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...


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.

26 September 2019

#Blogtour #Review - Hire Idiots by Prof. I.M. Nemo

Cover by Jenny Haines
Hire Idiots
I M Nemo
Fox Spirit Books, 25 August 2019
PB, 214pp, e

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free e-copy of Hire Idiots and to Emma @damppebles for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Hire Idiots opens with a murder on campus, but the (surely pseudonymous?) I M Nemo keeps the reader guessing as the story doesn't follow the routines of the Whodunnit but swerves off into campus politics and the new-liberlisation of education.

Kingsley College is a small US liberal arts college, about to suffer the full force of a modernising, business-friendly, profit-oriented management team. The situation is analysed, I'd say, with some bite by Prof Nemo and while the - never fully explored - murder and the - mysteriously unclear - occupation of the campus theatre by a protester/ gunman/ whoever function as two instances of the slightly strange, setting the scene for the beginning and end of the book, most of it is about that takeover and the struggle of a motley collection of academics to keep their ideals and academic freedoms.

Central to all this is Clarence Van Dyke, a specialist in the poetry of William Blake (one of whose couplets opens the book: Degrade first the arts, if you'd mankind degrade; Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade). Van Dyke is British (cue various jokes about his connections with that fellow from Mary Poppins) but is comfortably settled on campus, bustling between lecture hall, pub and his apartment (the "campus cottage"). Over the course of several days we see his growing realisation of what is in store as a collection of management consultants, Vice Presidents for this-and-that, and fancy management types with glossy titles swarm in, speaking an alien language (benchmarking, assessing, synergy) and looking to make cuts.

Is Nemo using this society in miniature to stand for the wider world - as above, so below - with the methodology of the "disaster capitalists" dissected? Create a crisis. Apportion blame what it can't be settled. Move in and pillage. We see it here as the campus's support services are first contracted out, with the bell soon to toll, it seems, for faculty as well.

While most of the view point is Van Dyle's, we do see a little from the perspective of Happy Winter, the new Chief Academic Officer, a woman more comfortable with her charts and metrics than actually doing any teaching. I would have liked to see more of her point of view, to understand a little better what the motivations of the forces of barbarism are here, but I think that Nemo's heart and passion is really with Van Dyke and the upstart academics (and I sense that's rather the point of this book: it breathes anger and revenge and is dedicated 'For my colleagues who fight on' even if it also claims to be wholly a work of fiction).

That makes the story something of a polemic and if you're not sympathetic to Nemo's point of view you might not enjoy this book, so be warned. For my part, I rather got along with the anger and passion, which gives it a slightly different feel. While perhaps rough in one or two places (I think it effectively telescopes twenty or thirty years of creeping managerialism into one, nasty shock - could Van Dyke really have as been näive about modern trends as he seems here) it effectively draws in the sides and almost becomes a bit of an allegory for wider society and politics in the early 21st century.

An entertaining, fun and thought provoking read.

You can buy Hire Idiots from Amazon UK or Amazon US. Or visit the Fox Spirit Store at


For more information about damppebbles blog tours see www.damppebbles.com

24 September 2019

Blogtour Review - Wonderland ed by Marie O'Regan and Paul Kane

Design by Julia Lloyd
Wonderland: An Anthology of Works Inspired by "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"
Edited by Marie O'Regan and Paul Kane
Titan Books, 17 September 2019
PB, e, 352pp

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of Wonderland to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

I love themed anthologies. It's always interesting to see what a diverse group of top-grade authors make of a meaty subject, what similarities and differences there are between their take on it, and how the editor juxtaposes things. Recently there seems to have been a resurgence of anthologies playing with classic stories - understandably because, really, with something like Alice, there is always something new to say, not least because times change, we change, and our approach to these stories must also change.

This anthology is bookended by poems from prolific author and poet Jane Yolen. Alice in Armor muses on an Alice taking her own life into her hands and arming herself against injury. The implications of this are made clearer in Yolen's closing poem, Revolution in Wonder. It's fitting that Yolen both opens and closes the book, echoing the range of approaches followed by the stories in between (especially given her contributions elsewhere to this whole area of reinterpreting and reimagining those classic tales we all have as part of the furniture of our minds.

Overall this collection has teeming variety. There are stories inspired by Wonderland, using its look and feel, as it were, stories which expand upon aspects of the original books, prequels, sequels, real-world stories where a "Wonderland" aspect might be taken as objective reality or equally, may reflect a state of mind or be a metaphor for the distance from childhood. There are transpositions of Alice to varied settings - the Wild West, a dystopia future, urban Japan - and all manner of other reimagining (including some which touch on uncomfortable aspects of Dodgson - Lewis carroll - and his circle.

