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D. Harris (Oxford, UK)
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A Conjuring of Light (A Darker Shade of Magic #3)
A Conjuring of Light (A Darker Shade of Magic #3)
by V. E. Schwab
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shades of light and dark..., 24 Feb. 2017
I'm really grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of this book, which is one of my most keenly awaited books of 2017.

"The precarious equilibrium among the four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise.

Kell–once assumed to be the last surviving Antari–begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. Lila Bard, once a commonplace–but never common–thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery and the Night Spire crew are attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible, as an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown and a fallen hero is desperate to save a decaying world…"

I've said this before, but sometimes a book review almost seems beside the point. I wonder if I should simply say BUY THIS BOOK!!! - it is so good. And in any case, when it comes to a book which, like this, ties up a trilogy, those who have read the earlier books will know very well whether they want to read more.

But I do want to say something about ACOL because it's so... it's such a... it... well, the trilogy it's part of has, for me, come to be almost a monument in SFF. It's hard to believe that a few years ago, these books weren't there, now they are, and everything else fits around them (almost as though Kell had been at work here). That deserves some comment and some (spoiler light) analysis, I think.

And if you haven't read A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows (where have you BEEN?) I hope that this will persuadfe you to do so.

So - why do I think this trilogy, and this book, are so great?

First, the characters. They are so real and so true. You may not end up loving everyone (except "bad ideas are my favourite kind" Lila, of course you'll end up loving her because LILA) but you will see them all as so real and the cost of what happens in this book as a real, crushing cost. And they're all so mixed up, so frustratingly human, not heroes - or villains - on a Quest.

Everyone you'd expect and hope to meet is here, and some others. Kell and Rhy, of course, royal princes, magical and non-magical, with their conflicts and history. Lila too, as dangerous as ever (perhaps more so) and as wonderful as ever (Lila Bard! Yes!) And Alucard Emery with his on-off relationship with Rhy (what exactly did happen before ADSOM?) and... and... and stop, David, there are some others here you could mention that might count as spoilers. What I will say is that everyone we meet - even those who previously seemed unpleasant or even - is, over the course of the book, shown to be a good sight more complex than the judgmental reader ever gave them credit for: all the burdens, the noble motives gone bad, the impossible decisions, the weighing of least evils, is exposed.

Even the fears of parenthood (which are, simply, all consuming) have their place.

Then, the deft way that everything from the earlier books is brought together - even amidst new perils - and resolved... but still with that cost, with pain and blood and regret. It makes me think of the final part of The Lord of the Rings. Poor Frodo suffering what today we'd call PTSD and adolescent me not getting it, heedless that the book was written by a man who must have been suffering just that. Well here there's the same sense of dark. I don't know what Schwab must have imagined herself through to portray this but the empathy in this book simply shines out. Incredible.

And the worlds - we see new aspects here of the three Londons and their surroundings. There's a telling difference between most of the action on the books - taking place in one London or another - and some of the travel here which goes further, the book taking on an almost fairytale feeling with the geography vague - it's not clear whether beyond London itself these worlds are the same as ours and the haze of uncertainty makes very real the conceit of slipping into alternate realities.

And of course we have magic, fighting, ships... an epic scale for this conclusion, picking up right after AGOS left off, with Rhy dying and Kell trapped, and romping through those 666(!) pages.

If the book starts with peril and jeopardy it soon ramps up even further as worlds are at risk - Red London but also our, Grey London. While the nobles who came to London for the tournament fret and bicker, a dreadful threat is arising...

Oh, and the language. Schwab has such a way with language:

"The truth had claws, and they were sunk into his chest..."

For sure they were!

"If she was careful enough, sharp enough, then nothing bad would happen..."

I know that feeling. It doesn't work.

"Dead men can't hold grudges"

Is Schwab out Stevensoning Stevenson?

In short, this is all you could possibly want or expect from the final part of the trilogy, and much, much more besides. An epic read, a truly great book.


Kings of the Wyld: The Band, Book One
Kings of the Wyld: The Band, Book One
by Nicholas Eames
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Getting the band back together, 24 Feb. 2017
I'm grateful to Orbit for a review copy of this book.

