Monday, 31 January 2011

The 'I've been promised free tortillas!' Competition Winner's Post!

Is there any better way to start the week than to be promised free tortillas? No, I didn't think so either... Thank you nice lady handing out free tortilla leaflets at the entrance to my office! All I have to do now is come to work tomorrow and pick up the little coupon that gets me the grub (a good reason to come to work)...

I'm not the only person though who will be getting free stuff (and I'm not counting everyone else who picked up a free tortilla leaflet outside my work); I'm talking about the two people who won copies of 'The Difference Engine' in the competition I ran last week. The lucky winners were...

Milo Milton-Jefferies, Devon, UK
Jamie Gibbs, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

Well done guys! Your books will be on their way as soon as I can make it to a post office to send them...

Have a great week everyone! I'm working my way through 'Knight Errant' so as to have a review up later this week. What you can count on appearing though are reviews for James Lovegrove's 'The Age Of Odin', Dan Abnett's first 'Gaunt's Ghosts' omnibus and Charlie Higson's 'The Dead'...

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Lazy Sunday Cover Art Post...

Because, well... it's Sunday isn't it? After the last week at work today is officially a lazy Sunday. It's such a lazy Sunday, in fact, that I can't even be bothered to do one of those posts where I link to other people's posts. If that's what you're looking for then click on the blog names at the right hand side of the screen, the content is all good :o)

Yep, what you're getting today is a brief look into my reading pile and what may or may not be read in the next few weeks...

The 'Will Reads'...

A lush and gorgeous setting in your book means that you get a lush and gorgeous picture on your book cover. It's only fair isn't it? I enjoyed 'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' so will be picking this up soon.

Proof positive that once you've got a multi-million dollar franchise behind you then you can have covers that are as generic as you like. The cover for 'Knight Errant' could really be the cover for any Star Wars book, couldn't it? Proving my own point though, I'm hoping to have this one read in the next week :o)

The 'Might Read'...

I'm not sure whether I'll pick this one up or not as I really didn't get on with 'Hunt for Voldorious'. Can't deny it's a gorgeous cover though :o) If  I spilled his pint, I'd apologise quickly and buy him two pints...

The 'Probably Won't Read'...

This one should probably sit in the 'might read' list but I haven't read 'The Bookman' and I've got a feeling that I should read this before picking up 'Camera Obscura'. I probably won't be reading 'The Bookman' anytime soon so can't see myself reading 'Camera Obscura'. Or is it 'stand alone'? I've got no idea...
Anyway, it's another nice looking cover if nothing else :o)

Have a great Sunday, whatever you're doing!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Just can’t seem to get into...

You know how it is, despite all the good things you hear about certain books you’ll invariably find that some of them just don’t work for you. What’s even more annoying is when the part of you that wants to keep reading ends up in conflict with the part of you that is physically having trouble working through each sentence. That’s where I am with a couple of books at the moment, I want to finish what I’ve started but it’s just not happening right now.

Glen Cook’s cover quote on Anthony Huso’s ‘The Last Page’ made it a book that I really wanted to check out. A chapter and a bit in though... Two characters that I’ve got no interest in pursuing a relationship that doesn’t seem to have any point to it. What I’ve seen of the surrounding world, so far, doesn’t really make me want to find out more about it either. I’m only a chapter and a bit into though, possibly too early to bale out? Other bloggers, whose opinions I trust, have got a lot out of this book so maybe I shouldn’t give up on it just yet.

James Enge’s ‘This Crooked Way’ is a different deal as I’m roughly half way through the book (instead of just past the first chapter) but have still come to a grinding halt. Whilst a big improvement on ‘The Blood of Ambrose’, I’ve come to the feeling that I’m not going to see anything new from Morlock Ambrosius other than the same smart tricks that I’ve seen already. It feels like both Morlock and Enge are treading water here and I want to see something more than that (although the way Morlock constantly outsmarts the troll was very funny).

I’m not after a big vote on whether or not to continue reading as I suspect I probably will anyway. I was just wondering if any of you guys have read either of these books and, if so, what you thought of them. Any comments on beating ‘Reader’s Block’ will be appreciated too!

Friday, 28 January 2011

‘The Enemy’ – Charlie Higson (Puffin)

One of the things that I’ve really come to look forward to, as far as running this blog goes, is that magical feeling you get when you pick up a book that you know nothing about and end up being blown away by what’s inside? Checking out something for the first time is always a risk but when it really pays off like that it’s always worth taking that chance. These days, what with one thing and another, I’m more inclined to stick with what I know but I still love the buzz I get from a ‘surprise read’ so you’ll still see me taking a chance on new stuff in the future.
Charlie Higson’s ‘The Enemy’, I have to say, is not one of those books.

I actually came to read ‘The Enemy’ as a direct result of picking up its sequel, ‘The Dead’, over Christmas and swiftly coming to realise that I had a ‘surprise read’ on my hands. As you know, I don’t generally tend to read ‘Young Adult’ books (nothing against them as such, there’s just a whole load of adult books that I want to read first) but I gave ‘The Dead’ a go and am very glad that I did. More on that when I review it in the next week or so. I didn’t hang around after finishing it and went straight out to find a copy of ‘The Enemy’. Perhaps I should have reviewed these books in the order that I read them but ‘The Enemy’ kicks things off so it seemed like the logical place to start...

No-one knows how it all began but that’s not the point anymore; no-one under the age of fourteen is safe anymore... All the adults got sick and some of them died but the ones that are left... they’re hungry and they’re coming for the children that are left on the streets.
Children hole up all over London in locations with varying degrees of safety but the end looks inevitable. That is until rumours appear of a place that is not only safe but offers children the chance to begin an entirely new life. One gang of children are about to start searching for this safe house; all they have to do is find their way across a London where even the most innocent looking doorway could prove to be a trap. And don’t even think about taking the underground...

I haven’t been entirely truthful here. The other reason that I don’t generally feature YA fiction here these days is that, well... I’m an adult but I’m not the kind of ‘Young Adult’ that this book is aimed at. How to approach a book like this then? Wouldn’t it be unfair to judge a YA book through adult eyes? The solution wasn’t hard to come by but a little difficult to implement so you’ll have to bear with me here.
Yes, the solution was to invite another reviewer onto the blog and let them say their piece about ‘The Enemy’. That reviewer was still me though; it’s just that I decided to see what I would have got out of this reading experience as a ten year old boy as well as what I got out of reading it now (I would have read this as a ten year old although it’s probably aimed at boys who are slightly older).

Not being the overly critical type (far preferring a hefty dose of action and gore), my ten year old self loved reading ‘The Enemy’, a fast moving book that’s punctuated liberally with shocks and gore. There’s always something happening and the pages are very easy to keep turning as a result. The whole ‘kids vs. adults’ thing has been done in a number of places before but there’s a very good reason for that (what child isn’t going to want to read a book where the grownups get their *cough* handed to them?) and Higson uses this approach to good affect, upping the stakes with the mindless acts of violence that the adults are capable of. Being a child is no protection here and Higson makes that abundantly clear with several graphic scenes of violence that my ten year old self loved but also more than justified the warning on the back of the book. In short, an unqualified success and a great way to keep my inner child happy.

As a thirty five year old reader though? I’m not so sure...

I can’t deny that all the cool stuff I would have enjoyed as a child still appeals to me these days and ‘The Enemy’ very much delivers, on that front, for all the reasons I’ve laid out (although I’m on the other side of the whole ‘children/adult’ divide now and would want that side to win!) This was very much a ‘polish off in one sitting’ kind of book.
What I found though is that the frantic pace of ‘The Enemy’ has the unfortunate affect of making it a book where style wins out at the expense of substance. You can’t blame the book for that as the demands of the plot pretty much demand that sacrifices are made to keep things powering forwards. It was annoying though to see character development pushed to one side in favour of sound bites that are used to distinguish one character from another; the children ended up merging into one ‘uber child’ after a while... The concerns that the children did have didn’t strike a chord with me at all but then, to be fair, they wouldn’t do would they?
Without wanting to give too much away about the plot, there were also moments that had me scratching my head and thinking ‘this doesn’t gel with what’s going on in the rest of the book...’ There’s at least one more book to come after ‘The Dead’ though so maybe things will make more sense then (they didn’t now though...)

I can see ‘The Enemy’ really appealing to its target male audience who would get a lot of enjoyment out of it. For me these days? It’s a fun and light read for the commute lacking the substance to take it to another level.
For the record... My ten year old self wanted to give ‘The Enemy’ top marks but then he would :o) I’d personally score it at a six. The true score lies somewhere in between...

