Friday, 30 April 2010

‘Spellwright’ – Blake Charlton (Tor)

I told you that there would be at least one book review by the end of the week! Hopefully things will get back to normal over the next week or so (we’ll see)...
If you go back a couple of pages (or even better, just click here) then you’ll be treated to the sight of me saying how cool it can sometimes be to partake of a little ‘old school fantasy’ every now and then. You know what I mean, the kind of thing where you pretty much know how it’s all going to pan out so you can just concentrate on enjoying how the author takes his reader to that conclusion. This is the sort of reading that I’ve been in the mood for these last few days so when ‘Spellwright’ found its way to the top of the reading pile I thought I might be in for a bit of a treat. If the cover didn’t let me know what kind of fantasy I was in for then the blurb certainly did! I’d also heard some good things about ‘Spellwright’ and was looking forward to giving it a go.
It was a shame then that what I found didn’t match my expectations...

Nicodemus Weal has come to terms with the limits of his magical ability and ekes out a peaceful yet meagre life at the famed magic academy of Starhaven. He was once thought to be the Halcyon, a mage prophesised to save the world, but Nicodemus’ ability to unwittingly misspell any spell he attempts (or even touches) means that this cannot possibly be the case. Can it?
An important mage is murdered on the eve of the Convocation at Starhaven and both Nicodemus and his mentor are prime suspects. As further chaos is wreaked, it becomes clear that Nicodemus has been singled out for exploitation by an ancient evil. The only course for Nicodemus is to escape Starhaven and head out into a world that he barely knows...

‘Spellwright’ opens in an impressive fashion and promises good things for the rest of the novel. There’s no better way to immediately get to grips with a new magic system than to see it being used and Charlton wastes no time in introducing both the magic system and the villain in a swirling face off of magical text and pure evil. What a great way to start a novel! I enjoyed the literary nature of the magic and the hidden menace in Starhaven oozes evil off the page; I knew that I had to read more...

Once this initial confrontation is over, we’re left with a murder mystery for the characters to solve. This part of the proceedings lost it’s appeal for me quite early on as I already knew who the murderer was! I’d seen him commit the act... It is fun to watch the characters work their way to a conclusion that’s suitably explosive and promises an exciting sequel. The ensuing pages also gave me the opportunity to get know the main players a little bit better. Nicodemus is the archetypal ‘scullion boy with a destiny’ (although he’s a trainee wizard but you know what I mean...) but this is offset by the fact that Charlton gives us an insight into Nicodemus far beyond what we would get normally. The reader gets a really clear picture of a man limited in his magical capabilities and living on the sufferance of a magical community that he hopes will pay him as little attention as possible. It’s not a nice way to live...
Nicodemus’ mentor, Shannon, gets the same kind of treatment and seeing these character’s motivations lends fresh emphasis to their actions. These actions are not down to predetermined character tropes but more reactions based on who these characters actually are. I felt like I got to know Nicodemus and Shannon really well, certainly well enough to be genuinely interested in what happens to them next. The environs of Starhaven were also suitably atmospheric for a seat of magical learning and I enjoyed Nicodemus’ wanderings through it’s halls and towers. I’m a big fan of world building and I think that Charlton can be credited with getting this aspect of the story spot on.

Despite all of this though, it was sometimes a close run thing as to whether I continued reading ‘Spellwright’ or put it down never to pick it up again...

Charlton has an unfortunate habit of explaining everything in the plot and I do mean everything. I’ll happily concede that some things do need to be explained if the reader is going to get the best out of a novel, especially if the author is introducing a magic system for the first time. What I’ve got an issue with though is pages of explanation where perhaps a few paragraphs would have done nicely. Charlton launches into masses of explanatory text every time Nicodemus asks a question and to be blunt it stifles the story when things should be pushing on. Nicodemus may need to learn (he’s an apprentice wizard after all!) but does the reader really need to learn everything that he does? I for one don’t. A little bit of background information is fine, massive info-dumps never work. In this case, all they did was to completely inhibit the growth of the story, making it all about the background when it should have been about what was actually happening in the plot.

It’s not just the info-dumps either, Charlton also likes to have his villains spill their evil plans when they think that they have the upper hand. As a fan of James Bond films I think there’s nothing wrong with this in moderation but it didn’t quite feel right in this instance. Having the chief demon spell out his plans at length came across like Charlton was talking to his readers rather than the two characters talking to each other. This approach jarred me out of the flow of the narrative and it took a little while to get back into the swing of things.

‘Spellwright’ made for some infuriating reading at times. I could see a potentially very good story itching to get out from underneath a mass of unnecessary text, very much like Nicodemus’ latent powers in fact! There was enough here though for me to want to come back and see what happens in the sequel, in particular two leading characters whom I was more than happy to invest my time in. I’m just hoping that Charlton won’t feel the need to dress the sequel up with quite so much background...

Six and Three Quarters out of Ten

Thursday, 29 April 2010

I’ve never read anything by...

Yes, it’s the return of the semi-regular feature where not only do I admit to the gaps in my genre reading but I also ask for your help in filling these gaps in...
Up this week is one David Weber whose latest book, ‘Mission of Honor’, arrived at my door a couple of days ago. ‘The Long Awaited Return of Honor Harrington!’, the blurb screamed at me from the back of the book. I am so unfamiliar with Weber’s work that I didn’t even realise she’d gone away in the first place...

Hopefully that’s going to change though. I’ve never read anything of Weber’s before so I will be giving ‘Mission of Honor’ a go at some point in the near future. There are a lot of books that I want to get to first though so I don’t know exactly when that’ll be... And that’s where you hopefully come in.

Have you read anything of David Weber’s? Did you enjoy it or did it leave you feeling less than impressed…? Leave a comment next to the post and let me know what you thought. If your comments intrigue me enough (and negative comments intrigue me just as much as the positive…) then I’ll bump it up the pile accordingly.

Here’s the blurb to be going on with…

The Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Republic of Haven have been enemies for Honor Harrington's entire life, and she has paid a price for the victories she's achieved in that conflict. And now the unstoppable juggernaut of the mighty Solarian League is on a collision course with Manticore. The millions who have already died may have been only a foretaste of the billions of casualties just over the horizon, and Honor sees it coming.
She's prepared to do anything, risk anything, to stop it, and she has a plan that may finally bring an end to the Havenite Wars and give even the Solarian League pause. But there are things not even Honor knows about. There are forces in play, hidden enemies in motion, all converging on the Star Kingdom of Manticore to crush the very life out of it, and Honor's worst nightmares fall short of the oncoming reality.
But Manticore's enemies may not have thought of everything after all. Because if everything Honor Harrington loves is going down to destruction, it won't be going alone…

Like I said, comments please! :o)

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

‘Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 15’ (Rebellion)

It’s not all going to be about comic books this week. Okay, it might be depending on how my other reading goes. There’s a lot going on right now and it’s all distracting me from getting well and truly stuck into a book (which just happens to be ‘Spellwright’ at the moment, it’s ok but...) Anything where words are accompanied by pictures seems to be ok though so that’s where I’m at right now.

I don’t normally come into a series fifteen books in. I mean, what would be the point of that? Sometimes though, things are self contained enough for it to work out (the ‘Anita Blake’ series being a case in point although it didn’t help that the series itself was several degrees below poor...) This is very much the case with the ‘Judge Dredd Case Files’ where each case in a collection has a very definite beginning and end. There are links to a wider narrative but you only really need to know the basics of the story in order to be able to get the most out of the book. It’s the twenty second century, crime is rife in Mega City One and the Judges are empowered to keep the peace using sometimes lethal force. Simple yet effective every single time!

I’ve had a passing acquaintance with 2000AD over the years, certainly enough to appreciate the severity of the situation facing Mega City One in the aftermath of ‘Necropolis’ (sixty million dead at the hands of Judge Death and his Dark Judges). I liked the way that John Wagner takes a step back from life on the streets, in ‘Nightmares’, to look at the way the situation is being handled at the highest levels. It really gives the impression of a thoroughly well thought out cityscape where every action has a consequence that needs to be considered (in particular concerning the longer running ‘Democracy’ storyline). Garth Ennis’ ‘Return of the King’ takes this approach to another level entirely when the former Chief Judge Silver returns from the dead (literally) to resume his duties. I particularly liked the way that the law hamstrings the Judges yet ultimately provides them with the inevitable solution to their dilemma.

