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W.M.M. van der Salm-Pallada "A Fantastical Librarian"

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Marked (The Soulseer Chronicles)
Marked (The Soulseer Chronicles)
by Sue Tingey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.54

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved this book, 1 Jun. 2015
I love hidden worlds parallel to our own, as witnessed by my love for Emma Newman's The Split Worlds and Lou Morgan's Blood and Feathers books. So when I read the synopsis for Sue Tingey's debut Marked when Jo Fletcher Books announced their acquisition of the story, my interest was immediately piqued. I was very lucky to have the chance to get an extra early look at Marked and I'm really glad for the chance, because Marked is a wonderful story.

The basic premise of Marked, that of a girl able to see ghosts, one of whom is her best friend Kayla, who has been with as long as she can remember, is great. It creates an interesting starting point as her abilities have turned Lucky into somewhat of a recluse, avoiding crowded places so she won't run into the dead. She makes a living writing and sometimes consulting people who have a ghost problem. The status quo is disturbed first by an exorcism - or rather Lucky's version of it - gone wrong and later by the arrival on her doorstep of a young man who pleads for her help. I was immediately captivated by Lucky's voice. When I first received the book I had a quick glance at the first page and found myself two pages in before I knew it. When I sat down to read the book properly, the same thing happened. Tingey has a very comfortable writing style that draws you on and keeps you reading and Lucky's voice comes through clearly. As a main character Lucky is easy to relate to and she has a wonderfully wry sense of humour. She's also seemingly quite content with her life, so she isn't really happy about having it shaken up. But she is also genuinely kind and when faced by a young man who needs help - the kind of help only Lucky can give - she can't make herself turn him away, despite Kayla's exhortations to do just that.

Marked has three main subplots: solving the mystery of who is behind the attacks on Lucky and Kayla, figuring out who Lucky really is and then there is the romance. The mystery of who sent the demonic assassin Henri Le Dent, or Henry Toothy Pegs as Lucky dubs him, to summon Kayla back to the Underlands reveals some pretty convoluted politicking in those Underlands. Following Lucky's attempts at untangling all of the possible leads was a lot of fun. My one complaint with the story would be that there were a lot of misdirections and steps to retrace in this mystery plot and at times it became so complicated that it was hard to keep the lines of power and who influenced who straight.

In her attempts to figure things out, Lucky is inevitably brought to the Underlands, which was a setting that I adored. I loved that the Underlands were Heaven and Hell combined or rather there are no Heaven and Hell, there is just the Underlands. The Underlands are a cut-throat, "every daemon for themselves"-kind of place and affection, much less love, is a luxury most cannot afford. It is also in the Underlands that Lucky discovers her true nature and history, a discovery that very much distresses her. Her gradual understanding and acceptance of the situation was well-developed and lovely to see, especially once she realises that despite everything she dislikes about Underlands society, she loves the friends she's made there.

Those friends are mainly her bodyguards, but also her best friend Kayla. I loved her bodyguards: Mr Kerfuffle, Mr Shenanigans (those names me giggle when we first meet them, because on first impression they should be the other way around), the wonderful, lovely dragon Pyrites, and of course Guardian Jamie and Death daemon Jinx. The latter two are the ones we get to know best, especially as they are the book's love interests. Now stop rolling your eyes--yes it is a love triangle, but no Tingey doesn't follow the trope. I actually loved how this triangle was resolved, which is a hard thing to do, because love triangles are always a hard sell for me. The interplay between Jamie, Jinx, and Lucky was delicious and I loved the way Tingey gave a big, fat wink to Jamie and Jinx's natures in their physical appearances. While the romance was great and I loved seeing these relationships develop, the more interesting relationship - conflict-wise, that is - was the friendship between Lucky and Kayla. The angst Lucky feels when she discovers Kayla has lied to her, the trust issues, but the undeniable deep bond of affection that remains despite her anger at being lied to, they all served to make this friendship layered and feel very true.

The one problem with getting an advanced review copy of a book this early, is that it takes that much longer before I'll be able to read the next book and in the case of Marked that is a big problem. I loved this book. The characters, the atmosphere, the humour, the romance, it all worked. Marked is a wonderful debut for Tingey and the start of what looks to be a great trilogy. At the end of the book, we leave Lucky in a good spot, but the battle is far from over, in fact, it has hardly begun. So I'm left with only the one question: "When is the next book out?" Marked will be out in May and if you're a fantasy fan in general and of supernatural or urban fantasy in particular, I highly recommend you check it out when it does.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Silvered Heart
The Silvered Heart
by Katherine Clements
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

5.0 out of 5 stars Clements proves herself a master storyteller, 27 May 2015
This review is from: The Silvered Heart (Paperback)
After her wonderful debut novel The Crimson Ribbon, which focused on the Parliamentarian side of the English Civil War, Katherine Clements presents us with an account of those on the losing side with her second novel The Silvered Heart. Using the story of the legendary Wicked Lady as a frame, Clements tells the story of Lady Katherine Ferrers, a noblewoman who lost everything due to the Civil War and as a consequence was reputed to have turned to highway robbery. It makes for an exciting story, but one that delivers a surprisingly strong emotional punch as well.

