Wintering by Krissy Kneen
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 13/11/2018

People have been disappearing in the Australian fictional landscape for years. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the disappearance and of a group of girls is seen through the eyes of those left behind, having to deal with the “menace” of the unknowable bush. Wintering starts with a similar premise. Jessica is a PhD student researching glowworms in the far south of Tasmania. She lives with Matthew, a local who, it emerges fairly quickly, completely dominates her life. But then Matthew disappears in mysterious circumstances, his car abandoned by the side of the road, impenetrable forest on either side and a strange video on his phone. With his disappearance, Jessica finds herself both trapped by grief and free at the same time. Krissy Kneen sets the creepy tone of this book early with Jessica’s discovery of a possum corpse impaled on a stalagmite in a tourist cave. After Matthew’s disappearance the creepiness ratchets up as Jessica finds herself isolated in her shack, unable to shake the feeling that she is being watched by something malevolent. Once she starts to establish a connection with the local townsfolk she also learns that she is the thirteenth “widow” whose husband or boyfriend has vanished…

Tree Spirits and Other Strange Tales by Michael Eisele
Fantasy , Review / 09/11/2018

Michael Eisele’s latest book of short stories, as the name suggests, is full of spirits and fae creatures and is rich in mythology. The opening story “Mouse” is one of many stories in this collection where humans interact with otherworldly beings and so sets the tone for most of the book. In this story, a struggling artist finds that his mentor is caring for a small spirit creature that has lived in the town from when the town was still a forest. The artist is inspired to paint a canvas of the spirit creature’s lost world, a painting that opens up much more. In “Tree Spirit”, a wood carver makes a deal with the spirit of a fallen tree to turn her into a boat so they can both see the world. In these, and many of the other tales of deals with the spirit world, the outcome is driven by the mythology that the spirits inhabit and is never quite what the humans might have expected. Many stories follow a similar trajectory of discovery, interaction and twisted resolution but draw on a range of different traditions, including Irish, Germanic and Native American. While many of the stories feel like…

Restoration by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 18/09/2018

Restoration is the third in what Angela Slatter describes as “the first Verity Fassbinder trilogy”. For fans of this series this means that, firstly, some hanging plot elements are likely to be resolved. But secondly, that there are likely to be more Verity Fassbinder books after this one. And that can only be a good thing. This noir-infused, wryly observational urban fantasy series about an investigator/enforcer for the Weyrd community of Brisbane has been a bright spot on the fantasy scene for the last few years. Restoration opens with Verity at a low point. At the end of Corpselight she made a deal with the self-styled ‘Guardian of the Underworld’ for the return of her mother. She had to give up her family and her position and work with Joyce, a kitsune (were-fox) assassin who has an axe to grind, to find a “grail and a tyrant”. But Joyce is only one of a long line of people who are seeking revenge on Verity. At the same time, the police still call on Verity to help them solve a string of strange deaths and there is a coup in the offing in the Weyrd society of Brisbane. While it takes…

The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 17/08/2018

The Empire of Ashes is the final book in Anthony Ryan’s Draconis Memoria trilogy so there may be mild spoilers ahead. The Empire of Ashes delivers more of what series fans would have enjoyed in the previous two volumes – a heady mix of steampunk, quest, and politics in a well realised world threatened by an implacable dragon army. The plot supercharged by the powers given to a select few who can drink the blood of dragons. And most importantly for page turning purposes, Ryan manages to deliver a series of continually cascading cliffhangers. After a very brief introduction which will only make sense to series regulars, Ryan catches back up with his four main characters, all of whom had been left in some form of peril or distress. Adventurer Clay, fresh from a bizarre subterranean adventure but with new information and an ally who could turn the war; kick-arse intelligence agent Lizanne leading a ragtag group of refugees; mutinous captain Hilemore who has put the safety of his world above his commission; and Silas, one of the “spoiled” – humans magically converted to follow and unquestioningly obey the vengeful White Dragon that is gathering an army to take over the…

City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 08/08/2018

Sam Hawke’s assured debut fantasy novel City of Lies starts intriguingly. Jovan, the narrator has been trained from a young age in the family trade of poison taster for the Chancellor of Silasta. He has been exposed to multiple poisons by his uncle as part of his training and has become partially immune to them as he learnt to identify them. He has been trained in the place of his elder sister Kalina whose constitution was too weak to handle the small amounts of poisoning. Despite this they are close and are both also close to Tain, heir to the Chancellorship. Their world is thrown into stunning and sudden disarray when both the Chancellor and their Uncle Ethan are poisoned with something neither Ethan nor Jovan can identify and their city is besieged.  While City of Lies can be read by anyone it definitely has a young adult bent. While not teenagers, the main characters are all young adults, thrust into an adult world, learning quickly how to navigate treacherous political waters while dealing with a series of escalating crises. Their relative youth allows them to question the way things have been done traditionally (particularly as tradition has partially led to current events) and find new ways forward. But it also sometimes makes them easy prey for more experienced political operators.  The narrative of City of Lies alternates between Jovan and…