It’s not just the high level stuff that’s being dealt with here though. Throughout the opening stages of the collection we get to see how ‘Necropolis’ has affected the regular citizens of Mega City One. Wagner’s ‘Fixing Daddy’ makes it all too clear what traumas people had to go through and what it does to their mental state as a result. ‘First Offence’, by the same writer, aims for a similar target but doesn’t have the same affect. Yeowell’s artwork here was quite frankly poor (as far as I was concerned) and there didn’t seem to be any attempt to get into the characters as there was in ‘Fixing Daddy’. Shame really as it does pack a bit of a punch as far as the stark consequences of breaking the law go.
The aftermath of ‘Necropolis’ is also a good time to revisit old favourites and see what they’ve been up to in the meantime. I couldn’t find who wrote this particular story but the continuing adventures of teenage psychopath P.J. Maybe made for some darkly humorous reading. Here’s a character who always seems to land on his feet whatever life throws at him and you can’t help but laugh at the ways in which he kills people standing between him and his goals. Dark humour at it’s funniest.

Life goes on in the Big Meg and Dredd has plenty to keep him occupied while the city is rebuilding. Garth Ennis shows this off with sterling work in ‘Death Aid’ and ‘Emerald Isle’. ‘Death Aid’ shows us just what people can get up to in a city where the unemployment rates are almost a hundred percent. Crushing boredom can manifest itself in the strangest of ways and this time round the relief of tedium equals carnage on an impressive scale as hunters compete to see how many people they can kill... for charity! It’s a shame for them then that one of their number thought to take a pot shot at one Yassa Povey while Dredd was stood right next to him... This story is a lot of fun although maybe it doesn’t end with quite the punch it was promising...
‘Emerald Isle’ sees Dredd take a trip outside the Meg to solve a murder case where the chief suspect is now hiding in an Ireland that’s now a theme park. The ‘spud gun’ was a little too gimmicky for my tastes but the story itself flows along at a decent pace with plenty happening and a nice little line in culture shock for Dredd to work his way through.

The main stories are worth the price of entry on their own but it’s worth sticking around for the smaller ‘snapshot’ affairs as well. Anything can happen on the streets of Mega City One and sometimes it can happen in a split second. I’ve already mentioned that ‘First Offence’ wasn’t so hot but this is more than balanced out by Wagner’s ‘Theatre of Death’ and ‘The Apartment’. ‘The Apartment’ in particular is worth the look, a really personal account of the aftermath of ‘Necropolis’…

There’s some good artwork on display here that really gives you that ‘Mega City feel’. It’s all good really (apart from Steve Yeowell) but the real highlights for me were anything where Cam Kennedy and Carlos Ezquerra got involved. If I had to define Judge Dredd in terms of artwork it would be these two artists that I’d end up picking. Ezquerra edges things with his bright yet gritty style but it’s a close run thing. Any book with their artwork in is worth picking up.

It’s been a while since I’ve really got into ‘Judge Dredd’ but this latest instalment of the Case Files got me back into things rather nicely indeed with a perfect blend of good stories and art. Number sixteen in the series can’t come quickly enough (I’m hoping a favourite story of mine isn’t too far away now…)

Del Rey Announces Transformers 'Origins' Novel...

From the Press Release...

Del Rey, an imprint of Ballantine Books at the Random House Publishing Group, announced today that Del Rey Books will publish TRANSFORMERS: EXODUS. Telling one of the most important stories in the TRANSFORMERS canon, this novel explores and expands upon the origins of the supervillain MEGATRON, leader of the evil DECEPTICONS, and the rise of OPTIMUS PRIME to leadership of the heroic AUTOBOTS. TRANSFORMERS: EXODUS will be written by Alex Irvine and will release in Summer 2010.

In an exciting year for the telling of this important origins moment in the TRANSFORMERS story, TRANSFORMERS: EXODUS takes fans deep into the secret lore of the TRANSFORMERS universe, charting the creation of the DECEPTICONS and the AUTOBOTS—and chronicling the civil war that divided them. At the center of this thrilling history are OPTIMUS PRIME and MEGATRON, the ultimate hero and the ultimate villain, whose destinies are entwined with that of their home planet, CYBERTRON. Developed in close partnership with Hasbro, this is a canonical TRANSFORMERS tale that also relates to, and expands on, the story being told in the upcoming video game, TRANSFORMERS: War for Cybertron, from Activision. Fans will not want to miss all of the details, that can only be told in novel form, the moment OPTIMUS gains “PRIME” status, MEGATRON becomes his arch enemy and leader of the DECEPTICONS and their great civil war begins.

About the Author:
Alex Irvine’s first novel, A Scattering of Jades (Tor 7/02), won the Crawford Award for best new writer, which is given by The International Association for Fantastic in the Arts. He also won awards for best new novel from Locus Magazine and The International Horror Guild, and he was a finalist for the Campbell Award for best new writer. His short fiction has appeared in the Vestal Review, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, Alchemy, and Year's Best Science Fiction, among others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Award for his short story "Snapdragons." The Narrows, his third novel, was an Best Top 10 selection for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I'm a 'Transformers' fan (although not a big one...) so am looking forward to giving this one a look. I'd be interested in seeing just how canonical it is though, given that the established canon must be years old now and they're working a soon to be released computer game into the novel itself. Lets wait and see...

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

‘Conan and the Demons of Khitai’ – Akira Yoshida, Paul Lee (Dark Horse)

Sometimes things happen and they fit together just right. It’s always nice when that happens, things somehow feel better when they fit neatly like that. Yesterdays ‘Conan’ press release somehow timed itself to fit nicely with the arrival of more Conan material for me to read. I’m always up for reading more ‘Conan’ (and I should probably go back and re-read the original stories), especially in comic book format where you get to see the artist’s vision of the world of the Hyborian Age. I’ve been following Truman & Giorello’s ‘Conan’, for the most part, so it was interesting to get someone else’s take on the mythos this time round. The beautiful thing about Conan is that he’s a character powerful enough to breeze through any shortcomings in a story, that’s what happened here...

‘The Demons of Khitai’ is set some time in the future from Conan’s regular exploits as a mercenary and thief. Now, Conan is the King of Aquilonia and finds himself with the opportunity to open trade with the mysterious lands of Khitai in the East. The promise of such riches is enough to tempt any man and that is why the offer was made in the first place. Conan’s presence is required for far more devious ends and if he is to find what lies at the bottom of this mystery then he must fight animals the likes of which he has never seen before...

‘Conan and the Demons of Khitai’ is a collection of the Dark Horse four issue mini-series and this is where the main problem was for me. With all the best will in the world, there’s only so much story that you can fit into four comics, it’s physically impossible to do more. As a result ‘Demons’ can come across as more than a little lightweight, especially when the background hints at a wider world that there is no time to see. This is even more the case when valuable room is taken up with material that really doesn’t need to be there. I’m talking about the story that Pallantides is told by the wise woman of the forest tribe. While it does link to what is happening with Conan, it’s not really doing a lot more than repeating what’s happening elsewhere. There’s no room in a book this size for that kind of indulgence. Tell us more about the kingdom of Khitai. Give us more time with Zina and Zito, two characters who come across as having a lot more potential than just being mere sword fodder. Either of these two approaches would have fleshed things out a bit and given us a more absorbing read.
The linear plot doesn’t really help either. The trap is given away far too early and the rest of the book becomes a case of ‘find the villain, kill it’. No twists to keep things fresh...

It’s a good job then that we have Conan himself.

Conan can carry pretty much any plot because he’s just larger than life; that’s what he does here. Yoshida’s plot may not be up to scratch but the depiction of Conan himself is dead on target, brash, loud and never afraid to draw his sword on something far bigger than him. Coupled with Paul Lee’s more than capable artwork (although I preferred Pat Lee’s cover art and would have liked to have seen this approach taken in the book itself), this makes for some exciting moments where Conan has to do what he does best. The fight with the Kappa is particularly effective here due to it’s simple brutality.
While there is a lot to Conan that simply hasn’t changed this serves to highlight the changes he has undergone and this makes for a more interesting character that it would have been nice to see more of. His time as a King has made Conan a little less likely to kill at a perceived insult (although the animal side to his nature is never far away); we see a wiser and more thoughtful person here and it’s refreshing to see a character such as Conan being developed in this way.

It’s a real shame that there wasn’t enough room in the book to really go into and develop the story in the way that it wanted to be. Like I said though, if you only have a limited amount of room then there’s only ever going to be so much that you can do with it. ‘Conan and the Demons of Khitai’ has flashes of brilliance but is ultimately hamstrung by it’s own format.

Monday, 26 April 2010

The 'Wishing things would hurry up a bit!' Competition Winner's Post!

The due date for the birth of our first child was Saturday but it looks like she's decided she's happier where she is for the time being. It's only been a couple of days since then but I'm getting impatient already! I'm absolutely useless at waiting for things, you should see me the day before my birthday...
Oh well. In the meantime, here are the lucky winners of last week's set of competitions...

'Shadow Prowler' (Alexhey Pehov)

April Disney, Washington, USA

'Sleepless' (Charlie Huston)

Laura Ward Jones, Manchester, UK

Well done guys, your books are on their way!
Better luck next time everyone else...

