31 August 2023

#Review - Blade of Dream by Daniel Abraham

Cover for book "Blade of Dream" by Daniel Abraham. Vastness. A teeming city. An enormous archway or tunnel, lined with stone, with wooden scaffolding circling round and below, uneven stone paving - or perhaps a warren of streets? REALLY hard to describe!

Blade of Dream (Kithamar Trilogy, 2)
Orbit, 20 July 2023 
Available as: HB, 464pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356515465

I'm grateful to Orbit for providing me an advance e-copy of Blade of Dream via Netgalley to consider for review.

Blade of Dream is the second part of the Kithamar trilogy and, like Age of Ash, it follows events in the city for one year, beginning with a Royal funeral and coronation, and ending with a funeral, and coronation. (Weird to read in the UK where, just a year ago, we had a Royal funeral...)

If you hadn't guessed, the two books cover the same year so, up to a point, we know how things will turn out. There are two qualifications to that of course. First, a year is a long time in reading so I had forgotten a lot of the detail. Usually, in this sort of detailed fantasy milieu, this is a Bad Thing because forgetting the detail makes it hard to pick up the next part of the story - but Abraham rather brilliantly makes it an advantage here as the haziness prevents one from anticipating (too much) what is going on. 

Secondly, Blade of Dream is focussed on different characters and, to a large degree, a different stratum of society from the first book, so the events here are seen from a fresh perspective. Blade of Dream follows Garreth Left, younger son of a struggling merchant house, and Elaine, daughter of the new Prince, both people of some wealth and influence. Ash, in contrast, was written from the gutter featuring characters who were much more insecure economically. So there's less concern in this book about actually starving or freezing, and more about survival in a more competitive sense. As part of the ruling family, Elaine faces multiple dangers, both physical and political, while Garreth's joined the City Watch so is exposed to both daily assault and the backwash of political turmoil. (There's also the impact on him of moves his house makes in Kithamar's spirited trading games). For both, duty and personal inclinations are difficult to square with honour, love and happiness and it's those tensions that pretty much drive this narrative - until (because it has to get to the same place as Ash in the end) the strange cult highlighted there makes its move.

One can spot ripples here from events in Age of Ash, and I suspect that rereading that book (I must do that!) you'd also see events in Blade from, as it were, some distance - but each is its own story, albeit part of a whole. All this must have taken Abraham some fiendish plotting to bring off, but Blade of Dream never comes over as contrived or scheduled, rather we see Garreth and Elaine develop as individuals and mature, facing up to new responsibilities for their families, their friends and the City. 

The City...

As in Ash, in Blade of Dream the streets of Kithamar are bustling, vibrant and alive. The effect is simply hypnotic, teeming 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 a central character in this book both in its vividness... and also in a slightly different sense that you may recall from Age of Ash

Yet despite this, Blade of Dreams is still truly human fantasy. There is enough chicanery going on to satisfy any reader, and hints of darknesses and ancient evils, but the focus is mainly personal, intimate - we see a newlywed couple, a boy and his family, a girl afraid for her father and we see how they negotiate their various problems and face hopes and fears.

Strongly recommended, and I just can't wait for the third part...

For more information about Blade of Dream, see the publisher's website here

29 August 2023

#Review - The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle by TL Huchu

Cover for book "The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle" by TL Huchu. Drawn in white against a background of black and dark blue, a line drawing of a castle, with lit windows. Above, fragments of a map around the edges of the cover. Under the title, the strapkine "She came for magic. She stayed to solve a murder."
The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle (Edinburgh Nights, 3)
TL Huchu
Pan Macmillan, 27 July 2023 
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529097726 

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle to consider for review.

In this, the third book of the Edinburgh Nights series... Edinburgh doesn't feature! Rather, ghostalker Ropa Moyo and her friends and enemies are attending a magical conference at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. The duties are irksome, and Ropa's still not actually being paid for her work (she's an intern) but she plots a bit of casual larceny to help support her, her grandmother and her sister. 

Before Ropa can carry that out, however, everything goes wrong. Despite the presence of some seriously powerful and significant guests in the magical world - England's Magician Royal makes an appearance, allowing Ropa to explain a lot that was previously hinted at about the position of Scotland and its magicians in relation to a revanchist England - a serious crime is committed (no, not by Ropa) leaving her with limited time to sort things out before her world, and that of her boss, Sir Callander, implodes.

I enjoyed this change of scene for Ropa. While she has allies at Dunvegan - especially Priya - she's away from her home turf and has fewer resources to draw on, especially as she is, more than ever, under the eye of the snobbish, entitled masters of Scottish magic. That means she has to be even more ingenious than usual - as we know, Ropa is a formidable person and no respecter of the puffed up and self-important. She doesn't care what feathers she ruffles, and it's magnificent to see her cut a swathe through her lords and masters and right a few wrongs as she does.

