30 March 2023

#Review - Beyond the Reach of Earth by Ken MacLeod

Cover for book "Beyond the Reach of Earth" by Kim MacLeod. At the top, the edge of a blue-grey planet. Heading upwards towards it, a spacecraft trailing streaks of blue light. In the background, a field of stars.
Beyond the Reach of Earth (Lightspeed Trilogy, Two)
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 23 March 2023
Available as: PB, 368pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356514802

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance e-copy of Beyond the Reach of Earth via Netgalley to consider for review.

Warning - there are spoilers here for Book 1 in this trilogy, Beyond the Hallowed Sky, which I'd strongly advise you to read first. (If you haven't read it, or are hazy about the details, there is a helpful precis in Book 2, but the first book is so much fun, you really ought to read it).

In a clever sequel to Beyond the Hallowed Sky, MacLeod returns to his near future world (the book is largely set in the 2070s) dominated by three blocs - the Alliance (Anglosphere including rump UK), the Union (ex EU, including Scotland) and the Co-ord (Russia and China). The Union is particularly interesting, embodying a post-Revolution society and therefore viewed with especial suspicion by the other two (this is hilariously illustrated in some spoof tabloid headlines that crop up towards the end of the book).

MacLeod is very good, as we've seen in other books, at plausible just-over-the-horizon politics and societal development - indeed his portrayal of societies and their relationship with their citizens is one of the things I always look forward to. As a subject it's as fascinating and important as the future tech in these books. Or perhaps I should say that unlike many SF writers he appreciates the interplay between both: the societies influenced by the tech, the path of the tech driven by the science, and all deeply enmeshed with strong, relatable characters who just belong in their background. 

Above and beyond that, this book has a deeply satisfying, ramified plot involving espionage, slightly scary AI (I really want to know more about Iskander, the universal intercase to the Union's predictive/ assistive AI which attempts to preempt the needs of its citizens - but also, it's hinted, serves other goals besides) and a more than slightly scary robot. For me, all that made Beyond the Reach of Earth very enjoyable to read.

A spirited rendition of The Internationale didn't go amiss either, performed here when some Union settlers arrive on the newly discovered planet Apis, albeit escorted by the perfidious Alliance English who have shuttled them there for obscure reasons in their FTL spacecraft. And indeed the settlers bring their own distinct approach to Apis, refusing to fall into the "homesteader" mode urged by their hosts. Politics are never far beneath the surface here, whether the politics of superpower deterrence, threatened by the discovery of FTL travel and restored by the strangest of means, politics between the constituent entities of the "economic democracy", the Union, which come into play when the state gets its own FTL craft though the ingenuity of a small shipbuilding firm and a causal loop, or the attempts by the various powers to deal with the enigmatic Fermi, aliens of unimaginable power who occupy outcrops of rock on Earth, Venus... and Apis.

And if aliens incarnated in rocks shaping the future of humanity sounds familiar to you, it's an idea that MacLeod himself has fun with, some of his characters spotting the parallel to a certain bestselling SF series of the late 20th century. (This being Book 2 of 3 we don't get to find out how close a parallel that will turn out being).

In summary, this is smart, well-written SF, great fun to read and every bit as good as Beyond the Hallowed Sky. It's a middle volume of a trilogy that builds on the first, rather than just marking time waiting for the conclusion - which nevertheless I'm really looking forward to. I'd recommend.

For more information about Beyond the Reach of Earth, see the publisher's website here.

28 March 2023

#Review - The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten

Book "The Foxglove King". A dark and intricate cover. Above the title, a metal circlet with star - tipped spikes that look like daggers. Below the title, a silver bust or monument with a skull motif. Across the top of the cover, delicate flowers in pinks, greys and white.
The Foxglove King (The Nightshade Crown, Book One)
Hannah Whitten  
Orbit, 9 March 2023
Available as: HB, 466pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy and audio subscription
ISBN(HB): 9780356521237

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The Foxglove King to consider for review.

In the city of Dellaire, the lower orders groan to support King, clergy and nobles who will have the best of everything for themselves.

In the city of Dellaire, bored, decadent aristocrats dose themselves with deadly poisons obtained form illicit death-dealers.

In the city of Dellaire, in vaults deep below the Citadel, a death cult guards the body of a cursed goddess.

And war is coming.

I loved the world building and sheer gothicness of Whitten's new novel, from the seedy docksides to the gilded chambers of the Citadel, all shot through with the odour of death. Woven into the narrative is a divine tragedy - it's certainly not a divine comedy - tracing the city's history and that of its religion in extracts from sacred texts. They describe a war between the gods, whose effects remain very real and very important centuries later. In practical terms, that war left the world contaminated with a substance called 'mortem", the very essence of death, which has to be managed and channelled by a special order of monks, the Presque Mort. 

Others are forbidden to meddle with it, although few have the talent in any case. One who does though is Lore, a young woman who is part spy, part poison trafficker and generally a rogue through and through. Towards the end of this book, in a crisis, Lore takes a momentous decision for reasons which are, she freely admits, completely selfish. That's basically Lore in a nutshell: you're not going to guilt her into doing the right thing for the greater good - she needs to be bribed, blackmailed or coerced, the latter being the method chosen early in the book by those who wish to use her.

Given that background and that character, I must admit that I was a little disappointed by what followed. Lore - basically a sewer rat from the bad part of town who's been working as a spy for one gang of traffickers, embedded (um, literally) with another - is introduced into the wealthy setting of the Citadel with orders to spy on a nobleman. What follows is a series of social and religious engagements, with plenty of conversation between Lore and a slew of nobles, but actually little in the way of action, apart from a couple of set piece events, for most of the middle part of the book. It's established early on that Lore is an experienced and accomplished spy. Also that she has dark abilities (in one memorable scene she raises a dead horse). Yet so much of the story is confined to mildly probing questions of those around her. Even when Lore makes some allies and her investigation switches up a gear, a great deal of time is spent in the library rather than in snooping or other more spy-y activity. Yes'm we get Lore's rather frustrated inner monologue, and there is a love triangle going on,  but I felt there was little in this section to advance the plot.

