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Stefan "Civilian-Reader" (UK)

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Red Moon
Red Moon
by Benjamin Percy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb literary-horror, 16 May 2013
This review is from: Red Moon (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Red Moon is one of the best novels I've read this year. It's long, but never felt like it dragged. I savoured every chapter. A near-perfect literary horror novel.

There's so much to this novel, too: it's part coming-of-age, part tale of prejudice and segregation (mirroring some of the Civil Rights movement, more recent prejudice against Muslims, and then creates another violent thread of anti-lycan prejudice). It's also partly a love story (new love and old), and a story of redemption. All of this is overlaid with politics, secrets, and certain characters' pasts catching up with them. The third part of the book feels more dystopian, too (won't spoil why or how...). It's a story about family, too, and how even those of us who might grow up with none of our own, or lose our loved ones, can create a new family.

The events move pretty fast, but the story is epic in scope, so the characters' situations are forever changing and developing. It makes it a little tricky to delve too deeply into the plot or story, without ruining any number of twists and turns Percy takes us through. The author has great narrative discipline, never deviating for too long from the main thrust of the novel, unveiling revelations and important information in a steady, natural way. There is a dark humour running through the story, too, which was certainly welcome and prevented the novel from becoming too dour. The allegory and allusion is great, though some people might find it a but blunt and unsubtle at times. Nevertheless, I think Percy's done a great job of taking real-world issues of persecution and alienation, and blending them with character-focused anxieties and personal struggles.

The novel is character-driven, so we don't often get the perspective pulling back for a wider, macro-view; but Percy still manages to keep us up-to-date and well-informed on the subtle historical differences, the lycan history, the societal changes and differences, and so forth.

The novel features werewolves, as a substitute for every persecuted group in America (with added teeth and sometimes violent tendencies, of course). In many ways, though, the real horror in the novel comes from what people are willing to do to each other, and especially those who are considered different (in both big and small ways). For example, what the "patriotic" anti-Lycan group "The Americans" do, fulfilling the role of this reality's white supremacist skinhead-analog. In these situations and environments, as one character states, it's not just people who die, but also our humanity.

Percy's prose style is immersive and engrossing, filled with great turns of phrase, sometimes portraying the mundane in almost poetic or lyrical ways. It never felt over-written, which was a nice surprise from such a long novel. From the start, I was hooked and drawn into the narrative, always eager to get back to it when real life would intrude on my reading-time. His characters are realistic, engaging, each reacting and developing in realistic ways to the sometimes brutal, soul-destroying, fantastical situations and people they encounter.

With a superb ending that is neither a disappointment, nor a Bruckheimer/Bay action extravaganza (in fact, it's almost understated), I found this to be an absolutely satisfying read. Red Moon is an engrossing, nuanced novel, and I highly recommend it.

Altec Lansing inMotion Classic III Portable Dock for iPods/iPhones - Black/Silver
Altec Lansing inMotion Classic III Portable Dock for iPods/iPhones - Black/Silver
Offered by Desire IT
Price: £39.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Does exactly what we needed, 21 Feb 2013
Friend has a new iPhone, and she's been using this as a stereo-replacement. Sound's good - higher volumes, as always, not as good (not sure if that's quality of MP3s or the speakers). It's not too big, manages to fit the bedside table or on coffee-table nicely, and is certainly portable. I'm sure there are better iPod/iPhone speaker systems, but they're probably more expensive. Good product.

The Broken Isles (Legends of the Red Sun 4)
The Broken Isles (Legends of the Red Sun 4)
by Mark Charan Newton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.51

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great finale for a great series., 8 Aug 2012
Final books in series are always tricky. Will the author tie everything up with a lovely bow for readers? Will there be vague, open-ended solutions that will have fans guessing and debating what really happened? Will it be an awful mess? There are many decisions and pitfalls that can catch the unwary or incautious author. But with The Broken Isles, Newton has pretty much dodged them all. This is a great ending. The story is top notch, as we can expect. I think each book in the Legends of the Red Sun series has improved in every way, and The Broken Isles is no exception, with great writing, an exciting story, and engaging characters.

[Despite my best efforts, there are some spoilers in this review. If you haven't read the first three books in Legends of the Red Sun, I obviously think you should go read them now, as the whole series is fantastic. However, if you want to keep reading this review, you should proceed with caution.]

When the novel begins, we're quickly relocated back into the world, into the swing of events, and reacquainted with the characters. Villjamur has been destroyed, and the fleeing refugees are dogged by the invaders and their Sky City. Word reaches Villiren, itself recovering from the battles in City of Ruin, and Brynd must marshal a response to save as many people as possible. At the same time, anti-"alien" sentiment in Villiren, fanned by Malum and his gang, is making life extra-difficult for the leader of the Night Watch, as he attempts to negotiate a settlement with the inter-dimensional refugees as well.

The story is presented from a number of perspectives, all of them unique and distinctive: there's Brynd, the albino Night Watch Commander, who is in charge of Villiren's defence, and enjoying the position of de facto ruler. Jamur Eir and Rika are prominent, as is Eir's companion, the roguish Randur. Unfortunately, some of the previous events have left Rika both physically and psychologically damaged - perhaps even beyond repair or saving. Fulcrom, the Rummel former-inquisitor, is accompanying the refugees from Villjamur, alongside Lan, the heroine from Book of Transformations.