Thursday, 27 January 2011

‘Sword of Vengeance’ – Chris Wraight (Black Library)

It’s funny how time can pass and you don’t even realise it’s happening sometimes. I read Chris Wraight’s ‘Sword of Justice’ way back in August last year and had a hell of a time with it. Wraight’s journey into the Old World may not have been perfect but it was almost there. Plenty of politics, battles and a threat growing in the shadows... all at once! I don’t read an awful lot of stuff in the Warhammer fantasy setting but I would go so far as to say that ‘Sword of Justice’ made this world come alive for me while I was reading. If you like fantasy then give this one a go, that’s all there is to it.
All of this had me looking forward to the release of ‘Sword of Vengeance’, probably one of my most anticipated Black Library titles after ‘Prospero Burns’. In situations like these though, you can’t help but wonder whether the new book will meet the high standards set by its predecessor and whether any kinks will be ironed out. Reading ‘Sword of Vengeance’ left me in no doubt that Wraight easily maintains the standards set in ‘Sword of Justice’ but the slight problems that the last book suffered from are still here... (It goes without saying that you might want to skip the next paragraph or two if you haven’t read ‘Sword of Justice’ and want to avoid inevitable spoilers...)

The province of Averland has fallen to the insidious taint of Chaos that Ludwig Schwarzhelm inadvertently helped to thrive in the fractious city of Averheim. An army of cultists arises, headed by a woman with dark plans stretching far beyond the mortal realm. When Chaos threatens, the Empire responds with brutal force and a vast army led by the Grand Theogonist himself marches on Averheim to purge the unclean and restore Imperial rule. Ludwig Schwarzhelm is also on his way back to Averheim with fresh knowledge of the enemy’s plans and full of the desire to redeem himself. What waits for them in Averheim though may be too much for even these two mighty heroes of the Empire to handle by themselves (well, them and the forty thousand soldiers in the army of the Grand Theogonist but you know what I mean...) All hope rests on Kurt Helborg and the secret discovered in the depths of Drakenmoor, that’s if he can survive to make any use of it...

Like I said, I’ve been waiting what feels like a long time for ‘Sword of Vengeance’ to see the light of day so I could find out how this tale ends. That’s the beauty of the Warhammer setting; things are just unrelentingly grim that the outcome is always in some degree of doubt. There was no way I was putting down once I’d started and I even found myself reading ‘Sword of Vengeance’ with the aid of a tiny reading light very late into the night (something I haven’t done with a book for more years than I want to remember). What? I didn’t want to wake the baby up...

Chris Wraight builds on a fantastic opening book and does it all over again here, rounding things off in fine style. ‘Sword of Vengeance’ is another helping of intensive character study, vicious political infighting and fighting very much of the ‘dirty great broadswords and magic’ kind. You find out just how high the stakes are and once you know then you’re in for the duration. You might be wondering here if Wraight is simply repeating what he did in the previous book... The approach is the same (why fix what was never broken in the first place?) but things are kept fresh by it all being applied to different people and situations. The disgraced elector-apparent Rufus Leitdorf, Grand Theogonist Volkmar and Kurt Helborg come to the fore here against a background of Chaos inevitably turning on itself. We get to learn a lot about the inner workings of characters that were either briefly looked at in the last book or were not mentioned at all; Wraight really delves into the depths of these people and lends his fictional characters a real air of humanity that makes the story itself pack more of a punch.

It’s a bit of a shame then that, having worked so hard to establish these characters Wraight sends them into situations that suffer from the same slight failings as before. I’m talking about the battle sequences here… Last time round I mentioned that things could drag out a bit but that you could excuse this to a point seeing as that really is how battles can go sometimes. This time round, the battle for Blackfire Pass seemed to drag and not necessarily in a good way. While you could certainly say that siege warfare involves a lot of impasse it felt like this sense of impasse almost worked too well, slowing the plot right down when it needed to maintain its impetus.
This end result is even more unfortunate when you compare the siege to the climactic battle for Averheim. When you see how well Wraight can write a battle scene (with heroic moments that will appeal to fans of the game as well as fantasy fans in general) you can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t do that for all the battles in the book. At the end of the day though you don’t get a bad return for your money at all. When Wraight is well and truly on song then you’re looking at battle scenes that well and truly stir the blood.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden is cornering the market in excellent Warhammer 40K fiction and I think that what we’re seeing here is Chris Wraight beginning to do exactly the same thing on the fantasy side. Despite that odd niggle, ‘Sword of Vengeance’ is nothing less than a gripping read and I’m now left eagerly awaiting whatever’s next from this author. Look out for this book, on the shelves, in the next week or so.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

‘Gods of Manhattan’ – Al Ewing (Abaddon Books)

It was way back in August 2007 that I reviewed Al Ewing’s debut Abaddon piece ‘El Sombra’, a book that I regret losing now as it totally delivers on its promise of honest pulp fun with a liberal dose of Nazi death robots. Can you tell that I enjoyed it (because I did)? In fact I’d go so far as to say that it completely rocked and the first thing that I did upon finishing was to email Abaddon and ask if we were going to see any more adventures from my new favourite masked swordsman. Unfortunately the answer was ‘no’ but this was balanced out by the fact that I got to read the excellent ‘I, Zombie’ and ‘Death Got No Mercy’ instead. I did wonder though if El Sombra was going to go the way of certain other Abaddon titles (that perhaps didn’t do so well) and be quietly retired. I should have known that you can’t expect a man like El Sombra to go quietly...
I was very surprised (and excited at the same time) to see El Sombra make his return in ‘Gods of Manhattan’. It took me a little longer than anticipated to finally crack the book open and (as has been the case with certain other books) I had to kick myself for not doing it sooner. ‘Gods of Manhattan’ is one hell of a read...

While Ulysses Quicksilver is busy protecting the Empire of Magna Britannia it’s a whole different world on the other side of the Atlantic... Superheroes walk the streets of Manhattan, battling super villains as well as the last remnants of Hitler’s Reich (seeking to undermine America from within). Top superhero in Manhattan (and probably anywhere else in the world) is Doc Thunder, possessed of near invulnerability and impossible for criminals to stop. Monk, his sidekick, isn’t so lucky though and when an attack leaves him bleeding out in hospital Thunder knows that a game is afoot far deeper than any he has ever played before. A new vigilante is in town that is ready to use his pistols to make sure that crime is stamped out permanently, what are his real motives? Are any of the criminals that Doc Thunder saw dying actually dead? And just who is the masked Mexican swordsman pursuing his own agenda through the blood pouring onto the streets of Manhattan...?

After Al Ewing got all metaphysical and broke the fourth wall, in ‘Death Got No Mercy’, I have to admit that even though I was looking forward to reading ‘Gods of Manhattan’ there was still a part of me that approached the book with some trepidation. Using that approach really threw things out of kilter for me and I didn’t want to see that happen again here. It turned out that I didn’t need to worry, Ewing is all about keeping things simple here and just concentrating on the plot to hand; what the very lucky reader gets as a result is an thoroughly gripping read that never fails to entertain.

‘Gods of Manhattan’ is only a mere two hundred and thirty eight pages long but, if you didn’t check the page numbers, you would be forgiven for thinking that there’s twice that here with the sheer amount of plot that Ewing manages to cram into a relatively short space. If there’s a back to be stabbed or someone to be double crossed then you can safely say that’s what will happen. Maybe this lends a slightly predictable air to the proceedings but when you’re looking at a pulp fiction read then that’s almost the point isn’t it? Heroes are there to win through at the very end and the villains’ plots to take over (or even destroy) the world are there to be shot down in flames right at the very death. It’s not spoiling things to say that this is how it ends because the real fun lies in getting there and Ewing does have a few surprises to throw our way when we are least expecting it. Everything comes together very well at the end with the chaos unfolding in the plot doing very well to draw attention away from a firm pair of writing hands at the wheel. There is plenty going on here but all of it serves a purpose.

All of this is driven by characters who may subscribe heavily to ‘pulp tropes’ but are still a pleasure to follow throughout the book. It was great to see the return of El Sombra and finally pick up the story of a man torn between two very different personas (and the situations that this condition throws him into). When you hear that laugh you just know that something great is going to happen!
Doc Thunder also made for an interesting character to follow with his invulnerability offset by dark secrets that the book brings to the fore. These may not come as much of a surprise but the real fun is in watching how he deals with them.

