Friday, December 26, 2008

“Coruscant Nights II: Street of Shadows”, by Michael Reeves (Arrow)


Jax Pavan and his compatriots return for a second outing

In this second installment of the Coruscant Night series, Jedis Jax Pavan and Laranth Tarak, now members of the underground rebel movement based on Coruscant, are pursuing a career in private investigation, along with the help of Den Daur and his near-sentient protocol droid, I-5. They are hired by Dejah Duare, assistant and partner of artist Ves Volette, to help uncover the truth of Volette’s murder. So far so good a premise – the idea of a classic PI novel, set in the Star Wars universe was very appealing. But, for some reason, this novel fails to truly satisfy.

It’s not the characters, as they are fine. The premise is a good one, helping to flesh out the time between Episodes III and IV, with plenty of exposition about Coruscant and background to the times. The rival strand of the novel, following the bounty hunter Aurra Sing, as she is hired by and takes on a job from Darth Vader, is very good, and at times a lot more interesting than the main strand.

What lets the book down, however, are two things. First, it’s the middle book of a trilogy, and not a very long one at that. It has the feel of too much filler, to get us from book one (Jedi Twilight) to book three (Patterns of the Force, out January 27th, 2009). This, to be fair, is an ailment that afflicts almost every second book in a trilogy. The second reason this book failed to truly grab my attention (though, after the rather long set-up, the second half of the book was very good), was because it felt rather over-written. For such a short book, this is a surprising thing to say. But there were plenty of sentences and exposition that just felt redundant – such as explaining certain elements of the Force, where everyone reading this novel will know that a Jedi has affinity for the force, so why tell us that Jax has this affinity, then, immediately after, tell us that Laranth does, too?

Perhaps I’m being harsh, having now become used to reading trilogies in one sitting, rather than reading them as and when installments are published. As I mentioned, this is a good book, only not as great as I would have hoped. The interaction between Den and I-5 is still interesting, and the droid is always good for some lighter moments – either when putting down a Coruscant CSI for asking pointless questions, or generally being fussy and completely un-droid-like. Jax’s specific connection to the Force also remains interesting, and we do get to know more about the main protagonists as the story progresses. Street of Shadows has plenty to offer fans of Star Wars, but perhaps the important content could have been incorporated into the first and final installments, and I would say this isn’t the best place for a casual reader of Star Wars fiction to start. (For that, I would recommend the X-Wing series and, especially, The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timpthy Zahn.)

With luck, Patterns of the Force will finish the series off well, indicating that Michael Reaves was not as the top of his game for just the one book (I’ve enjoyed his other Star Wars novels a great deal, and without exception; so Street of Shadows was surprising as a slight disappointment).

Monday, December 22, 2008

“The Judas Strain”, by James Rollins (Orion)


Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force team up with long-time rivals to help against a plague with no cure…

Secrets buried in jungle ruins, hidden in Vatican store-rooms, and an angelic language inscribed on an Egyptian obelisk… Things just keep getting more interesting for the Sigma Force, a sort-of paramilitary wing of DARPA, made up of highly educated (usually) ex-military types who are routinely dispatched around the globe to fight against looming scientific threats to civilisation, humankind, and so forth. To top things off, their nemesis, the shadowy criminal organisation known as the Guild, is after the same answers they are, only with far less altruistic motives, using far more brutal methods.

The Judas Strain surrounds the mystery of the contagion that afflicted Marco Polo’s crew when he returned from China, and the cryptic last line of his account (“I have not told half of what I saw”). It seems as though a super-virus is resurgent, reintroduced into the biosphere by a tsunami in East Asia, turning once-benign bacteria and organisms into lethal adversaries to everyone and everything.

Like all of Rollins’ novels, they are global in scope – the action takes place pretty much in all four corners of the globe (well, three of them, at any rate): we start in Venice, then on to Christmas Island, historic Turkey and Southeast Asia. Commander Pierce, joined by Vatican’s archive prefect Vigor Verona, and disgraced Guild operative Seichan, embark on a treasure hunt with truly world-threatening implications.