84K by Claire North
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 25/07/2018

Claire North used the travels of the main character in her last book The End of the Day to highlight global inequities and social issues. Despite its fantastical premise (that character we the harbinger of Death), that book focussed on the present. In 84K, North takes this social commentary into frighteningly plausible dystopian vision of the future.  There is nothing particularly original about the starting point for 84K – concentration of corporate power, collusion between a monolithic Company and the Government, the wealthy coming out on top and a population sleepwalking into servitude in the pursuit of the good life. But North takes this premise further – into a monetised society, where everything, including human life, literally has a value.  Theo Miller works at the Criminal Audit Office, assigning indemnity value to different crimes, If you can pay you get on with your life but if you can’t, you go into government mandated menial work – essentially slave labour or worse. Miller, is much like Charlie from The End of the Day, a grey English bureaucratic exterior hiding a revolutionary soul. And that soul slowly emerges  and he is forced to take action when a face from the past emerges and he is forced to reevaluate his life.  The book jumps between three time periods – Miller’s backstory, his…

Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecott
Fantasy , Review / 23/07/2018

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird was one of the most English and original fantasy novels of 2017. It focussed on the eponymous town hidden away from the rest of England and guardian of a secret door to another dimension called The Lost Acre. Rotherweird was full of Dickensian characters engaged in an ancient struggle but also had Monty Pythonesque flourishes. The epilogue to the action in Rotherweird indicated that more was going on than the protagonists suspected and this second volume is clear that all of the frenetic activity in that book was just “the end of the beginning” and so to Wyntertide. Wyntertide has a similar structure to Rotherweird. Historical vignette’s establish the backstory of a number of long lived characters still either making mischief or trying to prevent it. In the meantime the townsfolk are gearing up for a major event, in this case the mayoral election, which is being manipulated for nefarious purposes. Caldecott ranges across a kaleidoscope of characters as various factions manoeuvre and a centuries old plan fall into place. Rotherweird  anchored its sprawling narrative around an outsider – Josiah Oblong, the new history teacher – who was also the reader’s proxy into this strange world. It…

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A Villareal
Fantasy , Review / 19/06/2018

The last boomtime for vampire stories was about ten years ago. Books series like the True Blood and Twilight which then became movies and tv series ruled the airwaves and cinemas. And plenty of pretenders flowed in their wake. But they were just the longest in a line of vampire tales stretching at least as far back as Bram Stoker and probably further. So it is perhaps no surprise, after a short period of relative dormancy (driven into the shadows by zombie hordes perhaps?) that vampires are back. A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising tells the story of the rise of the vampires (or Gloamings as they prefer to be known) and a small resistance movement against them. The story is delivered in documentary style. Following the discovery of a new virus by the CDC in New Mexico, each chapter is a form of testimony and many are also preceded by snippets from newspapers and magazines. While this gives a feeling of authenticity it also serves to distance the reader from the action. The narrative is almost all telling rather than showing, four hundred pages of exposition, an approach that wears thin after a while. Villareal’s narrative is an…

The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 23/05/2018

Enter another conflicted, sparky girl onto the YA fantasy stage. Joining a recent slew of female fantasy heroes in books likes of The Last Namsara, Children of Blood and Bone and Caraval, Mary Watson brings another spin. Set in a modern day Ireland but referencing an ancient feud, The Wren Hunt is wholly original even when it treads some familiar story beats.  Wren Silke is an augur. Like many a YA protagonist before her she was not raised by her parents. Her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her as a baby. The augurs, one of a cast of magic users, are in an ongoing war with the judges. Wren has been recruited into that war, picked to be the augurs’ spy into the judge stronghold and to steal a map that will help tip the balance in their ongoing war.  But this is not quite the quest novel that it sounds. It reads more like a spy novel where the protagonist is a trainee spy and her handlers are using her to play much larger games.  Wren herself is a likeable, conflicted heroine who has to chart her own course when the world shifts around her and alliances and friendships turn out not to be what they at first seemed. Thrown into the mix, not surprisingly, is a love interest, who happens to also be the…