Roy Thomas to write new Conan story for Dark Horse.

Good news for Conan fans (like me!) From the press release...

At last weekend’s C2E2 convention, Dark Horse Comics announced that it would continue telling the epic tale of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian with the return of legendary writer Roy Thomas. Thomas introduced the comic-reading public to Conan in 1970, when he began the highly successful Conan the Barbarian for Marvel Comics, a title he wrote for ten years. Conan and comics fans will also remember the former Marvel editor in chief’s classic tales from lauded runs as a writer and editor on The Savage Sword of Conan and as the writer of King Conan. Now, in 2010, Thomas returns to the character he helped ingrain into the consciousness of the comics community with Conan: Road of Kings.

“Conan the Cimmerian is one of the most important people in my life—even if he never really existed—and it was a genuine thrill to be asked by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson to scribe a year’s worth of his darkly epic adventures,” Thomas said.

Continuing where Conan the Cimmerian #25 leaves off, Thomas’s Conan: Road of Kings will tell a twelve-issue epic about the next stage in the adventurous hero’s illustrious life, beginning with a new #1 issue. Featuring art by Mike Hawthorne (Fear Agent), Road of Kings begins this December.

“Conan: Road of Kings picks up the barbarian on the Vilayet Sea, at nearly the easternmost edge of Robert E. Howard’s map of the Hyborian age, and has twelve breathless issues to deliver him—black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand—to the westernmost shores of that age undreamed of,” Thomas continued. “To reach his destination, he must travel the fabled Road of Kings that winds its way through the civilized kingdoms—but along his path lurk inhuman monstrosities, malevolent sorcerers and not a few power-crazed men and women who are determined to see to it that he doesn’t make it.

“Dynamic artist Mike Hawthorne and I intend to make Conan’s westward odyssey a chapter in the Cimmerian’s life that readers won’t soon forget,” Thomas explained. “This will be a quite different take on Conan’s life than the one I pioneered at Marvel in the seventies and the nineties, with new adventures, new antagonists, even new and alternative sides to characters you thought you’d met before.”

The current Conan creative team of writer Tim Truman and artist Tom├ís Giorello are set to continue their adventures with the Cimmerian, as well. Jumping ahead in Conan’s timeline, King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel features the adventurer years in the future—after he’s become the king of Aquilonia—and adapts one of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan tales. This four-issue miniseries will hit comic shops in early 2011.

Dark Horse Comics is also slated to continue its run of successful Conan reprints with King Conan Volume 1 on sale August 25, The Savage Sword of Conan Volume 8 on sale September 22, and Conan: The Newspaper Strips Volume 1 on sale September 8, all featuring the writing talents of Thomas alongside other greats, like Doug Moench, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Ernie Chan, and more!

I'm glad to see that Truman and Giorello will be continuing with their take on Conan, I haven't picked it up as much as I would have liked recently but 'Conan the Cimmerian' is a lot of fun and some very good reading. Truman and Giorello are the reason why! I've never read anything by Roy Thomas so I'm looking forward to seeing what he's all about...

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Giveaway! 'The Long Price Quartet' (Daniel Abraham)

There's nothing better than having a whole series to read at once. None of this waiting around lark; just you, the books and all the time in the world to read them... Well, that's what this competition is all about :o)

Thanks to Orbit Books, I have a complete set of Daniel Abraham's 'Long Price' series (in two very neat looking omnibus editions) to give away to one lucky reader. Please note though that this competition is only open to UK readers. Sorry about that everyone else, I'll be aiming to provide some wider ranging competitions in the near future.

Still here? Brilliant! All you need to do to enter is drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your mailing address is. I'll pick the winner :o)

I'll be letting this one run until May 2nd and will aim to announce the winner as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Giveaway! 'Watcher of the Dead' - J.V. Jones

Now here's a book that I need to get into (the rest of the series has been very good so far...) and has somehow got lost in the Reading Pile... I'll have to do something about that!
Here's the blurb...

In the frigid wasteland of the north, Raif Sevrance, Watcher of the Dead, has endured many trials to lay claim to the renowned sword known as Loss. But the price of wielding the legendary weapon is high, and Raif is unsure if he is willing to pay it. Ash Marsh, Daughter of the Sull, still struggles to come to terms with her heritage, and the knowledge that the Watcher, armed with Loss, could be the one who will save the Sull or end them. Raina Blackhail, widow of a murdered ruler and wife of his brutal successor, has seen her clan disgraced and has, herself, taken up the mantle of chief. But there are enemies both beyond her gates and within. And in the murky swamps of the Stillwater, two children will learn the secrets of the Marsh clan. Secrets so old they threaten everything ...

Thanks to Orbit Books, I have one copy of 'Watcher of the Dead' to give away to one lucky reader of this blog. The only thing is though... this competition is only open to UK readers. Sorry about that everyone else!

If you're still here then that means you fancy your chances at winning! To enter, all you need to do is drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your mailing address is. That's all you need to do, I'll do the rest.

I'll be letting this one run until the 2nd of May and will aim to announce the winner as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Friday, 23 April 2010

‘Helsreach (Space Marines Battles)’ – Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

In the universe of the fortieth millennium there is no peace, only eternal war. This isn’t surprising at all seeing as the whole Warhammer 40K setting is geared around a tabletop war game where opposing armies unload mass destruction on each other. It wouldn’t quite be the same if humanity and it’s sworn enemies decided it would be far nicer if everyone just got along...
The game setting has thrown up a veritable deluge of novels dealing with the ins and outs of warfare in a universe on the brink of chaos. It’s no secret here that I’m a big fan of what I’ve read so far; the output can vary in quality but on the whole it’s all well written and very entertaining. Of all the authors writing in the 40K universe, Aaron Dembski-Bowden is the one who stands out for me at the moment. Not only does he totally get what the 40K universe is all about but he’s turning out to have the happy knack of dressing this vision up in a damn good story. I make it my business to read his books now (and so should you if you’re a 40K fan or just like military sci-fi) so when I got my copy of ‘Helsreach’ it didn’t stay on the shelf for too long before I started reading...

If you’re an Ork in the universe of the far future then the one place that you can be assured of a damn good scrap is the planet Armageddon. Already the scene of an epic confrontation between the Imperium and Ork raiders, Armageddon is about to face an army of Ork raiders far greater than it has ever seen before...
The planet won’t be standing on it’s own though. Elements of the Space Marine chapters are assigned to it’s defence. These elements include marines from the Black Templars and their work on Armageddon will form just one small part of a crusade that began ten thousand years ago and hasn’t faltered since...

When I first read ‘Cadian Blood’, I knew that Aaron Dembski-Bowden was an author that I was going to have to keep a eye on. I had no choice in the matter, he’s that good. Here’s a guy who’s encroaching on ‘Dan Abnett territory’ with his ability to tell his reader just what it’s like to be the poor guy stuck in a fox hole taking fire from something large, green and totally alien. I did find myself wondering though how this was going to translate to a tale that focuses primarily on the well nigh invulnerable Space Marine who are very much of the ‘meet the enemy head on and chop them into small pieces’ kind. Was this just going to be a straightforward fire fight or was I going to get something a little more involved? It turned out that I needn’t have worried, Dembski-Bowden has written something superb...

The fight for the hive city of Helsreach is a long drawn out affair, running into weeks, where every footstep that the enemy take into the city is paid for in copious amounts of blood. Dembski-Bowden believes that on order to fully appreciate what this really means his readers should follow each one of these footsteps, whether it’s pushing forward or retreating. There are plenty of each of these as the battle for the city swiftly degenerates into the piecemeal attrition of street by street warfare. After four hundred odd pages of this, I was left almost as exhausted as if I’d been in the thick of it for real. The heroic behaviour that you see almost demands that you keep reading, it would be disrespectful not to. It’s a hard slog but in the best possible way. Gruelling urban warfare punctuated by the roar of heavy artillery and the crushing footsteps of the god-like Titan war machines.

The story’s focus is on the Black Templars, a particularly militaristic order of Space Marines who have sworn never to halt their crusade to bring the galaxy into compliance for the Emperor. You get an idea of just how hard edged these guys are when a detachment of Salamanders Space Marines are brought in to reinforce their position. While the Salamanders work to protect the civilian populace, the Black Templar’s focus is always on pushing forwards and this clash in approach makes an already tense alliance even more likely to shatter.
Demsbki-Bowden does well though to show a slightly more human side to the Black Templars which makes them actual characters rather than walking death machines on the page. Bred for the sole purpose of making war, Space Marines are curiously immature when they are required to do anything else. The Reclusiarch Grimaldus cannot help but have a little sulk when he is ordered to defend Helsreach and is denied the glory of orbital combat with the Ork fleet. The waging of war is paramount and Grimaldus cannot see any point to defending the hive populace. It’s a measure of the heroics of the Imperial Guard, and hive citizens, that Grimaldus’ views change over the course of the book, a slow and measured process that helps Grimaldus overcome his lack of confidence in his ability to live up to his former mentor.