Filled with plenty of action, the occasional splash of light humour, great attention to detail (scientific, especially), and a well-developed skill at penning plots that will keep the reader with you (while suspending some belief), The Judas Strain is an entertaining action/adventure read that will, after just a slightly slow start, entertain you to the end.

Rollins is able to keep things interesting, writing the science much like the writers of the TV series House (I recognise necrotizing faciitis from the show…), giving enough to make it realistic without descending into turgid, dense over-explanation that would just bore the vast majority of readers, but still enough to ensure realism. The characters are believable and well-drawn, with only slightly over-done romantic feelings between a handful of the couples (I don’t know why, but all thriller writers make their characters overly emotional and soppy, when it comes to love interests - this especially means you, James Patterson...).

In an over-populated genre – and one that often can bore to tears as you read effectively the same story over and over – James Rollins stands out as an original voice, leading the pack. With the likes of Matthew Reilly and (early) Clive Cussler, you know that any book by James Rollins is going to be a thoroughly entertaining, action-packed read. As mentioned, this one is a little slower than normal to kick off, but once it does, the plot pulls you along with it, each thread of the story complimenting the rest, eventually pulled together in a very satisfying finale.

Interesting characters and an intriguing premise, all woven together by an author who really knows his business. Great fun.

For fans of: Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Will Adams, Matthew Reilly, Andy McDermott, James Twining, Steve Berry

Sunday, December 14, 2008

“Only In Death”, by Dan Abnett (Black Library)


The excellent, eleventh outing for Commissar Ibram Gaunt and his Tanith Ghosts

Dan Abnett’s writing (prolific as it is) has never failed to live up to expectations. From the quality on display in Only In Death, it’s also clear why the Gaunt’s Ghosts series remains the Black Library’s most popular and successful. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s perhaps one of only three of their series worth bothering with. The other two are Felix & Gotrek (fantasy, based in the Warhammer world) and the Horus Heresy series (a “historical” series based on the foundation of the Warhammer 40,000 universe – though, this has been rather disappointing of late).

Anyway, back to Only In Death. This time, Gaunt and his troops are far from the main battlefront in the crusade to liberate the Sabbatt Worlds, stuck on the fortress world of Jago, holed up in Hinzerhaus, an apparently haunted fortress. And then the enemy attacks…

As the Ghosts start jumping at, well, ghosts, Gaunt must keep his troops focused and on-mission. As always, the novel is told from a number of perspectives, including those of Gaunt, Dalin Criid (the son of two Ghosts, and the regiment’s first recruit-from-within) and his closest comrades, Viktor Hark (who’s having strange dreams), the reliable Larkin (who’s still slightly crazy, and coming to terms with his prosthetic leg – Gaunt cut off his real one in the previous novel, The Armour of Contempt), and a couple of other returning voices such as Varl (whose squad is perhaps the most amusing and quietly disobedient). The story is a slow-burning tale of suspense, brutal action and the classic theme of triumph-over-seemingly-unbeatable-odds, not to mention the Ghosts' continued streak of good luck.

Only In Death has the feel of a reliable friend; whenever you read a Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, there’s a comfort level that’s met – despite the situations Abnett puts his characters through. It’s a bit like re-watching The Matrix trilogy (if it was grittier, with a more fulfilling end): you know they’re going to win, but you also know that not everyone’s going to make it. Abnett’s still as talented as ever, this time writing a novel that is more suspenseful and creepy, though still with plenty of action. His ability to set a scene, create just the right atmosphere and believable characters (who speak in realistic dialogue), and keep the reader interested and turning the pages remains intact (perhaps even unsurpassed), and it’s not difficult to see why this series is so successful. Abnett’s distinct humour runs throughout, particularly in the patter between the troops; you’ll be amused plenty of times, though this isn’t intended to be a comedy, so don’t expect laugh-out-loud moments. Only In Death is a lot more suspenseful than the previous novels, which have usually been far more action-oriented.