The narrative includes more of a focus on the enigmatic otherworlders who have joined our heroes than in previous books, but they do not dominate the story - Brynd, Randur, Eir, and Jeza are the key protagonists. Both the Amazon-like Artemisia and bizarre Frater Mercury are fascinating characters, but they are also rather frustrating to their ambassadors. Especially Fulcrom, who finds Frater Mercury endlessly ittitating, unfathomable, and downright difficult on many occasions.

There are also a couple of new additions to the cast. My personal favourites are Jeza and her fellow young cultists from Factory 54, who provide some unexpected help to Brynd's plans. I really enjoyed these characters, and it is through them that we learn even more about cultists and the science-magic of Newton's world. They also bring to life the Mourning Wasps, devised by China Mieville specifically for this book.

As with Newton's other novels, The Broken Isles is filled with imaginative and original creatures, concepts and more. The inhabitants of Villiren are coming to terms with the fact that they will have to share their land and city with aliens from another dimension. Many are not reacting well, and Brynd is forced to take a firm hand against those troublemakers who want to do anything to prevent the Other from unsettling the status quo. It offers up some nicely-done commentary on racism and intolerance, without bludgeoning the reader about the head. It's a deft touch, and I love the way Newton is able to seamlessly weave social commentary (including some about bankers, this time) into the narrative. The discussions about Villiren's future are also an interesting examination of nation-building under the shadow of war. It's really interesting stuff. Things are, I admit, rather neatly tied up at the end, which may not please everyone, but I appreciated that Newton decided to properly finish the story.

Newton's prose is, once again, exceptional - it is fluid, devoid of extraneous verbiage, and really pulled me on through the novel. He kept me reading well into the night. His descriptions are evocative, yet stripped-down, and each scene's atmosphere and ambience is expertly portrayed. The author's writing has improved with every novel. It will certainly be interesting to read the new edition of Nights of Villjamur (out in November), on which Newton has done a re-edit and tweak.

I think my only real complaint about the novel is the absence of the chain-smoking Hanuman from City of Ruin. As Randur points out at one point, echoing my own thoughts: "Ridiculous, if you ask me, though the flying monkey things were fun."

The plot builds to an action-packed climax, as battle erupts on multiple fronts, leaving Brynd's forces over-taxed and, potentially, over-matched. There's also perhaps the most bad-ass "boss fight" near the very end, which I thought perfectly exhibited Brynd as the brutal, elite-soldier he is.

Once again, Newton has written a novel of depth, compelling characters, excellent drama, and captivating prose. I love this series, and I'm rather sad it had to end. Easily one of my favourite fantasy series, I highly recommend this to everyone, especially people in search of fantasy that is a little unusual.

Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure: A Low Town Novel
Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure: A Low Town Novel
by Daniel Polansky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Frikkin' loved this - atmospheric, grim, superb characters & voice, 14 July 2012
I put off reading this for way too long. The delay had nothing to do with perceived quality of the novel, I just never got around to it. This is a fantasy that perfectly incorporates a lot of crime thriller elements, making for a thoroughly engaging and rewarding read. Straight Razor Cure is one of my favourite reads this year. It's gritty, engaging, cynically humorous, and everything just worked for me. This is superb. Which makes this a tricky review to write...

We only slowly learn more of who Warden is, who he was, and what he does in Low Town. Instincts from his past as an agent of Special Operations resurface when he discovers the dead child, and so he gets sucked into an unofficial investigation. As he digs deeper, though, events conspire to involve him in a more official capacity, much to his and his former colleagues' chagrin. There is no love lost between Warden and the guard, given his disgraceful termination and his chosen profession. His investigation has him butting heads with even less scrupulous denizens of Low Town, and psychotic members of Special Operations, as well as dredge up his past. When he takes a street kid, Wren, under his wing, he is reminded of his own youth in the city, and his tough-love approach to Wren is, at times, painful. It is also quite endearing, with Wren rebelling against Warden's lessons at every turn.

It's a grim and gritty life in Low Town. Polansky shows us all strata of society in the city - from the wealthy, aristocratic playboys and dilettantes, to the street urchins and foreigners barely tolerated by the native population, Low Town is laid bare for us. It's a fascinating place, written in a perfect way - the city and its inhabitants are never over-described, but nor are any of them ignored. Polansky incorporates the world-building into the narrative very well, and there was never a moment when my "info-dump" alarm went off.

Straight Razor Cure is filled with great characters: not only is Warden himself a perfect guide to the city, but those in his immediate orbit are also fascinating and fully-developed, interesting and distinctive. Warden's best friend and long-time comrade, Adolphus (who now owns a bar), is an important anchor for our protagonist, and also another surrogate father for Wren. The powerful wizard, Crane, who saved the city from the plague, and was also mentor to the young Warden, plays an integral part to the story (sometimes in flashbacks, in which we are told of Warden's past). Celia, the Crane's ward and protégé, is a slightly-painful link to Warden's past. Even the antagonists of the story are interesting, three-dimensional characters (and there are many of them - Warden has difficulty making friends...). I felt I knew Warden very quickly, and the more I read I just got to know and like him better. He is certainly one of the most interesting protagonists I've read in a while.

"You're a cold man."
"It's a cold world. I've adjusted to the temperature."