Guardians of the Galaxy meets Lord of the Rings in this rousing epic fantasy debut in which a retired group of warriors must get the band back together for one last seemingly impossible mission...

"The boys are back in town..." it says on the cover of this book.

And how.

Kings of the Wyld is rollicking, explosive fun from cover to cover. Starting quietly - Clay Cooper, retired adventurer and stalwart of the City Watch in Coverdale, is returns home from work to find an old friend waiting with a proposition - the book quickly accelerates like a great chromium plated monster on the road behind you. There is a Quest - Gabriel's (Cooper's friend's) daughter, who herself went off adventuring, is In Trouble, besieged by a horde of demons no less. There is the rest of his old band to be rounded up: Moog the magician, Matrick the king, Ganelon the warrior. There are foes to be fought or avoided: jealous ex wives and managers, bounty hunters, monsters of every shape and size. There are perils great and small - from robbers in the woods to the terrifying Rot.

And waiting at the end of a perilous road, there is Rose...

This debut novel is written with exuberance and elan. Always assured, Eames strikes the same balance as Pratchett at his best, drawing humour from the conventions and tropes of high fantasy while also clearly loving them - laughing with his characters, never mocking them. The book contrives to be, at the same time, very funny (as when Saga - Cooper's band - stride menacingly up a hill towards a foe - and then someone trips up) and very serious (addressing both the existence of monsters in the world - and this book has monsters everywhere) and mankind's monstrous treatment of them (death in the arena, anyone?) Even the kobolds are, at times, sympathetic.

Now, about that word, "band". The central conceit of this books is that the groups - bands - of mercenary adventurers, out to slay monsters and win treasure, are treated like rockstars. They have rockstar names - the Screaming eagles, the Sisters in Steel, the Wight Nights, Courteney and the Sparks - rockstar followings and travel on their "tours" in enormous wagons filled with illicit comforts.

And Saga were the best, the wildest, the most famous ever.

This is one of those ideas that sounds as though it won't work, as though it ought not to work but Eames exploits it brilliantly, again drawing out humour but also able to use the comparison to convey just how the people in his invented world relate to the "mercs", making it all real by drawing on a whole slew of implicit real-world concepts. It's brilliantly done and very believable, even as he brings in wyverns, two-headed Etins, flying ships, legendary weapons and a tetralogy of gods whose histories turn out to be curiously relevant to our heroes and their quest.

The characters are also vivid and compelling, both the members of Sags itself and the supporting figures - such as the cynical and light fingered "booker" who managed the band and seemed to take most of the money. The stand out is, though, Moog, magician, the one who - most of the time - knows what's going on better than the others (but only just). He's a rather vulnerable figure still mourning the death, years before, of his husband from the Rot and desperately seeking a cure. I want to read more about Moog.

It's a wonderfully immersive book, with our heroes facing thousand mile treks across evil forests, vast hordes of fearsome monsters, ancient evils and numerous reversals of fortune. Never less than gripping, the writing becomes truly compelling as the story comes to its climax. Can a group of ageing adventurers, beset by sore backs and wonky knees, still cut in today's brutal world? Will guile and determination be enough? or will they - as seems likely when, within a few miles of home, they're humiliatingly robbed - wish they'd stayed in retirement?

Just a super read, a really fresh book, one to savour from start to finish.


The Fatal Tree
The Fatal Tree
by Jake Arnott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Bene, 24 Feb. 2017
This review is from: The Fatal Tree (Hardcover)
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

You need to take care if you visit Romeville, especially if you're a chub. Believe the patter from one of the canting-crew - cove or mort - and you may find you're just a cull. Watch out especially in darkmans. Maybe you're best staying in Daisyville after all...

This book transports the reader to the heart of 18th century London, the town of posture-molls and lully-prigs, a great roistering stink of a place fueled by gin where the flat and flash worlds coexist and everyone has secrets.

