Wednesday, 31 August 2011

‘The Outcast Dead’ – Graham McNeill (Black Library)

And it was only the other day that I was going on about how much I was looking forward to reading ‘The Outcast Dead’... Thanks to the wonder that is post scheduling, a copy of ‘The Outcast Dead’ actually arrived after that post went up! I couldn’t have timed it any better if I’d tried :o)

Every series has its ‘down points’ and Black Library’s ‘Horus Heresy’ series is no different; I still haven’t dared read ‘Fallen Angels’ after having to give up on ‘Descent of Angels’ halfway through. On the whole though, the series has been an amazing ride through the defining moment in the history of Warhammer 40K’s Imperium of Man.  This is very much down to the fact that ff you’re one of the Black Library’s ‘big guns’ then you’ve probably already contributed to this series. Graham McNeill has already made a name for himself with his ‘Ultramarines’ series (amongst others, I’m thinking of the ‘Sigmar’ books here) and has also made his mark on the ‘Horus Heresy’ series with books like ‘A Thousand Sons’, ‘Mechanicum’ and ‘False Gods’. So... A new book in a series that I will always make time for that is written by a writer who has proved to be one of the mainstays of the ‘Horus Heresy’ books. You can’t go wrong here... can you? Of course you can’t, Graham McNeill turns in another ‘must read’ moment in an Empire’s fall...

Astropath Kai Zulane is having a very bad day. You would have thought that it couldn’t get any worse than being one of only two survivors of a catastrophic encounter, in the Warp, that claimed an entire ship and left Kai unable to use his psychic powers. Unless Kai can master those powers once more he is fit only for psychic kindling in the Hollow Mountain.
It can get a lot worse though. As the Heresy burns throughout the galaxy, Kai suddenly (and through no fault of his own) finds himself in possession of a secret that both sides would kill for. It’s a secret hidden so deeply in his psyche that not even Kai knows what is. All he knows is that seven of the most deadly men on Terra have broken out of the most fearsome prison on the planet in order to take him to their master. The forces of the Imperium are in pursuit though, will the renegades make it off the planet or will they fail at the last? Does any of it even matter...?

Like I said earlier, I know that I’m in for a good read when I see Graham McNeill’s name on the cover of a ‘Horus Heresy’ book and that record remains unblemished with ‘The Outcast Dead’. That’s not to say that the book is perfect but it was close enough for me not to put it down (apart from that moment when the baby was crying) until I was done. The nature of this book means that it’s very difficult to avoid spoilers, I’ll try my best though...

One of my chief complaints about the ‘Horus Heresy’ series, as a whole, is that pretty much everyone reading it knows how it ends. I’m talking about the gamers mostly but anyone with a passing knowledge of the internet can do a quick Google search and see how it plays out. The big question then is how to keep things fresh and interesting in the meantime? Other authors have tackled this question in a number of ways but this time round, McNeill takes my original complaint and makes it the centrepiece of the plot. Characters in ‘The Outcast Dead’ have to ask themselves what they can do about a person they know is carrying information pivotal to the outcome of the civil war. The answer is simple, get to him before the other side does...

The outcome is a race against time with both sides trying to get their hands on a secret so secret that not even the carrier knows what it is (you can probably guess it though and it’s a good one). McNeill really ramps things up by making it clear just what the stakes are as well; most people who discover the secret have a nasty habit of dying through not being able to handle its sheer immensity and Kai Zulane is the only one who’s still alive. Nothing less than the fate of an entire galaxy rests on what is in his head, stakes don’t get a lot higher than that! McNeill gives ensuing events a pace that is appropriate to what is ultimately at stake here; things move very quickly but not so fast that you can’t keep up. McNeill has a great concept on display here and he wants to be sure that you make the most of it. It’s not just the chase though as elements of the Imperium’s earliest history make an appearance that adds another layer of detail to an already richly layered background (the Petitioner’s City adds a level of squalor that contrasts nicely with the Emperor’s Palace) . I think long term fans will get the most out of these moments but they’re worth the price of entry nevertheless.Add a healthy dose of paranoia (no-one really knows who to trust) and you’ve got a plot that captures the imagination and refuses to let go.

Every chase must come to an end though; if they don’t then things run the risk of getting boring without a resolution. McNeill gets this as well and punctuates the plot with moments where backs are against the wall and there is no way out except to fight. McNeill has already proved himself to be more than adept at throwing gene-enhanced humans up against everything (including each other) and the resulting scenes here pack all the punch you would expect from a Warhammer 40K novel.
There is a more thoughtful air to it as well though as we see Zulane’s treatment at the hands of Imperial authorities who fight to remain true to the Emperor’s vision whilst facing the demands of war at the same time. The interrogation scenes are harrowing but also a testament to the strength in Zulane’s character. If you’re anything like me then you’ll be rooting for him too. There is a real shade of grey to ‘The Outcast Dead’, especially when we see the treatment of Marines deemed to be traitors only by the actions of their brothers. Neither side comes out of this looking good and that’s the way war goes...

I only have the one complaint and this could equally well be applied to the series as a whole. There is so much going on that there is the constant need to put it all in context of the wider struggle. Constant referring back to events already covered makes the series drag and it can make ‘The Outcast Dead’ drag a little as well. We’re more than a few books in now and I really want to feel like things are moving forward, we already know that certain events have happened. ‘The Outcast Dead’ being placed in context like this made for an unwelcome counterpoint to a plot that tore ahead in other respects.

It’s a relatively minor complaint though as McNeill comes up trumps again with a tale that shows the more covert side of the Heresy as well as the more squalid side of the Imperial dream. Another highly recommended tale from one of the Black Library’s top authors.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Author Interview! Drew Magary.

What kind of guy writes a book where immortality can give the term 'Peter Pan' a nasty new meaning and nano-technology leads to the immortal armies of the world being more interested in eating whatever is in their path rather than shooting it? That guy is Drew Magary, author of 'The Postmortal' ('The End Specialist' if you're in the UK) and I got to ask him a question or two; here's what Drew had to say for himself...

Lets get the obvious question out of the way first, would you take the cure if it was offered to you?

Hell yes. I'm getting older and I have all kinds of back pain and shit. No chance I'd ever want to get older. I know everyone getting it would be bad, but I can't SEE that now. I know drinking is bad for me, but that damage isn't immediately visible to me. So I do it. Same with this.

What led you to write ‘The Postmortal’? By this, I guess I'm asking what led you to writing about things like a mother condemning her daughter to eternity as an eight month old baby...

It was really just a simple idea, espoused in the title of the first chapter. If we all lived forever, we'd all end up pretty pissy with one another. So I tried to play that out to the last detail. Some of it gets pretty hairy, but it wasn't because I'm some weird goth kid. I just try and go where the idea leads.

‘The Postmortal’ shows it’s reader only too clearly that humanity isn’t ready for eternal life, at least not as far as you’re concerned. If the cure was available in real life though, do you think that any good would come out of it at all?

Oh, most definitely. Seniors account for pretty much all the health care expenses here in the US. If no one got old, it wouldn't cost as much to go to the doctor. And everyone would look AWESOME.

You sold it to me! Your vision of an immortal future is pretty bleak to say the least; did you find yourself having to dial the bleakness back at all or did you just go for it?

I had an original ending that was, hard to believe, darker than what's there now. Then my agent was like, "No. Don't do that." And I didn't. I tried to temper everything with humor, but the idea is just naturally a dark one. It couldn't be helped. I just did my best to keep it as entertaining as possible right to the end.

Did you know all along that your vision here would be a bleak one? Did you ever toy with the idea of having immortality as something that is beneficial and all good?

Nope. It was all bad from the get-go. It was just more fun to have it devolve into mayhem. Happiness and order aren't very compelling.

I have to ask, what did you do to cheer yourself up after writing such a pessimistic book?

I never really got down while writing it. I was fairly clinical about what would happen and how it would happen. It wasn't so much that it was bleak to write, but it was fairly intense to write. I'd spend a lot of time in my own head space and would leave the tea kettle boiling and shit. At the end of the day, I'd feel pretty exhausted mentally. But it was a good feeling, like after you spend a day doing housework or something shitty. You feel like you earned your beer.

The science behind the cure is detailed enough to be plausible but vague enough so that people can’t poke holes in it. How difficult was it to get the balance right?

I've watched enough TV and movies to know how to bullshit it so it sounds good despite it all being total bunk. I did some research to get terms right, but I didn't go all Method Writer and spend eight years in a medical library.

Talking of science, 'The Postmortal' naturally focuses just on scientific developments arising from the cure. I know this is outside the book but do you think at least one scientist used his immortality to come up with something worthwhile? I'm still feeling depressed after reading the book (in a good way), cheer me up?

