31 March 2018

Review - The Woman in the Woods by John Connolly

Cover photo by Susan Derges
The Woman in the Woods (Charlie Parker)
John Connolly
Hodder, 5 April 2018
HB, 467pp

It is spring, and the semi-preserved body of a young Jewish woman is discovered buried in the Maine woods. It is clear that she gave birth shortly before her death.

But there is no sign of a baby...

I'm grateful to Kerry at Hodder for an advance copy of The Woman in the Woods.

I'm a latecomer to Connolly's Charlie Parker thrillers, having read my first, A Game of Ghosts, last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I discovered that there's a good back catalogue of these books which - for now - I'm saving up for those days when you just need a book you can get lost in with no fuss, no doubts. And even better, that there's an enthusiastic body of fans out there for the books - which is always a good sign. So, if you haven't read them yet, jump in and start. I think The Woman in the Woods is a great place to do that, but you could equally begin at the beginning.

So, what's The Woman in the Woods about? I found as I read it that lines of the Easter hymn "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded" kept running through my mind: "Death's pallid hue comes o'er Thee/  The glow of life decays..."

Parker's latest case sees him in a race against time, trying to find a missing child and solve the mystery of a woman's death before... others... can. Death, that pale rider, is ever present, in the person of Parker's rivals, especially Pallida Mors, sidekick to mysterious, dapper Englishman abroad Quayle, but also in a more general sense: Connolly continually tells us that Death is circling, that Death dances and rhymes, and indeed we see His (or Her) quirks and cruelties in the swathe that Quayle and More cut through bystanders and witnesses as they close in on their goal.

As well as following Parker we see this other couple of investigators press on, and I can safely say they're two of the most repellant fictional characters I've encountered in my recent reading. And, be warned, they don't hold back in trying to find what they want. It would be better if Parker got there first - far better. But getting ahead of a pair of killers who will torture and murder anyone who gets in the way proves tricky.

Behind this chase is a deeper mystery. Precisely what are Mors and Quayle seeking? How does it relate to the supernatural threats Parker has encountered before? Most of all, who is the Pale Child who seems to accompany them, and are they aware of it?

On a more prosaic level, Parker has his own problems - while Louis's partner Angel recovers from surgery, he's at a bit of loose end and gets into trouble. Connolly uses the book to explore themes of extremism, delicately linking up boorish, in-your-face racists; closet haters who avoid using the N-word but practice discrimination behind corporate facades; and genteel oligarchs whose poised manners and money-crusted clubs depend on the sweat of those they consider inferior. There's a delicate counterpoint - and many crossovers - between these worlds and the various cultists, devotees of dark gods and searchers after forbidden knowledge that Parker comes up against. It's all laced with portents of the end and blood-curdling prophesies of what will follow: Quayle thinks his work will be done then and he can die, Mors doesn't want to survive him.

This could make for very grim reading.


Connolly gives us the light as well as the dark.

There is a network devoted to providing refuge for women escaping male violence (Parker is very aware of the ubiquity of male violence). Some of its nodes are visible, some underground. All are vulnerable to the revenge seeking male, yet, to adapt a phrase, "they persist".

There is Moxie Castin, Parker's frequent client, who reads of a woman's body, found in the woods, and sets Parker to investigate, simply as a good deed.

There are others - little candles in a dark world, but casting light, all the same.

I've recently heard this mode described (albeit more in outright fantasy) as "hopepunk", that is, fiction which emphasis the small stands we can all take against the darkness. It's an apt phrase, i think, for what we see here. Parker himself takes such a stand. And while he may be up against formidable enemies, he has allies, too.

On another plane entirely, despite the darkness here, the possible grimness is relieved by Connolly's writing. Smart, sharp and deadpan in tone, not without humour, it's a perfectly paced slice of noir that never slips into noirish parody. Almost every page has an example one could quote - just picking one at random, how about "Parker left the church at the final blessing, trailed by the rest of a congregation consisting mainly of those older than himself. He hadn't managed to bring the average age down by much, just enough to make a statistical difference." The characters are also well realised, partly, I think, the result of many being developed by Connolly over the series of books. But even the newcomers and those just passing through (or who don't make it through...) benefit from being in a well-imagined, well-developed setting.

