30 July 2019

Review - Jade War by Fonda Lee

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
Jade War (The Green Green Bone Saga: Book 2)
Fonda Lee
Orbit, 25 July 2019
PB, e, 590pp

I'm grateful to Orbit and especially to Nazia for a free advance copy of Jade War, the sequel to super Jade City, to consider for review.

I honestly don't think I'd ever read anything like Jade City, so I was eager for the followup and it didn't disappoint.

We are back on the island of Kekon, dominated by the clans of Green Bones, warriors able to enhance their strength and other abilities with the special jade found only there. A Green Bones can assume vast Strength, walk Lightly, Perceive others at a distance, Channel the jade power to hurt or heal, and use various other skills. In a setting loosely reminiscent of our world and centred on an analogue of Eastern Asia, the Green Bones are crucial to power on Kekon and their clans are key to wider political and cultural tensions. We see the aftermath of the Many Nations War, the struggle between tradition and modernity. And meddling foreigners.

Painting on a wider canvas than Jade War, this time Lee shows us other nations, especially the US- analogue, the Republic of Espenia, which, of course, shares its name with a continent (I was geekily delighted to see that its capital has a name which abbreviates to "AC".)  Espenia is where Anden has gone - Anden who at the end of Jade City, refused to be inducted as a Green Bones, a great insult to the No Peak clan with which he's affiliated. Sent into exile to learn the language of those influential foreigners, he finds solace in a Kekonese immigrant community which is struggling both to maintain its cultural traditions and to resist prejudice and gang violence in the poorer part of town. Lee gives a superb picture of first and second generation immigrants facing a host of issues, raising questions of assimilation and cultural survival as well as what happens when the powers of the old country come knocking.

Anden is a sympathetic and well drawn character, someone who's gone far, but, he soon realises, not far enough, to avoid Green Bones. The book takes time and gives its people plenty of room to develop, running over two or three years so we see Anden both as a wide-eyed newcomer (Port Massy is a metropolis, something he hasn't seen before; it has world famous sights and a multicultural buzz that's new to him) and as a shrewder, more experienced man, who's seen a few things, learned a bit and is in a relationship with Cory, soon of Mr and Mrs Hiasn, his hosts.

Also featuring in the book, back in Janloon, are Hiro, Pillar - leader - of No Peak after the murder or his brother, and Shae, Weather Man to the clan. She had her own issues with No Peak in the earlier book, eventually coming home to take her place (shades of The Godfather, I thought: I just love the way these books pick up beats from both the Corleone saga and from a mass of other literature and films - even while at the same time the characters warn against sensationalised Shotarian martial arts films about the Green Bones). No Peak is still in a war with the Mountain, the other main clan, and over the course of the book we see the conflict shift to and fro, enmeshed with Kekonese politics, national sentiment and a war between Shotar and Ygutan.

Lee realises this world perfectly, telling an episodic story that sometimes skips months or years then settles down to narrate a telling episode, a dangerous encounter for a character something that violently, unexpectedly illuminates the ingrained nature of Green Bones culture (I'm thinking especially of a couple of trips Hiro makes abroad, which dramatically contrast his background and personality with the cultures around him.)

It's a long book, but one I found I could happily immerse myself in, drinking in the detail as well as the overall arc. Just as good, if not better, than Jade City, Jade War delivers a compelling reading experience and a refreshingly different strand of fantasy.

For a sample chapter of Jade War, see the Orbit website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive Books, or from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

29 July 2019

#BlogBlast review - Lord of Secrets by Breanna Teintze @JoFletcherBooks #LordofSecrets @BreannaTeintze

Lord of Secrets (The Empty Gods, 1)
Breanna Teints
Jo Fletcher Books, 25 July 2019
PB, e, 336pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for a free advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley and inviting me to take part in the Blog Blast (and Milly - I apologise that I'm a day or two late with this).

I love a book with a grabby, exciting beginning, and Lord of Secrets has that, as rogue young wizard Corcoran Gray, who happens to be invisible at the time, crashes into a remote barn and encounters escaped slave-girl Brix.

Thrown together, the two embark on a series of breakneck adventures, hunted both by the Temples (Brix) and the Magicians' Guild (Gray). Brix is trying to free her sister, who's been sold to the Temples; Gray, to locate and free his grandfather, who has been arrested for necromancy. It's a smart, high-voltage take on magic, Gray being pretty mean at scribing runes and Brix having secrets and abilities of her own. Ion fact, once begun, it's a book that keeps you hooked with the pages simply whizzing by.