They are all strong stories and it would be invidious to try to rate each one, but I particularly enjoyed Genevieve Cogman'' The White Queen's Pawn, Good Dog, Alice by Juliet Marillier, About Time by George Mann, LL McKinney's story What Makes a Monster and Alison Littlewood's Eat Me, Drink Me.

In Wonders Never Cease, the first story proper, Robert Shearman picks up where Alice itself ends, imagining her leaving Wonderland and rejoining a very prosaic Earth of roundabouts, typing and switchboards. Or has she left? The story is effectively timeless, weaving together Wonderland weirdness with moments in an ordinary life, while keeping the sense of being in a dream which Carroll's novels depend upon.

There Were No Birds To Fly by MR Carey presents a Wonderland-tinged, but post-Apocalyptic, Brighton. Deadly aliens walk among us, and a small party is fleeing - but to where? And why? 'If you follow the rules' the Narrator (who wears an apron, and carries a set of carpenter's tools) is told at the start, 'you'll live a whole lot longer.' And there do seem to be rules in this story, but they are frustratingly hard to grasp. A grim, allusive take that seems to inhabit the spirit of Wonderland while being rooted in a real place.

Genevieve Cogman presents a different Alice in The White Queen's Pawn, set in the 1930s where dreams of dozing by the river and drinking resizing potions are long gone and the nasty realities of the later decade take the foreground - with, however, the order 'Off with her head!' still ringing. A neat reversal involving a looking glass is a nice commentary on the politics of those, and perhaps these, times.

Cavan Scott's Dream Girl plunges into what seems to be a world of classic horror - a dark and bloodstained Wonderland with its own secrets where the March Hare's madness has taken a sinister turn. Alice is missing - if she is found will she be able to restore order or will she just bring ruin? There is a clever conceit to this story which I didn't spot coming, but it's one that casts a shadow at the end of the story. I wasn't sure whether the was a Happy Ever After here.

In Good Dog, Alice by Juliet Marillier the protagonist is Dorothea, not Alice, but there is a small doorway, there is a magical food that can resize the eater and there are - in the background - Oxford dons. Here Wonderland (if that's what it is) is both a refuge and a source of strength, with the real hours outside, in our world. A neat and haunting story, one of my favourites in this book.

Jonathan Green's The Hunting of the Jabberwock gives us the true story of this famous quest - in which things turn out to be both less, and more, heroic than the legend which has been handed down. Drawing on the possibilities for the Hunt as a self-contained episode Green creates what could almost be a Dungeons & Dragons module, complete with an eager young Squire, a battered, world-weary knight and an unfriendly Hermit. Liberally spattered with gyres and gimbles, more raths and fearsome Jubb Jubb birds, this story is fun and entertaining.

In About Time, George Mann gives a thoughtful interpretation of Alice in a wider context, dwelling on childhood and adulthood and the responsibilities each has to the other. Here, as in several other stories, Wonderland serves several purposes, including being a refuge, a comfort and a mirror (of course!) to "real life". Another of my favourites.

I previously knew Angela Slatter for her Verity Fassbinder series of urban fantasy sets in Brisbane (excellent - read them!) so it's good to see her do something every different in Smoke 'em if You Got 'em which is... how to describe it? A kind of Alice "Western" complete with six-shooters, a sheriff and a saloon. An excellent, rounded story in itself giving its Alice plenty of action and agency and, perhaps, a peep into a wider world we might see more of? I can hope.

Rio Youers's Vanished Summer Glory takes a more sentimental vein, being one of those stories that looks back on a (sort of) past Wonderland, or Wonderland experience, making no judgement on objective reality (I had thoughts) but definitely using the whole concept to convey vanished youth, innocence and childhood joy. As a native of Cheshire I was pleased to see the Daresbury setting.

Black Kitty by Catriona Ward might be, perhaps, a prequel to the Alice stories? It very cleverly weaves elements from the Alice mythos into a deeper, scarier world but - and I think this is unusual in this sort of story - gives its Wonderland participants real hopes and fears, which are perfectly rational in their (irrational) world.

Laura Mauro's The Night Parade takes us to Osaka, to a humid night where Airi, unable to sleep, lights a moody cigarette and observes the city from her tiny balcony. That might seem as unlikely a jumping off point for a Wonderland story but it really isn't - as Mauro shows, everything joins up. Another of my favourites, both for its distinctive atmosphere and for its resourceful central character.

LL McKinney has form in reimagining Wonderland, her A Blade so Black using it as the basis for an urban fantasy set in modern Atlanta, so What Makes a Monster already has a whole world to draw on - one she uses with relish in this story of London, gaslight and fog which also serves as something of a prequel for ABSB.

James Lovegrove's The White Queen's Dictum is perhaps more tangentially Wonderland-ish - the title refers to the idea of believing "six impossible things before Breakfast" but with that nod we're into rather a different kind of story - still an effective and twisty one, though.

