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Reviews Written by
J. Shurin "carnivore" (London)

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Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific start to an exciting series!, 2 Feb. 2017
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This review is from: Bloodbound (Kindle Edition)
Alix Black, one of the scouts for the Kingdom of Alden, is watching a battle unfold. Her king is being overwhelmed by the invading forces of the Oridian empire, and, much to her horror, she can see that the King's brother is very much not executing his part of the plan. Treason is afoot, and both the King and the Kingdom are at risk.

In move that defines Alix - and to some degree, the entire series - Alix plunges recklessly into battle. There's only the slimmest chance of victory. Hell, there's only a fractional chance of survival, but Alix makes up her mind, trusts her gut and goes barrelling forward.

From its initial, breath-taking charge, Bloodbound never slows down. The book isn't wall to wall warfare, as the early pages might indicate, but Alix has a wonderful knack for getting into trouble. In her defense, that's apparently a family tradition, and, before long, we're introduced to her equally headstrong brother, who becomes a (scene-stealing) secondary character throughout.

After the initial battle, Alix is reappointed as a member of the King's bodyguard. Through her eyes the reader gets a front-row view of the political and military action, as King Erik tries to juggle an invading army, his own retreating army, and the betrayal of his brother (and his army). Add to that assassination attempts, espionage and a hint of black magic, Erik and Alix have their hands full.

To add one final ingredient into the mix - Alix is a member of one of Alden's noble banner houses. Although she's more or less 'slumming it' as a scout (she should be all armoured-and-horsed-up as a knight with the other nobility), she still has all the perks - and responsibilities - of one of the kingdom's elite. In the perks category: a magic sword and the ability to hob-nob with the Kingdom's ruling class. In the responsibilities? Try as she might, she's not 'one of' her comrades, and, somewhere on the horizon looms the inevitable arranged marriage. Alix is fairly understanding of the situation - that's just what happens with people of her rank, men and women alike - but it does cast a pall over her budding frisson with Liam, a fellow scout. Or, for that matter, King Erik.

On paper, here's what we've got: the heroic remnants of a noble army, an invading empire of oppressive evil, a love triangle involving three people and sixteen thousand crossed stars, an dark sorcerer, a magic sword and a fairly Chosen sort of heroine that's a multiclass noblewoman/spy/scout/strategist/swordswoman/everything.

That is to say, nothing new under the sun. And there's nothing wrong with these particular plot points and set-pieces. Skilfully combined, as they are here, it turns Bloodbound is one of the most enjoyable fantasies I've read in a long time; a book I cheerfully devoured in a single sitting.

The various cultures and kingdoms are brought to life through details like the above or the occasional conversational snippet. No appendix. No map. The way magic works is explained in a matter of sentences, not chapters. Even the names are almost ridiculously simple, take, for example, the banner houses of Green, Grey, Black, White and Gold. The plot is complex, the characters are deep - but the world itself is there to support, not distract. Just as Bloodbound hits the ground running with its opening battle, the decision to keep everything uninterrupted by exposition helps the pace immensely. Bloodbound isn't a dense doorstopper of an epic, it is fast, fun and - despite being the first in a series - self-contained.

This is an ideal gateway series for new fantasy readers, and something pleasantly fresh for existing fans.

The Explorer
The Explorer
by James Smythe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deliciously claustrophobic drama, 10 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Explorer (Paperback)
With each of his books, James Smythe finds a new way to delight and to horrify his readers. In The Explorer, the fear - and the tension - and, indeed, the conflict - is rooted in claustrophobia. Without giving too much away, Cormac is a journalist on the jaunt of a lifetime: accompanying a crew into deep space. But, as we learn very, very swiftly something goes horribly wrong - everyone dies except Cormac, and he destroys the ship (and himself with it).

The stage set, the rest of the book is about interrogating the course of events. Cormac is an unreliable narrator - ignorant (thankfully, I can't stand diamond-hard SF, and was delighted to have a character-focused narrative), self-loathing and a bit of a (no pun intended) wreck. But not all the 'wrongness' is in his head - or is it? This is a book where the entire universe seems to align itself in conspiracy against a single man.