When we first meet Katherine Ferrers, or Kate, she's just thirteen and travelling to her wedding. She's to be married off for convenience, not love, but she is hopeful anyway. Travelling the roads in Civil War Britain is a dangerous proposition and so Kate doesn't arrive at her destination unscathed. I felt deeply for this young girl who arrives at her wedding traumatised and who without being given time to actually breathe is forced into a union neither partner seems to desire. And it is good that she caught my sympathy so early on, because Kate isn't always an easy character to like. She can be wilful, selfish and blind to the consequences of her actions to others.

We meet numerous secondary characters, but there are a handful among that stand out as major ones: Rachel Chaplin, her brother Rafe, Kate's husband Thomas, Martha Coppin, and Richard Willis. These five play seminal roles in Kate's life and they are quite complex characters. The way Clements develops them through Kate's eyes and yet allowing the reader to perceive that they might not be exactly who Kate thinks they are, is masterfully done. This is especially true for Rachel, who is Kate's best friend and maidservant, and for Thomas, Kate's husband, whose actions and treatment of Kate can often easily be interpreted in different ways. Clements skilfully wields the inherent subjectivity of a first person narrator, without making Kate an unreliable narrator.

The Silvered Heart is a fascinating exploration of privilege and the effects of its loss. When Parliament wins the war and executes the king, the old nobility that took his side loses much in the way of standing and fortune, leaving many destitute and struggling to survive. It is sobering to see how dismayed they are at their changed circumstances and how convinced many of them are that this goes against the natural order. Kate's automatic assumption that she deserves the station and luxury she was born to, her expectation for her inheritance to be restored and her refusal to accept the changed status quo, seems to have been the rule rather than the exception. Rafe challenges this and tries to make her see sense, but it is a hard lesson for Kate to assimilate. Yet we also see that those who have gained wealth and power through the Civil War are loathe to give it up and lose their new-found privilege. Clements may not have been thinking of this, but I found it quite relevant to today's world.

The exploration of privilege also made me question why Kate rebelled. Was Kate's defiance of custom and law due to her straitened circumstances, her desire for a less-restricted life than that of a lady, or her anger at the loss of privilege? How much of her resentment towards Thomas was due to his not being able to provide what she expected as her due? Kate is an independent spirit and as such she might not have been suited to the regimented life of a wife of noble birth, yet some of the reasons for her anger seem to go beyond her having to conform to society's expectations of a wife. Clements manages to make the reader sympathetic to Kate's plight and her actions understandable, without blinding us to the more unpleasant realities of Kate's character, which is an admirable accomplishment.

Reading The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart back to back allowed me to see some interesting similarities and contrasts. The contrasts are easily spotted. Where the former dealt with those on the side of Parliament, the latter deals with Royalists, and while the former is limited to roughly the three years leading up to and around the king's beheading, the latter runs far longer, until after the Restoration. The similarities are perhaps less obvious, but striking nonetheless. In both cases our protagonists are young girls on the cusp of womanhood and in both cases they are orphaned. Both Ruth and Kate feel the loss of their mothers keenly and try to replace their close bond with them with another; in Ruth's case she finds its replacement in Lizzie, in Kate's case it is Rachel. Though the sort of friendship and relationship between them is quite different, in both cases it is a relationship that allows them to change and grow into the women they come to be. It'll be interesting to see whether Clements explores a similar bond in her next novel or whether it was just a happy coincidence in these narratives.

I loved The Silvered Heart. Katherine Ferrers makes for a captivating heroine and when I had to put down the book because it was time for bed, I dreamt about the characters, woke up and finished the book. I just had to know With her second novel Katherine Clements establishes her credentials as a fabulous writer and a master storyteller. I can't wait to see where she goes next.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Crimson Ribbon
The Crimson Ribbon
by Katherine Clements
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.54

4.0 out of 5 stars Clements weaves a stunning tale, 25 May 2015
This review is from: The Crimson Ribbon (Hardcover)
The English Civil War is an era of British history that I've only started to learn more than the bare bones about in the past few years. Reading The Bleeding Land and its sequel Brother's Fury by Giles Kristian and some of Andrew Swanston's Thomas Hill novels showed me that these decades in the middle of the seventeenth century were pivotal in Britain's history and created massive changes to British society and left deep scars on its populace. It's a fascinating era and Katherine Clements' debut novel The Crimson Ribbon, set in perhaps some of the most dramatic and traumatic years of the Civil War, couldn't fail but catch my interest when it came through the mail. And though it took me over a year to read it, I'm glad I made the time, because Clements weaves a stunning tale.

