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Federhirn (Cardiff, UK)

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Luna: Wolf Moon (Luna 2)
Luna: Wolf Moon (Luna 2)
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A worthy sequel to Luna: New Moon, 1 April 2017
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Luna: Wolf Moon is the second book of Ian McDonald's Luna series.

To recap: the moon has been colonised. It's a Wild West of sorts, a dog-eat-dog, cut-throat outpost, run by the Lunar Development Corporation and four/five family business dynasties, each of whom has effective monopolies on specific lunar industries. Transport is run by the Vorontsovs, rare earth mining is run by the Mackenzies, Food production is in the hands of the Asamoahs, energy production is in the hands of the Suns, and Helium3 harvesting was run by the Corta family. Except, the Corta family have fallen. Their empire has been destroyed and scavenged by the Mackenzies. Remaining Cortas are rare and isolated from each other. Some shelter under the protection of factions with some power, some are effectively hostages, and one is plotting his revenge...

The Luna series combines Ian McDonald's strengths with a new direction. As usual, he creates a convincing, credible future, populated with people from non-Western cultures. Luna, however, is a world much more similar to Game of Thrones than to other recent Ian McDonald novels. Dynastic families jostling for power, happy to spill blood and without any fear of repercussions? Outright battles and small wars? Betrayals, conspiracies, greed? It's hard to read Luna novels without thinking of GRRM's magnum opus. Ian McDonald differs from many GRRM derivative writers in that he is himself a stellar talent, producing an epic that is easily on a par with Song of Ice and Fire. Also, the family rivalries in Luna aren't focused on getting an iron throne / power over everything. Rather, they compete and battle for wealth, territory, income, and the occasional longstanding feud. Still, there are enough similarities for his books to have been picked up by TV companies, soon to be a major TV show...

I first heard of Luna at a convention, where Ian McDonald talked about the books, and the fundamental premise: that the moon has no law but contract law. The basis of the society he predicts is therefore not "feudal dark ages", but "hyper-capitalist, libertarian utopia". There is no government on the moon, only a corporation with a local figurehead who doesn't actually wield all that much executive power. There is a court, but it's a court of arbitration above all, since there isn't a criminal law system. Rich family dynasties have their private security forces, but there is no standing army or police force. What Luna illustrates, if you read it with all that in mind, is that there is actually no systemic difference between libertarian utopia and feudalism. The only difference is the absence of the Black Death / disease and the presence of higher levels of technology. Everything else is pretty much the same: borderline slavery, warlords, feudal society etc. However, this aspect of the premise is quite subtly interwoven into the plot. It's not staring you in the face, and I think it's almost too hidden in the background of the Lunar world. Had I not heard the talk, I would probably have missed it entirely.

With a huge cast of characters, Luna: Wolf Moon was a bit bewildering at times, because I had forgotten much of the detail of Luna: New Moon. The things and characters I did remember (Adriana Corta, Marina) were much less central in Wolf Moon than the characters I had forgotten. Marina, for example, is absent for the first quarter of the book, and her story had been my favourite in the first novel because she wasn't born rich with a silver spoon in her mouth, unlike every other character. This is perhaps Luna's biggest flaw, that almost everyone is rich and powerful. Sure, there are falls from power and rises, but it's a stark contrast to Ian McDonald's other novels, where most characters are hustling a little corner for themselves from positions near the bottom of the power structures. Luna, instead, focuses on the very top. The hoi polloi are pawns and footsoldiers.

Unsurprisingly, Wolf Moon is well written, with good prose, compelling settings, authentic and believable science. However, it doesn't quite rise over the shadows cast by Song of Ice and Fire's influence. And, filled with characters too highborn to be easy to empathise with, the novel lacks some of the heart and soul and drive that Ian McDonald is capable of. It's a good book, well worth reading if you've read Luna: New Moon, but it's not the first book or series I would recommend to a reader new to Ian McDonald.


