Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS - Aliette de Bodard THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Whilst searching the ruins of Paris’ Grands Magasins for vital resources, Philippe and his companion come across a newborn Fallen, an Angel ejected from The City and exiled to the mortal plain. Deciding to harvest the Fallen for artefacts that contain powerful magic, Philippe is caught when members of one of Paris’ great Houses appears to claim the newborn. Bound to the House by Selene, the Head of Silverspires, and to Isabelle, the newborn, after tasting her blood, Philippe has no option but to find a means of escape. Unrest is brewing in Paris, and another war between the great Houses seems inevitable; it’s a situation that could work in Philippe’s favour, but before he can take advantage, he unwittingly unleashes an unspeakable evil on the House, a shadowy creature that roams the Île de la Cité, picking off members of the Household. Along with Isabelle and Madeleine, the House’s alchemist, Philippe discovers a decades-old secret that could destroy Silverspires.

Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel is set in a post-magical-apocalyptic Paris in or around the 1960s. Destroyed during a magical war that coincided, more or less, with the real world’s Great War, Paris is now a city divided into two main classes: the Houses and the Gangs. The Houses for the most part are run by – or heavily populated by – Fallen Angels, exiled from The City for infractions that they can no longer remember. Paris itself has suffered greatly as part of the war: buildings lie in ruins, provisions are scarce, especially for those not affiliated with one of the Houses, and the Seine is a magic-infested cesspool that humans and angels avoid at all costs.

When we enter this strange new world, we meet Philippe, a Vietnamese national who has ended up in Paris against his will: while he looks to be in his early twenties, Philippe was once Immortal, a member of the Jade Emperor’s court. Now hundreds of years old, Philippe has been in Paris for over sixty years, having been conscripted and shipped to France to fight in the war. Wielding a different flavour of magic to the city’s Fallen, Philippe is an enigma to the elders of House Silverspires of whom he becomes a captive before the story has barely started. His bond with Isabelle, a bond formed when he briefly tasted her blood, adds a further dimension to his captivity: Philippe has a constant watcher, and while Isabelle is new to the House, it is clear where her loyalties will ultimately lie.

Much of the action takes place in House Silverspires, which resides in the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral and the other buildings on the Île de la Cité. De Bodard uses multiple viewpoints to give us a rounded understanding of how the Houses work, and of the relationships between the different Houses, without the need for much exposition. These viewpoints show us the House from a number of different perspectives: through the eyes of Philippe, who detests the House system for what it did to him during the war; those of Isabelle, the newest member of the Household; Madeleine, a mortal who spends her days working with magic, and dealing with an addiction that could see her expelled from the House should anyone discover it; and through the eyes of Selene, the Head of the House, and the direct successor of the House’s founder, First of the Fallen, Lucifer Morningstar.

Morningstar himself appears only in fleeting glimpses, in visions that Philippe has because of his connection to the evil that now stalks the House’s residents. There is little need for introduction, and de Bodard uses this to her advantage, tagging on the features that she needs for the Morningstar of her own world: the metal wings that were more than an affectation, the aloof manner. In many ways, each of the central characters is living in Morningstar’s shadow, some more literally than others, and despite being missing from both the story and the world – he hasn’t been seen for twenty years at the point Philippe enters House Silverspires – he remains a palpable presence throughout the novel.

The world de Bodard has created is beautifully-wrought, a post-apocalyptic nightmare unlike any you have seen before. There is a dangerous moment early in the narrative where it looks like the story may well stray into the realms of Twilight, but thankfully that proves not to be the case. This is a violent and dangerous world, populated by violent and dangerous characters, many of whom have the double advantage of being able to wield magic and being immortal. It is, strangely, a novel peopled by religious characters that manages to steer clear of the subject of faith (or Faith), bringing the religious mythology from a number of different backgrounds together in a seamless way to tell this gripping story that defies any single genre classification.

The House of Shattered Wings has all the ingredients a good story needs: a well-developed world populated by identifiable, engaging characters whose fate we care about from the moment we meet them and a story that keeps us turning the pages long past bedtime. Stylishly written, this is the most original piece of fiction – I find that “Fantasy” is far too restrictive – you’re likely to come across this year. A wonderful introduction to Aliette de Bodard, who is already an award-winning short story writer, The House of Shattered Wings is an excellent showcase for this mighty talent and adds yet another author to this reader’s “must-read” list.

August 26, 2015 Posted by | Alternate History, Crime Fiction, Fantasy, Magic, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Author’s Notes: THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

9781473212565 THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

Hardback £20
eBook £10.99

Today marks the publication of Aliette de Bodard’s stunning debut novel, The House of Shattered Wings. To celebrate, and in anticipation of my forthcoming review of the book, I’m very pleased to welcome Aliette to Reader Dad. She has very kindly provided a short excerpt from the book, and a brief commentary of the section by the author herself. Sit back, enjoy, and whatever you do, don’t miss what is probably the most original (urban) fantasy you’re likely to read for a long time.

For a while, [Philippe] hung suspended in time and space; back to a serenity he’d thought lost, doing nothing but letting the world wash over him, every sensation diminishing until he was once more in that quiet, timeless place where his enlightenment took root.