Ruth Flowers is the narrator and protagonist of the story. Her narrative interweaves her personal journey learning to accept her heart and laying her ghosts to rest with the greater story of the final years of King Charles I's life. Ruth's story revolves around her mistress Lizzie Poole, who takes in Ruth after she loses her mother and her place in the Cromwell household in one night. Ruth transfers her love and loyalty from her mother to Lizzie and comes to love her mistress deeply. Yet, Ruth needs to learn to stand on her own, to depend on herself and to be her own woman. Clements allows Ruth to grow and develop in a beautiful manner, slowly gaining agency and letting the balance of power between the two women grow more equal and in some ways tip over in Ruth's favour.

Lizzie is a captivating character, both to Ruth and the reader, yet she has a dangerous edge to her. There is something ominous to Lizzie's brilliance; her light can blind and burn and once sucked into her orbit, it is hard to leave her. Throughout the novel, the reader is confronted with hints that Lizzie isn't the saint Ruth thinks she is and it is this contradiction between Lizzie-as-saint and Lizzie-as-sinner that creates much of the tension in Ruth and Lizzie's friendship. In fact, Ruth's wilful ignorance was quite frustrating at times. Lizzie's dangerous edge is also expressed in her radical ideas. While The Crimson Ribbon tells the story of those on the side of Parliament, set against the King, Lizzie's views oscillate from too radically egalitarian even for the rebels to too Royalist to not be considered a traitor. The numerous brands of freethinkers portrayed in the novel were fascinating and Lizzie's story showed just how dangerous these new ideas could be.

Though the story very much focuses on Ruth's relationship to Lizzie, Clements manages to infuse a lot of the politics of the time into the novel as well. Told from the point of view of those of the lower classes, The Crimson Ribbon makes a clear case of why they might rebel against the King and his court. The ordinary man wants to have an equal chance and an equal say in how his life and country is run. She also manages to show that Cromwell's rebellion was just as hard, if not harder, on the general populace, as it was on the ruling classes. In a way, Ruth's relationship with Lizzie mirrors the political developments of the war. They go from a traditional mistress-servant relationship, to a more equal friendship and in the end it flips completely around with Ruth being the one 'in power'. And it is only in this middle part that they are at peace and happy.

In Ruth's tale we also have a juxtaposition of blazing passion versus steady love. Lizzie sweeps Ruth off her feet from the first moment Ruth lays eyes on her. It is the kind of love that is celebrated in countless power ballads and romance novels, yet it is a love that burns, flares, and hurts. To accentuate this, Clements gives us Joseph, the soldier who travels with Ruth at the start of the novel and who weaves his way in and out of her life throughout the novel. Their friendship is slow and steady, and while not always easy or without hurt, it is a constant. Joseph is steadfast and loyal and it is his unwavering regard that lets Ruth discover her own wants and desires and to make her own choices for the future.

Katherine Clements' The Crimson Ribbon is a powerful story of friendship and love set in an era that challenged all preconceived notions of how life was supposed to be. There are numerous layers to the narrative and so much to unpack, that I've not managed to touch on half of it in this review. This fascinating novel of a country in turmoil, of a girl set adrift in the world, and of how she manages to reach safe haven in the end, managed to capture my imagination and I was spell-bound until its final pages.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


Bad Bones (Red Eye)
Bad Bones (Red Eye)
by Graham Marks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but flawed, 20 May 2015
This review is from: Bad Bones (Red Eye) (Paperback)
Graham Marks' Bad Bones is the fourth book in Stripes Publishing's Red Eye series. I've enjoyed the series so far, so I was looking forward to the next instalment. Unlike the previous books, Bad Bones is set in the US, in LA to be exact, which makes for an interesting change of location and possible sets of problems. But while Bad Bones was a fun read, I was a bit disappointed by the narrative and the ending in particular.

The book's protagonist, Gabe is a likeable sort, though he's quite a troubled character. It's hard not to sympathise with his situation and his desire to help his family out. Yet at the same time his anger at his dad - for being in a situation not of his own making, but not seeming to be doing enough to get out of it in Gabe's opinion at least - and his refusal to talk to him about what is going on both with the family and with himself is annoyingly immature. This might seem a weird complaint, since Gabe's a teen, but he comes across quite mature in other aspects, such as his sense of responsibility to contribute to the family finances. In addition to his family's strained circumstances, Gabe also has to deal with the added, and maybe unnecessary, complication of Benny's demands on him. While I get why Benny, who is the local drug pusher, would see Gabe as an easy mark, I didn't really get his function to the story, except as being another stumbling block for Gabe and company.

Marks includes some wonderful secondary characters in the persons of Gabe's best friend Anton, his class-mate Stella, and Stella's priest Father Simon. I could only wish they had been utilised and developed more, especially Anton. They each of them seem to have an interesting backstory and we only get the barest basics of these histories. I would have loved to have learned more about them since it would have explained their roles in the book more. Also, in the case of Anton's and Gabe's friendship it would have been nice to have seen them together more and feel their connection more strongly, because we were mostly told they were best friends and blood brothers, it never actually felt that way.