The Ninth Rain (The Winnowing Flame Trilogy 1)
The Ninth Rain (The Winnowing Flame Trilogy 1)
by Jen Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.94

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you like (big) fantasy novels, The Ninth Rain is not to be missed, 26 Feb. 2017
Ebora is a fading civilization. Ever since their tree god Ysagril died, these long-lived elven people have been in decline, their main source of longevity being its sap. Soon after Ysagril's demise, they discovered that drinking the blood of humans could reinvigorate them. After some decades and centuries of gory vampiric excess, they find that drinking the blood of humans is, ultimately, poisonous and fatal. Oops.

In the prologue, Tormalin turns his back on his people and their dying nation: he wants to see the world before the inevitable creeping death catches up with him. His sister names him The Oathless and stays behind. He takes his famous sword, The Ninth Rain, and sets out to have adventures...

Fell Noon, meanwhile, is kept imprisoned in the Winnowry with all the other fell witches. Hated, feared, oppressed and exploited by priests and nuns, the fell witches live miserable lives. Their magical winnowfire is unlike any other, and the Winnowry uses it to produce drugs and products that no one else can manufacture (it's handy, having a monopoly on a manufacturing process). At the same time, the fell witches are seen as the root of all evil. It's slavery and misogyny and exploitation at its ugliest, but Fell Noon does not resist, because she has her guilty past... and because punishments for resistance are severe.

It's Vintage, a woman from a rich landowning wine-producing family, whose projects will ultimately lead to their paths crossing. Vintage's passion is (scientific) research. Almost as a side effect, this involves exploration: her research is focused on remnants and artefacts from the previous Eight Rains, which are spread all over the world.

The Rains are terrible periods: every few hundred years, this world is invaded by powerful aliens. So far, only the Eborans have been able to prevent defeat, but the Eborans are almost all gone...

It took me a while to get into The Ninth Rain. This may be because I was reading it alongside other books (which I was under some time pressure to finish), but I also suspect that starting with Tormalin and a fairly extensive set of pre-plot scenes may have had a slowing effect on some readers. However, I did get properly hooked (by the time the story reached the mushroom forest), and by the end I struggled to put down the (whopper of a) book at all. It's gripping stuff once you get into it.

The world of The Ninth Rain is not too different from other fantastical worlds (although I must admit, vampire elves are new to me, and such a logical thing I am surprised that no one else has thought of this until now). What makes a big difference is the Rains. They give a much more credible context to the returning evil, which contrasts with the out-of-nowhere corruption that spreads in classics like Lord of the Rings. The Rains come from somewhere - it just happens to be off-world. Just like The Rains, other aspects which seem like staples of the genre are cleverly explained within the novel, which reinvigorates them and lifts the book above using cliches.

The heart and soul of a novel of great length is its characters and the chemistry between them. Sure, the skirmishes and fights are exciting, the chasing pursuit tense, the world intriguing and the sense of building tension builds up pleasantly like a slowly accelerating river on its way to the falls, but The Ninth Rain is above all a novel about three interesting people. Vintage is the glue that holds everything together, immensely likeable, yet quite tough when she needs to be, and not flawless either - she has her hypocritical sides. Noon, the poor thing, seems in urgent need of a hug. Tor, meanwhile, is a bit too pompous for his own good.

The Ninth Rain is a wonderful novel for fantasy readers. It's big, filled with ideas and fun. One of the early highlights of 2017. Also, the novel is filled with adorably loyal giant bats.


After Atlas: A Planetfall Novel
After Atlas: A Planetfall Novel
by Emma Newman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.51

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scifi Noir - this novel puts you through the wringer, 20 Nov. 2016
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After Atlas is set in the same universe as Planetfall, but it is neither sequel nor prequel, so it can be read as a standalone novel. It is the story of Carlos Moreno, a hard-nosed far-future homicide detective with a complicated personal history, who is assigned a gruesome case that is intimately interwoven with that history. He's the left-behind son of a woman who was on the interstellar Atlas spaceship that left Earth 40 years ago. He was, briefly, member of a cult that turned its back on the internet and technology. And, after fleeing from the cult, he became a refugee and ultimately a slave.

