Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn
Fantasy , Review / 15/09/2016

Lord of the Darkwood is the conclusion to the mythological prequel series of Lian Hearn’s bestselling Otori books. As with the previous volume Emperor of the Eight Islands (reviewed here), Lord of the Darkwood is actually a compilation of two shorter books the first called Lord of the Darkwood and the second and final volume called The Tengu’s Game of Go. This again is to the benefit of the overall tale as the first volume of the two is practically all set up for the concluding part. In fact the titular character, Shikanoko, hardly makes an appearance in the first volume and then only in the distance of another character’s point of view chapter. Actually, as the plot progresses it appears that the second title is probably more apt for the whole series. Much like the gods in Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, the story seems to boil down to a game played by superior beings. Some characters actually get a glimpse of the Tengu, or spirits, playing a game of Go with their lives on the board. So that what seems to them like free will often turns out to be either direct manipulation by forces well beyond their…

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Hot on the heels of Colson Whitehead’s magical realist version on slavery in the antebellum south The Underground Railroad (reviewed here) comes Ben Winter’s alternate history exploring similar issues. Ben Winter’s version of the present is one in which Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the civil war and in the aftermath of that event a compromise was reached in which the Southern states were allowed to maintain slavery. Modern day America still has four slave states (the Hard Four) and has spent the twentieth century as an economic pariah, suffering trade embargoes from Europe but finding alternative markets for its goods in Africa and Asia. The Underground Airlines of the title describes the system in place to help escaped slaves, known in the vernacular as People Under Bond or Peebs, reach the safety of Canada. They are unable to stay even in the free states of the US because of laws which allow Federal Marshalls to recapture and return them. The book opens on Victor, a former slave who managed to escape to the North only to be blackmailed and trained into working for the Marshalls to track down other escaped slaves. But all is not what it seems with…

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 08/09/2016

In a time in which postapocalyptic fiction constantly trying to outdo itself in disaster, Lily Brooks-Dalton has produced what might be the quietest, gentlest most heartfelt view of the end of the world to date. The apocalypse in Good Morning, Midnight happens offstage, the view of it is from an extreme distance from which nothing is known other than there is no longer any telecommunications and, later, that all of the world’s lights are off. All that the reader knows of the event is that it has left some people stranded – in particular Augustine, an aging astronomer at a remote Arctic observatory, and Sully, a communications specialist, part of a team of explorers returning home from an exploratory trip to Jupiter. Good Morning, Midnight revolves around the lives of these two characters and those around them. They are different tales of survival and loss, Augustine chooses to remain at a remote arctic outpost when it is hurriedly evacuated and has an eight-year-old girl, accidentally left behind, for company. Food and warmth are not an issue but eventually the need to communicate with the outside world is and Gus decides that has to find a way to navigate them across…

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

With Black Lives Matter in the news in the US it is perhaps no surprise that fiction and non-fiction explorations of slavery are once again coming to the fore. Fiction which focuses on slavery, while important to an understanding of historical context, also casts a light on current events. Recent films like 12 Years a Slave, the remaking of Roots on TV and now, among a number of new books which take slavery as their focus, comes Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad begins with the origins of the slave trade. The story of Cora’s grandmother who was transported to America and passed through a number of hands before arriving at a cotton plantation in Georgia from which she never left.  But the focus of the novel is on Cora, forced to find her own way after her mother escaped from the plantation, when she was eleven, leaving her behind. Cora, encouraged by a fellow slave, also decides to flee despite the severe and violent consequences of failure. When she does, Cora discovers the underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves North. In Whitehead’s world this is no metaphorical device but an actual railroad dug into the earth by unknown hands, run by white station agents committed…

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne
Fantasy , Review / 02/09/2016

Probably nothing that is written in this review will affect the juggernaut of what is essentially the eighth Harry Potter book. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the rehearsal script of the new two-part play set nineteen years after the events in the Deathly Hallows, returns readers to familiar locales, spells and situations but with a new generation of teenagers at the helm. The centre of The Cursed Child is two confused, fairly typical teens. Albus Severus Potter, middle child of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, is failing to deal with family fame and has been sorted into (gasp!) Slytherin. While his new best friend Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry’s schoolyard nemesis Draco, is subject to a painful whispering campaign about his parentage. But plenty of loved characters also feature either in main parts of the plot or dream sequences. For long-time fans of the books this is an opportunity to revisit characters like Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Draco in their middle age and see how their exploits both define and restrict them. At the centre of the action of The Cursed Child is a tricky narrative device – the timeturner. Rowling used this device to great effect in…

The Medusa Chronicles by Baxter and Reynolds
Review , Science Fiction / 31/08/2016

