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…

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut novel and first of a new series owes a debt to the space opera classics. The opening of Empire of Silence feels cribbed from the opening of Frank Herbert’s all time classic Dune. A galaxy-wide human empire ruled by aristocratic houses, a young man chafing against his place and struggling to find his destiny, a powerful and sinister religious order, computer technology outlawed and replaced by human “computers”. But it also has echoes of other space operas from that age and earlier in which humanity has spread to the stars but in doing so has retained its classical roots.  The society Ruocchio presents is a pastiche of high tech, Roman and medieval.  Empire of Silence picks up the pace a little when narrator Hadrian Marlowe goes on the run from the privilege of his family but is dumped on a backwater planet where he has to live by his wits. This middle section of the book morphs into a retelling of Gladiator as Hadrian gets work as cannon-fodder in the local colosseum and manages to train a rag tag group to survive. The book then switches again to become an exploration of ancient mysteries and finally attains some forward momentum when Hadrian encounters humanity’s enemy – the Ceiclin who ravage through human space.  Empire of Silence is the first volume of a memoir. Hadrian narrates from an old age in which he has done some horrific things that are only…

84K by Claire North
Fantasy , Review / 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…

The Memory Chamber by Holly Cave
Review , Science Fiction / 10/05/2018

The success of Black Mirror seems to have opened up a new wave of fiction on the edge of speculative. Holly Cave’s The Memory Chamber treads ground explored in Black Mirror episodes like San Junipero, USS Callister and Hang the DJ – all of which involve some form of neural upload and an existence in a computer-generated reality. And this is clearly fertile science fiction ground with plenty of room to explore which Cave manages to put her own twists on. Isobel is a Heaven Architect. Her job is to design a personal heaven for those dying and rich enough to afford it. The heaven that she creates contains memories of people and events from the client’s life. The memories are mapped from the client’s brain and a personal heaven is created. When they die, a bunch of their neurons are taken from their brain and uploaded and their consciousness gets to live on in their heaven for ever. This set-up raises a bunch of moral and ethical issues, many of which Cave lays out early on. Why is it only the rich who have access to this technology? What does it achieve? Why are their two levels of consent (one…

One Way by SJ Morden
Review , Science Fiction / 24/04/2018

Frank Kittredge is a lifer. Sentenced to jail for killing his son’s dealer, he is offered a chance: join a mission to Mars crewed by convicts to construct a settlement in anticipation of a crew of NASA astronauts or stay in prison and rot (Botany Bay, anyone?). He takes the deal, and not only that, is later offered a trip home and a pardon if he keeps an eye on his six fellow crew members for Brack, their unnecessarily sadistic and overbearing supervisor.   After way too long describing the team’s training, including how they learn to drive Mars buggies and build habs, the crew head to Mars. Almost immediately things start going wrong and crew members start to die. This finally kicks a thriller element into gear as an Agatha Christie-style And Then There Were None situation starts to develop and Frank has to investigate the mounting death toll without becoming a victim himself.   Andy Weir’s The Martian managed to hit a certain sweet spot between technobabble, scientific accuracy, character and plot. SJ Morden goes down a similar road in One Way but with less success. He spends in inordinate amount of time on the science and engineering challenges of training for and building a settlement on Mars. The idea to use convicts as a disposable labour force is original but given their easily avoided one man oversight, not worth thinking about too hard. The slowly creeping dread as one by one the crew…

America City by Chris Beckett

Multi-award winning UK science fiction author Chris Beckett turns his eyes to the  issue of climate change in his latest stand alone America City. The book casts forward one hundred years to an America affected by drought in the Southwest and superstorms along its eastern seaboard. This has created a movement of people – otherwise known as “barreduras” – an internal refugee problem within the United States that is threatening to tear the country apart.   Holly Peacock is an expat-British PR guru, comfortably living with her academic husband in Seattle when she is given the chance to work for conservative senator Stephen Slaymaker. Slaymaker has a plan to build America by resettling the internal refugees in the northern states, a plan that makes him unpopular not only with his base constituency but with his party. But he rides a wave to the presidency when, with the help of Holly, he manages to turn the eyes of the country further north, towards the largely unsettled Canadian provinces.   Much like Omar el Akkad’s recent American War, Beckett is interested in how America might behave when problems it has been ignoring in other parts of the world become internalised. In this case how America might deal with climate refugees when they are coming from inside the country itself. In doing so, Beckett focuses on politics…

Blind Defence by John Fairfax
Crime , Review / 13/04/2018

John Fairfax is a pen name of William Broderick, a crime novelist who won a Golden Dagger for his first novel The Sixth Lamentation, the first of his Father Anselm crime fiction series. Whether to differentiate that series from his new one or just because he could, Broderick has taken a pen name for his new series, the first of which was Summary Justice. That book started the story of William Benson, imprisoned for murder, now released and at the English bar, defending murderers in the Old Bailey. Blind Defence opens a couple of years after Summary Justice. Benson’s practice has not flourished since his first case. Even Tess de Vere, the solicitor who briefed him and, as a law student, encouraged him in prison to study law, has been pressured by her firm not to send him cases. But then comes a case where the accused asks for Benson by name and he has a chance to try and defend his second murder. Diane Heybridge was found hanging in her flat. All of the evidence points to her ex-boyfriend Brent Stainsby but Stainsby is maintaining his innocence. Neither Benson not Tess like Stainsby but they are committed to the…