If you’re a fan of Marvel or DC comics then ‘Manhattan Gods’ also has a lot to offer as it’s clear where Ewing has got a lot of his inspiration, for his superheroes, from. Reading ‘Manhattan Gods’ is like walking down a rogues gallery of iconic comic book heroes but Ewing sensibly errs on the side of not overplaying this hand too much; preferring instead to give us quick snapshots of these heroes before turning them loose into his bustling and almost nightmarish vision of Manhattan. I think he gets it spot on here with an interesting spin on established heroes who are perfectly suited to this particular environment (I don’t want to give too much away but I think you’ll like the heroes picked by Ewing to star here...)

You can’t have a superhero novel without at least one ‘smack down’, it’s pretty much the rule. It’s certainly a rule that Ewing is happy to follow as he punctuates the intrigue with plenty of action that takes large chunks out of the surrounding landscape. If we’re looking for a comparison here then I would have to go with ‘Superman vs. Doomsday’; yes, it’s that kind of a stand up fight and well worth the price of entry.

I can’t emphasise enough how much fun I had with ‘Gods of Manhattan’, a read with no pretensions other than to give its reader a ride like never before. Not only does it succeed but it does so in some style. Now to track down a replacement copy of ‘El Sombra’...

Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

‘Allison Hewitt Is Trapped’ – Madeleine Roux (Headline)

‘I remember when all this was fields...’

Okay, maybe that’s a little overly dramatic but sometimes it really feels like you can’t take a step without tripping over a zombie novel these days. I remember a time (and it really wasn’t that long ago) when I went book shopping and could only find the two Brian Keene books and Joe McKinney’s ‘Dead City’ on the shelves. These days you’re spoilt for choice and I’m wondering whether that’s a good thing or not. I guess the bottom line is that if all these zombie novels are good then I’m quite happy for the shelves to be overflowing with them but that’s never gong to be the case is it? If there’s a demand for a certain genre of book then it stands to reason that publishers are going to go and hoover up anything similar that they can get their hands on and quality control suffers. I’ll happily admit that ‘quality control’ is a relative term and that books like ‘Allison Hewitt is Trapped’ may totally do it for you; it didn’t do it for me though (although I thought it would at first...)

When the zombie apocalypse arrives one of the worst places to be trapped has to be in the staff break room in a downtown book shop; low on essential supplies and rapidly getting bored reading the one magazine that is all anyone had on them (especially as there’s a whole load of books that you can’t get to!) What there is though is wireless internet and store worker Allison Hewitt has a laptop so...
What follows is an online journal detailing Allison Hewitt’s journey through the shattered landscape of the zombie apocalypse (as well as those of the people following her blog) starting from the break room and finishing at...

With the positive deluge of zombie novels out there at the moment it’s clearer than ever that a zombie book has to do things a little differently if it’s going to stand out from the rest. Roux has obviously taken this on board as ‘Allison Hewitt’ is possibly the only zombie novel that I’m aware of where the story is told via blog. When I saw this, I was immediately interested in reading more and seeing how this approach translates into a book. It was a bit of a mixed bag really...

What I did enjoy was the way that the ‘blog approach’ gives the reader more than one story of survival through the comments left by Allison’s readers. This isn’t just Allison’s story, there are people all over the world going through the same kind of thing and what the reader gets as a result is the sense of apocalypse on a worldwide scale. Some of these shorter responses are actually a lot harder hitting than what’s in the main bulk of the book and you get the feeling that people leaving these comments are really pressed for time and have to make every word count. It’s a shame then that these shorter comments are ultimately at odds with Allison’s journal itself which can come across as rambling and not so urgent in comparison.

It’s funny that the concept which got me interested in reading ‘Allison Hewitt’ is trapped was the very same concept that got in the way of my engaging with the book itself. I had the same kind of issue when I watched Romero’s ‘Diary of the Dead’; great film but I kept thinking that things couldn’t be that bad if the main character felt safe enough to carry a dirty great camera around and film it all. It’s the same kind of deal here with Allison at times worrying more about the wireless connection, on her laptop, than what dangers might lurk in this new world. I gave it a go but, in the end, I just couldn’t buy that scenario playing out and this gave me a lot of trouble trying to engage with the plot. I also couldn’t help wondering if the act of survival, in this landscape, was such a big deal if Allison was able to remember conversations etc in such detail at the end of each day. You could say that the whole situation was so traumatic that everything going on would be engrained in her memory but it just didn’t feel that dangerous to me you know that Allison will be there at the end of the day to blog about it.  J.L. Bourne’s ‘Day By Day Armageddon’ handles this approach a lot more effectively with a diary format that really gets across to the reader how dangerous things are (abrupt endings, cliff hangers etc).

This was a real shame as the character of Allison holds the plot together well and is someone that you want to follow, even when things appear contrived towards moving things on just for the sake of getting them going. I’m thinking about the zombie squirrel here by the way; what’s the point of introducing a zombie squirrel and then seeming to ignore the whole issue of zombie animals for the rest of the book (they should have been fighting their way through all kinds of zombie animals)? Not even a ‘lets get moving, keep an eye open for more zombie squirrels...’
Sorry, getting back on track again... While I may not have liked the way things were moved forwards there’s no questioning the fact that Allison is a good character to move forwards with. Allison may be afraid but knows that sitting still is the most dangerous thing to do when the dead are returning from the grave. You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and that’s what Allison is good at. Roux also finds time to introduce an element of human drama (along with zombie obstacles) which forces Allison’s character to develop. The Allison we begin the book with isn’t the Allison who ends it and that is all to the good.

‘Allison Hewitt Is Trapped’ benefits greatly from its strong lead character but that ended up being almost the only reason I kept reading. The concept that the whole thing was meant to hang on didn’t hold up as far as I was concerned and that was a real shame for a book that had potential to begin with.
I'm pretty sure zombie fans will like this anyway but there is better out there.

Six and a Half out of Ten

Monday, 24 January 2011

The 'cheese and wine before bed is such a bad idea...' Competition Winner's Post!

I knew it was a bad idea, I just knew it... Didn't stop me though! Last  night was all about some of the trippiest dreams I've ever had and this morning is all about me feeling like someone has used my head as a door mat. Look, here's the deal. I'm going to tell you who won last week's 'Midnight Riot' competition and then I'm going to hide under my desk until the headache goes away...
The winners were,

Ruthann Shurtleff, Salt Lake City, Utah
Bill Jolly, Southaven, Mississippi,
Sara Chamama, New York

Well done guys, your books should be with you soon.

See you all tomorrow, I'm going to go and drink lots of coffee now...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Giveaway! ‘The Difference Engine’ (Bruce Sterling & William Gibson)

Being officially in my mid-thirties now, more and more things make me feel old and one of these is to find that a book I only read a few years ago (although it had been published for a few years by then) has all of a sudden found itself on the ‘Sci-Fi Masterworks’ list. What happened there? Where does the time go etc etc...?

I can think of at least one book with Gibson’s name on it that might have been a worthier choice for inclusion, as a ‘Sci-Fi Masterwork’, but ‘The Difference Engine’ is still worth a look and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in the next couple of weeks when I go back for a re-read. How do you fancy joining me?

Thanks to Gollancz, I have two copies of ‘The Difference Engine’ to give away on the blog to two lucky UK readers. That’s right, this competition is only open to people in the UK... (I’m paying for the postage on this one and payday is a long way off) If you fancy your chances, use the normal email address (the one at the top right hand side of the screen) to drop me a line telling me who you are and what your postal address is. Your subject header will be ‘What’s the Difference?’ (because I never get tired of getting people to write silly things in email headers!)

I’ll leave this one open until the 30th of January and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

'Deathless' stuff on

From the email...

'Deathless'  is the highly-anticipated new standalone novel by award-winning speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente, due out from Tor Books on March 29, 2011. A glorious retelling of the Russian folktale Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, set in a mysterious version of St. Petersburg during the first half of the 20th century, DEATHLESS is one of Cat's best books to date, filled with gorgeous prose, sensualism, and memorable characters that Cat’s fans love her for.