What did work really well, was the horror element to the story. Gabe's finding the gold seems to be providence, yet turns into a nightmare and I liked the historical connections Marks made between the gold, the villain and Alta California. Rafael is properly scary and Gabe's guilty conscience at being responsible for his appearance only adds to the horror. Rafael is clearly evil due to a hunger for power, even if dressed in the clothes of a religious cult, and the link of his appearance to Gabe's honest and well-intentioned desire to help his family and feel more in control of his life, only adds to Gabe's feeling of powerlessness.

The ending of Bad Bones felt rather rushed and abrupt and left me altogether unsatisfied. It all felt a little convenient and pat, with everything nicely tied up. Yet despite all my problems with the narrative, I had fun with the book and I found myself rooting for Gabe throughout. Bad Bones isn't my favourite Red Eye title, but it made for an entertaining read nonetheless.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


Deadly Election: Falco: The New Generation - Flavia Albia 3
Deadly Election: Falco: The New Generation - Flavia Albia 3
by Lindsey Davis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All about Albia, 14 May 2015
Deadly Election is book three in the Flavia Albia series and returns us to Rome about a month after the events of the previous book Enemies at Home. This book was a lot of fun, but in some ways far more about Albia and Faustus than about the case. We learn more about Albia's role as her father's representative at the family auction house, about Faustus' past, and perhaps most importantly and most entertainingly the developing bond between Albia en Faustus.

The case at the heart of the book can be summed up as it's all about the Julia's. Once again Davis shows how much Roman life revolved around the family structure and how deeply rooted family loyalty and honour is and simultaneously how deeply families can be torn apart internally when things go wrong. It also showed how complex Roman family life was when people divorced and remarried for advantage, not just love, and those decisions were often made by the head of the family, not the partners themselves. Not to mention how hard this must have been for the offspring of the various marriage and the way their loyalties would be pulled six ways till Sunday. Life in Rome seems to have been a messy business.

I loved seeing more of Flavia Albia the auctioneer's daughter, instead of Albia the private investigator. The glimpses we got of the day to day running of the auction house was quite interesting and I always love a good auction scene. The fact that Albia gets to wield the gavel was the icing on the cake. The way Falco, and by extension Albia, treat their employees says a lot about their outlook on life. I loved the fact that they got their head porter Gornia a donkey to get around on to accommodate his advanced age. Patchy the donkey was a great element to the narrative, with him consistently showing up and having to arrange for his care being something Albia has to deal with, instead of him just being transportation.

As the title might have given away, there is a lot of political intrigue in the narrative. Set against the campaign for the election of the new aediles of Rome, it turns out that politics actually haven't changed that much in over 2000 years. Albia is hired by Faustus to dig up dirt on all the various candidates that are running against the candidate he is campaigning for, his childhood friend Vibius. The dirt Albia finds ranges from the somewhat shameful to the tragic. At the same time she is also investigating the dead body found at her family's warehouse in one of the items they are to auction. The way these investigation intertwine is quite well done and I really enjoyed putting the puzzle together. During the course of Albia's investigation we finally get to meet Faustus' uncle Tullius, who turns out to be even worse than he'd been previously described, which made for a very cool confrontation between him and Albia. The one complaint I had about the character list is that there were a great number of similarly named people and if not for the dramatis personae at the start of the novel, I would have had to take notes to keep them straight.

My favourite thing about the book was the slow tango between Albia and Faustus and I absolutely loved its conclusion. There were some lovely touches, such as the dolphin bench that ends up in Albia's courtyard and Faustus' worrying about Albia's health. And Dromo's commentary on Albia and Faustus made for some delightful comic relief. It'll be interesting to see how Albia and Faustus will develop their relationship in the next book, and I'm curious whether and to what extent their partnership echoes - or perhaps mirrored is a better term - that of Albia's parents. Could any of my readers enlighten me on that score?

While this may not have been my favourite case of the three books featuring Albia thus far, I loved the character development in Deadly Election as the Albia/Faustus dynamic is my favourite thing about this series. I'm very much looking forward to reading Albia's next adventure. If you enjoy a well-written, humour-infused, Roman mystery then you can't go wrong with Deadly Election and the Flavia Albia series as a whole.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


Enemies at Home: Flavia Albia 2 (Falco: The New Generation)
Enemies at Home: Flavia Albia 2 (Falco: The New Generation)
by Lindsey Davis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Albia is hitting her stride, 14 May 2015
It's once more unto the breech for Flavia Alba in the second book of her series, Enemies at Home. I enjoyed the first of this series, The Ides of April, but for some reason I never managed to fit in the next book onto the reviewing schedule. With book three in the series released last month, this historical fiction month seemed like a great time to catch up on both of the books. And I have to say I enjoyed Enemies at Home even more than I did The Ides of April.