The mystery here is also intriguing and apt to be solved through a close understanding of Scottish magical society, the sort of understanding that Ropa has had to develop to ensure her own survival. So her commentary on events and persons has a sort of subtext, paving the way for an eventual solution.

Behind that, though, I had a sense that things are getting more serious in Huchu's magical world. There is a big postcolonial theme in this story, with a stolen artefact from abroad at the centre of things and unhealed wounds from the past a main issue. That arises in a number of ways: the treatment of non-Western societies, but also the basis and roots of Scottish magic. We now learn this is grounded in the dispossession and even imprisonment of the Fae of Skye, those who came before, making the whole enterprise essentially a colonial one. There seems to be a historic injustice there which Ropa won't tolerate for long, but what can she do about it?

The bargain that Ropa has made with the principalities and powers of Edinburgh magic is already strained - their fault not hers, she's only trying to do her job and investigate what's gone wrong - but that cuts little ice. It was always an unstable situation and now seems to be coming apart with loyalties tested and Ropa's future in doubt. If that wasn't enough, alongside the plentiful action there's a bubbling drama that will surely eventually come to the foreground of these books concerning Ropa's history, her future and the survival of magical society. 

Huchu is definitely shaking things up - this series shows no sign of bedding down and becoming formulaic, and I'm on tenterhooks for what will come next.

For more information about The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle, see the publisher's website here.  

24 August 2023

#Review - House of Odysseus by Claire North

Book "House of Odysseus" by Claire North. In white relief, three women in Classical-style clothing. One is holding a cup from which liquid is pouring down across a gold foil circle (representing the sun?) across the bottom of which sails a Greek style warship at the bottom of the cover.
House of Odysseus
Claire North
Orbit, 24 August 2023
Available as: HB, 420pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780356516073

I'm grateful for the publisher for an advance copy of House of Odysseus to consider for review.

I always have high expectations of a Claire North book. House of Odysseus met them, and then went to much further, I'm actually rather stunned - and left floundering a bit, as anything I can say about this book seems superfluous. You should just go and read it.

Trying to put together some cogent thoughts, though, House of Odysseus is North's followup to her Ithaca. Both books are set in the misty time between heroic myth (the siege of Troy is recently finished) and and history and they focus on Penelope, wife of Odysseus, one of the (Greek) heroes of the Trojan war. Odysseus set out for home after the destruction of Troy, but has not yet arrived, leaving Penelope with all kinds of problems. As was established in Ithaca, these include suitors - men who, presuming Odysseus dead, want to marry Penelope and take the kingdom.

I remember first hearing about Homer's Odyssey, the tales about Odysseus making his way home, in primary school when I was 8 or 9. Of course they would have been carefully filtered, but the encounters with magic, monsters and gods still survived as interesting and fantastic stories. I recall though even then being frustrated that it took him so long - ten years! -  to actually get home, and also being rather cross that Penelope had to fend off all those annoying suitors. Why didn't someone just tell them to get lost, I wondered. The intrusion of these unwanted guests into the royal palace, pressing their claims and demanding to be fed and accommodated, seemed dangerous and troubling, out of kilter with a setting which presumed an adorned, functional society, as did Odysseus's protracted journey. It didn't take him ten years to get to Troy, after all.

I wish I had asked my teacher to explain all this. Fifty years on I can see of course that the answer to Penelope's treatment comes in one word - patriarchy - and perhaps that the second - Odysseus travails - might be about the tension in the text between history and myth - but I doubt that a primary school teacher in the mid 70s would have put it that. I'd love to know what the answer would have been though. (Probably "don't be awkward, David"). North is blunt about, especially, the first question. In House of Odysseus, she introduces us to King Menelaus of Sparta, a splendidly drawn monster. Unlike Odysseus, Menelaus went straight home, taking his recaptured wife, Helen, with him. Now, though, he's abroad again, involved in a complex power play for the throne of Mycenae which would make him high king of Greece, so also threatening Penelope's, and Odysseus's, Islands of the West. All of this is cloaked in good intentions - helping Penelope with her problems, sticking up for Menelaus's (alas!) missing brother-in-arms Odysseus, and so forth, and so on, but the threat is clear. 

It's given added menace by the plight of Helen herself.

What exactly happened to Helen after Troy? As one might expect, it's not nice. We see here here a Helen who is cowed, tamed and, in Penelope's appalled eyes, just less. We're let in on a few secrets courtesy of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex, who's the narrator of this book, so we know that Helen has been - is being - beaten and raped by her loving husband. There is still an enigma to her though, and Penelope recognises a survivor when she sees one. The two had been close, but grew apart - 'No one told Helen that she would grow up to be royal, regal, wise, learned or revered, so it didn't really occur to her childlike mind that these might be aspirations to seek'. 