In Temp Work, Lilith Saintcrow gives us a grim, corporate-ruled and environmentally degraded future. Not a Wonderland, you'd think, and temping maid Alise, required to dress pleasingly for someone else's fantasy, is just making it from one day to another, staving off hunger and getting by. Its not though only her bosses who have have strategies and plans.

Alison Littlewood's Eat Me, Drink Me, like a number of other stories here, picks up on the atmosphere and trapping of the original stories and deftly turns them round to reflect on its Alice's situation and dilemmas. A claustrophobic, harrowing and tense story, another favourite in this collection.

Cat Rambo's story How I Comes to be the Treacle Queen is a slightly different take, written in - at first - a slightly difficult language but it's an intriguing and passionate story that quickly grew on me. It is really Wonderland from below. Excellent.

The final story in the book, Six Impossible Things by Mark Chadbourn complements Vanished Summer Glory in meditating on "real life" (whatever that is) but doing with both a more direct take on the Alice books (looking at the people who inspired then, including some darker aspects concerning Carroll) and a less direct one: it involves an Alice, exploring something very like a canonical Wonderland... but not exactly like. Fittingly, the story raises many questions, bringing the anthology towards its end in a very open way, before Yolen's closing poem of high revolt rounds things off.

A super anthology showcasing a range of authors doing splendid stuff. Great fun.

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here and the other reviews and pieces in the blogtour set out in the poster below.

22 September 2019

Review - Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Cover design by Richard Ogle/TW
Big Sky (Jackson Brodie 5)
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 18 June 2019
HB, e, audio, 368pp, 11 hours 20min

I bought my copy of this book and listened to the audio version via a subscription service.

It's all Kate's fault. Not Atkinson (though I'[ll come to her in a moment), no I mean Kate of For Winter Nights. I had this on my pile to read over Christmas, but then Kate's review came along and I couldn't leave it till then, but I had blogtour commitments and stuff, so I Audioed it while driving between home and station.

The upshot of which is that I now have NO Atkinson to read over Christmas AND I have to catch up on Jackson Brodie... which actually means I have four Atkinsons to read over Christmas, I think? So perhaps I should be thanking the Kates, actually.

Anyway. Let's frame things right. This is not a crime novel. It doesn't have a detective who, in the teeth of the police, gets to the bottom of things. it doesn't feature a DI who has gone maverick, a cynical pathologist, or a picturesque country setting.

Well, it kind of does. Jackson Brodie is a detective, but he doesn't defy the police and find the truth. He kind of stumbles along, musing on life, and plays his part. There is a DI but she is peripheral, a pair of detective constables are more central but, again, they don't really solve anything. And there is a pathologist but she's a character in a long running TV drama, Collier, and played by Brodie's ex, Julia (whose comments on various things intercut this book). Collier is filmed on the East Coast of Yorkshire so, really, there is a picturesque setting.

But I hold to my view that this isn't crime. While crimes occur in the book - oh so many crimes - and there is even a body found in a garden, the book is not about the process of solving the crimes so much as about people - about women - getting out from under their shadow. No, this is a book about the evil that men do, and I have to say, it didn't make me feel great about being a man.

The background to the story is that a child trafficking and exploitation ring, wound up several years before, is being reinvestigated (by the two DCs, Reggie and Ronnie (I know)). This has caused various guilty parties some concern and arms are being twisted to command silence. At the same time, a human trafficking operation run by three unlovely men is raking in money hand over fist. The book is about those caught up in the two schemes, the women who were scarred by the earlier one, and the women deceived and abused in the second. It makes for very raw, very distressing reading (if you let yourself think about it, that is, which of course you should) and, as I have said, for me, quite shaming reading because really the men in here do not acquire themselves well (mostly - there are exceptions, Jackson himself, of course, a young man named Harry and drag queen Bunny).

I've seen criticism of this book that it ends too soon, that it's not, well, crime-y enough but I think that misses the point. This book is about lives. It's about consequences. About fear and complicity. All of that needs space to develop and - while obviously it can be done - that doesn't require a Mystery, Clues and a Solution. (I'm really not trying to diss crime fiction here, I love it, especially a decent series and this is a series so we have that, I'm just saying, come to this book with the right expectations).

So I loved that, even after the crime-y bit was resolved, the story would down gently, sorting out other threads concerning Jackson, Harry, his stepmum and others, bringing bits of redemption, showing some of the guilty being punished - and others escaping. It's a tense story focussed on unbelievable levels of suffering and betrayal and it felt right to come back up gradually. At least it did to me.