What bothered me most about the previous book was how modern Albia's voice felt. This time around, whether because I was now used to Albia or because in the intermittent years I've read my books set in Roman times, Albia's voice didn't feel like a distraction in fact it was one of my favourite things about the narrative. Albia is distinctive and funny. Her acerbic wit and often somewhat snarky asides never failed to amuse me and I was greatly entertained by her narration of the story.

Albia is still the headstrong, independent, fearless investigator we met in The Ides of April. She's a very entertaining character and a keen observer of everything and everyone around her. What I like about Albia's investigative style is that she isn't given to Sherlockian flashes of genius insights, but to dogged persistence and logical thinking. The wonderful Aedile Manlius Faustus returns and this time he is Albia's client, giving her the assignment of figuring out who murdered a newly-wed couple. I love the connection between Albia and Faustus, which is flirty and fun, but also based on genuine respect and friendship. In addition to Faustus and several other returning characters, we also meet some new characters. Chief amongst these is Dromo, a slave assigned by Faustus to protect Albia during her investigations. I thought he was a great character and he had some genuinely comic scenes, but also some of the most heartbreaking ones. Through him we learn more about Albia's background, which might be old news for readers of Davis' Falco series which is about Albia's father, but for new readers makes for interesting reading.

While The Ides of April was set in Albia's home neighbourhood the Aventine, in Enemies at Home the action moves across town to the Esquiline. This meant that Albia is very much out of her comfort zone and lacking most of her usual contacts. The new stomping grounds in the Esquiline mean having to work twice as hard to find clues and figure out what happens and it shows off some of Albia's strongest skills, especially the way she creates connections with people, other women in particular. There is one specific scene towards the end of the book where an impromptu gathering of women gives Albia the final pieces to solve the puzzle and I really loved the way Davis put that together. It also showed the silent power of Roman wives, be they powerful matriarchs or freedman's wife. I appreciated Davis' portrayal of the lives of Roman women and the surprising freedoms they had.

Albia's case in Enemies at Home is a tough one, that centres on the legal obligations of slaves to their masters and the powerless positions slaves found themselves in. Slavery is always a tough subject, because it is such a heinous institution. I had mixed feelings about its portrayal here, because Albia both acknowledges it is an awful practice, yet at the same time seems to casually accept it and expect the slaves she encounters to be resigned to their fates and serve their time until they are freed for good service, if they are that lucky at all. I found it confusing, though it could be interpreted as an illustration how ingrained the practice was in society and that even if one knows it is wrong and would like to change it, actually changing even one's own attitude requires a lot of work and constant awareness of one's thought patterns.

In the end, Flavia Albia's second outing was better for me than her first and I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into Deadly Election, Lindsey Davis' latest instalment in the series. If you enjoy fun, witty, and smart female investigators, Flavia Albia is a protagonist you won't want to miss and Enemies at Home is a great introduction to her. In fact, I might even recommend starting with this book instead of The Ides of April as it stands alone quite well and Albia hits her stride from the beginning.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Axeman's Jazz
The Axeman's Jazz
by Ray Celestin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic story, 6 May 2015
This review is from: The Axeman's Jazz (Paperback)
The Axeman's Jazz has been languishing on my TBR shelves for a year. I'd originally planned to read it for last year's historical fiction month in conjunction with my interview with its author, Ray Celestin, but the best laid plans and all that. Thus I decided that The Axeman's Jazz should be my first book read for this year's historical fiction month. And it ended up making me kick myself for not reading it last year, because it was a fascinating read.

Celestin tells his story within an interesting structure that has three main investigative teams all investigating the Axeman murders. It's a different way to tell the story of the investigation as it allows Celestin to give the reader all of the puzzle pieces, while still making his characters have to hunt for the truth. Instead of lessening tension as might be expected, it actually cranks it up when the protagonists go into danger unknowingly, when the reader knows what is waiting for them and can only read on and hope all will be well.

The three investigative teams are all equally compelling, but each for a different reason. First and the only one officially assigned to the case is Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, who is supported by a young constable called Kerry. They are the official arm of the law, but this is not the police force as we know it. Corruption is rife with many officers on the take from the local mafia and means being limited. While Michael and Kerry are straight arrows, they need to work within this crooked system and within the murky politics of the city that is New Orleans. I found it interesting to see how divided along nationalities and race everything was at the time. I'd expected the race segregation, this the South in 1919 after all, but I hadn't expected the other nationalities, such as the Italians, Irish, Creole and French to still be as divided and on tense footing as they were.

The second team gives an entirely different view of the city. Ida Davis and Lewis, or Louis as he'd be later known, Armstrong are both black, which makes their options for investigating and the contacts they can utilise quite different from the others. Ida is octoroon, a term I hadn't encountered before, which means that she is one-eighth of African descent and can often pass for white, a fact she often uses in the course of her investigation. Celestin uses this difference between Ida and Lewis to emphasise how arbitrary and unjust racial segregation is and even how some situations were more dangerous to Lewis than to Ida, all because of the colour of their skin. As Ida, a secretary for the Pinkerton Agency, is investigating the Axeman murders without official approval, she has to do everything on the sly and I really loved her spunk and her determination to see it through to the end.