Gradually—and he wasn’t sure why, or how, or when—it all went away, a slow slide from featureless bliss into something stronger, darker; shadows lengthening over the House, until he stood in a room lined with bookshelves, the only furniture of which was a red plush armchair.

Morningstar sat in the chair. Or rather, lounged in it like a sated tiger, his wings shadowing the sharpness of his face. His pale eyes raking Philippe from top to bottom. “So good of you to come. Shall we start, then?” He inclined his head, and between his spread hands magic whirled and danced, a storm of power that pressed against the bookshelves, stifled the air of the room—cut off Philippe’s breath until it was all he could do to stand.

“I can’t—” he started, and Morningstar shook his head.

“This is power. Embrace it, or others will do it, and leave you gasping in the dust.”

Philippe shook his head, or tried to. He couldn’t seem to move, and Morningstar’s presence was as suffocating as ever—lead pressing on his chest, on his fingers—until it seemed that his nails would lengthen and sharpen, becoming the claws of Morningstar’s own hands. . . .

“Come,” Morningstar said, smiling. “There isn’t much time.”

And he found his feet moving of their own accord, his hands reaching for the magic Morningstar was offering; he took one faltering step into the room, even though his skin was being peeled away from muscle and fat, from bones and glistening veins: one step, then another, straight into the growing maelstrom. . . .

Philippe came to with a gasp. He was standing in a room he had never been to, though he recognized it instantly. It was the same room as in his vision, except that it had badly aged. He had vague memories of exiting the cathedral through a side door, following corridor after corridor; gradually leaving behind the more crowded areas until the House became entombed with dust, gray and bowed with the weight of its true age.

Aliette Says…

One of the things I had to decide on with this novel was what I did with Lucifer Morningstar, the founder of the House where most of the action is set. For various reasons, I removed him from the narration: in the book, he’s been missing for twenty years, and the House he founded finds itself without any of the protections he could have provided. But he can still loom pretty large, given the right circumstances.

Also, the relationship between him and Philippe is… interesting: they’re basically polar opposites. Morningstar is the prime symbol of the House system, and one of the foremost characters to benefit from his position as head of the House. Philippe, meanwhile, is the character who loses the most from that system: as a foreigner and a displaced colonial, he’s burning with an understandable hatred for all Houses!

August 20, 2015 Posted by | Author's Notes, Fantasy, Guest Post | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL - Malcolm Mackay EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

Nate Colgan is a name feared throughout the Glasgow underworld. Now, as “security consultant” for the Jamieson organisation, he has the heft to back up the reputation. Nate’s new job coincides with the murder of one of the members of the Jamieson lower echelon; a new group has moved into Glasgow, from south of the border, according to rumours, and they look to be making a move on an organisation they see as weak. With Peter Jamieson and John Young still serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure in HMP Barlinnie, it’s up to Jamieson’s lieutenants – and the very capable hands of his new security consultant – to deal with the threat before the new boys move in, or the organisation fractures under the strain.

In a very short time, Malcolm Mackay has become a name to watch very closely in crime fiction circles. Every Night I Dream of Hell is his fifth outing since he burst onto the scene in 2013 with The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter and takes us back to the now-comfortable haunt of Glasgow’s criminal underbelly, and the gangs that run it. In a departure from earlier books, Mackay opts for a first-person narrative, presenting a much different voice from the chatty one we have grown used to. He also takes one of the characters who has been part of this world since the very beginning – Nate Colgan’s name appears as far back as Lewis Winter – and drags him into the spotlight, not only introducing us to this man we’ve heard so much about but not yet met, but putting us right inside his head.

As with his previous novels, Mackay hooks the reader very early in the story and quickly notches up the tension until it’s almost impossible to put the book down. This is a world with which regular readers are already intimately familiar, so there is little time wasted on backstory or set-up, the author correctly deciding that if the reader hasn’t been here before, it won’t take long to find their way around the convoluted structure of the Jamieson organisation and the city’s other criminal enterprises. Here are characters we’ve met before like Marty Jones and Kevin Currie, and there is as much interest for the reader in how much these characters have changed – how much they have capitalised on the organisation’s current state – since the last time we encountered them.

Nate Colgan himself is a revelation, the perfect example of how the man and the reputation aren’t necessarily the same thing. From the outset it’s clear that Colgan is extremely intelligent, despite his reputation as a hard man, and all that the phrase suggests. This is a man feared throughout Glasgow, yet when we meet him he is much more human than we might have believed. His new position within the organisation seems long overdue, but it’s obvious to the reader – if not the man himself – that he has been hired as much for his wit and intelligence as his muscle. Colgan is a man with few straightforward relationships: he has tried to keep his young daughter as far away from his reputation as possible and the sudden reappearance of the girl’s mother – readers of Lewis Winter will recognise Zara Cope, even with her clothes on – serves only to disrupt his delicate balancing act. Like Mackay’s other great protagonist, Calum MacLean, Colgan attempts to avoid any complex relationships with women for fear of how they might end, or how they might be used as leverage in the wrong hands.