I must add that the book does lift in its final third, when a number of plot threads come together. There is action. There is hair-raising peril. There is dark magic. Also, multiple levels of betrayal, the revelation of hidden hands and one particular reveal about Lore herself and her role in things that I really hadn't seen coming. 

But still, I felt that this book could have been more. And that's not because of the difference between The Foxglove King and Whitten's previous novels - For the Wolf and For the Throne. I get that they are meant to be different - while those books are darkly romantic, tainted fairytales, and yes, I love that kind of thing, I also enjoy more conventional fantasy which The Foxglove King is albeit with a nice gothic edge. They're not meant to occupy the same genre space, and that's fine.

Still, if you enjoy a competent, cool heroine and a setting that has something of the night about it, this may well be just what you need to read.

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

24 March 2023

#Blogtour #Review - The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone

Book "The Space Between Us" by Doug Johnstone. The words of the title are spelled out in block white letters each in a black disk. Between the disks, black lines form a network, converging at the top of the cover into a column leading upwards and fading to grey. Amongst the network are smaller coloured disks - red, orange, blue, purple, cyan.
The Space Between Us
Doug Johnstone
Orenda Books, 2 March 2023
Available as: PB, 276pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585449

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of The Space Between Us to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

In his new novel Doug Johnstone - whose most recent works include the Skelfs detective series set at an Edinburgh undertaker's - really doesn't hang about, plunging us right into a fantastical plot with three varied and intriguing protagonists. Told in short chapters with dramatic changes of view, we quickly learn who is who.

Lennox is a lonely teenager living in a children's home. 

Ava is pregnant and trying to escape her coercive, in fact outright abusive, husband. 

Heather has lost her daughter and her husband, she has cancer and, when we first see her, is trying to end her own life.

All are about to have their destinies and lives changed when they encounter first, a strange light in the sky which leaves them hospitalised then miraculously healed, and secondly, a peculiar octopus-like creature washed up on the Edinburgh shoreline and affectionately named Sandy by the three.

In chapters told from their alternate perspectives, and those of a couple of other characters who are drawn in, we follow events during a frantic road trip across Scotland with several different but equally sinister authorities intent on capturing Sandy (I have tagged this review "Men in black") and a furious husband chasing down Ava.  (An interesting juxtaposition). The different viewpoints make for a clever technique - Ava, Lennox and Heather have a lot to come to terms with, both their own variously troubled lives and Sandy's unique nature. Their developing relationships with each other complicate this, and plot shock about. Johnstone's approach allows him, though all this, to both reveal and, at  times, to conceal, just what is happening, allowing the author sometimes to not describe things from the perspective of whoever has the clearest view, preserving ambiguity and building tension.

That ambiguity is at the heart of the story - we know how the scared authorities will react to Sandy, we know that Ava's husband has no good intentions for her, but what we don't know is how the gang will ultimately process what's going, how they will assimilate the incredible moral challenge presented by Sandy's existence and his need. Nor how those on whom whey will depend for help will react.

It all comes down to empathy, to the balance between their fears for their own future and their capacity for love, their ability to go on hoping. 

I don't want to over intellectualise this or make it sound over solemn, because its not. It's the very opposite. The Space Between Us is a thriller about human (and non human) nature, but it's a fun read, morally clear in that you can happily hiss at a couple of the characters and root for the others, (even if at times they do play fast and loose with legal niceties). As a science fiction adventure (that's not really a spoiler) the setup is by no means original - I could draw parallels with at least one well known film and a couple of other recent novels - but Johnstone brings to it his ability to create fresh and lively characters who quickly become very real to his readers. They are people you feel for - full of complexities and quirks and above all very very human. 

Additionally, the Scottish setting gives the whole thing an air of familiarity and localness which makes it all seem very plausible. And who doesn't love a good road trip?

In summary, The Space Between Us is a fresh and enjoyable story which explores some fundamental themes about what it is to be connected - or not. Tears may well have been shed over it... definitely recommended!

For more information about The Space Between Us, see the Orenda Books website here, and also the other steps on the tour, listed in the poster below.

You can buy The Space Between Us from your local bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, WH Smith, Foyles, Waterstones or Amazon.

23 March 2023

#Review - End of Story by Louise Swanson

Cover for book "End of Story" by Louise Swanson. An eye peeks through a gap in a red ground, swirls of smoke rising to meet it from the bottom of the cover. Along the bottom, the words "This much imagination can be a dangerous thing".
End of Story 
Louise Swanson
Hodder & Stoughton, 23 March 2023 
Available as: HB, 320pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529396102

I'm grateful to Hodder for letting me have an advance e-copy of End of Story via NetGalley to consider for review. This was a book I was keen to read, having loved Swanson's previous novels, written as Louise Beech, and also her very moving memoir, Daffodils.

End of Story follows author Fern Dostoy's life in a near future, nightmarish world so close to our own. Or perhaps I should say ex-author Fern Dostoy's life, because in this future, fiction has been banned. Writers, agents, publishers and booksellers are proscribed, sometimes sent for 're-education' and are generally shunned. Fern has been dispossessed of her career, her home, her books, even her name, and allotted a job as a hospital clearer. Sinister Government functionaries - 'the tall one and the short one' she always calls them - visit her unannounced, question and threaten her, and search for books or signs of writing.

To a book obsessive like me this is of course a truly dreadful future. No new novels to consume (or old ones for that matter). No bedtime stories for sleepless kids. No book groups. No book blogs, either, I guess. As Fern tells her story we learn how the very centre of her existence, the things she created and whose creation gave her life meaning, have been taken from her by a government that blames fiction in general, and one of her books in particular, for all manner of ills - and which has worked up an angry mob to enforce its prohibition.