Stories don't get much more 'noir' than After Atlas. Not only is our (enslaved) gumshoe a cynical lone wolf, not only is the locked room mystery grim and brutal, but the world is cruel and unforgiving, and the grotesquely gory case is just a bloody symptom of a larger, deeper corruption in the world.

After Atlas is very different from Planetfall. Where Planetfall is dominated by its psychological angles (it's a novel tackling mental illness in a character trying to colonise a planet), After Atlas is much more conventional. There is a tangential element of mental health stuff going on (Carlos uses meditative practice to ground himself when he gets into situations he struggles to cope with), but for the first half of the book, solving the crime is really the be-all and end-all of the story. The second half - well, let's say that the story simultaneously widens out and narrows down in unexpected ways.

What it does have in common with Planetfall is that this is not a feel-good novel. It's an intelligent, well-written and tense one, but it puts you through the wringer. Ultimately, its view of humanity and society is much more bleak than that of even the grimmest film noir. Worth a read, but be prepared for a tough time.


The Conclave of Shadow
The Conclave of Shadow
Price: £4.58

4.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling, funny and fun!, 13 Aug. 2016
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The Conclave of Shadows is the second book in Alyc Helms' Missy Masters series. You should definitely pick up & read the first book before you buy this one.

Picking up where the superbly fun, ultra-twisty The Dragons of Heaven left off, Missy tries to re-establish normality in her day-to-day life in San Francisco. Her alter ego, Mr Mystic, has been hiding from the press attention and the clutches of Argent, the western world's premier (capitalist, corporate) superhero organisation.

It is not to be. Her acquaintance Abby, who is an Argent hero, looks her up and drags her back into the spotlight. Meanwhile. San Francisco has been experiencing a series of increasingly powerful minor earthquakes, the supernatural protections that Lung Di had put in place to separate the worldly realm from others are crumbling, and her friends and family are all juggling competing interests and problems...

Conclave of Shadows affirms that Dragons of Heaven was not a fluke. Alyc Helms really can write, and write very well indeed. Infused with wit and humour, filled with a fundamentally open and kindhearted warmth, this is the contemporary speculative fiction at its stylistic best. Contemporary, in that it features multicultural characters of various sexual orientations, women characters who are central to the story, and adversity which is not powered by pure villainy, but by conflicts of interest between complex individuals and entities that each try to be as good as they can, within their own moralities...

Is it just me, or is there a trend for (women) writers to write books that are a bit more huggy in recent times? I'm thinking Karen Lord, Becky Chambers, and now Alyc Helms. The Missy Masters series differs from Long Road to a Small Angry Planet and Best of All Possible Worlds in one key aspect: it mixes the huggy warmhearted approach to its characters and events with a big dollop of action adventuring. It's what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be, if it had just a little bit less testosterone...

This is not to say that Conclave of Shadows is perfect. The second half of the novel is a bit repetitive - it feels like a character in a video game having to pass level after level, battling a boss at the end of each stage. And, after all the twists of Dragons of Heaven, the number of major plot revelations in Conclave feels oddly subdued. The biggest obstacle to my own enjoyment of the book is that there are too many characters. I kept forgetting who's who, especially among the male side characters.

The Missy Masters series is definitely on my must-buy, must-preorder list from now on. Urban fantasy at its very best. It's on a par with Ben Aaronovitch's The PC Grant Novels: Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Under Ground series, Daniel O'Malley's The Rook (The Checquy Files Book 1)series, Genevieve Cogman's The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1) series. Thrilling, funny and fun. Go get it now!