So despite a trail of blood, it's far from being a conventional horror where everyone is, in the end, going to Hell - though a few of these characters are definitely headed that way. Rather, it's a perfect example of supernatural crime/ horror/ thriller that just works, one every level.

Buy this book, sit down, and meet Charlie Parker...

For more information about the book, the publisher's page is here.

23 March 2018

Excerpt and Review - The Folded Land by Tim Lebbon

Cover by Julia Lloyd
The Folded Land (Relics 2)
Tim Lebbon
Titan Books, 20 March 2018
PB, 334pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan for an advance copy of The Folded Land and for inviting me to take part in the tour.

I have an exclusive excerpt from The Folded Land. I've reviewed the book below, but first, just take a look at this!

The excerpt

“You okay, honey?” her dad asked.

“Yeah, Dad, I’m good. Kind of tired.”

“Still hungry?”

She nodded. It felt strange. Like coming home to a place so safe and familiar, and returning somewhere after a long time away. The familiarity held a deep nostalgia that someone her age should hardly recognize. “You’ve got an old head on your shoulders,” her mom used to say, and Sammi sometimes imagined herself with gray hair and strange, knowing eyes.

“I’m just going out on the dock for a little bit,” she said. “It’s a nice day, and some sun will make me feel better.”

“You’re sure?” That look of uncertainty. He asked her questions like that a lot nowadays. You’re sure? Do you really think so? Are you certain you want to do that? It had something to do with grief and the uncertainties he felt about her mother dying. In some ways he was being overprotective, making sure that every action Sammi took was a safe one. It was as if he couldn’t bear to have her to grieve on her own. They often spent time together, walking or sitting on the sofa and talking about Mom, looking through photos or old videos, crying and laughing and struggling to move on in their own individual ways.

But sometimes it became cloying.

Sometimes, Sammi just wanted to be on her own.

“I’m sure,” she said, smiling. “It’s one of those moments.” They both had moments that they talked about. Unremarkable memories of her mother, his wife, sitting somewhere and telling a joke, planting a rose bush, pointing at a flock of birds sheeting back and forth across the estuary. They might be years old, random recollections of lost times that meant so much. Every one of them was special.

“Right,” he said, smiling, nodding. “They’re important. Every moment is important.” He paused, and then added, “I’ll put the food in the oven to keep it warm.”

“I won’t be that long, Dad,” she said. “Ten minutes.”

“Okay. Still want to go kayaking this afternoon?”

“Absolutely! I’ll race you.”

“You’ll lose.” He always said that, and until lately he’d been right. Last summer, though, Sammi started beating him in their races. She remembered her mother laughing as they’d both splashed and sweated their way past the spot where she sat in a boat, Sammi edging ahead by half a length and lifting her paddle skyward in triumph. She’d been so pleased that she hadn’t stopped mentioning it for the rest of the day. That long-ago, hot and perfect day.

While her father carried their early take-out to the house, Sammi crossed the lawn toward the dock. Though the sky was a searing blue and the midday sun beat down, the lawn was still damp from the previous day’s surprise downpour. Water soaked through her shoes and into her socks. It was a nice feeling, cool and calming. She stepped onto the dock and kicked off her shoes, pulled off the socks, and enjoyed the feeling of warm wood on the soles of her feet.
She walked to the end of the dock and felt as if she should continue onward. As if there was somewhere else to go. As if there was more to see. This was her favorite place in the whole wide world, but something inside seemed to be urging her elsewhere. Across the wide inlet she could see a dozen houses sitting close to the water, boats docked beside some, flags flying from poles, a few people just visible in gardens, heat haze making ghosts out of them. Several boats chugged up and down the river. A group of kayakers paddled past. She felt an unaccountable need to keep walking, because this wasn’t where she needed to be.

Sammi’s heart hammered in her chest, and as she turned to go back to the house a splinter slid into her skin just beneath her big toe.


Silly sausage! a voice said just over her shoulder, and she spun around. Her mother’s pet name for her, spoken in a voice so like her mother’s and yet with a weird lilt, like the distorted echo of someone impersonating her almost perfectly.

