17 October 2019

Review - The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson

Cover design by Charlotte Stroomer
The Rosewater Redemption (Wormwood Trilogy, 3)
Tade Thompson
Orbit Books, 17 October 2019
PB, e, 373pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of The Rosewater Redemption to consider for review.

I'm excited to be able to review The Rosewater Redemption, published today.

Viewed from one perspective, reviewing the final volume of a trilogy is hard verging on pointless. Unless the author is way off their game (spoiler: Thompson is as sharp and focussed as ever) readers who have got this far will want to finish, and Volume 3 will reward them by delivering more of what they love and tidying this up.

All that is true of The Rosewater Redemption, and I could stop here and just say "read this if you enjoyed the other books, read them first if you haven't already".

That would do the trick. There's a BUT and an AND though.

BUT. That feels like shortchanging my follower.

AND. There is something more about Redemption.

So I'll see if I can tease that out... beware, there will be spoilers for Rosewater and The Rosewater Insurrection.

What Redemption does, I think, apart from giving us more time with with beloved (and frustrating) characters and tying off plot strands, is to give a new perspective to the whole story. Not just more story. This is something that - with hindsight - I can see in Insurrection too, but is more obvious here. In Rosewater, the nature and intentions of the alien - "Wormwood" - that has settled in Nigeria are obscure. It heals and provides power but exactly how and why isn't clear. That book is very much about how Nigeria - and the world - are adjusting to this presence, including the remarkable character Kaaro who has with others been gifted a kind of psychic ability by the incursion. The politics of Rosewater the city are backgrounded, it's about Kaaro and his lover Aminat.

Insurrection focusses, as the name suggests, on mayor Jack Jacques' drive to have Rosewater become independent but introduces the m motives of the aliens more clearly - fleeing a disaster they wish too use reanimated human corpses as hosts. There desire to do so gives Jacques leverage for a bargain which achieves independence for Rosewater. It also shows the aliens as potentially vulnerable, helps us see things from their perspective and appreciate the realpolitik that might look for a deal (despite the colonial echoes in a country that had been subject to the British Empire). It's a quite different approach from the usual SF one of humans vs aliens.

Throughout these books we do though get a dizzying series of different perspectives and characters, and in particular Hannah, Jacques' wife, opposes the "grand bargain" as condemning living humans to a form of slavery. That point of view comes too the fore here in The Rosewater Redemption which - among many other things - allows this point to be debated in various ways: political, philosophical, utilitarian and - in a heart rending scene involving a character we have come to love - emotional.

Having read Redemption, I don't think it's putting it too strongly to say that it made me see the previous books in a whole new light. As I said above, it's not just "more plot" it's that these three books make up a tightly bound whole which has to be seen as a single entity. Contributing to that we see some familiar characters here from new directions - for example Femi - and also a lot more of several who have appeared teasingly and briefly - for example "Bicycle Girl" Oyin Da, regarded as a fugitive and a dissident but about whom I think we knew little, gets a lot of time and I think once you see the part she plays you'll realise how much was - designedly - missing previously, and want to go back and reread the earlier books with that knowledge in mind.

There's much more I could say about The Rosewater Redemption but I think that's the essence, without the previous stories aren't complete, not just in extent, but in essence.

The whole thing is a magnificent achievement and deserves to be seen as whole. It isn't one of those trilogies where you can read out of order, or skip the middle book; and given Thompson's gorgeous prose, you oughtn't to want to.

Just read them. Read them now. Read them in order. Then you can thank me.

For an excerpt from the book see the Orbit website here.


14 October 2019

#Blogtour #Review - The Art of Murder by JS Strange

The Art of Murder (Jordan Jenner 2)
JS Strange
Panther Publishing, October 1 2019
PB, e 285pp

I'm grateful to Panther for letting me have a free advance e-copy of The Art of Murder and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Jordan Jenner is back!

Yes, the reclusive, cat-owning gay private investigator from Cardiff returns to the page with a new murder mystery. Following the events of Death on the Rocks, which took place over a (very bleak) Christmas it's now April but while you might be expecting green shoots and new life, it's not quite like that.