If you haven’t read the rest of the series, then I’d recommend you do so before you read this. Not because you’ll be totally lost, but while these work as stand-alone novels, they are far more rewarding when read within context of the whole series – you’ll also find it very difficult not to get attached to the characters, which only gives the series and Abnett’s stories that much more impact. A return to form after a less-than-exceptional (though still very good) run. Here’s to hoping that Blood Pact, the next in the series (out May 2009), continues in such a good vein.

Top-quality sci-fi done right.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Best Fiction Releases of 2008

As it now seems to be an obligatory exercise for review sites and magazines, I thought I’d just provide a short, Top-10 list of the best fiction (from all genres) that were released in 2008. It’s been an excellent year for fiction, so it wasn’t easy to narrow it down to just ten, but I think I’ve managed to present a balanced and fair selection of this year’s finest. Finding a single novel as the tenth was impossible, so I’ve included three notables for my final selection:

1-3. Brent Weeks’ The Night Angel Trilogy (comprised of The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge and Beyond The Shadows). They take the top spot because they fulfill every criteria that goes into making an excellent read: plotting, characterization, pacing, interest, style, imagination and originality. Weeks does this while also side-stepping or completely avoiding criteria that would have ruined this series (cliché, needless exposition, and - as it’s fantasy – over abundant use of ridiculous, made-up words). A stunning achievement for a first time author. (Orbit Books)

BrentWeeks-WayOfShadows BrentWeeks-ShadowsEdge BrentWeeks-BeyondTheShadows

4. David Baldacci’s Stone Cold. Oliver Stone and the Camel Club return for their third novel, and this time they’re up against two frightening enemies, each with completely different motives and goals, all of which place our intrepid cast in serious danger. It also has a great closing scene which sets up beautifully for Divine Justice, which was released this year, but I haven’t managed to get reviewed yet. (Pan Books)

5-6. Jason Pinter’s The Mark and The Guilty. Just released this year through MIRA, these are the first two outings for new New York journalist hero, Henry Parker. Blending deft, tight plotting with great characters (even if the romantic scenes are a touch cliché and too-sweet), Pinter has proved with these that he’s a thriller writer to keep a very close eye on. (MIRA Books)

Baldacci-StoneCold Pinter-TheMark Pinter-TheGuilty

7. Brett Battles’ The Cleaner. Ticks all the boxes for making an excellent international thriller: betrayal, action, revenge, realistic dialogue and plotting, the occasional moment of levity. Highly recommended, and yet another author to watch closely. (Preface Publishing)

8. Richard North Patterson’s The Race. The most timely of American political thrillers from one of the most gifted author in the genre. Covering a fictional Republican Party primary season (in itself noteworthy, considering the Democrat-as-protagonist bias in political fiction), The Race is filled with plenty of social and political commentary, disguised as a gripping, well-paced thriller novel. Measured arguments (from both sides of the political spectrum) make this far from an opinion piece, but also provides plenty to make the reader think. (Pan Books)

9. Troy Denning’s Invincible. The final volume in the Star Wars: Legacy of the Force series, this brings all the plot-strand together into an explosive (and surprisingly, graphically brutal) conclusion. At the same time, it leaves the series wide open, as it’s not clear how things will proceed from here, or how main characters will recover from their various ordeals. (Well, ok, it actually is: Millennium Falcon is out now, and a new series follows, called Fate of the Jedi – with luck, we’ll be able to bring you reviews of these as they become available). (Arrow Books)


10. John Sandford’s Phantom Prey (Simon & Schuster); Mike Lawson’s Dead on Arrival (Harper Collins); Terry Pratchett’s Making Money (Corgi)

Sandford-PhantomPreyLawson-DeadOnArrival TerryPratchett-MakingMoney

Monday, December 08, 2008

“Shadow’s Edge” & “Beyond The Shadows”, by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

BrentWeeks-ShadowsEdgeFantasy’s best newcomer dazzles again with two more impeccable novels.

