Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



GOLDEN SON by Pierce Brown


Pierce Brown (

Hodder & Stoughton (


Two years after his victory at the Institute, Darrow au Andromedus, the Red who now lives the life of a Gold, is on the cusp of repeating the trick at the Academy, and gaining command of a fleet of Gold vessels. It is a surprise to everyone, then, when he is defeated in the final battle, and a bigger surprise to Darrow to learn that his sponsor and protector will be cutting him free following his failure to gain control of the fleet. In a race against time, Darrow must find a way to remain under the protection of House Augustus in order to stay alive long enough to progress his true mission: the downfall of the Gold’s Society from the inside. As civil war looms, Darrow will find his loyalties tested, and his own sense of identity increasingly blurred.

Returning to the world and characters he created in Red Rising, Pierce Brown takes us once again into the head of Darrow, the Red miner who has turned Gold in order to help free his people. Within a handful of pages, the reader will feel comfortable with this familiar world, with the idiosyncrasies of the language, and with the relationships between the characters. Of course, it is imperative to read Red Rising first, or very little will make sense. What Brown began sketching out in that first novel on a small scale, we now see on a much larger canvas, as the author expands the scope of the story out into the solar system, much of which has been colonised by the Golds. From the old ways that we grew used to on Mars – the ancient Roman setting an effect broken only by the occasional glimpse of technology – we move into epic space opera, fleets of gleaming spaceships, giant behemoths that make Battlestar Galactica look like a lifeboat, and the threat of looming war is apparent from the outset.

Much has changed in the intervening two years, and Darrow finds himself the centre of an odd circle of friends. Relations with Mustang, the girl to whom he grew close during their time in the Institute, and the daughter of his patron, are strained following his decision to enter the Academy. This is the first sign we, the reader, see that the transition from Red to Gold may have affected more than just Darrow’s body: there is a hunger for power (admittedly, we are fairly certain that it is all for the greater good, but there is still plenty of room for doubt), something that we might associate more with the Golds than with the lowReds from whence Darrow came. This is a theme that recurs throughout the novel, and Darrow frequently questions his own motives, seeing in himself a man he has no desire to be, a man his wife would not – could not – ever have loved.

As the story progresses, Brown begins to drip-feed us answers to some of the questions that remained unanswered at the end of the first book: who are the Sons of Ares, for example, and what, exactly is their game plan? As friendships shrivel and die, Darrow quickly comes to understand that he has some very dangerous enemies who know a little bit too much about his origins. It becomes difficult to know who can be trusted, who is waiting to plunge the knife once his back is turned, and the reader feels as helpless as Darrow since we know only what he knows. In a shocking revelation as the story heads towards a stormy and cliff-hanging climax, Brown pulls the carpet from under our feet and completely changes the nature of the game; everything we thought we understood about what Darrow is doing, what his mission is all about, is called into question in a single moment of magic.

All of the elements that made Red Rising such a special book are present and accounted for in this second outing, but the increase in scope allows Brown to play around a bit more with the ideas and concepts that make up this world he has created. Edge of the seat thrills coupled with scenes that take place on a cinematic scale make this an entirely engrossing read. Darrow, although changed from our first encounter with him, is still as engaging as ever, and it is his journey that we keep coming back for. In the tradition of the finest “middle volumes” of classic trilogies, Golden Son builds on the world created in the first volume, makes us rethink what we thought we knew, and finishes on a bang that will ensure we’re all waiting impatiently for the trilogy’s final instalment.