It's the story of Elizabeth Lyon, "Edgeworth Bess" and her lover, accomplice, betrayer, Jack Sheppard. Lyon is ruined by her master's daughter and cast off to make her living in the "academies" and "vaulting-schools" of the Hundred of Drury: Sheppard is a bored apprentice who takes to burglary and jailbreaking like a native. Lyon and Sheppard were real people: William Archer, aspiring journalist in Grub Street by day and client of Mother Clap's molly-house by night, was not but stands for a class of gay men condemned by the harsh (injustice) of the time. (Arnott names some of them in a postscript. Gabriel Lawrence. William Griffin. Thomas Wright.) The Triple Tree awaits, and many will dance the Tyburn jig by the end of this tale.

The whole scene is presided over by Jonathan Wild, thief-taker ("prig-napper") and thief-master, whose own fate is bound up with those of Lyon, Sheppard and Archer. He, also, was real: after his fall, Defoe wrote his life story.

Arnott packs an extraordinary amount into a relatively short book. There's the vigour and bite of a London ("Romeville") where everyone is, seemingly, on the make, not only the sharks in Exchange Alley who drive the South Sea Bubble or Wild himself but also a Lord Chancellor who's embezzling from the Treasury and escapes with a fine. The rich may get off with a light sentence but the poor receive no mercy (isn't that always true?) He also shows us the quest, among the coves and the morts, for instant fame, in a world where the scribes of Grub Street (former Grape Street, former Grope-something-Amazin-doesn't-like Lane) can tell a tale of jailbreak, ruin and repentence and gather enormous crowds to witness that final journey along what's now Oxford Street to the Tree.

At one point a young girl in jail confesses to Lyons that she wants to be like her, Like Edgeworth Bess: she wants fame and respect. She wants to be a celebrity. Three hundred years ago, there is a new, instant means to earn this, and plenty are up for it - as we realise from the very form of the novel, which is the entwined confessions of Lyon and Archer.

Never less than vivid, this was at times a slow read (I had to keep looking up the flash-talk in Arnott's helpful glossary, and perhaps at times it is a little rich in Lyons' sections of the story) but it really grew on me. Behind the swagger and bravado there is a deeper story here - a story of love and of heartbreak, of people meeting, falling for each other - parted. A sad story. (Isn't that always true?)

Through it all, some truths emerge, I think - about ambition, about corruption, above all about that great Wen, both devourer and playground of the young, London, whose character doesn't change, even if overlain for a time by the hypocrisy of a Wild or a Society for the Reformation of Manners. Bulldoze or bomb the streets, pour the concrete, the place remains a flash-ken and long may it be so.

A unique reading experience, not to be missed.


Ubo
Ubo
by Steve Rasnic Tem
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing but touched by genius, 10 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Ubo (Paperback)
I'm grateful to Solaris for an advance copy of this book.

"A blend of science fiction and horror, award-winning author Steve Rasnic Tem’s new novel is a chilling story exploring the roots of violence and its effect on a possible future."

To say that this book surprised me is putting it mildly. The two previous books by Steve Rasnic Tem that I had read - Deadfall Hotel and Blood Kin were supernatural, somewhat monstrous but - allowing for some weirdness - very much set in the here and now.

UBO is different. UBO is set in... UBO, wherever that is. It's a decaying building in a decaying city, where strange, malevolent "roaches" - giant insects - imprison and torture humans, forcing them, by some strange mind control, to inhabit the memories of notorious criminals and killers. These parts of the book are dark and very difficult to read. We hear the internal monologues, the self-justification, the arrogance, of a spree killer, of a bloodstained tyrant, a domestic abuser, a serial killer, a medieval warlord - all of them real historical people.

Running through the book, as a thread, are the self-deluding narratives of Holocaust perpetrators.

It's extremely well done, deeply, deeply chilling and at times, really nasty. The reader experiences this at one remove and that is unsettling: the conceit of having actual people kidnapped and forced to relive life after terrible life is even more awful.