Like Smythe's other work, The Explorer isn't your traditional science fiction - it is high concept, and certainly it isn't "real stuff", but the book is less about exploring scientific ideas than the range of human emotions. From moments of desperate triumph to long periods of indescribable loss, Cormac's situation pushes him to every possible limit. Comparisons to Star Trek, The Martian and other space operas are almost criminally misleading. (If you're sticking with SF, aim for Moon or 2001 - but the best comparisons are probably more like Memento or Donald Westlake's gloriously dark Memory.)

This is - by no means - a light book, but it is an excellent one.

Pompidou Posse
Pompidou Posse
by Sarah Lotz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.38

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Down & Out meets Eleanor & Park, 10 Sept. 2015
This review is from: Pompidou Posse (Paperback)
Vicki and Sage are seventeen and practically drowning in freedom. After an incident (fire, building, art college), the two friends make the only 'rational' decision: they run away to Paris. Armed with Pet Semetary, some 2000AD comics, a few of their favourite sculptures and, of course, their boots, the duo head to the city of love to find themselves. They're young, they're artistic; they've got enough money for at least two bottles of cheap wine... and, plus, they're together. What else do they need?

As it turns out: quite a bit.

Pompidou Posse describes both the joy and the agony of perpetual freedom. Vicki and Sage are responsible to no one and to nothing; their anarchic existence is purely about scraping together enough money for wine, shelter and the occasional shower. Any excess is spent on, well... more wine (or other addictions). This is freedom: they're making art, they're making friends, and they're living beholden to no one.

But at the same time, there's a darker side. Having nothing to lose may feel like a blessing, but the pair become increasingly untethered. For the fey Vicki, flirtations and wine turn into sex and hard drugs, as she grows wilder and more abandoned in her search for sensation. Sage stays more grounded, but only because she feels responsible for Vicki; a responsibility that becomes increasingly more jealous and obsession. The one true thing - the one thing they have left to lose - is the girls' friendship, and as Pompidou Posse builds, we realise even that's at stake.

Pompidou is also more than Vicki and Sage and their beautifully desperate relationship - it is one of the most heart-breaking and bleakly comic look at homelessness since Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. The beauty/horror of freedom comes to life not just in the two protagonists, but in the cast around them - from self-consciously zany students to burned out buskers to the disabled and the lost, eking out an existence in a self-made culture on the fringes of society. Just as Orwell decoded life on the streets of 1930s Paris, Lotz does the same for the 1980s. There's failure and horror and tragedy, a-plenty, but, and perhaps most importantly, there's also the savage joy that comes from the tiny triumphs. This an unsparing portrait life for the 'down and out', but yet so wonderfully empathetic - so wonderfully real - that the reader shares in the good times as much as the bad.

Pompidou Posse is one of my favourite contemporary novels, in any genre. There's the compelling emotional connection that comes with the best fiction - this is Orwell by way of Eleanor & Park - but that's underpinned with the fact that this is, ultimately, real. Sarah Lotz based Pompidou on her own experiences living rough in Paris, and it is impossible to ignore the power (and, indeed, the poetry) that comes from the novel's autobiographical origins. This is using fiction to explore the world; to investigate - clearly, cleverly and cruelly - one's own life. It takes a talented author to pull this off without descending into MFA levels of self-indulgence, and, in this particular case, Sarah Lotz proves she is one of the best.

Alternately glorious and horrifying - just like life is - Pompidou Posse an unflinching tale of freedom and friendship, and all that those really entail.

Retribution (Drakenfeld)
Retribution (Drakenfeld)
by Mark Charan Newton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.74

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great mystery and unique fantasy - high recommended!, 23 Oct. 2014
Last year, Mark Charan Newton introduced us to the Sun Chamber's star (sorry) investigator: Lucan Drakenfeld, who, alongside his ruthlessly efficient friend Leana, managed to stop a series of hideous crimes in the nation of Detrata.