While the voice is necessarily different, the tone of Every Night I Dream of Hell remains very much unchanged from earlier books in the series. This is dark crime at its very best, shot through with brief glimpses of light and humour. While Colgan may not necessarily be a good man caught in a bad situation, the reader can still feel some sympathy for him; this man who may have made stupid decisions earlier in life and who is now trapped because of them. Mackay has said the decision to use first person was a difficult one to make, but it suits this story and has been used to its advantage: in contrast to earlier books, there is an element of mystery surrounding the events of Every Night I Dream of Hell, an element that allows both Colgan and the reader to put on their deerstalkers, suck at their meerschaum pipes and wonder “whodunit?”. Mackay’s previous, all-encompassing style of storytelling may have made it more difficult to hide the clues than by keeping the novel’s protagonist in the dark.

One of the key strengths of Mackay’s storytelling is his ability to avoid absolutes: there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” here, just varying shades of “questionable”, regardless of what side of the law they’re on. DI Michael Fisher, who put Jamieson away, returns and even his motives aren’t entirely clear. This is the dark underworld of Glasgow, and Mackay knows that there is no saviour, there’s just the status quo and the bad things that sometimes must happen to ensure that it isn’t interrupted. For this reason, if for no other, Colgan is the perfect man to stand at the centre of Every Night I Dream of Hell: his thought processes and very character mirror on a smaller scale what is happening around him.

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.

August 13, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Fanboy Gushings | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

WAY DOWN DARK by J. P. Smythe

WDD WAY DOWN DARK (Book 1 of The Australia Trilogy)

J. P. Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

When Chan Aitch’s mother dies, she leaves a gaping hole in the so-called power structure aboard the Australia. Chan is left to pick up the pieces, and attempt to defend the part of the ship previously controlled by her mother against the Lows, who are set on taking complete control at the cost of the lives of anyone who does not believe in their extreme philosophy. But the Australia holds many secrets, from Chan herself, and from the rest of the people aboard, secrets that will call into question the very reason for their existence. As violence threatens to consume the entire ship, Chan realises that there may be a way to escape, and to save the ship’s innocents in the process.

With his latest novel, Way Down Dark, James Smythe moves into the realms of Young Adult fiction, though this is like no YA fiction that you’ve seen before – as dark as the title suggests, this is an intense and frightening novel with more than a little adult appeal.

Set in a far future, Way Down Dark tells the story of a small portion of the human race sent into space after catastrophic events have made the Earth all but inhabitable. Their mission, several hundred years and many generations later, is to find a habitable planet, and rebuild civilisation from the ground up. Their home for all that time, the giant spaceship Australia, a sort of Mega-City One Block-in-space.

When we encounter Chan and the Australia, we find ourselves on board a ship that is the very definition of “run down” – lights don’t work; air and water processing systems are patchy; and the floor of the towering structure is buried under hundreds of years of filth and refuse and the bodies of those who have died during the ship’s long journey. Imagining the worst possible scenario, Smythe gives us a population that has split into a number of distinct groups. On one side are those struggling to survive; on the other, the Lows, tattooed and maimed madmen and –women who want control of the whole ship whatever the cost. Aloof from (and quite literally above) both groups are the mysterious Pale Women, a semi-religious cult who seem to have plans for Chan.

From the outset, the tension is palpable, and Smythe succeeds in making us feel claustrophobic despite the size of the ship in which Chan is imprisoned. Chan is the perfect guide for our journey into this strange new place: she is deeply conflicted and still mourning the loss of her mother, but manages to find the strength to stand up to the constant advances of the Lows into the territory that she has inherited. There are several detours into the head of Agatha, her mother’s friend and a guardian angel of sorts for the girl who she first saved many years earlier, which gives us a look at Chan’s family history, and a better understanding of the currently politics of Australia.

Smythe’s latest novel has much to recommend it: his track record in writing gripping, engaging and thought-provoking science fiction; the shift from HarperCollins to Hodder & Stoughton whose own track record with the genre is second to none. But the story itself, and the characters that inhabit it, is, as always, the biggest draw to a Smythe novel. The word “Smythesque” has been bandied about for some time, and there is a definite style, a definite theme, for want of a better word, that sets his novels apart from those of his contemporaries. Unfortunately for Smythe, the reader will always have a set of preconceived notions of what his books should be. Fortunately for the reader, Smythe shows us that he can meet these expectations in many ways, but that he can also surprise us: the novel we think we’re reading as Way Down Dark opens is very different from the novel we find ourselves holding as we close the back cover, and it leaves us crying out for the next instalment of this excellent new trilogy.

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

July 24, 2015 Posted by | Fanboy Gushings, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GUEST POST: Thriller vs Horror by TIM LEBBON

Hunt Front Cover hi-res NEW Name: TIM LEBBON (writing as T.J. Lebbon)

Author of: WHITE (1999)
                 BERSERK (2006)
                 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
                 COLDBROOK (2012)
                 THE HUNT (2015)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

Tim Lebbon, best known for his horror novels, is releasing his first thriller (under the name T.J. Lebbon) on 16th July. It’s a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat beauty, and I will be reviewing it here on Reader Dad next week. For now, I’m very pleased – not to mention excited – to welcome Tim to the blog, to talk about the differences between writing in the two genres.

