A Shattered Empire by Mitchell Hogan
Fantasy , Review / 04/11/2016

After a brief prologue, A Shattered Empire, the final volume of Mitchell Hogan’s Sorcery Ascendant Sequence picks up minutes after the last volume ended. Things are looking dire for the Mahruse Empire, and possibly the world as a whole. An evil sorcerer leading a massive army has taken over the city of Anasoma, bloodthirsty creatures of legend are still on the march, a sorcerous weapon has knocked the Emperor’s forces into disarray, and a strange band of mercenaries have offered him their support. While various factions vie for power or cover their backsides, a bunch of disparate heroes, all with their own agendas, still have their eyes on the main game. Again the focus is on Caladan with occasional side trips to other (more interesting) POV characters. Caladan, the callow youth with strange powers of A Crucible of Souls (reviewed here), discoverer of dark secrets about his powers in Blood of Innocents (reviewed here) is now a powerful sorcerer in his own right. Caladan becomes through this book an agent of bloody vengeance, his trust and empathy stripped away as his powers grow. Fans of classic epic fantasy, and this series in particular, will enjoy the well-paced and lovingly described magical…

The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 03/11/2016

There are many who credit Game of Thrones with the resurgence of the dragon in modern fantasy. But let’s face facts, dragons never really went away. A global fantasy staple from ancient times, (dragons are all over both Eastern and Western mythologies) they have also been the mainstay of some classic modern fantasy classics other than GoT including The Hobbit, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series to name a couple. Despite this venerable history and plenty of pretenders, Anthony Ryan has managed to bring something new to the table with his swashbuckling, vaguely steampunk and hugely entertaining The Waking Fire. Ryan’s world is divided into the Blood-blessed and the non-Blessed. There are few Blessed but they are able to channel power in the blood of the dragons which live only on the remote continent of Arradsia. The blood of different dragons – blue, red, green and black – confers different temporary superhuman powers on the user. But captive breeding and over-hunting has seen the power of dragon blood diminishing. Meanwhile war is brewing between the Corvantine Empire and the rest of the capitalist-driven world ruled by individual corporations. Through these rising tensions Ryan focusses on three characters – Lizzane, spy for the…

Signal Loss by Garry Disher
Crime , Review / 01/11/2016

Garry Disher returns from spending time with criminal Wyatt on the Gold Coast and out on Bitterwash Road to the Peninsula region east of Melbourne for his latest book. Up to its seventh volume, the previously titled Challis and Destry series have now been renamed “Peninsula Crimes”. While Both Hal Challis and Ellen Destry are both still very much main characters in this outing, Disher’s focus in this series of procedurals has always been much broader than the leads, ranging across a number of members of the Peninsula police force and the local community. In Signal Loss, Disher tackles a major current issue – ice production and addiction, particularly in rural Australia. As with other books in this series there are plenty of other crimes to go round – sexual assault, theft, murder. But the to make sense of the various aspects of those crimes as they emerge and in particular as they become confused with in other investigations. Once again both the procedural and social/character elements of Disher’s writing are strong. Destry has her challenges managing a new sex crimes unit and dealing with her sister’s new crises. While Challis finds himself butting up against the drugs squad and…

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Crime , Review / 28/10/2016

In his latest book Anthony Horowitz tries have several cakes and eat them all. The fictional work Magpie Murders is an Agatha Christie-style golden age detective novel that is embedded in a novel that is itself a bit of a homage to golden age detective novels. And while being two murder mysteries in one, it is also both a critique and a celebration of the public’s love of cosy English-style murder mysteries. All of which is no surprise coming as it does from the pen of the author who brought us on TV the likes of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot and recently in novel form loving reconstructions of Conan Doyle (House of Silk and Moriarty) and Ian Fleming (Trigger Mortis – reviewed here). Novelist Alan Conway has delivered his ninth Atticus Pünd novel to his publisher. As we learn in the cute frontpieces to the novel in the novel, Pünd is a famous literary detective in the mould of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. We get an introduction from Susan Ryeland, the editor of Magpie Murders, before the first six parts of the novel, a murder mystery set in the quaint English village of Saxby-on-Avon….

