29 March 2022

#Review - The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan

The Justice of Kings
Richard Swan
Orbit, 24 February 2022
Available as: HB, 413pps e, audio
ISBN(HB): 9780356516424

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

Well. this is one of those books that's hard to review, I'm very tempted just to say READ IT, but that wouldn't be very useful, would it?

So I'll try harder. The Justice of Kings is a type of fantasy I don't often read - an epic, sprawling depiction of a world filled with magic, armies, politics and strange names. I think the reason I read few of these books is less that there aren't brilliant ones around, there are, it's more a feeling that this kind of thing has been done so much I will either be let down by a book being derivative, or by it trying too hard not to be. Does that make sense?

Fortunately, I also receive some excellent recs from a certain person at Orbit and when Nazia tells me to take notice, I know I should listen. So here we are and here's The Justice of Kings, a book that for me felt refreshingly different while not visibly straining to do that. 

This is helped immeasurably by the viewpoint. The story is seen from the perspective af young woman - Helena Sedanka - who is employed as clerk to an itinerant judge. Sir Konrad Vonvalt is a sworn upholder of the Common Law, travelling endless muddy backroads from village to village and town to town with just Helena and his assistant, Dubine Bressinger. This is a group of well-realised characters: the rebellious and slightly bored Helena, Sir Konrad, an ex-military man and the slightly mysterious Dubbing who's devoted to Sir Konrad and at times, treats Helena quite harshly when she seems to display and lack of respect for his master. The three know each other really well, and the blurred relationships here - colleague, boss, friend - and endless journeys create a lot of scope for both sympathetic understanding and for drastic misunderstanding. Helena and Dubine are, for example, often forced to share a bed in a scatty inn or leaky manor house, but nothing "happens" between them. A running gag has Helena desperate for something to eat on arrival, cold and saddle saw, at a stopping point but ordered instead to Sir Konrad's chamber to discuss an arcane point of law or politics. This girl really needs to eat, I found myself saying many times as I read the story.

Setting things up for a trilogy always takes a good deal of work, and I think the opening here is as goods as I've seen anywhere. A judge, of course, provides a way in to most parts of society - as part of the apparatus of an Empire, Sir Konrad has a function that allows him to ask questions, even of the functionaries of that Empire - and the nature of the role means there will be varied opportunities to do this, the larger part of this story focusing on one, the murder of a noblewoman in a trading port.

At the same time, Sir Konrad's powers aren't unlimited. They're bound of course by the law itself, but also by a standoff between state and religion, the latter being a vital part of the bonds that hold together a fairly young Empire. They're also limited by the dynamics of that society, formed from many separate, conquered nations (the wars are still fresh in many minds, causing resentment, prejudice and all kinds of frictions). That makes his job hard at times, as in this story where the murder investigation - this book is very much a "whodunnit" -  will tread on many sensitive toes, exposing political and religious schemes and leading in the end to a minor war.

Wider political turmoil is also prefigured from the very start, in Helena's introduction - she makes clear that she is writing this account from the viewpoint of old age, and that unspecified disasters have overtaken the Empire, so while we're assured that she will make it through this book (though not necessarily unscathed) there is a sense of coming darkness over everything, and Sir Konrad's role as the upholder of law and justice seems increasingly menaced.

In short, there's a lot going on in this book but the necessary scenesetting is done very skilfully and always supports the needs of an involving an ingenious immediate plot, while providing the groundwork for a much wider story. The depictions of authorities - whether legal, political or religious - is convincing and subtle and I enjoyed the book's recognition of the dark side of Empire as the characters here deal with the aftermath of war, the absorption or appropriation of natures and cultures, and with discrimination (in an apparently multicultural State) between peoples and groups.

The Justice of Kings was a joy to read, a properly immersive story that demanded attention but also a decent amount of time: there's a lot happening, the text is rich, the characters are well-rounded and don't always do what you expect or want (at times, teenage Helena is quite whiney, but I did sympathise) so the story takes time and attention, not skimming of fast reading. 

To learn more about The Justice of Kings, see the publisher's website here.

24 March 2022

#Review - Incy Wincy by RJ Dark

Incy Wincy (Mal and Jackie, 2)
RJ Dark
Wavesback, 24 March 2022
Available as: e
Source: Advance copy

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of Incy Wincy to consider for review.

Last year's A Numbers Game debuted mystery crime newcomer RJ Dark's not-so-cosy series, featuring psychic fraud Malachite Jones and "respected local businessman" Jackie Singh Khattar who solve crimes on the Blade's Edge Estate, a rough district of an unnamed Yorkshire town. In this follow-up, Dark turns to a story that goes deeper into Mal's and Jackie's backgrounds.