If this was a book purely about Space Marines then no matter what the author did you wouldn’t be able to escape the feeling that the outcome was never in any real doubt. Dembski-Bowden sidesteps this issue by giving an equal amount of time to the more human defenders of the city. There’s not a lot that can stop a Space Marine (although they’re by no means safe in this book) so the real fun comes in watching a lowly Guardsman or citizen trying to make their way through this blasted landscape in one piece. You never know who’s going to end up stopping a bullet (or worse) and this had me wanting to get close to the characters while there was still time. Particular favourites here were the Storm Trooper Andrej and the Dock Master Maghernus. Here were two characters who would have never have met if there hadn’t been a war on and it was interesting to see how they got on because of it.

‘Helsreach’ throws you right into the midst of full on future warfare and doesn’t let you back out until the last gun has fallen silent. I would say that it doesn’t get a lot better than this but the truth is that I don’t think it gets better than this at all. What an amazing read!

Ten out of Ten

Thursday, 22 April 2010

'Sleepless' - Charlie Huston (Orion Books)

As a rule I don’t have too many problems getting to sleep, staying asleep is the problem... If the slightest ray of light comes through the window then that’s it, I’m awake and there’s no way I’m getting back to sleep! Every so often though, I’ll lay in bed for hours and sleeping just will not happen. There’s something nice about laying there, listening to the birds quieten down for the night and then (hours later) hearing them start to wake up again. What’s not so nice though is having to get through the following day on no sleep at all...
Now take that scenario and stretch it out for days on end, even months. No sleep at all and a gradual descent into madness and death as the pressure on your brain grows. If that’s something that your imagination isn’t comfortable with then you don’t have to imagine it at all. Charlie Huston has done all the hard work there and all you have to do is step on board for the journey. It’s not a pleasant ride but it’s one that’s well worth taking...

A plague of sleeplessness means a fatal dose of insomnia for the city of Los Angeles and cops like Parker Haas are left to pick up the pieces in a city that is gradually coming apart at the seams. In the midst of riots, suicide bombings and the surreal behaviour of the sleepless Parker Haas’ strict moral code makes him the ideal cop to crack the black market for ‘Dreamer’, the only drug that can give the sleepless any kind of relief (although it’s not a cure). Parker’s family situation lends him added impetus to do the right thing, his wife has the disease and it’s possible that his newborn daughter has it as well...
Parker Haas is in way over his head though and he doesn’t realise it. This case is about to lead him into contact with a hired killer whose work is defined by aesthetic perfection as well big businesses who have their own reasons for the situation being managed as it is. Will Parker come out of this alive? More importantly, will his daughter...?

Charlie Huston is a brutal writer in many ways; some of these add a lot of positive things to an excellent book but others only serve to detract from it...

If you’re reading a book by Charlie Huston then you know that you’re not going to be spared a single one of the traumatic punches that inevitably come flying your way. Huston knows that his leading characters have hit rock bottom and he adjusts the style and flow of his narrative to match. If Parker Haas is going through some rough times then Huston will be letting you know exactly what that means in no uncertain terms. What’s the point otherwise? The upshot is that the reader is given the clearest of pictures in terms of what it means to live in a city that is teetering on the precipice of self destruction. Every page is an exercise in either the madness of sleep deprivation or the constant daily struggle of wondering just when it’s all going to happen to you next. The reader gets both sides of this all encapsulated in the relationship between Parker and his wife; a relationship that’s painful in it’s honesty but compelling through the way that Huston gets right into his character’s heads and lays their souls bare on the page.
Other characters deal with the situation in different ways, most notably by retreating into the virtual world of online games, and it all adds up to a picture of survival that’s as diverse as only humans could make it. Huston’s honesty really has you wondering if this is the way that it would all go if the world suddenly stopped sleeping...

If this wasn’t enough for you, Charlie Huston writes a damn good story to sit against the apocalyptic backdrop. The original mystery to be solved is worth the price of entry on it’s own along with the importance of the sub-plot of Parker and his wife (something where I absolutely had to see how it ended) but then you realise that it’s all about something else entirely...
It’s at this point that all bets are off and anything can happen. And it does. Huston turns things upside down and although you may not agree with what certain characters are doing you cannot deny that everything is done with the best possible intentions. When the world is ending, all you can do is try and save something for those that are left over. Huston doesn’t leave a stone unturned either, everything fits together by the end of the story (even those bits that you thought would never fit in anywhere...)
I was in two minds about the effectiveness of revealing the source of the outbreak of sleeplessness at the end of the book. While the origin of the disease comes out from far enough left field to be a real surprise, it was far enough out there to lack a connection with the disease that would have provided a real impact. Maybe some things are better left unsaid...

‘Sleepless’ is a brutal novel but one that can suffer from this brutality. Huston doesn’t pander to his reader; he’s here to tell a story the way it is and if you don’t like it then you’re more than welcome to put the book down and go read something else. The combination of perspectives in ‘Sleepless’ (two of which are the same person) make this a book that is hard to get into until you find it’s rhythm. Huston doesn’t signpost these changes (that’s not what he’s about) and leaves you to get to grips with it as best you can. I’m not ashamed to admit that I floundered a bit until I worked out how things stood. Huston is also not afraid to jump backwards and forwards in time and this made for some difficult reading at the climax of the novel, at least as far as I was concerned. I had to go back and re-read those passages a few times to be sure that I’d got it...
In short, ‘Sleepless’ is an uncompromising novel that asks its readers to do all the running. If you’re after an easy ‘comfort read’ then this book probably isn’t for you!

Having said all that though, if you’re ready to do some running then ‘Sleepless’ is a book full of rewards for those who ready to go looking for them. Not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination but one that I very much enjoyed.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

'The Dream of Perpetual Motion' - Loads of cool Steampunk stuff online!

I remember the days when the only way I'd know if a book had been released was if I went to the bookshop in town and had a look for it on the shelves... Doesn't that make me sound old? :o)
These days it's all about emails telling me that a book has been released and that is cool on more than one front. Not only do I save myself pointless trips into town but every now and then these emails point me in the direction of other things connected with the book, always a great way to kill time when I'm not reading.

And that's where Dexter Palmer's 'The Dream of Perpetual Motion' comes in to this post. Check out the blurb,

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.

The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine.

I'd already read Robert's Review of this book and decided to keep an eye open for it. I don't read a lot of Steampunk stuff but I'm a fan of the sub-genre and enjoy what I do read. There's a copy headed my way, bring it on!

I'll be posting my review once I've read the book. In the meantime though, thanks to the aforementioned email, I get to do stuff like check out the Steampunk Gallery and download a cool looking screensaver, that should keep me busy during my lunchbreak :o)

I'm looking forward to giving this one a go, has anyone else here read 'The Dream of Perpetual Motion'? If so, what did you think?

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

‘The Reapers are the Angels’ – Alden Bell (Tor UK)

Every so often a book will just come out of nowhere, grab you right by the brain and whisk you away into its world for a journey that you’ll never forget. If you’re picking up a book by a favourite author then you might have a little prior warning that this is about to happen. The best times though are when it’s a book that offers you no warning as to how great it’s going to be. You pick it up, read a few pages and then... BANG! The next thing you know, you’re a couple of hundred pages in and you don’t know where the afternoon has got to.
Now, it’s a well known and established fact that if a book has zombies in it then I’m halfway towards enjoying it before I’ve even started reading. That’s just the way it is. When I realised that ‘The Reapers’ was a zombie book then I knew I was going to have a good time with it. What I didn’t realise though was just how good a time it was going to be. ‘The Reapers are the Angels’ is something really special...

‘God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe...’

In a world where the undead crowd every horizon, and the remnants of humanity can sometimes be less than human, there is still room for miracles and some kind of redemption. Temple cannot remember the world as it was before, all she knows is the zombie infested landscape that it is now. The world is still a beautiful place but it’s a hard place too and a person must do hard things in order to survive, Temple has done her share of hard things and has made enemies on the road behind her.
But now she has a shot at some kind of redemption. Maury is perhaps the only truly innocent person left in America and he is all on his own with no hope of survival. If Temple can help him reach relatives in Texas then perhaps she can balance the scales out a little bit. Life is never that simple though. Temple’s past isn’t just catching up with her; it’s actively chasing her along the highways of a ruined America. Will one man with revenge on his mind ruin all her plans...?