I especially enjoyed the fact that the focus is fairly tight, with the primary interested being the consequences for the protagonists and their families. There are wider plots going on involving the fate of the Kingdom and, at one point, a potential undead uprising, but nobody really cares about any of that - they just want their loved ones safe. I found that refreshing.

Of course there is a romance subplot here, and it's good to see it develop and to see the - rather scratchy and awkward - two central characters manoeuvre, but there really isn't a lot of time for them given the constant series of threats, from those pursuing guildies to rapacious innkeepers, starvation on the road and bony zombies. Gray's magical abilities - and the poison that results form scribing runes on the skin - are constantly drawn upon, even as he tries to solve the mystery of his grandfather's whereabouts and of his own origin, which is pretty unclear. Finding one's place in the world is of course a well used theme, but Teintze brings, I think, something genuinely original to it with Gray and the comparison and contrast with Brix's is complex and interesting.

While in one or two places I could see the storyline closely paralleling a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Teintze avoids cliche (not bags of gold pieces for Corcoran and Brix) and overall I greatly enjoyed this book and wound recommend it, especially if you're not sure whether you want to read fantasy or not.

For more information about the book see the publisher's website here.

28 July 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

Shadows of the Short Days
Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson
Gallancz, 25 July 2019
HB, 528pp, e

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

Shadows of the Short Days is set in an alternate Iceland where instead of geothermal power, magic - seiðmagn - wells up from the ground and is harnessed to industrial and military use. While details are kept vague - everyone knows this stuff, right? - it's clear that the seiðmagn is toxic, mutating wildlife and poisoning the ground. Whether this has always been the case or there has been some recent cataclysm is not stated. The island is occupied, forcibly incorporated into the Kolkar "commonwealth" and one suspects it is that magical energy that they really want - possibly it is a rare commodity? Much of the motivation for the story is struggle against that foreign occupation and the oppression it brings.

This political setup of course reflects, to a degree, Icelandic history and the movement for independence in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fittingly then, the two central characters are both, in their different ways, rebels.

Garún is a "blendigar" - half-human, half-huldufólk, and subject to prejudice and discrimination on that ground. Huldufólk are something like are elves (one feature of this book is that the mythological creatures and things tend to be labelled in un-translated Icelandic - for example we also meet "Marbendill", which are mermen/ maids. While there is a glossary at the end, it was fun to encounter these creatures and concepts, which are very stark and strange, in a foreign language). There is a whole backstory to the huldufólk explaining why they're so reviled, hooking into a wider history of this alternate world. Garún is firmly part of the revolutionary movement, spending her nights grafitti-ing magical sigils across Reykjavík to provoke dissent and unrest. By day she's a struggling artist and a member of a Bohemian underground fuelled by the consumption of magic-infused drugs. (Vilhjálmsson has some powerful scenes documenting this). She also has a rather sad backstory - Garún is overall a very well rounded character with whom I strongly sympathised, her sense of rejection as a blendigar and the prejudice she meets coming through strongly.

Sæmundur, the other main protagonist, is equally well drawn although he's difficult to actually like. Sæmundur - obsessed, driven - is a student and part of the same set as Garún (they were together but split up several months before). He's more focussed - even fixated - on developing his magical abilities and studies at Svartiskóli, effectively a university devoted to "Galdur", a branch of magic concerned with the invocation and manipulation of demons. Sæmundur is at loggerheads with his teachers who regard him as a loose cannon, likely to go his own way and meddle with Things Better Left Unknown (they're basically right about this).

This world that Vilhjálmsson draws is, then, intricate, well thought out, and immersive. We can feel the wrongs being done to the people of Reykjavík (the city is surrounded by a wall, the better to maintain control). We can hear the beat and smell the drug-laden air of the parties Garún attends, taste Sæmundur's rage at being judged by his teachers, see the prejudice directed at the blendigar, huldufólk, Marbendill and other non-humans. It's a very strong background, and makes the story thoroughly credible and absorbing. That said, I did regret that there is almost no material from the viewpoint of the occupiers - a couple of scenes at most - which means their movements, motivations, reactions and plans are almost completely missing. The effect is that the resistance movement of which Garún is part seems simply to be kicking at a monolith. That doesn't make for any lack of drama, though: the scenes that describe the eventual conflict are excitingly written and pacy with real tension and terror for our group of rebels.