After the events of the first book, Jackie has decided that Mal's psychic business needs rebranding as a detective agency. Of course, Mal gets no say in this, and the first he knows is when Jackie has a new sign installed over the shop. Cue a running gag where Mal says, in effect, I don't know, I'm not a detective and Jackie responds by citing the sign.

It's probably fitting, given Jackie's hand in creating the "agency" that its first case involves tracking down one of his mates (the "Spider" to whom the title nods). Spider is ex-army, like Jackie, and it turns out that other members of his squad live nearby and that understanding their past will be key to explaining what has happened to Spider. Similarly, Mal's earlier life as a homeless drug-user will also be relevant, not least in providing him with contacts to work (fairly likely that an ex-squaddie will end up among the street people, right?)

But it's not a straightforward case (which of Mal's cases ever are?) Pretty soon the usual pattern emerges as figures both familiar -  the 'Kray Twins', Trolley Mick, the town's Russian gangsters - and new - a smooth talking American - turn up at Jackie's shop to threaten him if he either won't give up a line of enquiry or won't take a side job. It gets more and more menacing, as Jackie can't be there all the time to defend Mal (and anyway, Jackie has bigger problems of his own). Mal's by no means a helpless victim in all this, he's actually a pretty shrewd and streetwise character, but the degree of peril in this book felt on a different scale to the previous one.

Add in Yorkshire's own racist front, a missing boy and a crop of UFO sightings and there is almost too much here to wrap one's brain round. Almost, I write, because Dark's story zooms along with brio, carrying us with no apparent effort from nasty fight to intriguing clue to dissecting the nature of the society that has produced Blade's Edge. There's some heartfelt, well argued criticism here, Dark comes across as really knowing his stuff. It's  very, very entertaining read, a book with a punchy plot, hard-hitting but humorous dialogue and developed, relatable characters. 

Oh - and there's a climax that had me biting my nails.

I'd strongly recommend - you can buy the e-book here from Amazon.

23 March 2022

#BlogTour #Review - River Clyde by Simone Buchholz

River Clyde (Chastity Riley, Book 5)
Simone Buchholz (trans by Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, 17 March
Available as: PB, 276pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585074

I'm grateful to Orenda books for an advance copy of River Clyde to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

There's something about a river that just lends itself to introducing a place, don't you think? Or as a character, a situation, a mood? 'the river lies there like over a hundred miles of dead man' writes Buchholtz. Here comes Chastity Riley, sideswiped by grief, loss ('I think about my dead friend, Faller'), PTSD, call it what you will, after the events of Hotel Cartagena, making a very personal journey into the heart of (her own) darkness and also into her - and her family's - past.

Buchholz is really bold with this one. It's not a crime story. There's a little bit of a crime thing going on back in Hamburg (more about that in a moment) but it doesn't concern Riley so much as show up the effects of the dreadful blow that the group of friends has suffered. Rather, here, the moodiness, the noiriness, the silent scream which has haunted Riley through all these books, has now fully swallowed her, and it looks as though she's run off. But is she running from - or to?

So. Why Scotland? Why Glasgow? Well, it seems Riley's inherited a house from a distant relative, and she's come to take a look and decide what to do with it. But Riley being Riley, nothing is straightforward, so she gets off on a bad footing with the solicitor who's handling the estate, can't find the house and sets to exploring Glasgow's pub scene. She eventually locates the house through a man she meets in a bar, of course - Riley is most enthusiastic in exploring Glasgow's pubs. Indeed the book shows a familiarity with (and love of) the city - and not just its drinking dens - as our heroine orients herself. It's a different Riley we see from when in Hamburg where she's on familiar, if tainted, ground. In Glasgow, she's exploring, evaluating, assembling a relationship with the place. 

As it is with her, for in this story Buchholz doesn't give us hard-boiled noir: there are sections in the voice of the Clyde himself, responding to Riley. There are time-slips, showing glimpses back into the lives that came before her and indeed condensing into a couple of pages what could form an entire family saga - a story of emigration, loss, disillusion, struggle that tells us a great deal about the woman she is. There are, too, moments that approach the ghost story though whether that is an objectively real ghost or a projection of Riley's tormented memories I really wasn't sure.

It's a kind of dark homecoming, Riley finally being forced - by the losses she's been through - do the work, confront the things, we've seen her shutting out all through her Hamburg life. 