Penelope's own role here is, as in Ithaca, constrained. Regarded by the men around her as other, lesser, a mere piece of property or perhaps (by the suitors, by Menelaus) a piece on the board, nevertheless she's the one with the practical nous and the sense of responsibility to keep things going. Think of a woman who makes sure there's food on the table and that the kids have clothes to wear - even if that means getting beaten for finagling the wages out of her man's pocket before he can spend them at the pub on drink. The tired one. The woman with no time for herself, who gets little sleep, who is invisible yet indispensable. The one who's going to sort out the various messes here, including talking down Orestes, killer of his own mother, who has returned to Ithaca haunted by the Furies. Orestes, and his sister Elektra, are Menelaus's quarry, his excuse to assume supreme kingship.

The one who, if she has to step out of the shadows, may be accepted in a crisis, but who will be punished later for overstepping.

Before we get to that point, though, there's a murder to solve and delightfully the story turns a shade of Whodunnit with clues, suspects and a tight timescale (Penelope has just three days to produce a suitable culprit). I could North having fun importing the conventions of detective fiction here ('Now she is done -  now she will depart. She gives a little nod of her head while turning away, but still Penelope has one last enquiry...') while keeping the story true to its mythic nature. (I can imagine a whole spinoff line of Penelope murder mysteries which would be glorious). The character, as North depicts her, is just so compelling, whether sleuthing, sparring verbally with Menelaus (who recognises her as an enemy - though be warned he plots how he will 'take' her once she is defeated), holding together a delicate alliance of women (and even the odd man) necessary to keep the island safe, just keeping up appearances - or managing the complexities of the situation that faces her in this book (as challenging an imbroglio as Jeeves ever confronts in PG Wodehouse (another echo of which: look out for old King Laertes and his love of pigs and his desire to be back at his farm tending them).

Penelope is supremely skilful at this sort of generalship, an accomplished strategios. Here is how North has Aphrodite describes that: 'It is only on those rare occasions when she perhaps plays a skilled opponent at tavli and sees a cunning trap, a clever little move, and cannot stop herself, cannot suppress the beating of her heart and the twitch of the smile on her lips, that she shimmers. She glows with excitement, and take it from me, excitement and arousal are often of the same fluttering breath, the same licked lips, the same wide eyes, the same hot flushed cheeks. Odysseus saw this in his wife, before he sailed to Troy, only once. But there was never enough time in the day for games, and then he was gone. This then is the light that now shines upon Penelope's face...' (Trust the goddess of love to spot that glint of beauty that comes from confidence and mastery of the task).

None of this is without cost to Penelope, of course. Part of her mastery is her busyness, her willingness to put in - her knowledge of the necessity of putting in - the effort. Suitors can while away their time drinking or sleeping, they can go back to their homes to be pampered, to be the centre of things. ('There is no feast served in the palace, no formal gathering of men, but there are still suitors, guards, soldiers, kings and maids to be fed') Penelope is always, as I have said, so very tired.

The writing in House of Odysseus is, as ever from North, glorious - she can simply make words dance on the page - whether it's particular passing remarks ('the kind of blade a process should never carry, and which all princesses should') or the way she charms her characters to life. I'd especially note the vivid way she gives voice to Aphrodite. North excels at portraying her, almost entirely through voice and side comments rather than actions because she (and the other gods) are unable to intervene much in events (she does on a few key occasions). This Aphrodite comes across very much as a shrewd, experienced woman, one with an eye for a warrior's nicely toned body ('The next door is answered by Iason, he of the lovely neck and really rather dishy arms'), interested in either sex and in most forms of erotic activity (so long as everyone is willing - 'I do not ask people who are not interested...') It feels in some ways like a very modern sensibility, but North makes it seem utterly consistent with the mythological Aphrodite, a fusion that you'd think was nigh on impossible but, read this, see how North pulls it off!

Just a pure brilliant wonderful gorgeous book, a stunning read, my favourite of the year so far (and anything that's better than this will take some doing).

For more information about House of Odysseus, see the publisher's website here.

23 August 2023

Cover Reveal - Alien Clay by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I'm excited today to be able to share the cover of one of the most exciting books coving next year - Alien Clay, a thrilling, far-future adventure by acclaimed author Adrian Tchaikovsky, winner of the British Science Fiction Award, British Fantasy Award, Golden Dragon Award, and Arthur C. Clarke Award.