And yet, in a sense, that's not the worst. There are the life stories of the prisoners themselves - seen from the viewpoint of Daniel, who gives nicknames to his own particular group: Falstaff, Lenin, Bogart, Gandhi. A common theme, again, is of the failure to control anger, of actual or potential harm to families and friends before the men - they are mostly men - were carried away to UBO. They speculate, as these hard-given up stories emerge, that they have been chosen to match the lives of those they inhabit. They muse on whether they bear guilt for the things they do in those "scenarios". They self-justify their own behaviour: most, though, are curiously incurious about where they are now, why, and what will become of them.

So it goes. The scenarios are sometimes more, sometime less violent. The world of UBO leaks into them at times. And then - everything changes. We've been fed clues, glimpses of something behind the world here, and that is eventually revealed. When it is, it makes a kind of cruel sense of what has gone before - but it is the kind of sense that makes one despair of humankind's ability ever to improve.

This is a magnificent, but such a dark, vision of humanity past, present and future. Firmly in the camp of a kind of realist science fiction - only leap of imagination is really needed here, that ability to jump into others' (past) memories - it is still in atmosphere and setting far distant from the other Rasnic Tem stories I mentioned before: even the monsters in those were more human than some of the actors here.

What a work of imagination this must have been. What an experience for the reader. Disturbing, compelling, it's a book that will remain with you long after you close it and come back from UBO.

Strongly recommended.


Wintersong
Wintersong
by S. Jae-Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Tempting fruits, 7 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Wintersong (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

"We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"

Inspired by Christina Rossetti's poem Goblin Market, this is the story of Liesl, her sister Käthe and brother Josef. It's set in the elegant late 18th or early 19th century - the period, in style at least, to which traditional fairy stories seem to look back (perhaps because that's when they were first compiled and published?) there's a background of middle Europe: forests, the distant capitals of Paris or Vienna, marching armies, the rivalry of master (never, of course, mistress) musicians.

"Your love is killing him..."

Josef, a talented violinist, has a chance of joining this glamorous life. In contrast to such dreams, Liesl's world is circumscribed, her talents as a composer scorned by their father, a drunken innkeeper. Little surprise perhaps that her thoughts turn to childhood days playing with the imagined Goblin King in the forest...

But it's not Liesl who seems in danger when the strange merchants turn up in the market square of the village one day, selling their ripe and tempting fruits. Rather, Käthe seems likely to be swept off her feet by the stranger who breezes in with them. Can he really be the Goblin King? Indeed, does such a person actually exist?

Set in a time of tension, balanced between old superstition and new rationalism, Enlightenment and full blooded Romanticism, Winter and Spring, this is really Liesl's story. Liesl will sacrifice herself for her brother's ambition, her family's need, her sister's safety - but what will become of her? What about her inner desires, her need for love?

It's a beautifully written book, dark, sensual and cryptic, as Liesl sets out for the Underworld to save her sister - from what exactly? Even as she goes, she's not sure. Once there, she's herself at the mercy of the quicksilver King and his mob of a Court: beguiled by tales of a sacrifice even greater that the one she expected, made to feel a duty that was never hers. There are echoes of ancient myth, of Orpheus and Eurydice or Tammuz and Ishtar, with the rhythm of the story driven by the ebb and flow of the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King.

Jae-Jones has produced a masterful and beguiling story which manages to be both a tale of Liesl's coming of age and of her uncovering truths about her family and the world around her. Myths and misconceptions are case aside, but will they be replaced with others, more beguiling and addictive? Is it better to live with ugly truths or beautiful lies?

I simply loved this book. You never know where you are with it: it's fantasy but also romance, myth and truth. And deeply musical, every page infused with the composition, creation and impact of music. Like those ripe and luscious fruits, one bite will set the reader on the path through the winter woods, into the underground, the barrow rooms, the subterranean lake - to return, if at all, forever changed.


Evil Games: The gripping heart-stopping thriller (Detective Kim Stone Crime Thriller series)
Evil Games: The gripping heart-stopping thriller (Detective Kim Stone Crime Thriller series)
by Angela Marsons
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Truly evil games, 3 Feb. 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of the book for review.

I loved this story.

"Alex knew that she had broken this woman. She had played on her weaknesses like a violin. Not a flicker of movement or emotion was present...."