Then last novella written by Arthur C Clarke, one of the greatest writers of the classic science fiction age, ended with almost an open invitation. Its protagonist, Howard Falcon, half man, half machine was to be an ambassador between humanity and a machine culture, which was not the focus of that story, “in the troubled centuries that lay ahead”. Two of the biggest names in the British sci-fi scene have taken up the challenge of chronicling those troubled centuries. Baxter, off the back of his Long Earth series written jointly with the late Sir Terry Pratchett, and Reynolds revisiting some of the themes from his recent space opera trilogy – Poseidon’s Children. The first thing to say about The Medusa Chronicles is that, without being slavish, Baxter and Reynolds have tried to capture the feel of 1960s science fiction. Although it dips heavily into some ideas from modern physics, the book has a ’60s feel. This is both to their credit and, ultimately to the book’s detriment. The whole narrative exists in an altered imagined future in which a joint space effort in the late ’60s to avoid global disaster kickstarted a much more vigorous space exploration program, landing a…

Heart of Granite by James Barclay
Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2016

Military sci-fi goes reptilian in James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. But this is not humans versus reptiles as you might think. This is humans using genetically modified reptiles as weapons and transport in a three–way world war over resources. Once the world building is laid out, Heart of Granite settles down into a military mode complete with chains of command, a protagonist with a healthy disrespect for authority and political machinations. After the discovery of alien DNA, mankind used the new technology to bioengineer new weapons of war. A suite of reptilian creatures controlled by humans plugged straight into their brains. Just to set the scene, the Heart of Granite of the title is a kilometer long, thirty legged walking Behemoth, the land version of an aircraft carrier with room for over 1000 crew and equipment inside its genetically engineered body. On board are squadrons of drake pilots, flyboys who plug straight into their dragon-like rides, and ground forces who pilot ‘vehicles’ like the speedy basilisks and slower but more powerful geckos. The plot centres around one drake wing on a single behemoth on the North African front of what is a global war. Max Halloran, a typical cocky flyboy,…

A Toaster on Mars by Darrell Pitt

As the introduction makes clear, A Toaster on Mars in not, actually, about a toaster or any other kitchen appliances. And the plot only meanders to Mars for its finale. The toaster in question is actually a cyborg character called Nicki Steel, wearing the epithet for robots made popular by the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. Set in the 26th century, A Toaster on Mars is a science-fiction comedy romp for kids. The paper thin plot involves detective Blake Carter and his new partner Steel going up against the universe’s worst bad guy named, unsurprisingly, Bartholomew Badde. Badde, Carter’s long-time nemesis, has kidnapped Carter’s daughter and blackmails him into steeling some high tech equipment. The rest is a series of capers, battles and chases across Neo City, built on the ruins of the US east coast, with brief pauses for additional comedic interludes. Pitt is clearly a Douglas Adams fan. The opening monologue by editor Zeeb Blatsnart (even the name feels Adams-inspired) and many of Blatsnart’s italicised asides during the plot are essentially Adams-light, and many are reworkings of Adams’ ideas. Similarly, many of the plot devices – a killer-mutant cheese sandwich, a pocket universe full of Elvises, snarky artificially-intelligent appliances…

Surrender New York by Caleb Carr
Crime , Review / 19/08/2016

Caleb Carr is probably best known for his historical crime fiction debut The Alienist. That book, and its sequel, Angel of Darkness, set around turn of the century New York City and, later upstate New York, explored the early days of criminal psychology. They had an old fashioned feel which, given their setting, was entirely appropriate and brought the period and locations to life. Carr’s latest book, Surrender, New York is contemporary, also set in upstate New York and ties back loosely to these earlier works through the investigative legacy of their main character, Dr Kreizler. Dr Trajan “LT” Jones is a criminal psychologist. Run out of New York City after showing up the local investigators, Trajan and his colleague Michael Li have set up in Shiloh, his old family estate outside of the little town of Surrender, in upstate New York. Jones and Li now lecture online to students across the country. They are called in to consult by the local sheriff when a teenage girl is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and soon find themselves, again, falling foul of the State investigators who want to see their case wrapped up quickly. Jones and Li, following in the steps…

Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Review , Science Fiction / 17/08/2016

Maybe there is something in the water but the idea of decommissioned oil rigs as places for residence seems to be popping up a bit in science fiction lately (see also Jon Wallace’s Rig, reviewed here). In Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, the rig is off the coast of Canada and is the centre of a sprawling ocean-based town of five towers called New Arcadia. When the book opens, New Arcadia is being taken over by the Lynch Corporation following a disaster which destroyed much of the rig’s production capacity. Go-Jeung Hwa is an outsider. Unlike pretty much everyone else on New Arcadia she has no technological modifications. This makes her both different and very valuable. Hwa acts as a body guard for the local sex workers who engage in a very well managed business. But she catches the eye of Zacharia Lynch, the ageing head of the Lynch Corporation, who wants her to be bodyguard for his teenage son and heir Joel who will be attending the local school. In what is a serious sci-fi twist early on, it turns out that Joel is threatened by time-travelling forces from a Singularity future, that is a future controlled by an Artificial…