About the book

The planet of Kiln is where the tyrannical Mandate keeps its prison colony, and for inmates the journey there is always a one-way trip. One such prisoner is Professor Arton Daghdev, xeno-ecologist and political dissident. Soon after arrival he discovers that Kiln has a secret. Humanity is not the first intelligent life to set foot there.

In the midst a ravenous, chaotic ecosystem are the ruins of a civilization, but who were the vanished builders and where did they go? If he can survive both the harsh rule of the camp commandant and the alien horrors of the world around him, then Arton has a chance at making a discovery that might just transform not only Kiln but distant Earth as well.

Alien Clay is published on 28 March 2024 by @UKTor in HB (560pp - ISBN 9781035013746), audio and e. For more information, and to preorder your copy, see the publisher's website here.

About the author

Adrian Tchaikovsky (@aptshadow) was born in Lincolnshire before heading off to Reading to study psychology and zoology. For reasons unclear even to himself he subsequently ended up in law and has worked as a legal executive in both Reading and Leeds, where he now lives with his wife and son. He's the author of the critically acclaimed Shadows of the Apt series, the Echoes of the Fall trilogy, The Doors of Eden, and The Final Architecture series. Children of Time was the winner of the 30th Anniversary Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel..

The cover

So, having said all that, here is the cover in its full glory...

Cover for book "Alien Clay" by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Against a turquoise to black background, a group of bright yellow plants. Some are spikes, some have with coral-like seedheads, some are squat and mushroom-like. Behind them, on the ground, other plants and flying above, insects in turquoise. The whole image gives the impression of profuse life, it's teeming with detail. Above the title, the words "A hostile planet holds dangerous secrets".

22 August 2023

#Review - Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi

Book "Boys in the Valley" by Philip Fracassi. Against a whited out background a small wooden cabin sits in front of a treelined. Above the title, the words "Fracassi makes terror read so damn beautifully - Victor LaValle".
Boys in the Valley
Philip Fracassi
Orbit, 13 July 2023 
Available as: PB 335pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356520551

I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of Boys in the Valley to consider for review.

Boys in the Valley is a horror novel that operates at two levels. On the surface, the life of Fracassi's Boys, orphans and delinquents living at a Roman Catholic institution in the US West at the dawn of the 20th century, is already harsh. They are fed the scantest of rations and are subject to brutal punishment for stepping even slightly out of line. It's also hinted that a lay brother, Johnson, who assists the priests, has a dark past and is a present danger. 

The boys already, then, endure something that most of us would see as a life of horror so the knowledge that things may be about to get worse creates fears of something very dark indeed. And Fracassi delivers, with things kicking off when there is a knocking on the door late one night and a disturbing guest appears...

I enjoyed the rather precise unfolding of what comes next. I was anticipating a fight for survival, for salvation even - the blurb for the book provides many hints of something demonic, but when it comes Fracassi is actually rather subtle, posing questions through the mouth of his rather intelligent antagonist that exploit all the divisions of St Vincent's and show up both the institution's morals and theology as rather shallow. 

That said, the relationship between lead character Peter, who has aspirations to the priesthood (but also eyes on Grace, a girl at the neighbouring farm) and his mentor Fr Andrew is also sensitively done and overturns any attempt to set things out as "abusive priests vs innocent children" - as does the later behaviour of some of those innocents. At the heart of the story are honestly portrayed, well constructed relationships and real ethical dilemmas. The abuse of power is never far away (and perhaps that's what gives the Adversary his foothold?) but so are good intentions (yet we know, don't we, what road is paved with those?)

In all of this, the lesson might be that appearances deceive. The twisted version of Christianity being proclaimed by some of the protagonists can't, in the end, hold out agains evil because, well, reliance on and deference to power structures rather than real goodness isn't a basis for faith. True goodness and love for mercy may do, even if they seem to make one vulnerable. There's a lot of food for thought here.

As an unseasonal winter storm closes in, trapping the boys, their guardians, and their foes, in the orphanage, the stage is set for a violent, even visceral denouement, Fracassi sparing us little detail. Be aware that it's a very visual story, and innocence will be no protection. Yet goodness is not powerless.

An intense, involving story that demands attention and will remain with you long after you finish it.

For more information about Boys in the Valley, see the publisher's website here

18 August 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Someone Like Her by Awais Khan

Book "Someone Like Her" by Awais Kahn. Flowers in violet, lilac and turquoise, behind which is a skyline of domes and towers.
Someone Like Her
Awais Khan
Orenda Books, 17 August 2023
Available as: PB, 320pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781914585784PB)

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Someone Like Her to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Awais Khan's new novel is a frank and unflinching look at the treatment of women in Pakistani society.