“Mom?” Sammi asked.

A shadow passed across the sun and she looked up. Clouds were forming, wispy, darkening. Her skin prickled all across her body. The hairs on her arm stood on end. She looked back toward the house. Her father stood outside the open patio door, smiling and waving her over so that they could share lunch. He and the house were a million miles away.

A sharp, loud crack split the world.

The review

The Folded Land is the sequel to Lebbon's 2018 horror fantasy Relics, (my review here) in which Angela discovered that her boyfriend Vince was involved in a gruesome trade in "relics" - body parts of the Kin: monsters or mythical creatures from the ancient past, long before humanity ruled, whose heydey, the Time, is lost in the fog of myth.

Worse, she discovered that not all relics originated with the long dead...

Now, Angela is on the run, blamed by the police for the massacre that concluded Relics - and by the surviving relic hunters, for the loss of their friends and family. She has left London and is back in the US, trying to lie low, but the past - and the Kin - have other ideas.

This is an excellent follow-up to Relics, possibly actually better than the earlier book. There is a notable shift in tone, as Angela has to engage with what the existence of the Kin means for humanity. The Kin are bewitching, delightful, so rare and special that even meeting one is a privilege - but they are also inhuman, savage and powerful.

Many hark back to older times when they strode the land without fear.

Some aim for Ascent, revealing their power and taking back their usurped place in the world.

And in the space between those two ideas of the Kin - the rare and the precious, hunted almost to destruction by humans, and the powerful and deadly - sits this story. It's a tale sketched in shades of grey, with no moral absolutes. The Kin have suffered, we see them suffering, but they are also - or some of them are - ruthless and savage.  Lebbon is good at sketching the sheer otherness of his monsters, their non-humanity - even the most sympathetic. These aren't run of the mill urban fantasy creatures settling down to cosy, albeit weird, lives that echo those of humans. There's a real sense of rawness, of peril here, never more than when the story turns to the enigmatic fairy Grace, whom Angela rescued in Relics.

At the same time, and despite the many brutal deaths littering the book, Lebbon doesn't portray humans, either, as victims. The "kin-Killer", Gregor, strides through this book like the very worst of monsters, his goal obscure, his blade sharp and his tread ominous. He will cross paths with Angela, and the life of her niece, Sammi, will hang between them.

It's an excellent horror story, a superior fantasy, soaked in blood and haunted almost to the end by mystery. And best of all the story clearly isn't over, with The Edge still to come.

This series could have settled down into a bland life-among-the-monsters fantasy but in Lebbon's hands we're given something more, something older, deeper and much, much darker.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about this book see the Titan website here.

22 March 2018

Review - Crook's Hollow by Robert Parker

Crook's Hollow
Robert Parker
Black Rose Writing, 22 March 2018
PB, 204pp, e

I'm grateful for an advance copy of Crook's Hollow for review.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect when reading Crook's Hollow - a thriller, a crime novel or possibly something a bit folk-weird? In fact it's firmly the former, focussing on Thor Loxley, the youngest member of a farming dynasty in the eponymous Hollow. "You should have got on with it" he keeps being told as various ingeniously engineered attempts on his life are made.

But what should he have "got on with"?

Who cares enough to want to kill him?

And what can he do about it?

The story begins in the middle of one of these attacks, opening with some exciting action, and then, if anything, the pace just accelerates. We hear about Thor's family and their rivalry with the slightly loner established Crooks, about Thor's dalliance with a Crook woman, Roisin, and about his estrangement from his own family. Plenty of suspects there, and more come along with whispers about land deals, and childhood rivalries.

It is, perhaps, a bit Midsomer Murders in that sense - the traditional English village seething with generations-old hatreds. Here, though, it isn't a benign outsider of a Detective Inspector who has to sort things out, Thor is soon backed into such a position that he has to do it for himself. It's an exciting and action filled read.

I do think the reader has to suspend disbelief in a couple of place - in particular, a Loxley family custom results in Thor's estrangement from his family, but I don't really get a strong sense of why he acted as he did, of what made him turn his back on them. But with a cliffhanger never far away and a mystery hanging over the story - just what is going on, and who is behind it? - that's not difficult. Anyway it's overshadowed by the fact that the killer just won't give up.