They say you should write about what you know. That’s interesting advice when you’re a horror and dark fantasy writer. I’ve never met zombies and have never seen a ghost, but the advice is not literal. I know about fear and loss, love and grief, and it’s this aspect of what you know that you try to inject into a story to bring it to life.

If you have seen a ghost, all the better.

Until I wrote The Hunt, everything I ever wrote had some element of the supernatural or fantastic about it. This includes over thirty novels (seven in collaboration with Christopher Golden), over twenty novellas, and hundreds of shorts stories, as well as several screenplays. I’ve often been asked why I write horror, and my answers vary quite a bit. Mostly, I just say that it’s the way my parents put my hat on. I don’t like to analyse why I write what I do, in the same why I don’t think too much about why I prefer red wine over white, rock and punk instead of pop, or red meat instead of fish. It’s a matter of taste, and taste is part of what makes us unique.

And then I wrote a thriller.

I’ve been wanting to write a thriller for some time. Part of it was wanting to stretch my writer’s wings a little and see if I could write something that has no supernatural elements. I’ve stopped and started a few thrillers over the years, and one or two of these have changed into horror or even fantasy novels. But with The Hunt I knew what it was right from the beginning.

And it really was writing about what I knew.

I got into endurance sports a little over four years ago. I went from a standing start––overweight and unfit, I found a sport I loved, and it really changed my life. I’ve written elsewhere about the process, what I went through, and how it all happened. Suffice to say, a little over two years after starting to exercise seriously (at the age of 41) I raced my first Ironman. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon, all in under seventeen hours.

I started to learn about effort and pain, the physiology of exercise, the feeling of being up in the hills tired and thirsty and hurting, and still have a few miles to go until home. I loved it. I enjoyed being alone, and discovering a sport which is all about yourself, not teammates.

Being a writer, I knew that I’d write about this one day.

The Hunt is the result, a novel written with no contract in place, and definitely one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had.

So what was the difference between writing The Hunt and any of the horror/fantasy novels I’ve written? In truth, very little difference. The process was the same, and perhaps the greatest change was the amount of research involved in this book over others.

Firstly, I wanted to really use my new experiences as an endurance sports competitor. That was writing about what I knew (or what I was still learning a lot about, at least). Secondly, I had to get the landscape right. Set in the mountains of Wales, I needed to know the nature of the hills and valleys, their ruggedness and beauty, the weather, flora and fauna. Whereas in my fantasy novels I’d been able to make this all up (the sentient tumbleweed in Dusk being a particular favourite), in The Hunt I had to get it right. Although I did take geographical liberties, I like to think I got the feel of the mountains and wilderness just right.

I also had to research trophy hunting. That wasn’t very nice, and perhaps that’s the closest I got to horror with this novel.

Other aspects of writing remained the same. My characters were still thrust into shocking and dangerous situations, the only difference being that the main threat was from other people, not something supernatural (and aren’t we the scariest monsters anyway?).

I suppose the biggest difference about writing The Hunt has been since I’ve actually finished the writing process. After selling it to the very wonderful Avon, I soon came to realise that here I was, over thirty novels into my career, and now I was a debut novelist again! It was a strange feeling, but a strangely liberating one, too. I’m sure a few people will see through the cunning pseudonym of T. J. Lebbon, but working with Avon and their splendid PR company The Light Brigade has been a unique experience for me. I have features and interviews upcoming in the national press, and next week when the paperback is released I’ll see it on supermarket shelves. These are both new experiences for me.

As a debut novelist, these are exciting times!

July 9, 2015 Posted by | Guest Post, Horror, Thriller | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

COMPETITION: Win a Copy of Jonathan Freedland’s THE 3RD WOMAN

The 3rd Woman Jacket image THE THIRD WOMAN

Jonathan Freedland (www.jonathanfreedland.com)

HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£12.99

To celebrate the release on July 2nd of Jonathan Freedland’s exciting new thriller, The 3rd Woman, which I will be reviewing here soon, those lovely folks at HarperCollins Publishers have given us three copies of the novel to give away. It couldn’t be simpler to be in with a chance to win: simply click here to send me an email with the answer to the question below as well as your name and postal address:

The 3rd Woman is Jonathan Freedland’s first novel published under his own name, but it’s not his first published novel. Jonathan has had a successful career publishing thrillers under a well-know pseudonym. What is it?

Entries must be received by midnight on Thursday 9th July, and the winners will be notified on Friday 10th July. This competition is open to UK residents only.

Don’t forget to follow the The Third Woman tour (see the banner for details), keep up to date with the buzz on Twitter and check back next week when I will be posting my own thoughts on the novel.