Following Ayesha, a young woman living in a conservative city but determined to make her own way in life, we see a young man making use of the power of patriarchy - and the power and influence of his wealthy family - to indulge his desires.

And we see the mayhem that ensues.

Ayesha is a determined, outgoing woman, until she encounters Raza. He is rich, spoiled and indulged and sees no reason not to press for what he wants. I found Ayesha's dilemma heartbreaking. Knowing how much power Raza and his family have, she does not want her own family to be endangered yet she also wants her own life. Breaking away to London may be part of a solution, yet Ayesha knows that she treads a knife edge of danger and scandal.

The London end of this story introduces Kamil, a young man whose family have distant connections to Ayesha's. Kamil also has secrets and tragedy behind him, and it was fascinating to see how Khan gradually reveals these and how they both strengthen, and undermine, him in his relationship with Ayesha. Both main characters have a real streak of courage but are also grappling with scary things - societal structures, relationships gone wrong, shame and finding their place in the world - and the author shows that is far from certain what the outcome of that will be.

The romance in this book (of course there is romance!) is sensitively drawn, tender and brave, between two young people who have been taught that what they want doesn't;t matter, can't matter and that others' wants and needs will always come first. It is an awakening, glorious to see but so fragile, so endangered.

Lightened by moments of genuine humour as Ayesha and Kamal negotiate life among parents, Aunties, siblings and more, Someone Like Her moves at a cracking pace with a story that has great drive and urgency. But it has space too to draw out important, passing things: behaviour on the Tube in London, the taste of the air in a different city, social customs (I'd never heard of kitty parties before) and the genuine, if often unstated, love between parent and a child.

I would give a CW for Someone Like Her has it includes unflinching depictions of domestic violence, and of rape - they are not gratuitous and certainly not graphic, but Khan is under no illusions that the sort of freedom that Ayesha wants can be had without pushback from those who benefit from the oppression of women.

For more information about Someone Like Her, 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 Someone Like Her from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

17 August 2023

Review - Bridge by Lauren Beukes

Cover for book "Bridge" by Lauren Beukes. Against a red-pink background, a picture of a young white woman wearing a white sleeveless top. Cutting across her eyes and nose is a rectangle within which are flowing shapes in black and green - perhaps a medical scan or a heat map?
Lauren Beukes
Penguin, 17 August 2023 
Available as: HB, 432pp, audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780718182823

I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advance e-copy of Bridge via Netgalley to consider for review.

Bridge is an absolute cracker of a novel from the author of The Shining Girls, Afterland and Broken Monsters. It had great resonance for me as an exploration of bereavement and also raises profound moral questions for its protagonists (at least one of whom doesn't come very well out of that test).

Bridget - Bridge - is the daughter of neuroscientist Jo, who has recently died of cancer. We see Bridge in the numbing coils of bereavement, wishing she'd spent more time with prickly Jo and astonished at what she didn't know about her mum. I felt this was well observed and written with real feeling, my mother having died several months ago it rang absolutely true to me that there could be discoveries in the loved one's paper, online activity and possessions.

My mother wasn't keeping such scary secrets though. Bridge, working with her friend Dom, soon discovers that her mother believed there were alternative versions of her in other worlds and that these could be accessed via a narcotic substance called "dreamworm". Taking us into a domain of obsession and paranoia, Beukes shows how this belief had taken over Jo's life, driving away her family and her lover and leading her to some very dangerous places indeed.

As it does Bridge. Across multiple universes, anything can happen, but it seems certain patterns recur - and Jo (and Bridge) repeatedly come up against Jo's brain cancer, against a stalkery vein of domestic abuse and coercive control, and also against a sinister cult that believes it knows all the answers and must control events at all costs. It's a tense novel, particularly in the way that things slowly - and them more quickly - escalate, Bridge throwing aside caution without realising that's what she is doing.

Fairly dancing along, this is a novel you'll want to read in a sitting, not least to spot the repeating patterns, the clues as to Jo's earlier life and discoveries, and to enjoy how Beukes conveys in her prose the subtly different natures of the various worlds she describes. I'm not sure I can convey just how well she does this, you'll have to read the book - it's almost as though you can breathe the different realies' atmospheres - the textures come right into the mind, almost like you had taken some of that "dreamworm". 

The characters also come over well. From staunch, non binary Dom, determined to back up their friend Bridge but perhaps getting in much, much deeper than they expected, to obsessed ex cop Amber who travels everywhere with her dog, Mr Floof II (Mr Floof I came to a bad end - it happens a lot to dogs in this story) to selfish, messy Caden who has a legend all of his own, Beukes flawlessly inhabits them all, conveying their essence, even evoking sympathy for some pretty nasty people.