The Coincidence Makers by Yoav Blum
Fantasy , Review / 05/04/2018

Israeli author Yoav Blum’s debut novel (published in 2011) and first novel to be translated into English is a metaphysical love story. It takes as its premise the forces behind the every day. But it imbeds these forces with a deep humanity. Guy is a coincidence maker. His job is to arrange the world so that certain events take place. He is given missions to produce certain outcomes. He has the ability then to map out exactly how small and large events are going to happen and then nudge the variables to produce results. Missions come as an envelope under his door and he plans all of the interconnecting strands of his mission as a map on the wall of his apartment. Guy’s expertise is in bringing two people together, creating relationships out of a web of seeming coincidence and happenstance. But he is part of a much bigger and deeper organisation and it is possible that these missions are just small parts of a much bigger plan. Guy works with two other new coincidence makers – Emily and Eric. Emily is in love with Guy but cannot make him see her. Guy is still mourning the loss of his…

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 22/03/2018

Children of Blood and Bone is one of the most anticipated YA books of 2018. Movie rights have already been sold and YA blogger sites have been singing its praises. And there is a lot to like here. Tomi Adeyemi has constructed a fast paced, roller-coaster quest-based fantasy book set in a well realised West-African-inspired setting and delivers the kind of thrills and characters that her YA readership craves. Zélie, is a Diviner, part of a subgroup of people in the kingdom of Orisha subjugated and feared for their former ability to use magic. Magic was banished from the world by the moustache-twirlingly evil King Sanara thirteen years before. Those with white hair, who carry the mark of magic users, are reviled and repressed. But an encounter between Zélie and runaway princess Amari changes the equation. Amari has stolen a relic that can respark magic in individuals and, together with Zélie and her brother Tzain, embarks on a quest to unite three sacred artefacts and bring magic back to the world. While Children of Blood and Bone has a unique and fascinating African setting and mythology, the plot and characters owe as much to recent YA-fan favourite series like The…

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

In 2014, Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly known as the Arabic Booker Prize, for Frankenstein in Baghdad. Four years later, the English translation has become available and it reveals a novel worthy of an award. Frankenstein in Baghdad takes Mary Shelley’s familiar horror trope and transplants it to the streets of Baghdad not long after the American invasion and the fall of Saddam in 2003. In doing so, it manages not only to illuminate that period but to create a new, compelling version of a longstanding myth. Unsurprisingly for this era, the book starts with a car bomb: No one saw it coming; it all happened in a fraction of a second. The people who weren’t injured – because they were too far away, or screened by other people’s bodies or behind parked cars, or because they were coming down the side lanes and hadn’t reached the main street when the explosion went off… witnessed the explosion as it engulfed the vehicles and the bodies of the people around them. It cut the electricity and killed birds. Windows were shattered and doors blown in. Cracks appeared in the walls of nearby houses, and…

The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 21/02/2018

Debut author Kristen Ciccarelli credits the inspiration for her fantasy novel The Last Namsara on a bunch of kick-arse female fantasy characters. Mulan, Eowyn, Princess Mononoke and Xena. What set these princesses apart was their ability to wield a sword and Asha, the protagonist of The Last Namsara is no different. When the book opens she is on a dragon-hunting expedition, clad in fireproof hide of dragons she has killed in the past and armed with her handy throwing axe. But this is a modern fairy tale and it turns out that nothing is quite what it seems. In Asha’s world stories have power. In her case, the ability to summon dragons but also to give them power. But stories are also deadly. And Asha has always felt that her ability to tell those stories and survive where her mother died has set her apart as damaged. This feeling is compounded by the scars that she bears from her childhood encounter with the First Dragon, Kozu, and the burns that cover half of her body. Asha is determined to kill Kozu and bring his head to her father the king. But Asha has more trouble than that – she is…

Jade City by Fonda Lee
Fantasy , Review / 06/02/2018

Fantasy novels have traditionally been built on a medieval model. Even where there are no elves or dwarves or orcs, there is always plenty of swords and horses. This goes to Asian-based fantasy also, often based on mythology it will be full of bows and arrows and dragons. Urban fantasy seeks to move away from these tropes and locate fantasy in more of a contemporary frame. There are plenty of great authors working in urban fantasy – writers like Ben Aaronovitch, Neal Gaiman and Angela Slatter. And now, joining them, from a more Asia-centric approach is debut author Fonda Lee.  Jade City is set in a fantasy but recognisable Earth. It centres around the island of Kekon where the indigenous inhabitants are able to harness locally mined jade to give them a range of powers. Use of jade is dangerous and training is required to effectively harness and control the power. The island itself is only a generation after the inhabitants successfully repelled an occupying force through guerrilla action, and still the eyes of the two great powers of the world are on Kekon.  But this is not a story of that global conflict. Jade City focusses on the power struggle between the two top criminal gangs – the No Peak Clan and…