Don't be depressed. Consider this: If science and the eventual advent of advanced artificial intelligence can make us immortal, think about how that same collective brain power can help solve other problems like energy shortages and overpopulation. Because it can and it may. Also, I'm real sorry I depressed you. I wanna buy you a meat pie or something.

Funnily enough, I could really go for a meat pie round about now... You write in a number of other fields, are we likely to see more science fiction from you in the future? I’ve got a feeling that there won’t be a sequel to ‘The Postmortal’...

Nope, but there likely will be more social sci-fi from me.

And finally, why should we all be picking up ‘The Postmortal’ and checking it out?

Because you'll be making my ass money.  And because the book is fucking METAL.

Good answer there Drew, honesty pays... ;o)

If that hasn't convinced to go and pick up 'The Postmortal' then have a look at my review over Here. Do check the book out though, I promise you it's worth it.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The 'It's a Bank Holiday so you're probably not even reading this' Competition Winner's Post!

I mean, seriously. The sun is up, it's lovely out there and we don't have to be at work today! :o) By 'we' I mean people in the UK of course but it's not like the rest of you don't get public holidays as well. Wait your turn and don't rub it in too much when you're lazing around at home and I'm in the office... ;o)

This is going to be a fairly short and sweet one today as I've got a garden to dig up, books to read and a small child to keep away from electric sockets... I couldn't let today pass though without announcing the winners of last weeks competition for Advance Copies of Richard Morgan's 'The Cold Commands'. Without further ado, here they are...

John Johnson, Idaho, USA
Kai Ashante Wilson, Brooklyn, USA
Karen Moore, Wisconsin, USA

Well done guys, your books should be on their way very soon. Better luck next time everyone else... ;o)
Right, I'm off to do all the chores that I somehow manage to ignore until a Bank Holiday comes round. Have a great one today and I'll see you tomorrow when Drew Magary stops by to answer a few questions about 'The Post Mortal'...

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Giveaway! ‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ (Simon Spurrier)

The reading pile has got a little out of control in recent weeks but Simon Spurrier’s ‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ is still very much there and waiting to be read; check out the blurb...
A missing mobster. A bizarre spiritualist society. And three deaths, linked by a chilling forensic detail.

Working as an enforcer in London's criminal underworld brought Dan Shaper to the edge of a breakdown. Now he's a private investigator, kept perilously afloat by a growing cocktail of drugs. He needs to straighten-up and rebuild his life, but instead gets the attention of his old gangland masters and a job-offer from Mr George Glass. The elderly eccentric claims to be a New Age Messiah, but now needs a saviour of his own. He's been marked for murder.

Adrift amidst liars and thugs, Shaper must push his capsizing mind to its limits: stalked not only by a unique and terrifying killer, but by the ghosts of his own brutal past.
I’ll let you know what I thought of it as soon as I get it read. In the meantime, how would you like to win a copy? Thanks to Headline Books I have two copies of ‘A Serpent Uncoiled’ to give away in a competition that is only open to blog readers from the UK and Europe. All you European types might want to go back and read that last bit again... Thanks for being patient with me, I told you I’d sort something out sooner or later ;o)
Right... Entering is as easy as ever; all you need to do is drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the page) telling me who you are and what your postal address is. The subject header needs to be ‘Serpent’. And don’t even think about trying to enter more than once! Your email address might be different from the last but your name and address won’t be, multiple entries will all be deleted.
I’ll leave this one open until the 4th of September and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.
Good Luck!

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Some books I'm looking forward to between now and the end of the year (what books are you looking forward to?)

It’s getting to that time of year, once again, where Autumn is in the air. You know what I mean, you can smell it can’t you? Not only that, the weather is starting to turn and you find yourself looking for the winter coat that you shoved in a cupboard just before Easter. What’s particularly galling about this change in the weather is that August hasn’t even finished yet! What’s that all about? Where’s my Summer gone...? And breathe... :o)
There’s no escaping it though, we may not be on it just yet but we are looking at the home straight that will take us through to the end of the year. What should we be reading in the meantime? Here are a couple of reads that I’m looking forward to, feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below.

House of Fear: An Anthology of Haunted House Stories (Solaris)
The tread on the landing outside the door, when you know you are the only one in the house. The wind whistling through the eves, carrying the voices of the dead. The figure glimpsed briefly through the cracked window of a derelict house. Editor Jonathan Oliver brings horror home with a collection of haunted house stories by some of the finest writers working in the horror genre, including Joe R. Lansdale, Sarah Pinborough, Lisa Tuttle, Christopher Priest, Adam L. G. Nevill, Nicholas Royle, Chaz Brenchley, Christopher Fowler, Gary Kilworth, Weston Ochse, Eric Brown, Tim Lebbon, Nina Allan, Stephen Volk, Paul Meloy and more.
Jonathan Oliver did some sterling work in editing his last collection (‘The End of the Line’, reviewed Here) and I’ve got no reason to suspect anything different this time round, especially as a bunch of authors who contributed last time round are returning to contribute some more. This has the potential to be a really spooky read for when the nights really start to draw in (which will probably be tonight the way the weather is right now...) Look out for this book around the end of September/beginning of October.

‘Fated’ – S.G. Browne (Piatkus)
Over the past few thousand years, Fabio has come to hate his job. As Fate, he's in charge of assigning the fortunes and misfortunes that befall most of the human race - the 83 per cent who keep screwing things up. And with the steady rise in population since the first Neanderthal set himself on fire, he can't exactly take a vacation. Frustrated with his endless parade of drug addicts and career politicians, it doesn't help watching Destiny guide her people to Nobel Peace Prizes. To make matters worse, he has a five-hundred-year-old feud with Death, and his best friends are Sloth and Gluttony. And worst of all? He's just fallen in love with a human. Sara Griffen might be on Destiny's path, but Fabio keeps bumping into her - by accident at first, and then on purpose. Getting involved with her breaks Rule No. 1 - and about ten others - setting off some cosmic-sized repercussions that could strip him of his immortality...or lead to a fate worse than death.
Ok, this isn’t the kind of thing that you will normally see me reading here but you might well have done last year if my US review copy had arrived...! In the meantime I read S.G. Browne’s ‘Breathers’ instead (review Here) and the man himself was kind enough to stop by the blog and talk about the inspirations and influences that got him writing in the first place and culminated in ‘Fated’ (you can read that over Here). All of this piqued my interest in ‘Fated’ and I was lucky enough to finally receive a copy (from Piatkus this time) which I will definitely be reading. There are hints of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Mort’ here but if ‘Fated’ is anywhere near as good then that shouldn’t be too much of a big deal. ‘Fated’ should be on the shelves towards the end of next week, you might see a review then but the smart money is on that review appearing a little later than that.

‘The Outcast Dead’ – Graham McNeill  (Black Library)
Has there been a bad ‘Horus Heresy’ novel? Actually, yes there has (I’m looking at you ‘Descent of Angels’...) but the good in this series outweighs the bad by, well... a lot! :o) Graham McNeill is one of the big name writers in the series and I know for a fact that he hasn’t written a bad ‘Horus Heresy’ book, I’m hoping for more of the same from ‘The Outcast Dead’. Look out for this one in November (that will give those of you who haven’t been reading the series plenty of time ot catch up!)

‘The Republic of Thieves’ – Scott Lynch (Gollancz)
After their adventures on the high seas, Locke and Jean are brought back to earth with a thump. Jean is mourning the loss of his lover and Locke must live with the fallout of crossing the all-powerful magical assassins the Bonds Magi. It is a fall-out that will pit both men against Locke's own long lost love. Sabetha is Locke's childhood sweetheart, the love of Locke's life and now it is time for them to meet again. Employed on different sides of a vicious dispute between factions of the Bonds Sabetha has just one goal - to destroy Locke for ever.
Here’s a tricky one... The Gollancz catalogue tells us we can expect to see ‘Republic’ sometime in November but Amazon disagrees and reckons it won’t be available until March next year. I make a point of not trusting Amazon release dates but I would have thought there would be Advance Copies flying around kind of now-ish if the November date was accurate. Oh well, I guess I’m just going to have to be all excited about it until I find out otherwise ;o) If the last two books are anything to go by then ‘Republic of Thieves’ will certainly make for a great ‘rainy afternoon’ read.
That’s me for now (otherwise I will go on forever) but what about you? What books are you looking forward to getting your hands on between now and the end of the year? Comments in the usual place please! :o)

Friday, 26 August 2011

‘Heir to the Empire (20th Anniversary Edition)’ – Timothy Zahn (Del Rey)

Has it really been twenty years since ‘Heir to the Empire’ was first published? There’s no reason for the book cover to lie to us so I’m guessing it must be, what a way to make me feel really old...
I actually came to read Zahn’s trilogy a couple of years after ‘Heir to the Empire’ was first published. I was deeply into my fantasy reading before then (I’d only just discovered Tad Williams) and anyway, Star Wars was pretty much over and done with wasn’t it? There were no more films to come so there couldn’t be any more story, could there? How wrong I was... I heard of these three new books that carried the story on, after the events of ‘Return of the Jedi’, and borrowed them off a friend. It wasn’t long afterwards that I bought copies for myself and was into reading every subsequent Star Wars book as it came out. There have been countless Star Wars books since then and it would be fair to say that they all owe their existence to the trilogy that Zahn wrote all those years ago. As far as I’m concerned it’s also fair to say that very few of the subsequent books (if any at all) match up to the benchmark that Zahn originally set. Or is it? Am I just living in a glorious haze of nostalgia where Star Wars books were only just coming onto the market again with a story that was only just taking off and where it felt like anything could happen?
There was only one way to find out and I had great fun taking it. ‘Heir to the Empire’ stands up to the test of time although I’m not sure that particular ‘anniversary add-ons’ were entirely necessary...