Alex Thorne is a powerful and ruthless antagonist, not a stereotyped criminal but a manipulator, and truly intelligent, committed and pitiless person with none of the usual weaknesses that bring down villains in police stories. But... something is lacking in her:

"Now, Alex's database told her the correct response for her current situation was shock."

Kim Stone is a wounded, complex character: not the traditional detective burned out by the job and taking refuge in drink but a person with a dark, dark past and serious issues who has come to police work as a way of fighting her demons - only to be threatened by that past in ways she could never have imagined.

Together they make this book into an epic chess game, played out in conversations and interviews as the two jostle for advantage measures in gestures, verbal hesitations and influence. Between, they search frantically for information on each, anything that will yield a slight advantage.

At the same time, Kim has a distressing and frustrating enquiry on: two young girls abused, the father likely to walk because of a police mistake. A case she takes very personally indeed.

And she's also trying to cope with a murder, a new dog, and insomnia. Not necessarily in that order.

While focussing on some pretty obnoxious people I found this a believable and intriguing story. Marsons expertly shows the reader just enough, but never quite fills in the last link, so that although you broadly know what's happening it's never clear who has the upper hand or what may be going on under the surface.

The characters are also credible, in particular Stone's team who are all given their own personalities and are not just police shaped tropes. And she sets the book in a recognisable Black Country of shopping centres, flats, canals and dingy pubs. The epic duel between Stone and Thorne is all the more absorbing for taking place in such a, well, normal landscape.

It doesn't all make easy ready - some horrific things happen or are hinted at, and innocence is no defence here. And in a foreword, Marsons makes clear that a character like Alex Thorne is scarily plausible - leaving me wondering how many strangers I cross paths with might, really, be conscienceless sociopaths...

An excellent, disturbing and entertaining thriller.


Kill the Next One
Kill the Next One
by Federico Axat
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

3.0 out of 5 stars A rather different sort of thriller, 3 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Kill the Next One (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

This is a very hard review to write without spoilers, in fact, impossible, although I have tried to keep them as mild as I can to protect enjoyment of the book. But there is a twist in this book you really do not want to know about so I recommend stopping reading where I warn below.

(But then please come back after you've read the book and let me know what you think - I'd love to discuss this book with others who've read it).

We begin in media res. Ted McKay is about to shoot himself in the head. He's made meticulous preparations; chosen a time when his wife, Holly, and daughters, Nadine and Cindy are away; stuck a note on his office door to warn Holly - and he's hidden the family photographs.

Ted is suffering from an inoperable brain tumour and sees this as the only way out.

Then he's shown another way.

A stranger, Justin Lynch, turns up, offering a deal. If Ted kills two men, he will in turn be added to a death list maintained by "The Organisation". One of the men, Edward Blaine, is a murderer who's got away with his crime. The other, "Wendell" is a fellow member, who wants to die. Ted will still die, but this way, he gets to inflict a little justice, and his death is murder, not suicide - supposedly some comfort to his family. (Not sure I go along with this - the idea that suicide is a uniquely shameful thing, that is. On the other hand if you can't nerve yourself to do the deed, maybe it's better to have someone do it for you...)

How Lynch knows about Ted's intentions is not explained.

The story really takes off from there this most thrillery premise. We see Ted attempt to carry out his side of the bargain - and then when things inevitably go wrong, to escape from the situation he's got himself into. He finds out, of course, that all is not entirely as Lynch said - and that there are connections between himself and the victims. Trying to track down Lynch, he seems to have stumbled on something both deeper and more complex than he thought, with twists, turns and false information aplenty.

This first part of the story is taut, convincing (if you accept the suicide premise) and adrenaline-soaked, an atmospheric thriller enhanced by hints that something odd was going on - for example, the repeated eruptions into the text of an opossum, always described as evil, disgusting or predatory, which Ted along can seen, or the contradictory versions of certain events. If Ted is suffering from a brain tumour, how much of what he's seeing is real? What effect might that have - or have had - on his (always absent) family?

Then, the story shifts abruptly to something very different, focussing on Ted and his history. The remainder of the book lets this play out, including a look back at Ted's childhood and college years.