And, yes, we do meet the little circle of friend back there: Stepanovic and Calabretta are investigating a wave of outrageous arson attacks, the café is open for business but there is a hollowness, an uneasiness that was hinted at in earlier books but has now finally blossomed. They discover that they are, in fact standing too close to the Blue Night, which is not 'just any old pub, it's a place of yearning, it's the desire for old times, when everything was broken just enough, so not too much, not ripped to shreds'. Rocco and Carla are sitting at a pavement table facing realities: 

'Perhaps Carla's not even this irresistible Venus fly trap but a pub beauty who's no longer in the first flush of youth. Maybe Rocco's not even this audacious survival artist, but a guy with gradually thinning, tousled hair, who's never actually completed a thing'.

Similarly, from the moment that Schulle, Brückner, Inceman and Anne Stanislawski are introduced 'lying on a colourful chequered blanket' in a park, we understand that all is not well. Buchholz is excellent at conjuring the spiritual malaise that has fallen on this vivacious, bawdy group of people but she doesn't present to offer answers to it. Perhaps, by the end of the story they're groping out of the dark, or perhaps not. Riley's still missing and her absence counts for a lot...

As ever, Rachel Ward's translation is glorious, interacting gleefully with Buchholz's text to give gems such as 'I love it, it's the opposite of innocuous small talk. It's enormous talk, and very nocuous indeed' and conveying the different moods of the various point of view characters - including a river. The result is glorious, haunting, sad, funny and breathtakingly readable. A great addition to the series and - if this is where it ends (I hope it doesn't) - a fitting conclusion. 

For more information about River Clyde, see the stops on the tour - listed on the poster below - and also the Orenda Books website here. You can buy River Clyde from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

21 March 2022

#BlogTour #Review - Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments by TL Huchu

Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments (Edinburgh Nights, 2)
TL Huchu
Macmillan, 3 March 2022
Available as: HB, 372pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529039528

I'm grateful to the publisher, and to Black Crow PR, for letting me have an advance copy of Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments sees a welcome return for Ropa Moya, a fifteen year old girl of living in a near-future Edinburgh in the wake of a cataclysm that has changed society. There has also been a civil war of sorts, perhaps an attempt at secession, which has left Edinburgh stricken and firmly under London's heel. Everyone is nervously determined to perform their loyalty: 

'God save the King!'

'Long may he reign'

The city is poorer, in something like its 18th century state with carts in the streets and only the wealthy able to drive motor vehicles. Ropa lives in a caravan on the city's fringes with her Gran and little sister, Izwi. The site they live on is half slum, half refugee camp, and Ropa's their main provider, so at the start off the book considers herself fortunate to have landed herself an apprenticeship with Sir Ian Callender, Secretary to the Society of Sceptical Enquirers, Scotland's leading magical society. It's a development that has put noses out of joint at Scotland's elite magical Schools, and unfortunately Ropa is in for a fall, one that leaves her in desperately needing cash and puts her in the way of a little private business helping out her mate Priya.

Huchu writes this book very much from the perspective of those at the bottom. Ropa has a magical mystery to solve, but she easily spends as much time trying to keep her head above water and her family fed. Grabbing the odd gig at her old role conveying messages form the recently departed. Scrounging food (foraging for plums, killing an unlucky rabbit with her catapult). Trading the results with a web of contacts. Preparing meals. Negotiating with the Edinburgh gangs, whose perpetual Cold War has flared hot. And in the course of this we're shown many of the outcasts on the "informal" side of this magical Edinburgh, as well as the lofty ones who dominate it.

With the basics introduced in the previous book, The Library of the Dead, Huchu combines the mystery which is the ostensible subject here - a posh schoolboy who's fallen into a perplexing magical coma, one the skilled staff at the Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments hospital are baffled by - with a lot more backstory about Ropa, the Society and even Roma's Gran. It seems she has connections with the travelling people as well being known to Sir Ian. Exactly how and why we don't learn, Gran's not talking (I sensed a certain Granny Weatherwax stubbornness in her...) but it seems to have done Ropa no favours with the formal magical world. (In this series of books, prejudice is alive and well, and certain forms of magic are definitely considered less prestigious).

We also learn more about the history of this world, which is tantalisingly entwined with our own. A sub-plot exposes the Society's links to Scotland's shot at colonialism, the doomed Darien schemes, making the point (in an understated way) that many of our institutions have blood at their roots. But history has a way of biting back, and the goings-on in Edinburgh are also mixed up with high politics...

I loved this book, perhaps even more than The Library of the Dead. Ropa is an engaging main character, apt to quote philosophy one moment, philosophy the next and then quantum physics down the page. She's a restless, bright mind, seeing through the superficiality of society and in her magical learning, impatient with having to go through the basics when she's so much more talented than many around her. Which, of course, doesn't make her very popular - she's definitely attracted one Nemesis already.