Seventh Decimate by Stephen Donaldson
Fantasy , Review / 17/01/2018

Stephen Donaldson turned the fantasy world on its ear in the 1980s with his groundbreaking series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. That series took the standard fantasy tropes and recast them with an antihero at the centre and richly described and highly original world building. Which is why it comes as a bit of a disappointment in the exposition heavy prologue to his new series that we seem to be back in fairly standard epic fantasy territory. The two kingdoms of Bellenger and Amika have been at war for as long as anyone can remember but the causes of the war are lost in the mists of mythology. Both armies have ground to standstill through their use of sorcerers who can conjure one of six decimates to defeat the opposition. Just as Bellenger gains a tactical advantage through the invention of the gun, all of their sorcerers lose their abilities, it is believed through the use of the little known seventh decimate by their enemies. Bellenger Prince Bifalt is charged with a mission to track down the knowledge of this power and bring it to Bellenger to restore the powers of their sorcerers before the kingdom is overrun. And that…

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 15/01/2018

Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake. It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure…

Top Five Fantasy – 2017
Fantasy , Top Fives / 15/12/2017

Very different fantasy novels make up the top five (plus three honourable mentions) for 2017: Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird was fantasy that was also a little bit Dickens and a little bit Monty Python and centred around a forgotten town with a strange past and stranger residents in the middle of England.             Australian fantasy author Angela Slatter delivered the second installment of her engaging noir-crime meets urban fantasy series starring half-weyrd detective Verity Fassbinder on the mean streets of Brisbane in Corpselight.             Natasha Pulley continued to impress with her second novel – a historical and mystical journey into deepest darkest Peru in The Bedlam Stacks.               Joe Hill’s novella collection Strange Weather was part horror, part fantasy, part science fiction and all class.               And Margo Lanagan’s best-of short story collection Singing My Sister Down reaffirmed why she is one of Australia (and the World’s) best fantasy writers.               Honourable mentions: It Devours by Fink and Cranor – a novel set in the world of Night Vale Red Sister by Mark Lawrence…

The Core by Peter V Brett
Fantasy , Review / 06/12/2017

Back in 2008, Peter Brett released The Painted Man (also known as The Warded Man in some countries), the first of his Demon Cycle series. Brett’s world was intriguing and unique. In it, demons of different forms and with differing powers would rise at night to attack mankind who were able to repel the attacks using symbols known as wards. Over the course of the series, the use of wards has become more sophisticated and the demons have become smarter, upping the stakes of each battle leading to this final volume and the ultimate war between man and demon. But each volume also became longer and less focussed, spinning out with backstory and new point of view characters.  Like the last couple of instalments of this series, The Core needed a serious edit. Brett is unable to let any character or locale go. Dedicated fans of this series may appreciate the amount of detail and the sheer number of characters that Brett catches up with. But this means it takes over 450 pages before the main characters start on their ultimate quest to end the demon war. And even then there are 400 pages left. Most of these side stories and characters have little relevance to this main plot and most are eventually abandoned as the focus returns. That said, once the action starts it does not let up, as humans previously at each other throats join forces against the demons…

It Devours by Fink and Cranor
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 30/11/2017

Fans of the long running Welcome to Night Vale podcast will have been eagerly waiting the new novel from its creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. While the first Welcome to Night Vale novelisation felt like an extension of and introduction to the world of the podcast, It Devours is an experiment in something a little different. Nilanjana is a scientist who came to Night Vale four years earlier but is still considered an outsider. She meets Darryl, a proselytiser for the Church of the Smiling God, a bizarre newish religion which gave him a sense of community when his parents died. But as is always the case in Night Vale, something is not quite right. Pretty soon the town is facing an existential threat and the two come together to try and save Night Vale. While no prior knowledge of Night Vale is required, it certainly helps, and those in the know will get much more out the book. The narrative is partially based on a long running storyline, visits some well known Night Vale locales and features plenty of regular characters from the podcast. To enjoy the ride, those unfamiliar with the bizarre little town of Night Vale…

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 27/11/2017

With many short story collections, it is often instructive to read the author’s comments before diving in. At the front of Neal Gaiman’s recent collection Trigger Warning there was a general overview and then some insight into the genesis of each story in the collection. Joe Hill references Gaiman in his afterward where he talks about the idea behind this collection. And that reason is that after producing a couple of massive tomes (including 2016’s post-apocalyptic doorstop The Fireman) he wanted to get back to writing that was “lean and mean”. As he says, short novels are “all killer no filler”, and goes on to list some of his favourite authors at this length including Gaiman, David Mitchell and even HG Wells.  In Strange Weather, Hill has delivered four novellas which, if nothing else, serve as a great advertisement for his range. The four stories traverse a range of ideas and character and each is, in its own very different way, a killer.  The first story, Snapshot, starts out feeling very genre. Set mainly in 1988 it features A thirteen-year-old nerdy narrator (although the knowing narration itself comes from when he is an adult), a mysterious dark force that threatens him and people he loves. Possibly a bit of a Stranger Things vibe to it, which is not a bad thing. Hill effectively uses his horror tropes to…