JFBLOGTOURBANNER

July 4, 2015 Posted by | Competition, Crime Fiction, Thriller | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

STALLO by Stefan Spjut

Stallo STALLO

Stefan Spjut

Translated by Susan Beard

Faber & Faber (www.faber.co.uk)

£14.99

In the summer of 1978 young Marcus Brodin disappears from the cabin he is sharing with his mother in the remote woods of central Sweden. His mother claims he was taken by a giant, but her reliance on prescription drugs makes her an unreliable witness. A decade later, wildlife photographer Gunnar Myrén takes a photograph of a bear from his small aircraft; there is a small creature riding on the bear’s back. Gunnar is convinced that this creature is a troll. In 2004 Gunnar’s granddaughter Susso runs a website dedicated to proving the existence of so-called mythical creatures. When she is contacted by an old woman who claims that a tiny man has been watching her house, Susso finds herself coming face-to-face with irrevocable evidence that her grandfather was right, that trolls exist in the Swedish hinterlands. Now she must use her knowledge to find young Mattias Mickelsson before he suffers the same fate that Marcus Brodin suffered over twenty-five years earlier.

John_Bauer_1915Trolls are a part of the global consciousness, mythical creatures that we’ve all heard of, and whose physical aspect, whether we know it or not, has been shaped by the work of the likes of Rolf Lidberg and John Bauer (right). Tapping into a wealth of Swedish folklore, Stefan Spjut has built a fascinating – if frightening – story around a credible and engaging premise. The strength of Stallo lies in the characters with which the novel is populated, from Susso and her mother, to Seved and Börje who act as keepers for the giant creatures of the novel’s title: stallo are mythical shape-shifting creatures from the far northern depths of Sweden. From the outset, we’re invested in the lives of these people, and it is as much our need to know who they are and what will become of them that propels us through the story as it is the relatively straightforward plot itself.

In the tradition of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In, of which Stallo is very reminiscent – even beyond the Swedish setting, there is something about the novel’s language and pace that will remind readers of that earlier novel – this is horror of the most quiet variety. There is little in the way of violence, and with the exception of one or two key scenes, much of the tension and sense of horror is built through suggestion as Spjut slowly reveals what these creatures are and what they want.

Spjut has pulled a very clever move in not making the trolls the true villains of the piece, but rather their human keepers. Much of the violence is perpetrated at Lennart’s command and while the stallo are certainly a frightening prospect, they play a decidedly passive role in the proceedings. The reader comes away with a sense that, in their own way, they are good and reasonable beings who have fallen under the care of people who epitomise the darker side of the human condition.

The novel’s setting will be familiar to many readers of the recent Scandi-crime wave. Set mainly in the northern city of Kiruna (which will be familiar to readers of the novels of Åsa Larsson), the action moves across much of the country, taking in the area around Lake Vättern in the south, as well as the country’s capital, Stockholm. The central characters are constantly on the move, and this allows Spjut not only to show off some of the highlights of his beautiful country, but also how the mythology of trolls differs from one end of the country to the other.

As the wave of Scandi-crime reaches its peak, it seems that Scandi-horror might be the next big thing in the world of genre literature (I have already been asked to look at a Swedish anthology of horror stories by some of the country’s biggest names in the genre, which I hope to review here soon). Very different from the type of horror we’re used to seeing here in the UK and in the US, Stallo is most definitely in the same vein as Let The Right One In. This is literary horror, designed to make the reader stop of wonder “what if…?”, to sow the seeds of discomfort and unease that grow over time, rather than to hit the reader with a short, sharp fright that they will laugh off and forget by the end of the chapter. Most interesting, perhaps, is the choice of creature, something that we see very rarely (the last I can remember is the 2010 Norwegian film, Trollhunter), which helps to make the story feel fresh and interesting, rather than another rehash of a tired old trope. Not that Spjut needs much help on that score: his characters are pitch perfect, his slowly unfolding plot engaging and surprising, and his use of language – ably translated into English by Susan Beard – sublime and beautiful.

Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.

June 25, 2015 Posted by | Horror, Magic, Scandinavian | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

EXTRACT From STEEPLE by Jon Wallace & COMPETITION

STEEPLE - Jon Wallace STEEPLE

Jon Wallace (jonwallace.co)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£16.99

Today marks the publication of Steeple, the second book set in Jon Wallace’s post-apocalyptic world that we first saw in Barricade. To celebrate, we have a wonderful extract from the book, as well as a competition to win a paperback copy of Barricade.