Bridge really is, as the subtitle states, a novel of suspense - but also one of big ideas, raising questions not only about our responsibilities to those parallel selves but also to our relatives and friends. Bridge wants to find her mother, but how much harm is she prepared to inflict to do that? How much collateral damage is acceptable?

Also dipping a toe into the sewers of Internet obsession and delusion, with some hilarious scenes in a support group for a non-existent  conditions, Bridge entertains throughout - and ends on a note of genuine uncertainty leading me to hope that a sequel might be in the works.

Strongly recommended.

(CW for domestic violence, abuse and coercive control).

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

15 August 2023

#Review - Grave Suspicions by Alice James

Cover for book "Grave Suspicions" by Alice James. In silhouette, against a pink-purple sky, a male and a female figure, the latter in skirt and hat, and a tombstone upon which rests an angel. Or is it a devil?
Grave Suspicions (Lavington Windsor Series, 3) 
Alice James
Solaris, 15 August 2023
Available as: PB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786188434

I'm grateful to Alice James herself for sending me an e-copy of Grave Suspicions to consider for review.

If you've read Alice's previous two books, Grave Secrets and Grave Danger, you'll have some idea what to expect. Crime. Necromancy. Estate agenting. Vampires. Shagging. And poor Toni having yet another new outfit ruined by a would-be murderer or the irate undead. 

And indeed, Grave Suspicions delivers on all three.

There is, though, a lot more to it than that. 

Yes, Toni's romantic life remains as tangled and hopeless as ever - her heart lost to Peter who's showing no sign of returning from Germany, while she takes solace as she can. And yes, she does her best to avoid abusive ex, vampire Oscar, while trying to help her policeman brother Will with yet another hard-to-crack case by raising the victim in the morgue. But she's also finding out more about her own past, and that of her family; about the parents who turned away from her; about her connection to the vampires.

And some part of that past comes reaching out to her, in the form of a pair of thugs who seem to think she's got something of theirs.

The county coroner is also trying to corner Toni - she has no idea what that's about.

And she's as short of money as ever...

It was, simply, sheer joy to return to this world of modern rural fantasy featuring my favourite down-to-earth heroine, as Alice James creates perhaps the most deadly combination of threats for her yet. Being Toni Windsor always meant living with multiply interlocking mysteries and complications, but I think this third book takes things to a new level as seeds planted in the earlier books begin to spout. There's there's a new richness to the story. It is both more complex and at the same time more focussed than the earlier stories, if that makes sense. 

Also, Toni is gaining in power and confidence, which is great to see, but she is also being matched against trickier and more lethal opponents. If this were a role playing game, I'd say Alice James is the ideal dungeon mistress, and I very much look forward to seeing what new monsters lurk in future instalments (I think I can guess at one of them, quietly growing in plain sight). But more than that, it's how fascinating how Alice and her team are also meshing and working together

So - in Grave Suspicions we have Peril, we have Revelations and of course, we have the ruin of a series of outfits (it's no wonder Toni is always short of money). But there's more still! This book also features a classic locked room mystery, which provided a genuine puzzle and brought the crime aspect of this story rather to the fore. As ever, the writing sparkles, Toni's observations of life, love and rural society always spot on. In short, the book is a bewildering mix, but in a very good way, and I'd strongly recommend it (and its predecessors if you haven't got to them yet). 

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

10 August 2023

#Review - The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri

Cover for book "The Oleander Sword" by Tasha Siri. A young apparently South East Asian woman holds a green curtain - or forest growth? - aside with her left arm while gripping a curved sword in her right. She has red flowers in her hair.
The Oleander Sword (The Burning Kingdoms, 2)
Tasha Suri
Orbit, 18 August 2022 
Available as: PB, 480pp audio, e  
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 978-0356515656

I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for sending me a copy of The Oleander Sword to consider for review. (And apologies that this review is somewhat tardy!)

Picking up the stories of Malini and Priya which began in The Jasmine Throne, The Oleander Sword is that rare thing, a sequel that is not just a continuation but is a compelling book in its own right, taking the story to new places. Yes, we came to love Malini and Priya in the first book and I personally would read anything about them, but even setting that raised, The Oleander sword gives new insights, perspectives and dilemmas.

The situation here is freighted with menace from the beginning. With supernatural aid, Priya's land of Ahiranya has risen against the empire of Parijatdvipa. With supernatural aid, Malini has challenged her deranged brother Chandra for the throne of Parijatdvipa. Malini and Priya remain allies - and would-be lovers - but the political situation is dicey, their nations deeply hostile and any likely outcome bound to put them on opposite sides.