Losing Israel
Losing Israel
by Jasmine Donahaye
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book about 1948 - if only it also had things to say about the future..., 5 Jun. 2016
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This review is from: Losing Israel (Hardcover)
I found Losing Israel slow and quite meandering to begin with. The first quarter of the book is not very engrossing, which does not bode well for its chances at finding a large audience. Once I got used to the non-linear literary rambles, the book did become interesting. The story never really moves beyond the back cover summary in terms of events, so whether you find it absorbing will rely heavily on how interested you are in getting a glimpse of another person's life and views. I would recommend the book to other people who have never themselves been to Israel or the Palestinian territories, but who want to understand the history and issues that cause the conflict in that area, and to readers wishing to glimpse the conflict through the eyes of a liberal Jewish Israeli Expat.

The book also stands out because it isn't biased and one-sided, unlike most things written about Israel and Palestine. Jasmine Donahaye interrogates the history of Israel through the microscopic perspective of her own family history, and then maps that onto the larger history. She goes out of her way to find truth and reality, and wrote as truthful a book as she could.

However, it is very much a book about the past, with comparatively little interest in the present, and virtually no interest at all in the future. It's good background reading about 1948, but won't help anyone trying to imagine a different future for Israel or the Palestinians, and to me, that was a little disappointing.

Rating: 3.5/5


Alien Rain
Alien Rain
by Ruth Morgan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A must-read for YA readers from Cardiff - and a fun novel for everyone else, too, 30 April 2016
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This review is from: Alien Rain (Paperback)
Alien Rain is a Young Adult science fiction novel set in a future where mankind has emigrated to Mars, leaving behind an abandoned Earth and looking to a future of solar and stellar exploration.

It's also set in Cardiff. Two Cardiffs, to be precise: the scaled down replica Cardiff in a dome on Mars and the remnants of our Cardiff on Earth.

Bree, our hero, grows up on Mars. She attends an elite school through a scholarship. To her complete surprise, she is selected to be one of the four teenagers who will accompany a space mission to Earth: the ultimate dream of any kid on Mars. Different domes on Mars have research programmes, which send missions to Earth on a regular basis. Each year a handful of the most promising students from the elite academies accompany those missions. However, Bree has been struggling academically: her grades have been close to flunking out. From the start, she worries about her selection, and what the reasons might be.

Before the mission, there is of course training. It's not just Bree who has doubts about her inclusion: the most academically gifted and competitive member of their little team appears to resent that decision more than anyone. However, as any outburst of arguing would discredit and ostracise them all, so emotions are repressed, hostility stays passive-agressive, and tensions simmer, at least until the they actually get to Earth.

Earth, in the centuries since Mars became mankind's home, has turned feral. A remnant of the last great war, bio-engineered, dragonfly-shaped killing machines, have become omnipresent threats, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem and human visitors. The purpose of Earth missions is partially to find out about the past through archaeological research, but also to find a solution to the problem of the man-made monsters that make Earth uninhabitable.

Alien Rain is a cheerful, brisk-paced romp. There's affection for Cardiff infused in the pages, and special adoration for Cardiff Museum. Never boring, Alien Rain is fun to read. For any YA fans from Cardiff, it's a must-read. It certainly put Firefly Press on my booky radar!


My Own Dear Brother
My Own Dear Brother
Price: £6.02

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An authentic, thrilling, gruelling coming of age novel, 12 Feb. 2016
My Own Dear Brother is the story of Ursula Hildesheim, her brother Anton Hildesheim and Schosi Hillier, three youngsters in Nazi-ruled alpine Austria. WW2 is heading for a conclusion, and in people's minds the oppressiveness of fascism is joined by the fear of the approaching Russian juggernaut. Basically, times are bad, and looking as if they might get worse.

Ursula, however, has more immediate concerns at the start of the novel. Growing up is a struggle, and life in a small, conservative, rural community has its challenges. Ursula's family are outsiders. They are poor. The children run around barefoot until temperatures necessitate winter footwear. They wear patched-up hand-me-downs, their home is not spotless and neat but mildewy and worn, and they live in a farm cottage, outside of the main village. She worships her brother Toni, but he has an unsettling fierceness about him. He's all too quick to hate, all too quick to lash out. Her love for Toni is quite isolating, as he viciously persecutes any friends she makes.