I said "as Fern tells her story" but in this world, storytelling has been banned. Keeping an illicit journal in a notebook, as she does, marks her therefore as still defiant - even if, as she assures us, non fiction is  surely still permissible? But Fern goes further in challenging the new rules, discovering a clandestine story-reading helpline for those restless kids who have been denied the joy of fiction. She eagerly participates - it seems she suffers a particular pain at seeing them denied stories - but an atmosphere of threat hangs over the whole enterprise.

I was reminded to some extent of Nineteen Eighty Four, especially the secret, handwritten diary. However, End of Story goes to much, much weirder places. Fern becomes concerned that events in this grim future are echoing her most recent book, Technological Amazingness. Something - or someone - also seems to be trying to pass messages to her, but are they friendly or not? Stranded amidst a December heatwave, Fern's life seems to be spinning out of control and 'the tall one and the short one' begin to call more often...

It's actually hard to find words for how brilliant End of Story is - especially when there are aspects it's best not to discuss because that would spoil the book. At its centre it is I think an exploration of grief: Fern has lost so much, and is in a sense mourning. She also clearly feels guilt for what has happened - however much it is clearly not her fault, she only wrote a book - and perhaps a need to atone for that. Beyond the menace, there is something desperately sad in her relationship with the Men in Black who come calling. I reflected that there is a sense in which they are the only people with whom she is permitted to discuss what she has lost - anyone else would be horrified, would push her away. 

Perhaps almost the only people? We also meet 'Fine-Fayre', a door to door salesman for a company selling tea and biscuits (what a brilliant idea). We never learn his real name, but he is in many respects the most human character in this story, apart from Fern herself. Many of the others have a slightly chilling quality, her colleagues in the hospital for example concocting bizarre schemes which they seem keen for her to overhear as she cleans the meeting room, her friends at Story Tellers on edge necessarily.

Indeed, throughout the book, Swanson creates a more and more uncomfortable - can I be pretentious and say unheimlich? - atmosphere, initially founded on the outrageous banning of fiction but increasingly taking in the, well - words rather fail me again here - the texture of Fern's relationship with the world she's in? The sense that she is struggling to hold on to reality - or perhaps that it is trying to reject her? It's a book that could almost be a ghost story (it isn't!) a book featuring a sort of haunting. The kind of book that hooks you, keeps you reading just another bit, and another bit, puzzling over what's happening. The kind of book that wraps you in itself, that you need to read with tissues to hand as the depths of Fern's suffering are - oh-so-slowly - explored.

Simply a thrilling, heartbreaking but also triumphant story. You really need it in your life!

For more information about End of Story, see the publisher's website here.

21 March 2023

#Review - Hel's Eight by Stark Holborn

Book "Hel's Eight" by Stark Holborn. A woman's face. She is wearing a facemark over mouth and nose, and has a pair of goggles pushed on her forehead. Behind her, distant towers and sky. the image is all done in shades of blue, black and grey.
Hel's Eight
Stark Holborn
Titan Books, 21 March 2023
Available as: PB, 353pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803362298

I'm grateful to the author for sending me a copy of Hel's Eight to consider for review.

One day older and deeper in debt...

Taking place in the same setting as Ten Low, Hel's Eight picks up the story a few years later with ex-convict "Doc" Ten living in a shack in the forsaken wastes of the moon Factus.

As soon becomes clear, Ten isn't out there for her own good. She is doing what she can to treat the desperate people who scratch a living in the dust, trying to level the score, to atone for the great wrong she believes she did. And by living in isolation, accompanied only by her battered robot dog Rowdy, she hopes to avoid bringing down further trouble on anyone else. She's cut herself off from such friends and acquaintances as she still has, including her sometime lover Silas. 

Then one day, the past comes knocking on Ten's door. A showdown is looming with the acquisitive Xoon Futures corporation, which seems to have money - or at least, company tokens - to throw around and which has been muscling in on Factus, threatening the fragile lives and fragile independence of its inhabitants.  You'd think Factus a place so wretched and perhaps cursed that surely anyone sane would stay far away. We saw in the previous book how the moon is haunted by the bizarre Ifs - generally referred to in superstitious areas as just "They". They might be fates, gods or who knows what but They seem able to surf the possibilities of the future, feeding off the alternates. It seems now that Ten may have unfinished business with Them - or They with her - but others may now have learned that and have plans to make use of her. So Ten has to decide whether to listen to the call and come back for one last adventure...

As Ten struggles with that dilemma, we are given additional context about Factus through diary entries written decades earlier by 'Pec "Eight" Esterházy', a convict who came to Factus and whose fate may explain a little of what is going on. 

Ten is a fascinating and complex character who has lived a fascinating and complex life. One senses the tension in her, the regret at what she's done, the fear of what it may do to her, but also her desire to protect and to rescue the inhabitants of Factus from a grim choice between a grinding existence and ownership by Xoon. In this remote part of space (on the edge of 'the Void') those endless alternate outcomes that feed Them seem to be opposed by a commercial monoculture in which everything and everyone is owned and controlled. What play of possibilities can there be in that, what freedom?

It's just brilliant how Holborn takes the tyranny embodied by the "company town" and dials it up to, oh, twenty three or something, weaving it into a truly existential, spiritual menace that is only heightened because out here on the edge, there is nobody to ride to the rescue.

That concept is sharpened by the obvious fun that Holborn is having here with a setting that while firmly futuristic and more than a little bit weird, also echoes there classic Western - transport by some sort of vehicle referred to as a "mule", dusty, dead-end towns and trading-posts, abandoned mines and the gangs of 'Road Agents'. 

I just loved this book, equal parts horror, Western and SF (and some other things too) and fully, gloriously itself, its own twisted, wonderful thing, an absorbing read and a truly distinctive one.