The last investigator is Luca D'Andrea, an ex-detective, just released from prison and pressed back into service by the local mafia to solve these Axeman murders as they are impinging on their ability to do business. Luca is a tragic figure. A man who has done bad things, but whose time inside has given him perspective and even reformed him up to a point, Luca doesn't want to go back to his old ways. Yet getting away from the family isn't as easy as that and so he thinks he is striking a deal: catch the killer and go free. I liked Luca and his storyline a lot and the eventual resolution of his arc left me saddened for his fate.

All three groups conduct their investigation within the parishes of New Orleans and in some ways the city and its love of music is its own character in the book. The atmosphere oozes off the page as does the music that powers the city. I'm no great jazz connoisseur, so much of the people mentioned in the book flew right by me, except for Louis Armstrong obviously, but there was a lot of heart for this style of music in the writing. The story is set in 1919 and that is a very different time than ours. I confess that I flinched every time the word negro was used, which in context shouldn't be seen as offensive, but to me was hard to decouple from its modern day reception. Throughout the narrative, in addition to the looming threat of a new Axeman murder, there is also a storm coming, with continual rain already causing problems throughout and the final storm which mirrors the climax of the mystery, was reminiscent of scenes I'd read about in connection to Katrina. It was an effective way to create additional tension to an already fraught situation.

The Axeman's Jazz is a fantastic story and a wonderful debut. I can definitely see why it won the CWA Best Newcomer Award last year. If you like your historical crime fiction atmospheric and written in a wonderful voice then you should most definitely check out The Axeman's Jazz. I loved the time I spent with this novel and I'm looking forward to reading Ray Celestin's next offering.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Iron Ghost
The Iron Ghost
by Jen Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.19

5.0 out of 5 stars A criminal amount of fun, 29 April 2015
This review is from: The Iron Ghost (Paperback)
Last year Jen Williams' The Copper Promise, the first book in this series, surprised me with the insane amount of fun it was. I loved the effervescent Wydrin, the conscientious Sir Sebastian, and the troubled Lord Frith. This meant I was very much looking forward to returning to these characters in The Iron Ghost. And Williams delivers on the promise of the first novel with this second book. The Iron Ghost is just as much fun as The Copper Promise, while upping the drama and narrative stakes. Wydrin remains brilliant, but I liked the more pronounced roles of Frith and Sebastian in this outing.

One of my main hopes for The Iron Ghost was that we'd learn more about the brood sisters, the unexpected dragonkin we met in the first book and discover more about their connection to Sebastian. My wish was granted in full, as we get to spend a lot of time with just Sebastian and the brood sisters and these passages were as fascinating as I could have hoped. The way their development influences Sebastian's development over the course of the book was wonderful and tied very neatly into his arc from the last book. Ephemeral in particular was a lovely character to follow. I really liked Sebastian's story arc in this book in general. Sebastian once again finds himself stuck in a moral quagmire and finds himself wondering whether someone's nature is something that can and should be overcome. This question recurs in several different incarnations throughout his story allowing the reader to see his changing perspective develop clearly.

But Sebastian isn't the only one facing moral quandaries; Frith faces several of them as well and is forced to make the hardest choices. Frith's was the most compelling storyline in this book for me. His development as regards his feelings for Wydrin and his magic and the dilemmas he's faced with were fascinating and I really liked how Williams approached them. Frith is a man who has to rediscover not just himself and his place in the world, but also whether he wants to return to his old life or perhaps build a far different, happier one. Frith's scenes with Joah and their essential mirroring of each other were compelling; I kept hoping that Frith might even redeem Joah and take the story in a different direction, even if Williams never hints at this possibility.

Joah Demonsworn was freaking scary, especially as he's so human in his desire for a connection to another living being. If you thought Y'Ruen from The Copper Promise was a scary villain, she had nothing on Joah and his demon sidekick Bezcavar. I loved the partnership between Joah and Bezcavar, as Williams is constantly shifting the balance of power between them, which keeps their dynamic interesting throughout the book. Williams not only presents a great set of new villains, she also adds some wonderful new allies for our intrepid trio, in the forms of Nuava, one of the inhabitants of Skaldshollow, Prince Dallen of the Narhl, and Mendrick, one of the Skaldshollow werken. The latter is a truly unexpected character and one that I found very appealing, while the former two are just lovely characters who not only have great interactions with the main characters, but who also have interesting arcs of their own.