Devour by LA Larkin
Review , Thriller / 15/08/2016

L.A. Larkin’s third thriller takes readers back to Antarctica, the setting of her last novel Thirst, but with a new cast of characters and a new global threat. But Devour doesn’t get to Antarctica straight away. Larkin opens in Afghanistan where investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe is tracking down information about a terrorist cell. So while there is a lengthy detour to Antarctica to set up the action this is a globe-trotting thriller that also manages to take in both the United Kingdom and United States. Wolfe is sent to Antarctica by her editor after a disastrous mission in Afghanistan to both give her some distance (literally) and to explore some strange goings on at a British research base. The researchers are using some new technology to drill down to a previously untouched lake that lies under three kilometers of ice. The British mission is also a race against time as a group of Russian researchers are trying to achieve the same objective. But a series of accidents, including the death of one of the team, has given rise to suspicions of a traitor in their midst. Under the guise of a journalistic piece Olivia flies in to investigate. But there…

Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Fantasy , Review / 12/08/2016

Dan Vyleta’s new high concept fantasy novel was inspired by a quote from Charles Dickens that ponders how much worse London’s pollution would be if “moral pestilence” were visible “how terrible the revelation”. In Vyleta’s nineteenth century, Dickensian alternate England, this is exactly what happens. People smoke when they sin or let their passions get away from them, with the soot that is left behind a visible reminder of that sin. Breathing in someone else’s smoke can also cause a loss of control. Smoke opens strongly with a focus on two teenage boys at an upper class boarding school. The Oxford school is where the well-to-do send their children to be trained in how to control the smoke. Clothes are checked for traces of soot and punishments handed out for those who lose control. In Vyleta’s world, despite changes to people’s physiology, their psychology is not changed and a strict class system is in force. The action in Smoke heats up when Thomas and Charlie stumble on to a realisation that all is not as they have been led to believe by their elders. Harry Potter style, the two are hunted and go on the run with a teenage girl,…

Never Never by Patterson and Fox
Crime , Review , Thriller / 10/08/2016

James Patterson best known to adults as the author of the Alex Cross series and to young adults as the author of the Maximum Ride series. But much like Tom Clancy, Patterson has become more than just an author, he is an industry. The back of Never Never lists over eighty novels for which he is co-author. Candice Fox, on the other hand, has written three crime novels in the Archer and Bennett series. But they are three of the best Australian crime novels of recent years, the first two of which took out Ned Kelly Awards for best first novel (Hades – reviewed here) and best novel (Eden – reviewed here) back to back. So what happens when the two get together to write a crime thriller? Well, the answer is the Australian-set Never Never. Never Never opens with a point-of-view character known as the Soldier, killing someone out in the desert at night as part of some sort of sadistic military-style game. Switch to Sydney and Detective Harriet “Harry” Blue is being shunted off to Western Australia to avoid the fallout of her brother being picked up as a suspected serial killer. The next minute Harry is working…

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi
Crime , Review / 08/08/2016

Michel Bussi has won plenty of crime fiction awards in his native France but his first book to be translated into English only hit the shelves last year. After the Crash (reviewed here) was a twisted, surprised filled eighteen year investigation into the identity of the survivor of an air crash. Following the success of that novel in translation, another of Bussi’s crime thrillers, Black Water Lilies, originally published in 2011, has hit the stands. While it shares some of the twisty-turniness of After the Crash, Black Water Lilies is very different and confirms why Bussi might have won all of those awards. Black Water Lilies does not initially feel like a crime novel, with an opening that is more like a fairy tale or some form of mythology. The prologue introduces three female characters. Much like the various aspects of Fate there is the optimistic young girl, the resigned beautiful woman and the all-seeing wise crone. Each is represented as a different personality and each seem to be in their own way, doomed. The action of the novel is very much tied around the actions of these three characters – the young girl with artistic promise surrounded by equally…

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 02/08/2016

LA, 1965, a beautiful female movie star walks into a seedy detective’s office and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Only the detective is a robot. One of the greatest exponents of pulp genre noir detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, reputedly turned his nose up at one of the other popular pulp genres of the time – science fiction. The two trod very different paths – one on the seedy side of reality with hard drinking, smoking, wise talking gumshoes and the other full of chrome flying saucers, ray guns and bug eyed aliens. But even at the time there was a little crossover, Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel and its sequels featured a robot detective, although one constrained from violence by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Made to Kill, a perfect mash-up of noir detective fiction and raygun gothic scifi, came out of a question to New Zealand author Adam Christopher about a novel he would like to find. Knowing of Chandler’s dislike of science-fiction, he imagined a science fiction book written by Chandler. But not content with imagining this chimera, he went out and wrote it, first as the short story “Brisk Money” (which can be found here) and…