I also don't want to give the impression this book is dark or depressing. Well yes it is dark, in places, the overall impression I took away was its spot-on portrayal of a while gallery of contrasting, alive, real people. The different voices come through so strongly - Julia in the little asides that come in to Jackson's mind all the time (both their appositeness and the fact that he keeps recalling them), the repeated motif of 'Tina [or Christina, or Christina and Fi] running away', Jackson recalling the label of 'Luddite' flung at him by his daughter, Harry's mild teenage angst and his incomprehension of Miss Dangerfield's feelings - which the reader will have spotted as well as the action she has taken, and so much more. Of course the audio version has Jason Isaacs' (who played Brodie in a TV adaptation of Case Histories) who injects life and action into all the voices - coping superbly with the interjections, and range of accents.

As I have said, all this now gives me the wonderful dilemma of when and how I can go back through the previous Jackson Brodies...

20 September 2019

Blogtour review - The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Alex E Harrow
Orbit, 12 September 2019
HB, 371pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and to Tracey Fenton for inviting me to take part in the book's blog tour.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book I'd recommend 100%, probably one of my favourite books so far this year (and it's been a good year!)

At times exciting, tearjerking, heart-poundingly tense, and romantic (and sometimes all of these together) this fantasy adventure is both about the urgent need to see, and to cherish, the magic in life, and about growing up, forgiving and living. Every page burns with life, with wisdom and with love.

January Scaller is a young girl growing up in New England in the house of Mr Locke, a gilded age robber baron whose passion is archaeology - or at least, archaeological loot, which he employs January's father to hunt down, sending him all over the world. January's glimpses of Julian grow fewer and fewer, while Locke attempts to mould her into a "good girl" - quiet, well behaved, obedient - with limited success. January is a lonely child but she is comforted by her dog, Bad, by the comics and storybooks shared by the grocer's boy Samuel... and by the strange tokens and gifts which occasionally turn up.

Intertwined with January's story is that of another young women, Ade, who sought adventure, ran away from her childhood home, and found it, at great cost. To begin with it's not clear what the stories have to do with each, nor with the readings January gives us from a strange book she has found. The jumps between these in the early part of the book may seem a bit jarring, but bear with the story, it all makes sense in the end. The point is not the destination but the journey, and Harrow is an excellent guide, leading the reader through a rich, emotional itinerary as January grows up and observes her place in the world. Dwelling within Locke's sphere of wealth and privilege, she has experiences and advantages not available to others of her "mixed" heritage, but she's both aware of how fragile her position is and terribly conscious of loss, of her father seeming to reject her on her endless quests.

A bookish girl, clearly, one prone to seek solace in stories, to dwell in her own imagination, biddable, polite and eager to please.

Well, yes... and NO. As January's life unravels over a few terrifying weeks, and she faces the loss of everything and everyone she knows, she proves to have steel in her, and unsuspected gifts. I don't think I've read anything recently as tense as the pages where January suffers blow after blow - often through being too trusting, just not quite quick enough, too ready to blurt out what she has seen or suspects. Frustrating for the reader at some points, but showing her humanity. January learns some hard lessons, and several time brings disaster on those she loves. While never less than. absorbing there are places where this story is very hard to read - a triumphant token, I'd say, of Harrow's ability to convey the beauty and terror of January's life.

There is a darkness, a destruction, at work in the world, alongside the complacency of the opening chapters - this is 1901, a time of progress, of civilisation, of peace and progress - and January only gradually learns what it may have to do with her and what, unknowingly, it may have cost her. Then she needs to choose her side and question all her assumptions.

In all, this is a glorious book, packed with insights, empathy, humour grim in places) and above all, with the personality, shrewdness and insight - above all, the self-awareness - of this very remarkable protagonist.

January will run. Monsters will follow. Hearts will break...

And remember: "Men are mostly cowards..."

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

To buy the book - and you should - you can visit your local bookshop, of course, or use Hive which supports local bookshops - or there is Blackwell's, Foyle's, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.

19 September 2019

#Review #Giveaway - The Monster by Seth Dickinson

The Monster (Masquerade, 2)
Seth Dickinson
Tor UK, 19 September
PB, 544pp

I'm grateful to Tor UK for an advance copy of The Monster to consider for review. (Thanks, Jamie!)

The Review

Dickinson's first book The Traitor (or The Traitor Baru Cormorant, depending where published) was a truly different take on fantasy, introducing us to Baru, a young woman in a newly colonised territory now ruled by the Imperial Republic of Falcrest. As well as showing the economic and cultural damage done to Baru's people, the book gave us a determined and ruthless hero who set out, by rising within the Falcresti administration, to destroy the oppressor from within.

The Monster - published today - picks up right where The Traitor [etc] left off. To earn a place in the hierarchy of Falcrest, Baru fomented a rebellion (destroying a Falcresti fleet to demonstrate her bona fides to the rebels) which she then betrayed. As a coup de grace, she executed her lover, the duchess Tain Hu, by drowning her, a powerful scene repeated at the start of The Monster. Now Baru has the "in" she wanted to the élite of Falcrest and she can do as she wishes.