The Iron Ghost had a far less fix-up novel feel than the previous book. The Copper Promise was a collection of four previously published novellas, which meant that the transitions between parts of the novel sometimes felt somewhat abrupt and disorienting. The transitions between parts in The Iron Ghost was far smoother and it didn't feel as if the stories could be read separately, which did seem possible in the previous book. I don't know how well the story would work standalone without having read The Copper Promise, since there isn't necessarily much explanation for happenings in the first book. While it would probably still be an enjoyable book, the story might be a tad frustrating in places as it isn't as easy to understand what happened and what is happening now in the story without knowing what happened in The Copper Promise.

Despite this last caveat though, The Iron Ghost is a criminal amount of fun layered over an exploration of right versus good, decorated with liberal scatterings of sneaky zombies, some crazy mages, a flock of wyverns, and a staunch set of heroes. Williams doesn't pull any punches with her characters and no one is safe in this rollercoaster ride. I loved The Iron Ghost and I'm really hoping that one day we'll get to travel with the Black Feather Three again. Recommended for all fans of adventurous fantasy and good sword and sorcery romps.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


The Vagrant
The Vagrant
by Peter Newman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous debut, 24 April 2015
This review is from: The Vagrant (Hardcover)
Peter Newman's debut novel The Vagrant was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of the year. Already familiar with his work on the Tea and Jeopardy podcast, I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a longer fictional work. When the cover was released and I spotted that baby on it, along with the blurb, I was hooked, I had to read this book. After a bit of a cold start The Vagrant made for very compelling reading.

I'm not sure whether the cold start was due to the shift between my previous read (Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor) and The Vagrant, since they had radically different tones and styles, or whether there was something inherent to Newman's writing I just had to adjust to. Newman's writing is interesting. My first instinct was to call it lyrical grim, as the setting is a war-torn, post-apocalyptic, and ruined landscape and the tone is grim, but the prose can be quite lyrical in places, even when describing dark things indeed. Newman also does something interesting with the naming of his characters. The main character and many others are only known by a sobriquet or a title, which initially put them at something of a remove and in some cases kept them that way. It's made me conscious of how important proper names are in human interaction and how much harder you have to work to humanise a title instead of a name. Newman's use of flashbacks to explain how the characters got to where they are and how the Vagrant got to be walking around with a baby was well-executed, though there is still plenty of background left to reveal, especially as it concerns the happenings in the Shining City during the previous eight years.

The world-building was interesting too, though I had a hard time visualising distances and relative locations; I guess being spatially challenged, maps are my friends. The Vagrant's world is post-apocalyptic secondary world setting, which I hadn't encountered in this way before. Usually fantasy books that seem to have such a setting, turn out to be a far, far future Earth. Not so here. I liked the fact that the demonic invaders are incorporeal and thus have to possess people or at least their corpses to be embodied, which was rather creepy, especially as some of them don't actually possess a corpse, they just use them to build their own corporeal form to contain their demonic essence. The taint the demons spread is interesting in its manifestation, as it seemed to be as much spiritual as physical. It also made the purging described later in the book interesting, if horrifying, as I wondered how much would be left of a person if they just cut everything that is tainted out. What if it takes something essential spiritually, without impeding physical survival? What would that do to a survivor? Hopefully we'll learn more about this in the sequel.

Of course an interesting setting demands interesting characters and Newman hands us those in spades. First of all there is the titular Vagrant. A mysterious figure to start out with, he remains somewhat so throughout the novel, even if we learn more and more about his past as the story goes on. One of the things that remains unexplained is the fact that the Vagrant is mute. He isn't incapable of speech as we do have evidence of him singing, but he can't speak. Yet for all that he is able to express himself eloquently anyway. There is a sense of relentlessness in the Vagrant's progress to the Shining City and I loved his power of endurance. He is also a good person, sometimes despite himself, stopping to help even if he knows the smart thing to do would be to move on and let it go. His is a pure spirit.

The Vagrant doesn't travel alone. From the first he is accompanied by a baby, who initially is only referred to as it and the baby, but who eventually grows into a personality and name of her own. I really liked how Newman incorporated the realities of caring for a small child into the narrative. Seriously, there is nappy changing in this book, people. I also liked how Newman developed the baby's character. It starts showing in little ways, how she'll notify the Vagrant of her desires, how she plays and interacts with him - the eyebrow-waggling game is the most adorable thing ever - and increasingly becomes clearer when she starts crawling, then walking and talking. To feed the baby the Vagrant acquires a goat, which brings with it a whole new set of problems. Because this goat? This goat has all of the stubbornness available to her species and then some. She is one of my favourite things in this novel and often brings a humorous note to the narrative without descending into Disney Animal Sidekick territory.

However grim the world is, and even if the Vagrant and his companions encounter a lot of grief and suffering, there is also a lot to the narrative to generate hope. This is clearest in the arc of the Vagrant's third travelling companion Harm. When we first encounter him he is hired muscle, a part of the rebel group in Verdigris, and a man set to violence. Yet inexplicably, he attaches himself to the Vagrant, finds new sides to himself and becomes a second parent to the baby. His is an arc of redemption. I loved his friendship with the Vagrant, where both of them have to consciously make the decision to trust each other and to believe that the other is well-intentioned towards them. During the course of the novel the friendship becomes deeper and more ingrained almost. And if there was ever a fanfic waiting to happen, it is one exploring the depths of this relationship further.