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

20 March 2023

#Review - Birthright by Charles Lambert

Book "Birthright" by Charles Lambert. Two women' faces. At top right, one is seem in profile, looking across the cover towards the left. The picture is done in tones of blue, grey and green. At bottom left, another face, upside down, also in profile, looks across to the right. This one is in tones of orange, beige and umber. They are I think the same face, and if you rotate the cover through 180 degrees, the faces will swap.
Charles Lambert
Belgravia Books, 23 March 2023
Available as: PB, 256pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781913547288

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Birthright to read and consider for review.

Birthright is a twisty, wicked story, a story of identity, loss and yearning, and it's just brilliant.

Fiona is growing up to a privileged lifestyle in England. She has wealthy parents and an expensive boarding school - but also a feeling that something is just, well, off. She got on better with her father than her mother, and when he dies, resents her for ending the regular holidays in Italy during which she met handsome Lorenzo and his friends. Her mum's stuffy, Thatcher-worshiping friends repel Fiona (this is the late 70s/ early 80s) and a friend she makes at school shows her the delights of a chaotic household where feelings are accepted and spoken about.

Maddy, in contrast, has grown up in poverty (albeit the sort of hippyish, self-inflicted poverty adopted by rebellious children of privilege, fun until the money runs out). She has never known a father, her mother dallying with a series of men, some merely useless, others positively dangerous (there are some truly dark episodes described). Age, shortage of money and circumstance have left the two washed up in a grim flat in Rome, which is where Fiona becomes aware of Maddy - the two young women have an uncanny resemblance to one another.

When Fiona discovers this, she becomes Maddy's obsessive stalker, deeply, creepily jealous of the other girl and determined to prove a link between them, despite their very different backgrounds. That aspect of the story - kind of a detective mystery with a psychological twist - makes this an easy book to get into. Add in a handsome charmer - Fiona's jailbird boyfriend - and the romantic streets of Rome, and Lambert has produced a heady, painful but clinically well-observed story with plenty of twists and turns.

But there's more besides. Beneath the mystery of the two young women, a central theme here is envy, the sense that Fiona (but also, Maddy, to a degree) have that the other is luckier, happier, possessed of something they don't. One's sympathies ping pong between them. Fiona's clearly had a very chilly upbringing, but then, she is going to be very wealthy, she literally wants for nothing, so, one might think, she can at least be unhappy in comfort and will have time and space to sort out what she wants in life. Instead she determines that she will be Maddy's sister, and that that will make everything right for her.

If only. Maddy herself has a very complex relationship with her alcoholic mother, but still resents Fiona's restless, prowling attentions and doesn't want their not-so-perfect life turning upside down. The emotional temperature between Fiona and Maddy is high, the pages fairly crackling with electricity, with attempts at understanding, unreasonable expectations and some spectacular tantrums. Neither very likeable, the reader will I think come to understand and sympathise with both, wishing that they might find some way to accept one another's existence - or perhaps, to separate and get on with their separate lives. 

But it seems they can do neither. I had to remember that despite both having, in different ways, an apparently sophistication in the ways of the world, they are both, really, very very young and the upbringing of neither has really been conducive to emotional maturity and understanding. You couldn't really imagine two women less suited to navigating the storms of longing and resentment that they find themselves in (not to speak of a complex romantic rivalry that develops).

That complexity was one of the things that for me made Birthright such an excellent read. The book has it all - brilliantly depicted characters, greater and greater tension and beautiful Roman atmosphere and settings (you will feel you are there!) (Also, smoking. Lots and lots of smoking. After all, it is set in the 70s and 80s.) 

Best of all though, it really draws the reader in, putting her or him in Fiona's place, in Maddy's. 

What would you do, you'll wonder? What would you want? How would I get out of this? Would I even try? Where will it all lead?

All in all, Birthright is a fantastic book, one I'd heartily recommend. Do give it a try.

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

17 March 2023

#Review - The Magician's Daughter by HG Parry

Book "The Magician's Daughter" by H G Parry. In white, the silhouette of a woman's head, looking right. Radiating from the top of her heard, sunbeams. Below her chin, the outline of a rabbit in black. Behind her neck, the outline of a dark bird. Below that, Tower Bridge, also in black. The background, an intricate spiralling design in dark and light green.
The Magician's Daughter
HG Parry
Orbit, 2 March 2023
Available as: PB, 374pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356520315

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Magician's Daughter to consider for review.

The Magician's Daughter is a wonderful read, at the same time a carefully constructed and convincing depiction of magic at work in the modern (early 20th century) world, a perfectly drawn account of a young woman growing as she learns truths about herself and her guardian, and a joyfully exuberant celebration of life.

Bridget ("Biddy") is sixteen years old and has been brought up on an isolated island, Hy-Brasil, which is wreathed in magic and hidden from the mundane world. Her guardian, Rowan, who rescued her from the sea as a baby, is a mercurial, frustrating person, who keeps his secrets close. It's a narrow life, but one that Biddy enjoys and (despite growing curiosity about the mainland) wishes never to end.

Of course it does, and she's forced, very quickly, to take the initiative when Rowan disappears on one of  his nighttime trips. That rapidly leads her into danger and squalor as she travels to London and learns more about the outside world, and about her own history. 

I felt that Parry judged things very nicely here. There are hints that Biddy is growing up, becoming curious about herself and also frustrated with life on the island - but she hasn't, yet, come to any conclusions about all that. When change comes, it's forced on her, so her growing - what - concern? Scepticism? - about her life continues to evolve even as she takes on new perils, visits new places and lives a different life. I loved that sense of balance, just as I loved the balanced degree of peril in the book. 