I drain my cup of soup. Adede expects a pleasantry.
‘You have a good home,’ I say.
‘Thank you. Thank you.’
‘I must return to work now.’
I pick up my tool bag and leave the shack, heading for the north-south avenue. The sky over the city is suddenly dark, a new storm gathering.
I hear a commotion, children screaming in excitement. I turn towards the noise and a large group of young people laughing and yelling. They are gathered in a circle around a concrete slab.
William is the centre of attention, sitting on a BMX, absently watching as his sister lies down on the concrete. She holds out her arms, a huge smile on her face.
William waits for the crowd to settle, then sits up on his bike. He rolls it towards his sister and jumps the bike. He lands the front wheel between her right arm and chest. The crowd gasps, watching as he holds the bike, twisting on its front wheel, rear wheel aloft like bucking hind legs.
He spins anticlockwise, then jumps again, landing the front wheel the other side of Mary’s chest, rear wheel still raised. The children chant, arms thrown up:
‘Will-yam, Will-yam, Will-yam!’
He does not react, fixed in concentration. He jumps again, dropping onto his rear wheel this time, and begins bouncing the bike around his sister – to the left of her head, to the right, then either side of her chest, her waist, her legs, stopping below her feet. There he spins again, manipulating the bike like a fifth limb.
Huge excitement. Screams of disbelief. None are louder than Mary, who rolls and chokes on her laughter. William rides in a slow circle around her, acknowledging his audience with a wave. Such skill.
Then, over the children’s cheers, I hear a different sound: a wave of fright, rolling up the shanty from the south. William hears it too. He stops his bike.
‘Wossat?’
I leap onto the nearest roof and peer down the hill. A crowd of men are pouring through a breach in the south fence. Most are on foot, but some are on horseback. They shoot down shanty dwellers, toss petrol bombs, hammer and kick at the shacks. Many of them carry flags, bearing a symbol like a wolf’s head. Under the icon is smeared the word ‘Truth’.


I leave the children and cut through the alleyways, heading for the avenue, almost knocking Adede over as I break into a clearing. I tell her to locate her daughter and get to the high ground.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asks.
‘I am going to expel them from the premises.’
‘Are you mad?’
‘They are trespassing. I am empowered to defend the site.’
‘They’ll kill you!’
‘Unlikely.’
I leave her, press on to the avenue and head for the slaughter at the southern fence. I can see an invader on horseback, directing the people on foot. His nostrils are as flared as his mount’s.
I leap, drag him off his steed, toss him back towards the fence. I claim his seat, but his horse bucks when I try to steer. I struggle with the reins until I realise I am hurting the animal, and relax my grip.
The horse calms, snorts and stamps the mud. I am turning it towards the fence when I hear the whining noise. The unmistakable rasp of drone engines, overhead. I glance up at the storm clouds, pick out grey T-shapes, flocking.
Wait, I think.
Wait.
The ground shakes. A flash and deafening crack, and suddenly I am slapped to the earth and pinned under the horse. I claw at the mud, drag free of the burning animal, into a cloud of black, sulphurous smoke. I trip up the side of the bomb crater, over body parts and wreckage, breathing poison air.
My avenue is packed with wailing people. They back away from me, frightened by my burning skin. Adede emerges from the pack, her clothes stained with blood. Her eyes are cloudy and unfocused, until she notices me. She bares her teeth and screams.
‘You brought them here! Truth League hates Ficials. They wouldn’t have come here if not for you! They wouldn’t have bombed us if not for you!’
That is untrue.
‘William is DEAD! Their bomb killed my boy!’
She drops to her knees, wailing, clutching her chest.
What does she expect me to do?
She said herself: she would lose at least one child.


Extract 3: p89-90 and p97-98

From author Jon Wallace:

Reason: This extract is a good window into the world that created Kenstibec – a future Britain explored through a flashback story that runs throughout Steeple, showing the invulnerable, calculating Kenstibec as he was when still ‘factory fresh’. These two flashbacks show his first halting interactions with people (refugees) and his first encounters with the pre-war world of chaos and mindless violence that is hurtling towards destruction. It’s a different kind of writing to the main story but essential to both Barricade and Steeple.

barricade-cover-jon-wallace-gollanczCOMPETITION

To celebrate the publication of Steeple the fine folks at Gollancz have given us a couple of copies of Jon’s first book, Barricade, to give away. To enter, post a comment below proving that you’re human, before midnight next Thursday 25th June. Winners will be announced next Friday. Unfortunately, this competition is only open to UK residents.

June 18, 2015 Posted by | Extract, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

SEVENEVES - Neal Stephenson SEVENEVES

Neal Stephenson (www.nealstephenson.com)

The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)

£20.00

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero.

An unknown Agent has split the moon into seven pieces, which remain in the moon’s original orbit around the Earth. When two of the pieces collide, causing fragmentation, Dr Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris – Doob – discovers that in two years the fragmentation will reach a saturation point and will submit the planet below to a five-thousand-year bombardment during which all life will be destroyed. Using the technology available to them, the world’s foremost scientists and space agencies design a Cloud Ark centred around the existing International Space Station, a structure that will save several thousand people and, theoretically at least, allow them to become self-sufficient in space until the Earth is once again habitable. Five thousand years later, the human race is now seven distinct races, descended from seven Eves who survived the early years of the Cloud Ark’s existence, and the terraforming of New Earth is almost complete: Kath Amalthova Two, along with one representative from each of the other six races, is chosen for a secret mission to the planet’s surface where an incredible discovery has been made.

There is a sense of great anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a new, weighty Neal Stephenson tome. Mainly because the reader has no idea what to expect until they start reading (previous books range from Seventeenth Century adventures to cryptography, from eco-thriller to cyberpunk classic), except that there is a good chance that they will be entertained and enlightened in equal measure. Seveneves is no exception, and sees Stephenson enter the realms of hard science fiction, which he touched upon briefly in 2008’s excellent Anathem.