It is five years since the decisive Battle of Endor took place and the Alliance is slowly adapting itself to the demands of governing star systems instead of fighting to free them. The pressures are great though and divisions within the fledgling government could tear things apart before they even get going.
However, a far greater danger lurks in the remnants of Imperial Space... Grand Admiral Thrawn’s duties kept him away from the one battle where he was needed the most; now he has returned to wrest control away from the Alliance and return the Empire to its former glory. If there’s anyone who can do this it is Grand Admiral Thrawn, ever the most devious and tactically adept of the Emperor’s Grand Admirals. Plans take shape and build towards an inevitable conclusion. Can even the likes of Luke, Leia and Han halt the machinations of the greatest tactical genius the Empire ever produced?

It may be a 20th Century Anniversary Edition but no changes have been made to the novel itself in terms of an ‘author’s preferred edition’ a la ‘The Stand’. This is good and totally as it should be. ‘Heir to the Empire’ stands the test of time and reading it now is just like reading it for the first time all those years ago. It’s been years since I last read this trilogy, now I think I’m going to have to dig the next two books out and read them again.

Zahn leaves you in no doubt that you’re reading a Star Wars book and you might think that’s not exactly a hard thing to do. After all, you’ve got a cast of well known characters to play around with in a setting that has been built up over the course of three films (along with role playing games, comic books and books published when the films were in cinemas). You’d be forgiven for shrugging your shoulders and saying “So what?” but bear with me a little here...

Zahn’s achievement comes in his taking a big step forward from the events of the films (a five year gap here) but still maintaining a real feel of continuity. He may be playing with established characters but he really gets inside their heads and captures what made them stand out on the screen. Han the ‘cocky smuggler’, Luke the ‘earnest Jedi’ and so on. There’s a solid link to the films right there. Zahn isn’t just satisfied with preserving continuity though as he forces his characters to move on and develop in a galaxy that is the same one we knew, from before but has changed in a number of important ways. Established characters are suddenly having to adapt to new situations (Leia trying to find time to complete her Jedi training, Han trying to form a coalition of smugglers that will work for the Alliance) and you find yourself wanting to read on and see how they cope.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Star Wars without an Imperial threat to contend with and Zahn really delivers here with the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Whereas Vader and the Emperor were a threat in terms of sheer power, Thrawn more than holds his own in terms of his constantly being three or four steps ahead of you mentally. Thrawn knows exactly what he is going to do and by the time you find out it’s too late as his plans are already in motion. It’s scary how on top of things Thrawn is and he is more than a match for our heroes here as, at this stage, they have no idea what they are dealing with. Thrawn’s plans are still in the early stages but there is still enough intrigue to them to make you want to come back for the next book and see how things pan out.

Zahn adds a fresh spin on the Star Wars universe but is clever enough to go with a tried and tested formula that worked for the original trilogy. ‘Heir to the Empire’ is space opera on that same grand scale; swashbuckling combat on alien planets, gigantic space battles and larger than life heroes. Zahn captures all of this perfectly and the pages fly by as a result.

It’s a shame then that the extra bits that make up this 20th Anniversary Edition take the shine off a little bit...
The book is annotated by the author (and his editor Betsy Mitchell) and these notes do make for some interesting reading; Zahn takes us through the process of the book’s creation and gives us some interesting facts along the way. If you’re a die hard fan then you may know it all already but there were more than a few surprises there for me. The problem that I had was that the positioning of these notes, at the side of the page, kept dragging me away from the book itself and I had to keep trying to get back in again. Maybe if these notes had been at the bottom of the page it would have made all the difference.

I have to say that the Thrawn novella ‘Crisis of Faith’ didn’t do an awful lot for me either. For me, Zahn works best when he is laying plans that won’t see fruition for at least a book or two. This short tale of bluff and double bluff just felt rushed to me and, as a result, didn’t show Thrawn in all his calculating and devious glory.

That shouldn’t take anything away from the main event though. Despite the issues I had with the book as a whole, ‘Heir to the Empire’ (in itself) is the prime example of all that is good about Star Wars fiction and I’m glad I got the chance to re-read it. Look out for this edition at the beginning of September. Now, onto the other two books.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Thursday, 25 August 2011

‘Vampire Warlords’ – Andy Remic (Angry Robot)

Without going into too much detail about my life right now (I mean, you’re here for the books... right?) I’m absolutely shattered right now and very much looking forward to a long deserved holiday. It’s not here yet but it’s so close that I can almost taste it. As far as my reading goes, this tiredness has meant that I’ve either been looking at comfort reads or books that will wake me up with their sheer energy. A shot of genre Red Bull if you will :o)

Andy Remic’s ‘Clockwork Vampire Chronicles’ is by no means a comfort read (seriously, check out my reviews for ‘Kell’s Legend’ and ‘Soul Stealers’), and I’ve had my issues with the first two books, but the series thus far has never failed to wake me up and get me moving. I have to wonder where Remic gets all that energy from for his novels, I want some of it!
When I saw that monster of a cliff-hanger scene at the end of ‘Soul Stealers’, there was no doubt that I would be around to see how things ended in ‘Vampire Warlords’. Given what happens in those final few pages there’s no way that it could end well... could it? Well, we’re talking about Kell here so that in itself should give you some ideas about how it all ends; in a tide of blood and severed limbs...

The Vampire Warlords walk the earth once more, summoned to be slaves of the Vachine but far too powerful to ever obey the commands of a lesser species. There is a world out there to be conquered and remade in their own image; the three Vampire Warlords cannot wait to get started.
As city after city falls to the newly birthed vampire hordes it becomes all too clear that the only person who stands any chance of stopping the Warlords is the axe man Kell. Kell may well be beginning to doubt himself but there is still enough strength in his arms to take up his axe for one final push at an enemy he has been fighting for almost his entire life. It’s not just the vampires that Kell has to worry about though, another army is marching out of the north and an enemy thought long dead is finally beginning to stir once more. Could these late developments be too much even for Kell? One thing is for sure; while Kell is still standing the fight isn’t over yet...

‘Vampire Warlords’ brings the first arc of Kell’s adventures to a close with things left open enough for more books to come (in the interview at the back of the book, Remic confirms that he plans to write more about the adventures of Kell and Saark). It’s all done in fine style as well with a series of climactic events that leave you in no doubt where things stand not only for Kell but for the land as a whole. We’re talking about the kind of book where you finish the last few chapters at such a rush that you have to remember to take a breath. Well, I did anyway.

‘Vampire Warlords’ does suffer some of the problems that I saw in the previous two books. Reading the book, I got the impression that Remic was basically saying, ‘you should know what I’m about with this series by now and you’ve come this far, just go with the flow and keep reading’. I think this approach is fair enough to an extent, writers should be able to set their stall out and let the readers decide for themselves whether they carry on reading or not.

Having said that though, ‘Vampire Warlords’ ended up suffering for the same kind of reasons that the last two books did. What I read was a book that sought to define itself as ‘gritty’ by being a book with more swear words in it than any other. Seriously, I defy you to find a book that swears at its readers more. The thing is though, copious swearing doesn’t make a book ‘gritty’ in tone, it’s just a book with a lot of swear words in it... This is a real shame as Remic does a lot of work in other areas that makes the book a very gritty read indeed (more on that in a bit) but the overload of swear words gives the proceedings a comedic air where there really shouldn’t be one. There is also that sense of enemies being lined up just so Kell can kill them and move on, an approach that has made the pacing stumble in past reads.

Despite all that though, ‘Vampire Warlords’ is the best read of the bunch and for very good reason.