Much of the humour comes through Warden's interactions with and observations of others. I especially liked his sarcasm and facetious attitude towards the watchmen of the city, of whom he used to be a member. But his observations of others are equally amusing and colourful. For example, at the outset of a huge bar-brawl (which Warden instigates):

"The bartender, whose value I generally rated closer to lichen than mammal, pulled a cleaver from beneath the counter and took the head off a well-built patron with a dispassion suggesting this was not the first time he'd decapitated a patron." (300)

Warden's interactions with Marieke (the Watch's Scryer) are also fantastic, as he tries to thaw the "Ice Bitch" with his irreverent humour and wit. They are very endearing passages. At other points, Warden's inner monologue pokes fun at some popular fiction (and movie) devices:

"His face took on the wistful quality that tends to augur monologue, and sure enough the pregnant pause gave birth to soliloquy."

There's a fair amount of social and class commentary in this novel. It's clear that the aristocracy of this world and city are libertine wastes of space - they cavort and party while the inhabitants of Low Town scrimp and scrape a life for themselves in the brutal and unforgiving streets. Warden's investigation takes him into the foyers and ballrooms of the elite, and his contempt for them is palpable on a number of instances. I've chosen not to quote the whole of the best bit (you'll just have to enjoy it from the book), but here's another, later example of our protagonist's impression of the rich and powerful:

"The night was only getting later, and my initial awe had given way to the generalized contempt I felt for my betters, sybarites so degenerate even their base pleasures were synthetic and hollow."

The novel is set in a clearly fantasy world, but Polansky has retained certain elements from our own world. Some of them are mundane - patterns of speech and terminology, for example - which have the effect of making it really easy to sink into the narrative and get a handle on the world. There is a welcome and laudable lack of "Fantasy Names" that needlessly complicate matters. So, huge thank you for that! Certain other aspects that are only slightly removed from our own reality, that are still recognisable, include the "kiren" - one of the races that lives in the city, they are clearly influenced by Chinese (their language is extremely similar, too).

I really liked the blend of crime thriller and fantasy, and I'm actually surprised it's not a more popular mélange in modern fiction.

The story and its characters worked their hooks into me pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I cared about each them as much as I do characters from well-established series. This is superb writing and story-telling. Everything works - the atmosphere, characters, plot, prose, voice, commentary, everything - and together they makes a novel distinctive from other fantasies. This is fantastic and highly recommended to all.

Scourge of the Betrayer (Bloodsounder's ARC)
Scourge of the Betrayer (Bloodsounder's ARC)
by Jeff Salyards
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.06

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very strong debut military fantasy, 17 May 2012
In his debut, Jeff Salyards gives us an intimate look at the lives of the soldiers who operate on the frontlines of an insurgent conflict. We are taken into the midst of a company of Syldoon soldiers, and presented with a very human tale of the repercussions of extended warfare. I had very high expectations for Scourge of the Betrayer, and I'm glad to say that it exceeded them.

Salyards introduces us to the main characters of his novel through a great tavern scene. The retinue has arrived at a town to restock and recuperate. Their new chronicler (the narrator of the story) has joined them only recently, and some of the company are less than happy with his presence. He is hired for his curiosity and skill, but his efforts to discover more of Braylar's plans are unsuccessful, and he is bluntly put back in his place each time he attempts to learn more. At one point, Braylar explains clearly what Arki's job is:

"I'm not certain I should like you, Arkamondos... but I can't seem to help myself. Still, we should reestablish something here. I didn't solicit you because you're the most sublime scribe, and I didn't hire you because you're the most lyrical; the bargain was struck because you reputedly miss nothing... So... miss nothing. Record everything. No matter how contrary or nonsensical it might seem to you at the time. Digressions, tangents, observations. All of it."

All Arki has to go on is a cryptic comment from the Captain:

"The empire is made up of countless factions, large and small. And we are always conspiring against each other. So every emperor knows that it's not a question of if a coup will happen, but when."

The banter and interactions between the company are excellent, very realistic (if a bit loutish). Or, as Arki describes it, the Syldoon "breed of camaraderie was crude, coarse, callous, and whatever other alliterative pejorative I could summon". The way the characters are written was superb, and even though this is the first in the series, the characters were so well-realised that I felt like I knew the characters already.

Arkamondos ("Arki" to his friends and companions) is utterly out of his depth, and his confusion and ignorance infuses the first half of the story, as he traipses along behind Braylar and stumbles through the new and sometimes-dangerous situations he finds himself in. Arki's thoughts on his experiences are pretty great, unvarnished impressions of warfare. For example, after a battle:

"I've never known such terror nor witnessed such carnage. I was split in twain, one half morbidly fascinated and disgusted by such violence and waste of life, the other celebrating that I'd survived, and glad it was me sitting there in my sweat and stink, still breathing, and not lying in a heap at the back of the wagon like a bloody bundle of meat."

Arki is quite naļve - a strange character trait, given his profession, as I would have expected him to learn of human nature, especially, during his years chronicling the deeds of greedy and prideful merchants and aristocrats...