Yes, it turns our that Rowan has been struggling against powerful and arrogant men who have their own ideas about how the magical world should be ordered, and there are some frankly depicted scenes of violence and cruelty, but at the same time, this isn't a book where the fate of the world is at stake and as much suffering is being inflicted by the Dickensian conditions in an orphanage, for example, as by the antagonist magicians. Contrast that, perhaps, with certain magical sagas where poverty and vast inequality are just taken as the way things are.

There is also a distinct sense of moral ambiguity here. The book shows how good intentions can go awry, and how hoarded power may be seen as a reasonable policy which all the same, is itself an abuse. That puts Biddy in a dilemma when, for the first time, she understands that Rowan has kept the truth form her and, worse, has even lied. The moral lines are far from clear, and not having mingled with people in the wider world, it's not clear who she can trust - but it is clear that the consequences of a misjudgement could be terrible for her and for Rowan.

This is a story that draws the reader in, increasingly as the climax nears, Parry telling with great verve her account of conflict, deception and - possibly - redemption. It's both great fun and has a strong moral core and it kept me reading till midnight so I could finish it.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about The Magician's Daughter, see the publisher's website here

15 March 2023

#Review - Hopeland by Ian McDonald

Cover for book "Hopeland" by Ian McDonald. Against a background of stars with constellations marked out, the steeple of a Wren church, with lightning forking upwards.
Ian McDonald
Gollancz, 16 February 2023
Available as: HB, 656 pp, audio (narr Esther Wane), e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781399605731

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Hopeland to consider for review. I also listened to parts of the book on audio.

Hopeland is a fierce storm of a book, a story on an epic scale - covering thousands of miles and centuries of time, and also satisfying chunky in the hand. Yet it still has plenty of space for the personal and the small. No, it is the personal and the small - used to tell a big story.

We begin in 2011 as riots engulf London. Amon Brightborne - aka Tweed Boy - a young Irish musician from a wealthy, old established family, is booked for a select gig but unable to find the address. Instead he find Raisa Peri Antares Hopeland - or perhaps she finds him. Raisa is engaged on a sort of parkour selection challenge against the shadowy Finn, the winner to receive a sought-after role in the extended Hopeland clan. Each is to cross London, one from the north, one from the south, not deviating more than 50 metres from an invisible line, the aim being to reach a certain rooftop first. And Raisa is losing - until she enlists Amon to help.

And there, at one level, you have it - like a system of three stars in motion, Raisa, Amon and Finn will weave complex, unpredictable paths through two decades and more, and their perturbations will ring down the centuries. That's the book. At another level of course we have only just begun. We will learn about the Hopelands - a chaotic, sprawling "family" ('Don't fall in love with my family!') which anybody can join, across time, space and cultures and which has its own centres, or 'hearths' everywhere, its own ways of doing things, even its own religion. We will also learn about the Brightbornes, a formidably eccentric clan whose house can't be found unless somebody shows you. Some magic there, surely, but it's matters of fact magic. 

When Brightbornes encounter Hopelands, what might happen?

The setting in which that encounter takes place is a world that's increasingly restive as weather, populations and trends are increasingly disrupted by climate change. The book takes us to Iceland, to Greenland, to the Pacific kingdom of Ava'u and to points in between as humanity struggles to move into its future. I might use the term "sprawling" for this book except that might imply something less disciplined and focussed than Hopeland actually is. Better perhaps to say that McDonald is happy to set things off in one direction, then jump several years and three continents to pick up the story elsewhere, trusting the reader to make the leap with him - which I always did, not least because of the gorgeous writing and command of emotion and pace that Hopeland displays. 

I'm not going to quote bits to illustrate that, I don't know where I'd even begin, you just have to read this and experience the rhythms, the lists (THE LISTS! They are nothing short of poetry!) the almost sneaky way the text comes back to the same point from different directions, the range of reference (McDonald calmly suggests that the word "Padowan" used in Star Wars lore for an apprentice may actually have been lifted from the Hopelands...) The book is like a feast and simply gives so much (my favourite section perhaps being the one where a whisky soaked and self pitying Amon, exiled in Ava'u like a figure out of Jospeh Conrad, or perhaps Graham Greene, becomes involved in political chicanery, a subplot that many writers would base a whole book around).

What else? Corporate and geopolitical shenanigans, the squabbles of gods and an element of possible fantasy or magic that is very much part of the texture of the story but kept as subsidiary theme. Again, any other author I can think of would make 'electromancers' fighting duels with Tesla coils across the rooftops, and declaring themselves the protectors of London, the centre of the story. Or else the cursed family with its own haunting spirit. Or... Instead, here those things are real and important but very far from being at the centre of things, rather they deepen and add weight to what is a glorious, complex and engaging story, one that creates an entrancing world of its own and one that it is simply a joy to visit. 

And McDonald dares not to give answers to some of the mysteries here. It's just the way things are, alongside all the other marvels of Hopeland - the water driven musical engine playing its thousand year melody, for example. In short, Hopeland is a book that simply draws one in, a wonderful book full of so much. I strongly recommend it.

In narrating the story, Esther Wane wonderfully articulates the voices of a dizzying range of characters, form Amon's slightly gruff Irish English to Raisa's sassy Londonish to the Ava'uans to Greenlanders and Icelanders. The audio is magnificent.

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

13 March 2023

#Review - The Tyranny of Faith by Richard Swan

Cover for book "The Tyranny of Faith" by Richard Swan. A dark cover. In the centre stands a woman in plate armour. She holds a long sword vertically by the pommel, its point resting on the ground at her feet. She is white, with brown hair, and has a rather severe expression, eyes slightly downcast. Behind her is a figure with a human body but an animal's head - a moose? An elk? Around them both, a curving frame, made of twigs or brown bones.
The Tyranny of Faith (Empire of the Wolf, 2)
Richard Swan
Orbit, 16 February 2023
Available as: HB(546pp), audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356516431

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The Tyranny of Faith to consider for review.