A stunning space opera of epic proportions, Golden Son is gripping and intense at times, tender and funny at others. It takes the story begun in Red Rising in unexpected directions and manages to be that most rare of beasts: the sequel that surpasses the original. If you enjoyed Red Rising, Golden Son will knock your socks off. If you’ve yet to experience Pierce Brown’s multi-coloured world, you will definitely want to be caught up before the third volume drops next year. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

BARRICADE by Jon Wallace

barricade-cover-jon-wallace-gollancz BARRICADE

Jon Wallace (

Gollancz (


In the near future, humans create the Ficials, an engineered race of post-humans who are designed – optimised – for specific tasks, and who are virtually indestructible. Under the central command of Control, the Ficials rise against their human creators, and begin a country-wide cull. Following a nuclear strike, the Ficials retreat to the cities – barricades – while the humans, or Reals, take control of the countryside. Kenstibec, a Ficial, was optimised for construction. In this post-apocalyptic world, there is not much call for his skills, and so he drives a taxi, transporting fares between barricades through the dangerous Real-controlled countryside. His latest job is the transport of a celebrity, a reporter, from Edinburgh to London.

When we first meet Kenstibec, it is in the form of a flashback, as he hangs in a recovery shed, regenerating from a serious injury in pre-apocalyptic Britain. This flashback, along with a series of others scattered throughout the book serve to give us some of the history which leads to the current state of affairs, and shows a rapid decline from ideal world to complete annihilation in a very short space of time. These flashbacks also serve as brief respite from the full-on action that defines much of the post-apocalyptic section of the novel. In this section, Kenstibec is a much different creature, whose optimisation has been forgotten in favour of driving a taxi, a job that comes with a certain amount of violence, to which Kenstibec appears to have taken quite easily.

There are elements here that we have seen before, from a wide range of influences: the Ficials probably most closely resemble Blade Runner‘s replicants, or the Cylons from the recent run of Battlestar Galactica – to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from humans, except that, internally, their bodies and brains are wired slightly differently; there are elements here of 28 Days Later (the road-trip section of that film is almost certainly a forerunner for Kenstibec’s southbound dash) and of Robert McCammon’s Swan Song though, if anything, the aftereffects of nuclear and/or chemical warfare play an even more important part in Barricade than they do in that classic of the genre. But there is one vital twist to Barricade that makes it stand out, makes it something special: Kenstibec, through whose eyes we see this incredibly detailed world, is a Ficial, a man intent on the destruction – culling, as it is almost comically known to the Ficials – of the human race. It’s an unusual angle, like The Walking Dead from the point of view of the zombies, but despite the stiff and robot-like personality that lies at Kenstibec’s core, it’s an angle that works extremely well, and offers a fresh perspective on the genre.

Kenstibec has been compared to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs. It’s easy to see why the comparison is made, but it’s a little too easy – and a little too trite – to compare the two. Despite the programming that drives him, Kenstibec has a unique outlook on life, coupled with a dark sense of humour and an almost-human desire for violence. Jon Wallace has pulled off quite a feat in his debut novel: he has created a character that is at once interesting enough to carry the reader along on the story, and also "underdeveloped" (not as a character, but as a person) enough to come across as not quite human. The contrast between him and the other Ficials, and him and any Reals we encounter, is interesting to watch, and shows that Kenstibec may well be a bridge between the two races, a man not quite one nor the other.

In the midst of all this action and world-building, Wallace still manages to take time out to poke fun at our current way of life, and at the cult of celebrity. Kenstibec’s fare – Starvie – has an interesting past that Kenstibec discovers when he sees a picture of her half-naked on the cover of a mens’ magazine; and when we meet the self-styled King of Newcastle, we learn that his celebrity in his former life is one of the main reasons for his elevated position in this one. These observations, through the eyes of a man designed not to be interested in such things, holds a mirror up to modern Britain and shows a somewhat unflattering reflection. Also included is a "god moment", which becomes inevitable from the moment Wallace introduces Dr Leo Pander, the man behind the genesis of the Ficial race, but the outcome of this meeting is not at all what the reader might expect and serves only to cement the impression we already have of Kenstibec.

At less than three hundred pages in length, Barricade is a refreshingly short and sweet addition to the genre, though it does little more than whet the appetite for the world. Whether Kenstibec will – or, indeed, should – be part of any further visits to Wallace’s post-apocalyptic Britain remains to be seen, but the world itself – and the history of how humanity reached this point – deserves a lot more investigation. I, for one, would welcome more of these bite-size chunks.