The final two installments in Brent Weeks’ exquisite Night Angel Trilogy arrive, and prove that he is a new master of the fantasy genre . While no review can truly do this series justice, here’s my humble attempt:

Having been completely blown away by The Way of Shadows, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the conclusion to the fantasy series. And in these two novels, Weeks has not only built on the superb world he’s created, but exhibited exceptional skill as a master storyteller.

Shadow’s Edge picks up about a week after the close of TWOS, as Kylar, Elene and Uly (the secret daughter of Kylar’s master Durzo and Cenaria’s head Madam, Momma K) prepare to leave their now-occupied city. They hope to start a new life together in Caernarvon, a city that is positively tame compared to the brutal districts of Cenaria. Many of the characters who survived The Way of Shadows make an appearance here, though not always in the situations one might imagine. The novel can be split into two parts; the first comprised of Kylar and Elene’s attempts at normalcy, struggling with the issues that effect most young couples (complicated, of course, by their unusual upbringings). We also find Kylar still struggling with himself, trying to find a balance between the man he is and the man Elene wants him to be; should he give up his nature to pursue a peaceful family life, or should he give in to his flair for destruction, embracing his identity as the Night Angel? In the second part of the novel, Kylar gives in to his destiny, accepting a contract to rescue his best friend, Logan Gyre, who he believed dead at the hands of the Godking, the tyrant who decimated Cenaria’s defences and ruling class. Logan has been existing in The Hole, the worst jail imaginable, struggling to stay alive amongst the worst Cenaria has to offer. We also get a shocking cliffhanger ending that will force you to buy the final installment of the series…

Beyond the Shadows follows briskly BrentWeeks-BeyondTheShadowson from the events of Shadow’s Edge, in the wake of Cenaria’s resumption of control of their city. The situation in Midcyru is coming to a boiling point. As the Godking’s armies are sent into retreat, other forces converge on Cenaria’s battered citizenry and threadbare army. Khalidor is thrown into civil war as the Godking’s vicious heirs try to wrest control for themselves, eventually falling into the hands of an unsuspected heir. Kylar continues to come to terms with his new immortality and its newly-discovered horrific costs, as well as the exhilarating boost in power that each death seems to bring him. His ultimate goal is still to install Logan on Cenaria’s throne, which is rightfully his but has been usurped by a power-hungry and Machiavellian new queen, using any and all means available to him, regardless of whether or not Logan’s morality can deal with the consequences. Culminating in an enormous battle (involving seven armies), Beyond the Shadows is a tour-de-force of fantasy, a true masterpiece that brings this series to an exceptional, explosive and in some ways surprising (though completely satisfying) close.

Throughout both of these novels, Weeks shows himself to be a writer of exceptional skill. Exhibiting a Talent for plotting, he reveals and introduces threads to the overall story that sometimes might appear unrelated to the main plot, only to be pulled together superbly at just the right moment, as myriad characters meet or collide, moving the plot along. The reader is kept guessing throughout, as it’s never obvious what twist the tale will take. Weeks manages to juggle the various groups of characters and story arcs beautifully, using the various strands to expand our knowledge and understanding of Midcyru – specifically its politics and magic – without getting bogged down with pace-shattering exposition.

With both volumes, I was hooked from the very first page. As with The Way of Shadows, they simply refused to relinquish their grip – I was consistently up until the wee hours, unwilling to leave this new world. There’s a word often ascribed to new computer games, “immersive”; the experience of reading this series could easily also deserve such a description, as the reader is swept up in the tale. Despite my desire to discover what happens to the cast, I also never wanted the story to end. With such compelling characters and story-telling, coupled with Weeks’ fast-paced and action-packed sequences, it’s nigh-on impossible to put these books down.

With prose that occasionally border on lyrical (in a good way), The Night Angel Trilogy is a delight and pleasure to read. Unforgettable characters, an intriguing new fantasy world, awesome action, a twisting plot and broad scope (the entire series covers well over 10 years of Kylar’s life), and superior story-telling make this easily one of the best fantasy series… well, ever.