The Drakenfeld series - a fusion of Golden Age detection and modern epic fantasy - now continues with Retribution, in which Drakenfeld and Leana tackle a new case, this time in the slightly less 'civilised' country of Koton.

Koton is a recently stabilised nation - the united under the rule of Queen Dokuz, one of the book's most interesting characters. On one hand, she's brought order to a population of warring tribes and is busily trying to modernise her country into a player on the world stage. On the other, she's a ruthless dictator - yet still not without empathy.

It is with great trepidation that the Koton people invite Drakenfeld into their country. He's the first Sun Chamber investigator to openly visit Koton in years, but this isn't a social call: there's been a horrific murder of a leading religious figure, and the local authorities are stumped. Drakenfeld must solve the crime and appease the Queen. Neither look to be easy tasks.

To ramp up the tension further, Drakenfeld is wrestling with his own debilitating illness, a conspiracy of assassins, a precocious princess and the mounting threat of war. His challenges: personal, professional and political threaten to overwhelm him. So good things he's got the unflappable (and wonderfully competent) Leana at his side.

Drakenfeld remains a unique hero in the realms of epic fantasy. He's not physically gifted - he's not an unstoppable swordsman or brawny brawler. Nor is he a cunning 'master thief', with an array of tricks and acrobatic talents. And he's certainly no wizard - sorcery in the world of the Drakenfeld series is a rare (and largely absent) trick. Instead, Drakenfeld is a surprisingly ordinary guy: he's smart, he's empathetic, he's got a knack for making friends (and enemies) and always being in the wrong (or right) place. By being loyal, diligent, smart, friendly and dedicated - basically a nice guy - he accomplishes the impossible and saves the world.

This isn't just revisionist epic fantasy, it is optimistic and, in its way, heart-warming. Lucan Drakenfeld battles against the worst villains in the world, and stops unspeakable horrors, basically by keeping his eyes open and doing the right thing. Mark Charan Newton's hero might not be the most cinematic sort of swashbuckler, but he's certainly one of the most fascinating to read.

A great mystery and an unusual fantasy. Highly recommended. (And, for those worried, you can start the series with this book - it stands alone quite nicely. Although there are a few references to some characters from the previous book, the mystery here is a stand-alone.)

Nigerians in Space
Nigerians in Space

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The very best of science fiction, 15 Oct. 2014
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Part noir, part political thriller, part heart-breaking literary fiction - all packed up with a vaguely science fictional gloss. A futurist raison d'etre. The plot itself is meandering: Dr. Wale Olufunmi is in Houston, working on moon rocks, when he gets the call from a mysterious political figure back in his country of birth, Nigeria. Wale, seduced by the dream of a Nigerian space programme, obeys: he steals a sample, uproots his family, and heads to Nigeria. Unfortunately, reality and politics intervene - also, assassins. Wale drags himself all over the world trying to restore some balance to his life, but only gets deeper and deeper in trouble.

The second thread of the narrative takes place with the next generation: Wale's son (an inventor), a hypnotic refugee model (the daughter of another member of the failed Nigerian 'Brain Gain' plot) and an opportunistic mollusc dealer. Their lives orbit and, eventually, intersect those of Wale's, and their smaller plots become part of the larger one.

What's beautiful about Nigerians in Space is that it is adamantly and aggressively earthbound - it is a novel of shattered dreams and failed launches. But it is also about the concept of space: a beautiful, unbounded future, filled with possibility and the (theoretical but not wholly defined) advancement of the human species. This is the shine of Golden Age SF - the magic and the mystery of the space programme - but with a wonderfully contemporary touch: a handful of people looking, aspiring, to live that dream in a world that refuses to accept it. Ultimately the idea of space is not unlike the stolen moon rock sample - infinitely valuable, but without practical purpose. It is about a dream, and what that represents.