(There's also the centrality of the church in village life here - I'm married to a vicar but I don't think I could argue that things are like this in most places! Indeed I wonder if that's a hint that - despite its modern trapping - Parker had the past in mind when writing his story? There's noting in it, I think, that requires it to be set in the present day.)

It is a short book, at 200 pages, busting the tendency of crime to generate thicker and thicker books - well judged, I'd say, given the pitch of the tension: it would be difficult to sustain the central device of the attempted killings for much longer than this and instead Parker gives us an exciting climax which brings wider danger to his imagined community, and wraps up his story neatly.

Crook's Hollow: a place you might visit, but you probably wouldn't want to live there.

For more information about this book and to purchase copy see the publisher's website here.

18 March 2018

Review - Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Cover by Will Staehl
Annalee Newitz
Orbit, 15 March 2018
PB, 291pp

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a copy of Autonomous to review.

In the future of 2144, things are not bright, even if the cover of this book is orange. The chained robot arm depicted here reflects the spirit of the time - corrosive property rights and free market ideology that have displaced states and tainted science, a shadowy International Property Coalition using its own armed forces to investigate and punish transgressions, patents - seemingly of indefinite duration - treated as Holy Writ and the poor sold into indentured servitude.

The insatiable lust of the market to turn everything into property is illustrated by a glitteringly casuistical argument: once it was accepted that bots, which start as property can, being intelligent, earn their autonomy, it also surely follows that humans, born free, can enter servitude (read: slavery). And the consequences follow - in a particularly grim scene, we see the "human resources" markets of Las Vegas where "The Alice Shop" sells just what the name suggests.

Yet there is hope. Free Labs attempt to generate inventions outside the proprietary system, and bio pirates reverse-engineer and clone drugs for the benefit of the poor. But they are always waiting for the moment when their labs will be raided by the IPC's goons.

Against this background, Newitz sets up a deceptively simply story, essentially a chase. The notorious "Captain" Jack Chen, is a pirate, smuggler and, to the IPC, a terrorist. She has inadvertently copied a new drug which is very dangerous indeed. The IPC will kill to protect its secrets, so as she attempts to put right the damage she's done, Jack knows there will be a pursuit.

That pursuit is led by a man - Eliasz - and an indentured robot, Paladin, enforcers for the IPC. As we watch them close in on Jack, we see how ruthless they can be, alternately wheedling their way in with activists, scientists and the counterculture generally, and using extreme force ("That was the last useful information they got out of her, though they continued to beat and drug her for the next three hours...")

Eliasz and Paladin seem like monsters. They certainly often act like monsters. Yet at the same time, they are in a delicate, evolving and even beautiful relationship, which Newitz portrays all the more powerfully for there almost being no references that we can use for what it is. Even as he murders and mains, Paladin is running queries, trying to understand what Eliasz is feeling. There are almost humorous scenes where he seeks advice from other robots.

And yet there's a power imbalance here that casts a shadow over the relationship, if we follow through the implications. Paladin is shackled to Eliasz, not physically but by little routines and programs with cynical names like "gdoggie", which manipulate and control his responses. He is not "autonomous". And ultimately Paladin is owned by IPC, not even by Eliasz himself so whatever accomodation arises between them may not survive the duration of the mission. As the two grow close we have to wonder how far Paladin would be free to say "no". Questions of freedom, of control and of destiny hang in the air.

At the same as we are learning about Eliasz and Paladin, Newitz gives us episodes from some 30 years earlier showing Jack's early life and the web of relationships that formed around her as she grew up, progressing from youthful radical to jailed activist to smuggler and pirate. These, together with her travels, and those of the IPC agents, between Canada and North Africa, the main locations in the book, sketch what society has become and establish a wealth of believable characters seeking, in various ways, to subvert or ameliorate the grip of the corporations on peoples' lives.

The plot itself may be straightforward, but with all these carefully layered and nuanced relationships Newitz deftly echoes the themes of autonomy and dependence which she explores with Paladin and Eliasz. The result is a satisfyingly complex read where nothing is ever quite what it seems and nobody - human or bot - is entirely in the right (or the wrong).