It's at this point that I find it hard to discuss the detail os the story further without spoilers. So here is the warning - look away now if you haven't read the book and want it to have its full effect...

Still with me?

Are you sure?

Well...

Then you'll know that in the remainder of the story, Ted is seeking to understand his past. He doesn't have a tumour, but has been behaving strangely and his experiences in the first part were not wholly real. Wendell hinted that he might be the victim of a deeper plot: perhaps this is why psychologist Dr Laura Hill is now interrogating him? Why she's delving into his past?

And what has become of Ted's wife and girls?

Who was Wendell - and is he alive, or dead?

Will Ted ever escape the situation he got into, and find happiness with his family?

This part of the story is such a change that it's almost like starting again. Axat has very deftly set up the story as one thing and then it turns into something very different. There is much probing of responsibility, much outing of hidden secrets, with the theme of childhood and the impressions that it makes on us explored repeatedly from different angles (Ted's story and those of some others here are counterpointed with glimpses of Dr Hill's own son and of Ted's daughters).

But those pesky possums keep showing up...

I think your view of this book will be coloured by how prepared you are to accept the shift. For me, it didn't quite work. Despite Axat's compelling narration and Frye's able translation, I felt perhaps there is just too much material to be covered to keep the suspense - highlighted, perhaps, by the way an epilogue is used to explain some of the backstory, material which might have been in the main text but which I can see would have been difficult to integrate. There's also the issue that while much of what we learn in the present day parts of the story is based on Ted's recollections, and he is a very unreliable narrator, when we go into the past there is a more neutral point of view and a suggestion we're getting the unvarnished truth. The two approaches jar slightly.

So while it's often a thrilling and compelling story, and concludes with a blaze of action which injects real excitement, I felt this book did lose its way in the middle somewhat. But you may well disagree - and I'd be interested to know if you do.


Passing Strange
Passing Strange
by Ellen Klages
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars San Francisco is a city well-suited to magic..., 28 Jan. 2017
This review is from: Passing Strange (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

"Helen Young went into her bedroom. She changed into a pair of blue silk pyjamas, brushed her hair, and put on a touch of lipstick. Then she got into bed, turned out the light, and went to sleep for the last time humming a Cole Porter tune until she and the melody simply drifted away."

So ends one of the characters is this hauntingly beautiful tale of life in the queer melting pot of 40s San Francisco.

Helen is one of a group of young women who work or socialise in Mona's, a club where girls can be boys. Whether working as entertainers not only for their own circle but for the plump mid-west tourists who come to gawp, or simply drifting among like minded exiles from straight society, they stand by each other, providing rooms when needed, meals, cover from the police and moral support.

Haskell is at the centre of this circle. She is a talented artist who makes her living drawing pictures for pulp comic books: the kind of thing where a scantily dressed woman is chained down and menaced by a purple monster. Why does she draw such pictures? Well, it's where the money is, but she has other reasons, as we - and Emily, newly acquainted with the little group of friends - gradually learn. Haskell's life hasn't been easy and she is in a sense perhaps still on the run from her past.

There are others in the group too, including some with startling abilities (like being able to shrink space - but only in that misty city of magic, San Francisco) and we see their joys and sorrows, but it's Haskell and Emily that this lovely, romantic book focusses on. Everything seems against them: the law, society, the looming war (deftly illustrated by the presence of a refugee girl from England), an abusive husband. But they have good friends.

How this setup leads to that ending, to Helen's ending decades later, I won't say because the tension of the story hangs upon it. It's a taut, well-contsructed plot, one of those books where no word is superfluous. And there are some beautiful passages (see especially the parts describing the 1940 World's Fair, taking place on an island in the Bay, just as the rest of the world went to pieces).

I hadn't read any Klages before but I will be looking for more of her writing after this. (You can find a bonus story by here.) An excellent book that features well drawn characters, abounds in atmosphere and celebrates a period and setting I was completely unaware of. (Oh, and look at that beautiful cover!)

If you want to know more about the book, listen to episode 295 of the Coode Street Podcast where Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe discuss it with the author. It's a good listen.


