Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/01/2017

Steph Swainston burst onto the modern fantasy scene back in 2004 with the first of the Fourlands novels The Year of Our War. While there were some familiar elements, Swainston, much like fellow English fantasy authors like China Mieville, created a new type of fantasy world that was undeniably modern. There were no orcs, no elves, no dwarves and no dragons. Instead, the main character was a drug addicted immortal with the ability to fly, wore t-shirts and jeans and helped to fight a centuries long war against an implacable, insectile enemy. Now, ten years after the last main narrative book and five years after a backstory prequel, Swainston explosively returns to the Fourlands. Following a funeral, the narrative drops straight into the most recent push on the insect-dominated Paperlands. Fifteen years have passed since the events of The Modern World, and after a fair gap, even those who have been following the series probably need a reminder of the key elements of this world, although it’s uniqueness makes these details easier to remember. Swainston and her main narrator Jant, also known as Comet the messenger, acknowledge that it has been a long time between drinks and drop in refreshers…

The White City by Simon Morden
Fantasy , Review / 02/12/2016

Simon Morden returns to the magical world of Down for second time in The White City. He rejoins the survivors of Down Station (reviewed here) as they try and come to terms with events and the world they find themselves in. They came to Down, Narnia-like, through a doorway in a disused tube station as London burned around them. They found a dangerous world populated by people who came through different doorways from London at different times in its history. That first book ran very much along lines of some classic fantasy – people find themselves in a magical world and have to learn to use the powers that they gain there to survive. The White City turns out to be a very different proposition to the first book in this series. With the rules established in Down Station, Morden sets about not only exploring those rules but also breaking them apart, digging deeper into the world and revealing depths that were only very vaguely glimpsed in the first volume. There is a bit of a quest element to this book as the characters travel to the White City, reputedly the only permanent city in Down, where answers may be found that may…

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 30/11/2016

Thinking about it afterwards it was kind of obvious that pairing new weird novelist China Miéville and with surrealist movement was perhaps inevitable. The Last Days of New Paris not only celebrates Surrealism but brings it to life in a way that only the imagination and verve of Miéville could possibly achieve. New Weird and Surrealism, a match made in heaven, which, of course, as this book posits, also implies the existence of Hell. It is 1950 and, as a result of the detonation of an occult weapon in 1941, the war still rages in Paris. The bomb – “the weaponised soul of convulsive beauty” – made real the Surrealist dreams of Europe on the streets of occupied Paris. The landscape of Paris has been remodelled in line with a Surrealist thought experiment and manifestations of Surrealist art (known as ‘manifs’) wander the streets. To stop this strangeness spreading, Paris has been walled off from the rest of the world and so the Second World War rages on between the Germans and the French on its streets. The story centres on Thibault, a member of the surrealist resistance, who is caught up in stopping a German plot to harness the…

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….

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…

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,…

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,…

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…

The Trees by Ali Shaw
Fantasy , Review / 11/05/2016

Just when you think you’ve seen (and catalogued) every type of apocalyptic scenario imaginable, along comes Ali Shaw’s The Trees. The treepocalypse that kicks off Shaw’s exploration of man versus nature sees thousands of fully grown trees springing from the earth early one morning, literally ripping modern society apart. Not everyone is upset by this turn of events. As one character thinks, the trees “were as much a promise as they were an apocalypse”. But that doesn’t prevent Shaw from sending his characters on a fairly standard post-apocalyptic journey. It should probably be pointed out that this is not the first treepocalypse of recent times. Doctor Who, a series which in its 50 plus year run has probably dealt with every apocalyptic scenario going, had a similar scenario back in 2014’s “In the Forest of the Night”. Although in that case (spoiler alert), the reason for the trees’ appearance was much more benign and no one died horribly impaled on a branch that emerged suddenly through the middle of their bed in the middle of the night. Shaw’s main character, Alistair, is a bit of a loser. On an indeterminate break from his teaching career, and with his wife away…

The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Fantasy , Review / 04/05/2016