Bloodline by Claudia Gray
Review , Science Fiction / 29/07/2016

Not long after the first Star Wars film was released, novelists started expanding the Star Wars universe. So that activities in the years following Return of the Jedi, also known as episode six, were very well documented and well understood by hard core fans. When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise it picked up some of the existing threads but essentially negated the existing thirty years of literary universe-building. So that fun as the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, was there was plenty of background detail that made little sense. In particular the relationship between the evil First Order, the New Republic and the Resistance. Or, to be more blunt, if there was a Republic, who were the Resistance resisting and why? But authors are starting to be brought in the fill in the blanks. Earlier this year saw the release of the first in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath series, set just following the events in Return of the Jedi (and reviewed here). And now we have Claudia Gray, who, within the confines of a future already partly mapped out, has tried to fill in some more of the gaps with Bloodline. Bloodline is set about twenty years after…

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Literature , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 27/07/2016

Noah Hawley has written a number of novels but is probably best known as the writer of the television reimagining of Fargo. While Fargo lives in the American mid-west, in Before the Fall, Hawley is mainly concentrated on the East Coast, the lives of the mega-wealthy and the people with whom they come into contact. But Before the Fall is many things – a mystery and a thriller, a meditation on fate and a critique of modern media. Before the Fall opens with a plane crash. David Bateman, head of a FOX-like 24-hour news and opinion network is flying his family home from a holiday in Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet. Also on board are his personal security guard, another wealthy couple and a struggling artist, Scott Burroughs, who has been offered a lift to New York by David’s wife Maggie. Eighteen minutes later and only Scott and the Bateman’s four year old son JJ are alive, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. The thriller element comes as Hawley explores the aftermath of the crash. Scott, who manages to rescue both himself and JJ, is caught up in a media and legal storm as people search for answers. And when those…

Rig by Jon Wallace
Review , Science Fiction / 25/07/2016

Jon Wallace returns to his dark post-robopocalyptic world for a third and possibly final time in Rig. This volume takes readers off England’s blighted shores and into the wider world, starting off the coast of a post-nuclear Florida. Once again, Kenstibec, the Ficial (android) who, since losing his nanotech has become increasingly Real (human) is at the centre of a narrative that jumps between his current dire circumstances to his earliest days just off the Ficial production line. Rig is immediately different to its two predecessors, Barricade (reviewed here) and Steeple (reviewed here). The earlier novels were based broadly around a quest. Barricade was an unnerving road trip across a blasted Britain, while Steeple had Kensitbec on a mission, although one in which he had motives of his own. Rig is less straight forward and, as a result, it takes a little longer for the plot to kick in. But there is plenty to catch up on in the meantime, including characters from both the first and second books who have ended up on the strange Ficial-made, lotus-like floating crèche that Kenstibec has also found himself living on when the book opens. In Barricade, Wallace made readers care about Kenstibec…

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 21/07/2016

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North has put yet another spin on themes and ideas that she explored in her previous two novels The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch (reviewed here) . Identity, belonging, individuality, love and choice. Again, the main character is affected by a high fantasy concept that puts her at odds with the world. In this case, Hope Arden is forgotten by everyone she meets almost as soon as she leaves them. Hope is a more tragic figure than North’s previous protagonists. She has been living on her own and by her wits since she was sixteen and her family forgot her. Unable to make a lasting connection with anyone, existing the eternal now, filling the empty space in her life with knowledge with which she peppers her narrative. In both previous novels there were societies of entities with similar powers, but even when Hope does meet another of her “kind” they keep forgetting each other and eventually drift apart. The Sudden Appearance of Hope does not work as well as North’s previous two novels. Many of the themes, revolve around an insidious app called Perfection that encourages people to give up their…

Vigil by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2016

Angela Slatter, who has won a number of international awards for her short fiction, goes to Brisbane, or Brisneyland as she prefers to style it, for her first full length novel. Vigil is an urban fantasy which sees the streets of Australia’s third largest city shared between the Normals and the supernatural Weyrd. As is often the case, only a select few Normals are aware of this sharing arrangement. The Weyrd community keeps very much to itself and has put limits on the excesses of its members, which previously included preying on the Normal population. Enter Verity Fassbinder, half-human, half Weyrd able to walk in both worlds, with super-strength from her Weyrd side. Verity works as a freelance investigator, partly in penance for the sins of her Weyrd father Grigor, a kinderfresser, who killed normal children for the highborn Weyrd. Verity is tasked by the Weyrd Council to investigate when children once again start going missing. Soon her troubles mount, with dying sirens (the avian kind), a monster roaming the streets, rampant angels and the search for the missing son of a millionaire. While in genre terms this is strictly fantasy, Vigil plays out strongly along crime fiction lines with…