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what giants or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

DEATHLESS, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever peasant girl, to Koschei's beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, DEATHLESS is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death that will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

To view this special excerpt from DEATHLESS, please click on the following link:  

AND as a special BONUS, also has a promotional comic Cat and artist Amy Houser did for Arisia 2011; it depicts Marya Morevna's encounter with the household domovoi from Chapter Three of the book, click on the following link to check it out:

There will be lots more to come between now and March 29th – additional excerpts, blog posts, tour dates and other exciting materials – but for now this should whet a few appetites for this amazing original fantasy epic!

And there was I having totally forgotten that 'Deathless' was in the reading pile... As I've said before, I've never really read anything of Valente's so will be picking this up fairly soon (now the release date is a little closer). Has anyone else read this yet?

'I wish I lived in the US ' (Reason #248)

Okay... at least three quarters of these reasons involve pretzels, bagels and pizza (comic books as well, don't forget the comic books!) but here's one that's actually related to what happens here on the blog :o)

From the email,

At Suvudu, we’re aware that getting your work into the hands of a professional editor can be a major hurdle in the road to publication. Many New York publishers do not accept submissions except from literary agents. That’s why we’re making available this limited opportunity to put your best manuscript of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or paranormal romance into consideration by the Del Rey/Spectra staff.

Del Rey/Spectra through Suvudu will be accepting submissions from now through March 18, 2011, of previously unpublished manuscripts of no more than 150,000 words. Over the next few months, they will be judged on the basis of originality, creativity, and writing style. The top submission will receive a full edit of the submitted work by Betsy Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief of Del Rey Publishing, and the story will be considered for publication. Three runners-up will receive a set of Del Rey/Spectra titles selected by Suvudu.
Click here to read the post in its entirety on Suvudu, including the bit where it says you can only enter if you're a legal resident of the United States. And that's where the title of this post comes in... (Yeah, I'm bitter but good luck anyway to those entering!)

Friday, 21 January 2011

‘Hellboy: Wake the Devil’ – Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)

The big question has to be why haven’t I been reading ‘Hellboy’ until now? Well, you know... I’m just rubbish at getting round to reading the good stuff, suffering as I do from being easily distracted (‘so many books...’ and all that) I’m well and truly on the ball now with a few brief glimpses of demonic investigator Hellboy, via ‘Ghost’ and ‘The Goon’, being fleshed out by the beginnings of his own story in ‘Seeds of Destruction’.
‘Seeds of Destruction’ had me keen to read more but, in typical fashion, it’s gone and taken me just over a month to get round to reading ‘Wake the Devil’. It’s got all the stuff in it that made ‘Seeds of Destruction’ such a great read but I have to say that this volume left me feeling a little non-plussed this time round. Not good news seeing as this is only the second book in the series...

The curator of a New York waxwork museum is murdered and a corpse is found to be missing. The resulting trail leads the operatives of the BPRD to Romania where a vampire legend is about to awake once more (no, not that one...) It’s down to Hellboy to stop this menace in its tracks but he must also contend with the monstrous allies of this vampire along with Nazi scientists who are preparing for the end of the world and the return of their occult master...

I love comic book series that really get you on board for the long haul and, looking at the list of titles at the back of the book (along with the ‘BPRD’ spin off series), it’s clear that ‘Hellboy’ is one such title. ‘Plot arcs’ come with the territory here as any story that’s ‘ongoing’ will need to change direction every now and then in order to keep things interesting. ‘Wake the Devil’ signals the end of one such plot arc but I was left wondering if it all happened too soon.

‘Seeds of Destruction’ set up an intriguing scenario with the kind of glorious pulp fiction villains that you want to see a demonic paranormal investigator going up against in a world with a delicious hint of Lovecraftian darkness around the edges. ‘Wake the Devil’ brings it all to a crashing conclusion before you’ve even had time to properly get acquainted with the villains of the piece. While I’m sure that there is more to come in the same setting, I couldn’t help but wonder why Mignola went to so much trouble setting this particular storyline up if he wasn’t going to hang around concluding it. It feels like Mignola wants to get to his conclusion as quickly as possible and this lends a rushed feel to proceedings that makes the flow of the story feel forced and, consequently, unwieldy. I’d be interested in reading a couple more of the books in the series and see how this arc ties into the overall series before coming to a final conclusion but, in the meantime, I was left feeling more than a little unfulfilled at how things were brought to a close here.

This approach to the plot was all the more annoying as Mignola continues to flesh out his story with all the things that made ‘Seeds of Destruction’ such a compelling read. The bottom line is that I will read anything where a demon touched by humanity wise cracks his way through a series of fights with Nazis and supernatural beings and Mignola keeps his side of the deal here with some style. Hellboy is a guy whom you can’t help but root for and Mignola’s distinctive artwork delivers great fight scenes against a dark and haunting background. You certainly get your money’s worth in this respect.

‘Wake the Devil’ is a book where the delivery left me in awe as it much as it left me baffled by the ‘rushed’ approach to the plot. Reading it in the context of the wider series might clear a few things up but, for now, I’m left wondering which of my  ‘Hellboy’ experiences I’m going to get in Volume 3... Have any of you guys read it? What did you think?

Eight out of Ten

Thursday, 20 January 2011

‘Broken Honour’ – Robert Earl (Black Library)

One of the reasons that I started the blog up (what seems like an absolute age ago now...) was to check out new stuff and try and broaden my horizons within the speculative fiction genre. There’s a lot out there that I haven’t read yet and this blog helps bring it to my notice, even if it’s a while before I manage to pick it up. The other reason is that I wanted to specifically define what it is I like about fantasy literature. It’s all very well saying that I like fantasy but when you see how many sub-genres it splits into I figured I could be a lot clearer about the whole thing.

What I’ve discovered is that I’m really into ‘military’ fantasy; the kind of stuff that concentrates on the life and camaraderie of soldiers who would normally only make up the backdrop of ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy. I want my reading to take me right into the very heart of warfare in a fantasy landscape; this is where the characters feel most alive and the book gets a jolt of energy from this that I just thrive on.
Books from the Black Library give me a regular dose of this and mostly from the ‘Warhammer 40K’ setting. As a result, I find myself passing over the Black Library’s straight fantasy setting in favour of guaranteed good reads with their sci-fi. When I received a copy of ‘Broken Honour’ I saw an opportunity to redress the balance a little with a book that looked as if it had been written with my love of military fantasy in mind...

In the Old World, the province of Hochland is in chaos as the feral beastmen display cunning never before seen to break the armies of man and ravage the countryside to breaking point. The rallying call to arms goes out and even in times such as these, when the safety of the province is at stake, there are those who will look to turn a profit from the horrors of war.
One such man is mercenary captain Erikson who buys a job lot of prisoners from Hergig prison and sets about turning them into a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. Erikson will have his work cut out with his new company though as his men face the realisation that their new found freedom has come at a price, to fight and die against the horrors boiling out of the Hochland forests. Even if Erikson can introduce a new kind of honour amongst thieves there is every chance that his own side will see his company dead. The Baron of Hergig sees Erikson and his men as expendable and a decorated war hero has his own reasons for wanting rid of the Gentlemen’s Free Company of Hergig...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you’re after some military fantasy involving mercenaries then you should really pick up Glen Cook’s ‘Black Company’ series if you haven’t already. If you have already though, then I’d give some serious thought to checking out ‘Broken Honour’. It may not be in the same league as Cook’s seminal work but does its job very well indeed. The signs are there for more books to follow and I really hope this happens.

‘Broken Honour’ takes its readers and places them right at the heart of things in a way that I haven’t seen for a long time. Whether it’s at the front line of conflict or in the midst of high level discussions in the corridor of power, Earl’s frank approach not only puts you in the midst of things but also makes sure that you want to hang around. Everything feels like it’s pivotal to the plot and this feeling is often borne out in the events that follow. Having said that though, it felt like one of the main plot lines kind of petered out when it really needed a more definite conclusion. If ‘Broken Honour’ is the start of a series, and a certain character resurfaces (frantically trying not to give too much away here...) then I can see the logic of this approach and I’ll quite happily take everything back. In the meantime though, a very interesting strand of the plot fell flat at the end and made light of all the potential that it had accrued in the meantime.

Apart from that, the rest of the plot flies along at a furious rate with the urgency of battle more than matched by the cut and thrust of politics behind the scenes. Whatever part of the story you find yourself in there is plenty to get into with the adventures of a disreputable band of former criminals who end up being a lot more engaging than you would have thought at first.
Captain Erikson is a sold character to hang the plot around as a person who knows full well what war brings but is still capable of making surprising decisions that develop his character and keep things interesting. It’s the actions of the men under his command though that really brings life to the plot with their differing reactions to the prospect of swapping the gallows for possible death on the battlefield. Life isn’t as uncertain as you’d think, for the men of the company, as Earl falls into the trap of signposting the survivors through the level of detail he gives their characters. This detail really lets you get to know each individual character though and I’m hoping for more of the same in the future.