Addictive, phenomenal, essential. Brent Weeks is clearly one of fantasy’s new masters, and the Night Angel Trilogy is easily my pick for best of the year.

For fans of: Alan Campbell, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Richard Morgan

Friday, December 05, 2008

“Poison Study” & “Magic Study”, by Maria V. Synder (MIRA Books)

Snyder-PoisonStudyThe first two novels in a compelling new fantasy series

Poison Study: Yelena has a choice: be executed for murder, or become food taster to the Commander of Ixia. The story then follows her journey from prison cell to her new role as first-defence against assassination attempts. She leaps at the chance for survival, but her relief may be short-lived. Life in the palace is full of hazards and secrets. Wily and smart, Yelena must learn to identify poisons before they kill her, work out who she can trust, and spy on those she can’t. Who is the mysterious Southern sorceress who can read her mind? Things get even more dangerous when Yelena realises she has magical powers of her own, for using magic in Ixia is punishable by death…

I couldn’t put this book down. Sarcastic and troubled, Yelena is far more than a one dimensional character, and is proactive in determining her own fate, making her an appealing and complex character. Throughout the novel, Snyder constantly teases the reader with glimpses of her past, forcing you to piece it together slowly. Yelena’s world is intricately realised, particularly, and appropriately for a food taster, the smells and flavours she encounters. The developing relationship between Yelena and Valek is sharply observed, in a book in which no character’s intentions are clear. Snyder keeps us guessing right up until the final page. A gripping read.

Snyder-MagicStudy Magic Study: In this eagerly-anticipated sequel to Poison Study, Yelena has returned to Sitia and been reunited with her long-lost family. However, she doesn’t fit in, and her brother is less than delighted to see her again, resenting her return to the family. She also needs to learn to control her magical powers, before she accidentally blows herself (and others) up. And there’s also the small matter of the order for her execution in Ixia. So Yelena travels to the Magicians Keep to begin her apprenticeship. But trouble keeps on following her. As she struggles to understand who and what she is, a rogue magician is abducting and killing girls, and it looks like Yelena is next on his list.

Magic Study is just as gripping as its predecessor. Yelena is a thoroughly modern heroine who battles magicians but also worries about relating to a family she hardly knows. The action is fast-paced and full of twists and turns, and Snyder delights in turning the reader’s preconceived opinions about her characters upside down. A fairly large cast of characters is kept firmly in check, and again her flair for description illuminates the differences between the countries and people of Sitia and Ixia. Part adventure, part detective story as Yelena and the other magicians race against time to find the killer, Magic Study will keep you spellbound. Highly recommended.

With such good plotting, quality writing, and a superb new heroine, Poison Study and Magic Study mark the beginning of something great from a promising new voice in fantasy fiction.

The journey concludes in Fire Study, which is out through MIRA books in January 2009 (we will bring you a review of this, too).

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Monday, November 24, 2008

SF&F Books on your iPhone!

Just a quick news item: Pan Macmillan, in partnership with Lexcycle Stanza, the iPhone's number one reading application, have made some of their SFF titles available as free excerpts on the iPhone. Authors featured include (but not limited to) China Mieville, Neal Asher, Hal Duncan and Peter F. Hamilton. Full ebooks will also become available in due course.


You can find out more in the release, at their blog:

Or their website:


Sunday, November 23, 2008

“The Whole Truth”, by David Baldacci (Pan Macmillan)


The master of the genre delivers a terrifying global thriller that could have been ripped straight out of today’s paranoid headlines.

Once again David Baldacci has delivered a novel that will keep you up all night reading, as the action pulls you on. The novel focuses on Nicholas Creel (billionaire CEO of Ares Corporation, the largest arms manufacturer in the world) and the one-named Shaw (an international intelligence operative). Creel is on a mission to boost the flagging arms trade by inciting paranoia on the international stage, bringing the world to the brink of a potential Great Power war. With the help of Dick Pender (a leading purveyor of “Perception Management”), Creel starts rumours and innuendo suggesting Russia is regressing ever-so-quickly back to the bad old Soviet Union days, then plants the blame for these rumours on China's doorstep.