Conclave by Robert Harris
Review , Thriller / 26/10/2016

Robert Harris seems to be on a mission to prove that you can find drama anywhere. Or at least, to demonstrate his ability to bring inherently dramatic situations more vividly to life. One of his early works, Enigma, injected additional drama into the already fraught industry of breaking of Nazi codes during World War 2. In his trilogy focussing on Cicero he drew out the political parallels of ancient Rome and the present day. And in An Officer and a Spy (reviewed here) he created a spy novel and legal thriller around one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the 19th Century. In Conclave, Harris turns his attention to the arcane practices surrounding the election of a new pope. And in his hands it turns out to be both as fascinating and as deeply human as all of his previous books. The reader’s guide through Conclave is Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals. It falls on Lomeli to organise and run the election of the new Pope when the previous Pope dies. This involves gathering over one hundred cardinals from around the world and sequestering them in the Vatican, away from the eyes of the world, until they…

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is probably best known for multi-book space operas including the Revelation Space series and more recently, Poseidon’s Children. While these books can sometimes be a little ponderous, Revenger is anything but – it has a plucky heroine, space battles, cliffhangers, double crosses, buried treasure and an implacable, violent and possibly mythic foe. Revenger is pre-steampunk far-future retro pirate-homage – from the space craft that fly under sail to the antiquarian speech (people are “coves”, eyes are “lamps”) to the clothes. And while the concept of space pirates is not a new one, the setting is the type of deep, fascinating and ancient-feeling piece of universe building that sets Reynolds’ novels apart. In this universe, the human (aka “monkey”) civilization is spread across a myriad of artificial habitats, in a single solar system that has survived numerous rises and falls. This includes previous and continuing interactions with aliens given common names like Ghosties, Crawlers and Clackers. Sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, seeking to rebuild the family fortune, sign on with Captain Rackamore (shades of Calico Jack Rackham, a real pirate famous, among other things, for inventing the Jolly Roger) who with his crew, hunts for ancient treasures. But when…

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Literature , Recommended , Review / 20/10/2016

After spending time in the Amazon in the magnificent State of Wonder, Ann Patchett comes home in her latest novel, Commonwealth. The book at first feels like an example of the old Tolstoyan cliché that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Not that the families in Commonwealth are unhappy, per se, but they are complex. And while at first blush their members seem to fall into identifiable types, nothing is that simple. Commonwealth opens at a christening in 1964. Policeman Fix Keating is celebrating the birth of his second daughter Frannie, little knowing that this party will bring with it a seismic upheaval not only to his life but the lives of two families. Attending almost by accident while trying to escape his own wife and children, Bert Cousins catches sight of Fix’s wife Beverly and the rest is history. In a sometimes circular fashion, Patchett traces the lives of the six Cousins and Keating children who ended up spending summers together in Virginia as they grew up until a tragedy throws them all apart. Patchett’s strength in this book is charting the growth of these characters. All of their life choices and decisions are informed by character and circumstance…

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
Literature , Review / 18/10/2016

Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists but only a few of her works have been translated into English. She is known for “offbeat” fiction and in some ways her latest novel, set in a small ‘thrift shop’ in Tokyo, fits that bill. But it is also beautifully observed and the characters, while odd, feel real. Mr Nakano, the ageing shop owner surrounds himself with what can only be described as bric-a-brac – old ashtrays, bowls, paperweights – and has a growing on-line auction businesses. The Nakano Thrift Shop has a strong ongoing narrative (although one that takes a while to get going) but is told as a series of tales, often based around an item in the shop or one of the odd range of customers who frequent the store. The narrator of these tales is Hitomi, a young woman who works in the shop and finds herself becoming besotted by her fellow worker Takeo. Takeo is a taciturn character and the two develop a fairly chaste on again off again relationship. In the meantime, Mr Nakano is having one, and possibly more, affairs and his sister Masayo, who also spends time in the shop and provides…

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review , Thriller / 14/10/2016