There's something strange going on with Captain Braylar - there is an otherness about him and his connection with the terrible flail he wields with exceptional, deadly skill. He mutters to himself. There is something very sinister about his weapon, and we are left for quite some time before discovering some of the truth about it. In fact, the unrushed approach to exposition and world building is one of the strengths of this novel and Salyards's story - the novel throws us straight into the story, giving us only the information we need to follow along. Arki's lack of information and knowledge colours our perspective of the Syldoon and the world at large. Given all they go through together, Arki is unable to maintain the objectivity of a chronicler. He says about Captain Braylar,

"For a taciturn man so gifted in bloodletting, he had the ability to be remarkably glib and charming. At least in short bursts."

Scourge of the Betrayer is, in some way, the fantasy equivalent of the embedded reporter, and taps into the mentality of the observer and his inability to maintain objectivity when he's living, fighting and surviving alongside the company. We share in their camaraderie, their combat, their squabbles and, eventually, their losses. There are a few great poignant and moving scenes towards the end of the novel.

The prose and story drew me on, and I found myself reading very quickly (very unusual for a debut fantasy) - I was hooked on the writing and characters' stories from the beginning. That being said, given that it's not a very long novel in the first place, I thought Salyards maybe, on occasion, spent a little too much time giving us the full picture - of a battle, or of a new city the company have entered, for example. It was all well presented, of course, but I did sometimes find myself wondering what we were waiting for - Braylar drops some great hints early on, but then details of their mission move to the backburner for longer than I would have preferred.

The story builds to a good reveal of the Syldoon's real mission and agenda, the execution of which leads to plenty of well-done battle scenes.

Overall, I would say this is a strong debut, but one that does suffer from just a couple of the niggles debuts often suffer. Behind that, though, is a great writing talent, with a gift for writing engaging prose. Salyards has also done a great job of giving each character his or her own distinctive voice - it was never difficult to remember who you were reading about, as each member of the company had their own vocal mannerism and patter. Excellent characterisation.

In this gripping military fantasy debut, Salyards explores the intricacies of Empire politics, and the impact it has on the soldiers who must fight for and against it and the observers who get caught in the middle of the conflict. I eagerly await his next book. Definitely recommended.

For Fans of: Glenn Cook, Mazarkis Williams, Mark Lawrence, George R.R. Martin, Teresa Frohock, Amanda Downum, Joe Abercrombie, Matthew Stover, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Jon Sprunk

Cadian Blood (Imperial Guard)
Cadian Blood (Imperial Guard)
by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great debut, 6 Feb 2012
I'm a big fan of Aaron DB's novels - his Night Lords series and his Horus Heresy contribution The First Heretic are among the best novels Black Library has ever published. I completely missed Cadian Blood, his debut novel when it was available in print, and have been meaning to read it ever since it was made available as an eBook. While it does not quite match his others, it is still a really good novel, and one that shows the promise he would later build on.

Cadian Blood offers a classic-style Warhammer 40,000 tale - a planet has fallen to cultists and the depridations of Chaos after the Imperium has failed to deliver salvation - in this case, from a zombie-creating plague. The story follows the Cadian 88th, and along with giving us a glimpse at their fighting style and prowess, it gives us a glimpse at life in the Guard. We are introduced to a great cast of characters, too. The Cadians must struggle against an Imperial leadership who don't understand them, and one the Cadians have no wish to understand in return. The 88th is an interesting regimental guide, actually - they are exceedingly sure of themselves, which does more than skirt along the boundaries of arrogance, and they are not a little inflexible when it comes to people from other planets and cultures. They are born and bred to fight the forces of Chaos, so they have difficulty engaging and relating to anyone from other planets. There is a greater level of respect and understanding between Captain Thade and the Raven Guard Space Marines, than there is between Thade and other Imperial Guard leadership.

All of the characters are very well drawn, but particularly Shock Troop leader Jevrian, guardsman Taan Darrick, Captain Thade and Inquisitor Caius. They all convey a stoic cynicism about warfare and the Imperial way - they are not blinkered, and almost eagerly criticise incompetence and illogical orders. Aaron manages to do with these characters what Dan Abnett has been able to do with his Gaunt's Ghosts series: very quickly make us care for and invested in the fates of his characters.

"Delightful. You're ploughing down plague victims now. What happened to respecting the dead?"
"They're not exactly respecting us."

The author's prose style is superb - there is an economy of phrase and narrative that belies the fact this is his debut. He offers a restrained level of description, which ensures the story keeps moving at a great pace, without going overboard - "crow-black and dragon-loud", for example, is a great way to describe a war-plane, that gives us everything we need to know to picture the scene. Some of the description will have a better impact if you're already familiar with the Imperial aesthetic ("savagely overdone architecture", for example), but I think this is a good novel for people not familiar with the Warhammer 40k setting and imagery.

The frequent action scenes are expertly written. There's plenty of realistic, fun and engaging dialogue and banter - especially from Darrick - and plenty of shrewdly observed cynicism from the soldiers, as well as the officers.

Given that this novel was part of the Imperial Guard series, each novel in which focused on different "famous" regiment, Aaron DB is restricted to writing within some guidelines. Therefore, Cadian Blood ticks off a lot of Imperial Guard tropes - rule-breaking officers, tensions between front-line squads and regimental leaders and those who direct and orchestrate from behind. Therefore, the novel doesn't quite exhibit the full extent of the author's creativity and skill, as his Night Lords and Horus Heresy fiction does. Nevertheless, the authors makes the Cadian troops his own, and creates well-rounded, realistic and fully-formed characters you care about almost immediately, and puts them in a fresh-feeling, yet-still-familiar story. It has a very satisfying ending, too.