Shaw, in the employ of a global security organisation, spends his time around the globe disrupting terrorists and other anarchic, nefarious plots. Joined by Katie James, the young, disgraced, Pulitzer Prize-winning, recovering-alcoholic journalist, the two of them find themselves drawn into Creel and Pender’s web of lies and deception, with the mission taking on a particularly personal nature for Shaw about half-way through the novel.

Baldacci’s writing continues to both inspire and amaze me. Not only has he been doing this for a considerable length of time, but he is able to create and write characters that are never boring, always believable, and also complex. Creel, for example, is a corporate titan who makes his living in the industry of mass-death, but equally gives plenty to charity and the underprivileged (making it hard to hate him). The cast of The Whole Truth are different from Baldacci’s established characters – Oliver Stone and the Camel Club, and also former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. His plotting is as tight as ever, each chapter giving the reader just enough to force them on to the next, and then the next, and so on. That his subject matter is also international relations was particularly interesting to me. His grasp of the current global climate is impeccable, and this comes across through this most-believable (though gloomy) premise.

Baldacci’s The Whole Truth is a tour-de-force of international intrigue, espionage, corporate greed and manipulation. It will grip you from the very first page. Fifteen novels into his career, Baldacci shows no signs of slowing down or losing his edge. Simply superb.

For Fans of: Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, Christopher Reich, David Isaak, Tom Clancy

Monday, November 17, 2008

“The Mark” & “The Guilty”, by Jason Pinter (MIRA Books)


The first two volumes from one the most promising new voices in Thriller writing

Jason Pinter’s The Mark introduces us to rookie reporter Henry Parker, as he starts his dream job at the fictitious New York Gazette (based on, I assume, the New York Times). Sent on a simple assignment by his idol and new mentor – Jack O’Donnell – Parker finds himself in a fatal altercation after trying to help a couple, only to result in the death of what turns out to be a New York cop. What follows is his harrowing journey to discover just what he’s got himself involved in, and why so many people seem to want to put a bullet in him. His dash for freedom introduces him to Amanda Davies, who become tied up with Parker’s quest for redemption, not to mention something of a love interest.Pinter-TheGuilty

The Guilty picks up pretty much where The Mark left off, with Parker now back at the Gazette and still working as a journalist, his reputation more-or-less intact. Then people start dying. A sniper is on the loose, taking the lives of seemingly innocent people. Parker’s nose for a good story sets him on a collision course with the sniper, who has a deep interest in vintage weaponry and a seemingly all-consuming interest in the Wild West… Parker’s investigation into the killer’s motives put his friends and loved-ones in harm’s way, and it becomes a race against time as Parker (with the help of O’Donnell again) tries to help prevent each new murder. All this, while his journalistic nemesis Paulina Cole takes shots at him from her rival newspaper, the New York Dispatch.

Pinter’s writing style is superb throughout both of these novels. His prose are extremely tight, pulling you along with the characters, as he ratchets up the tension and excitement – dangling just enough information to keep you hooked. There is no doubt that the word “thriller” is most apt in these two instances. All of Pinter’s characters are realistic, colourful (but still believable), and well-constructed – from the slightly damaged Amanda, to Jack O’Donnell (the classic, whisky-soaked and cynical old journalist, who comes to consider Parker as a surrogate son). You certainly come to care about the characters – not least because of the sheer amount of abuse Parker is subjected to during both of the novels.

Having a journalist as a main protagonist is a great change from the standard cop or PI approaches (not that these are bad, mind you); it allows Pinter to take his characters in a new direction and gives the reader a new perspective of what can happen when such news-worthy crimes occur. It’s also allowed Pinter to discuss (perhaps) his opinion of the state of journalism in America – as Paulina Cole writes about Parker, in The Mark, journalists are increasingly becoming the story, with almost the same level of celebrity as those they write about, diminishing the respectability and quality of journalism. I thought this was an interesting touch, for the background of the novel.