Seveneves takes no time in catching the reader’s attention (“The moon blew up…”) before spending some time introducing the core characters and concepts of the novel. Taking an interesting approach to the apocalyptic trope, Stephenson presents an escape route for humanity based solely on the technology that is available now. So don’t expect starships with hyperdrives or warp engines, but rather a loosely-couple collection of “arklets” that are centred around the existing International Space Station, or Izzy. As always, Stephenson has a keen insight into how technology actually works versus how it’s supposed to work. Using the concept of cloud-based computing technology as a basis for the Cloud Ark, he presents a picture of autonomous craft across which the human race – as well as the data and genetic materials required to rebuild the planet – is spread, so that if one craft is destroyed, very little is lost in the grand scheme of things. In the true spirit of necessity being the mother of invention, there is a more practical reason for this approach, which is to be able to avoid the bolides that will eventually be thrown their way from the moon’s remains. But of course, things don’t end up working as they were originally designed, so much of what the Cloud Ark should have been is effectively “de-scoped” in order to have a workable plan within the two-year timescales imposed by Doob’s calculations. “Done is better than perfect,” as any software engineer will tell you.

The Cloud Ark wouldn’t be anything if it didn’t have a human population on-board. As the book’s title suggests, this is very much a female-driven narrative with many of the central roles both “today” and “five thousand years later” filled by strong female role models: Dinah, the miner’s daughter who has been stationed on Izzy for a year before the moon blows up, using her robots to mine the huge chunk of rock and iron – once an asteroid – that has been attached to the space station’s forward end; Ivy, Izzy’s commander and a skilled pilot who will ultimately bring the remains of the human race to safety; Julia Bliss Flaherty, the US President who will become a thorn in the side of humanity’s remains in the years following the moon’s disintegration; Kath Two, through whose eyes we witness the birth of New Earth five thousand years after the destruction of Old Earth. There are, of course, strong male counterparts – Doob; Sean Probst, the owner of the mining company for which Dinah works, who goes on a mission of his own to find water for the Ark – but they tend to take a back seat to the novel’s women.

The first two-thirds of the book concern themselves with the three or four years immediately following Zero, and allows us to see the creation of the Cloud Ark through to the Hard Rain that wipes the face of the planet clean, and the desperate run to the Ark’s – and humanity’s – final resting place. The characters here are people we know, people with whom we can identify, people who we feel – for the most part – will make good ambassadors for the human race. And in the best tradition of Stephenson fiction, the narrative is liberally scattered with technical discussions and all the information we need in order to understand the situation on the Ark: how nuclear reactors work; what delta vee is, and how it is used to move between different orbits; a very brief introduction to orbital mechanics and Lagrangian points. It’s vital to understanding the story, and Stephenson presents the facts in a way that are easy to absorb and leaves us with the satisfied feeling that we have learned something new, and have enjoyed ourselves in the process. The story is infused with plenty of tension and until the two-thirds mark there is no guarantee as to the outcome or survival rate of the people who were lucky enough to make it off the doomed planet and onto the Ark.

The book’s final third is set five thousand years later, and the human race has re-established itself in a habitat ring that completely encircles Earth. Down on the surface TerReform are working to re-create the flora and fauna that once populated Old Earth from the surviving genetic samples. Stephenson takes time introducing us to the habitat ring, and to Cradle, the city at the end of a massive tether that has the ability to touch down on the planet’s surface. We also get a flavour of the political situation and it’s easy to see that little has changed on this front in the intervening period. Here the characters are less familiar, the descendants of genetically-modified children bred to have certain qualities depending on the wishes of each of the seven women – the Seven Eves of the novel’s title – on whom it falls to re-create the human race. But we still have plenty of time to get to know them (one third of this novel is almost three-hundred pages, which is a decent-sized novel in itself), and their peculiarities, as their mission to the planet’s surface progresses. Here we find the resolutions to a number of loose ends that Stephenson seemingly leaves dangling at the end of the book’s first section, and the results are as surprising as they are satisfying to the reader’s curiosity.

Throughout, Stephenson attempts to maintain some grounding in fact, ensuring that the science behind his inventions is as sound as possible, while still allowing him to manipulate the characters and their environments to suit the direction of the story. Seveneves presents us with a view of the apocalypse from the outside; these are people who have survived through escape, rather than through some freak immunity or well-constructed bunker system. His approach makes the travails of Ivy, Dinah, Doob et al thoroughly believable, and his characterisations ensure that these are people we care about, people we want to succeed not just because of the consequences, but because they are people we care about, people that we feel deserve some kind of break after what the author puts them through.

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

June 15, 2015 Posted by | Fanboy Gushings, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, Science Fiction | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

FINDERS KEEPERS by Stephen King

FINDERS KEEPERS - Stephen King FINDERS KEEPERS

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

“Shit don’t mean shit.”

In 1978 reclusive American literary great John Rothstein is murdered in the remote New Hampshire farm where he has spent the past 16 years. His safe is emptied, not only of the cash that he keeps there, but also of 150 or so notebooks which are believed to contain at least one new novel and countless short stories and story fragments. Morris Bellamy, the man who has just shot John Rothstein, considers himself the author’s biggest fan, whose only friend during his formative years was Rothstein’s greatest creation, Jimmy Gold. When Bellamy’s friend Andy Halliday refuses to help him sell on the notebooks – once Morris has read them, of course – Bellamy buries books and money in a trunk and promptly finds himself serving life in prison for a drink-fuelled rape that he has no memory of committing.