Empire Games
Empire Games
by Charles Stross
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.94

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I foresee great contests at the Empire Games..., 26 Jan. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Empire Games (Paperback)
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley.

One of my most anticipated books for 2017, Empire Games picks up the story of the world-walking Clan seventeen years on.

In Stross's multi-timeline Merchant Princes sequence (originally published as 6 books, collected as The Bloodline Feud, The Traders' War and The Revolution Trade) we saw the collision between the Clan and modern US society. It's 2020 in the four alternate timelines we saw in the earlier books. Not much is happening in Timeline 4 - subject to 2000 years of nuclear winter - or Timeline 1 - the Gruinmarkt, nuked by the US in 2003.

But lots is going on in a world close to ours, where the Department for Homeland Security is putting together a plan to pursue the Clan. And in that of the New American Commonwealth, where the Clan took refuge - and where Miriam has risen to a high position in the revolutionary government.

The players are ready. The board is laid out. The Empire Games begin.

It's very enjoyable and very readable. The main protagonist, Rita, has a heritage that, as we soon learn, makes her something of an outsider in a fiercely inward looking and distrustful society. Part of that's visible - her skin colour - part of it's less obvious. If you want a glimpse of the atmosphere in this book, look at the cover image above. Security cameras. Cars moving along, with little ID tags. A crosswire... the alternate US has become a panopticon state, everything and everybody surveilled in an effort to spot worldwalker activity. If you apparently don't fit in, you'd better work hard to keep your nose clean and your profile harmless.

Strangely, it's an atmosphere that makes Kurt feel very much at home. But then he's a defector from the former GDR, East Germany, and familiar with the ways of the Stasi. A comparison Stross makes very pointedly: but also one that enables a survivor with a good grasp of old-fashioned tradecraft and a developed geocaching hobby to achieve quite a bit under the radar. What part will Kurt play in this evolving story? We don't know yet, but I think he'll be important... not least because he's Rita's adoptive grandfather.

I quickly warmed to Kurt and Rita: they're both competent, serious players of the Empire Games. Indeed, I found this book as a whole pretty compelling from the start. In mode it closely resembles a technothriller, with a lot of patient exposition of methods, technologies and goals as Rita comes to the attention of the DHS who soon have plans for her. Beneath that, though, there's the portal fantasy setup of the Merchant Princes and behind that legend, something that begins to look very like hard(ish) SF. It's a credit to the writer that he manages to keep these balls - and more - in the air at once, while still spinning a very readable story, even though the first half of this is largely setup. Is that too much? For some authors/ stories perhaps, but not here. It's all fascinating and, as I said, very readable (and this is the first in a trilogy, so not disproportionate).

Above all, I think Stross has captured something about the atmosphere of the times. No, we haven't been attacked by extra-dimensional drug smugglers with a stolen nuke: but the drivers are there, the impetus towards surveillance ("if it only saves one life..." "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear..."), the converging technologies, the rising distrust of the strange, the stranger, the out-of-place ("if you see something, say something"). We're on a knife edge, and the shows one side on which we could fall.

There's also beautiful, inventive clever and, in places knowing writing, whether references to people vanishing into "night and mist", to the "white heat of a technological revolution", to a "Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence" (or MITI) directing tech progress in the parallel timeline or a sardonic reference to the American "Heimatschutzministerium" (doesn't that sound chilling?) We get blended Churchill and Picard ("Action This Day" combined with "make it so") and to end with, "And so Kurt Douglas... raised his baton to summon the Wolf Orchestra back to life, to play the cold war blues one last time."

It's a fast, compulsive and intelligent story, at once familiar and alien. Cracking good SF/ Fantasy/ thriller (take your pick) and I'd strongly recommend.

Do you need to have read Merchant Princes (in either incarnation)? It would be helpful but is not not necessary - the essentials are given here (though those are very enjoyable books... so why wouldn't you want to read them?)