Warhammer books aren’t all about the fighting and ‘Broken Honour’ is no exception with its examination of men under the stress of constant warfare. When the fighting really kicks in though, Earl proves that he is more than capable of mixing it with the Black Library ‘big guns’ with a brutal and visceral treatment of the subject matter that leaves you in no doubt as to the horrors of pitched battle in the Old World. I also liked the way that Earl gives us a wider picture of events and shows us things happening just off the battlefield that are just as terrible...

I guess the jury is still out on ‘Broken Honour’ (in a sense) until I see, one way or the other, what happens to that plotline I mentioned earlier. As a stand alone piece though, the positive far outweighs the negative in a bone crunching and compelling piece of fantasy (look out for it at the end of next month according to Amazon). I’ve got my fingers crossed for more.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten. 

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

‘Sweet Silver Blues’ – Glen Cook (Roc)

It’s a sort of ‘Unofficial New Year’s Resolution’ of mine to read more books by Glen Cook in 2011 and there are plenty to choose from! Cook certainly falls into my list of authors who are far more prolific than you would at first believe as there is so much more to his body of work than the ‘Black Company’ books he is most famous for. Cook’s rounding off of his ‘Instrumentalities of the Night’ trilogy is his latest work but I thought it might be more interesting (to begin with) to go back a few years and see how certain series of his began. To that end you will see a review of ‘An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat’ (a collection of short stories from the ‘Dread Empire’ setting) sometime fairly soon but I’ll be looking at ‘Garrett P.I.’ books in the meantime.
I’ve actually read a couple of these books already but the ‘Garrett’ books are pretty hard to come by over here and this meant reading them out of order. This meant that I probably didn’t get the most out of ‘Whispering Nickel Idols’ when I read it; ‘Gilded Latten Bones’ worked a lot better but still left me aware of all the gaps that needed filling in.  Luckily enough Christmas saw me able to empty the shelves at Forbidden Planet (of everything ‘Garrett’ related, they actually had the books in for a change!) and I’m now in the position of finally being able to do what I should have done to begin with, start at the very beginning...

Garrett is back from the war in the Cantard and looking to make ends meet by hiring himself out as a private investigator in the city of Tunfaire, home to elves, gnomes and wizards. A lot of his friends died in the war and it turns out that one of them (Denny) has made Garrett executor to his will. Denny’s family want to keep the money instead of see it going to a woman that they barely know; Garrett’s job is to track down this woman and see if she wants her share of a fortune in silver. Where is our mystery woman hiding? In the very place where Garrett swore he would never return, the Cantard...
Garrett is the sort of guy who can’t help but do a dead friend a favour though, especially when certain family members make it more than clear that all the money should be headed their way. The Cantard beckons and Garrett makes sure that he has enough muscle along for the trip; when vampires are involved though, will it be enough?

I can’t remember exactly where it was that I read it but I remember reading that one of the themes of ‘noir fiction’ is that the private eye often has no handle on the case at all; events play out and the case is eventually solved almost in spite of the investigator’s attempts to get to the bottom of things. This is very much the case in ‘Sweet Silver Blues’ where what initially looks like a simple ‘find a missing person case’ becomes a whole lot more. As more and more elements come into play, the case fleshes itself out and becomes more intriguing as the book progresses. At the same time there is a constant feeling of uncertainty (both in the sub-plots being discussed and the fact that anything could happen in the story to come) that kept me turning pages in order to find out what happened next.

Garrett bucks the trend a little bit by having his finger on the pulse a lot more than other private eyes (although he does generally conform to the noir detective norm, hard boiled with heart) ; here is a guy who is able to take everything on board and keep everything in the air all at once. This helps Garrett reach his conclusions a lot quicker than the average private eye and certainly a lot quicker than I was able to. I’ll admit that I had trouble catching those moments when either a clue provided that vital inspiration or inspiration simply fell from the sky and hit our hero. For a mystery that generally does a very good job of growing organically it did feel that the leaps of logic were bolted on rather than simply allowed to flow naturally. Part of this is down to Cook’s rather blunt prose style where Garrett’s getting the job done is far more important than telling the reader just exactly how it was done. If you’ve read any of Cook’s work then you’ll know that this is normal for him so you can understand why he’s left out the more intuitive details here. I’ll also admit that I’m not so hot at following the ins and outs of detective stories so this could well all be down to me. A re-read will settle things, one way or the other, and ‘Sweet Silver Blues’ is definitely a book that I would pick up again.

Cook’s blunt ‘tell it how it is’ style may prove to be an obstacle to the smooth running of ‘Sweet Silver Blues’ but, at the same time, proves to be a very effective tool not only in setting the scene but also in terms of keeping things moving at a decent rate of knots. With no diversions into flowery prose, the plot is able to maintain a brisk pace throughout which adds to the sense of urgency that I mentioned earlier. There’s no hanging about here and you’re left in no doubt as to exactly why this is.
We also get a real feel for a world that is definitely vibrant albeit for reasons that are likely to get a man killed if he’s not very careful. The blunt prose used here sits very neatly in descriptions of a criminal underworld that is very blunt in its dealings (literally). The prose style suggests that there is no room in this world for anything more flowery and there’s a real gritty feeling to proceedings as a result.

‘Sweet Silver Blues’ is a tough nut to crack but rewards a readers persistence with a tale that makes for an engaging and compelling read in equal measure. This is the ‘Garrett’ book that I should have picked up first and I’m looking forward to reading more in this vein.

Nine out of Ten

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

‘The Warlord’s Legacy’ – Ari Marmell (Spectra)

It was around about this time last year that an ongoing case of ‘reading burn out’ was nipped neatly in the bud when I found myself picking up Ari Marmell’s ‘The Conqueror’s Shadow’ on a whim and consequently thoroughly enjoying it. That’s not to say that the book was flawless because it wasn’t (look, just read my review Here...) but it was lighthearted when it needed to be and deadly serious when the chips were down. The end result was a lot of fun and a read where I found myself really looking forward to reading the sequel.
Fast forward a year to, well... right now.
I came out of Christmas feeling a little burnt out reading-wise and in need of something light and fun to get me back into the groove. As luck would have it, I’d been saving my advance copy of Ari Marmell’s ‘The Warlord’s Legacy’ for just such an occasion. Like I said, I’d been looking forward to this book for a year and it didn’t let me down. Once again though, ‘The Warlord’s Legacy’ wasn’t without its flaws. The signs are that there will be at least one more book to come (at least, the way I see it anyway) and I’ll pick that one up as well. There might not be that same level of gleeful anticipation this time round though...

Years after the events of ‘The Conqueror’s Shadow’, Corvis Rebaine has lost everything that he owned in his pursuit of a society that treated everyone fairly instead of drawing the same old line between rich and poor. Even his wife and children left him but this has not deterred Rebaine from his goal; this time though he is working from within the system to bring about the change that he desires so much. Life is never easy though and Rebaine is once again about to be reminded of this fact. The land of Imphallion is under attack once more and, once again, the squabbling nobility and guilds are unable to agree on what to do about it. Someone is doing something about it though, someone with a skull faced helm and a great big axe is cutting his way through both guildsmen and nobles and making it very clear who is to blame.
Rebaine must find out who is killing in his name before it is far too late for both him and the rest of the country; he has a job on his hands though when he is being hunted by his deadliest enemy, a mysterious sorcerer of great power and his own daughter...

The good news is that if you enjoyed ‘The Conqueror’s Shadow’ then you’ll have a lot to look forward to in ‘The Warlord’s Legacy’ in terms of a fast moving plot and characters that you can’t help but relate to. When I reviewed ‘The Conqueror’s Shadow’ I mentioned that I felt that Marmell was applying the same sarcastic brand of humour to all of his characters and ‘it got to the point where I found myself double checking names just to be sure which character was talking’. I was pleased to see that Marmell took steps to rectify this issue in ‘The Warlord’s Legacy’ but I wasn’t too sure about how effective it proved to be.