And I think terror is the right word - this book is very dark indeed. The opening section, showing Garún and Sæmundur going about their lives, gives a rather deceptive impression, suggesting that the darkness is only an incidental theme while it is, I think, actually rather the central feature in this book. Set around Icelandic Midwinter that's also rather fitting. But in the end this is I think a very bleak book even if it is a magnificently bleak book. It is certainly an enthralling and tasty read, genuinely different from the run of fantasy. You could, perhaps, fit it into the Lovecraftian things-from-beyond-time template, or the dystopian pattern of an oppressive state but that doesn't really work, this is a book that speaks for itself and - especially once that introductory third is past - both excites and appals with its weird, weird appeal.

A definite recommendation, you need to read this.

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

25 July 2019

Blog Blast - Lost Acre by Andrew Caldecott #LostAcre #RotherweirdTrilogy @JoFletcherBooks

Lost Acre (Rotherweird, 3)
Andrew Caldecott (illustrated by Sasha Laika)
Jo Fletcher Books
25 July 2019 HB, e
2 April 2020 PB

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of this book via NetGalley and for inviting me to take part in the blog blast.

So, in this third book we're back in the town of Rotherweird, a place that is very much Gormenghast-on-Thames: a fantasy town with its own history, traditions and proud independence, set among the rolling fields and woods of Southern England and peopled by an amazing collection of egos, eccentrics and barrack-room lawyers. Much of the charm of these books is, for me, the gradual revelation of the town itself - with its aerial walkways, oak-framed buildings, curfew, ban on historical records, Guilds and semi-autocratic Mayor.

Against that background, focussing attention on an actual story might seem a tall order but it's one that Caldecott delivers with gusto, having spun two episodes so far of what is really one continuous narrative and served up with a lot of oomph.

As this is the final part of the trilogy, you might expect me to say you really need to have read the previous parts first. I am sometimes ready to dip into Book 2 or even 3 of a trilogy, but this isn't one that will work for - so if you haven't read Rotherweird and Wyntertide, GO BACK AND DO IT. Indeed even if you have, a reread would be appropriate - while Rotherweird and Wyntertide had a bit of breathing space between them, a little conceptual platform to allow the new reader to acclimatise, here there is no such mercy. Lost Acre picks up pretty much where Wyntertide left off, with a catastrophic election for Mayor of the town, the Guild of Apothecaries bidding for power and the sinister Wynter appearing on the scene.

And with a plethora of characters in motion, outside, inside and under the town (and in Lost Acre itself). Some have experienced loss, some are running, others are baffled by events, or trying to turn them to their own advantage. It's a teeming picture, full of movement and action, but an easy way in it isn't. As a returning reader, I'd recommend you just plunge in and surf the first part of the book, reatuning to the Rotherweird atmosphere, which is here in spades. I'd been a little afraid that the returning Geryon Wynter, or the manner of his return, would be such a shattering experience that the books lost their ambience, with, effectively, a Dark Lord looming over the town. But I needn't have feared - while the tension cranks up to 11 here with the return of the town's most notorious son (but, of course, the history ban means the citizens don't know that) it is a very Rotherweird situation, a matter of the town's Regulations, the manoeuvrings of the Guilds, the rivalry between Rotherweirders and Countrysiders - as well as the myriad schemes, hidden features and tangled relationships that the previous two books have exposed.

So, it doesn't matter too much if you don't follow an allusion to something from Book 1, thrown in as two characters try to work out what's going on. The gist (the Journeyman's Gist, even) is pretty clear. Wynter is trying to reestablish authority - including establishing a very sinister "Rotherweird Defence Force" complete with smart uniforms and armbands - but he isn't wholly in control of events.

We meet the same cast of characters as before (there is a helpful list) and they are still trying to fit the pieces together (remember, some of these people have multiple identities that they're hidden over the years). Vixen Valourhand is still daring and resourceful, Snorkel treacherous, and the Polks ingenious. But there are surprises too: far from being an all-powerful villain, even Wynter isn't sure what is happening (can it be he's really being played?) - and many secrets still lie hidden.