A genuinely fresh and thought provoking read and a book I stayed up late into the night to finish.

For more about Autonomous, see the publisher's website here.

14 March 2018

Review - Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Arm of the Sphinx (The Books of Babel, 2)
Josiah Bancroft
Orbit, 15 March 2018
PB, 398pp

I'm grateful to Orbit and to the awesome Nazia for an advance copy of Arm of the Sphinx.

So. That tricky second book, eh? Following the acclaim for Senlin Ascends (my review here) Orbit have published the successor volume quickly, although we'll have to wait till December for The Hod King. So how good is it as a followup?

Indeed, how do you followup the central premise of that book - that the Tower, beacon of civilisation, the Lighthouse of the world, is really just a squalid mess of competing statelets, bleeding tourists dry and making them into hods - hopeless slaves doomed to port cargo up secret stairways in the Tower? (Not only a wicked thing to do - but pointless: as we know or son learn, the world in which the Tower stands has railways, airships, lifts, electricity and indeed, still more advanced technologies).

Bancroft therefore gave himself a tough task. My judgement is that he succeeds in making Arm of the Sphinx as compelling a book as Senlin Ascends. There isn't anything to quite match the creeping realisation of the truth about the Tower, rather, after we see a bit more of it - the Silk Reef is another fantastically drawn level - Senlin - or should I say Captain Tom Mudd? - and his crew are forced to seek refuge for their ship while carrying on repairs and are therefore "ashore" for much of this novel.

That doesn't mean that nothing happens, but the book isn't (after the opening section) the swashbuckling story of derring-do that Senlin's life seemed to be turning into at the end of the last book. Rather, it becomes a quite taut, psychological study of the different cremates as they kick their heels in a most strange part of the tower, and are tested in various ways (not least, in their faith in Senlin).

Through that testing, we learn - perhaps - more about the true nature and purpose of the Tower itself (this, if anything, is the counterpart to the horror in the first book at what it has become: something of a redemption, or at least, a possible redemption. But what we learn is from a very unreliable source who is, as becomes clear, pursuing their own agenda and keeping secrets from the crew - even while encouraging them to share their own secrets. That sharing isn't altogether a bad thing (certainly it means that Tom himself reaches a better place) but the overall setup is worrying. Having escaped Finn Goll, are the crew now just pawns of someone else?

So, this book gives the reader plenty to reflect on and sets up some dramatic confrontations in The Hod King. There's a well-drawn, three-dimensional roster of characters with Senlin, in particular, having moved on from the self-obsessed, heedless tourist of the earlier book to a resourceful and capable protagonist. And the team are now being drawn into wider - and older - mysteries. Arm of the Sphinx is a worthy sequel to Senlin Ascends and is neither just "more of the same" nor simply marking time to the next book.

But, oh, WHY do we now have to wait so long for the next book?

12 March 2018

Review - The Hollow Tree by James Brogden

Cover design by Julia Lloyd
The Hollow Tree
James Brogden
Titan Books, 13 March 2018
PB, 478pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of The Hollow Tree.

Mary in the oak tree
Cold as cold can be
Waiting for the sky to fall
Who will dance with me?

Shortly before the end of the Second World War, a young woman's body is found hidden in a tree in the Lickey Hills, south of Birmingham. Who is she and how did she get there? Who did dance with Mary?

Theories grow up to fill the vacuum.

She was a witch, killed in some sinister ritual.

She was a foreign spy.

She was a sex worker, murdered by a client one dark night.

Theories, but no answers.

Until Rachel Cooper suffers a horrific accident, losing her left hand. As she makes her recovery, she begins to feel things with that missing hand. Is this just normal phantom pain following an amputation? Or more? As she rebuilds her life, Rachel, and her husband Tom, are drawn into the mystery of Mary - of all the Marys. Some sort of boundary has been crossed, and the uncanny is loose. Can it be contained? Can Rachel find out what happened to Mary, and save her from the in-between world that she senses with her missing hand?