If only life were so simple.

The Monster pulls off the awesome feat of being, if anything, even better than The Traitor. While the latter was superb in demonstrating the rottenness of colonialism, and the corruption of Baru in her quest for its overthrow, it was very preoccupied with strategy, tactics and war. The present book, on the other hand, takes the struggle every much into Baru's soul and visits its consequences on her. The betrayals she has made have unmade her; the injuries she suffered have cut off part of her sight (or is that, too, an outworking of guilt?)

And what she did has set enemies on her. The Falcresti Navy, whose ships Baru burned and whose sailors she murdered as an agent provocateur,  has not forgiven. Nor have the erstwhile rebels. But it also turns out that far from being a disciplined, orderly polity, the powers in Falcrest are effectively warring barons, contesting as much among themselves as with their external enemies. Wielding different powers and representing different interests - navy, secret service, science, church, Parliament - they blackmail, bribe and scheme in the name not only of Falcrest but of different, longer term goals. Masks are worn in the Empire of Masks, loyalties unclear, and politics is a great game.

In The Monster the apparent central question is whether or not there will be war with the Oriati Mbo, a southern power very different and very alien to Falcrest. This potential conflict between two mighty opponents seems to hold the seeds of world chaos, yet there are those who would plan exactly that.

The real question is, I think, slightly different. As these devious cryptarchs play their game, I found myself asking, what does winning mean? Falcrest itself is, interestingly, not portrayed except through it agents: we don't meet its people at home while we see a lot of its rivals and subject peoples and their lands. What even is Falcrest? is it real at all? I wondered.

In contrast to that mystery, loved the Oriati Mbo and its people. Here Dickinson gives us a very different culture from those in the previous book, a world revolving around the idea of trim, something never exactly defined but which seems to be a mixture of fate, luck and being in good spiritual standing. In a couple of flashbacks we see the impact of this on the lives of characters who will be important later on - and eventually, when Baru collides with an Oriati ambassador, we also see their horror at the spiritual knots she has bound about herself through her actions in the first book.

It's, in many ways, a grimmer read than The Traitor, focussing on a wounded Baru who is no longer manipulating events but rather being driven by them; drink sodden, fleeing enemies who are able to strike and strike again. The fact that Dickinson still makes this compelling and at times even funny illustrates his eeriest knack for producing writing that gets under your skin - or perhaps inside your mind - and continually comes back with pithy asides and observations about power, human nature and human frailty.

I was also impressed by the range of characters here - represented as from a teeming mix of races and cultures, with non-binary people very visable and women in many active roles, especially in the Falcresti Navy. (There is a running joke of these Navy women assuming that men will be impulsive and emotional).

This is the sort of book that cannot be rushed, each conversation, each scene, reveals and conceals new layers of meaning with the relationships between old allies and new enemies bringing whole new dimensions even to events I thought I'd understood.

A great read, with a rollicking sense of life whether in its depiction of the Falcresti navy women, of the scheming Cryptarchs or the teeming world of the Oriati Mbo. Don't deny yourself, get it now.

The Giveaway

And I might be able to help with that... due to the generosity of Tor and the fact that I found a bookshop that already had The Monster on sale, I have a spare copy. So I am declaring this GIVEWAY season.

Share this review on Twitter (I'm old-fashioned, I don't have other social media) and tag me @bluebookballoon (yes, @ me!) and on Sunday 22 September at 6pm I'll pick someone at random to get the spare copy. (UK and Ireland only I'm afraid).

You don't even have to follow me, though if you would like to, that's fine too.

For more about The Monster and to buy the book, see the publisher's website here.

18 September 2019

Blogtour review - The Penny Black by Rob Parker

The Penny Black (Ben Bracken, 3)
Rob Parker
Endeavour Media, August 2019
E-book, paperback (225pp)

I'm grateful to the author and publisher for a free advance copy of The Penny Black and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

This is Parker's third thriller featuring ex soldier and ex con Ben Bracken, following A Wanted Man and Morte Point. I'm interested how Parker is developing the series. While Bracken (under a variety of aliases) remains centre, in this book he feels rather more detached from the conspiracy themes of the first two (though some familiar and unwelcome faces still pop up).

Bracken is hiding out in the remote village of Horning on the Norfolk Broads. I last read about Horning in Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons children's series, about forty years ago and as one might expect Bracken's experience of it is rather different from how it is portrayed there! Behind the idyllic seeming English village with its boatyards and quaint pubs, there are dark goings-on. Bracken ought to leave well alone - he's hunted by an entire alphabet of acronymed law enforcement agencies, crime syndicates ands spooks and should be keeping his head down.