Start-to-finish action in a thoughtfully-constructed and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic Britain, Barricade introduces a brilliant new voice in the genre. With characters that we are drawn to, despite the fact that they would typically be the "enemy" in any other novel of this type, and a wicked sense of humour, Jon Wallace gives us a glimpse into one possible version of hell-on-earth that, in this world of constant technological advancement, could be just around the corner. Blistering pace and attention to detail (welcome to a world trapped in the midst of nuclear winter) combine to keep the reader engrossed and entertained. If you’re a fan of the genre, Barricade needs to be on your list, and Jon Wallace needs to be on your radar.

TRAITOR’S BLADE by Sebastien de Castell


Sebastien de Castell (

Jo Fletcher Books (


The Greatcoats are the stuff of legend. Traveling Magisters, their job is to travel the country bringing the King’s justice to his subjects and ensuring his laws are upheld. Falcio val Mond, once the First Cantor of this elite group of men and women, now hires himself out as security for caravaners in the vain hope that he will be able to persuade them to reinstate the Greatcoats as the guardians of the roads. The king is dead, the Greatcoats now branded Trattori and tatter-cloaks, disbanded and gone their separate ways. When Falcio and his friends get wind of a plot to put a representative of the Dukes on the throne, it becomes clear that they must do something quickly, or watch as their land slowly destroys itself from the inside out.

Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade introduces us to a fascinating new fantasy world, and a cast of unforgettable characters. This is a very political world that, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous place for the three men at the story’s heart, and the one hundred and forty one others like them. These are the Greatcoats, a group of men and women sworn to uphold the King’s laws across the country. This is not an easy task: the country is split into a series of Duchies, and each is subject to the laws set by its own Duke. It is this divide that has caused the war between King and Dukes, leading to the ultimate demise of the king, and the current status of Falcio val Mond and his brothers and sisters. This country-wide scenario plays out in microcosm during Blood Week in the city of Rijou; here, driven by the need to uphold the laws in which he believes, Falcio stays behind to ensure the safety of the only surviving member of the Tiarren family, a young girl who, it seems, may be destined for greater things in times to come.

The story revolves around Falcio val Mond and his two companions, Kest – the world’s greatest sword-fighter – and Brasti – the world’s greatest archer. Behind them lies the weight of the legend of the Greatcoats, a group that would only be necessary in this fractured land where each Duke rules supreme over his own area, the King less of a figurehead and more of a nuisance to be dealt with. The coats themselves – armour, shelter, storage – set their wearers apart from knights and other assorted soldiers, bringing respect when times are good, and instant recognition as traitors when times are bad. They also allow de Castell to add little touches to the narrative that set these men apart from anyone else we’ve ever come across in the realms of fantasy fiction – the Game of Cuffs, or the ever-burning question of whether, if a man were quick enough, the coats might be able to stop a lead ball. These men, as individuals, all have their own traits: Falcio’s quick wit and quick rapiers; Brasti’s joking nature and his ability to hit the seemingly impossible target with his bow; Kest’s quiet, serious demeanour coupled with an unrivalled skill with the sword. They fit perfectly together, three personalities so complementary that it’s impossible to imagine Traitor’s Blade without one or other of them.

Around this solid core, de Castell has built a cast of characters that imprint themselves indelibly on the reader’s mind: the cruel Dukes; the young King who is wise beyond his years; princesses, assassins, minstrels and the old Tailor, who has a habit of popping up when we least expect it. de Castell sets the precedent early on: very few of these people are what they appear to be; and, still, we can’t help but be surprised at the level of duplicity we’re likely to encounter as we fly through the novel. Here is a world where magic exists, but in small quantities; a world where political strife impacts on the common man, not just the privileged few who are part of the scheming; a world, and a cast of characters, built on a solid foundation with a supporting history that is as engaging and engrossing as the main story arc itself.