There's also a sharp eye for injustice here. When all is revealed about who has been pulling strings, old school ties and friends-of-friends are enough to ensure that they dodge trouble and that a scapegoat is found instead. Magic may be fun and powerful, but it's bound up with a net of privilege and influence which is taken more or less for granted. I'm guessing that Ropa's patience with this situation (never abundant) isn't going to last through many more books and I look forward to fireworks ahead.

Overall, an inventive, engaging read, a book with great heart and passion and which is, above all, FUN from first page to last. Do read this - you don't have to have read The Library of the Dead first, but you will want to read it when you are done, I think.

For more information about Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments see the publisher's website here. You can buy Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

17 March 2022

#Blogtour #Review - Faceless by Vanda Symon

Vanda Symon
Orenda Books, 17 March 2022
Available as: PB, 276pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585043

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of Faceless to consider for review, and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the Random Things Blogtour (on publication day too, what an honour!)

I was already familiar with Vanda Symon's Sam Shephard books, crime stories focussing on a young and impulsive New Zealand detective who generally stumbles into more trouble than she expects. While they do sometimes involve, as the film classification people might say, a degree of peril, Sam's adventures are fairly light in tone and at times, are even humorous (in a cynical sort of way).

Well. In Faceless, Symon has produced something altogether darker, much more "psychological" and which is often genuinely disturbing in a "dare I even turn the page?" sense.

We first see Billy, a young homeless woman, decorating a wall with a powerful piece of art. (She doesn't like the word "graffiti"). Short of cash for spraycans to finish the job, Billy has no objection to earning some money as a sex worker and so encounters Bradley; she will later wish she hadn't. It's not long before Billy disappears, and it seems the only person who cares about that is her friend Max, who's also homeless.

Symon's story is built around Billy and Max and, of course, Bradley. 

Each is a powerful study. 

Billy has encountered darkness and suffering in her short life, but she met them face on, with strength, her own goals in sight (such as the 'Pacifica Britannia ruling the waves' we see her create at the start of the story). Billy will soon suffer much more, and she will meet that trial with courage and hope. 

Max has his own darkness, which we will learn much more about it in the course of the book: he has fallen, let people down and lost a lot. But there's a sense here of him as a moral force in this book - scabby, smelly and unappealing as many judge him to be (even the pimps and street gangs reject him). Max has a mission and he won't give up, but events will force him to revisit that darkness and the hurt he caused. Is it too late for any redemption?

Then there's Bradley. At the beginning Symon seems to suggest the reader may have some pity for him, squeezed as he is between a failing marriage and a bully of a boss. (Bradley's an overworked accountant in a white collar sweatshop). This is a very clever way into his character because as Symon's portrayal of Bradley develops, we begin to see that pity is indeed the key to him - but that actually it's Bradley's self-pity. That leads him to commit a terrible act, but it isn't anywhere near the end of what he might do. Like Billy and Max, Bradley is on a journey of self-discovery but it's a journey into the full darkness of his personality - and it's one he finds himself actually enjoying, a flowering of evil, as it were. I found Symon's exploration of Bradley truly enthralling, if often pretty repellant. (I would warn the reader that there are some really grim scenes here). There's a raw sense of male entitlement, of toxicity, to him and I began to wonder how far to trust his protestations that this was all an aberration and he wanted out. I mean, who carries bunches of cable ties in their car?

Symons very skilfully presents these characters. Bradley is a very vivid presence in the book, albeit a much less comfortable one. Billy's position means she is often reactive, but increasingly delves deep to finds ways to survive. Those often draw on her relationship with Max; while, because of the way the story unfolds we don't actually see Max and Billy together much, Symon is very good at portraying their relationship through remembered incidents, little kindnesses and moments of hope - and what Max tells others as he searches for clues about Billy's whereabouts, which also, gradually, reveals his past and shows how far he has fallen.

Written in short chapters and rapidly switching perspectives, Faceless has a real sense of urgency both in its style and pacing and in the competing drives of the participants. It kept me turning pages throughout. The themes are primal: escape, degradation (of self and others), redemption, strength, courage and survival. The tension fairly crackles off the page.

As you may have noticed(!) I really enjoyed Faceless, and I'd like you to, as well. A strong recommendation from me then and I'll be intrigued to see whether Symon's next book returns to the (relatively) gentler territory of Sam Shephard (which would be great) or continues in this more troubling vein (also, great).

For more information about Faceless, see the stops on the tour listed on the poster, and also the publisher website here. You can buy Faceless form your local highstreet bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, from Hive Books, Blackwells, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

15 March 2022

#Review - Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky
Rebellion, 15 March 2022
Available as: HB, 144pp (17 March), e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781786185280

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Ogres via Netgalley to consider for review.