A truly glorious book, that reminds the reader of what makes science fiction - as an idea and a genre - so very, very special.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply wonderful, 15 Oct. 2014
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The Wayfarer is a wormhole builder - a ship that goes out to the middle of nowhere and sets up doorways for future travellers. (There's physics involved, but it is presented through a combination of hilarious analogies over the breakfast table, so that's ok.) The ship itself is populated by a mixed and ramshackle crew - including a pair of bonkers engineers, a sentient AI, and the ostensible protagonist - Rosemary (a wealthy runaway hiding as the ship's clerk).

The format is episodic: the ship has been tasked to build a gateway in a faraway system, formerly the domain of warring alien tribes. A fragile new alliance means that there's the opportunity to begin trade - especially in the lucrative go-juice that makes wormhole travel possible. The Wayfarer will make good money and, as a perk, they're allowed to get their at a pleasantly ambling rate - thus the titular long way.

Through Rosemary, the ship's newest member, we learn about all the crew's proclivities and personal histories: the wars, the families, the strange and wonderful alien customs and the liaisons (illicit and licit) and relationships. Generally speaking, there's no one 'big' adventure - the peripatetic structure is a series of small encounters that range from the harrowing to the adorable. On one end, there are space pirates and giant locusts; on the other, there are rather poignant encounters, and explorations of loneliness and belonging. In-between, we get a beautiful overlap: what is love like between alien species? What does family mean to a clone? The Long Way is remarkable not only because it tackles tricky questions, but because it does so with such deftness and charm. Despite the sprawling, far-flung setting, a universe populated with sentient beings of all shapes and sizes, this is a deeply intimate book: we get to know the half-dozen crew members, what makes them tick, and why they're so genuinely wonderful together.

And I think that's the beautiful thing about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Science fiction is a genre of big statements and big ideas. Certainly, The Long Way doesn't shy away from them, but where it excels is in the little things - how the characters interact and interweave, how situations are resolved not with a bang, and how it doesn't shout about philosophies as much as quietly live them. It is also, and this is worth noting, a happy book - a book that espouses positivity in the face of adversity, and reinforces a core belief that people of all shapes, sizes and species are (or can be) pretty nice. The Long Way is, very simply, an extremely good book, a seemingly effortless demonstration of how progressive and enjoyable science fiction can be.

Feast, Famine & Potluck
Feast, Famine & Potluck
Price: £5.09

5.0 out of 5 stars A feast, 5 Sept. 2014
Feast, Famine and Potluck, edited by Karen Jennings, was last year's anthology from Short Story Day Africa. With two stories on the Caine Prize shortlist - including the eventual winner, "My Father's Head" - this collection hasn't been short of praise. And, honestly, it deserves every word.

Feast contains an eclectic collection of stories that uses its theme - food - as a way of talking about everything from families to futures. As well as the superb "My Father's Head" and "Chicken" (the two already recognised by the Caine Prize), I was particularly impressed by Jayne Bauling's "Choke" (the tension between spiritual and actual hungers, with a clever and satisfying resolution) and Hamilton Wende's "Fizz Pops" (the awkwardness and introspection of adolescence). A great collection from start to finish.

You Don't Know Me
You Don't Know Me
Price: £4.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Beats bullying with style, 5 Sept. 2014
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This review is from: You Don't Know Me (Kindle Edition)
You Don't Know Me has a lot stacked against it. The premise is utterly improbable (the core story involves four girls winning an X-Factor-style competition sponsored by a Facebook-style site), the lead character is the popular hot girl (and not, on paper, sympathetic) and, in essence, we're supposed to feel for some bullies.

Except... not really.

Somehow this manages to combine the best trashy escapism of Gossip Girl with real emotional depth when discussing a harrowing and important topic. Sasha and her friends are simply ordinary girls, who screw around with music for fun. When a video they made (for themselves) sneaks into a talent competition - and then they (kinda) win - they're blown away. But the Evil Marketing people want more of a story, so they spin Sasha and two of her friends against the four girl, Rose. The 'hot girls' dump the 'fat girl' - the drama the show wants. Just at the cost of four lives.