In any good zombie tale, the zombies themselves are almost incidental to the plot. What it’s really all about is how the human survivors adapt to their situation and what they are prepared to do to survive. The problem that you come across most times is that you never get the time to see the characters develop; fair enough really as zombie onslaughts tend to happen very quickly and survivors generally end up becoming zombie food in no short order.
Bell sidesteps this issue by setting his tale several years after the zombie apocalypse and this means that it’s not just all about the struggle for survival. We can now see what years of living like this can do to a person and such people are skilled enough at survival to be able to have the time to reflect on what they have become. This is very much the case with Temple and this approach gives us a really clear and deep look into a character who has spent her whole life surviving however she can.

Temple is a young girl with a clear sense of right and wrong that frequently comes into conflict with the things that she must do to make it through another day. The end result is a tortured character who prefers her own company and doesn’t trust people. When she’s around people, bad things invariably happen; a lesson that Temple has learnt the hard way. It’s saddening to see how Temple’s isolation has turned her against herself as she blames herself for things that an adult might be able to lend a little more perspective on. Or is this a case of a new world bringing a new moral code into being and Temple is right to blame herself? This was a question that kept me thinking about an answer the whole way through the book.

It’s interesting to see that the only person who really understands Temple is the man who is out to kill her and this creates a really interesting dynamic between the pair. Moses Todd understands Temple and he even understands why she had to do what she did. It was what she did though that has made him promise to kill her and it’s all the more poignant that a relationship between two such similar people is defined by such a promise. I thought I could see how it was going to end but Bell managed to really surprise me right at the very death! I never saw that one coming at all...

Temple’s mean streak gets her out of trouble just as easily as it lands her in it but there is also a gentle side to her nature which drives the plot forward in all the ways that really matter.
It’s the quiet reflective moments where Bell shows us that even in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse the world can still be a beautiful place full of little miracles like the fish in the sea by the lighthouse (right at the beginning of the book). It’s almost like Bell is telling us that zombies are such a slow moving threat that we’ve got time to smell the roses if we really want to! A zombie apocalypse definitely does not mean clouds of smoke and burning buildings...
The defining moment of the book is Temple’s taking on Maury and trying to help him find a home, all down to a pang on conscience on her part. Maury doesn’t talk at all, and barely interacts with anyone, so Temple’s relationship with him is very one sided. The important thing though is that, in one or two paragraphs, Temple’s survival in a zombie infested world becomes her trying to make certain that her own humanity survives as well. It’s a move that adds a hell of a lot more depth to what originally looks like it could end up being just another zombie story.

The story itself flows at a decent pace, certainly a pace that is in keeping with the demands of the plot and it has a welcome habit of surprising you when you least expect it. Bell’s vision of a fractured humanity sheltering from a zombie menace is also richly drawn and is incredibly easy to get into. For every ‘normal’ community sheltering in a city there is a family like the Grierson’s to remind you that an event such as this can leave people irrevocably messed up, even though they may look like they’re living a normal life. Bell’s ‘post zombie America’ is a land where I was more than happy to spend time and a little bit sad to leave.

‘The Reapers are the Angels’ is a beautiful read and one that is thoroughly worth looking out for if you’re a fan of zombie fiction. It won’t be published until September in the UK (August in the US) so right now it’s the best zombie novel that you haven’t read yet. I expect all that to change though when you do...

Ten out of Ten

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

‘Blonde Bombshell’ – Tom Holt (Orbit)

If I’m after something a little humorous in my reading then I never seem to travel too far from the tried and tested authors that always make me laugh. Sometimes you just have to stick with what you know, especially you’re a little low and need your spirits raising. For me, my ‘humorous writers of choice’ are messrs Pratchett and Rankin; two writers who never fail to make me chuckle at the very least. I’m always after trying new stuff out though and although Tom Holt doesn’t quite fall into this category (having read ‘Paint Your Dragon’ some years ago) it had been long enough for it to feel like I was trying out something new for the first time!
Things didn’t quite work out the way I’d planned...

A planet destroying bomb has been fired from an alien planet and it’s aimed directly at Earth. You would have thought that the job of such a bomb would be fairly straight forward but when there’s a certain level of sentience involved that’s when things get tricky...
Before the bomb can fulfil its primary objective there’s one small job that it has to do first. Another bomb had been fired at Earth some years ago; the Earth is still very much there but the bomb itself has vanished. Where did it go? ‘Our’ bomb has to answer this question if it’s to do its job of protecting its home planet. The way in which it goes about answering this question is about to make things even more complicated than they already were. Certainly more complicated than there was any need for them to be...

The bottom line is that you either find something funny or you don’t. There’s no middle ground; even if something only elicits a quiet chuckle then that’s enough, you found it to be funny. That’s quite a fine line for a book to tread when you think about it. A comedic book is going to stand or fall on it’s humour and jokes; like I said, no middle ground...

With this in mind it’s probably fairest for me to say that if you’re a fan of Tom Holt’s work then you’re going to enjoy this one. If you find his jokes funny then you’re in for more of the same. I on the other hand...? Well, I didn’t laugh out loud once. Not a chuckle, not a snigger. The corner of my mouth may have twitched upwards at one point but that could just have likely been my fighting off an encroaching sneeze as it was a smile. I didn’t find the jokes funny, I didn’t find the situational humour funny. It just didn’t work for me. Not good for a book that sells itself as a comedy.

This was more than a bit of a shame really as I liked the concept behind ‘Blonde Bombshell’ and the way that seemingly disparate strands of plot all seemed to come together at the end and form something cohesive. I also liked the clever little riff on ‘Planet of the Apes’ that was present throughout the book. I found myself wondering how different my opinion would have been if ‘Blonde Bombshell’ had been marketed as sci-fi instead of humour. There was certainly a story there that was worth a look.

The thing was though that ‘Blonde Bombshell’ was marketed as humour and that’s where it fell down for me. I didn’t find it funny and a result of that was that I was faced with characters who were trying to be funny but not succeeding at all. An interesting concept that came across as flat in it’s execution.

Humour is a funny thing though isn’t it? ‘Blonde Bombshell’ wasn’t my thing but, like I said earlier, if you’re already a fan of Tom Holt’s work then it could very well be yours...

Six out of Ten

Monday, 19 April 2010

Charity Shop Win! Or was it a Fail…?

The plan was clear in my head as I entered the Red Cross shop in Lewisham. Go in, give them a box of books and get the hell out. No hanging around and certainly no looking at the bookshelves, this trip is all about getting rid of books after all. I was doing so well until I caught a glimpse of the bookshelves on the way out… and then I was lost. If that wasn’t bad enough they were doing a ‘two books for the price of one’ deal. Here’s what I ended up with (apologies on behalf of my camera phone as always),

I can see a theme developing on the blog over the next few weeks… :o)

It’s not often that I go into a charity shop and find books that look as if they wouldn’t be out of place on the shelves at Waterstones or some other high street bookstore. Charity shops are more often than not places where good books go to die, at least as far as I’ve seen. Books in a charity shop have maybe one or two reads left in them before the glue on the spine goes and the poor book starts shedding pages left right and centre. Or is this just the charity shops that I seem to find myself in? Who knows, the thing here is that I certainly wasn’t expecting to find books that looked brand new (as well as being books that I’d been after for a long while).

I’ve waxed (kind of) lyrical about my unexpected charity shop finds and it has to be one of the best book buying experiences doesn’t it? Going into a charity shop and finding a book that you’ve been looking for but were never expecting to find. How about you guys? What has been your ‘big find’ in a charity shop or second hand bookshop…? And is there a charity shop/second hand bookshop in London that you think I should be visiting? Comments please!

Edi's Book Lighthouse!

If you're a blogger (or a blog reader) then the odds are you will have come across ediFanoB, a German fantasy and sci-fi reader who has made it his mission to read pretty much everything genre related that he can lay his hands on. A worthy cause indeed!

In a slight change, Edi is no longer a genre reader; he's blogging about what he reads as well as rounding up all the news bits that he comes across in his ongoing exploration of the internet. It's all looking good so far, check him out over Here...

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Giveaway! 'Sleepless' (Charlie Huston)

I'm reading this one at the moment and although I'm only a little way in (so things still really need to get going) it's looking like Huston has turned out another quality read. Here's the blurb...

Parker T. Haas is a straight-arrow LAPD cop whose cast-iron sense of right and wrong has made him a lone wolf on the force. But when a plague of sleeplessness attacks Los Angeles and the world beyond, his philosophical certainties are tested to destruction. Sent undercover to pose as a dealer, Haas is on the trail of a black-market drug that is the one thing providing relief to the sleepless - if you can penetrate the arcane code of its mysterious supplier. But as Haas negotiates the increasingly chaotic and dangerous world of a city slowly going mad, he crosses the path of an equally fanatical a-moralist, a hired killer whose extreme sense of aesthetic perfection admits not the slightest humanity. But as their collision course accelerates (two men: one of the old world; one of the newly emerging), Parker must decide not only where the moral centre is located in this frightening new landscape, but also how he is going to save his wife Rose - herself a victim of the disease - and their newborn baby, whose uncertain future is coming into being before their eyes.