The story is brisk and action-packed. It's an amazing debut, actually - assured, confident and clearly evincing a love for the subject material that Aaron DB makes his own. Anyone wanting to write BL fiction (or military sci-fi in general) MUST read DB's novels and learn from his style. He is, quite frankly, one of my favourite authors.

There's only one other of Aaron's novels that I've not read, Helsreach, but I'll rectify that in the next couple of months.

Very highly recommended.

The Painted Man (The Demon Cycle, Book 1) (Demon Cycle 1)
The Painted Man (The Demon Cycle, Book 1) (Demon Cycle 1)
by Peter V. Brett
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly enjoyed this - really engaging and engrossing, 5 Feb 2012
It took me quite a while to get around to this novel. If I'm honest, I have no idea why. I think it just came out when I already had a lot on my plate and so it got pushed down the TBR pile. Now that I've read it, I wish I hadn't waited so long. The Painted Man is immersive, engaging, and brilliantly written. Outstanding, I loved it. [The novel is The Warded Man in the US.]

There are three main characters at the centre of this novel, from different hamlets spread around the dangerous wilderness of this world: Arlen, Leesha and Rojer. The novel starts with all three as children (Rojer the youngest by quite a few years). Through their different experiences and a number of tragedies, they eventually are drawn together to fight back. They bond over a shared sense of survivors' guilt and a desire to do something.

Every night, the demons emerge from the Core, and the human inhabitants of the regions beyond the various city walls cower behind magically-warded homes. The first few chapters have some great, tense night scenes: we get a real sense of the suspense and terror of the humans as they cower, praying for the dawn, and their panic as they rush to batten down the hatches at dusk. Every night brings new corpses and tragedy.

The young Arlen is very well-drawn - from his first taste of alcohol, not `getting' adult jokes, playing "kissy" with a girl and "rather liking it", his incomprehension about why people won't fight back against the demons. It's nice to see a child character that is written neither like an imbecile or an adult. Although, that being said, we see that Arlen is more brave and thoughtful than some adults - it comes from a naļveté, true, but still from the heart. He's a nuanced and complex character, torn between the attractions of a `normal' life, and his burning desire to take the fight to the demons. As he gets older, he makes discoveries that could tip the balance in the war forever. At the same time, he becomes harder, tougher, more driven and single-minded and starts, he thinks, to lose some of his humanity. I found his journey the most compelling. Through Arlen's story we also get a great introduction to a number of regions of the world, as he travels to far-flung regions in his quest to learn as much as he can about warding.

Leesha's hamlet is a hive of gossip, back-biting and hypocrisy. Through her, we learn of society's expectations of women. Naturally, Leesha isn't too happy about it, and as time passes she manages to break away from a preordained future. Through Leesha's eyes, we also meet one of my favourite characters, Bruna - the hamlet's healer. She's an ancient crone who instils respect and fear in equal measure from her constituents. Leesha's mother is a domineering harridan, jealous of Leesha's youth and angry at her lot in life. It is not a happy home (something she shares with Arlen), and it helps explain a lot of Leesha's choices throughout the novel.

Rojer, the youngest of our three heroes, has a particularly difficult and tragic introduction to the reader. His family is the victim of a particularly savage demon attack, and he is saved by a travelling jongleurs who takes him under his wing. He overcomes some difficulties to make a name for himself, as well as accidentally stumbling across a strange power over the demons.

There's a lot going on in The Painted Man. The social commentary (on religion, social mores, family, expectations, and so forth) is woven perfectly into the story, and is neither preachy or heavy-handed. This is a tough world, nowhere near as enlightened as our own, let alone as enlightened as we wish the real world were. The place of women in the various societies is well-portrayed - they retain a power over their men in most of them - turning even the most disciplined into a posturing teenager (take, for example, the encounter involving Leesha, Marick and Gared). In the desert society, they are less than second class citizens - imagine every possible oppressive policy a nation could impose on women, and they have it. On the whole, and this is a real strength of The Painted Man, all the female characters are strong and well-drawn.

There are a lot of names dropped on us to begin with, but we quickly become comfortable and start sinking into the narrative and the story Brett's telling us. It's a wonderfully-realised world, and the fact that the characters are so well-constructed and -written just makes it feel all the more real. Every character feels fully-formed, even if they are peripheral to the overall story. They have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, their own voices. It's really quite impressive.

While it's not immediately clear where the novel's going, the more you read the more you realise how well the story's been woven together. Every time I started reading, I quickly sunk into the story, whisked along by Brett's prose, characters, and the world and society he's created. I was in that rare position of wanting to read it as quickly as possible but also savour every page and word. Brett has a rare talent for prose and composition that places him firmly in the upper echelons of fantasy authors. I read the last 240 pages in one sitting, well into the night and early morning. It was utterly gripping, and I just couldn't put it down as all the threads of the story were woven together into a great final battle.

I have already picked up The Desert Spear and The Great Bazaar & Brayan's Gold (a pair of short stories set in the world) for my Kindle, and will be reading them hopefully very soon. Despite the slightly slow start, this is a great, expertly crafted novel.

Very highly recommended. This is superb.