This book shares the modern Birmingham setting of Brogden's Hekla's Children, published last year, which similarly brought supernatural weirdness and paradox to trouble and perplex - and menace - the present. It's eerily effective. Rachel, the main protagonist, is capable, and coping well with her loss. Brogden grounds her and Tom in a believable relationship, furnished with slightly controlling in-laws and family secrets. The effect on Rachel of her injury is explored, as well as the difference it makes to Tom and both drive the story in ways that only become clear as it unfolds.

At the heart of that story are three women, and three acts of male violence. The unfortunate Mary is, effectively, challenged to be one of those victims - take your pick. She is, though, more than a victim. She is just as resolute and self-sufficient as Rachel and together the two women defy death (several deaths) and whatever rules in that shadowy Otherworld - even when this puts others in peril. It is a fantasy, but a fantasy with the drive and menace of a thriller, as the combatants duel across the city and across time for high stakes.

I was intrigued by the way that Brogden handles possibilities in the book. It is a very quantum horror story! What really happened? Well, that depends on how you look and what you want to see. What happened in the past doesn't stay in the past, and the present, though built on that past, filters through the layers of time to affect the past. It's never completely sure how fixed this is - what would Rachel find if she went back to visit a certain gravestone in a Birmingham churchyard at the end of the book? - and that's part of the mystery and appeal. Hekla's Children played a particular game with time and causality which wasn't apparent almost till the end: in this book it's much clearer what is going on, with parallel narratives for the three Marys, but even so Brogden does bowl a couple of googlies that I didn't see coming at all. And the pace of the action means that you don't stop to think too deeply about the central plot device (which might otherwise make your head hurt at least a little bit...)

An immersive, compelling fantasy thriller that kept me up till the early hours. Recommended.

For more information on the book, see the publisher's website here. You can buy The Hollow Tree from your friend local bookshop, or here, here or here (and no doubt other places besides).

10 March 2018

Review - The City of Brass by SA Chakraborty

The City of Brass
SA Chakraborty
HarperCollins, 8 March 2018
HB, 544pp

I'm grateful for an advance copy of City of Brass via Amazon Vine.

City of Brass was a wonderful book to read but - like many of the most enjoyable books - is difficult to review!

A fantasy, it's set during the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt (although this is really background that hardly impinges on the story).

Nahri is a young woman who survives as a thief, huckster, healer and a dozen other things in the slums of Cairo. As the result of a chain of coincidences (I think - there may be more to learn about this in future books...) she summons a djinn, Dara, who is bound to serve her family - and attracts the attention of its ancient enemies. Dara wouldn't call himself djinn, no, he's a daeva (not a diva, though from his behaviour you might struggle to see the difference).

The two are immediately hunted by the deeply scary ifrit, and we're plunged into a world of magic, ancient family feuds, murder, rebellion and unchecked slaughter with a backstory stretching the remote time of Suleiman, who tamed the daevas long ago.

It was, to me, a deeply alien fantasy and therefore exactly what fantasy should be. No cloaks, bear fur, snow or grim, grey Northern castles. This story is rooted in Middle Eastern culture, the djinn (mostly) having an Islamic background and the families, feuds and political factions of The City of Brass echo that. Chakrabortty exploits this with skill, rooting her story in a believable past and giving all of her characters convincing histories and motivations (and dilemmas).

There are no cardboard cutout goodies and baddies here. Dara, who is handsome, awesomely competent with his weapons, and Nahri's protector, has also done some truly wicked things, even unforgivable things. Nahri discovers that her family also had that blood on its hands. Yet King Ghassan, whose ancestors overthrew her tribe's rule centuries before, also has secrets. Actually, everyone here has secrets - and nobody (except, perhaps, Nahri herself - beyond a little thieving) has clean hands.

There are also credible tensions between the factions of the djinn, and the half humans ("shafit") with privilege, prejudice and history dividing the population.

The story is I think (and this is only the first part of a trilogy - things stop pretty much on a cliffhanger) proceeding on two fronts. Nahri, the outsider, is exploring this strange new world, to some extent as a proxy for the reader but increasingly as a force in her own right. As she discovers who she really is, and the labyrinthine politics and social tension that drives both djinn society, and Daevabad, the City of Brass itself, is unfolding. Naturally these come into conflict and the naive and ignorant young woman we meet at the start of the story has to grow up very fast if she's to survive at all, let alone flourish. But she shows every sign of being able to do that.