In this standalone novella, Tchaikovsky explores a future where genetic engineering has produced a race of monsters - the "ogres" of the title - who oppress and dominate humans.

The main character is Torquell, the son of a village head, who comes across as a bit of a tearaway, reluctant to tug his forelock before the Masters. Good for him I say - the ogres in this book have adopted the role of feudal overlords, taking what they will and treating the peasants abominably. It later becomes clear that they also operate a form of robber-baron capitalism, with the worst aspects the Industrial Revolution gleefully reintroduced. So I'm all for opposition, but it seems doomed.

As an outlaw, Torquell's challenge is then first to understand how all this came to be and then to do something about it. It's a formidable task, as the ogres are not only collectively in charge but individually stronger and much bigger than any given human. But there is more going on here than that, something hinted at by the story being narrated not by Torquell, but to him, in the second person ('You were always trouble' are its opening words) so we sense other actors on the stage, perhaps.

I really enjoyed this one. The world which is seen through other eyes may seem rather alien, and be set in the future, but increasingly I began to see correspondences with our own world. It's explicitly a near future dystopia (I think it's fair to call it that) representing a world which claims to have solved certain problems - environmental and social - but at the pice of introducing others (you'll have to read it to understand which). Tchaikovsky's argument is though, I think, that those "new" problems, embodied in the society that he describes here may not really be that new at all. As with the best SF, the book holds up a mirror to our own society, both to its evident flaws and also to the damage that may be done in trying to correct them. 

In centring on a driven, if originally reluctant, leader figure it also gently satirises the hero tropes of the dystopian genre: that opening passage continues 'Inevitable, really. And you weren't to know it, but you were following a particular trajectory. The Young Prince is always trouble...' The narrator returns to this theme several times throughout the story, comparing Torquell to the protagonist in the Hero's Journey, not always to his credit. The biological determinism of the process that created the ogres therefore hangs over Torquell himself as a sort of plot determinism, asking us what he is, why, and what he might become.

And whether the template will be followed to the end...

For a short book - I read it in a day - this one packs a tremendous amount in, and truly left me thinking.

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


10 March 2022

#Review - Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Age of Ash (Kithamar Trilogy, 1)
Daniel Abraham
Orbit, 17 February 2022
Available as: HB, 432pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356515427

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Age of Ash to consider for review.

In Age of Ash's setting, the city of Kithamar, Daniel Abraham has surely created a classic fantasy city to rival Viriconium, Ankh-Morpork or Minas Tirith. His description of Kithamar's different enclaves, from Riverport to Seepwater to Longhill - especially Longhill - is vivid and utterly convincing, bound together by a dizzying web of activity as the citizens try, by means both legitimate and criminal, to keep themselves fed, housed and warm. Everyone has a thing going on - or two, or three - and everyone's position is precarious. We meet a city guard who's going to fall from grace, tradespeople of all descriptions - from wealthy merchants to knife grinders to bakers, butchers and candlemakers - whose prosperity balances on a knife edge, able to be ruined by a bout of illness, a caravan gone awry, a theft. There are prisoners shovelling up shit in the streets. There are thieves and con artists. And there are some even shadier figures. 

The streets of Kithamar are bustling, vibrant and alive, Abraham taking us through one year of the place from the lazy days of later summer, when a ruler dies, through the glut and debauch of harvest with all the produce of the hinterland rolling into town to the perishing cold of winter, the promise of Spring and then, another dead ruler. The effect is simply hypnotic, the hardscrabble warp and weft of unregarded lives playing out against a background of sorcery and political intrigue. It may be a bit of a cliché to say so but Kithamar really is the central character in this book.

But not the only central character. Meet Alys, our guide in all the hurly-burly of Kithamar. Alys is smart, a street girl making her living as part of a pickpocket gang. Alys is a glorious creation, sharp, self-assured (outwardly) and gloriously pigheaded but unable to see what's right in front of her. 

Meet Sammish. She's Alys's best mate, another young woman who has the crush of all crushes on Alys. Maybe "crush" is a bit unfair - Sammish is positively smitten, head over heels, but Alys can't see it. Her focus in this story is rather on her dead brother and her hunt for his killer, and Sammish finds herself being used, willingly used perhaps, but used all the same, as part of that. The tension between the two women drives this story, Sammish suffering as Alys dreams up ever more outlandish schemes to find the truth. Inevitably, Sammish begins to make her own discoveries, threatening the friendship between the two, sending Alys off to new friends, risking Sammish becoming "street bound". And in Kithamar, you need your friends, you can't afford to lose your edge...