Marmell’s solution to characters all displaying that same sarcastic humour isn’t to introduce different kinds of humour into the mix but rather to just tone down the sarcasm across the entire cast. I can see where he’s coming from here as sarcastic humour does seem to be the only brand that would work in this particular setting. Toning it down though only dilutes the problem though instead of dealing with it. I could tell which character was which but there was still that nagging feeling that there sometimes wasn’t a lot to distinguish them. It’s a step in the right direction but I couldn’t help but wonder if this is all Marmell has in his locker... To be fair, this is balanced out by Marmell’s examination of Rebaine’s tortured psyche (has a former dark lord ever been so engaging?) but still remains an issue.

It’s a really good job then that Marmell also brings all the good stuff to the table as well. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is the order of the day and I couldn’t help but agree whilst working my way through the book.
There are several good reasons why I couldn’t put this book down and why, despite my slight misgivings, I will be back for any further sequels. I could see where the ‘imposter Rebaine’ plot was going fairly early on (think about it...) but totally bought into the sense of urgency that sprung up in its wake. What’s going on here will have serious repercussions for the land of Imphallion and Marmell leaves us in no doubt as to what this means. Marmell then proceeds to ramp that urgency up by laying any number of obstacles in between Rebaine and his goals. All the while, we get to see how plans are unfolding for the villain of the piece and this racks up the tension even more. There is no doubt that Marmell knows how to put a story together that will engage you and get you hooked without you even realising it. There were a couple of intuitive leaps in the plot that didn’t quite gel but the sheer energy of the piece barrels you through these with only the merest questions raised.

Marmell then proceeds to add extra icing to the cake by punctuating the plot with set piece battles between characters that you’ve come to know and, well... maybe not ‘love’ but you will have certainly gained enough insight into them to wince a little in sympathy when the sword and axe strokes start falling. And when this happens, it happens in style with pages of stand up bone crunching violence really setting the tone. You know how each encounter will end but Marmell injects enough uncertainty that you have to stick around, just to be sure.

‘The Warlord’s Legacy’ is another thoroughly entertaining offering from Ari Marmell and one that any fantasy fan will have a lot of fun with. There’s that niggling doubt though that the same old shortcomings mean that any further books won’t quite fulfil the potential that this series has. I’ll continue to be around to check this series out but the sense of anticipation is starting to fade a bit.
You can probably find yourself a copy of ‘The Warlord’s Legacy’ right now (or in the next few days) in the US. Gollancz will be publishing the book in the UK but not for a couple of months yet.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Monday, 17 January 2011

New Blogs on the Blogroll!

Blogs come, blogs go and nowhere is this more the case than on my blogroll where I did a little pruning a few minutes ago. The blogroll is for me to follow just as much (if not more so) as it is for you so if I’m not reading a blog then it doesn’t need to be there anymore. Notable exceptions here are ‘Nextread’ and ‘Speculative Horizons’; these blogs may not be running anymore but they are still a great resource for speculative fiction so they stay right where they are.

That’s not to say that the blogroll will be noticeably shorter though as some new ones have cropped up and will replace the ones that have gone. You’re probably reading them already (and have been for ages), I am notoriously slow at updating the blogroll and have only just got round to it. These blogs are great though and you should definitely check them out if you haven’t already.

‘Iceberg Ink’

Aidan’s blog has long held the title of ‘Coolest Blog Name on the Internet’. It’s been a long time but now there is a new ‘Coolest Name’ in town, a name that just oozes cool in fact. Sometimes all I can do is just wish for half the inspiration that guys like these have...

If that wasn’t enough, Scott and Chris fill their blog (almost to overflowing) with everything that’s cool about science fiction and fantasy including cover art, comic books and Doctor Who. That’s right, Doctor Who. It’s almost as if they knew exactly how to get onto my blogroll...

‘Bookworm Blues’

Due to my eight month old daughter’s ongoing love affair with the blues (seriously) I find myself mysteriously drawn to any blog with ‘Blues’ in the title. Luckily for me, this led me to Sarah’s blog and a little treasure trove of book reviews that I’m working my way through. I’ve also got a lot of respect for people who really open up online and tell us just who they are. Sarah scores big here as well and I hope that 2011 is a better year for her than 2010.

‘The Maneating Bookworm’

If you’re looking for something a little different ‘review-wise’ then you could do worse than stop by Peter’s blog for a healthy dose of horror and crime fiction. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places but these are two genres that feel underrepresented online so it’s good to see them featured here. Peter likes ‘Bone’ as well and that’s always a plus point as far as I’m concerned.

‘King of the Nerds’

The internet is full to capacity with geeks and nerds so it’s got to take a pretty brave person to come out and say that they are in fact the nerdiest of them all. That’s Mike’s claim to fame though, stop by and see what you think...

Are there any other blogs that I'm missing out on? You probably know what I'm into by now, leave a comment if there's a blog out there that you think I should be reading.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Giveaway! ‘Midnight Riot’ (Ben Aaronovitch)

The general rule of thumb around here (and I do say ‘general’...) is that if I really enjoy a book, and think that you would get a kick out of it too, then I’ll see what I can do about setting up a giveaway on the blog. I very much enjoyed reading Aaronovitch’s first instalment in the adventures of trainee police-wizard Peter Grant (click Here for the review) so I knew what I had to do... :o)

The nice people at Del Rey were totally up for this and, as a result, I have three copies of ‘Midnight Riot’ to give away on the blog. As you can probably guess by the title though, this competition is only open to people living in the US. Sorry about that everyone else.

If you’re still with me then you know what to do next. My email address is at the top right hand side of the screen; drop me an email telling me who you are and what your postal address is. Your subject header needs to be ‘Midnight Riot’.

I’ll leave this one open until the 23rd of January and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.

Good Luck!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

'Conan: Free Companions' – Truman, Giorello & Kubert (Dark Horse)

Dark Horse’s ‘Conan the Cimmerian’ was one of those series that I got a hell of a lot out of yet somehow contrived to miss out on issue after issue. Not sure what happened there but my disappointment at finding this particular run ‘Conan’ coming to an end has been tempered by the knowledge that trade paperback collections will help me fill in the gaps.

This is a strange kind of review then in that it actually began back in December 2009, picked up again briefly in February 2010 and then tailed off entirely... until now.

‘Free Companions’ collects the ‘Free Companions’ and ‘Kozaki’ storylines and tells the story of how Conan’s time in Khoraja comes to an end in a flurry of poor choices that will eventually lead to his lying face down in the swamps of Turan, determined to not to fall prey to either his human enemies or the creatures of the swamp that would have him for a meal. Revenge is the order of the day here...

Now I haven’t read a lot of ‘Conan’ (something I hope to rectify fairly soon with the Fantasy Masterworks editions that I received for Christmas) but the overriding theme in what I have read is that Conan wins always wins through at any cost. It made a real change then to see him brought low by his own arrogance and impulsive behaviour. Here more than anywhere else (that I’ve found so far) we get to see some of the fundamental differences between the kingdoms of Howard’s Hyborean Age that make the travels of one barbarian adventurer far more than simple sword and sorcery fare. Conan’s force of personality can shape events around him but every now and then the sheer weight of civilisation is too much for one man to fight against. You don’t get to see that a lot more clearly than you do here as the consequences of Conan’s naivety are laid out for all to see. Here is a tale that doesn’t pull any punches and is all the more powerful for it. I could see what was coming but I still wanted to be around when it all went down, just so I could see what happened in the aftermath.

Long term readers of the blog will know that I love to wax lyrical about the Truman/Giorello team that brought us ‘Conan the Cimmerian’ and, even though I’m repeating myself, it’s worth bringing up again.

Giorello’s Conan totally captures the primal determination and rage that is such a part of Howard’s creation. This isn’t just any old barbarian that we’re dealing with here, it can only be Conan.

Truman’s writing backs this up (as does his contribution to the artwork, Giorello is still my personal favourite though) with work that dovetails perfectly with the artwork on display. I reckon the end result will be seen as ‘classic Conan’ in years to come.

I loved this book, expect more gaps to be filled in the future...

Ten out of Ten

Friday, 14 January 2011

‘Tooth and Nail’ – Craig Dilouie (Salvo Press)

There is nothing like going to work on a cold and wet January morning to have me hankering for a book about the end of the world... January may be a month to read ‘fun stuff’ but sometimes the whole ‘New Year thing’ is just so plain depressing that you just want to grab something suitably downbeat and just finish the job off yourself! If it’s a book that promises zombies then it pretty much sells itself as far as I’m concerned!
‘Tooth and Nail’ is that very book, on both counts, and would have been read and reviewed a couple of months ago if it hadn’t been for Royal Mail having to wait for all the snow to melt before they could start delivering stuff again. It arrived though and, at a slender two hundred and forty six pages, I whipped through this one in an evening and a commute to work the next day. As much as I was gripped by the story though, there were times when I felt like I ‘had’ to finish this one rather than wanting to...