Overall, I enjoyed that this book dips much less into the past than its predecessors. Caldecott has been gradually revealing how the (forbidden) history of the town relates to its present, showing us events in Roman times, in the medieval period and under the Tudors. While there are a few such episodes here the story is set firmly in the present day, which I felt gave it slightly more drive - which is important, as the significance of Rotherweird itself to the wider world and universe, and the threat it embodies, become central.

In summary: an excellent close to this trilogy but don't try to read this as a standalone.

(I'd also commend the illustrations by Sasha Laika - they are moody, allusive and add greatly to the atmosphere).

For more information about the book see the publisher's website here.

You can buy it from your local bookshop - including via Hive Books - or from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

23 July 2019

#Blogtour #Review - The Last Stage by Louise Voss

The Last Stage
Louise Voss
Orenda Books, 11 July 2019
PB, e, 306pp

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a free advance copy of The Last Stage to consider for review and to Anne Cater at Random Things Through my Letterbox for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

I live in a part of the country sometimes used for filming the ITV cosy crime series Midsomer Murders.  We're used to seeing film crews in the village (once, my wife actually met Sykes the dog!) and I enjoy watching the programme, trying to spot where things were filmed. So I found the setup of this book quite familiar. An 80/ 90s superstar, Meredith Vincent, dropped out of music after a frightening incident and now lives a reclusive life in a pretty village. Something awful happened to her back then and she guards her identity: only her brother Pete knows who she really is and she works in the gift shop at the local stately home, satisfied to be out of the limelight.

Then bodies begin turning up... you can see that happening in MM and the book even draws attention to that.



BUT. There is much more than that bare plot going on here. Voss has written a seriously tense, complex and threatening book, drawing out not just the who and the what - who is responsible, who is next - but on a deeply imagined, convincing, and disturbing backstory for Meredith. The book  visits first the early 80s of her teenage years where she bunks off from school on her 17th birthday, blithely unaware of impending tragedy at home, to join the peace protest at Greenham Common. It moves forward, in flashbacks throughout the book, to the career of Meredith's band Cohen, which we see emerging and leads up to that horror from she is hiding.

These chapters establish an atmosphere of guilt and mystery, and also explain why Meredith was estranged from Pete for so long. When I learned of her family tragedy I felt particularly for her, I went though something similar myself though a bit older and it is a hard thing. Voss is good on teenage self-centredness and its overlap with denial - there is a sense in which Meredith has spent her life running away not only from whatever it is menaces here, but also from the truth about herself. The events of this book will bring her face to face with all that but after spending so long running, will she be able, finally, to accept what happened?

Meanwhile back in the present, Meredith becomes entangled in a series of events which start off as embarrassing and guilt inducing and rapidly take a turn for the horrific. There are secrets here and buried enmities and Voss does a terrific job of showing us how they insidiously corrode relationships, draw down danger and hurt even the innocent. In particular Meredith's replaying of that incident - which is seared into her, almost to a PTSD extent - is shown vividly and chillingly. We can see, can feel why it remains with and why, when things begin to go bad at Minstead House she is simultaneously in denial and paralysed. She does some very foolish things as a result, but it's hard to blame her (one of the things that can disappoint in this kind of book is when the protagonist doe something silly just to move the plot: that doesn't happen here, if you have any empathy at all you'll exactly see where Meredith is coming from).

As well as the general air of tension and the portrayal of Meredith, I also enjoyed the subplot featuring two young police officers, Gemma and Emad, who are at the centre of the enquiry (in a refreshing touch they're quite junior, so get plenty of hands on experience but are not in charge).

It is, overall, a well told, tensely plotted and very interesting piece of crime fiction with a distinctly Gothic tinge and for the, the 80s roots of the story felt like coming home in many ways (I worked out that I'm either the same age as Meredith or a year younger).

I would recommend this to anyone interested in English country village crime who wants to go beneath the surface and experience the darker side to some of these places, with a bit of psychological bite and some real tension.

The tour continues, with further great stops coming up as you can see from the poster below!

You can - and you should - buy this book either from your local shop, including via Hive, or online from Blackwell's, Waterstones, Foyles or Amazon. It deserves a place on your shelves.

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

21 July 2019

Review - Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Jo Fletcher Books, 23 July 2019
HB, 352pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance review copy of Gods of Jade and Shadow via Amazon Vine.

It begins with a woman...

It begins in the 1920s.