Under the Harrow is a short sharp psychological thriller in which a woman investigates the murder of her sister and in doing so needs to confront the secrets of their shared past. The book practically opens with Nora finding the bodies of her sister Rachel and her dog brutally murdered in their house in a small village outside of Oxford. Not able to fully trust the police, Nora decides to stay in town and try and uncover the murderer herself. There are secrets in the sisters’ shared past. Rachel was beaten by a stranger on her way home from a party when they were in their teens. When no assailant was found the two girls kept watch over all similar assaults and haunted the courts of North Yorkshire, trying to identify the assailant. Despite Nora warning her off, it seems that many years later Rachel was not only still looking but also living in fear that the man will return. Nora at first comes across as one of the many cut-out domestic thriller protagonists currently appearing across crime fiction. She has issues with alcohol and finds herself losing her identity as she immerses herself in her sister’s world. But she…

Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 11/10/2016

Life Debt, the second book in Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars sequel/prequel trilogy reintroduces some much loved characters from the Star Wars Universe. The Aftermath series is set not long after the events of Return of the Jedi but Wendig liberally sprinkles it with Easter eggs and foreshadowing of The Force Awakens. Being part of the new official Star Wars canon, Wendig also throws in connections to other official books, comics and TV series. Life Debt, like Aftermath (reviewed here) before it, focusses on Norra Wexley, ex Y-Wing pilot. Norra and her bunch of misfits go round the galaxy capturing former imperial officers so they can stand trial. The team, includes an ex-imperial officer, a bounty hunter, a soldier and Norra’s son Temmin “Snap” Wexley (who, as Star Wars aficionados know, grows up to be Poe Dameron’s wingman in The Force Awakens). The group formed in the previous book but were not particularly memorable and so it takes a while to reacquaint with them. To do this, Wendig throws in an opening action sequence that serves to highlight the strengths of this series. While the characters grow through this book, they still feel like “types” when the final credits roll. The plot itself…

Slaughter Park by Barry Maitland
Crime , Recommended , Review / 07/10/2016

The first book in the Harry Belltree series Crucifixion Creek (reviewed here) signalled a change of pace and setting for Australian crime writer Barry Maitland. He forsook his long running very British Brock and Kolla procedurals for the faster paced, more morally ambiguous Belltree. At the same time replacing the more staid and cool streets of the UK with the brashness and bright sunshine of Sydney. It was a brave move and it paid off. Crucifixion Creek was a great piece of Australian crime fiction, involving shonky developers and bikie gangs in Western Sydney it garnered a nomination for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction in 2015. But there was always a deeper story at play connected to the death of Belltree’s famous father, a member of the stolen generation and the first Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court. The second book of the series, Ash Island (reviewed here), also made the Neds short list in 2016. Ash Island broadened out the conspiracies only glimpsed in the first book and provided more clues to the mysteries surrounding the death of the Belltrees senior. But the story suffered a little from middle book syndrome, raising more…

Dead in the Water by Tania Chandler
Crime , Review / 04/10/2016

Tania Chandler’s debut Please Don’t Leave Me Here, did not feel like the start of a series. That story (reviewed here) explored the life of Brigette, married to Sam, the policeman who many years before investigated the death of a music promoter that she had been having a relationship with. While it had crime stylings, Please Don’t Leave Me Here was more of a character study of Brigette as she tried not descend back into drug abuse, with second half of the novel focussing on the shady past that she was trying to leave behind. So it was surprising, but not unwelcome, to find Brigette as the centre of Chandler’s second novel Dead in the Water. A quick search of the Internet reveals that Dead in the Water is a very popular name for some decidedly B-grade crime fiction. But this aspect of the novel turns out to be a bit of a meta-commentary on crime fiction. Dead in the Water is also the title of a crime novel within this novel, in which a hard-bitten, hard drinking detective has to investigate the murder of his wife. The novel in the novel is the fourth of a series of procedurals…

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

Sam Carmody’s debut novel, The Windy Season, runner up for last year’s Vogel award, takes readers deep into what has become Tim Winton territory. A dangerous coming of age story set on the wild Western Australian coast, The Windy Season plumbs the depths (literally at times) of the regional Australian experience. Seventeen year-old Paul’s brother Eliot has gone missing. Paul, is unsure how to react but wants to find Eliot and, not knowing what else to do, packs up and follows in his brother’s footsteps. Eliot had been working on his uncle’s crayfish trawler operating out the West Australian coastal town of Stark so Paul follows. At the same time as following Paul’s life, Carmody charts the journey of a group of bikies across the country. Led by The President and narrated by a character called Swiss (after the army knife), the group flee from a bust in Sydney, heading west across the desert to exact some form of unspecified revenge. Besides Paul, Carmody gives some insight into the lives of the people who drift in and out of towns like Stark. The people who work on the trawlers, those running from some aspect of their lives, and the tourists…

