping affects of a neutron star’s gravitational field’ send me into a little daydream until someone fires a laser gun and gets things going again. There is some of that here but luckily (for me anyway) the ‘detective element’ of the story was gripping enough to keep me going. Who killed Imre and why are they trying to kill him again?
Given the vastness of the space, in which events occur, the world building is understandably sparse but enough background history is introduced so as not to leave the reader flailing (the Appendices at the back are pretty handy too!) The key theme of identity (in a time where you can make copies of yourself in order to experience more) is introduced and elaborated on through various arguments between characters. None of them are particularly likeable but I found this debate interesting enough to want to see how it develops in future books (this being the first in a series).
‘Saturn Returns’ ties up enough loose ends to give a satisfying sense of closure while leaving the broader plot strands to run on into later books. The direction that our disparate crew head in seems to come somewhat out of the blue (didn’t make sense to me, given the story) but I think this will shape up to be one of the better sci-fi series that are out there.
Worth a look if you like your sci-fi that little bit harder or if you’re a fan of Gary Numan (read it and see what I mean).

Seven and a Half out of Ten

Win a copy of ‘Saturn Returns’

What do you reckon? Fancy a read without actually having to part with any money for it? I thought so… Drop me an email (address at the top of the screen) and tell me who you are, where you live and what forums you like to hang out in. I’ll let you know who won next Monday…
Good luck!