It begins in Mexico.

Casiopea Tun is a young woman, very much the poor and unwanted relation in a sprawling family living in a remote town. The Revolution has left Mexico avowedly secular, but little has changed in Uukumil; by command of the local priest, women are to cover their shoulders at all times.

Casiopea has a life of drudgery with few prospects of improvement. She years to dance to jazz music or to drive a car, but none of this seems likely. Reflecting on the books she's read, she strongly rejects the idea that she's a Cinderella - she isn't waiting for any Prince, but things will get better!

When change comes, Casiopea is proved right - it's not a prince who disrupts things but a Mayan death god, Hun-Kamé, with whom her family fortunes become tangled. So begins a sort of road-trip (more a rail-trip, actually) across Mexico, Casipea pursued by her indolent cousin Martín, Hun-Kamé by his murderous brother Vucub-Kamé. The fugitives encounter a series of natural and supernatural obstacles including villains, demons, magicians and killer plants as Moreno-Garcia weaves a story that is part fairytale, part heist, based on Mayan legends and myths but infused with the spirit of the Jazz Age: the spirit of an indomitable young woman who feels her time has come and who simply won't be dragged back to her grey town to wash floors for the rest of her life.

I really enjoyed the relationship the Moreno-Garcia sketches between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé - no, I know what you're thinking, but it isn't quite what you expect - as well as the matter-of-fact way she integrates the Mayan past with a very materialist present. There's no idealisation of a society that practised human sacrifice, but nor is there any patience for the discrimination she shows against Indigenous peoples. In the persons of Hun-Kamé and Vucub-Kamé we effectively hear an ongoing debate about the past and the future, and Casiopea herself contributes to that, effectively having the last word on many occasions.

I would perhaps have liked to hear more about Casiopea's mother who is an important character early on and, I felt, could have had more to say about the situation she and her daughter were in. And I definitely felt at the end that she should have had more recognition. That apart, the book is fun, often raucous fun, as a young women grows up, learns about herself and teaches some lessons in return to those who are older but not necessarily much more wise.

It is, in many respects, a fairytale, with Casiopea showing the best fairytale virtues of self-reliance, courage, quick thinking and kindness, despite living in a world which has treated her very harshly.

The last book I read by Moreno-Garcia was The Beautiful Ones, a romance of manners set in a magic-infused vaguely alternate Europe. Gods of Jade and Shadow is miles away from this in almost all respects, and overall I'd say it succeeds brilliantly, showcasing this author's versatility.

Strongly recommended.

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

18 July 2019

#Blogtour #Review - The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, Book 1)
Evan Winter
Orbit, 18 July 2019
HB, 523pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Evan Winter's fantasy debut, The Rage of Dragons. I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me an advance copy of the book and inviting me to take part in the tour.

I tend not think of myself as a reader of epic fantasy but I can be persuaded if the book's something a little different, so I took notice of this.

The Rage of Dragons is indeed very much a work of epic fantasy, and viscerally military fantasy at that - it's also a bit of a break from the Northern European template that's often assumed. Winter's story draws instead on different mythologies, settings, language and characters to give us something arresting and fresh.

Tau is a young man in a deeply hierarchical, military-focussed society, that of the Omehi, who are locked in a bitter war with their enemies the Hedeni - enemies whose land they took hundred of years before.

Defending their barren land, backs to the sea, the Omehi wield both military strength and deadly supernatural gifts.

But still, they are slowly losing the war.

I enjoyed meeting Tau and following his journey from shambling young man to powerful, driven warrior. Well, maybe 'enjoyed' is the wrong word. As Tau's life unravels and he takes his first steps down a grim road - a road of discipline, effort and darker, and yet darker, experiences - we see how he changes, what he holds on to and what he lets go. It's a gripping, arresting progress, psychologically true and at times heartbreaking. Winter's writing is never less than vivid, whether describing a battle or evoking the awkward friendships of young men or the arrogance of the gentry (Tau is a Lesser, despised by the Nobles for all that they rely on him and his kind to lay down their lives in the war). And this vivid writing carries the story forward, leaving the reader both dreading and anticipating the next fight, the next humiliation, the next injustice.