Despite having a cast of characters who will use ten swear words where only one is needed, ‘Vampire Warlords’ is a dark and very gritty read to the extent where I found myself sucked into that darkness just to see if there was any light at the end of it. Remic has spent the last two books raising the stakes for Kell and just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse... it does. The Vampire Warlords are vicious individuals, even by Remic’s standards, and he doesn’t leave any stone unturned in showing us just what life is like in their cities under their rule. Squeamish readers might want to skip those pages...
A tough world just got a whole lot tougher and characters are faced with hard decisions that they cannot ignore. Remic lays it all on the line and the end result is a surprisingly touching novel lurking under all that cartoonish violence.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Kell himself, a character moving out of the shadow of Gemmell’s Druss and becoming an engaging character in his own right. Kell is not only faced with the fight at hand but also the terrible mistakes that he has made in the past and must find some way of dealing with this all at once. The way in which he manages (whilst taking on all comers) made me feel more than a little respect for an old warrior trying to do the right thing against all his instincts. I even enjoyed the banter between Kell and Saark in that it signalled a development in their relationship rather than just hurling insults for the sake of it. I’d like to see more books featuring Kell and Saark, just to see where they go next.

If that wasn’t enough, you’ve got Remic’s natural talent for throwing everything (including the kitchen sink) at ‘Vampire Warlords’, resulting in a book that hurtles along at a breakneck pace but never falls over once. You’ve got to admire a writer that can keep control of things like that.

The villains are even bigger than before but Kell isn’t ready to lie down just yet. The resulting clash makes ‘Vampire Warlords’ the best book in the trilogy and the best way for Kell and Saark to bow out, for now...

Eight and a Half out of Ten

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

‘Redlaw’ – James Lovegrove (Solaris)

I love reading about vampires and I love watching them on TV too; I just hate it when they sparkle… I’m all about vampires that are only thinking about where their next meal of human blood is coming from and vampires that take time to look cool but are still packing serious firepower under that long black overcoat (can you tell that I love the film ‘Blade’?) Vampires that know what they’re really about in other words; vampires that will tear the throat out of the heroine before it even occurs to them that they could get to know the girl a little better…

None of this is much good though if you haven’t got someone who’s ready to stand up and take the vampire(s) on. Again, I’m thinking of the kind of person who would rather kill a vampire than spend interminable hours discussing the angst of their eternal existence. The more ammunition unloaded the better of course, that goes without saying :o)
I wasn’t mad keen on James Lovegrove’s ‘Age of Odin’ but there was more than enough there for me to know that his take on vampires would be worth checking out in terms of the kind of vampires that I like. It turns out that my suspicions were well founded, ‘Redlaw’ is a hell of a read in all the right ways.

Vampires, the ‘Sunless’, live among us but that’s ok, the Sunless Housing and Disclosure Executive (SHADE) work constantly to ensure that vampires stay put in their assigned districts and that the constant simmering of resentment from both sides doesn’t escalate into something far worse. Captain John Redlaw is the top SHADE officer in London for very good reason, commanding fear and respect in equal measure with his devotion to duty. Humans must be protected from vampires but the same applies in reverse.
Things might be getting too much though, even for Redlaw. His inner struggles reflect increasing unrest on the streets as vampires riot in their ghettos and humans respond in kind. There’s a mystery hidden amongst the violence and one that Redlaw must solve quickly. The vampire’s baser instincts are being manipulated for financial gain but the final solution goes beyond mere profit.

Like I said, ‘Age of Odin’ didn’t quite hit the spot but this latest book of James Lovegrove’s sounded like it would be just my kind of thing. I wasn’t wrong in my assumption but I never expected ‘Redlaw’ to grab me the way it did. We’re talking about a book where I gave the first few pages a go and suddenly found it had usurped my other reads and was nestled comfortably in my bag for the commute to work. ‘Redlaw’ didn’t take long to polish off either. The book weighs in at a slender looking three hundred and nineteen pages but that wasn’t what made it fly by so quickly and so smoothly.

‘Redlaw’ is a big ‘blockbuster’ film in book form. There are threats on all sides and the only man who can save us is the kind of guy who will take an absolute kicking every chapter and still be on his feet by the end of the final chapter. We’ve all seen films like that haven’t we? ;o) They’re great fun to watch and ‘Redlaw’ hits those same targets with ease.

Having said that though, the problem with blockbuster films is that they all follow a certain formula and ‘Redlaw’ is no different in this respect. Without giving too much away, once you know who is playing which role then you can tell what is going to happen to them at certain points in the book. I could actually make accurate predictions at least nine times out of ten…
Now ‘Redlaw’ does make up for this, and in some style, by powering through the plot in a hail of vampires and bullets but the fact is that I knew how it was going to end and who the villain in the shadows really was. Knowing this did take some of the punch out of the final chapters although, to be fair, Lovegrove does regain some of the impact with a revelation that is hinted at but you probably won’t notice in the midst of everything else that’s going on.

And there’s plenty happening here. The action doesn’t let up for a second but it’s clear that Lovegrove has his hands firmly on the reins of the plot. No matter how intense the fight or how manic the car chase, Love grove never lets things get away from him. Everything happens for a very good reason and it all ties together perfectly for the big climax.

What I really enjoyed though was Lovegrove’s take on just what a vampire infested London could realistically look like given the fact that humans outnumber them to a very large degree. It makes sense that if vampires couldn’t be moved on then they would be re-homed and basically told to stay where they were if they knew what was good for them. That’s what happens here and London is just the grimy and dark kind of city that makes for an ideal backdrop for things to play out against.
This approach to the vampire issue also gives Lovegrove the opportunity to ask questions about the ethics of this treatment in lots of small ways as well as bigger instances which directly affect the plot. For all it’s action and violence, ‘Redlaw’ is a surprisingly thoughtful novel about how we treat minorities.

John Redlaw himself is the ideal character to bring these questions to light on the page as he is constantly asking himself if he is doing the right thing by both groups of people that he is sworn to protect. Redlaw is more than capable of using his fists when he has to but this thoughtful air of his gives the character a welcoming depth that makes you want to find out more about him. There is room to develop Redlaw further and I really hope that this happens in another book.

‘Redlaw’ may be a little too predictable at the end of the day but it’s still a lot of fun to read and gives you pause for thought at the same time. I really hope this is the start of the series and not a one off.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

Tor/Forge Books and NASA Jointly Announce Publishing Collaboration

From the press release...

In an effort to educate and encourage math and science education Tor/Forge Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, and NASA have embarked on a collaboration to publish a series of science based, commercial fiction books, referred to as "NASA inspired Works of Fiction" around concepts pertinent to the current and future work of NASA.  NASA will allow existing and new Tor/Forge authors to team up with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s (GSFC) Subject Matter Experts (SME) to create scientifically accurate and entertaining novels in a distinctly unique way.

Tor/Forge and NASA hope that pairing scientists and engineers with the imprints’ award-winning roster of writers will raise awareness and inspire the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in line with the President’s Technology Agenda.  They also hope to contribute towards the goal of attracting and retaining students in the above fields, thereby strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce in a compelling manner.

“When I was a boy, books by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and their colleagues excited me, inspiring a lifelong fascination with space and the science and technology that would get us there,” said Tom Doherty. “From Fulton and his steamboat, through Alexander Graham Bell and Edison, to Silicon Valley and the advent of the internet, innovative Americans have built a future in which we lead the world.”                                                     

GSFC’s Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP) Office will host a select group of Tor/Forge authors – some of whom already write science based fiction – to learn more about science and space exploration. Authors will visit GSFC for a two day workshop in November consisting of presentations, facility tours and one-on-one sessions with SMEs. NASA contributions to the project will also provide access to their data, facilities, and educational design and evaluation experts.

"Ultimately this agreement will benefit taxpayers as we look for innovative ways to train students for the science challenges of the future," said Nona Cheeks, Chief of GSFC's IPP Office, which is managing the project's implementation.

The enormous popularity of science fiction is a key element in this collaboration to make these NASA inspired Works of Fiction a gateway to reach the general public and to generate awareness of the significant role NASA plays in everyday lives. Many people who work in the fields of science and technology credit science fiction as a significant inspiration for their career choice.

“It is my hope that in working with NASA in the creation of new stories of science and discovery we will inspire the next generation of explorers and inventors, because it all starts with the imagination – with stories and dreams of better things to come,” said Doherty.