Jordan's brother Ashley is still sleeping on the sofa, with Jordan no nearer understanding why he has left his partner, Ben. Perhaps a city break in Amsterdam may help the two relax? It's not to be, since they catch the attention of... someone... over there and on return, Jordan finds himself in the middle of very sinister goings-on centred on Cardiff's art world.

Events which culminate in murder.

As with Death on the Rocks, there's a personal angle to this - Jenner has been hired by one of the artists at the focus of the scandal, and soon finds himself having not only to investigate a death, but also to pin down the identity and motivations of a fringe group, the 'Dirty Dollys'. This mysterious cabal is a rather brilliant creation of Strange's - they act as a pack, targeting popular, up-and-coming artists with fraud and blackmail. Are they an artistic movement? In it for the money? Is it political? How far might they actually go? Nobody seems to know, so the threat to Xander Draper - the darling of the Cardiff art market - has to be taken seriously.

At the same time, someone is following Jordan. Someone seems to know where he lives. This has got very personal - even more so that in the first book, where Jordan's mother became embroiled.

I liked this story, it's fast-paced, continually throwing things at Jordan. We get to see more of his personal life - credit should go to Strange for writing books where the gay characters are many and diverse - and he's a fascinating mass of contradictions, a but of a loner and a grump perhaps but likeable and understandable. He's certainly a long way from being the stereotyped antisocial detective. Jordan is more at the centre of this book in some respects because, while the police are involved, he's no longer an external consultant to them (budget cuts). He also has his own client involve din the case, giving him a slightly different agenda from the official police. That makes him less part of a team and leaves more for him to do.

I found the Dollys (the spelling is deliberate) an intriguing group, the whole setup - artists picked off and subject to harassment in the full light of day, as it were - having something of the sulphurous edge of a Margery Allingham story. This book is completely naturalistic, there's nothing supernatural here, but the drive and motivations of the villains (if that's what they are) does have an almost metaphysical cast.

Strange has a style that grows on you - sometimes it feels as though it could do with a bit of polish, and it may not be to everyone's taste, but in my view there is lots of smoothed down writing out there, lots of bland stuff that reads pretty much the same and this one (with its predecessor) has something distinctive which is actually quite rare and precious.

Overall, a welcome return to the world of Jordan Jenner which left me wanting more.

You can buy the book from Amazon here. The publisher website is here. The blogtour continues with sone excellent reviewers - check out the poster below!





10 October 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood #NetGalley #MistletoeBook

Mistletoe
Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus), 10 October 2019
HB, e, 304pp

Today marks publication of Alison Littlewood's latest unsettling horror tale, Mistletoe. I'm delighted to be able to join the book's blogtour and grateful to Quercus for a free advance e-copy via Netgalley.

'The night was filled with thoughts of mistletoe, dreams of mistletoe, the touch of it on her skin, the grasping tendrils entangling her limbs...'

I've loved Alison Littlewood's books right back to A Cold Season and here she is again at her icy best, telling the story of a woman alone, out among the snows of a Yorkshire winter, as Christmas approaches. (This book would definitely make an atmospheric Christmas read - or present - if you're looking for one).

Leah, mourning the loss of her son and her husband, has given up her city life - 'The world of cars and buses stinking of diesel, of towering buildings and grey streets, of all-night supermarkets and corner-shops, of anonymous crowds' - and exchanged it for 'a farmhouse, a barn, an apple orchard and a single field'. She's a 'comer-inner', having bought the (dilapidated) holding and intending to spend her time renovating the house, which husband Josh discovered and set his heart on before his death. Whether Leah is trying to forget Josh and son Finn or, somehow, come closer in this place where she'd imagined a new life with them, isn't clear.

Of course Maitland Farm isn't the rural idyll that Leah hoped for. Between a dirty, uncared for house with no working heating, Arctic weather, her haunting memories, a barn full of sinister junk including the creepiest doll outside Stephen King and a sense of wrongness, Leah's hopes are soon driven out by, not fears exactly (that would be simply sorted: back to the city!) but a growing disquiet.

Littlewood is a master at building up tension - escalating things slowly, springing her trap, then stepping back: oh, it wasn't a ghost, it was a neighbour accustomed to crossing the field rather than using the lane.