Blood of Aenarion (Tyrion & Teclis)
Blood of Aenarion (Tyrion & Teclis)
by William King
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Awesome return from Will King - really brings these characters to life, 5 Feb 2012
This is the first Warhammer novel from William King in eight years, and I must say I've been really looking forward to it. Focusing on two of the greatest heroes from the Warhammer canon, it is also a very ambitious one. But, thankfully and unsurprisingly, King is fully up to the task. This novel more than exceeded my expectations. Welcome back, Mr. King!

This is the first novel in a trilogy that will tell us the story of the High Elves' greatest heroes: Tyrion, who will become the Champion of the Everqueen and Ulthuan's greatest protector; and his brother Teclis, councillor of the high elves and supremely talented mage, who was also one of the first to teach magic to the race of men and gave them the means to defend themselves against Chaos.

However, Blood of Aenarion is set decades, if not centuries before Tyrion and Teclis fulfil their promise (it's a bit difficult to tell, given how long-lived the Elves are). In this novel, they are only just 16-years old, making their first steps into High Elf society and politics.

The novel opens with the first Phoenix King Aenarion, and his last battle to save Ulthuan and the world at large from the ravages of Chaos. It also explains the Curse of the bloodline - that descendants of Aenarion have the potential for great good or evil, a burden that each must carry and face.

Aenarion's campaign against Chaos showcases a veritable who's-who of Chaos beasties, and it showcases King's ability for writing intense battle scenes. That being said, this is not an overly action-packed novel. True, N'Kari's campaign against the descendants of Aenarion offers up some pretty gruesome and brutal attacks on Elf towns and forts, and there is a superb, climactic battle at the end. But, for the majority of this novel, we spend time with Tyrion and Teclis adjusting to their new life in the Elf capital, Lothern, and starting their training: King has turned this novel into a classic coming-of-age story.

It was great to see these two characters as kids, a period of their lives thus-far unexplored in the literature. Raised away from the centres of power and intrigue, the twins are largely unaware of what it means to be a descendant of Aenarion. When two emissaries from Lothern arrive to collect the twins for their political debut, we learn how the Curse of Aenarion is confronted in this age of the Elves. There are equal levels of suspicion and hope with regards to the first Phoenix King's heirs. That the brothers are twins, one hale and one infirm, is also the cause of many unsavoury rumours among the High Elf nobility. The need to be "tested" for the curse by the Phoenix King hangs over the twins for the majority of the novel, particularly Teclis, who worries that his infirmity is a sign that he carries the curse - something that would result in either death or imprisonment.

King's writing has a great flow. It's a steady story, and King takes us through the twins' journey to Lothern, their exploration of the city and learning about the political rivalries of the city, and then to their testing with great skill. The brothers are both possessed of considerable, innate talent in battle (Tyrion) and magic (Teclis), but King has done an excellent job of not making it appear too easy for them. They do not morph from unskilled children into master-level warrior and mage overnight. Indeed, they remain largely unschooled at the end of this novel - although they are clearly exhibiting some of the skills they will eventually come to master. There are mistakes made and lessons learned, and King has made their progression feel very natural.

He has also made both the main characters and the elves as a whole far more nuanced than I expected. Tyrion, especially, is interesting - seemingly so pure and noble, yet with a deeply buried anger and malice that can be awakened and unleashed with the right goading. Tyrion, at one point, is particularly cold - it's chilling to see how detached and emotionless he can become. Tyrion and Teclis discuss openly between themselves their concerns about carrying Aenarion's Curse, admitting to each other their darker emotions and reactions to certain events. It made them more relatable - they are not the perfect heroes lore would have us believe. They are exceptionally gifted, but flawed individuals, who exhibit all the character traits of the elves, both good and bad: they have their grace and intelligence, but also their arrogance and fears.

It's worth discussing another character at a bit more length: Urian, a Dark Elf spy, who is a very interesting character and certainly the most intriguing after the twins. I can't go into too much detail about who he is or what his part he plays in the story, but he's a much more nuanced Dark Elf than I'm used to reading about, and that made him one of the most interesting and engaging characters in the novel. I really liked the way King has portrayed this character and also Malekith the Witch King, making the Dark Elves far more like their High Elf kin than some other authors have in the past - they are clearly more sinister and brutal, but still remain very similar in many ways.

Origin stories about well known characters are always interesting. They can also be tricky: The author runs the risk of writing a story that is entirely without tension or surprises. Thankfully, King has managed to avoid this potential pitfall, and Blood of Aenarion has plenty of both - even though we know he can't die in combat, for example, there were a couple of times when I was anxious about Tyrion's chances.

King's writing is great: quickly-paced prose speeds us through the novel (I read it in three very enjoyable sittings, late into the night). The story is detailed and fluid, but never gets bogged down by exposition. The lower level of action may not suit some Warhammer fans, but I think King has crafted a very good story, here. The action he has included is superb. Relying on the readers' familiarity with the setting, King allows the story to build young Tyrion and Teclis's world. All of the characters are very engaging and well drawn. There's really nothing bad I can say about the novel, except perhaps the fact that it ended (and slightly abruptly, at that).

In Blood of Aenarion, Tyrion and Teclis, great elf heroes whose names have littered almost every text Games Workshop has released featuring Elves, are brought brilliantly to life on the page. I can't wait for the second novel, Sword of Caledor.

Very highly recommended.