Needless to say, being Ben Bracken, he doesn't, and thus begins a fast-paced and tension-filled story. It isn't, though, perhaps quite as relentless as Morte Point with more time for Bracken to reflect on who he is, where he has been and on his responsibility to those around him. Put simply he is a target and those hunting him have shown that if he appears in their sites they won't be too fussy about who else gets hurt. That's part of the atmosphere of these books - it's not a question of who Bracken can trust or the lengths they are prepared to go to, it's a matter of how bad things will get and what he might have to do. That's what triggers his sense of guilt and responsibility.

I wouldn't have it any other way but that didn't stop me almost shouting "don't do it!" several times as he stuck his neck out.

So, all in all, another fun and tense episode with some deeper themes beginning to emerge. A couple of details seemed a little far-fetched, perhaps, but the think that's inherent in this genre (go back and re-read The Thirty Nine Steps if you want proof of that).

Ideal reading, I'd say, if you're off for that boating holiday on the Broads...

To connect with Rob on Twitter, go here. His website is https://robparkerauthor.com/.

17 September 2019

Review - Bone China by Laura Purcell

Cover design by David Mann
Bone China
Laura Purcell
Raven Books, 19 September 2019
HB, e, 448pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of Bone China via NetGalley.

'You would never dream of what goes on behind those walls.'

This latest of Laura Purcell's spooky historical thrillers, following from The Silent Companions and The Corset,  opens with young Hester Why squashed into a stagecoach, travelling into the West Country. Apart from the difficulties caused by six people being crammed into space for four, she suffers from an early version of a very modern problem ('a brute beast of a man is spreading his legs') and thirsts for her gin flask. It's a bit of a nightmare, which ends when another passenger is hurt and Hester is the only one who steps forward to care for him.

Which isn't the right thing for a woman travelling alone to do, in the early 19th century, and only draws attention to her, which is worse. Hester needs to keep a low profile, for reasons we will discover later - but first we see her introduced to Morvoren House, a chilly clifftop residence where she will care for a mistress in declining health, Miss Pinecroft, and a strange younger woman, Mis Pinecroft's ward, Rosewyn.

Purcell lays on the Gothic touches with delight when it comes to Morvoren House. There are mysterious sounds in the night, superstitious locals, a self-absorbed, almost speechless old woman - and Rosewyn, who spends her time tearing up Bibles to make protective charms. There are surly servants and there are secrets - those belonging to the house, and those Hester brings with her. Above all, there is the threat of the fairies, and the fear that they will carry off a young woman in the night.

The mysteries of Morvoren House can only be understood if we go back 40 years, to the arrival of Louise and her father, Ernest. The rest of the family have died of consumption: a double blow for Ernest who, as a doctor, was unable to save his own. It becomes clear that Ernest is haunted by guilt,  and he sets out to defeat the disease, performing experiments on convicts in caves deep below the house.

The mysteries of Hester Why can only, similarly, be understood if we go back several months to a house in Hanover Square, London, where young Esther Stevens takes up a new post as nurse to Lady Rose Windrop. A sympathetic character, Esther nevertheless has a whiff of the dark about her, and Sir Arthur Windrop soon has cause to ponder the series of deaths that seems to follow her... in many respects I found this section of the novel the most absorbing. There is a real tension between Esther and Lady Rose's severe mother-in-law, a real issue around Esther's (and her mother's) knowledge of midwifery and their rivalry with (masculine) medicine. Esther's somewhat brooding, obsessive nature is piqued by her closeness to Lady Rose and the reader senses many currents just below the surface. This part of the story could, in fact, almost stand as a novel in itself and I thought it was a slight shame that it needed to be truncated so that it could serve as Hester's backstory.

The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Ernest and Louise's story. More wholeheartedly Gothic, and more of a piece with the "present day" narrative, theirs in nevertheless a tale of loss, grief and Romantic 19th century obsessiveness.

Yet I wouldn't, I think, see these stories unplanned and presented one by one. That would be like cutting up a book of Blake's poems to present each alone on the wall. Read together, the impact of these related episodes is more than their sum. We see, for example, in Esther and Louise, two capable young women who in a different age would be doctors. ('You were born to the wrong sex, my dear'). Indeed, Louise has surpassed her doctor father. We also see, ion different forms, the effects of grief and (if I'm not wrong) post-natal depression (perhaps more than one example of the latter). The metaphor of china also appears, slyly, here and there. It's something Purcell will make a great deal of in the concluding section where the rather unique collection displayed in Miss Pinecroft's sitting room seems to have a life of its own, but earlier we see Lady Rose as '...a porcelain figure... a wife was prized for smoothness and lustre'. In the selection or rejection of china as a gift Purcell encodes relationships: something given to a daughter but clearly chosen for a dead wife, or a service rejected when it offends the mystical tenets of class and taste.

And the bone china, too, has its dark secrets...