Bloody January by Alan Parks
Crime , Historical / 07/03/2018

Readers looking for gritty crime can always find their fix on the mean (fictional) streets of Glasgow. To make things a little grittier, Alan Parks, sets his debut novel Bloody January in 1973. Drugs and criminal gangs are rife, most of the police (sorry, polis) are on the take, and while there are plenty of shady no-go areas in town the whiff of development is in the air. Bloody January has an intriguing open. A prisoner with a long record asks to meet with Detective McCoy to warn him that a young woman will be killed. McCoy only half believes the tale and when he does follow up he is too late. The woman is shot, her attacker turns the gun on himself and the informant is killed in the prison. This book is not called Bloody January for nothing. The rest is what can only be described as corrupt police procedural where all roads lead to the ultra-rich and untouchable Dunlop family with whom McCoy has had run-ins in the past. McCoy himself is a complex character but one with most of the attributes readers have come to expect from Scottish crime. He has a damaging history, having been…

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 01/03/2018

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, the debut novel by Stuart Turton has so many influences it is hard to know where to begin. It is designed to appeal to lovers of speculative fiction and classic crime fiction in equal measure and should succeed in satisfying everyone to some degree. Seven Deaths starts in cliché territory. A man comes to in a forest, he has no memory of who he is or why is there, a name is on his lips. He thinks he sees a murder taking place but before he can find any evidence of it, a mysterious stranger has pressed a compass into his hand and pointed him East. He walks through woodland until he comes to a crumbling English manor house, Blackheath where, it turns out his name is Simon Bell and he is a guest for a ball to be held that evening. The ball itself is being held to commemorate the murder of the Hardcastles’ son Thomas twenty years before. Their two other children, Michael and Evelyn have come for the event as has everyone connected with that fateful day. Before long the narrator learns that he is not Dr Simon Bell after all,…

Sweet Little Lies Caz Frear
Crime , Review / 19/02/2018

It is a rule universally acknowledged that a cop who has some crime in their past will come up against that crime sometime in their work. What drives Sweet Little Lies is that Cat Kinsella is determined to hide her connection to the crime as it involves her father. But this is more than just protecting him, it is sorting through her own behaviour as the new crime shines a light on the grudge that she has been holding against him since she was eight. Putting the family connections aside, Sweet Little Lies is first and foremost a police procedural. A woman has been murdered and her body dumped in a local park. Cat Kinsella is one of the detectives charged with solving that crime. Caz Frear gives readers an effective and likeable police team, including Cat’s tough boss and role model DCI Kate Steele and her father-substitute partner Parnell. And as in any good procedural, the case has plenty of dead ends, lucky breaks and lying witnesses. Things only become difficult when a connection is made to another crime that happened many years before, one that Cat has been sure for all these years that her father was involved…

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo
Review , Science Fiction / 13/02/2018

The Feed is a post-apocalyptic tale with what can only be called a Black Mirror edge. As with that series, Nick Clark Windo is interested in exploring our relationship with technology and, more importantly, what happens when that relationship sours in some way. But The Feed ranges further than this, exploring the broader implications of our reliance on technology. When The Feed opens, Tom and Kate are enjoying a quiet night in a restaurant. Quiet in that they have willingly turned off their Feed. Much like the world in Adam Roberts’s recent book The Real-Town Murders, where most people spend their life in a virtual world, the world of The Feed is quiet, the interactions mainly happening in people’s heads. Kate struggles to interact outside of the Feed; its images, as she describes them: …score the darkness like neon and starlight, an internal global cityscape where everyone lives close by. So beautiful. So inevitable. So comfortable. Through the Feed, people can share emotions, memories, news, information. Kate is addicted to the Feed and spends the meal ‘itching to go on’. They both finally relent when a major event occurs, an assassination that sends their world spinning towards oblivion. Cut to…

Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds

It has been ten years since Alastair Reynolds has played in his Revelation Space universe. In that time he delivered the Blue Remembered Earth trilogy about a generation starship, complete with elephants and a few standalone novels including the steampunk-esque Terminal World and the rollicking space pirate adventure Revenger. But with Elysium Fire he is back on familiar turf (for Reynolds fans) – a direct sequel to 2007’s The Prefect, now to be rereleased under a new title Aurora Rising. Elysium Fire is once again set about a hundred years before the events in Revelation Space. The Prefects keep order across the Glitter Band, a loose collection of thousands of habitats orbiting the planet of Yellowstone and its iconic Chasm City. Prefect Tom Dreyfus, the protagonist of The Prefect, and his team are also back in action trying to solve a sequence of mysterious deaths and deal with an agitator keen to encourage habitats in the Glitter Band to seceded from oversight by the Prefects. At the same time, the war between two implacable artificial intelligences (Aurora and The Clockmaker) left running at the end of the previous book still rages in the background. It has been a long time…