I was bowled over by the sheer zest of this book, but also by its meticulous layers of detail, its addressing of various realities of life in a city like Kithamar. For example, half of what we see of Sammish is her simply trying to make a living, running several jobs at once and then getting distracted form them and losing money she can't spare when Alys comes knocking. The whole thing reminded me of a Hogarth etching, the multifarious figures of city life glimpsed about their doings, with dire warnings of what might come and raucous enjoyment of today: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And Alys herself runs into trouble: she's from Longhill, the oldest district of the city and one whose people see themselves as slightly apart from the rest. Longhill tends to look down on anyone who gets a bit of coin together and moves out. Longhill looks after its own, but it's a pinched, inward looking belonging - as Alys is about to find out. 

Alys's grief through most of this story, and Sammish's love - or at least lust - are powerful themes, the primary drivers of the two women's actions even when more abstract strands of plot emerge. Abraham is deliberately slow to introduce these strands, to move from the intricate scene setting of the first hundred pages or so and bring in politics and dark secrets. I've seen some reviewers who didn't get on with that, but for me, I liked that order of priorities. I loved the establishing of these striking, captivating characters and of the city where they live. Age of Ash gives, I think, a gutter level view of fantasy. It's all very well, it seems to be saying, running off in pursuit of magic and conspiracies, but that doesn't put food on the table and it doesn't help when the girl you want has other ideas. This is truly human fantasy. Yes, there is enough chicanery going on here too satisfy any reader, and hints of darknesses and ancient evils, but its effects are mainly personal, intimate: a mother and her son, a broken friendship - and negotiating these is also the, very human, way that right can prevail and a kind of patched up wholeness be restored.

So, really, all I can say is, read Age of Ash! It's simply superb. Don't miss this one, please don't.

For more information about Age of Ash, see the Orbit website here.

8 March 2022

#Review - The Free Bastards by Jonathan French

Design by Duncan Spilling
The Free Bastards (The Lot Lands, 3)
Jonathan French
Orbit, 30 September 2021
Available as: PB, 543pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356515533

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Free Bastards to consider for review.

The Free Bastards brings to a pause the sequence that began with The Grey Bastards and continued in The True Bastards. I say a pause, not a conclusion, because French states, in his Acknowledgements, that he would like to ride the Lots again some day. And clearly, there is much remaining to be worked out in story terms which would allow that.

Nevertheless, we have some closure here, seeing how the war turned out that began when the Bastards  rose up against the tyranny of Hispartha; understanding Crafty and his motivations (perhaps...?) and witnessing several well loved characters get some ease from their tribulations (and others die cruelly and unfairly: these are the Lots, after all).

I think I like this approach to a fantasy sequence. All too often an author, bent on tying up EVERYTHING, produces for their third volume an indigestible pottage of plot. We've also seen this with certain film franchises (mentioning no names but I know who I'm looking at). In contrast, the Free Bastards sets itself more modest goals, and meets them with aplomb.

The story is seen through the eye of Oats, closest friend of Jackal and Fetching, who the first and second books respectively followed. It some respects it's a more worm's eye view of the world than in them - both Jackal and Fetching have gained, or discovered they had, unnatural degrees of power or talent (though, as we see in this book, nothing that makes them invincible or always right). Oats, in contrast, is still rather ordinary - for values of ordinary that encompass a Thrice, a three-quarters Orc - and my, how he suffers here as a result. The Lot Lands trilogy has not previously, and The Free Bastards does not now, spare us the messy aftermath of conflict and both physical and mental wounds abound here. The downside of the raw, bloody conflict that's described in minute detail is the scars and suffering that follow. Oats becomes, bluntly, battle-sick and part of his struggle in this book is to keep on keeping on through it all, especially when the odds seem well-nigh impossible. That's a struggle that in the end is down to him, one which can't be helped by magic, artefacts or relics of old or even the loyalty of his mighty steed, Ugfuck. 

And the way that struggle plays out - its relationship to ideas of loyalty, friendship and rivalry as well as to wider plot threads involving the Lots, the elves, Orcs and Halflings - is at the heart of this book. It couldn't, in the end, be anyone else's story other than Oats', and the way it ends is magnificent. I think that French's decision to tell each of these books wholly from the perspective of a different character - rather than having one main viewpoint, or chopping up the three stories among different protagonists - really pays off here, allowing undiluted focus on the three individuals. It was perhaps a high risk device, but really succeeds by allowing each of the three the necessary emotional depth and space to tell their own stories. 

It also, of course, leaves a lot unspoken, unsaid, as we know that each of the three was having adventures in the background, as it were, of each others' books, adventures we only know the bare bones of. I feel knowing that will add even more depth and resonance if - when - French returns to Ul Wundulas.