Off the back of books like Glaze, it is nice to read another novel that juggles both the power and the danger of social media - instant access, global power - all lovely things, but with a real, human cost. And You Don't Know Me isn't shy about tackling the horrors of online bullying: how words go somewhere and are read by real people. Anonymity isn't power, it is cowardice. The whole set-up is implausible, but what Ms. Bennett does with it is extremely clever, and she uses the outlandishly impossible as a means of talking about the deeply personal and everyday.

I'm not particularly sympathetic to 'self-selected celebrities', but with her one work of fiction, Ms. Bennett does what ten-thousand magazine articles can't, and reminds us that they're human too. I don't even mind the Evil Marketers taking a beating - this is a good cause after all.

Sir John Hawkwood a Tale of the White Company in Italy (Classic Reprint)
Sir John Hawkwood a Tale of the White Company in Italy (Classic Reprint)
by Marion Polk Angcllotti
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.27

4.0 out of 5 stars A characterful swashbuckler, 5 Sept. 2014
A pulp author for titles like Adventure, Angellotti's best-known creation was the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood. Apparently this book is the first (a novel collected from a long-running serial), but there are other Hawkwood adventures that follow. I'm interested how they work chronologically, as this one feels a bit like "Hawkwood's Last Adventure".

Sir John Hawkwood follows Hawkwood as he navigates the swamp that is 14th century Italian politics - near-perpetual warfare and bickering between city-states and microduchies. Hawkwood gets caught between the proverbial rock and unboiled pasta when his odious employer asks him to kidnap the local princess. One thing leads to another, and Hawkwood winds up kidnapping her anyway, because, pulp - and, like a sitcom, people do all sorts of stupid things rather than just talk to one another. The plot is silly, and although the swashbuckling does have a pleasant fizz, the real strength to this book comes with Hawkwood as a character. Sir John was a noble knight, but now lives in the chivalric gutter - he drinks, he works for coin, his boss is a fool and, lo and behold, he's not super-proud of himself. His self-awareness - self-loathing, even - is what makes him a fascinating character, and gives his motivation the ring of verisimilitude ('truth' in pulp is a bit much).

It is hard not to contrast the lessons of Sir John Hawkwood with our contemporary, grimdark fantasy. Here we have a character that has done wrong and knows it, that wallows in the error of his ways, that has turned away from the light; you name it. Nor does Sir John Hawkwood brush over the harsh realities of the setting and the brutal pseudo-historic atmosphere. But the book captures a man wrestling with his demons without a) denying them (the flaw of epic fantasy) or b) indulging them for the sake of prurience (the flaw of grimdark). I'm not holding this book up as a masterpiece of literature, but it does leap over a few hurdles that - 103 years later - fantasy authors are tripping over today. The prose is decidedly purple, but the end result is still worth a read.

Bleeding Violet
Bleeding Violet
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A hidden gem, 5 Sept. 2014
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This review is from: Bleeding Violet (Kindle Edition)
Dia Reeves' Bleeding Violet is about a mysteeerrious small town with an overtly-magical atmosphere and a (slightly odd) female protagonist hanging with a group of Chosen One-type boys. It isn't a totally dissimilar premise to some other great recent fantasy books such as Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys or Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere.

The central character, Hanna, is half African-American/half Finnish, and this informs not only her approach to the world around her, but how the world approaches her. Her background also adds a lot of depth to the way the book tackles the (incorrect) assumption that the Special Boy has to be the Chosen One. Hanna is not a sidekick, a 'love interest' or the 'comic relief' - she's the agent of her own narrative and - as it turns out - she's the one the 'meta' story is about.

Bleeding Violet is also a (bless it) self-contained story, and not the start of a series. It wrestles with the mommy issues and the boyfriend issues and the fitting in issues and the crazy portals filled with necromancer issues, and still manages to wrap it all up nicely in a single volume.

This is a Gaiman-like book in its 21st century spin on magical realism, but brilliantly written, with an intense, provocative and deeply likable central protagonist. A terrific book and easily one of the best fantasies of the year.

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