Not sure how I see this one panning out myself. Give me a little while to get my thoughts together on this and maybe I'll leave a comment under the post. Maybe it's just the fact that 'Hard Sci-Fi' and I don't really get on, I don't know...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

‘Pigeons from Hell’ – Joe Lansdale, Nathan Fox & Dave Stewart (Dark Horse Books)

Don’t worry; I haven’t picked up the habit of recycling old reviews, especially when they were only posted on Saturday ;o) What we’re looking at here is the updated and modernised version of Robert E. Howard’s ‘Pigeons from Hell’, originally published as a four issue comic book mini-series by Dark Horse. I didn’t pay this series much attention at the time, mostly because the title sounded a bit... well... soft. I’ve never been there but I’m pretty sure that Hell has creatures far more fearsome and demonic, than pigeons, that it could lend to a comic book title! It was only recently though (by which I mean this Saturday just gone) that I realised that the title isn’t an attention grabber so much as it is something that dovetails perfectly with the atmosphere that’s set up in the book.
I gave the original text a shot and enjoyed it a lot so I figured that now was the time to go and give the comic book a go. Having finished it, and as much as I enjoyed the read, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d have felt if I’d read the comic book before reading the original. I’ve got real mixed feelings about this one...

The old Blassenville Mansion has stood deserted for years now, passed down through the generations but shunned by its heirs. Until now that is. Claire and Janet Blassenville have brought some friends on a road trip to see just what they’ve inherited, maybe see if they can restore the mansion to its former glory. What they’re about to find though... Well, they’ll be lucky if they make it through the night alive; home decorating will be the last thing on their mind.

Visually, ‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a very easy book to get caught up in and this is all thanks to a very effective partnership between Nathan Fox’s artwork and Dave Stewart’s colours. That’s not to say it’s perfect the whole way through. Sometimes I found myself having to do a little more work than perhaps I’d want to normally in order to work out just what was going on in certain panels. The panels where the twins see something coming towards them for example, I’ve read the book twice now (and spent time really going over the panels in question) and I still can’t see anything. On the whole though, Nathan Fox does a superb job of showing us just how eerie and forbidding the Louisiana swamps are as well as providing some real shocks when you see what is lurking in the mansion. Dave Stewart’s colours do an amazing job of bringing everything to life and I liked the little touches he gave the piece such as the contrast between dark mansion and bright characters and the sepia affect that he gave the ‘flashback’ sequences. Like I said, it’s not perfect but it’s near enough perfect that you won’t mind too much.

Funnily enough, it was the story itself that ended up giving me trouble. On the face of it, Lansdale gives his readers a scary piece with bursts of adrenaline inducing fear in all the right places. I haven’t read much of Lansdale’s but he’s been writing for a long time and this comes through in the assured way in which he drives the plot to a possibly predictable but definitely exciting conclusion. Here is a guy who knows what he is doing and does it very well.

What got me though was that I wasn’t sure what the story itself wanted to be and the time I spent pondering this was time where I was taken away from the story. Lansdale does a lot of work to make his adaptation a smooth read but this ‘identity crisis’ derails things and undoes all that good work.
I get the rationale behind updating the original ‘Pigeons from Hell’ for a modern audience and I also got it when Lansdale said, in the afterword, that a lot of him ended up in the writing. Of course it would, that’s the way it goes and it makes for something fresh if you have one authors spin on the work of another.
What I didn’t get though was the way the book set itself up as an alternative ‘modern take’ on the original and then went on to connect these present goings on with the Blassenville Mansion of Howard’s original. At least that’s what it felt like to me. I might be mistaken and certain panels were in fact homage paid to the original but the way it read felt like a connection was being made that just wasn’t going to work. The two histories don’t match and Howard’s original will always come out on top. Like I said right at the beginning, I wonder if I’d have felt the same way if I’d read the comic book first? Maybe...

Lansdale’s ‘Pigeons from Hell’ ended up being a lot of fun to read but a lot harder going than perhaps it needed to be. I’m glad I picked it up though.

Eight out of Ten 

Monday, 22 August 2011

The 'Slightly Later Than Normal' Competition Winner's Post!

Because sometimes just the one cup of coffee isn't going to do the trick. Yep, it's one of those mornings... :o(
How was your weekend? Mine was good fun although the reading that I'd planned to do for the blog somehow ended up being me reading 'Horsey, Horsey', 'Hey Diddle Diddle' and 'Wee Willie Winkie' to Hope over and over again. I was cool with that though ;o)

As far as this week goes, things are pretty much up in the air as far as content on the blog goes but what you'll definitely be getting is a review for 'Pigeons from Hell' (the graphic novel 'sequel' this time) and Gav Thorpe's 'The Purging of Kadillus'. I reckon Joe McKinney's 'Flesh Eaters' will probably feature as well, we'll see about the rest...

Before all of that though, I've got some competition winners to announce :o) Thanks to everyone who entered the 'Magic of Recluce' competition that I ran last week. As much as I wanted everyone to win a copy... erm... that would really have defeated the purpose of the whole thing wouldn't it? Only five people could win and those five people were...

Joel Cunningham, Illinois, US
Joseph A. Gervasi,Philadelphia,
Michael Carter, British Columbia, Canada
Sara Chamama, New York, US
Amber Young, Idaho, US

Well done guys, your books should be with you very soon :o) Better luck next time everyone else. There's a competition just below this post that could be your thing and, if not, there should be at least one more next weekend as well :o)

See you tomorrow, I'm off to try and put some interview questions together...

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Giveaway! ‘The Cold Commands’ (ARC) – Richard Morgan

Now here’s a book that’s been long anticipated in my house (well, only by me but that’s not the point!). Check out the blurb, or don’t (you could read Adam’s review instead)... depends if you want to come face to face with possible spoilers...
Ringil Eskiath, scarred wielder of the kiriath-forged broadsword Ravensfriend, is a man on the run - from his past and the family who have disowned him, from the slave trade magnates of Trelayne who want him dead, and apparently from the dark gods themselves, who are taking an interest but making no more sense than they ever have. Outlawed and exiled from his ancestral home in the north, Ringil has only one place left to turn - Yhelteth, city heart of the southern Empire, where perhaps he can seek asylum with the kiriath half-breed Archeth Indamaninarmal, former war comrade and now high-up advisor to the Emperor Jhiral Khimran II. But Archeth Indamaninarmal has problems of her own to contend with, as does her house guest, bodyguard and one time steppe nomad Egar the Dragonbane. And far from gaining the respite he is seeks, Ringil will instead find himself implicated in fresh schemes and doubtful allegiances no safer than those he has left behind. Old enemies are stirring, the old order is rotted through and crumbling, and though no-one yet knows it, the city of Yhelteth is about to explode . . .
‘The Cold Commands’ won’t be published until October but I’ve been lucky enough to get hold of an advance copy so will be reading it a little sooner than that. Del Rey have also been kind enough to offer up three more advance copies of ‘The Cold Commands’ as giveaway prizes for readers of this very blog. Interested? Keep reading...
The first (and only) thing to get out of the way is the whole thing about who can enter. To sum this up in one handy sentence, this competition is only open to US residents. Sorry about that everyone else. If you’re a European reader, stop by next weekend when I’ll finally have a giveaway that you can enter :o)
If you’re still reading, 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 postal address is. The subject header needs to be ‘The Cold Commands’.
I’ll let this one run until the 28th of August and will aim to announce the winners as soon as possible afterwards.
Good Luck!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

‘Pigeons from Hell’ – Robert E. Howard (Taken from 'The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard)

I’ve got to admit that the first time I saw this title (on a comic in Forbidden Planet, years ago) I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Pigeons have to be the dumbest birds I’ve ever come across so to be asked to imagine that there’s anything even slightly demonic about these dopey birds... well, I just couldn’t. I didn’t pick it up but, funnily enough, I’ll be reviewing the trade paperback (Joe Lansdale’s sequel to Howard’s original) early next week and more than likely revising my opinion of it.
I didn’t realise that ‘Pigeons from Hell’ was a Robert E. Howard short story until I came across it again in the ‘Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics’. I wasn’t able to get the most out of it there though as I found myself saying, ‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a classic Robert E. Howard horror story and the artwork here is brooding and chilling at the same time. It’s a shame then that the publisher forgot to include the words…’ Life took over (as it does) after that and I never got round to reading ‘Pigeons’, until now.

My ‘Robert E. Howard’ month’ seemed like the ideal time to dig out my copy of ‘The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard’ and finally get to grips with ‘Pigeons from Hell’. It’s a tale of horror that has all the right ingredients in abundance, all cooked to near perfection...

Two New Englanders (the main character Griswell and his friend John Branner) are travelling in the Deep South and decide to spend the night in a deserted plantation. Only one of them makes it out alive though, Griswell being chased by the axe bearing and bloody corpse of his friend...
What killed John Branner? The Sheriff that Griswell runs into wonders if it was Griswell himself but the truth is far more horrifying. To uncover this truth, the two men must return to the manor that has seen more than its fair share of sadistic cruelty and revenge...

‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a gloomily atmospheric piece that cunningly conceals its moments of horror until they’re right up in your face and you can’t get away from them. You know that they’re coming though and I for one had to keep reading and find them. There’s a tantalising mystery lurking within the old Blassenville Manor, a place that the locals won’t go near after dark and where the sight of pigeons around the rooftop is an omen of the grimmest sort.