Worse, all is not well either in Ahiranya - where the resurgent deities known as yaksa aren't exactly what their priests and worshippers expected - or in Parijatdvipa, where Chandra works unholy magic against the sister he sees as a usurper, and who he has vowed to burn alive. At the centre of this book is a complex, twisty and roiling mess of politics, religion and warfare that Malini and Priya must master, and quickly, if they are to have any chance of survival. Even further into the centre, if that makes sense, is though a burning, forbidden passion between the two women, one that may destroy both if it discovered. And the dictates of the one pull against the dictates of the other. As Empress - if she is to be Empress - Malini must be cold and haughty, sacrificing anything, anyone in pursuit of victory.



Even Priya.

In turn, Priya's power derives from her truck with erratic, inhuman spirits. Call them gods, call them demons, they have their own agenda, and Priya is theirs to command, obliged to sacrifice anything, anyone in pursuit of victory.



There is so much more here that I can cram into a review. The book simply drips moral compromise, corrupting as the taint called "rot" that has infected both nations. There are agendas inside agendas,  Tasha Suri having transmuted the colonial politics of the first book into something much vaster, a threat that not only casts the attitudes of Parijatdvipa in a new light but which possibly threatens the whole world.

An excellent book, and one that I read both in paperback and listening to the audio. I can strongly recommend the audio experience for this one - Shiromi Arserio's narration bringing life to all, from the couple at the centre of the story to stern generals, slippery priests and otherworldly spirits.

For more information about The Oleander Sword, see the publisher's website here.

8 August 2023

#Review - Expectant by Vanda Symon

Cover for book "Expectant" by Vanda Simon. A blue sea, a blood red beach and a turquoise sky.
Expectant (Sam Shephard, 5)    
Vanda Simon
Orenda Books, 16 February 2023
Available as: PB, 246pp, audio, e  
Source: Purchased/ audio subscription
ISBN(PB): 9781914585579

Detective Sam Shephard's latest adventure treads familiar ground in some respects - she's still suffering under DI Johns - but goes to new places in others - the case we follow here is even more personal than usual. Sam is shortly to give birth, so the murder and mutilation of a pregnant woman in a Dunedin backstreet obviously comes very close to home (and gives DI Johns a new excuse to try and shut her out of the investigation).

Beneath the shocking horror, it's a cleverly constructed mystery, Sam's condition however giving her few natural insights into why somebody would do such a thing. That, and DI Johns' success in keeping her away from the centre of things, leaves time and space to explore how Sam is feeling at this juncture in her life: her partner Paul, and her ever disapproving mother, coming and going through the narrative to give us different perspectives. As readers of this series will be aware, Sam's life is never straightforward and we've seen her change from the carefree young woman of the early books to, well, nearly a mother (but emphatically not one who will be a clone of her own mother - the tension between the two is still palpable, even if here things are a bit more peaceable than before).

But Sam being Sam, she's never going to let herself be kept out of things, is she? It's just a matter of interpreting DI Johns' orders creatively... and of not being afraid to have a stand-up slanging match with him when the time comes (go, Sam!) As ever, Sam places her quest for justice ahead of common sense and self-preservation. And you can guess the outcome of that when Johns finds out about it.

All in all, a satisfying and engaging return to one of my favourite detectives doing what she does best - ie causing trouble. This series shows no sign of flagging and I have high hopes that in the next instalment we'll see Sam coping with new complications as a mother and again firmly keeping Johns in his place. 

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

3 August 2023

#Review - Winter's Gifts by Ben Aaronovitch

Cover for book "Winter's Gifts" by Ben Aaronovitch. A hand drawn map showing a wilderness and lakeshore. Resting on it is an FBI badge.
Winter's Gifts (Rivers of London novella)
Ben Aaronovitch
Gollancz, 8 June 2023 
Available as: HB, 224pp audio, e  
Source: Purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781473224377

Winter's Gifts is a whole story about FBI Special Agent Kimberley Reynolds, who met Peter Grant in Lies Sleeping (he doesn't really appear in Winter's Gifts which is set whole in the USA, although Kimberley does get some remote assistance from him).

Events kick off when a retired agent phones in to warn that something is amiss in a remote town. Agent Reynolds is assigned to the case, but by the time she reaches Eloise, Wisconsin the town is buried in unseasonal amounts of snow - and ex Agent Henderson is missing...

This was a fun addition to the Rivers of London-verse, marking a first, I think, for Aaronovitch as he addresses the legacy of contact between his European-tradition magicians, their art codified by Isaac Newton, and the practices of Indigenous peoples. (A first for the books - I think there was a brief allusion to something similar in one of the comics, but it was a passing mention).