I loved this story, the darkness in each part, the hint, almost, of sulphur attaching to Hester, her combination of both a vulnerable and wronged young woman and a person who knows things, who brings her own will and her own plans with her. Miss Pinecroft was an enigma, seems ugly a slight character manipulated by others but one whom again, ultimately has inner strength and power. But almost every character here is strongly drawn and complex (apart perhaps from the clergyman, but there's a bit of humour in that!)

Strongly recommended. Get your copy now and read it when the wind gets up and the nights are dark...

For more about the book, and to order it, see the publisher's website here.

10 September 2019

Blogtour review - The Girl the Sea Gave Back by Adrienne Young

The Girl the Sea Gave Back
Adrienne Young
Titan Books, 3 September 2019
PB, e, 320pp

I'm grateful to Titan for a free advance reading copy of The Girl the Sea Gave Back and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

Set in the same universe as The Sky in the Deep, The Girl the Sea Gave Back takes place ten years later and follows both Halvard as as an adult and leader of his, now united, people - with flashbacks to his earlier life - and a new character, Tova (the "girl" of the title).

Tova is an exile from her own clan, the Kyrr, who has a valuable talent - the ability to cast runes and predict the future. She was given grudging sanctuary by the Svell, a people who sense opportunity in the losses that befell the Nãdhir, but she is neither welcomed nor loved: rather, blamed for any misfortune that occurs and shunned as a witch, she is tolerated only so long as she is useful.

I found the story of this self-possessed yet haunted young woman both captivating and sad. Tova believes herself cast away for some dreadful crime, taint or feud - but she was too young at the time to understand what. Young's imagined world - clearly based loosely on Norse culture - is a place of clan warfare and deeply held blood feuds, one where an exile is unlikely to survive long with no-one to shelter them or avenge their death. It's a poetically imagined country of forests, mist-wracked fjords and stoutly fortified villages where violent death can be ill afforded but is nevertheless common. And Tova has to face her own responsibility for this spiral of destruction and revenge: the Svell are finely balanced between those who want to slaughter their weakened neighbours and those who prefer peace. There's no perception of any morality in this - it's all about what will benefit the clan in the long run, and Tova's prophecies may affect this balance, especially as interpreted by the ambitious Jorrund, the closest that Tova has to a guardian among the Svell.

The ethics of self vs clan, survival against consequences, are at the heart of the story, Young taking her time to set up the complex dilemma Tova faces - a matter not only of humanity but of the mysterious Spinners of fate and of the gods themselves. It's a situation that also draws in Halvard, struggling to accept his destiny as leader and doubting his ability. Surely he was chosen for peace, not a time of conflict? Both protagonists are complex, believable people struggling with the hand that Fate has dealt them. They are not experienced in the ways of the world, both stumbling and failing and aghast at the results of that.

I just loved this book. Apart from the flashbacks, events unfold pell-mell over a few days with little room for error among the contending groups and little prospect of mercy when things go wrong. My heart was in my mouth as things came to a head - things are kept at a high pitch of tension right to the end.

Excellent, and strongly recommended.

You can buy The Girl the Sea Gave Back from your local high street bookshop, including via Hive; or from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones, WH Smith or Amazon.

For more about the book please see the Titan website.

7 September 2019

Review - The Silver Wind by Nina Allan

Cover by Julia Lloyd
The Silver Wind
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 10 September 2019
PB, 366pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Silver Wind to consider for review.

The Silver Wind feels to me like a key to Allan's writing.

Over the past couple of years I have loved her novels The Race, The Rift and most recently, The Dollmaker. In these (mostly) earlier stories loosely following the career of Martin Newland and of a group of characters round him whose histories, identities and lives shift, merge and overlap, I can see foreshadowings of themes and features of those other books.

The devastated south coast of England that is the backdrop to parts of The Race.

The theme of loss and abandonment central to The Rift.

Andrew Garvie, the marginalised (dwarf) protagonist of The Dollmaker, that book's quest for an elusive creator, Ewa Chaplin, and the intertwining landscape of her stories that forms the background to the story (including the alternate, militaristic England in which a famous actress departs or dies, and perhaps the germ of the "court dwarf" theme itself.

More fundamentally there's Allan's forensic, yet tender, sense of place - demonstrated in Garvie's journey through Reading to the West of England and in The Silver Wind through an almost passionate exploration of the Streets of Southwark, of the woods of Shooter's Hill, of South Coast towns. In her writing you almost know these places, you feel your feet wandering down alleys and lanes and you feel the strangeness when a step takes you out of your way.

I'm in danger of. dissolving into mere vapid praise. It's hard to write this review because my usual go-to move - lightly summarise the plot and draw out memorable incidents - just won't work. This is less a single story than a collection, but a collection in which every new story reworks, reinterprets, deconstructs or comments on the others.