If I had to locate his style and skill within the Thriller genre, I would say he is a mixture of James Patterson’s better qualities (pacing, especially) and John Sandford’s quality and plotting. My one criticism is related: like Patterson, Pinter’s style of writing relationships can be a little too sugary or melodramatic – this is especially the case for Henry and Amanda’s relationship in The Guilty. It’s a minor gripe, but it’s still valid.

Truly one of the best new writers in the genre. Pinter should enjoy a long and successful career. If you like your thrillers fast-paced, exciting and expertly executed, The Mark and The Guilty could not come more highly recommended. Addictive reading.

(The Mark is out now, and The Guilty will be released on December 12th)

For fans of: Brett Battles, David Baldacci, John Sandford, James Patterson, Alex Berenson, Jack Kerley, Lee Child, Marcus Sakey

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Heir to Sevenwaters", by Juliet Marillier (Tor)

The tale of a young woman's brave quest to right a terrible wrong...

Heir to Sevenwaters is a stand-alone novel set in Juliet Marillier’s classic fantasy world. The chieftains of Sevenwaters have long been custodians of a vast and mysterious forest. Human and Otherworld dwellers coexist there, separated by a thin veil between worlds and sharing a wary trust. But everything changes when Lady Aisling finds herself expecting another child. A boy is born, the long-awaited heir, and is given into the care of his sister Clodagh. Then the family’s joy turns to despair when the child is taken from his cradle and something unnatural is left in his place. To reclaim her brother, Clodagh must enter the Otherworld and confront the powerful prince who rules there. Accompanied on her quest by a warrior who may be more than he seems, Clodagh will have her courage tested to breaking point. The reward may be far greater than she ever dreamed…

Heir to Sevenwaters is an atmospheric and absorbing tale with a varied and appealing cast of characters. Clodagh is a strong and sympathetic heroine, and Marillier’s fast-paced plotting never falters, holding together a diverse cast and varied story threads with ease. Full of mystery, romance and suspense, Clodagh’s quest to find her baby brother is full of twists and turns, ensuring your attention is hooked throughout, keeping us guessing as to the trustworthiness and motives of her characters. Clodagh’s developing relationship with the brooding warrior Cathal is vividly brought to life, as they are forced to rely on each other in a world neither of them truly understand. Marillier skilfully realises a large cast of characters and interweaves traditional folklore with a fantasy world that is so believable it seems to have a life outside the pages of her book.

Heir to Sevenwaters is a dark and romantic fantasy tale of changelings, warriors and chieftains, and one woman’s determination to thwart a malevolent faery prince and return her brother to his rightful place as heir. Recommended for fans of Lord of the Rings, Christopher Paolini, Alison Croggon, Anne McCaffrey and any discerning fantasy reader.

An epic and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"Hood", by Stephen R. Lawhead (Atom)

The Norman conquest of England is complete – but for one young man the battle has only just begun

When Prince Bran’s father is murdered by Norman soldiers, he flees to London seeking justice. The journey is long and hard – and the suffering of those he meets along the way fuels his anger. With his demands dismissed, Bran has no choice but to return home, where a worse fate awaits him. His lands have been confiscated and his people enslaved by a brutal and corrupt regime. Should Bran flee or protect his people by surrendering to his father’s murderers? The answer, perhaps, is known only to the Raven King – a creature of myth and magic born of the forest’s darkest shadows. Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood brings to life the legend of Robin Hood as never before.

There have been many retellings of the Robin Hood legend, from the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to Tony Robinson’s children’s series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. Some are more irreverent than others. Although a far more literary tale, Lawhead’s Hood also plays fast and loose with the legend. Lawhead lifts Robin out of Sherwood and relocates him in Wales, in the eleventh century, as an early British freedom fighter. Lawhead argues his case for doing so in a short essay at the end of the book, but really, he needn’t have worried. His story speaks for itself. As Lawhead says, the original legend was no more than an amorphous body of popular songs and poems about a lovable rascal whose name was uncertain and who lived someplace on the island of Britain at some unknown time in the past. Lawhead provides evidence to back up his theory that the original source of the legend was Wales, but, like fairy tales, the character of Robin Hood is now part of the collective consciousness and as such, up for grabs.