It's a tricky subject to tackle, with obvious scope for getting things wrong (I can think of one very well known author who notoriously did) and I'm, obviously, not able to judge the result but I do think that Aaronovitch treads here with a great deal of respect. he makes it abundantly clear that the clash of traditions is explicitly a colonial one (and one in which the British don't of course have clean hands) and a thing which isn't done and dusted but has serious consequences in the present day.

That said, Aaronovitch also gives us here an exciting, humorous and well-designed adventure for a main character - Kimberley - who is brave, intelligent and resourceful. 

And she needs to be. This story has the usual mystery aspect to it - working out what is going on before one is swallowed up by it is essential - and a slightly otherworldly logic to things so that finding a solution isn't just a matter of action but of negotiation, understanding and compromise. While Kimberley may not be as able as Peter at magic (or actually able at all) she is well endowed with these abilities - as she variously demonstrates in dealing with superiors, sources and prickly local law enforcement.

She's also well up for the struggle for survival which occupies the final third of the book, a struggle against not only the supernatural but also extreme weather. The book has a thrilling conclusion, and I hope to see Kimberley back for further adventures.

All in all an excellent addition to this series.

For more information about Winter's Gifts, see the publisher's website here

1 August 2023

#Review - Dragonfall by LR Lam

Cover for book "Dragonfall" by LR Lam. A dark sky with a yellow moon. Flying vertically down on front of the moon, a red dragon.
LR Lam
Hodderscape, 2 May 2023
Available as: HB, 429pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy and audio subscription
ISBN(HB): 9781399715485

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Dragonfall via Netgalley to consider for review.

Dragonfall is a hard one to sum up, as there is so much going on with this book. Just to name a few things, while it's got a fairly audacious plot in itself it's also establishing a bigger, wider story than just this volume (yes, it's part of a series), it introduces us to Arcady and Everen, two fascinating and deep characters (but to some others as well) and it gives a glimpse of an intricate and convincing world (well, two worlds actually).

Central to all this is I think the Arcady-Everen relationship. 

Arcady is a familiar kind of fantasy chancer - a thief and a con artist living by wits, an enemy of the authorities in the city of Vatra but also of its underworld, and necessarily half a dozen steps ahead of both (or it would be a short book). He also has secrets, including kinship to the Plaguebringer, the most reviled magician of recent times, a relationship for which Arcady would be proscribed and shunned were it known. Arcady is determined to vindicate his grandfather, and will do whatever it takes - theft, dark magic, betrayal - to achieve that. 

Or at least he believes so...

The first step he takes on this road - a forbidden spell worked late one night - sets events in motion.

Everen is a dragon, exiled with his kind to a bleak, dying world and believing that he is born to save his people. Caught up in the backdraft of Arcady's magic, he falls into Vatra in human guise. His relationship with Arcady is based on a magical entanglement that remains mysterious through much of the book. That entanglement is variously a source to both of strength, of weakness, of knowledge, and of great peril. 

The balance between Everen and Arcady, underpinned by equal parts of fascination, dread, longing and hostility, is a kind of barometer of this book, the main event (apart from some episodes of showy magic and a heist that brings Arcady unwillingly back into the fold of his former criminal associates). It's a complex, fascinating affair, one that certainly has romantic overtones but which is also deeply, richly explored in terms of their backgrounds and motivations, of the evolving power difference between then - all of which makes any kind of Happy Ever After rather problematic. Indeed, the relationship has complications that would make Romeo and Juliet seem one dimensional, as both Everen and Arcady have personal and immediate, rather than just familial, reasons for fearing the other. The drive to betrayal, as well as a powerful urge not to, is strong and I was genuinely uncertain how things would turn out.

The relationship between the two is only made more tricky by the fact that others on the periphery of the story may be aware of events and manipulating them: or they may themselves be deceived, manipulated. It's not clear. There's a lot hinted at that doesn't exactly come to fruition here, rather the story closely follows the two central characters as they come to terms with who and what they are (or may be - there are no certainties!) But what is clear is that Arcady and Everen lack complete, or even much, knowledge of what's going on, being, rather, fed scraps by others: and not all these others are actually in plain sight. (I'm being a bit vague here to avoid spoilers).

It all makes for a powerful, involving, even if at times frustrating, novel which shows signs of growing into something rich, strange and fascinating. 

I read this book partly in print and partly by listening to the audio. The audio presented a bit of a problem for me in that the sections as told by Arcady and Everen are read in their entirety by different actors - but as at times each is recounting things the other says and does, there is a fair bit of reported speech in the other's voice. While the actors do try to convey this by varying accents, this does mean that it can be difficult to follow the point of view. I think both actors are brilliant, but things might be clearer if the book had simply used one voice, or matched actor to character. 

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