Like I said, it's shaping up to be pretty cool.

Thanks to Orion, I have one copy of 'Sleepless' to give away to one lucky winner. This one's only open to UK readers though... To enter, all you need to do is drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen telling me who you are and what your postal address is. I'll do the rest.

I'm leaving this one open until the 25th of April and, like yesterday's competition, will aim to announce the winner as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Giveaway! 'Shadow Prowler' (Alexhey Pehov)

I had a lot of fun reading this book and I reckon you would too. Read my review a little further down the page... :o) Thanks to Tor I have one copy of Alexhey Pehov's 'Shadow Prowler' to give away to one lucky reader of this very blog! The only condition though is that you have to be a US resident to be able to enter. If you are, and you fancy your chances at winning, then read on...

Entering is really difficult and complicated... Actually, it's really simple ;o) All you have to do is drop me an email (address at the top of the screen) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. I'll do everything else.

I'll be letting this one run until the 25th of April and the plan is to announce the winner as soon as possible after the competition closes. Bear with me though, life is about to get horribly busy and I may not be as quick with this as I would like.

Good Luck!

Friday, 16 April 2010

From my Bookshelf – ‘The Bas-Lag Novels’ (China Mieville)

Most days start to get better once you get out of the office and onto the train home, mine generally do :o) Yesterday not only followed these lines but then proceeded to get even better when I got home and found myself looking at a bound proof copy of China Mieville’s ‘Kraken’ sat on the door mat. I very much enjoyed ‘The City & The City’ and this enjoyment very heightened my anticipation of ‘Kraken’. I’ve got a couple of books on the go right now so ‘Kraken’ might have to wait for a little while; I’m hoping for a sunny weekend in the park so I can enjoy it with a glass of wine or two! In the meantime though, the arrival of ‘Kraken’ got me looking through my bookshelves for three books that I haven’t read for a very long time, China Mieville’s ‘Bas-Lag’ novels...

The year is 2001 and my genre reading is only just beginning to come out of the ‘Star Wars’ phase that saw me all the way through college (and a little bit beyond). I’ve still got all my epic fantasy favourites but they’re starting to feel a little too familiar and I’m after something new. The only problem is that it’ll be about another year before I discover Erikson and Martin...
We were off to Tunisia for a week’s break and we raided the local bookstore to stock up on books to take. As an aside, we both felt pretty guilty that the only time we’d ever been inside this place was as it was closing down (which it was). Would our earlier custom have kept the place open? The surly shop assistants serving hordes of bargain hunters seemed to think so... One of the books I picked up was China Mieville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ and I never looked back.

The days in Tunisia were all about exploring the Medina’s and seeing how many times we could get ripped off by the stall holders (quite a lot as it happened). At one point we somehow managed to find ourselves up a dead end, in the red light district, surrounded by a large number of Tunisian men who were very surprised at the stupidity of the dumb English tourists. We made our escape and never went back!
The nights however were all about the adventures of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in the oppressive regime of New Crobuzon and his dealings with both the well to do and more nefarious denizens. To be honest, you sometimes couldn’t tell the difference between the two, everyone in New Crobuzon is either on the make or repressing the populace whilst being on the make... ‘Perdido Street Station’ proved to be a vivid exercise in how someone with all the best intentions can succeed in bringing an entire city (and possibly beyond) to the edge of total ruin. I’m talking about Isaac here, not Mieville! ;o) It’s nothing short of compelling to see how all the pieces inevitably slot together to form the downward spiral, a downward spiral that contrives to snatch defeat from the jaws of an unlikely victory.

The real joy for me though was journeying through New Crobuzon itself and meeting the motley crew that inhabit it. A city ruled by totalitarian fear still manages to support a thriving cultural movement, the sciences and a vicious criminal underworld as well as combining steampunk and the use of magic. It’s a city that’s vibrant and bursting with life, a life that is all too often brutal and short (although a little too reminiscent of London for me to be able to truly suspend disbelief. This scene setting combines well with the nature of the plot to drive things along at a vast rate of knots. ‘Perdido Street Station’ turned out to be one of those books, for me, where you finish reading it and you realize that there is far more out there in the world of speculative fiction than you were aware of.

The nature of the ending meant that I thought there would be no more novels set in ‘Bas-Lag’ after ‘Perdido Street Station’ came to a close. After all, what could Isaac possibly do next? As it turned out, while there wasn’t anything else in store for Isaac Bas-Lag is an expansive world with plenty of room for more tales to be told. Mieville cleverly links Isaac’s misadventures with a character in ‘Perdido’ that you won’t even realize was there (unless you were reading very carefully) and makes her the star of the story in a brand new setting. ‘The Scar’ was the first book that I ever bought in hardback format, based purely on how much I had enjoyed ‘Perdido Street Station’.

The cityscape is very much Mieville’s forte and this is very much the case in ‘The Scar’, a tale of piracy and parallel dimensions on board a floating city made up of thousands of ships. Mieville draws together dozens of species and nationalities to recreate the vibrancy of ‘Perdido’, a vibrancy that is all the more apparent when set in contrast against the coldness of the seas that they travel across. The concept and setting were enough to get me fully involved in the book and if that wasn’t enough for me, Mieville kept me reading with a story that refused to go where I expected it to. A raw and emotional climax still sticks with me even now, years after I read it.

‘The Iron Council’ is a little more difficult to write about, seeing as I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I read it last (although I wonder how it would stand up to a re-read...?) and that was a while ago now. The fact that it never really grabbed me in the same way as the other two did means I have no real strong experience of it to draw on for this post... Still, it’s a ‘Bas-Lag’ novel and that’s what this post is about! My abiding memory of ‘The Iron Council’ was my feeling that Mieville had sacrificed the story (one of his strengths in my opinion) in order to expand upon his politics and how they related to New Crobuzon and Bas-Lag. It felt like it was all commentary and what I was after was a good story...

Two excellent novels followed by one that was a disappointment, at least in my opinion. Despite this though, Mieville did more than enough to ensure that I will always pick up his books when they are published. Like I said, I’m looking forward to reading ‘Kraken’...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

‘The Dark King’, ‘The Lightning Tower’ & ‘Fireborn’ (Black Library)

It’s been a long held opinion on this blog that the Black Library’s audio-book range is a great way to pass the time on the daily commute to and from work. I’ve found the quality to vary from disc to disc (‘Raven’s Flight’ was superb, ‘Waiting Death’ was less so...) but I can always count on a more or less decent tale to wake me up before I get into work in the morning.
These audio-books have become a little bit of a treat for me so it was even more of a treat when two of them arrived at the same time. One of them wasn’t bad at all but ended up being well and truly overshadowed by just how great the second one was...

‘The Dark King’ and ‘The Lightening Tower’ are two tales taken from the Black Library’s ‘Horus Heresy’ line and although they are by two different authors the main characters connect them. Unfortunately they take the form of two short stories on the same disc and, as such, this meant that I found myself not being able to get into the swing of things as much as I’d have liked. There’s enough time to introduce the characters and hurry them through the plot to an ending but not much else. This is a shame as Graham McNeill and Dan Abnett’s admirable efforts to cram plot into a finite amount of time leave you wondering what could have been if these stories had been given a disc each...

That’s not to say that either of these tales are of a poor quality. Both Abnett and McNeill do a fine job of delving into the psyche of two very different Primarchs, mankind’s champions against the alien threat. A fall from grace is always more interesting to follow so McNeill edges things in his exploration of the growing insanity of the Primarch Night Haunter and it’s inevitable conclusion. Abnett’s treatment of Rogal Dorn, in ‘The Lightening Tower’, is limited by Dorn’s single minded loyalty to the Emperor but room is still found to explore the secret fears that lie at the heart of all, no matter how powerful a person is. Both tales are solid character studies that could have benefitted from being allowed to spread out and grow a little. As it is, as good as these stories are they are perhaps more suited to long term Warhammer 40K fans that have a wider knowledge of the setting.
I’ve mentioned before that the Black Library audio-books were becoming the sole preserve of Toby Longworth and that it would perhaps make a refreshing change to see someone else take on the narrative duties. My wish was granted as Danny Webb took up the reins here and did very well for himself, delivering his narrative in a measured and compelling tone. I’d certainly like to hear more of him in future books. 8.5/10

After having wondered if Toby Longworth was perhaps getting a little too much airtime here, I was surprised to find myself really glad to have him back behind the wheel for ‘Fire Born’. As much as I wanted to see someone different take on these books it appears that Toby Longworth is the voice of the Black Library audio-book range, at least as far as I’m concerned. It’s almost as if Longworth has recharged his batteries and is eager to get going again as he lets the listener have the full range of his narrative abilities over the course of ‘Fire Born’. You would be hard pressed to believe that it’s just one man providing a whole cast of characters and the hard tone of his delivery captures the feel of the Warhammer universe perfectly. This time round, the background sounds work sublimely with Longworth to create an experience of warfare so fully immersive that that it had my heart pumping.