A variant of rabies has swept the world and now society is fragmenting at a rapid rate of knots. The American military has recalled its forces from around the globe and set them to guarding strategically important buildings while the country gets itself back under control. When the virus unexpectedly mutates though, the situation is officially beyond repair...
Or is it? A research facility in Manhattan may hold a cure for the virus and it’s the job of Lieutenant Todd Bowman and his men to secure the building and rescue the scientists within. First of all though, they must fight their way across a city teeming with rapidly growing numbers of the infected if their mission is to stand any chance of success.

So... ‘Tooth and Nail’ isn’t a zombie novel in the classic sense of the word, especially when compared t o novels such as ‘Pariah’ and ‘The Reapers are the Angels’. The antagonists may want to get their teeth into you but they’re certainly not the walking dead (or even the running dead) by any stretch of the imagination. Think ’28 Days Later’ though and you’ll be on the right lines as ‘Tooth and Nail’ takes the premise of an escaped virus and applies zombie novel themes to the outcome as the survivors are forced to deal with the ongoing situation. ‘Tooth and Nail’ also approaches the whole scenario from the slightly fresher perspective of the military forces assigned to contain the threat (instead of the civilian survivors scrambling through the wreckage) which had me interested from the start.

It’s a real shame then that the way this perspective is displayed on the page goes a fair way to killing a potentially very good story.

I think the fairest way to put it is that if you like heavily detailed military fare (in depth explanation of military tactics, the chain of command, updates on battalion status as well as mention of specific weaponry) then you will get a lot out of ‘Tooth and Nail’. It is clear that Dilouie has put a lot of time and effort into researching the military side of the book and what the reader gets is a very realistic and plausible picture of how the American military might react in the face of an overwhelming apocalypse such as this.

For people like myself though, who prefer the story to be at the fore, this approach might not be such a good thing. I certainly grew frustrated at the overabundance of detail in a book that clearly wasn’t thick enough to handle it. If a book is only two hundred and forty six pages long then its tale needs to be allowed to flow without too much interruption and that wasn’t the case here. There were too many occasions where gratuitous ‘info-dumping’ was an obstacle to the smooth running of the plot. If the entire infected population of Manhattan is hot on your trail then I’d suggest that you don’t have time for a big discussion about where the virus originally came from. Moments like this left the book feeling not as realistic as it had the potential to be.

This was a real shame as Dilouie gets away from the info-dumping, and detail; he does show us that he is well and truly in control of this particular apocalypse.
This isn’t just a stand up fight between soldiers and the infected (although there is plenty of that), every action has ramifications for our characters and these are examined in characters that continue to develop as the story progresses. It’s how these characters deal with what’s going on that really breathes life into the story, whether it’s Sergeant Ruiz’ making it all about protecting the men under his command or Private McLeod aiming to see the funny side in everything. Everyone reacts differently under stress and Dilouie recognises this, capturing a broad spectrum of these reactions in a relatively short space.

When you throw in regular unleashing of awesome displays of firepower against the sombre backdrop of a dying Manhattan (filled with civilians who can’t quite believe that help isn’t coming) you’re left in no doubt that this is the apocalypse and it’s as visceral and raw as it can be. The final scenes in particular reflect this and are all the more poignant as you know it can only end one way...

‘Tooth and Nail’ is an intense and disturbing read yet comes across as being so almost despite itself; at least it did to me. Once you get past all the detail though you can be assured of an apocalypse that is suitably dark and bloody.

Seven and Three Quarters out of Ten.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Free Ken Scholes Short Story on

What with one thing and another, I totally lost my way with Ken Scholes' 'Psalms of Isaak' series last year and never found my way back in. Shame really as 'Lamentation'  certainly promised good things, maybe 2011 will be the year I catch up with this series as well...

In the meantime (if you're 'taking a break' from the 'Psalms of Isaak' series like me, *ahem*, or if you just fancy something quick and fun), are featuring Ken Scholes' 'Making My Entrance Again With My Usual Flair'; a sci-fi short story featuring a down on his luck clown and a monkey who... Well, you can probably guess from the picture but read the story anyway. I did and thoroughly enjoyed it. Here's the first paragraph,

No one ever asks a clown at the end of his life what he really wanted to be when he grew up. It’s fairly obvious. No one gets hijacked into the circus. We race to it, the smell of hotdogs leading us in, our fingers aching for the sticky pull of taffy, the electric shock of pink cotton on our tongue. Ask a lawyer and he’ll say when he was a kid he wanted to be an astronaut. Ask an accountant; he’ll say he wanted to be fireman.
I am a clown. I have always wanted to be a clown. And I will die a clown if I have my way.

A nice quick read to go with your morning coffee ;o)

Steven Erikson Signing at Forbidden Planet.

From the press release...

Forbidden Planet is pleased to announce a signing by Steven Erikson for the final tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God, at the Forbidden Planet Megastore, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8JR, on Saturday 26th February 1 – 2pm.

The final, apocalyptic chapter in one of the most original, exciting and acclaimed fantasy series of our time is coming to Forbidden Planet!

The Bonehunters are marching to Kolanse and to an unknown fate. Tormented and exhausted, they are an army on the edge of mutiny. But Adjunct Tavore will not relent. If she can hold her forces together, if the fragile alliances she has forged can survive and if it is within her power, one final act remains. She might not possess the gift of magic, she may be deemed plain and instill little loyalty and yet Tavore Paran is nothing if not bold. For she means to challenge the gods... Ranged against Tavore and her allies are the Forkrul Assail. Drawing upon a terrible unworldly power, they desire to cleanse the world – to annihilate everything in order to begin anew. Meanwhile In the realm of Kurald Galain, home to the long lost city of Kharkanas, thousands of refugees have gathered upon the First Shore. They await the coming of the Tiste Liosan. But this is a war they cannot hope to win – are they truly so ready to die for a lost cause? There is to be a reckoning. But none can conceive of the true, terrifying, enormity of things. For the Elder Gods are at work. Their intention is to shatter the chains that bind a force of utter devastation and release her from her eternal prison. Indeed, it would seem that once more there will be dragons in the world...

Will I be there? You bet I will! Will I have read 'Dust of Dreams' by then (let alone 'The Crippled God'...)? Erm...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

‘Midnight Riot’/’Rivers of London’ – Ben Aaronovitch (Del Rey/Gollancz)

Well, that could well be one of the most convoluted titles I’ve written for a blog post in the last three and a bit years... In case you were wondering (and if you haven’t already read my ‘Which Cover would you go for?’ post at the end of last year) this is one book with two very different titles. Having read the book I can say that both titles have very firm roots in the plot but it still makes me wonder why they felt the need to have different titles either side of the Atlantic. Oh well, I guess the bottom line is ‘don’t buy a copy of ‘Midnight Riot’ if you already have a copy of ‘Rivers of London’ (or the other way round...)
As much as most Urban Fantasy really annoys me (great concepts ruined by an unnecessary romance being shoehorned into the plot) my love of cityscapes in speculative fiction mean that I’ll always be back for more and the one city that I always find myself returning to is London. London is a magical city at the best of times (if you’ve ever visited or lived there then you’ll know just what I mean) and has to be the ideal setting for an Urban Fantasy as ably demonstrated by writers such as Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey and China Mieville.  Ben Aaronovitch has decided to chance his arm at joining this illustrious crowd and offers us a tale that may not hit those heady heights but still has me eager to read more.

Probationary constable Peter Grant is one day away from transfer to the tedium of the Case Progression Unit (‘we do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to...’) when a murder inquiry takes his career down an entirely different path. Taking a witness statement from a ghost brings our hapless constable to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England, and now Grant not only finds himself an apprentice wizard as well as a Detective Constable.
The criminals may have changed but the job is still all about keeping the peace and upholding the law. This time though what that means is clearing out a vampire nest in Purley as well as stopping a turf war between the god and goddess of the Thames really getting out of hand. There’s also something rotten at the heart of London’s theatre district; something that takes ordinary people and uses them to add out mad acts of violence. As much as he’s not the man for the job, Peter Grant is about to find that he’s the only man left standing to try...