Or was it?

Here the tension builds credibly on top of Leah's already low, troubled spirits, the reader never being sure whether, when an odd thing happens, it's actually supernatural or born of her love and longing for Josh and Finn (or her lack of sleep). Perhaps it's impossible to disentangle all these? Suppose there are ghosts at Maitland Farm. Wouldn't that open a channel, a possibility, a way to Josh and Finn? So tempting. So very tempting. But at the same time, given the horrors that Leah begins to suspect - the hints she picks up form her neighbours about a dark past and about revenge and ill-luck on the house - what dangers might wait? The story keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, even as it takes a dark turn.

This book is a brilliantly creepy, atmospheric horror story. It wrings every last drop out of the dark side of Christmas: the bitter mistletoe berries, the cold of ancient sacrifice, the short days and above all, perhaps, the pain of being alone at a time of communal cheer and jollity. It is also a story of loss and vulnerability - there is a real sense that in placing herself where she has, Leah opened up to a real and terrible darkness. We begin to see echoes between events in the distant past - events that are impressed in the crumbling stone and barren soil of the farm - and Leah's own life. And the skin of the 21st century seems awfully thin at Maitland Farm ('Here, the past didn't fade to nothing...') with a potential, a dreadful potential, to draw her into its Midwinter dance, perhaps with a seductive hope.

There is also bewitching, lyrical prose here: 'The snow was constantly changing: now rose-tinted or grey, now golden or lavender, made new with every dawn or noon or evening and yet just as cold...' Littlewood vividly describes not only the horrors glimpsed in the shadows but the colour and sound and the bleakness of a hard winter.

It is, simply, a delight to read, a horror story but also a beautiful study of a woman very close to the edge, of friendship, loss and courage. Strongly recommended. (And if you haven't read Littlewood's previous books yet, you must: you have a treat in store. You can thank me later).

For more information about the book, see the publisher's webpage here. For other reviews of Mistletoe, see the blogs in the poster below. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive Books which supports high street bookshops, from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon (and other places too).




5 October 2019

Review - Grave Importance by Vivian Shaw

Cover by Will Staehle and Lisa Marie Pompilio
Grave Importance (Dr Greta Helsing, 3)
Vivian Shaw
Orbit, 24 September 2019
PB, e, 395pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of Grave Importance to consider for review.

And there was war in heaven...

This is the third and final (though I hope "final" doesn't mean "forever") outing for Dr Greta Helsing, physician to the monsters of London, following her previous adventures in Strange Practice and Dreadful Company. In a satisfying twist on urban fantasy, Shaw has her hero treat all manner of supernatural beings, from vampires to mummies to ghouls, at her practice in Harley Street. And in the course of this she is often required to save the world - as you are - whether this involves negotiating with demons or hunting through abandoned tunnels in Paris or London.

Throughout everything, Helsing remains outwardly cool, professional and level-headed, even if she's screaming inside. Her medical training may help, or the fact that she's found love with Sir Francis Varney, a notorious Vampyre (note the spelling) in his day who together with his vampire (note the spelling) friend (Lord) Edmund Ruthven and the demon, Fastitocalon, constitute a kind of ragged family for the orphaned Greta.

It certainly helps that in Grave Importance, Greta's been invited to stand in as Medical Director at Oasis Natrun, a luxury spa and clinic for mummies located on the French Riviera. Here the thousands of year old creatures can have their bandages rewound. Perished and powdered bones, tendons and muscles are replaced. There are even cures for ancient diseases that plague their preserved organs. The facilities are impressive (the place its own helicopter!), the accommodation even more so, and Greta can really enjoy herself applying cutting-edge procedures. All seems to be going well... until Ruthven suffers a mysterious illness, and Greta's mummy patients begin collapsing.

What can be wrong this time?

In an elegantly paced and absorbing adventure, Shaw reveals a new threat to the stability of the universe, one considerably more menacing than anything Greta and the gang have come up against yet. It is an utterly cosmic, appalling danger, a mine quietly laid decades before and which, it seems, it is beyond the capacity of mere humans - or vampires - to defuse. Which raises the question, what do you do at the end of all things, Sam? As readers of the previous books will know, Shaw is mischievously inventive with her quotes and references:

'"This is Hell?" Nadezhda asked, her eyes still too wide.
"Nor are we out of it," said another voice, and they turned to see a stocky man in a surgical gown... The woodcuts didn't really do him justice. "Johannes Faust. You're Helsing?"'