Nick Kyme builds on the background of the ‘Salamander’ space marines while at the same time pushing things forwards for a certain character that readers of ‘Salamander’ will have met before. We get another look at the constant self-loathing of Tsu’Gan and his character grows ever more complex which can only bode well for the future. Kyme’s tale is full of stirring action and a revelation that throws the Salamander’s mission on its head. Add a monstrous demonic creation that just won’t stop coming at you (no matter what’s thrown at it) and you’ve got a story that positively roars along to a very satisfying conclusion that hints at more goodness to come. ‘Fireborn’ is the complete package as far as quality goes; there was nothing lacking at all and I’d say that this is the best audio-book that the Black Library have put out so far. The only problem they’ve got is that they’ve given themselves a tough act to follow… 10/10

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Poetry in Fantasy and Science Fiction...

I’ve got a little confession to make, I didn’t actually read all of ‘Shadow Prowler’ before writing my review...
Don’t worry! I’d say that I read a good 99.5% of the book, plenty enough to give a good account of myself in my review. I didn’t read it all though. I tried, I really tried, but there were two small passages where (despite all my best attempts) my eyes glazed over and slid down the page until they were on safer ground. Yep, ‘Shadow Prowler’ had a couple of verses of poetry in it...

This isn’t an isolated incident either. I’d say that Michael Scott Rohan’s original ‘Winter of the World’ trilogy was one of the biggest influences on my genre reading as were Tad Williams’ ‘Memory, Sorrow and Thorn’ books. I couldn’t get enough of them... until they started breaking out in verse. The second this happened I’d find myself skim reading until the prose kicked in again. Even Arthur Dent’s introduction to Vogon poetry, a chapter that has others laughing out loud, inspired nothing more than a feeling that I’d accidentally mislaid the story and needed to find it pretty damn quick!

And don’t get me started on the man Tolkien...

Tom Bombadil may well be a merry fellow but that is not going to stop me giving the little pest a clip round the ear if I ever come across him in real life. Not only did he seem to have very little to do with the plot (to the point where it almost feels like he’s trespassing in the book!) but he had to go and show off his poetry ‘skills’ as well. It’s not just him either. Aragorn gets in on the act (as does Sam) and various elves give away the real reason why Sauron was after killing them all. I sometimes wonder how much of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ I’ve actually read and how much I’ve skipped over...

So what is it with me and poetry? This is the first post I’ve written on the subject but I’m pretty sure that I’ve made mention of it before elsewhere on the blog... I suppose that, first and foremost, I love prose and will always chose it over poetry as my preferred reading matter. For me, prose offers a reading experience that feels somehow deeper than poetry. There’s more room to explore themes etc than in poetry where the verse structure seems to limit this exploration (although there could be an argument made that having to work to a tighter structure actually enhances the final product). I’d also say that pretty much all of my early exposure to poetry was going through the education system where reading is geared towards passing coursework and exams rather than actually enjoying what you’re reading. I’ve always enjoyed reading prose but I’ve never got away from the feeling that reading poetry is anything other than a chore...

Maybe I need to give some other fantasy/sci-fi poetry, that I haven’t read, a go? The only problem is that I don’t really know what else is out there other than the examples I’ve mentioned. I really don’t read poetry at all... Can any of you folks help a guy out here? If there’s anything along these lines that you think I should try, just leave a comment and let me know. Alternatively, if you think I’ve given Tom Bombadil a raw deal then leave a comment and put me in my place... ;o)

Tor Books and EA team up on Dead Space literary prequel...

From the press release...

New York, NY – April 13, 2010 - Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC—the largest publisher of science fiction in the world—and Visceral Games™, a studio of Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ: ERTS), today announced Dead Space™: Martyr (A Tor Trade Paperback; $14.99; July 2010), the first novel based on the award-winning Dead Space videogame franchise. Dead Space: Martyr delves into the back story of the fiction including the history of the Church of Unitology, the discovery of the enigmatic “Black Marker” and the mysteries behind an alien artefact of unknown power. Dead Space: Martyr will be available in July 2010 at select retailers worldwide.

When geophysicist Michael Altman learns of a mysterious signal emitting from deep within the Chicxulub crater, he cannot resist the lure of an undiscovered artefact. He soon learns that being in close proximity to the artefact causes strange occurrences - visions of the dead, vivid dreams, and violent murders. Altman’s experience with the alien artefact leads to this crucial first chapter in the Dead Space saga.

“One of the most compelling storytelling aspects of Dead Space has been the Church of Unitology: its origins, power, and role in Dead Space,” says Tor editor, Eric Raab. “Writer B.K. Evenson gets into the terrifying aspects of mob mentality like no other writer today. This isn’t only a great story within the Dead Space universe; it’s a great novel on its own.”

“The Dead Space world is incredibly vast and rich -- expanding its fiction into a novel lets us share parts of the story that just can’t fit into videogames,” said Steve Papoutsis, Executive Producer of Dead Space 2. “We hope Dead Space: Martyr will be the first of many books to let fans dive deeply into Dead Space’s secrets and immersive lore.”

B. K. Evenson is the award-winning author of Last Days, voted best horror novel of 2009 by the American Library Association and The Open Curtain, a 2006 Edgar Award finalist and Time Out New York best book of the year.

I've never played the game and I wasn't so keen on the 'Dead Space' comic book that I read but... Brian Evenson is pretty special in my not so humble opinion :o) I'll be keeping an eye open for this one.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

‘Shadow Prowler’ – Alexhey Pehov (Tor)

There’s nothing wrong with recent genre works (and we all know the ones that I mean...) where tropes are regularly challenged and subverted. After all, that’s the way in which a genre evolves and (hopefully) stays fresh and interesting. That’s certainly been my experience of fantasy fiction over the last few years.
Every so often though, I find myself wanting something a little different. I want the thief to have a heart of gold and pass up the chance of riches in order to help a starving family. I want the kitchen boy to go on a quest, slay a monster and, if that wasn’t enough, for everyone to be genuinely surprised when it turns out said kitchen boy is the long lost heir to the throne. I want a bunch of adventurers to go off on a quest for a magical object and find themselves pawns in a game of prophecy. I want things to be more than a little old school.
The translation of Alexey Pehov’s ‘Shadow Prowler’ offered me the chance of just that. It wasn’t bad either. Not brilliant but not bad at all...

The Nameless One is stirring in the North; raising a dark army of orcs, ogres and other monsters to sweep all before them and establish his dominion over the land. A long lost magical artefact could hold the key to an unlikely victory and it falls to the unlikeliest of people to get his hands on it. Shadow Harold would much rather be building on his reputation as a master thief and relieving the rich of their goods in the comfort of his home city. Harold is far too clever for his own good though and finds himself trapped into taking on the task of stealing a magical talisman from the world’s largest mausoleum. Before he can do any of that however, Shadow Harold must find the maps that will show him where he needs to go. These maps are in the one area of the city devastated by a magical conflagration and an area from which foolhardy thieves very rarely return...

With a plot like this you know exactly what you’re going to be getting from the story; the downside is that with a plot like this you know exactly what you’re going to be getting from the story. It depends what kind of a mood you’re in really. If you’re after fantasy that does things a little differently then this may not be the book for you. The direction of the plot is very clear and you can tell with some degree of certainty what’s going to happen in five pages time. As I said though, I was in the mood for something a little old school and ‘Shadow Prowler’ was just the ticket.

The bottom line is that ‘Shadow Prowler’ is a lot of fun indeed although I was left wondering how effective the translation had been. While I never got the impression that anything significant was missing (events flowed into each other with no jarring interruptions to the plot) it was more the tone of the piece that had me wondering if something was amiss.
There are laughs and excitement to be had but, on the whole, I found the prose to be of a ‘dry, lay the facts of the story on the table without really dressing them up’ nature. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not keen on flowery prose but ‘Shadow Prowler’ went a little too far the other way. It was like looking at a drawing that hadn’t been coloured in... Like I said, the story flowed fine but the sometimes plodding nature of the prose slowed things down when they really needed to be moving a lot more quickly. When things did speed up I found myself wishing that the rest of the book could be like that!
As was the case with ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ I found myself unsure as to why this was so. Was something lost in the translation or was the translator (Andrew Bromfield) bang on the money and this is how Pehov writes? Either way, the occasional flatness of the prose proved to be an initial obstacle to my engaging with the book.