I'll be waiting for that day, ready to saddle up again and 'Live in the saddle; Die on the hog'.

I read the paperback of The Free Bastards but I also enjoyed much of the book as audio, again I'd strongly recommend Will Damon's narration and mastery of a range of voices which together with the great narrative drive of this story and its intimate and personal moments, makes it a superb experience to listen to.

For more information about The Free Bastards, see the publisher's website here

3 March 2022

#Review - Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

Our Wives Under the Sea
Julia Armfield
Picador, 3 March 2022
Available as: HB, 240pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529017236

I'm grateful to Picador for a free advance copy of Our Wives Under the Sea to consider for review.

When I saw an upcoming first novel by Julia Armfield, I just had to get my hands on it. I was judge on the Shadow Panel for the 2019 The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award when her short story collection salt slow was shortlisted for the main award and won the Shadow Panel.

Our Wives Under the Sea is a story of two women, Miri and her wife Leah. Miri works from home writing grant applications for charities; Leah is an explorer, a scientist working on deep sea research for the mysterious Centre (there's something a bit... off... about the Centre, although we never find out what). In chapters narrated alternately by Miri and Leah, Armfield tells how Leah went to sea, was lost, and unexpectedly returned. And about the aftermath of that. Along the way we hear about their earlier lives, how they met, and their friends.

It's a short book but packs so much in. There is loss, twice over - Miri's time after Leah vanished (her dive went several months past its scheduled end) is mentioned in retrospect, with her complex feelings, the lack of closure, hinted at. More directly addressed is the growing realisation that the person who came back is not the same. Returned, Leah spends much of her time in the bath; she eats little; there is little conversation and no intimacy. Yet is she is, indisputably, back and shows flashes of her old self - and Miri desperately tries to find a way to cope, to reach out, researching, for example, an online community 'Our Husbands in Space' of women who pretend that their husbands have gone off on space missions (or, in some cases, 'Come Back Wrong" - CBW). 

The Centre is little help, refusing to take Miri's calls, eventually providing a counsellor who it fails to pay. It's as though Leah has gone again, and only Miri's love for her remains. Miri's emotions - a mixture of anger, fear and (declining) hope really come over, all complicated by her relationships with her (now dead) mother and fear of developing the same degenerative illness as her (Miri once booked a generic test but lost track of time and missed the appointment). Miri has always seen herself as the one in the relationship who might end up needing care - selfishly, she now understands - and struggles to understand how she should be with Leah, becoming isolated from her friends and letting work slide. 

Leah's side of things focusses more on the research voyage and her relationship in the diving ship with her two crewmates. Leah was always ocean obsessed - as a teenager her best friend was an octopus - so you'd think the dive would have been everything she wanted but the account of it seems frustrated, slightly disengaged, as though something were wrong from the start. Nor does it reveal, exactly, what it was that changed her so much (Armfield is clear that Leah is changed, and changing). The meaning of what happened needs to be read between the lines, worked out, imagined. There is a lurking sense of strangeness here, of being excluded from something even as we're let in to be told about events on the ocean floor (Leah hasn't shared these yet with Miri, though she will - but we don't see what Miri will make of them, another of the frustrations to communication which litter the book)

Alongside all the weirdness (lovely weirdness!) Armfield gives us very mundane, rooted scenes of modern life: a party with Leah's mates, figures who are immediately familiar, the recurring annoyance of a neighbour who leaves their TV on loud at all hours, the difficulty of negotiating the logic loop of a call centre. Gradually, I began to compare the isolated lives of Leah, Jelka and Matteo in their little capsule on the seabed with those of Leah and Miri marooned in their flat. Their lives outside those settings seem to become, increasingly, stories they recall or tell themselves, Leah almost unable to leave the flat, Miri more and more unwilling to do so. Isolation brings recollections of earlier lives - Miri's mother, Leah's dad from whom she seems to have taken her obsession with the oceans. 

Inevitably the question arises of whether this is a "lockdown" novel and, yes, it does have that sense of enclosure, of squashing one's head against the window, as well as reflecting on the openness of sea (the book is imbued with the heaviness of the ocean) and sky ('People grow odd when there's too much sky'). But there's much more going on here than that. Leah's and Miri's lives, as seen in glimpses of the 'before' are being milled into something else by the rolling of the waves and that's not just a slide, it's a very active process which we seen going on - and, while the book may sound very sorrowful, it's not a process without hope.

I'd strongly recommend Our Wives Under the Sea - it may especially appeal to you if you enjoyed M John Harrison's When the Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again or Jeff VanderMeer's Acceptance, Annihilation and Authority.