Thirty years later, Pete Saubers finds Bellamy’s trunk and recognises the value not only of the countless envelopes of money, but also of the notebooks that have remained hidden for so long. Tom Saubers, Pete’s father, is a victim of the recession and, to add insult to injury, is one of the people in line for the City Center Job Fair on that fateful morning when Brady Hartfield ploughs through it in a stolen Mercedes. When Pete approaches Andrew Halliday to try to sell Rothstein’s notebooks, he has no idea that it will coincide with Morris Bellamy’s parole. And Morris has waited thirty-five years to find out what happened to Jimmy Gold after Rothstein’s last published novel.

The first third of Stephen King’s latest novel, the follow-up to last year’s hugely successful Mr Mercedes, alternates between Morris Bellamy in 1978, and Pete Saubers as the first decade of the Twenty-first Century draws to a close, and the second sees a whole new life for his financially-strapped family. As well as giving us an in-depth insight into Morris Bellamy’s obsession, a different type of madness than drove Brady Hartfield, but no less dangerous in the long run, this section allows us to revisit the terrible Mercedes killings, and view the aftermath from the point of view of one of the survivors, and his young family. As always, King’s insight into the mind of Joe Q Public is second-to-none and we feel the pain and stress that threatens to tear the Saubers family apart, and understand the relief they feel when anonymous envelopes of money begin to appear in the mailbox.

Finders Keepers also, of course, sees the return of Kermit William “Bill” Hodges, retired City Police Detective who now runs the eponymous investigation company. He is approached by Pete’s little sister, who believes that the anonymous money has come from her brother, and that he may have done something bad to obtain it in the first place. Finding ourselves in the company of Bill once again – not to mention his unlikely sidekicks Holly and Jerome – is like finding ourselves in the company of an entertaining old friend. Hodges has changed much in the four years since the events of Mr Mercedes, not all for the good, but his mind is as sharp as ever and he is still a believable protagonist in the hands of King.

This second outing for Hodges et al takes a slightly different approach than the first. Instead of the straight crime novel we might have expected, King has injected Finders Keepers with a number of elements that bode ill for our heroes in the third book of the trilogy, and which are of a decidedly otherwordly origin. There are links here to King’s other works that are more overt than Mr Mercedes’ links to the likes of Christine and It: the number on the door of Brady Hartfield’s hospital room, for example, or the strange occurrences reported by the hospital staff, and the unforgettable clack! that will send a shiver down every Constant Reader’s spine. Hodges’ world is maybe not as close to ours as we imagined after reading Mr Mercedes, but is perhaps on a different level of the Dark Tower altogether.

There is a more obvious connection to one of King’s early greats: Morris Bellamy’s obsession with John Rothstein pales in comparison with that of Annie Wilkes for Paul Sheldon, but there are certainly parallels. Both have become so emotionally attached to their respective authors’ creations – Jimmy Gold for Bellamy; Misery Chastain for Wilkes – that any deviation from their idealised view of that character sends them into a murderous rage. Unlike Wilkes, Bellamy shoots Jimmy Gold’s creator in the head and hopes that the character’s salvation lies within the pages of the many notebooks that Rothstein has filled during his sixteen-year reclusion. The fact that Bellamy will have to wait over thirty years before he will get a chance to see what is in those notebooks is the ultimate irony. King is no stranger to obsessive fans, and he channels this knowledge into making Bellamy’s madness not only believable, but extremely frightening. And the appearance of the word “do-bee” will give anyone who has read Misery a severe dose of the willies.

A tale of obsession and family loyalty, Finders Keepers follows a similar formula to Mr Mercedes: a slow start (aside from the first chapter) during which we get to meet the main characters, leading to a fast-paced and intense climax during which nothing is guaranteed and both obsession – Bellamy’s need to see what is in the notebooks a driving force which blots out everything else – and family loyalty are put to the test. This is classic King: a character-driven story that worms its way deep into the reader’s life through the author’s grasp of how people work. Hodges and friends play a less central role than they did in their previous outing – the main story here concerns the parallels between Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers – but King is laying groundwork for the trilogy’s closing chapter, preparing for an epic battle between good and evil that is likely to rival The Stand.

Finders Keepers is yet another unmissable addition to the King canon, a work that focuses on story and character rather than genre. An in-depth examination of the nature of obsession, something that King has looked at many times before, most notably in Misery, this is a beautifully-written novel that makes us empathise with Morris Bellamy while at the same time wanting to distance ourselves from him at all costs: “that’s not me!” we tell ourselves, but we’re left with the disturbing question of what we would do ourselves were we in Morris Bellamy’s shoes. This is Stephen King at his best, a writer with no equal producing work that continues to surprise, delight and horrify in equal measure.

June 1, 2015 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Crime Fiction, Fanboy Gushings, Horror, Thriller | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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