The Tyranny of Faith sees a welcome return for itinerant Justice Sir Konrad Vonvalt and his retainers, Bressinger, Sir Radomir and, of course, the wonderful Helena Sedanka. In an Empire abounding in plots, treason and - as become clear in The Justice of Kings - forbidden Magicks - the team must try to uphold the rule of law while all around seem, rather, to be playing the rules for their own ends.

The story is, then, very much a continuation of the earlier book, though with the setting established we move much closer to the centre of things - first when Sir Konrad takes the team to the capital, Sova, in an attempt to warn the Emperor that something is wrong, and then to the debatable lands on the southern border with a mission from the Emperor (the warning more or less disregarded).

I don't want to drop any spoilers, but we do know from the start - because Helena, writing this account decades later, tells us - that dark times are ahead for the Empire of the Wolf so it's clear that, while there may be some success for Sir Konrad, greater forces are at work (or at least, their plans are too far advanced) for our heroes to halt. 

But that doesn't take away the tension, far from it. Rather it left me desperate to know how exactly things will go to shit - there are so many ways it might happen! - and how everybody will measure up when they do. Because we also know that the crew are far from perfect as individuals. Helena has already realised Sir Konrad has feet of clay, and this book does more to expose how, under the Sovan Empire, the pursuit of realpolitik trumps equality before the law. Sir Radomir is, increasingly, a functioning alcoholic. Bressinger is devoted to Sir Konrad and will not act against him, not even to save him from himself. And Helena herself - well, as ever, she's impulsive, inexperienced and still young and she has so many feelings to cope with here, abut herself (remember the loss she suffered in The Justice of Kings), and her companions, especially Sir Konrad. (She is of course also brave, idealistic and determined - which she will need to be when various machinations land her in the front ranks of an army of fanatic warrior nuns marching to confront invaders...)

There's a fantastic interplay here between the characters. They are - just - still able to work as a team despite tensions and disagreements. The Tyranny of Faith is actually a wonderful depiction of colleagues under pressure doing their best in impossible circumstances. It's also a heartbreaking depiction of Helena's ongoing disillusion with Sir K (disillusion, not disengagement - the attraction between them is an opposite and more than equal force in Helena, and is acknowledged here more than it was in the previous book). 

Indeed, the relationships are so well done - whether the four are getting drunk in a tavern, nursing their hangovers next morning, pursuing villains through bustling Sova, or fighting against impossible odds - that I would want to read about them whether or not they were central figures in a world shaking fantasy novel. I have been known at times to mutter at doorstep fantasy books to just get on with the plot - but not here. If Swan wanted to extend this series by a book or two just so we could see more of Sir K, Bressinger, Helena and Sir Radomir, that would be fine by me, absolutely fine. 

Failing that perhaps we could have some short stories set in the quieter moments? Those might be hard to fit in, though, because as this book marches on, those quiet moments become fewer and further between. Faced with one shock after another, constrained by orders from the Emperor, Sir Konrad's authority and command of events become weaker and weaker, forcing him to adopt methods which leave Helena aghast. And still the crew are exposed to ever greater dangers, operating in unfamiliar country and against strange enemies, human and magickal. (One of the other strengths of this book is its use of the dangerous ancient "magicks" that seemed so domesticated and controlled in the hands of the Justices in The Justice of Kings. We learn a lot more about them here, and it's clear that not only have the Justices been playing with fire all along, but that now others want to play with it too...)

I do have an off-on relationship with fantasy, but have firmly placed Swan's series on my list of "Fantasy that I really like" and I hope you will too. Strongly recommended!

For more information about The Tyranny of Faith, see the publisher's website here.

9 March 2023

#Review - Nothing Special by Nicole Flattery

Cover for book "Nothing Special" by Nicole Flattery. Two versions of the same picture, showing a young white woman with shoulder length, dark hair sitting at an electric typewriter. She is wearing a sleeveless dress with a dark, long sleeved garment underneath. The upper picture is largely tinted pink, with blue highlights, while the lower version is largely blue, with orange highlights.
Nothing Special
Nicole Flattery
Bloomsbury, 2 March 2023
Available as: HB, 240pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781526612120

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Nothing Special via Netgally.

Nothing Special is a hard book for me to review. I tend to review mainly plot or character driven books, which both provide relative easy ways into a review: you can describe what happens (without spoilers!) or you can talk about the people in the book (without spoilers!). Then you can get into the atmosphere, the way the book makes you feel and so on.

With Nothing Special I'm afraid that neither approach will work, which is frustrating because I want to persuade you to read this rich, fascinating story. Plot? Yes, things do happen here, but they're the comforting jumble of everyday life (for value of "everyday life" that fit New York in the late 60s). Fascinating, textured coming and goings but difficult to summarise. Characters? There are indeed well delineated characters. In particular, 17 year old Mae, our window into this world, is a blizzard of a character, full of desires, hopes and already (at that young age) regrets. Her mother, and her mother's boyfriend Mikey, are also richly layered and well observed. But Mae is also vastly contradictory, and she is telling the story of her teens from the perspective of some thirty years later, commenting on it with a great deal of knowingness both about herself and about the events which bring her - brought her - into the orbit, if the distant orbit, of 60s celebrity Andy Warhol. 

I'm not sure I can do justice to that, especially as there are really two Maes in the book, the impulsive (but is she?) young woman and the more resigned, but also more understanding, older one. And as the younger Mae, at least, changes and develops rapidly in the hothouse environment of Warhol's Factory, where she comes to work (although here, it's always the 'studio').

Mae has, for example, an affect of rather chilly detachment from what she's witnessing, but it's hard to tell whether that is actually meant to be how the 17 year old saw things, or if it was a teenage pose, an attitude, a protection against what are pretty intense emotional ups and downs. Or it may be an artefact of the older woman recalling her youth? Once I started asking myself questions like that (another arises in relation to Mae's relationship with her mother (who seems pretty unpleasant) and her mother's boyfriend Mikey (generally derided, but he seems one of the more likeable characters here)) the book became almost a hunt for clues, every phrase, every comment turned over and examined. I cam to no conclusions. We are left to wonder, and it's fascinating to do that.