Deliverance Lost (The Horus Heresy)
Deliverance Lost (The Horus Heresy)
by Gav Thorpe
Edition: Paperback

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Really good addition to the series. Thoroughly enjoyed it., 5 Feb 2012
The Horus Heresy series is one of the best collaborative sci-fi series currently being published, in my opinion. All of the authors working on it bring their A-game, producing some of their best fiction. Deliverance Lost is Gav Thorpe's first novel for the series, and it is excellent. Like some of the other, more-recent Heresy novels, it offers something new and takes a slightly different approach to the fictional time and setting. Deliverance Lost is great - nuanced, tense and action-packed. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Deliverance Lost picks up right where The First Heretic finished up - in the aftermath of the betrayal at Isstvan, as the traitors hound the remnants of the Raven Guard across that planet. Thanks to some fortuitous timing, Corax and his near-decimated forces are rescued and whisked away, to Terra - where the Primarch insists on an audience with the Emperor. What follows are the Raven Guard's attempts to rebuild their forces amidst considerable opposition and suspicion; and a shadowy enemy manoeuvring to finish the job Horus's forces were unable to do on the landing fields of Isstvan.

[Something I should state: there's an awful lot more to the plot than I've just laid out, but to go into much more detail would offer up some serious spoilers. This should also explain why not much attention is paid to the characters and their general development over the course of the novel - there's a lot of intrigue, suspicion and hidden agendas, all of which should be read and experienced without prior knowledge.]

From the very beginning, it was clear that we were going to get a more intimate Primarch-experience with this novel, as the opening chapter (and much more besides) focuses more on what's going on inside Corax's mind than on others' perceptions of his actions. Thorpe provides readers with more of Corax's background, adding to our overall understanding of his history and the way it has shaped his approach to leadership and warfare. It's deftly done, avoiding info-dumps - instead, we get Corax's memories, evoked by `current' events that inspire recall. I knew nothing of the Raven Guards before reading Deliverance Lost (which was one of the main attractions), but now I just want to read more! Thorpe has done a great job of fleshing out this lesser-known Legion, giving it a really strong character and populating it with engaging individuals. I really hope there's another Raven Guard novel in the future.

Like all of the Legions, the Raven Guard are proud-bordering-on-arrogant. The betrayal at Isstvan was a tremendous blow to their psyche and confidence, and this novel is the story of how they worked to bring themselves back from the brink of destruction - however slightly. Corax becomes single-mindedly bent on succeeding in his Emperor-given mission, to the point where he becomes blinded to certain events around him.

We see how the Imperium has reacted to the news of Horus's betrayal: with a martial efficiency and heightened distrust of basically everyone, reminiscent of the paranoia following 9/11. The Imperial Fists captain who controls stellar travel into the Sol system is not unlike a TSA agent on steroids... The Betrayal has sown seeds of fear throughout the Imperium, and we see the early stages of confusion as loyalties are determined.

There are both tension and distrust within the ranks of the traitors as well - Erebus, the ever-present manipulator continues to lurk at Horus's side, and causing much of the discord. (Speaking of Erebus, I've never been entirely convinced of his position of influence - it seems to come out of nowhere and is just accepted. I would be really nice if someone wrote a little more in-depth about his story and rise to prominence.)

The Alpha Legion is one of the most interesting of the Legions (among, admittedly, many individually interesting forces), and their focus on subterfuge, espionage and so forth certainly promised an intriguing storyline. I wish we'd got a little more of the Alpha Legion's story, but by their very nature it would have perhaps ruined things to learn everything about them. They are ultra-secretive - of all the Primarchs, he was the last to be found and united with his Legion, with a secret kept from basically everyone, including his fellow Primarchs: he has a twin. That being said, the picture we get of the Alpha Legion is interesting - the Primarchs are constantly working towards some great endgame we only know a little bit about, but are not true converts to Horus's rebellion and certainly not to Chaos. The taint in the Word Bearers witnessed at Isstvan and elsewhere gives some Alpha Legionnaires pause as to whether or not their on the right side of things, and leads some of their operatives to quietly question the Primarchs' wisdom of allying with Horus.

With Corax providing a considerable proportion of the narrative, it is a slightly different Horus Heresy novel - where others have mostly relied on the perspectives of Astartes and other soldiers, this novel has a lot from Corax's and also Omegon's perspectives. This I really liked - being able to see the differences in how a Primarch and Astartes confront challenges is one of the best things about Warhammer 40k fiction.

However, this does lead me to my one complaint about the novel, and that is in the character of Corax: sometimes, he comes across as a little too perfect; too much the ideal of what a Primarch (or any leader, really) should be. In the first part, he seemed to lack some of the nuance and duology-of-character that defines all of the other Primarchs that we've spent much time with (Lorgar and Magnus in particular). His character is fully revealed and fleshed-out as the novel progresses, but I must admit that I was sometimes worried in the first third of the novel that Corax might be a little two-dimensional. Even his fit of pique when denied immediate access to the Emperor was a little half-hearted, I thought. I don't know if this was intended to elevate him above the other Primarchs in some way, but when you think that all of the others are deeply flawed and with multiple sides to their characters, Corax seemed just a little too pure. That being said he becomes far more interesting in Part II, as the events of Isstvan, his gift from the Emperor and the unfolding Heresy start to weigh heavily on him. He seems a little less stable, more quick to judge and prone to lashing out.