The Maker of Swans, Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel, takes readers deep into modern-gothic British fantasy territory. Its old-world tone is reminiscent of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and, more recently, Tim Clare’s The Honours, although it is set in more modern times than either of these (possibly the ‘60s, although it is hard to tell). The book opens with a murder. Witnessed by Eustace, the factotum to the mysterious Mr Crowe, whose job it is also to clean up after the act. Only the act itself has brought some unwanted attention to Crowe and his young ward Clara. Crowe has used his powers to kill and, as a result, has to pay a forfeit to the mysterious Dr Chastern. The forfeit involves the use of his powers and also revolves around Clara. But Clara has powers of her own. The narrative is in two very distinct parts. The first half slowly builds up to the visit of Dr Chastern and its aftermath. The second half puts the characters in very different places, explores Clara’s developing powers and dips into the lengthy history between Crowe and Eustace. The Maker of Swans maintains its deeply mysterious atmosphere throughout and this…

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave opens his forth novel with a sentence that sums up his main character: “War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon”. Mary does not get what she expects, ending up in the teaching service and helping to evacuate children from London to the countryside. Mary is just one of the rounded and unforgettable characters in Cleave’s new novel set in the first half of World War Two. But she is the heart and soul of this work – a jaunty but fierce, undaunted young woman trying to find her way in a world that is coming apart around her. Mary is not the only character that Cleave follows into the war. There is Mary’s best friend Hilda, her new boss Tom, who is happy not to fight, and his friend Alistair Heath, an art conservator with the Tate who has gone to war and ends up defending Malta from the Germans. Also trying to survive the war is ten year old American boy Zachary. Zachary is African American and does not fare well when evacuated to the country with the other children. Zachary ends up back in London during the Blitz with his father…

Ten Days by Gillian Slovo
Crime , Review , Thriller / 01/04/2016

Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days started life as a play that explored the London riots of 2011. The play itself was based on a series of interviews and transcripts. The novel follows the outline of these events but ficitionalises them, which gives Slovo a broader scope than that original piece and some licence with her exploration of character and motivation. But it still centres around a week of intense heat in which the disaffected and disenfranchised went on a rampage in London, in a wave of violence that spread across the country. Ten Days opens ominously. An early morning discussion between single mother Cathy and the man who has spent the night in her tower block apartment is photographed by a passing police helicopter. Slovo litters the narrative with redacted extracts from the inevitable investigation into the events she depicts, giving the personal view of the events and emotionless and stilted counterpoint. The Lovelace Estate, Cathy’s home, is slated for demolition and already the estate is riddled with empty, boarded up flats. A heatwave is driving people onto the streets at all hours and the police, expecting trouble from this part of London, are already in a heightened state of alert,…

Steeple by Jon Wallace

Jon Wallace’s debut novel, Barricade was a blistering, visceral ride through a post-robopocalyptic Britain. It dropped readers into a nuclear blasted landscape and an ongoing war between the ravaged, disease-ridden survivors of humanity (the Reals) and their implacable, seemingly indestructible android foes (the Ficials). Barricade’s protagonist, a Ficial called Kenstibec, emotionless and virtually indestructible, was the perfect guide to this milieu. When Steeple opens Kenstibec, now just Ken, is pretending to be a Real after losing the nanotechnology that allows him to repair himself. Much like Barricade, Steeple wastes little time before sending Kenstibec off on a quest. Sent with his partner-in-crime Fatty (aka Phil) and a woman called Belinda to ascend Hope Tower, a massive residential building in the heart of London that has somehow survived the nuclear exchange. Kenstibec, never one to take orders, has his own reasons for going. Steeple is all action – Kenstibec and his companions lurching from one nasty, violent, stress-filled situation to another. But it is also, as its predecessor was, full of mordant humour and sly social commentary – exploring attitudes towards housing, development and consumerism. Flashback sections detail Kenstibec’s involvement in the design and creation of Hope Tower, reflecting Britain’s historical…

Down Station by Simon Morden
Fantasy , Review / 06/03/2016

Doorways into magical lands are a venerable fantasy tradition going back centuries in English fiction. Think Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. In the Twentieth Century we had the seminal Narnia series and plenty of imitators followed. More recently we’ve even seen a modern deconstruction of that mythology in books like Lev Grossman’s Magician’s series. In this context, Simon Morden’s Down Station seems a little staid. The central idea is an old one, any interest here is what he manages to do with it. Down Station opens naturalistically. Troubled teen Mary is working as an after hours garbage collector in the London Underground and young engineering student Dalip is similarly working on a rail replacement team. When an unknown disaster strikes above ground Mary, Dalip and a few of their fellow workers escape through a door that takes them into another world from which there is seemingly no return. They soon discover that they are not the first people to come to the world of Down from London and that the magic of the world will allow them to reinvent themselves. So far, so clichéd. But a couple of aspects save Down Station. The first is the main characters. There…