If you ever thought that Howard was just all about mighty heroes doing mighty deeds then read ‘Pigeons from Hell’ and have your mind changed. This slice of ‘Southern Horror’ will quite happily lead you down all manner of blind alleys and leave you expecting and ending that you won’t get. You may think that the ending doesn’t offer much that is new but I guarantee that you won’t see it coming until its right there in front of you. Talk about ‘out of the blue’!

Howard approaches his horror with the same energy that he would a battle scene in a Conan story; the result being moments in the story that are genuinely terrifying. Howard lets the reader right into Griswell’s head and you get a ringside seat for everything that happens to him. There are chilling moments of suspense and there are moments that are just nasty; Howard doesn’t pull any punches at all and ‘Pigeons’ flows all the more smoothly for it, each scene pushing things forward at just the right speed.

All of these moments are set against a stark backdrop of ‘Deep Southern Decay’ where the grim and foreboding backdrop either hides a secret or just looks like it does. Either way, the background combines perfectly with the plot to form a story that does exactly what it sets out to do and in some style.

‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a gloriously unsettling slice of horror that showcases Howard’s talent for writing stories that you can’t help but read until the bitter end. Those final scenes will remain in my head for a long time to come.

Ten out of Ten

News Straight From My Inbox To Your Eyes!

I’ve been beaten to the punch on this a couple of times already (which makes a mockery of the post title, I liked it though) but it is exciting news and worth repeating, at least as far as I’m concerned. Check it out.
From the press release,

Best-selling author Eric Brown has created a brand new shared world for Abaddon Books: Weird Space.

This thrilling space-opera series will begin in June 2012 with the release of The Devil's Nebula by the best-selling author of Helix, Engineman and The Kings of Eternity.

In the first book in this epic new series, Brown will introduce readers to the human smugglers,  veterans and ne’erdowells who are part of the Expansion – and their uneasy neighbours, the Vetch Empire.

When an evil race threatens not only the Expansion, but the Vetch too - an evil from another dimension which infests humans and Vetch alike and bends individuals to do their hideous bidding, only cooperation between them means the difference between a chance of survival and no chance at all.

Brown has meticulously created a massive shared world of interstellar potential, which other writers will explore with each new book.

With the launch of this new SF epic, Abaddon is adding to its series of shared worlds which already include the post-apocalyptic The Afterblight Chronicles, the new take on Arthurian legend Malory’s Knights of Albion, the World War One soldiers marooned on an alien world in No Man’s World, steampunk adventure in Pax Britannia, the zombie-infested Tomes of the Dead and the fantasy quests of the Twilight of Kerberos.

Eric Brown said:
"It's great to be part of the team working for Abaddon on the Weird Space project, and it's a fantastic imaginative opportunity to be developing the background and working on the first novel, The Devil's Nebula. The Weird is vast in scope - borrowing on an age-old tradition of everything that's best is space-opera - and will allow the writers to tell exciting, human stories set against an eerie, thrilling, futuristic back-drop. I'm more than a little excited at being part of the team!"

Jonathan Oliver, editor-in-chief of Abaddon, said:
“Eric is such a terrific writer that it's a great honour to be welcoming him to the Abaddon fold. The vast scope of this series and the richness of Eric's writing will mean that this will be a space-opera like no other.”
Not only is it Space Opera (there doesn’t seem to much of that about at the moment although maybe I’m looking in the wrong places...),  it sounds like just my kind of Space Opera and I’ll be keeping an eye open for this next year. Looks like another excellent addition to the Abaddon line.  I haven’t read any of Eric Brown’s previous works though, are they worth checking out?
The following email also found it’s way into my inbox and I figured the sporting thing to do would be to let you know about it even though my chances of winning would be increased if you didn’t. I’m going to have a crack at this, how about you...?
Epic Flash Fiction Competition: Submissions open
Sharpen your swords, conjure intoxicating brews, and get ready to tame your dragons. We are on the hunt for flash fiction at its most epic and inviting submissions of original and previously unpublished high fantasy stories of up to 1000 words.
First Prize: Your story will be published and narrated in September’s edition of Dark Fiction Magazine. Prize Money: £25.00 Yes, that’s Twenty Five Whole English Pounds.
Second Prize: Your story will be published and narrated in September’s edition of Dark Fiction Magazine. Prize Money: £15.00 Yes, that’s Fifteen Whole English Pounds.
Third Prize: Your story will be published and narrated in September’s edition of Dark Fiction Magazine. Prize Money: £10.00 Yes…well, you get the point..
A shortlist will be drawn up from entries received. We are delighted to announce the winning entries will selected from the shortlist by a guest judge (to be announced soon).
The closing date for submissions is Midnight on Wednesday 31st August 2011.
Winners will be announced on Wednesday 7th September 2011, with winning stories published in Dark Fiction Magazine on Wednesday 14th September 2011.
Submit stories via the ‘Submission Form‘ at
You may enter as many times as you like, but each entry must be submitted separately.
All entrants will need a paypal account in order receive prize money in the event of winning.
Battles on windswept plains, dark wizards, knights in gilded armour, spirited princesses, peasant boys destined to be king…magic us inside the world of Epic Fantasy with the very best flash-fiction you can conjure and we’ll pray we live to tell the tale!
Good luck to those entering!

Friday, 19 August 2011

‘The End Specialist’/’The Postmortal’ – Drew Magary (Harper Voyager/Penguin)

This seems to be the week for reviewing books that have more than one title and publisher doesn’t it? For those of you who are wondering, ‘The End Specialist’ is the UK edition and ‘The Postmortal’ is the American edition. For the purposes of this review I will be referring to the book as ‘The Postmortal’; I know there’s only a one word difference between the two titles but it’s been a long day and I’m tired...

If you had the choice, would you want to live forever? I’ll admit to being curious about what the future holds but I’m not sure that I’d want to live a couple of hundred years (and more) just so I can find out. I’d never really put too much thought into it but, even before I’d read ‘The Postmortal’, I couldn’t get away from the feeling that there was more to this ‘living forever lark’ than meets the eye. I’ll stick with the life I’ve got thanks very much! ;o)

I’ll bet you’re the same as me and see the whole concept of living forever as a lovely daydream to have (accept when you’re stuck in a meeting, then it really does feel like you are living forever and not in a good way...) but not something to really mull over as it’s never going to happen, is it? It probably won’t ever happen but luckily for us our world is full of speculative fiction authors who are prepared to mull over these ideas for us and see where the journey takes them.
At some point, Drew Magary decided to explore what it would really mean to live forever; not just for individuals but for the entire planet. ‘The Post Mortal’ is the result of that exploration, a book that defies you to read it and still want to live forever by the time you put it down...

It’s the year 2019 and the cure for aging has been discovered. A person taking this cure can still die of unnatural causes (being shot, drowning and so on), or things like cancer, but if they can avoid life’s nastier pitfalls then they will never grow older and will never die. You’ll remain as youthful as you were when you took the cure and you will never leave your loved ones behind. The cure for aging has no drawbacks, or does it?

Lawyer John Farrell took the cure in 2019 and ‘The Postmortal’ is his diary showing the ramifications that the cure had not only for him but for the rest of the world over the course of the next sixty years. There is a lot of joy but far more heartbreak than you would reasonably expect to fit into one normal life, let alone the life of a post mortal...

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was as grim and depressing as ‘The Postmortal’ and was as compelling a read at the same time. Drew Magary sets the ‘Post Cure’ world on a downward spiral that is plausible in almost every detail and flows in an inevitably smooth manner as a result. I literally couldn’t put this one down to the extent that I spent hours reading ‘The Postmortal’ without even realising that the time was going. I’d highly recommend you read this book but what I would say is that after you finish reading, go out and find a cute puppy to stroke or eat a really nice cake. Something that will cheer you up in other words; you’re going to really need it.

Magary sets things up with a vague but plausible explanation of how the cure works. He then goes on to chronicle the gradual decline of ‘post mortal’ society with a relentless intensity that left me seriously wondering how he managed to get out of bed each morning and face the rest of the world. Because that’s the point of the whole book, the cure for aging is available but no-one stops to think what it will really mean if you take it. Magary’s view of humanity is pessimistic but sobering at the same time as there is a real hint of truth to this mass reaction. If you get the chance to drink from the fountain of eternal youth, are you really going to worry about the taste it leaves in your mouth afterwards? You’re not, no-one is and this is the springboard that Magary uses to show us what the inevitable results of the Cure really are.