Deliverance Lost features quite a lot of references to the uprising of the Mechanicum on Mars. I think I'm going to have to get the eBook of Mechanicum (by Graham McNeill) to catch up on this and fill in the blanks (for some reason, I never read it when it first came out). It's interesting, though, that the Astartes forces have less difficulty in accepting the loyalties of an Adeptus Mechanicus operative, but not all Astartes.

Thorpe's writing is great throughout, and manages to avoid any and all cliche dialogue or clunky description. The pacing is, for the most part, very good - although there are just a couple of lulls in the action and overall momentum. Given the quality and scope of the story, though, they're completely understandable and forgivable, as the reader is just pulled right along with the plot.

A very worthy addition to the Horus Heresy series, this is a must read for fans of the franchise. I love the differences in approach and style that are starting to appear in the series, and to me they prove just how much better the series has become and will hopefully continue to do so.

Highly recommended.

Double Dead (Tomes of the Dead)
Double Dead (Tomes of the Dead)
by Chuck Wendig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Feel-bad undead book of the year., 5 Feb 2012
I've never been much taken with the zombie apocalypse genre. There just doesn't really seem like there's very much one can actually do with it that hasn't been done in film, fiction and comics many time before. Then along comes Double Dead, proving that the zombie apocalypse genre has plenty of life left in it. Wendig makes genre tropes his own, as well as adding a great, original twist. After all, in a world populated predominantly by zombies, what does a vampire have to do to get a meal?

Double Dead strips away any and all of the romanticism of vampires. Coburn is a player, only a dead one who's after your blood rather than your virtue. He's unsympathetic to human plight, he's not altruistic, he doesn't sparkle in the light. He's selfish, aggressive, and most of all he's hungry. The unfortunate band of survivors he stumbles across are easy prey. But then the mysterious daughter makes Coburn an offer that is very difficult to refuse: become their shepherd, protect them and they'll show him where to get food - picking on the worst elements of the leftovers of humanity; the cannibals and other scum who prey on the desperate few survivors.

Wendig gleefully plays around with a number of classic zombie-apocalypse tropes, and many readers will also be able to detect a hint of The Walking Dead in here. Nevertheless, the author manages to make it feel very fresh and original and wholly his own. And it's not only because he introduced a vampire to the setting (which really made the novel for me), although this does mean that seemingly familiar scenes or plot devices are turned rather nicely on their heads. Double Dead is a novel that fits comfortably in the sub-genre, but offers something more for readers to make this stand out.

Double Dead is slightly absurdist at times, with a somewhat gonzo-feel to the prose: visceral, it pulls back the curtain on all that is negative about humanity - greed, cowardice and selfishness. It's cynical, sarcastic, brutally honest. "Fear & Loathing in Zombieland" would be one way of describing certain chapters in the novel. Some scenes and passages have the feel of a young and angry Hunter S. Thompson collaborating with George Romero to write a zombie-apocalypse novel. While maybe listening to Carcass... It's not perfect, and lacks some subtlety and nuance, but for a debut novel this is very well written and composed. Sometimes the gory bits feel a little relentless, or over-long for my admittedly more-conservative tastes, but it's still a pretty fun romp through a zombie-infested post-societal America.

"I figure the end of the world just ripped off humanity's mask, and now the true face of mankind is out there grinning like a mad skull in the moonlight." (58)

For the most part, Wendig's negative portrayal of human nature works, but there are the occasional passages or scenes that seem just a little too negative. However, because of Wendig's brisk prose style, things move on at a near-breakneck pace, and any minor flaws are quickly forgotten as the motley group of survivalists make their trip to the promised safety in the West.

After a slightly par-for-the-course middle third, things get interesting again in Part 3, as Coburn's flock get into a little (more) trouble, and we discover a bit more of what constitutes politics in this dystopia. Can't give too much away, but I have a feeling Mr Wendig does not like the Insane Clown Posse. Or perhaps does, and offers up a weird, twisted homage to the bizarre rap crew. There's tons of action in the final third of the novel, as almost everything comes to an explosive and bloody conclusion. There's tragedy, there's hope, there's a little bit of redemption, as Coburn's continued exposure to Kayla and her post-apocalypse family leads him to develop feelings of attachment that are utterly alien to and uncomfortable for him.

Double Dead won't be for everyone - it's gruesome and very graphic, especially when it involves cannibals: Ambrosia, a particularly loathsome cannibal Coburn confronts, is the most horrific character in the entire novel (perhaps even the most horrific I've ever read), and events surrounding her almost made my gorge rise. Some scenes were outside my comfort zone - `disgusting' is one word, but it does fit the genre, and I have read worse. It's shocking, but also very well written (which makes it even more gross). This is the only novel in Abaddon Books' Tome of the Dead series that I've read, so I'm not sure if this is the norm, but if you like gribbly horror, then this should suit fine.

One thing is for certain: Chuck Wendig is a very talented writer. His prose style pulled me along throughout - it's fast-paced, cynical and very tightly crafted. It doesn't always work, but he has a real gift. He will undoubtedly become a force in genre fiction, and I can't wait to see what else he comes up with. I will eagerly read anything he puts out there (I've already bought one of his non-fiction works, Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey).

The feel-bad zombie novel of the year, with a hint of redemption? Probably. Go read it.

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