I think I’ve found a new series to follow this year (and hopefully beyond) with the sequel, ‘Moon Over Soho’, following hard on the heels of the series opener. A clever blend of magical contemporary urban setting, engaging main character and a mystery that really gets its claws into the reader makes this a book worth picking up while also promising good things for the future.

This almost wasn’t the case though...

Now, I’ll freely admit that I read sci-fi, fantasy etc to the exclusion of most other works (that’s just how I roll) so I’m not exactly au fait with how certain other types of book work. This is very much the case with ‘police procedurals’ and ‘Rivers of London’ (I’ve got to call it something other than ‘this book’...) falls very firmly into this category.
I think that if you’re a fan of police procedurals then you will love the level of detail that Aaronovitch throws into his portrayal of a police investigation; he certainly leaves no stone unturned showing us the sheer level of manpower involved. This is also the case for the magical side of the investigation and what you get as a result is a tale grounded in reality and all the more plausible as a result.

What I found though, more often than not, was that this detail came at the expense of moving the plot forward smoothly. In his hurry to tell us everything that a policeman does, Aaronovitch ends up with a ‘jumpy’ plot that stops as soon as it starts to get going. A great tale is constantly interrupted by the well meaning obstacles that it sets for itself and is less accessible as a result...
Of course, I’ll freely admit that I’m missing the whole point of a police procedural but that’s the way it read to me.

Once you get past this unfortunate barrier though, what you find is a tale that is by turns quirky, engaging and above all scarily compelling.

You will be hard pressed to find a character that you would rather pound the mean streets of London than our man Peter Grant. Here’s a guy who cannot believe what lies under the everyday surface of the city yet still manages to deal with it by looking at it all in terms of the oath he swore as a policeman. Add some nice touches of self deprecating humour to that pragmatism and the end result is an engaging character that grows on you as the book progresses.
Aaronovitch’s London is also beautifully realised as well and its heady mix of the real and fantastic made it a place where I was more than willing to spend several hours. London, as a city, has that sense of the magical that disappears whenever you try and catch it. With his tale of warring gods and vampires (and the rest, I won’t spoil that though...) Aaronovitch has captured that magical essence of London and bottled it so we can get that full undiluted flavour.
If that wasn’t enough, the mystery underpinning the book is a very good one. A seemingly unsolvable mystery becomes something far more as Aaronovitch gives us just enough clues to make us think we’ve cracked it and then proceeds to throw a whole bundle of surprises at us all wrapped up in a riot the likes of which you won’t have come across before. I was hooked and I’m hoping for more of the same from the sequel.

Call it ‘Midnight Riot’ or call it ‘Rivers of London’. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, just read it.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

‘Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard (Vol. 1)’ – David Peterson et al (Titan Books)

My time in London can be measured in many ways; the number of jobs that I’ve had for instance (eight jobs in six years but most of those were temporary contracts, honest!) or the number of places where I’ve lived (three places in six years, all within a couple of streets of each other). The measurement that I don’t like to talk about though is the number of mice that I’ve had to kill since moving to London (the mouse capitol of the UK apparently...) The current total stands at five (two with a frying pan, one with a place mat, one with a chopping board and one with a pile of dirty washing plates, he shouldn’t have tried hiding in the kitchen sink...) and I’m sure there will be many more to come...
It’s hard to see the nobility in an animal that seems to delight in getting at all your food and leaving its waste behind; the instinct is to kill the little beast before it finds the chocolate stash (although any that I can catch in the humane trap are released). David Peterson’s ‘Legends of the Guard’ has taught me a lesson or two though and in some style. I’ll still do all I can to keep mice out of the house but I think I’ll have a little more respect for them while I’m doing it...

In the western mouse city of Barkstone, the June Alley Inn is the place to go for fine food, fine beer and tall stories. This is even more the case tonight as the teller of the best tale will have his bar tab cleared while the losers will have no excuses but to finally pay up. The only rules are that each story must contain one truth, one lie and must never have been told in the tavern before. Everyone has a tale to tell but who will win...?

David Peterson’s ‘Mouse Guard’ (a tale of the heroics of medieval style soldier mice) is one of those series that I find myself looking at, thinking ‘I really should pick this one up’ and then somehow never getting round to it. I finally got round to it over the weekend (although ‘Legends of the Guard’ is a collection mainly featuring contributions from other writers) and I’m very glad that I did. This collection just blew me away with the storytelling and artwork on offer; here is a book that I literally lost myself in for hours and I think I’ll be tracking down Peterson’s other works to see if he can maintain this standard on his own. Before I even start talking about the book itself I have to say that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone here. ‘Mouse Guard’ appears to be the logical ‘next step’ for anyone who grew up on the ‘Redwall’ books but it goes far beyond these in taking a life all of its own.

The plot that ties the separate stories together may have been done before but Peterson steers the book past this potential pitfall by keeping things simple and getting to the individual tales as quickly as possible. Without giving too much away, I would also say that I agreed with the final choice of winner but it was a close run thing. There were any number of tales that could have won their teller a clean bar slate and this made for a generally very high standard of tales throughout the book.

I say ‘generally’ though...

The tales that really worked for me were the ones where both writers and artists really stuck to the vision that you can just tell Peterson has given us in previous volumes. I know I haven’t read the previous two books but you can tell from the Peterson’s artwork (and what you see of his part in the book) that we’re looking at something a little more gritty and heroic than you would normally find in a comic book about mice. It’s a real shame then that while Katie Cook’s ‘A Mouse named Fox’ does a good job of extolling the heroic virtues of that smallest of animals her overly bright and cartoonish artwork detracts from the tale and clashes with the more sombre tones on display in the rest of the book. Guy Davis’ ‘The Critic’ fell flat for me when he decided to replace written dialogue with pictures in speech and I spent ages trying to work out what the story was actually all about. I still don’t know if I’m on the right lines here...
Joao Lemos’ ‘Epilogue’ didn’t do it for me either although I did like the possible idea that it could have been that the best story was in fact never told. It just didn’t seem to tie in well with the rest of what was on offer...

When ‘Legends’ gets it right though... Well, it gets things right in some style and more than makes up for the short fallings that I found in other stories. What you have here is a collection where stories merge seamlessly with their artwork to produce stirring tales of heroism, triumph and tragedy that showcase the massive personalities in these tiny creatures. Ted Naifel’s ‘A Bargain in the Dark’ and Karl Kerschl’s ‘Bowen’s Tale’ show us how brave a mouse can be despite the dangers it faces. Alex Kain and Sean Rubin’s ‘Potential’ and Mark Smylie’s ‘Crown of Silver, Crown of Gold’ show that (despite tragedy) good can still come from adversity. Alex Sheikman takes things in a slightly different direction with ‘Oleg the Wise’ and shows us that even a mouse can become too big for its boots and believe its own publicity. Stirring heroics make this a tale to follow though and you do find yourself wondering if the foregone conclusion could in fact be averted? My favourite tale though was Ha and Francis’ ‘Worley & the Mink’ where the hero of the title is a humble accountant looking to get his money back on a deal and finds himself having to deal with something far more dangerous. I love ‘brain over brawn’ stories and this one was handled superbly.

What a way to start my year’s reading for 2011! ‘Legends of the Guard’ is a gorgeously put together volume full of gorgeously told tales and you can’t ask for a lot more than that without looking just a little bit ungrateful. Highly recommended and a book that I’ll be reading over and over again for years to come.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Monday, 10 January 2011

The 'First Day Back at Work After a Two Week Break...' Competition Winner's Post!

And I am feeling the pain...

Thanks everyone for bearing with me over the Christmas and New Year Period where I thought I’d take a little break and lay off the reviewing so I could recharge my batteries and take my time over what I was reading. You can consider my batteries fully recharged! I really enjoyed what I read over Christmas/New Year and am looking forward to telling you all about it over the next few days. Book reviews begin tomorrow!

In the meantime though, bear with me for one more day because today is all about the people who won the ‘Thirteen Years Later’ competition that I ran just after Christmas. If you won the book then I hope you enjoy it!

The lucky winners were...

Stuart Blakeley, South Australia
Steve Renshaw, Dublin, Republic of Ireland
Melissa Emmerson, Sheffield, UK
Dejan Mitrovic, Belgrade, Serbia
Joy Whitelock, Somerset, UK

Well done everyone, your books are on their way right now :o) If you didn’t win this time round, keep your eyes open for more competitions that I hope to run in the future...