These results are seen through the eyes of one John Farrell, a city lawyer who wanted to cheat death and avoid what his mother went through. Farrell’s diary shows what he goes through ‘post cure’ at the same time as events are unfolding worldwide. This is a clever approach as the plight of each individual serves to flesh out wider events and gives the whole book a real feeling of substance.
The main problem is, of course, massive overpopulation as not only is a large chunk of humanity not growing any older but it’s still continuing to breed. The ramifications of this are felt everywhere as armies grow exponentially, food and water prices skyrocket and people eventually turn on each other over what is left. Population control takes on a brutal new turn as cities are bombed, people are tattooed with their date of birth and the job of ‘End Specialist’ is born.

This is where John Farrell comes back into the story as the one thing about immortality that no-one really thought of is that it means you’re going to have to work that much longer to pay the bills...
John’s search for meaning in his new life sees him take on an ‘End Specialist’ role contracting for the US government. The changes to his job description are another clever way of mirroring the demands placed on the US in particular as overpopulation hits hard. What originally is a means of helping people die easily becomes something far more sinister as sections of the populace are targeted by the government for ‘containment’. It’s a grim vision of the future, all the more so because Magary has clearly thought it through to the smallest detail. John’s quest for some kind of redemption sometimes appears to be misguided (I had trouble working out why he did what he did) but it’s still worth following just to see how the backdrop gradually crumbles into climactic scenes of barbarism tempered by the last scraps of hope for the future.

Magary’s ‘world without death’ is grim, no doubt about it. It’s a world where a doting mother can sentence her daughter to an eternity as an eight month old baby. It’s also a world where overcrowding in jails means that the death sentence is increasingly used for the slightest infractions. It’s a world where no detail is left out and that’s what makes it such a compelling read. If the 'SF Masterworks' series is still going in fifty years then I wouldn't be surprised if this book features somewhere on the list, the vision it gives us is stunning.

If you read only one book this year then I’d seriously consider making it this one, I highly recommend it. Like I said though, go out and do something to cheer yourself up after you finish reading it. You’re not going to live forever so you may as well be happy in the meantime ;o) Look out for 'The Postmortal' on the 30th of August; 'The End Specialist' will be published as an eBook on the same date but if you're looking for a hard copy you'll be waiting until the end of September.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Thursday, 18 August 2011

‘Sigvald’ – Darius Hinks (Black Library)

I’m sure you’ve all guessed by now that I’m a little bit of a fan of the Black Library’s output. Ok, quite a big fan actually and I have been for a while. On the whole they’re very well written and they’re a lot of fun to read; you can’t ask for an awful lot more than that can you?

I’ve got my ‘go to’ authors for 40K fiction but the list of ‘preferred authors’ for the fantasy line is still taking shape. There are a couple of authors on there though; Chris Wraight is pretty much a permanent fixture now and so is one Darius Hinks. I’ve read a few of Hinks’ short stories, in various Warhammer anthologies but it was his novel ‘Warrior Priest’ that really caught my eye as a thoroughly entertaining read (seriously, check out my review over Here). It turned out that it also caught the eye of a number of other people as ‘Warrior Priest’ went on to win the Gemmell Awards ‘Morningstar Award for Best Debut’. Black Library have got form for throwing authors, who have enjoyed initial success, at their higher profile series and this is where we find Hinks now. It may not be the ‘Horus Heresy’ line but writing for the ‘Warhammer Heroes’ line is still not to be sniffed at and Hinks maintains the overall standard of the series rather nicely with his tale of a decadent Prince of Chaos...

Prince Sigvald the Magnificent has spent the last couple of hundred years establishing his pre-eminence as master of the Decadent Host, a Slaaneshi war band that is as much about scaling the heights of pleasure as it is seeking battle in its master’s name. No act of hedonism is too twisted for the Prince, part of a pact that has seen him given incredible power and beauty, and it is this quest for pure pleasure that will see him undertake a quest that could very easily kill him; his own masters would use him to fulfil their own pleasures... A brass skull from the throne of the Blood God Khorne is the ultimate prize and Sigvald will do whatever it takes to claim it. Will his obsession blind him to far more pressing concerns though? Absolutely, his enemies are drawing ever closer as the party in Sigvald’s palace takes in ever greater excesses of pain and pleasure...

If you’re looking for a book that will sweep you up and get going, straight away, then be warned right now that ‘Sigvald’ probably isn’t that book. Actually, it isn’t that book full stop. Give it a little while though and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the end result. ‘Sigvald’ takes its own sweet time to warm up but by the end of the book I couldn’t put it down. If ‘Warrior Priest’ and ‘Sigvald’ are anything to go by then I’m looking forward to seeing what Darius Hinks gives us next.

The Emperor Nero is known for the tale of his playing the fiddle while Rome burned. Sigvald works along those same lines but those of a sensitive nature might not want to know just exactly what is going on in the Grand Hall while his little empire is gradually crumbling away. Basically, Slaanesh is the god of pleasure in the Old World; I’m sure you can figure the rest out.

Hinks gives his readers a very clear and insightful picture of a man so wrapped up in sating his own lusts that he is oblivious to what is going on around him. Sigvald doesn’t have a clue what’s going on and when he does, he doesn’t care. He is far more interested in searching for that next high in order to fulfil his side of the original bargain with his demonic master. I loved his demonic master by the way, it was a nice touch to have the demon not talking to anyone but instead dictating responses to the scribe writing his memoirs. I’m digressing though...

There’s a real hint of tragedy to Sigvald’s situation here with his blindness to the fact that his own personal quest comes at the expense of everything else; namely a crumbling castle and enemies encroaching on his territory. He just can’t see this and you can’t help but wonder what will happen when he finally does. His chancellor, Oddrun, constantly tries to make him aware but never quite succeeds and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him as well. The approach taken by Hinks certainly achieves its aim of engaging the reader early on.

In terms of the plot though, this obsession slowed things right down to a crawl right at the very beginning of the book. I wanted things to get going, even members of the supporting cast wanted things to get going; they don’t though as a large chunk of the opening chapters is all about Sigvald showing Baron Schuler what a great time can be had in his castle. This is all very well and, as the book progresses; you will come to see just why Hinks chose to do things in this manner.

There’s no getting around the fact though that while an important job is being done it slows the book right down. There’s loads of atmosphere but not a lot actually going on. The opening section of a book shouldn’t be so hard to read, not if you want people to keep reading.

Do keep reading though...

When Hinks takes his foot off the brake, things really take off and I’ll guarantee that you’ll be glad you hung around. The atmosphere is still there, even more so as Sigvald journeys deep into the Chaos Wastes on a quest that he must complete; there’s plenty of weirdness to be seen and it all creates a superb backdrop for the events that take place. And that’s the great thing, not only do things happen but there’s loads of it going on and it all ties together so cleverly.

Not only must Sigvald complete his quest but he must also face the attentions of two armies that are out for his blood as well as treachery from within his own ranks. There is intrigue and counter intrigue on almost every other page and Hinks had me hooked by it all. I found myself rooting for two of the three factions and this made me all the more eager to see how it played out.

When armies clash, Hinks shows once again that he is more than able of writing battle scenes that stir the blood. I got the feeling that Sigvald is one of those ‘canonical characters’ that you can’t really mess around with as there was never any doubt that he would still be standing at the end of it all. Hinks makes up for this certainty though by making the rest of the battle a place where anything can happen to characters that you’ve come to know very well over the course of the book. Once again, I found that I absolutely had to keep reading.

As with ‘Warrior Priest’, ‘Sigvald’ is a slow starter that gradually finds its feet and gets going in all the best way. I can’t help but think what Darius’ work would be like if he could start it at the same tempo... ‘Sigvald’ is more than enough to keep me satisfied in the meantime though; another thoroughly entertaining read from Darius Hinks.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

‘Low Town’/’The Straight Razor Cure’ – Daniel Polansky (Doubleday/Hodder & Stoughton)

Yep, once again we have a very convoluted post title thanks to different publishers calling the same books different things. The bottom line is that if you live in the US you’ll be reading ‘Low Town’ but if you’re in the UK then the chances are that you’ll find yourself with a copy of ‘The Straight Razor Cure’ instead. They’re the same book though so bear that in mind before you start getting all enthusiastic on Amazon ;o)
For the sake of this review I’ll be referring to the book as ‘Low Town’ purely because it’s a lot quicker to write, no offence meant UK edition ;o)

As a kid starting out reading fantasy, for the first time, I was all about castles on top of hills and deep forests that our heroes had to make their way through on some quest or other. These days though? It’s all about cityscapes for me and the darker the better as far as I’m concerned. A forest is one thing but it doesn’t really compare to sampling the local fare in the city market before diving off into a maze of alleyways to see what you’ll find there. This is where an author really has a chance to make a mark on his setting and give us something that may not be unique (there are loads of cities to be found in fantasy novels) but is undeniably his. The prospect of this is what gets me excited when I have the chance to visit a new city in a genre novel. Ambergris, New Crobuzon, Malaz City and Camorr; these are all cities where I’ve very much enjoyed spending time. Could the most disreputable districts of the great city of Rigus join that list? In a word, yes. Not only is ‘Low Town’ a cityscape worthy of your attention but there’s also a very good story lurking amongst its alleys and manors...