When her mother starts receiving a regular visitor from Vienna, Ursula's family life starts to slowly derail. Anton hates the newcomer and town busybodies start to gossip, sniffing scandal in the air. The Hildesheims are shunned and publicly shamed, which proud and furious Anton cannot stomach at all.

My Own Dear Brother is a very authentic story. It's a harrowing reading experience. Life in a small, very Catholic community is not easy at the best of times - and WW2 is not at all the best of times. Everyone has their noses in everyone else's business. Pettiness and judgmental, malicious gossip are everywhere. People love to have someone to ostracise or look down on. It's a bad time and a bad place for anyone who is an outsider.

Life under fascism is hard to imagine for people who never experienced anything like it. In this novel, the atmosphere is captured vividly. The way gossip and resentments can turn deadly, the way certain people gain a mantle of fear, the way people hush their voices and dare not talk of certain things, the way the unspoken gains power over everyone, the way everyone quietly ignores the unspeakable... and yet, the everyday continues. People go to work. People find ways to put food on the dinner table. People see even the most loathsome of their neighbours on an everyday basis, whether at church or at the grocer's. Anyone wondering what life in fascist parts of the world is like right now could probably read My Own Dear Brother and get a good inkling.

The novel puts you right into that world, and it's a terrifying, dangerous and grim place to be. Take a young teenage girl who isn't quite aware of how perilous her world really is, add a disturbed older brother to the mix, and put them at odds, and you get a book that is so much more than you might expect from the cover and the description. At times, the novel is as tense and suspenseful as the most relentless of thrillers. At other times, the book is a microcosmic coming of age story, and the story of a teenager who feels like an outsider and struggles with self-loathing. Nazi rule is sometimes a backdrop, sometimes a very imminent danger.

My Own Dear Brother is a rich novel, handling difficult topics and weaving together different threads with masterful aplomb. The author never sugarcoats reality. Ursula grows up in brutal, ruthless times, and to watch children against this backdrop is terrifying. The book is utterly authentic and utterly gruelling to read. It's an impressive literary achievement, and a perspective on WW2 that I have not seen before.


Ace, King, Knave
Ace, King, Knave
by Maria McCann
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent at historical authenticity, but a bit too grim for me., 2 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Ace, King, Knave (Paperback)
Ace, King, Knave is a historical novel set in 1760s London. The main protagonists are two women: Betsy-Ann and Sophie. The third viewpoint character is a fifteen year old black slave boy, called Titus / Fortunate.

At the start of the novel, Betsy-Ann is a street peddler, selling second hand goods, fencing the odd stolen knick-knack, while squirrelling away her most valuable and treasured possessions in hidden hidey-holes in the flat she shares with Sam Shiner. Sam is not legally her husband, although she has gotten used to using his surname instead of hers. When Sam tells her that he is getting into business with her brother, she is mortified: her brother is a rough, violent sort, and his business is graverobbing. The work leaves its mark on Sam - he starts to rely heavily on alcohol, and the smell of the dead follows him home. As Betsy-Ann's domestic life becomes more troubled, she recalls the road that led her to that little flat in London.

Sophie, meanwhile, is a young woman of nobility and upper class. Her story starts with romance and courtship and the road to marriage. Sophie initially finds it all so very blissful, but marriage soon starts to be oddly isolating. Her husband, Ned Zedlander, is busy all day (how strange for a nobleman to have so much to do!), and keeps her away from society, peers and family, much to her growing frustration.

Ace, King, Knave works hard on its worldbuilding and uses authentic phrases in dialogue. The characters all seem perfectly convincing. As a piece of writing, the book shows great craftsmanship and attention to detail. It is a very accomplished work - the sort of historical novel that other historical novelists read and appreciate.