In case that makes it sound as though the book is dark, well yes, at times it's very dark. But Chakraborty also supplies some wonderful descriptions of the City itself - surely one of the great fantasy creation of recent times - as well as a wicked vein of humour, especially when it comes to the bickering djinn themselves and the fates that can befall them (open the wrong scroll at the wrong time and you can be turned into an apple, apparently a terrible insult; in Nahri's infirmary, on a pile of sticks, sits an unfortunate djinn who will slowly turn into a bird unless she can find a way to save him)

On the evidence of City of Brass, Chakraborty is a major new talent in fantasy and I can't wait for the next volume in this series.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about City of Brass see the publisher's website here. You can buy the book from your friendly local bookshop, or here, here or here.

7 March 2018

Blogtour review - End Game by Matt Johnson

End Game (Robert Finlay 3)
Matt Johnson
Orenda Books, 31 March 2018
PB, 299pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of the book and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour. (Full disclosure: I also reviewed the previous two books in the series for their tours and one of my reviews is quoted in this one).

End Game, as you might expect, brings to a close the trilogy of books (Wicked Game, Deadly Game) featuring Detective Inspector Robert Finlay, ex SAS. If you've read those you will want to read this and see how things pan out - I can tell you that this book is every part as twisty, as tense and as gritty as they are. If you haven't read them then, first, shame on you and, second, let me try and persuade you.

NB I will warn when approaching spoilers for the first two books - read on without fear!

End Game opens in 2002 with Finlay in the middle of an operation as part of his Scotland Yard anti-trafficking unit. The action very quickly moves back to the conspiracy that has dominated the three books: the mysterious document in Arabic whose existence must be protected, the string of murders, and all the cross purposes, suspicions and double motives among the police and MI5 officers.

As in the previous books, Johnson adopts a risky - but in his hands, successful - strategy of seeming to show us everything, narrating things from Finlay's perspective in the first person but also giving other characters' viewpoints in third person. So we'll get Finlay's take on a meeting and then read something like 'After Finlay walked out, Grahamslaw picked up his phone...' At other times we don't get this seamless transition but we do see what the antagonists (not naming them because that's a spoiler for the earlier books) are up to. They are though distanced by that third person voice. The result is that the reader identifies strongly with Finlay but also knows more than him - which is, as I said, a risky thing for an author to do but works well here, helping to emphasise the general murkiness of the world that Johnson creates (and building tension by showing just how deep Finlay's in - something he doesn't realise till very late in the book).

Yet some things are kept back from the reader: there are aspects that aren't revealed, leaving us, too, worrying about what is happening and why...

That murky world is one of the strengths of these books. Struggling to think of a way to explain it, I can only think of comparing the book to other genres. This book and its predecessors are clearly thrillers - set in modern London, they have guns, cops, spooks, ploys and tension. Yet there's also something of the fantasy about them. No magic or anything like that, but the atmosphere evoked isn't far off one of those stories where assassins roam the capital with impunity and the characters accept that anything can happen. For example (and this is a mild spoiler) people have been killed to protect the secret of that document. In a certain sort of thriller this would be the central scandal in itself: State sanctioned murder! It must be exposed! How do we get the truth out there?

Yet here it is very much taken for granted as the kind of thing that might happen and nobody wastes time getting outraged. Rather they process the facts and consider what it means for their safety and that of their families. At one level that's rather liberating, at another it makes for a very grim, dangerous world.

If somebody died, was it an accident? A suicide? A simple criminal act?

Or were State forces behind it?

If so, was that sanctioned or does someone have a private thing going on?

This ambiguity creates a whole world of doubt quite aside from the realities of what happened.

It's a very strong premise for a thriller, a world where nothing is off limits (in the previous books Finlay has basically mounted Special Ops actions under the radar and got away with it, and the bad guys here are just as prepared to do the same). In End Game it becomes even more iffy than in the previous books because new players join the deadly game - in particular a hunter from Complaint Investigation Branch who's got it in for Finlay and his friend, Kevin Jones. Between that hostility, the ambiguous roles of the various MI5 officers and a suspicion that he's being bugged, Finlay has a lot to worry about from the start.