We're also left to wonder about the detail of what is happening - and about what we're not told. Before reading this book I knew very little about Warhol (apart from the Campbell soup cans, and "famous for fifteen minutes") so I wasn't aware of how much in the book to take as literal. (A bit of research afterwards suggested, quite a lot). But actually that's not the right question, I think. What's more important here than "what really happened?" is "what is Mae thinking and feeling?"

For example, she's been employed (though doesn't actually get paid much) for transcribing tapes that will be used as the basis for an experimental novel "by" Warhol. (Incidentally, he's not often named in the book, and when he is, it's with no upper case in his name - like many of the other characters, even Mae's "I" is lower case - except when he is called "Drella", a nickname used by his associates based on "Dracula" and "Cinderella". Make what you want of that.) The content of these tapes horrifies but fascinates Mae and her fellow typists, and their developing relationship with them is central to the book - but the content is never directly described, though it is implied that it is degrading, exploitative. I'm left wondering what I would find if I ever read "a: A Novel"(it has NO reviews own Amazon!)

Another example might be Mae's introduction to and relationship with Warhol's whole operation. Presented here, it's the result of a more or less random chain of events followup a casual hookup she has with a man she meets in a department store. (Early ion the book Mae spends a lot of time in department stores hoping to get picked up). One might be forgiven for thinking she thereforelittle idea where she's going when she turns up to be interviewed for the typing role by "anita" (lower case "a"). But in the succeeding weeks, Mae (and the other typists) seem to have a near obsession with Warhol's circle, some of whose leading personalities appear on those tapes, an obsession that reminded me of the attitude some people have today towards their favourite social media stars and influencers. 

While it's perfectly plausible to see this as something that has developed in the hothouse atmosphere of the 'studio' (albeit the typists are corralled in a distant corner, overlooked by the artists, actors and socialites who seem to spent their time lounging around and smoking at the centre of things) I also wondered whether there wasn't something much more intentional in young Mae's involvement, a deliberateness to her penetration of this social circle, its parties and schisms which the older woman has tried to play down but not completely erased?

Similar mysteries abound, so that, while at one level you might indeed say that little actually happens in this book, that wouldn't really be true. You need, as I said above, to pay close attention, and you need to approach everything Mae (both of them!) says with caution, but when you do, you will see all sorts of stuff going on - both about Mae's own circumstances and her growth and coming of age, and encapsulations of wider society at a cultural and emotional crossroads.

I keep coming back, in thinking about this book, to the TV series "Mad Men", some of whose plot threads depict the same 60s New York avant-garde scene. Of course "Mad Men" does it from a different and more privileged perspective this demimonde is a place to be visited and explored... before getting back on the train to a comfortable suburb. It's starkly obvious that Mae doesn't have such a safety net and there is often a sense of danger, of edginess, to the things she gets up to which is heightened by our not being told just how much "young Mae" understands (and intends) that. 

Older Mae doesn't elucidate for us here, leaving several different alternatives open from her teenage self deliberately exploring this world, to her falling into it accidentally but then aligning with it, to rather darker interpretations.

By the end of the story I almost had the sense of reading a choose-you-own-adventure story, but with all the switches and alternatives obscured so that it seemed like several stories at once. This was at times overwhelming and confusing but also, increasingly grippy, and deeply thought provoking. 

Far from an easy read, but a very rewarding book, I think.

For more information about Nothing Special, see the Bloomsbury website here.

7 March 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Beautiful Shining People by Michael Grothaus

Cover for book "Beautiful Shining People" by Michael Grothaus. Manila background. In the centre, an inset square in pale blue, with the faces of a woman and as man, looking slightly upwards and to the left. Their eyes are closed. In the top right of the square, an electric toaster. In the top left, a cartoon Sumo wrestler. Between these, a tree branch in reds and pinks.
Beautiful Shining People
Michael Grothaus
Orenda Books, 16 March 2023
Available as: PB, 384pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585647

I'm grafetul to Orenda Books for an advance copy of Beautiful Shining People to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Beautiful, Shining People is at its heart a love story, but it is a very unusual one.

It's also near future SF - but again, an unusual example of that genre.

It's the combination of the two themes, and the way they fold together, that creates that distinctiveness together with an exploration of modern Japan, and a real concern for the future, for the impacts of technology, and for world peace. 

A mixture like that sounds as though it's going to be incoherent but Grothaus expertly brings everything together and infuses all these concerns into gorgeous, well-realised characters to create a truly memorable story. You'll worry aboutt Neotnia and Johns, care for them, cheer them on, be appalled by the risks they face and, at times, probably shed a tear at what they go through. 

John is an American IT prodigy, in Tokyo to sell his world-beating software. He has travelled from what seems like an increasingly authoritarian, buttoned-up United States - there are references to lists of 'banned keywords' - itself locked in a new Cold War with China. At first sight be may seen a classic, antisocial geek but - as we learn - there is more to him than that, John is also different in another way but he wants to be 'normal' and there is talk of surgery to bring this about.

Neotnia is a young woman with a vague past. Working in a restaurant run by disgraced ex-Samurai Goeido, she seems a lonely figure with no other family or friends. It's perhaps not surprising that she and John feel some attraction to one another and reading the book I was eager for them to build their relationship but once they do, the secrets that each keeps from the other will make any things between them far from straightforward. As Grothuas describes events over a few short weeks one Autumn, we sense these issues lurking while remaining - initially - ignorant about their exact nature.