However, the story is actually quite bleak, filled with grim incidents and some brutality. Not, perhaps, quite as grim as Maria McCann's debut masterpiece As Meat Loves Salt (Harvest Original), but neither is it the playful romp that the description and cover of the book led me to expect. Gamblers and graverobbers, women protagonists searching for the truth: this should have been a swashbuckling adventure romp, but it wasn't.

Ace, King, Knave is an excellent work of literary, historically accurate fiction, but less satisfying as a piece of entertainment. It was never a chore to read, but it left me feeling empty and hollow inside, which wasn't what I had expected when I picked it up.


Spark & Carousel
Spark & Carousel
by Joanne Hall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Complex and authentic - a good read if you enjoy "grimdark" fantasy, 27 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Spark & Carousel (Paperback)
Spark and Carousel is the story of two youngsters. Spark is a former apprentice of a powerful sorcerer, on the run. Carousel is a former urchin, making her living as street acrobat, working for one of the gangs of the city.

It's also the story of the two sorcerers trying to find Spark, the city's ruling family and their youngest daughter. Not to forget the merchants, landlords, gangmasters and other inhabitants who live in this world.

There are some things that make Spark and Carousel stand out from other fantasy novels. We meet characters of every class, from the lowest street rats to the highest aristocrats, and it is the interactions and intersections between the different characters's lives that drive much of the plot. Each character has reasons for the things they do. There is evil, but it is not the evil of a moustache-twirling villain. Instead, the evil is a bi-product of people' actions and desires. Some is unleashed by accident, other evil deeds start out as self-defence against oppressive and abusive situations. Even some of the 'good guys' are distinctly flawed. Noble, a black gang leader, inspires great loyalty and strives hard to earn and repay it, but he is also a pimp and a gangster, ruthless and brutal in the pursuit and punishment of the disobedient. Finally, there is realism that rarely appears in fantasy novels: we see Alzheimer's disease ravaging one character. We see prostitution that seems authentic, neither glamorised nor villified. Spark and Carousel is surprisingly complex for a fantasy novel, and not at all run-of-the-mill.

In other aspects, Spark and Carousel is following current trends. It's part of the grimdark sub-genre / movement. There's violence, rape, incestuousness, and worse. The aristocracy could have come straight from a George R R Martin novel, while the lower classes could be meandering into a Brandon Sanderson one without raising an eyebrow. There's sex that's enjoyable for women in the book, as well as persecution-free bisexuality and homosexuality. It's a novel that would probably not have been written this way twenty or thirty years ago.

In terms of the writing, I would put it on a par with the novels of Joe Abercrombie. There's less of a sense of humour in Spark and Carousel, and the characters, while memorable and charismatic, are not quite as larger-than-life as Abercrombie's, but they feel more real and believable as a result. If I had to sum it up in one glib sentence, I'd describe it as "Juliet McKenna meets Joe Abercrombie" - if you enjoy the novels of either, you'll enjoy this one, too.

A solidly entertaining read for those who enjoy reading fantasy and don't mind grimdark elements.


The Russian Woodpecker
The Russian Woodpecker
Dvd
Price: £1.49

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Silly, disappointing, and bizarre., 7 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A documentary about an unstable, paranoid and attention seeking performance artist who is trying to single handedly uncover a supposed conspiracy regarding the "mystery" of what caused the Chernobyl disaster.

The problem is that the film seems to think it's a documentary about a giant conspiracy around the Chernobyl disaster, rather than a film about perturbed conspiracy theorists. Watching the artist interview various people is frequently uncomfortable. Interviews with security guards are presented alongside interviews with engineers and experts. Watching the documentary, it's hard not to feel regret about the film this could have been, had it been made by more skilled and sane interviewers.

Once the interviews are over, the film makers resort to fake and transparent drama, cloak and dagger nonsense, and ridiculous attempts to make the audience believe in the crazy theories the film pursued. The protests that racked Ukraine at the time the film was made suddenly factor into it, but the documentary has nothing to say about the protests, and nothing to reveal about anything.

A complete waste of time.


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