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

The Summer That Melted Everything is a novel that defies characterisation. Part coming of age story, part American gothic, part social commentary. And it manages to be all of these things at once while plumbing the depths of the worst of humanity with poetic prose. It is 1984, a year of wonders, and Autopsy Bliss, long time prosecuting attorney in the town of Breathed, Ohio, puts an ad in the newspaper inviting the devil to come to the town. And the devil appears, possibly, in the form of a lost thirteen-year-old African American boy who instantly befriends Autopsy’s youngest son Fielding. Whether Sal, as he calls himself based on the S from Satan and L from Lucifer, is actually the devil remains ambiguous through the book. Certainly he seems to know things that he should not know and his presence seems too impact on the weather of the town which becomes unbearably hot. But in many ways, Sal is just a thirteen-year-old boy. The story of that summer is narrated by Fielding from a remove of seventy years. An ageing Fielding lives in an Arizona trailer park in a very sparsely described mid-twenty first century. But the affect of those…

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 27/09/2016

Heidi Heilig’s The Girl From Everywhere is a heady mix of time travel, fantasy, romance and historical fiction for young adults. Nix Song, a sixteen year old lives on a tall ship called the Temptation, captained by her father Slate. Slate has the power to navigate the ship anywhere in time and space so long as he has a written map to guide him. But there is only one thing Slate wants – to return to Honolulu in 1865 and prevent his partner from dying just after she gave birth to Nix. The question that troubles Nix is what might happen to her and her life if he succeeds. Nix is probably the least interesting character in the book. A plucky teenager with father issues and a burgeoning but fairly chaste love life, caught between her roguish shipmate Kashmir and the more straightlaced, shore-bound Blake. But this blandness also makes Nix the perfect guide to this world for the intended audience of the novel, which would be teenage girls at the younger end of the young adult spectrum. As if the time travel element is not enough, there is more than a smattering of fantasy in The Girl from Everywhere…

Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 23/09/2016

A crime novel set in Atlanta in 1948, Darktown uses the genre to shine a light on a point in time in American history and, in doing so, on present day America. Thomas Mullen uses as his jumping off point the true story of the appointment of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. They do not have an office, instead they are forced to operate out of the basement of a local YMCA. They were not given cars and had to call in white detectives when a matter needed investigation. Distrusted almost as much by the locals in their own, segregated neighbourhoods as by their fellow police officers, they were nevertheless part of the vanguard of a nascent civil rights movement. Lucius Boggs, son of the local preacher and recently returned from the Second World War, is one of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. He and his fellow recruits are keen to clean up their part of town, rife with bootleggers, gambling and prostitution. To add to their problems, many of those enterprises are either sponsored or actively managed by their white police colleagues who make money from turning a blind eye and who are not keen to see any change to the…

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman
Crime , Review / 20/09/2016

Laura Lippman steps into To Kill a Mockingbird territory in her latest legal thriller Wilde Lake. But this is not a coming of age story about a girl who sees her lawyer father do the right thing. Quite the opposite. Where Wilde Lake delves into the past, and it spends a lot of its time there, it is to highlight how much we miss and reinterpret as children and how those events may look different in the harsher light of adulthood. Luisa Brant has recently fought a bruising political battle with her now ex-boss to become the first ever female district attorney of Howard County, Maryland. The win was particularly bittersweet as it was that same boss who had hired her during a particularly low period in her life. Lu is also the daughter of the most famous, and still loved prosecutor in the state’s history. So expectations are high but from her first murder trial, a seemingly open and shut case involving the killing of a woman by a local with a mental illness, things start to unravel. At the same time as the contemporary case, Lippman takes readers through Lu’s childhood. Starting with an incident involving her brother…

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…