Hood follows the deposed Prince Bran of Elfael as he grows into a man, on his quest to save his country from the occupying Normans, and avenge the murder of his father. The majority of the familiar characters turn up – Friar Tuck, Little John, Maid Marian – but none of them are as you might expect. The forest that Bran and his band of rebels retreat to is almost a character in its own right: thick, dark and leafy, it has a presence and a magic all its own. It is in this forest that Bran will meet Angharad, a woman of power, and it is here that he will come to know himself more fully. The forest is the home of the mysterious Raven King, and it is this nightmarish figure that seems to be the Welsh people’s best hope against the tyranny of the Normans. But what is the Raven King’s connection to Bran, and is the creature, or Bran, all he seems?

Lawhead’s writing is fast-paced and well-plotted, shifting between the Norman and Welsh perspectives. Characters are well-rounded and the landscape of the eleventh century is vividly detailed. He deals confidently with the legend, and seamlessly adds his own touches to the story.

This is a must-read for fans of Lawhead’s other works, readers of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell, David Gemmel, Rosemary Sutcliff, Conn Iggulden and Robin Hobb.

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

(Scarlet, the second in the series was published by Atom in August, and the third in the series - Tuck - will be published mid-2009.)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Killer Year: Stories To Die For", edited by Lee Child

A glorious collection of crime writing’s best new talent

Killer Year is the latest crime/thriller collection from MIRA Books, following the aptly-titled Thriller. The first volume contained a number of established writers – e.g. Brad Thor, John Lescroart, and also Lee Child, who edited this volume. Killer Year, on the other hand, is all about new blood.

It would be easy to write a great deal on each and every one of these 16 stories, but I shall limit myself to a quick nod to the best: Brett Battles’ tale of murder and revenge surrounding an exotic dancing establishment in the Phillippines contains his trademark keen eye for human characters and his brilliantly atmospheric locations. Allison Brennan’s story of grief and state-level politics is a cutting indictment of the privatisation of and the influence of money in government, showing how real people can suffer from politicians greed. Toni McGee Causey’s “A Failure To Communicate” introduces us to Bobbie Faye Sumrall, a true force-of-nature who refuses to play her appointed role as hostage. Other stories and authors to check out would be Jason Pinter’s “The Point Guard” (a botched robbery of a local convenience store has terrible repurcussions), Robert Gregory Browne’s “Bottom Deal” (a down-and-out cop comes to the aid of a friend), and Marcus Sakey’s “Gravity And Need” (a tale of the difference between what someone wants and what someone needs). These are just a handful of the stories contained in Killer Year.

Some of these stories are incredibly short (e.g. J.T. Ellison’s “Prodigal Me” is a mere nine pages long), while others clock in at a more weighty (though still brief) 20-30 pages. What struck me most is that they are all extremely well crafted; each contains enough detail to not leave the reader at sea, tight plotting, great characters, and each story is perfectly summed up. Despite their frugal length, though, every one of these tales is satisfying in itself. Though you will finish wanting more. The best thing about their length is that they lend themselves well to commutes, waiting rooms and lunch-hours.

If, like me, it can sometimes take a little push to try out new authors (if the Waterstone’s 3-for-2 didn’t already get you), Killer Year is the best thing to happen to crime fans. As Lee Child writes in his introduction, this is a “sampler” book, much like the CDs you get mounted on the covers of music magazines, with single tracks by certain up-and-coming bands, aimed at giving you a taste of what is to come. This book contains sample stories by up-and-coming authors, most of whom are likely to enjoy a good deal of success – both because they were included in here, and also because they are just so very good at what they do.

Punchy, expertly crafted thriller tales to whet your appetite for the latest crop of crime writers. Excellent.