The other example of the power of compassion is the Hammer's arc. One of the first humans to be thoroughly tainted by the Usurper, she is known as the Usurper's daughter. She's seen as a total monster and when she is sent to hunt the Vagrant and the Malice, as the sword he carried is called by the demons, it seems as if she'll be just another demon to be despatched. Yet Newman turns that expectation completely on its ear by having the Vagrant and Harm befriend her and returning some of her humanity to her. It was such a powerful arc and its conclusion was perfect, even if it broke my heart.

The Vagrant is a fabulous debut for Peter Newman, one that surprised me with its voice and its setting, even if it took me a little to get used to it. Newman writes a dark and grim tale, but infuses it with surprisingly light notes in the form of humour and wonderful characterisation. The Vagrant caters to both those whose like grim and gritty narratives and those who like their books to leave them with hope. That's a fine line to tread and Newman does it with aplomb.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


No Other Darkness (DI Marnie Rome 2)
No Other Darkness (DI Marnie Rome 2)
by Sarah Hilary
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark, complex, and disquieting, 24 April 2015
Last year, Sarah Hilary burst onto the British crime writing scene with her debut Someone Else's Skin. I was blown away by the book, falling in love with its main character, DI Marnie Rome and her main DS, Noah Jake. I've been impatiently waiting for the moment that I could read the next book in the series, as I couldn't wait to spend more time with Marnie and Noah and to see what sort of intricate case Hilary would come up with to follow up her fantastic debut.

If I was surprised by the psychological depth to her previous novel, instead of the straight police procedural I was expecting, I was just as surprised by No Other Darkness. While I was prepared for the degree to which Hilary explores the psychology of her perpetrators and victims, not to mention her detectives, what took me by surprise in No Other Darkness was how much horror was included in this exploration and how closely elements of the case align or even interfere with some of the issues at work in our protagonists' lives. Point in case, Clancy who reminds Marnie so much of things and people in a past she'd rather forget.

Hilary spends most of the book on the active case under investigation, yet manages to slip in lots of character development at the same time. We learn more about Marnie and Noah's home lives with their respective partners and learn more of their families. I loved seeing Noah both with his partner Dan and with his brother Sol, who isn't exactly the easiest little brother to have, but who provides a window onto Noah's past, his parents, and the things Noah had to deal with as a youth. Sol's role in the narrative and Noah's life is quite illuminating with regard to Noah as a person, but also with regard to how he looks at the case and the people involved in it. I liked how we're shown that both Noah and Marnie have a support system to go home to, but that this support can take wildly different shapes. Dan lets Noah decompress and get his mind of things by taking him dancing, while Belloc lets Marnie think things through just by listening and giving her the space she needs, while at the same time being there for her.

Marnie is still fiercely driven in her work, because she feels the obligation to try and provide the closure for the families of victims she so sorely lacks in her own life. We learn more of Marnie's youth, about how she may not have been the easiest teen either, just like Clancy. Her foster brother Stephen remains an enigma, though we do learn more about his background, before he was fostered by Marnie's parents. Marnie is still haunted by the question why Stephen turned on her parents and it'll be interesting to see how fast or how slow Hilary will provide Marnie with the answer if at all.

[Edited to add: This next paragraph could be regarded as entering spoiler territory. If you want to remain unspoiled, best skip over until the last paragraph!]

The case at the heart of the book is an awful one -- murder is always awful, but this one hit harder than most, due to its victims. Two small bodies are found in an abandoned, hidden bunker, two little boys left alone to die. Just the idea chills my heart. Yet it was hard to feel only antipathy towards their killer, who was suffering from a postpartum psychosis (PPP), which is like the more evil version of postpartum depression. Hilary shows us the horror and fear this mother and her family went through, especially as it seems she was ill-served by her doctors and the authorities, who didn't identify the severity of her affliction. Hilary creates this sense of empathy, or perhaps more appropriately pity, through chapters from this woman's point of view. At the same time these chapters are filled with misdirection and sleight of hand, much like the rest of the narrative. Hilary is very skilled at providing the reader with clues that can be put together in several different ways while still making sense, which often means the reader ultimately comes to the wrong conclusion. The focus of the case changes around midway through the book, when things escalate quickly and what had been a cold case becomes a race against the clock.

With No Other Darkness Sarah Hilary proves she's here to stay and that Someone Else's Skin wasn't just a one-off success. Marnie Rome is one of my favourite DI's out there and she's surrounded by equally interesting people. No Other Darkness delivers a dark, complex, and disquieting narrative that grips the reader and never lets go. Lovers of police procedurals and psychological thrillers alike will find something in this book to satisfy their cravings. I'm already hungry for my next serving of DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake. Highly recommended.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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