It's a pitiless story in some respects, with a great deal of loss and sadness, but it is redeemed by moments of tenderness, loyalty and even self doubt. For most of the book, Tau is consumed by and focussed on his own quest for revenge - not so much trying to find his place in his society as survive it and conquer. At times the things he does, the risks he runs, in this cause almost made me gasp - but while it may not be a new device, the search for justice is one that Winter uses very well to open up this world to us. In any book that, like The Rage of Dragons, seeks to portray a whole society and show how large scale events and the personal intermesh the reader needs an anchor, someone to identify with and both challenge and love the world that's shown. Someone to be our channel to understanding what's going on. With Tau, Winter succeeds magnificently: there really are only a few moments in this story where it feels as though one is being briefed, and mostly we're left to absorb the structures of Omehi society organically (there is a glossary if you find yourself forgetting the difference between Ihashe and Indlovu).

Overall, an exciting, pacy and involving debut, a very strong start to a trilogy - and, yes, just to be clear: here be dragons!

For more info about The Rage of Dragons, and an excerpt, see the Orbit website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including online via Hive Books or online from Blackwell's, Waterstones or from Amazon.

The blogtour continues, and there are many more excellent posts and reviews to catch - see poster below for details.

17 July 2019

#Blogtour #Review - The Spider Dance by Nick Setchfield

Cover design by Natasha MacKenzie
The Spider Dance
Nick Setchfield
Titan Books, 16 July 2019
PB, 408pp

I'm grateful to Sarah at Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Spider Dance to review as part of the blogtour.

"Know first thyself..."

This is the second book in Setchfield's series about British agent Christopher Winter. In the War in the Dark, Winter discovered a new and unsuspected front on which the Service was fighting, a supernatural front, and that he had, in a now lost persona, been intimately involved in that struggle.

In The Spider Dance, we learn more about magician Tobias Hart, the man Winter used to be. Winter has attempted to escape the Service and start a new career as hired muscle to a firm of gangsters (this is London in the Swinging 60s) - but when things go wrong, he's drawn back in to the deadly dance...

I loved it that the central character in these stories has had, and lost, great power; is disgusted by that power and what it can do, and reluctant to awaken it; yet is forced to do so. Winter is a partial hero, a man more seeking to survive, to find safety, and to come to terms with his past, than to triumph - at one point in this story he effectively becomes a well paid hitman in the supernatural world. He's caught in a world where allies, ex friends, and enemies all seem to know who he was and what he could do, yet he doesn't know himself. In a vicious world filled with monsters and the supernatural, Winter seems well out of his depth and it isn't clear there he'll find the knowledge power he needs - or whether he even wants to.

Anton aspect that caught my fancy is Setchfield's skilful blessing of the tropes of the gangster novel - a "gentlemanly" crime family head with all trappings of piety, but whose hands are nonetheless filthy, an illicit trade in certain substances (though not quite what you'd think), a city in fear - with those of horror, in this case horror associated with particular monsters. This one is more crime than espionage, despite some early chapters behind the Iron Curtain (which nonetheless capture the authentic atmosphere of a 60s Cold War thriller).

In some respects it's a simpler story that The War in the Dark. There, it wasn't clear exactly what was going on, Winter's secret history was still, well, secret, and there were clearly several factions but we didn't know who they were. Now, a lot is out in the open (if if details remain obscure) and it's less a matter of Winter learning that his supposed life was a lie than of him living with the consequences. So The Spider Dance is more straightforward, but no less readable and the character of Christopher Winter, as Setchfield draws him, is a fascinating and subtle one.

Great fun whether you're into thrillers or horror and - of course - just the thing if you like a blend of the two.

To find out more about the book or order a copy, visit the Titan website here.

13 July 2019

Review - This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal al-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This is How You Lose the Time War
Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Jo Fletcher Books, 18 July 2019
PB, e 208pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance e-copy of This is How You Lose the Time War via NetGalley.

'All good stories travel from the outside in'.

How to describe this book? It's brilliant. It's evocative. It's heartbreaking. It's tender.

Above all, it's beautiful.

In a multiverse not far from here, we find two agents - referred to simply as Red and as Blue. They act for different factions in a Time War: Red works for The Commandant, Blue is an agent of Garden. Both women are human, and more than human. They have formidable combat abilities, endurance, strength and they are able to move backwards, forwards and sideways through space and time, up and down the different braids, the timelines, that denote victory or defeat in the endless war. They are perhaps not born but created, their role to interfere, tip events one way or another - killing a leader, ensuring a technology develops or a trade route opens, something that will cascade down the braids, changing outcomes and winning their side an advantage in some remote age.