And he's right to be worried. There's no safety net in these books, no margin for error. Past mistakes won't go away, cupboard doors swing open to reveal their skeletons, the skies are filled with chickens coming home to roost. It's all very compelling and amidst the mayhem Johnson does a very good job at tying up the many plot threads from the previous books and bringing things to a satisfying end (insofar as an end can be - I wouldn't say no to more stories about Finlay!) I wasn't sure if, in the end, we ever quite had an explanation for the full importance of that document, but maybe there are things it's better not to know...

Taken together the three books are a considerable achievement, all the more impressive given that they are Johnson's first books - he had an extensive police career before turning to writing and they arose from his need to process what he'd been through and confront his PTSD. I don't mean that to be faint praise of the "good books considering..." sort: they are good books, full stop. The octane is so high that if you sniff this book too hard you're likely to ignite. In particular Johnson's first person/ third person style makes the story come over as very visual and the chicanery and multiple agendas here presents here aren't a million miles from the world seen in current TV hits like David Hare's Collateral.

Which - given Johnson was in the Met and presumably closer to some of this stuff than Hare - might be just a teeny bit worrying... but thank goodness it's only fiction.

2 March 2018

Blogtour review - Holmes: The Darlington Substitution by Melvyn Small

Holmes: The Darlington Substitution
Melvyn Small
Indipenned, from 14 February 2018

I'm grateful for an advance e-copy of the book as part of the blogtour.

Ever since Conan Doyle stopped writing Sherlock Holmes stories, the character has been reworked, imitated, reinvented, pastiched. (In fact, probably before that...). I was intrigued to be offered the latest example of this - a Holmes of the North East, firmly living in the 21st century (the story includes a sizeable part for BBC Local Radio). Subtitled "A Boro's Greatest Detective Novella", this is a story that gets us away from gaslights, Hansoms, cobblestones and deerstalkers.

It does, though, pack into its short length a fair few references to the originals, just to prove that Small knows what he's about ("Sherlock ever investigated a case that included some sort of hound? I dunno, maybe one terrorising a bunch of posh twats..."; a mention of a horse running in the "Beryl Coronet"; the "Baker Street Kitchen" is a cafe and "The Twisted Lip" a pub, and of course namechecks for DI Barry Lestrade and even Col Sebastian Moran - who Holmes was lucky to escape from alive). Indeed the title itself is a reference Holmes himself drops in the course of A Scandal in Bohemia (the context being the universal human tendency, in case of fire, to save the most precious thing - a point relevant to this story).

Like many of the originals, this isn't, at least not apparently, a case of murder or theft but more of a puzzle. I won't spoil the story by saying just what has happened, but it's more of an oddity, a surprise, that sets Holmes' antennae twitching. But he lacks data and, as ever, John Watson isn't best placed to supply them. Indeed, being preoccupied with selling copies of his memoirs, he doesn't pay a great deal of attention to Holmes's concerns. (The sections detailing signings in bleak branches of WH Smith are written with feeling!)

The story is just the right length for a Holmes case: a novella/ long-short-story is to my mind ideal to introduce a mystery, show how baffling it is, let Holmes do his thing and then wrap everything up. If Small is a little mysterious about precisely how Holmes draws his conclusions, that may be forgiven, Conan Doyle often did the same, but we get a broad hint that detecting is easier in the days of social media so one might imagine he's a skilled at IT, and there are hints at hacker abilities. All this is I think fully line with how the original Holmes was written, a bit of a geek, up with all the latest technology and none too fastidious how he used it.

So once you become used to the central characters, and especially to them NOT addressing each other in the slightly stuffy manner of the originals, the story rattles along. There is some neat writing in places "...hoping I could transform his change of mood into a change of mind..." and use of (I think) real locations in and around Darlington and Middlesborough which slightly passed me by, not knowing the area (but then I don't know Victorian London either?)

All in all an engaging idea, well realised, providing a refreshingly different angle on the Great Detective.

Chapter 1 of The Darlington Substitution is available from 14 February 2018 on the Indipenned site - go over there now to read and to find out how to get the rest!