Indeed, there's a sense in which all the main characters here are references, to name only a few, you'll recognise the name Helsing of course and both Varney and Ruthven were chronicled - mischronicled, they'd say stiffly if asked - in classic Victorian horror literature.

Ranging from London to New York to the South of France to the very towers of Hell - and the Nacreous Gate of Heaven - this book is certainly conceived on a grand scale, allowing Greta and her allies full rein to be the characters they have grown to be over these books. That's especially true for  Greta, as she helps out in a very different sort of hospital than the one she's used to, but Varney faces up to his wicked past and both Cranswell and Grisaille play a roguish part. There's a touch of the caper about the book, a dash of romance and a real moral heart behind the wisetalking: at one level Grave Importance is showcasing the everyday virtue of just getting on with it, doing what you can, not giving up, at another it takes that message and transcends it completely, making the whole point one of never giving in to despair, never believing oneself irredeemable, never losing heart.

Oh, and - as mentioned above - Dr Faust is here too. Haven't you always wanted to meet him?

Overall, a fun and fitting end to this trilogy. It has a simpler, more pared down plot that the preceding books, focussing a bit more on character, which I rather enjoyed but best of all there's lots of Greta but at the same time the story is still told on an epic scale. Shaw crams a lot into this book, paradoxically though that still left me wanting more - for example I could have done with more plot around Van Dorne, perhaps: a fascinating character with a fascinating history who plays a significant role here but doesn't really get much airtime.

And finally: like the previous books this has a simply gorgeous cover, the woodcut style giving a very authentic feel of classic horror slightly subverted by the detail of the illustrations. I think Will Staehle and Lisa Marie Pompilio have worked wonders here).

For more about the book, including links to buy, see the publisher's website here.

3 October 2019

Blogtour review - Cage by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Cage (Reykjavík Noir 3)
Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 17 October 2019
PB, e, 227pp

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of Cage and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour. (I'm so pleased to be on another Orenda tour! Look at the great bloggers on the poster - and me!)

Cage is the third and final part of Sigurðardóttir's Reykjavík Noir trilogy, following Snare and Trap. The title's well chosen - not only does a cage feature, but in various ways the principal characters here are all caged.

Agla, of course, is literally imprisoned, serving time for financial chicanery (a sensitive subject in Iceland after the financial crash) and at a very low point, her lover Sonja having deserted her at the end of Trap.

Sonja herself is riding a tiger. She's now a leading figure in the drug smuggling cartel, but aware that at any moment her usefulness may end. She must keep her son Tómas on the move, in case he's located by her enemies, she's had to abandon Agla and she is continually reminded of her crimes and her guilt.

Ingimar - the lynchpin of the fraud in the earlier books - is apparently happier. He is still free and wealthy. But his marriage seems to have died on him and he resorts to increasingly frequent sessions with a woman he pays to flog him.

And María... well, María has lost her job at the public prosecutor's, her marriage has collapsed and she's scrabbling for a living as an investigative journalists, forced to rent a poky office from the right wing station, Radio Edda. The existence of Radio Edda, pumping out noxious racist memes, is a dark thread running through this book, radicalising the young and inciting some truly frightening goings on.

These are all characters you will know well if you've read the previous books, and while Sigurðardóttir delivers nothing less than a tense, nail biting thriller here, I really liked the fact that she gives them more space, more time for reflection. In this book we really see a psychologically satisfying conclusion to all the stories which braided together have made this trilogy strong.

That all takes place, of course, while María continues to seek justice, Sonja safety and Agla - perhaps - love. To a large extent these various strands are kept separate for much of the book, though the shortish chapters mean we never leave anyone alone for very long.