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 09/02/2018

George Smiley, cold war warrior for “the Circus” (ie MI6), first appeared in 1961 in Call for the Dead. and was the character who established John leCarré as one of the masters of the cold war spy genre. Smiley appeared in seven books between 1961 and 1979. It seemed, as the cold war was coming to a close, so too was Smiley’s work and leCarré moved on, returning briefly to Smiley’s world in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim. With Russia well and truly back in the news and spycraft, arguably, not what it once was, it seems like the perfect time for leCarré to once again revisit this old stomping ground. A Legacy of Spies focuses around Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s people. At the start of the novel he is living a quiet retired life on a farm in his native France. But the past is never far away and he is called back to England to answer for his part in the death of two people at the Berlin Wall many years before. The deaths themselves were part of an operation called Windfall, one that Smiley and his boss, Control, kept from their superiors for a very real fear…

The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 24/01/2018

Adam Roberts never does the same thing twice. While he has written novels with a crime element it is safe to say that The Real-Town Murders is something completely different again. It is a locked-room mystery but in the nature of all good crime novels, the murder is about something much deeper. But that something is connected to a heightened version of our current connection to technology, the freedoms that we give up to interact with that technology and the influence that that might bring to various players. The Real-Town Murders opens with an impossible murder. A body has been found in the boot of a car that was built by robots. Private detective Alma is brought in by the company that runs the factory to investigate. The process of the car’s construction was fully captured by camera and shows that there is no way for the body to have been placed in the boot before it was discovered. But in the way of all good noir detective novels, Alma is then bought-off and removed from the case by the authorities before she can investigate too deeply. When she finds there are deeper forces at play, she gets drawn back…

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…

Munich by Robert Harris
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 19/10/2017

Robert Harris has long had a fascination with the events surrounding Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938 to negotiate with Hitler. That meeting, which ended with Chamberlain famously returning to Britain waving a piece of paper and declaring “Peace in our time”, has long been seen as the epitome of the appeasement policy that presaged World War II.   In 1988, on the fiftieth anniversary of that meeting, Harris was involved in a documentary called God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain. As the name of his documentary suggests, Harris has a more grey interpretation of Chamberlain’s actions than the popular historical account. And this view of the man and his actions informs much of his latest novel about these negotiations.  Early on in Munich it is clear that in 1938 the British were not ready for a war. Chamberlain is told that that the country needs at least a year to recruit, train and arm their forces. So that while Chamberlain honestly strives for peace, desperately trying to avoid a repeat of Word War I, he is also aware of a need to stall for time. As he observes: “The main lesson I have learned in my dealings with Hitler is that one simply can’t play poker with a gangster if one has no cards in one’s hand.” In Harris’s telling, Chamberlain does everything he can to box Hitler in to an agreement, knowing it…

The Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Review / 10/10/2017

The dragons in Anthony Ryan’s Draconis Memoria series are not, as the saying might go, your grandfather’s dragons. In this world there are dragons of varying colours – green, red, blue, black and white. Each has a different preferred mode of attack and the blood of each can give specially talented humans (the blood-blessed), short-lived superhuman capabilities. Only, as The Legion of Flame opens, the dragons, led by the super intelligent white dragon, are revolting. Having taken over their home continent and either killing or enslaving the populace, the dragons are on the move. The main point of view characters from The Waking Fire return. Lizanne, arsekicking secret agent for the Ironship Corporation, is sent on a mission to their sworn enemy the Corvantine Empire. Lizanne’s mission quickly spins out of control as she ends up in a prison city and formenting revolution. Meanwhile, blood-blessed adventurer Clay Torbeek is heading to the south pole to see if he can “save the world” following a vision of the future that he had in his encounter with the white dragon. Clay’s trajectory, while full of adventure and close calls, is a little more surreal when he finds himself in a strange world…

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 03/10/2017

Matt Haig often takes an outsider’s view of the world. In his debut novel The Last Family in England, the main character was the family dog. In The Humans, Haig looked at the world through the eyes of an alien trying to understand humanity. He takes a similar tack but from a very different angle in How to Stop Time. While The Humans was about placing humanity in space, How to Stop Time is about looking at people from outside the realm of time. Tom Hazard is an “albatross”. Born in 1581, he has a condition which stopped him ageing at a normal rate at around thirteen. Since then he has aged at one fifteenth the normal speed. So that in the present he is 439 years old but still looks like he is in his forties. Hazard’s condition means he is always on the move, trying not to be found out by starting fresh every eight years in a new location. But he is also beholden to a shadowy organisation of Albatrosses, blackmailed into carrying out missions for their leader Hendrich with a promise of finding his missing daughter Marion. The narrative skips effortlessly between various time periods. Tom…