It was Harold’s character that made me stick with the book though and I ended up being glad that I did. Once you get used to the narrative then, as I said, there are laughs and excitement to be had with a character who is refreshingly honest about who he is and where he is going. Shadow Harold is a thief whose sole aspiration is to be a better thief than all the others. His wry internal monologue is the best kind of guide through the dark alleyways of the city and it’s fun to watch him catch his enemies out. Our man can also fight when he’s cornered and this makes for some exciting moments when Harold’s skill with a knife is the only thing that stands between him and certain death. My favourite piece, in this respect, was Harold’s journey through the Forbidden Territories of the city. Anything that combines zombies with creepy little girls always gets the thumbs up from me and it was all handled very well here.

It’s not just Harold who’s fun to be around. The supporting cast may well fit all the requirements for a D&D band but Pehov teases out enough about them to make Kli-Kli, Miralissa and the Wild Hearts interesting characters that don’t overpower the story. Kli-Kli is particularly fascinating to follow as all the established tropes suggest that there is more to him than there seems but, at the same time, it’s made equally clear that he really could just be an annoying little goblin with a nasty line in practical jokes. There are a few things that will have me coming back to check out the sequel and Kli-Kli is definitely one of them.

‘Shadow Prowler’ doesn’t bring anything new to the table at all, and I’m still wondering if there’s a problem with the translation, but it is a lot of fun and has me waiting for the sequel to arrive. If you want to read the kind of fantasy you were reading twenty years ago then you really can’t go too far wrong with this.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Monday, 12 April 2010

The 'I bet you forgot about all these competitions' Competition Winner's Post!

The house has been moved into (although we're not completely unpacked) and the emergency surgery is a fading memory. Most importantly of all though, I have the internet back at home! This means that I can finally access my Gmail and let you lovely people know just who it was who won the last three competitions I ran before everything went topsy turvy. Apologies again for the delay! Life and stuff, you know...

Anyway, onto the important business of announcing competition winners. The lucky people were...

'Dark Lady's Chosen' (Signed) - Gail Z. Martin

Rob Eves, Stourbridge, UK

'Flesh and Iron' - Henry Zou

Arnaldo Marziali, Paris
Bill Cortellessa, New York, USA
Laura Armstrong, Ontario, Canada
Dean Smith. Nottingham, UK
Chris McGuire, Alberta, Canada

'Black Tide' - James Swallow

Caleb Huitt, Iowa, USA
Emma Reid, Berkshire, UK
Jim Haley, USA
Alberto Ablanedo, Spain
Pete Purhonen, Finland

'The Midnight Mayor' - Kate Griffin

Hayley Spencer, Rutland, UK
John Robson, Gateshead, UK
Sherri Hough, Newmarket, UK

Well done everyone! Once again, sorry for the delay... Your books will be with you soon :o)

Will there be more competitions? Hopefully there will be, I love running the competitions! :o) However, life is set to get even more busy in the next two weeks and I don't want to get into another situation where things drag out like this. I guess we'll all just have to watch this space and see what happens...

Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Return to Viriconium…

Way back in the depths of last year I announced my intention to read M. John Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’; a collection that had left me more than a little confused (the last time I read it) with its tendency to tell far too much all at once. If this wasn’t enough, its tone was never anything less than bleak and depressing, hardly conducive to a straightforward read.

It was the depressing nature of the subject matter that led me (on my second attempt at reading the collection) to put the book down and never really get round to picking it up again. There’s nothing like a book that questions it’s own reality constantly to inspire a feeling of alienation that leads me to pick up something a little more ‘stable’ instead…
It was when I saw that James had reviewed ‘Viriconium’, earlier on this year, that I remembered my New Year’s resolution to polish this book off but it wasn’t until the Bank Holiday weekend that I finally got round to it. I only planned on reading ‘A Storm of Wings’ but I somehow found myself polishing the rest of the book off in one sitting. Maybe my journey into the ‘Forgotten Realms’, earlier this week, geared me up for something a little more challenging…

‘A Storm of Wings’ tells the story of an alien invasion of a land that is already alien enough to defy description. As you dig further into the tale though you discover it is far more than it at first appears. How can a story like this be simple when the leading characters are fractured by traumas that are only coming to light after thousands of years? The Reborn Man Alstath Fulthor is constantly reeling from his attempts to reconcile his current life to the insanity of the Afternoon Cultures, a reconciliation that is doomed to a slow and drawn out failure. Harrison can be more than a little verbose at times but the reader does end up with a strong image of the mental anguish that Fulthor suffers on an almost daily basis. I was also left wondering if there was a little of Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ in Fulthor with his mood swinging between compassion and cruelty along with his attempts to come to terms with a world where his people are no longer in the ascendancy. Harrison also shows us that it’s not just Viriconium, and Earth, that is suffering from the effects of a reality that is fraying at the edges. The rest of the universe suffers as well as various races seek to impose their own reality on something that is at best vague and nebulous.

What happens when two realities meet and seek to gain dominance over the other? The main result is that the main thrust of the plot becomes almost incidental to the wider issues of philosophy that play out in the mysterious city and Viriconium itself. Harrison gets verbose again and I found myself really having to work to get my head around what he was saying as well as stay in touch with the story itself. I’ll confess to not succeeding at this all of the time… What you do get though is a story that is heavy on atmosphere and with the tiniest of twists that still manages to paint the story in a different light. Hornwrack’s fate is clear, once you learn a little about his past, but is no less powerful. The overall impact of the story is lessened in that Viriconium has already been established as a city constantly in flux, if change is inevitable then the ending is clear before you even start reading. Harrison is full of ideas around this though and this made the story worth the read.

‘The Dancer from the Dance’, ‘The Luck in the Head’ and ‘The Lamia & Lord Cromis’ are snapshots from various points in various histories of various Viriconiums. There are elements connecting these short tales to the longer affairs but these are purely for the reader to take up if they wish and that constant state of flux is always apparent. Viriconium is also Vriko at the same time as being Uroconium and even Vira Co; a city that lays itself open to anyone who wishes to impose their reality upon it. Throughout these stories, and the book as a whole, Harrison invites his readers to get involved in a way that you don’t normally come across in fantasy literature. Viriconium is nothing less than what you make it. All three of these stories deal with this theme to one extent or another, whether it’s confronting the reality of yourself or seeking to impose your reality on a far wider scale. ‘The Luck in the Head’ deals with this latter theme but feels a little disjointed in it’s attempts to move the players into position for the final scenes. The atmosphere is brooding and gloomy enough but I felt like I was missing something in how the pieces were moved into play. ‘The Dancer from the Dance’ is a more whimsical affair that shows the reader how joy can be found in the most unlikely of places and this casts a new light on a city that has become renowned (over the course of the book) for it’s sense of ennui. The spontaneity of this discovery is particularly refreshing as is the night-watchman’s attempts to vocalise it.

‘The Lamia & Lord Cromis’ is my favourite of these three stories. While the identity of the Lamia is fairly easy to deduce early on, it’s the way that the story ends so abruptly that gives it the added impact. If the entire reason for your existence is taken away from you, what reason do you have to go on and is your life leading up to that point suddenly rendered pointless? How do you impose your reality on what is left? Harrison leaves us to make our own minds up on this score but the way in which it’s all left hanging (and how Cromis reacts to this) is the important thing and it’s dealt with superbly.

I found ‘In Viriconium’ to be a little too absorbed in it’s subject matter to be truly effective but when it gets away from its meditations on art, and back to the characters that keep the story moving, it gives us a thoughtful insight into a city in the grip of a crisis that is more subtle than those that have come before. The plague zone offers a vague threat that is only really represented in the malady of one character but it’s the reaction of others that convey its seriousness. In the midst of this plague, one character seeks to rescue an artist from the plague zone and in doing so impose his own vision on the art community of Viriconium. Harrison delves deep into the soul of Ashlyme, our main character, giving the reader a tortured portrait of a man trying to stay true to his vision while the city goes through another of its many changes. The contrast between relative stability and outright chaos makes for some fascinating reading at times; particularly when personified in the rambunctious Barley Brothers, two brothers who may be more than they seem. ‘In Viriconium’ is a difficult read to get into at first but soon becomes one of the more absorbing tales in the collection.

Who are the mysterious Barley Brothers? ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ may give us a possible answer in its linking the world of Viriconium to events in our own. It’s certainly a possible reason for the story appearing where it does in the collection. This intriguing (at least to me) thought to one side though, ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ feels strangely out of place when the somewhat staid reality of our world is compared to the more fantastical aspects of Viriconium. This short story is one of those tales where I find myself sure that it hasn’t given up all it’s secrets on the one read. Maybe another read will shed a little more light on things.

‘Viriconium’ has made for a reading experience far more satisfying than the last time I gave it a go (way before I started the blog). I think this was in no small part down to my knowing what I was up against, this time round, and this gave me the chance to actually engage with the book instead of spending my time trying to figure out what it was all about. I’m sure that there’s a lot more to get my head around and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a book that I found myself coming back to in the future...