Cage packs a lot into into a small space. There is the continuing scandal around the aluminium market. I never quite understood what the scam was here, but that didn't really matter much. María investigates this, engaged by Agla of all people (those scenes are fun). There is the drugs theme that has run through all the books, and there is also a terrorist subplot that feels especially dangerous because we're genuinely unsure how it will turn out. I went back and reread some of those sections once I'd finished - you won't realise, reading them for the first just, just how clever Sigurðardóttir is being here.

Sigurðardóttir, and of course her translator Quentin Bates who as ever delivers clear prose that maintains just that hint of otherness, a very slight reminder that the book is about another country where they do things (slightly) differently. I like that, I don't want a translation to smooth away all the colour so that the story might be taking place anywhere.

So overall a tense and enjoyable conclusion to this trilogy which may be just a bit lighter than the earlier books and which allows all its characters to grow by the end of the story (even Ingimar does something noble, if perhaps misguided!)

For more information about the book, see the Orenda website here.

You can buy Cage from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books, from Blackwell's, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.




1 October 2019

Review - Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery

Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery
Ed Rachel Autumn Deering and Christopher Golden
Titan Books, 1 October 2019
HB, e, 384pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance reading copy of Hex Life to consider for review.

With Autumn coming and you-know-what due at the end of the month (no, I'm not talking about Brexit) it's time for a bit of witchy magic, don't you think? And here to oblige is Titan bringing another of the themed anthologies which they've been on strong form with lately.

The subject is witchcraft in all its glory and horror. Here is a fantastic spread of stories by a whole gathering of (almost entirely) women writing at the top of their game. What do we think of witches witchcraft? It's a contradictory and tricksy subject, taking in the traditional, menacing stereotype and more recent attempts to reclaim it as a spiritual practice. Either way there seems something intrinsically liminal here - whether as a tool and resort of the marginalised, a hidden sisterhood or a countercultural force. So, a fitting subject for an anthology, allowing a diversity of voices and themes. These stories cover a whole range from evocations of traditional, fairy-tale witchery to urban fantasy variants to stories of revenge, modern life with a little magic, and even the dystopian future. Truly you can find witches everywhere!

Reading this volume is also a great way to taste the work of a diverse group of writers, hopefully to follow up with their other output (some of these stories are set in the authors' wider fictional worlds, others are standalone) and to sample a range of genres (witchcraft doesn't have to equate to horror - though it certainly can!)

In the first story, An Invitation to a Burning by Kat Howard, it is Sage who receives the invitation, in Merrinvale, a town that 'burned its witches, when it found them'. You'd expect an anthology like this to survey not only the powers of witches but their potential fate, wouldn't you?

Widows' Walk, in contrast, by Angela Slatter, looks at a group of widows who are much more integrated into their community (even if some people do cross the street rather than pass their house). The four women that this story centres on perform various services for their neighbours, even some that are, maybe, not strictly natural - but how will they respond when a young woman is caught stealing their milk?

Kelley Armstrong's Black Magic Momma: An Otherworld Story is distinct again, more of a classic urban fantasy in which single mother Eve supports her daughter by trading in dodgy magical artefacts and spell books, crossing the paths of various supernatural and natural enemies. It's almost hard-boiled, a fast paced and twisty tale which was great fun to read, packing a lot into a few pages.

The Night Nurse by Sarah Langan is more sinister. Esme is a desperate young New York mother who just given birth for the third time. Her career on hold, her nights sleepless, her husband high-earning but often absent and definitely unwilling to do his share of the feeding at 2am, she gratefully accepts the help of "Night Nurse" Wendy who has her own medications and ways with the kids. This story genuinely unsettled, leaving that residue of unease that characterises classic horror.

Stories about witches don't have to be confined to the present, or the mediaeval past as Mary SanGiovanni shows in The Memories of Trees - which opens in a very traditional way but then swerves into a post-apocalyptic future where the fear and hatred roused by the catastrophe is channeled, as ever at women on the margins. A particular;arly sharp story, I felt, at the present time.

Rachel Caine's Home: A Morganville Vampires Story brings a witchy element into her wider universe - why would the vampires be so afraid of a single woman? Here the witch is playing her familiar as a threat to the established order, but what is she really after? An intriguing episode which will I'm sure gain resonance from familiar characters.