If you find yourself in Low Town then at least you know that there’s only a little further to sink, in the sea of narcotics that have flooded these mean streets. People go about whatever business they can here and only some of it is legal. The guard don’t pay too much attention though and that’s the way everyone likes it. Other, darker things can happen on these streets as well and if someone goes missing then that’s just the way it goes sometimes. When a child’s mutilated corpse is found though, that’s a whole different deal; especially when more small corpses follow.
Warden has escaped his past as a soldier, and agent of the crown, to set up shop as Low Town’s number one narcotics dealer. He’s a man that you don’t want to cross (not if you want to keep all your fingers) and someone who will happily wallow in the depravity and violence that he dishes out; someone for whom the notion of redemption is just a notion. It would take nothing less than him discovering a child’s battered corpse to set him on that path.
Warden is on that path now though and nothing is going to stop him getting to the truth. Nothing apart from some particularly vicious obstacles that suddenly appear in his way...

After you’ve finished a book, sometimes all that you’re capable of is saying ‘bloody hell...’ over and over again. We’ve all read books like that. Well, ‘Low Town’ was one of those books for me. What we’ve got here is another ‘detective in fantasyland’ novel but I can guarantee that ‘Low Town’ knocks all the others into the shade with an easy confidence in its own ability to get down and dirty in the best possible way. Eddie LaCrosse and Garrett are going to have to up their game if they want to keep working in the business.

If you’re going to put me in the middle of a fictional city then you need to make me believe that I’m there. I’m not saying that I actually want to smell what’s in the gutters (because, who’d really want to do that?) but I want something pretty solid that tells me I’m somewhere specific instead of generic. Polansky more than delivers on this score with a dank and nasty cityscape with surly identity all of its own. Polansky’s prose not only leaves you in no doubt what kind of a place Low Town is but you also get a really clear picture of what’s needed to survive there as well. It takes someone like the Warden to make it big in Low Town but more about him in a moment.
Low Town is almost a character in its own right with the way its settings seep into your brain and have you walking the streets before you even know it. It’s certainly a hard place to leave. If you don’t end up reading ‘Low Town’ in one sitting then the setting is going to be at the back of your mind until you pick it up again.

Looming over all of this is the character of the Warden, quite possibly one of the nastiest bastards you’re likely to meet in Fantasy fiction. Is it possible to be a hero if you’re blatantly doing the right thing for your own selfish ends? That’s the question that Polansky asks of the Warden and the answer has to be yes (although I can’t say too much here for fear of spoilers). The ensuing read though is never anything less than uncomfortable as the Warden proves himself to be more than able to dish out the violence with a casual ferocity that was always shocking yet strangely compelling. The Warden has a sharp mind as well though and this comes in just as handy as the plot progresses.

What really makes the Warden’s character work is the immense amount of time that Polansky puts into fleshing out his background. There are no punches pulled in showing just what led the Warden to his current state (minus a few bits that I’m sure we’ll see more of in future books) and while you’re never going to feel sorry for the Warden, you’ll understand just why he is the way he is. The Warden is a character that makes for uncomfortable reading at times so all credit to Polansky for making him a character that you want to spend time with.

Part of this, of course, is down to the plot that Polansky presents us with. A murder mystery is nothing new but Polansky lends a sense of real emotion to the proceedings that moves things forward nicely and a lovely hint of reluctance from the Warden himself. He doesn’t want to get involved but it is happening on his turf...
The ensuing plot is full of questions that have a happy knack of leading the reader down the wrong path in time for nasty surprises later on and enough fights and chases (depicted in all their brutal glory with a scary hint of the supernatural) to keep people like me very happy indeed. The only downside was that I saw the ending coming but the way in which Polansky gets us there balances things out and leaves no cause for complaint at all.

I’ve still got a hell of a lot of books to get through this year but I think I’ve found my ‘Debut for 2011’ already. ‘Low Town’ is brash, brutal and downright brilliant. If you want to a fantasy novel that shows you what the criminal underclass are really like, this is the book you should be reading.

Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

‘Conan the Barbarian’ (Robert E. Howard) – Extra Short Stories from the Gollancz Edition...

I reviewed the Del Rey edition of the latest ‘Conan’ collection (nicely timed to coincide with the release of the film) back at the beginning of this month; noting that not only were Gollancz releasing their own edition but that this edition came with bits and pieces that you wouldn’t find in the Del Rey version. In the interests of rounding things out, I was going to dig out my old ‘Fantasy Masterworks’ editions and fill in the gaps. Well, I was until Saturday saw a fresh new copy of the Gollancz ‘Conan the Barbarian’ land on the doormat. What a weekend that was, not only did I read Howard’s ‘Pigeons from Hell’ (more on that later this week) but got to read a bit more ‘Conan’ as well...

If you pick up the Gollancz edition, you’ll basically be getting everything that you would have got in the Del Rey edition (review over Here) but you’ll also be getting the stories ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’, ‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ and ‘Beyond The Black River’ as well as the essay ‘The Hyborian Age’ and the poem ‘Cimmeria’. No offence to the Del Rey Edition but I think I know which one I’d pick up. Makes me wonder why those stories were missing actually. It looks like the same set of people chose the content for each book...


‘The Hyborian Age’ and ‘Cimmeria’ are placed at the back of the book which is possibly the best place for the essay detailing the background of Conan’s world thousands of years before he was born. I’m not denying that there is a lot to be said for Howard’s world building here (he really goes for it and there is a lot of information to be found) but he adopts what I found to be a very dry and scholarly tone which flows along at a snails pace that I found chafing. This essay is placed at the front of the Fantasy Masterworks edition (where I read it last) and feels like a real obstacle that you have to cross before you can get to the good stuff. Placed at the back of the book, the essay better fulfils its role as a ‘bonus extra’; something that you can read if you want and in your own time. I still had issues with the pacing but I wasn’t champing at the bit wanting to get onto Conan proper.

If you ever wanted any more insight into just why Conan is the man he is then the poem ‘Cimmeria’ will give you just that. Read it and see how a grey and merciless land has given Conan his ‘kill or be killed’ mindset and the ability to stand strong against all odds. Very atmospheric stuff,

‘The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The gray clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound;
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.’

Onto the stories themselves and the three extra tales that you get are again from various points in Conan’s career. Of the three, I think ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ is my favourite as it’s a tale that gets straight to the point in a flurry of blood and steel. Conan can pretty much withstand most things but is as susceptible as the rest of us when otherworldly stuff is concerned and there is a lot of that here. No matter how magical it is though, if it bleeds then Conan will kill it. Is the outcome in doubt? Of course it isn’t but the energy and urgency in Howard’s fight sequences drive you past that particular misgiving before you even realise it. ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ is a heady rush that leaves you feeling the fear and apprehension of Niord’s warband as they realise that there is more the world than they knew...

‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ and ‘Beyond the Black River’ are much longer affairs where Howard gets a chance to show us what he can do as far as plot is concerned. ‘A Witch Shall be Born’ wins out here with Conan facing tough questions and showing us that he can think fast on his feet with some crafty solutions. What’s interesting to note here is that it’s not all just about Conan, the plot focuses on others who are trying to force things forwards for good or evil ends. This wider approach really opens things up with characters who come across as just as detailed as Conan himself.

‘Beyond the Black River’ takes a similar approach with the character of Balthus showing that there is room for more than one hero in Conan’s world. The story itself though is a lot more linear in terms of plot with a race against time meaning that Conan cannot divert from the path that he is on. I liked Howard’s translation of American frontier life into a Hyborian setting though, it made things feel a little more real somehow. You could argue that things are a little too polarised with the 'noble' frontiersmen facing off against the 'wicked' Pictish tribes. Maybe there's something to that but what I'd say is that I think this is what makes Conan stories work so well; the constant 'Conan versus Evil' theme never allows the plot to stand still and the reader can't stay sat still either. Things move very fast, the stakes are always high and action has to be taken right away. I tihnk this is just what Howard was after in his stories (considering the market he was writing for) and I'd say he hits the target more often than not.

It goes without saying that all three of the stories offer Conan the chance to showcase just what he's capable of, when his blood is up, and the end result is never anything short of spectacular. I've said all this in the previous review but the fact remains that Howard knew how to write fight and action scenes that got the blood pumping and kept your interest with ease.

Either of these two editions will do a fine job of entertaining you but if you want a little more for your money (and some background reading at the same time) then the Gollancz edition is obviously where it's at. It's one hell of a blast and highly recommended by me.

Nine and a Half out of Ten