For more information about Our Wives Under the Sea, see the publisher's website here.

1 March 2022

#Review - Gallant by VE Schwab

VE Schwab
Titan Books, 1 March 2022
Available as: HB, 320pp
Source: Advance copy
ISBN: 9781785658686

I was very excited to see this new standalone novel from VE Schwab was coming, and so very honoured and grateful to the publisher to received an advance copy of Gallant to consider for review, which I sat down and read in a day, its just THAT good.

How can I sum up Gallant

Reaching for comparisons, Dickens inevitably came to mind. Imagine Oliver Twist being sent from his workhouse to Wuthering Heights - only dialled up to twelve. Rather than Oliver we have Olivia Prior, an orphan sixteen years old who has lived most of that time at Merilance School for Girls. Merilance is a pinched, cold, grudging institution that brings up its charges to have expectations low in all respects, save for years of grinding service. For Olivia, the School is doubly limiting: she's non-verbal, and the other girls use this as a reason to freeze her out. They are at least scared of her, after the way she responded to bullying, but it's a very lonely existence with little love from the school's "Matrons".

Olivia's companions, therefore, seem mainly to comprise the "ghouls" that she encounters around the school. Possibly revenants of dead pupils and teachers - and oh, how many tragic deaths they seem to represent - these seem harmless creatures, quietly haunting particular spots. Schwab is deliberately vague about whether the ghouls are somehow special to Olivia, or whether they might be a wider phenomenon in this world (though it seems at least that nobody else at the school is aware of them).

Against this bleak background, it comes as a relief when Olivia learns that the "Gallant" mentioned in the diary that is her only inheritance form her dead mother is, in fact, her ancestral home; that she has living relatives there; has been called for - and is to leave Merilance. She does, though, reflect that she's been told in that same diary to stay away from Gallant, for her own safety...

In this opening part of the story, Schwab sets up an intriguing situation. Olivia is a fascinating hero, one who's had to become strong, at least outwardly. Blissfully (perhaps) she never dreams (what dreams might come?) but she certainly hurts. Her strength is despite some deep wounds - her isolation, the loss of her parents - not from lack of them. She'll need all that strength and more in the second part of the novel, when she travels to Gallant and isn't welcomed exactly as she had hoped.

Gallant - what is Gallant? Well, I'll not say too much as I don't want to spoil this book, but I can fairly say that Gallant is the Gothic mansion of all my dreams. Here you'll find a remote house in the mountains (as elsewhere in the story, Schwab is vague about the exact location). While Olivia seems, on her mother's side, to be part of a wealthy family, there's an air of decay or at least abandonment to much of Gallant, as though it was built to contain far more than her, her cousin Matthew and aged retainers Hannah and Edgar. And when I say "more" I don't necessarily mean, more family members. The place, as described, had for me a sense of unrealised potential, as though it could be more, host more possibilities, more goings-on, than Olivia finds. Imagine a decayed fortress still standing on the borderlands, stocked with weapons and supplies, but overlaid with dust and disuse. There's a sense of entrapment. For all the visits by the butcher's van, we see little of any outsiders - the driver who takes Olivia to Gallant just drops her outside and makes off again as quickly as he can. Clearly there are mysteries at Gallant; reasons that Olivia is forbidden from leaving the house in the dark; connected, perhaps, to her mother and what seems to be the tragic life she lived and lost.

And, of course, the mysteries come calling and, despite all injunctions, we know don't we, that Olivia will hear the call?

In short, Gallant - the house - is a wonderful, gothicy, deathy place, brooding over a story rich in conception, a story straddling the borders of fairyland and gothic horror, all about family, love and loss. Also, I think, a story about the traps we build ourselves into - and the shadow side of all those good things we want in our lives.

I especially loved the way that in this book the weird and the mundane combine. The space given lovingly to cooking, sketching or playing piano, even while the darkness - well, no spoilers, let's just say, while the darkness does what darkness always does. The reminders that, as an orphan, Olivia is still just reaching out for her parents, desperate to learn more about them, desperate to decode a lost journal written partly in words and partly in pictures. Or the way that her fate and future will be intimately bound with both sides of her family, not just one. There are big mysteries here - and we get some answers to those - but there are also little mysteries in all directions, and Schwab is content to leave many of those to puzzle and intrigue. 

It's a satisfying read, rich in atmosphere and menace and deeply entrancing. There is much more here, though - what I took most of all from Gallant was its depiction of strength from those who are overlooked, its affirmation that people have a right to shape their own lives, make their own mistakes - and its warning that even seeking to shield others can be a way of diminishing and sidelining them. 

In short, it’s pure gold.

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