The Deer Wife by Jennifer McMahon recognises that the word "witch" may be applied to figures across cultures and she produces a wonderful blend of the Northern European tradition - a woman in a remote hut in the forest - with something more rooted in her North American locale - shapeshifting and an ease with the wildness of the forest (rather than it being a dark menace). Transgressive in several different ways, this rather sweet story was another of my favourites here.

Kristin Dearborn's story The Dancer seemed at the start to be another tinged with urban fantasy, as Paul Baker, who seems to be a supernatural trouble shooter of sorts, drives to meet a new client. But it turns into so much, exploring themes of anorexia and familial abuse - and ending on a genuinely ambiguous note,

Bless Your Heart by Hillary Monahan also touches on some very modern issues as single mother Audrey tries to protect her son, Tucker, who 'preferred barbies to GI Joe and crafts to sports' from endless years of homophobic bully, encouraged, or at least tacitly endorsed, by the mother of the chief offender who - rather than take her own son in hand - business herself having library books 'challenged' and pursuing other illiberal causes. A fairly simple story of revenge, I found Bless Your Heart very cathartic!

The next story, The Debt, is much darker. Ania Ahlborn takes us back into the woods - the deep, primeval woods of Poland where mushrooms grow from shallow buried corpses, the last wild bison roam, and one could believe in an ancient witch living in hut on fowls' legs... This is a story that will stay a long time in my mind. Also dark is Toil & Trouble: A Dark Hunter-Hellchaser Story written by Sherrilyn and Madaug Kenyon and I think set in Sherrilyn's wider Dark Hunter universe. Drawing on Shakesperian elements (MacBeth's witches) this unpicks the correspondence between those 'secret, black and midnight hags' who became so characteristic of what we imagineer witches to be and the three Fates.

Last Stop on Route Nine by Tananarive Due is another story that engages with recent history, explicitly drawing on the recent treatment of people of colour in the US South. Ideas of curses, disappearances and random, hateful attacks gain an even sharper edge when mixed up with hauntings and magic. This story has a real sense of enduring evil, making the point that witchcraft is not always a resort of the oppressed but can also be made into a tool of the powerful.  Another of my favourites (if that's the right word for something so grim!) Haint Me Too by Chesya Burke has similarities - in its theme of racism and privilege - but is set in an earlier, even more violent time and here in contrast the witchcraft is something of a refuge for the downtrodden - if a slippery and tricky one, ever prone to blow back.

Rachel Autumn Deering's Where Relics Go to Dream and Die is something of a love story, which while dark in places was rather sweet in its overall effect, the witchcraft here serving both to hurt and help. A nice story.

This Skin by Amber Benson describes what happens following a multiple murder. It's unusual in this book in that the witchcraft is implied, perhaps uncertain: we have different explanations for what's happened and perhaps an unreliable narrator. What really did happen in the gym?

Helen Marshall's The Nekrolog is a lovely and tender story about the lives of two cousins, one living in Canada, the other in Ukraine, whose families have lived through tumultuous events (there are some well observed glimpses of the uncertainty that comes form living a life in exile). The cousins suffer various tribulations, and share some significant moments with one another - but something is not quite as it seems... the thrust of this story is not primarily "witchy" although that turns out to be a ket ingredient, but it's a lovely piece on the lives of women. Another odd my favourites in this collection.

Alma Katsu's story Gold Among the Black is about a girl and her dog. And that's all I am going to say. It is a very short story and I don't want to give away anything.

The final story in the book, How to Become a Witch-Queen by Theodora Goss, gives us not only two rather magnificent witches but effectively hacks into one of THE classic fairy stories to tell us what happened next and whether "she lived happily ever after" (spoiler: she didn't, but she did well enough for herself). See if you spot which one is behind this. Goss has, though, written a cracker of a tale to round off this engaging and deeply readable collection.

In short I'd strongly recommend Hex Life and that date in October coming, it wold make an excellent present for many witch-minded friends.

For more information about this book, including links to buy it, see the publisher's website here.

27 September 2019

Review - The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy, 1)
Cover: illustration by Edward Benson,
design and lettering by Hannah Wood, LBBG
RJ Barker
Orbit, 26 September 2019
PB, 466pp

I'm grateful to Orbit (hello Nazia!) for a free advance copy of The Bone Ships to consider for review.