Behind Her Eyes: The new Sunday Times #1 best selling psychological thriller
Behind Her Eyes: The new Sunday Times #1 best selling psychological thriller
by Sarah Pinborough
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £4.99

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Creepy. Creepy. Creepy., 26 Jan. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I'm grateful for an advance copy kindly provided by the publisher

I may be a teeny bit biased when it comes to Sarah Pinborough's books - I have yet to read one that I didn't enjoy. But really. You have to read this book, just do. I'm going to be nagging everyone to do that and you may as well give in sooner rather than later.

Not only is it Pinborough at her very best (and that's something in itself) but it's Pinborough leaping and vaulting over genre boundaries, authorial conventions and the reader's sense of where the book is going. You may think you're got it sussed, but you haven't. Not for nothing has the hashtag #wtfthat ending been going round.

Which sort of makes it hard to review. I'm generally not precious about spoilers but - for once - I really, really mustn't say anything about the ending. Beyond, perhaps... no. Nothing.

Begin at the beginning then? It opens with what might almost be a spell:

"Pinch myself and say I AM AWAKE once an hour.

Look at my hands. Count my fingers.

Look at clock (or watch), look away, look back.

Stay calm and focused.

Think of a door."

What's going on? Whose spell is it? What do they want?

This is the story of Adele, of David and of Louise.

Troubled Adele (we hear some of her thoughts) who desperately loves her husband David

David, who denies Adele a phone or credit cards, and has control of her money. Who seems himself desperately unhappy. Stressed. But controlling, in charge. Who moves the household from one place to another, changing jobs, sloughing off friendships.

And who fancies Louise.

Insecure Louise, still smarting from her divorce, a bit heavier than she'd like, devoted to her six year old son, ready for a little love or even just some tenderness.

It's also the story of a girl and boy in a lonely institution. Of the mind games and cruelties that people play on each other when they think they are in love, when they want things, when they are afraid. Of the lengths they'll go to.

It's a psychological thriller, very much so. But. If you've read Pinborough's last two books there is a sense in which it's the natural outgrowth of, a sort of thematic sequel to, both The Death House and 13 Minutes. The flashbacks show a deep understanding of the younger versions of the characters and while the "now" parts are more adult-focussed, the truth of what's going on rests very much on how those people were formed, who they really were and as in those stories, Pinborough infuses naturalistic settings and real - oh how tangibly real - people with a delicate sensibility of horror. Like a little speck of blight in the perfect rose, or the whiff of death in a still life. Remember that thou shalt die.

Which I think distinguishes this story from the currently popular 'grit-lit' of the The Girl who did the Thing type. Yes, there is psychological tension here, by the bucketful. David - controlling, watchful, but desirable. What's his real agenda? Adele - well, we see her point of view, she tells us she's up to something but it doesn't quite make sense. Is she the victim, trying the regain her freedom? Or the villain? Does she want revenge? For what exactly?

And Louise - what's her game? Is she really Adele's friend or will she betray her with David?

Together these three wheel and leap through the story like gymnasts. The reader is never quite sure what to expect. Louise is the one who sets herself the task of solving the mystery: she feels that only by understanding Adele's and David's past can she understand their present and free herself from them. She's helped by a battered notebook - but we, the readers, know more than her as tricksy Pinborough gives us both Adele's thoughts and the occasional flashback. It's all about viewpoints, I think, the past seen through different pairs of eyes. And information: who knows what about who, and when. Towards the end of the book one character compares things to a jigsaw puzzle that's about to be completed - but that's optimistic. These pieces keep changing shape and colour.

If that all sounds a bit clever-clever, don't worry - this is more than a pacey thriller, but it is, also, a very pacey thriller. From that first page, it casts its spell (Pinborough's also done some compelling versions of classic fairy stories, and it shows) and the reader - well, this one - just has to keep on, sympathising by turns with Louise, Adele and David: wary by turns of Louise, Adele and David, baffled at what's happening, but knowing, just knowing that there's stuff bobbing under the surface.

And praying it's just a lump of weed, not a putrid corpse.

This book remained in my thoughts long after reading - it's not so much (or not only) what happens in the story, but what you realise will happen after.

Creepy as anything, and simply brilliant.


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