What the war is about, who the factions are and why they exist, isn't clear and doesn't need to be. We don't care who wins. What matters is that Red and Blue are eternal opponents, sworn and committed enemies, true believers in their causes - in the service of which they necessarily cross and recross each other, jostling for advantage. And as skilled and intelligent agents, they begin exchanging messages. They are taunting, scoring points. And, perhaps, one is trying to turn the other.

But hard earned, if grudging, respect leads to mutual understanding - perhaps, across all the timeline s in the multiverse, only Red and Blue can truly understand Blue, and only Blue can truly understand Red. Understanding leads to a sort of friendship (with no loss of commitment: "We will still win!") Friendship deepens and leads to... something like love. No, actually, to love.

Channeling the spirit of every story of star-crossed lovers (yes, there are references to Romeo and Juliet) el-Mohtar and Gladstone have spun here a simple, yet deep and ever so beautiful story of doomed love, often poetic ('Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in a vein', 'It feels good to be reciprocal, eat this part of me while I drive reeds into the depth of you, spill out something sweet'), profoundly moving and fundamentally human and true - alongside the weird, eon-spanning SF setting.

And there is more. The authors like nothing more than puncturing their own balloon with a pun or a reference ('no road-met random monster', 'strangling that evil old man in a bathtub in his skyscraper penthouse'). And they won me with the observation that 'Even an immortal can only ride the [London Underground] Circle Line so long' (though it can feel like it sometimes).

It's a short book, one to read in a sitting, growing into the love between the two women, despairing at the fate that has made them what they are, the more so for the conflict being so shrouded and seemingly pointless.

A profound and glorious story, wonderfully written, uplifting even while sad.

VERY strongly recommended.

2 July 2019

Review - The Bird King by G Willow Wilson

The Bird King
G Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 4 July 2019
HB, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

I loved G Willow Wilson's last novel, Alif the Unseen so was pleased to see The Bird King forthcoming. Set in the Muslim Empire of El Andalusia shortly before is was finally defeated by the Catholic forces of Ferdinand and Isabella, The Bird King follows Fatima, a concubine of the Sultan in the last days of the Empire. Forced to make a terrible choice in order to protect her friend, Fatima has to leave the palace where she has lived her whole life and navigate numerous dangers - from the invading Catholics, the supernatural, and her own lack of experience.

Fatima and her friend Hassan are wonderful characters - complex and spiky with their own faults and their own problems fitting into the new world that is coming. Fatima's concubinage marks her out as a sinner in that new world, not that she had any choice in the matter. Wilson's writing is at its best in conveying the nuances of Fatima's feelings here - there is no romanticising of the vanishing order. Fatima has been compelled, her mother was trafficked as a slave, yet the palace and the harem are all she knows and have in some respects protected her. Leaving all that behind is I think a process of growing up, of choosing what she wants and it is at times a painful one. Offers are made to her, but if she accepts them, will they bring the freedom she now releases she needs?

Hassan is gay - or would be so described in modern terms, I don't know if the term should be used for a man in the 15th/ 9th centuries - something that has been tolerated, or at least ignored, in his life so far. He also has a rare, magical talent that is at the heart of this book. Wilson uses that ability cleverly to flag early on that there will be an element of the fantastical here, but she only introduces that slowly with the central part of the story being one of pursuit, endurance and evasion which also explores the consequences of two cultures - Islamic and Christian - in contention here. Towards the beginning, Hassan comments that, following surrender by the Sultan, things will go on much the same, won't they? It's just that the key to the city will be held by someone else? A Christian envoy, Luz, replies sadly that, no, they won't and the tragic details of what is to come work out from there.

Luz is another magnificent creation in this book. I don't think I can say much about her because the exact role she will play only emerges some way in. Just keep an eye on her, that's all. Complex, contradictory and in a sense, free, she is a counterpoint to Fatima and the two seem to have an attraction for one another.

This book is, in the end, a glorious story, one where I found the pages zooming by on my Kindle and I was left at the end wanting to know much more. It is very sad in places but also shot through with hope. Definitely recommended and I'll be looking out for a paper copy to get on my shelves as soon as I can - that cover looks glorious!

For more information about The Bird King see the publisher's website here.