Tell of the sea, Topboy...

Well.

This book wasn't just a read, it was a journey.

A voyage.

A passage.

If, like me, RJ Barker burst onto your SFF radar a couple of years ago with his Wounded Kingdom trilogy, stories of assassins and cursed magic, then you will be expecting good things - and you won't be disappointed. But you might not be expecting something quite so nautical as The Bone Ships. It seems a risky thing for an author to take to something so different - such. different element - but it's a risk that has paid off here, in a rollicking story that succeeds, and more than succeeds, that triumphs, with bags of aplomb, heart-thumping tension and (of course) much dark humour.

Barker has, you might say, conquered the seas.

The Bone Ships is set in an oceany world, a world of islands and reefs where two powers - the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands - are perpetually at war. In this world there is no wood: ships - necessary for trade and for war - are built from the bones of great sea-dragons, Arakeesians, which have, inconveniently, been hunted to extinction. So the two nations' fleets squabble, seizing ships back and forth as the stock of bone for beams and spars dwindles. Other things are seized as well. It's a harsh world, where child sacrifice is bound with the safety of the Fleet and the place of every woman and man is determined by fitness for breeding or for service in the Fleet.

Barker really gets under the skin of his invented world, laying out details of the bone- built, slate-decked vessels, of the culture, the religion, the taboos and shame. Walking that world is his hero Joron Twiner, condemned, like many others, to service on a Black Ship, to infamy and eventual death. Joron has suffered a loss that leaves him fearful and addicted to drink and he leads a crew of murderers, thieves and scoundrels - yet it's this beggarly lot who are chosen to hunt the last Arakeesian when rumour of it comes back to Shipshulme. But not before Joron loses his command and finds a mentor, the redoubtable and mysterious Shipwife, Lucky Meas, herself condemned to the Black Ships

As the crew are hammered into shape by Meas, RJ embarks us on a great adventure, complete with naval battles, spies, treachery, and strange alliances. Reading this gave me a feeling I haven't had for years, the same sense of space and possibility and achievement as when I first read CS Forrester's Hornblower stories. Like those books, The Bone Ships is as much about the building of human connections as it is about spars, wind or salt waves. It's about forging trust, about men and women developing competence, learning to work well together, overcoming differences and creating routines that will withstand the ultimate tests of battle and storm. It's about a crew forming, and how you can make that happen. This is all, at first, mysterious to Joron - he begins as a rather self-pitying creature - so the story is very much also about his growing up.

Barker captures all this perfectly, as he does the particular rhythms and cadences of a whole way of life. I don't know how but in writing of Tide Child and the other ships he has created an authentically nautical language, full of wind, waves, orders, shipboard terms and behaviours that simply convinces but - and this is the important bit - without coming over as sub Treasure Island pirate talk. It's a recognisable language but doesn't use terms you will have heard. The ship's sails are "wings", the ships have "seaward" and "landward" sides, sailors are "deckchilder" and so on.

Barker makes it all so real, whether he's describing how to handle one of the great crossbow mounted on Tide Child's deck, how the ship is cleared before battle, or the rituals and moments of ship life - the Shipwife leading prayers, or the singing of a shanty:

I've always loved the sea, my love
So deep and blue and true
I've always loved the sea, my love
As much as I loved you

Barker could - as much as Melville, Forrester or London - be reporting what he'd seen and heard aboard ship himself, so convincing and engaging is it. I don't think he's served three years before the mast, but you never know...

And that's not all this book has! It has layers and layers besides. There is the pitiless, endless war. There is (some) chance for peace. There is suspicion. There is a whole aspect of the plot to do with the origin of the arakeesians, and the strange, and sad, weather-manipulating creatures called the Gullaime.

And there is the most involving, gut-clenching naval combat I'd read for years.

The Bone Ships simply took my breath away, especially in its second half, where we face one shock after another and see Joron, no longer a cast-off wretch, facing dark choices and taking responsibility. It's an enthralling read and is one of my favourite books of 2019 so far.

For more about The Bone Ships and to buy a copy, see the Orbit website here.