The story therefore provokes all kinds of emotions from the outset: concern, curiosity, empathy and a growing unease about where this will all lead. The near-future depicted (the SF strand to the story) adds to that unease, as John begins to receive cryptic messages from the AI-infused bots that seem ubiquitous, and we see casual examples of the uses and abuses of the underlying technology behind them. It's a very believable future, sketched in rather than info dumped, the pluses and minuses senses rather than declaimed. It's an intuitive vision, one arising, as it were, from the cracks of our own present and forming a very credible, version of the mid 21st century. To do this, Grothaus blends demographics, climate change, scientific advances and politics, focussing as much on the factors that drive the future tech and on the scientific whizziness itself.

It does make for a rather worrying picture of the future, one that certainly menaces Neotnia and John but that threat is as much from familiar societal factors - over mighty corporations and superpower politics - as from the tech itself, the solutions therefore being human ones. The book isn't without dashes of humour, from the excesses of a Japanese Hallowe'en (it was especially fun to see that in this world, Epiphany Jones is famous enough to have people cosplay her!) to the dog Inu to that developing, tender relationship between Neotnia and John (and its inevitable strains and collapses). 

There is also plenty of action, and plenty (especially a visit to the Peace Park in Hiroshima) to give pause for thought. But the best parts of this book are those that show John and Neotnia learning to understand each other (even without understanding each other) and the atmospheric depictions of Tokyo  in particular and Japan more widely. 

A book I'd highly recommend.

For more information about Beautiful, Shining People, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Beautiful, Shining People from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, Waterstones or Amazon.


2 March 2023

#Review - Hob by David M Barnett

Cover for book "Hob" by David M Barnett. A woodcut of Early Modern figures sitting around a trestle table at a feast, eating and drinking. Some of them are human, some are grotesque figures with bestial heads and horns.
David M Barnett
Published by the author, 2022
Available as: e  
Source: Purchased

I bought this book after seeing the author mention it on Twitter.

Hob is an intriguing read, kind of Bridget Jones meets folk horror, with a dash of psychological thriller added. 

Sophie Wickham is a dissaffected, thirtysomething woman living in London and working at a dead-end data entry job. She spends her salary as soon as she gets it, mainly on wine and Internet bought,  wear-it-once-and-and-throw-it-away fast fashion. Mixing the two up, she often can't even remember what she order till it arrives. Most of the month Sophie's juggling creditors and cards, with minute amounts of money left for food.

Sophie Wickham has been living for nearly a year in the remote Lancashire town of Hob. She wandered into it naked and covered in mud and leaves, and was then prevented from leaving both by the locals and by a strange inwardness in the place. Now she's told that she can leave - but she has first to build her bower. (What's a bower?)

Both of these things are true.

This is the story of how one Sophie comes to be the other. It's a strange tale, involving an ancient remnant of older, sentient Nature; a group of cultists who target Sophie and lure her away; and a lot of free love in the woods.

There is a mystery about Sophie's earlier life, one she herself picks away at. It seems that her fate was entwined with Hob and its genius loci many years ago ('Do you know what happens to bad girls? ...Sometimes, Owd Hob takes them for his wife.') Exactly how, and why, though - and what that will lead to - well, that emerges slowly and I don't want to spoil the story. I will only say that the shut in, preserving-the-old-ways, town of Hob is not wholly divorced from the present day - though there are agendas here, and moral standards, that don't sit well with the modern world.

Hob is in some ways a shocking book, reminding us that the Perilous Realm is, well, just that - perilous, different and far from charming. In one of the more shocking scenes, the village carries out a sacrifice. In another, a folktale recounts how a 'bad' woman was consigned to Owd Hob. The thing about folktales, of course, is that you don't know whether they are meant as warnings of what might happen to you, or affirmations of the way of things, of what ought to happen... until it's too late.

This vivid and powerful book is folk horror done right, not just by the numbers. It leaves a lingering sense of unease.

For more information about Hob, or to purchase it, see the book's Amazon page here.

1 March 2023

Cover Reveal - Orphan Planet by Rex Burke

Cover for book "Orphan Planet" by Rex Burke. A blue-grey world floats in black space. A speech bubble leading from it read "Home Sweet... Oops."

Today I'm honoured to be joining in the cover reveal for Orphan Planet, the new novel from Rex Burke and first in the Odyssey Earth series.

About the Book

With Earth in crisis, humans are travelling deep into space. But humanity’s future just took a wrong turn.

A seventeen-year colony-ship voyage – a straight shot to a new planet. Handpicked, single-minded crew, and a thousand settlers in hypersleep. No children, no families, no fuss.

That was the plan, anyway

Captain Juno Washington commands a ship of loners and oddballs. The teenagers of the Odyssey Earth didn’t ask to be born, and face an uncertain future. And Jordan Booth really didn’t want to be woken up early.

After an unexpected change of course, relationships are tested like never before. If they listen to advice, pull together and stop squabbling, they might just make it.

Yeah, right. Good luck with that.


Title: Orphan Planet (Odyssey Earth series, Book 10
KindleUnlimited, 18 April, 2023
Available as: e, 332pp, 70k words
Buy from: Amazon (pre-order from 1 March, 2023)

About the Author

Rex Burke is a SciFi writer based in North Yorkshire, UK.

When he was young, he read every one of those yellow-jacketed Victor Gollancz hardbacks in his local library. He’s sure there are still thrilling SciFi adventures to be told – even if he has to write them himself.

Rex Burke, a white man with brownish hair sitting leaning on a wooden table inn front of an orange brick wall.
Rex Burke
When he’s not writing, he travels – one way or anotherhe’ll get to the stars, even if it’s just as stardust when his own story is done.

Website: https://rexburke.wordpress.com

Contact: scifirex@icloud.com

Twitter: @SciFiRex


Odyssey Earth series

First Date (short story) – available now for free: https://subscribepage.io/GPiihl

Orphan Planet (Book 1) – 18 April, 2023

Twin Landing (Book 2) – July 2023

Star Bound (Book 3) – November 2023