The same characters recur but with drastically different histories. In the first, "The Hurricane" apprentice watchmaker Owen Andrews travels to London from Devon to take up a new post, leaving Newland and his sister Dora behind and remembered but peripheral. In another, set in that militaristic alt-world, Andrews is a master craftsman, holed up in a remote wood (hints of fairytale) who Newland, an estate agent, seeks out. In other stories the relationship between Newland and Dora is explored and Andrews is a marginal figure.

Yet behind these differences at the same time these are the same people, the stories are the same stories. Explanations in one story sometimes cast light on the others, sometimes not. We never learn what became of Andrews after he flees at the end of "The Hurricane", set seemingly in an alternate 1920s (but apparently warping to the present day at the end). Never, that is, unless the call back at the beginning of "Rewind" (which is surely looking back to the, or a, 19th century?) is the answer.  Motifs recur - the Circus Man on the beach in a South Coast seaside town, the lesbian "Aunts", an Uncle Henry who plays different roles. Most of all, perhaps, a sense of loss, of mourning a dead sister, a dead wife, a dead lover.

Complex, multilayered, multithreaded, this is less a collection of stories than its own mythology - in that respect it reminded me of M John Harrison's Viriconium stories - both unified and driven by the theme of time, time lost, regained, altered, of clocks and watches, of the mysterious tourbillon mechanism and i's creator, Breuget. Often introduced into the story as gifts (often from Uncle Henry) and referred to as "time machines" (a nice pun) the watches and clocks which Andrews constructs have abilities that go beyond merely marking time. They are active, though we never know the exact rules: it's as though the stories here are the same story, running through permutations and alternatives yet influencing each other as though different worlds overlap, a whole litter of Schrödinger's cats running round the house with different balls of wool, always separate , always entangled.

This book makes for rich, significant storytelling, storytelling where every word matters, every story is complete but the collection as a whole is also complete, adding whole levels of meaning. It's a book you can come back and reread, with new insights, where every different part adds much to the rest.

Very enjoyable, very thought-provoking and like a glimpse into an entirely new world. Finally, look at that glorious cover by Julia Lloyd - truly a thing of beauty!

Strongly recommended.

For more about this book, see the publisher's website here. You can buy it from your local bookshop, including via Hive Books, or from Blackwell's, Waterstones, Foyle's, WH Smith or Amazon.

3 September 2019

Review - The Nightjar by Deborah Hewitt

The Nightjar
Deborah Hewitt
Tor (Pan MacMillan), 5 September 2019
PB, e, 459pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Nightjar to consider for review.

In Hewitt's debut novel, Alice Wyndham, an unremarkable young woman living and working in London, discovers that she has unsuspected abilities and a place in a magical and unseen world, another version of London. This knowledge brings not only wonder - Alice can see the birds which accompany all humans and which safeguard their souls - but danger too; danger to her, and danger to her family and friends.

I love the premiss of this kind of fantasy.

The secret, alternative world, with its own rules and society.

The possibility of escape from the banal, the ordinary, the constricting (Hewitt is rather good on Alice's awful, sleazy boss and her dreadful workmates).

The process of denying, then considering, then accepting the staggering reality - and then of trying to reengineer one's life to include the new while holding on to loved ones, familiar things and what's seen as safe. Hewitt pitches things just right here - too much resistance and the reader wants to shake the protagonist by the shoulders and tell them to get on with things, too little and there's no tension.

And the world she describes - a place called the Rookery, an echo of past London full of disappeared buildings and quaintly old-fashioned scenes - is real, vivid and interesting, as are the people in it. This is clearly the first in a series and the author sets up plenty of stuff for the future: four distinct schools of "legacies" (what we might call varying magical gifts), a police service for the Rookery, a death-cult, necromancers, gangsters, spies. Not all of it is explored fully but that's fine, I'm sure we will get there!

There's also a potential smouldering romance. To my mind this didn't work quite so well as the world building. It's difficult to say a great deal about this without giving away plot and this is one book where plot secrets matter. I will just say that the character to whom Alice is attracted (plainly to us, less so to her) is very mercurial and there are reasons for this - but it makes the idea of there being a relationship between them somewhat daunting. Another factor that impedes this is the sheer flow of events. Once Alice discovers the Rookery, Hewitt doesn't give her any time to acclimatise, things begin to happen to her and she's on a deadline, driven by a crisis back at home. This leads her into a series of scary encounters. For me, things crossed the line from being exciting into just too frenetic - I'd have liked more time to admire the scenery and get to know Jude, Sasha and the other residents of Coram House - but this is very much a personal preference: if you like your fantasy really busy and action filled, The Nightjar should be just what you want.

Overall this is a solid beginning to a series and left me wanting to know more and wondering what will happen next. I'd like a bit more breathing space in future books, possibly, and some exploration of the Rookery and its relation with our world but I will look forward to what Hewitt has coming.

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