As you might expect from a novel whose central characters are men of the sword, Traitor’s Blade is a constant blur of movement and action, one fight sequence following so closely on the heels of the one previous that it’s difficult to work out where de Castell has managed to fit so much story. But there is plenty of food for thought here, amongst all the action, as de Castell embarks on epic world-building designed to support the rest of the Greatcoats saga. There is a lot of wit and a lot of heart in this novel (which, when compared to its contemporaries, is relatively short at less than four hundred pages) and both serve the story well, setting a tone and a mood that can quite often be missing in these quest-type fantasy epics.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘We teach them the first rule of the sword.’
One of the guards, the one closest to Kest, tightened his grip on his pike in preparation for the attack and said jeeringly, ‘And what’s that supposed to be tatter-cloak? Lay down and die like the traitors you are?’
‘No,’ Kest said. ‘The first rule of the sword is–‘
His words were cut off as the guard jabbed his pike with the speed of a metal ball flying from the end of a pistol.
‘– put the pointy end into the other man,’ Kest finished.

I’ve been on a lucky run with fantasy novels of late. Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, the first book in the longer Greatcoats saga, is not the book to break that run. Full of wit, intrigue, action and violence, it’s a wonderful introduction to a new fantasy world and the people that inhabit it. And, from what we see on our first visit, there are plenty of reasons to come back for more.


The Abominable - Dan Simmons THE ABOMINABLE

Dan Simmons (

Sphere (


George Leigh Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the North-East Ridge of Mount Everest in early June 1924. A couple of days later, another Englishman, Lord Percival Bromley – not officially part of Mallory’s expedition – disappeared from the same location along with a German climber. Richard Deacon Davis, "the Deacon" to those who know him, is on the summit of the Matterhorn when he hears the news. A friend of the Bromley family, the Deacon accompanied Mallory’s previous two expeditions to Everest. With the financial backing of the Bromley family, Deacon and his friends, French Chamonix Guide, Jean-Claude Clairoux, and the American Jacob Perry, stage a secret expedition to the mountain in 1925, ostensibly to find the body of Percival Bromley and return it to England, but also to attempt an alpine-style assault on the mountain. When their lower camps are attacked by what appears to be the mythical yeti, the Deacon and his team find themselves trapped on the mountain, the high altitude taking its toll the longer they remain above 26,000 feet. Facing an unknown but deadly enemy below and almost certain death above, the Deacon and his friends find themselves in a race against time that will not only ensure their survival, but determine the future face of Europe.

Back in 2007, Dan Simmons wrote The Terror, the massive fictional account of Sir John Franklin’s final fatal voyage in search of the Northwest Passage (inspiring my own visit to a local monument dedicated to Franklin’s second-in-command, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier). Simmons took the facts of the story and interwove a narrative that included a number of supernatural elements which, nonetheless, provided a plausible explanation of the fate of the crews of the HMS Terror and Erebus, while still hitting every single factual element of the tale (why, for example, there are graves on Beechey Island, or how the lifeboat that was found on the western shore of King William Island came to rest there). With his latest novel, The Abominable, Simmons takes a similar approach, shining his light now on the 1924 Mallory-led expedition to Everest. Rather than following the main expedition, Simmons mounts a fictional 1925 expedition and shows us the rigours of the northern regions of Everest without being tied to the absolutes of history (although, as with The Terror, what the Deacon and his friends find on the mountain tallies up with the current known facts about that fateful expedition). What Simmons doesn’t do – thankfully – is answer the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit of Everest before they died.

Simmons frames the story as the literary equivalent of the "found footage" genre, opening the novel with an introduction that describes his meeting with Jacob "Jake" Perry in his home state of Colorado in 1993. His purpose for visiting, he claims, is to interview the man about his experiences in Antarctica and he fails to pick up on the old man’s veiled hints about earlier, more dangerous, adventures. The bulk of the story is told in first person by Mr Perry who, having spent his final months on Earth writing his story down, sends the dozen notebooks to Simmons to do with what he will. It’s testament to Simmons’ skill as a writer, to his ability to absorb knowledge about a certain subject – in this case mountaineering – and present it to the reader in the offhand manner that an expert might, that it’s difficult to tell, for at least the first part of Jake Perry’s story, whether this is, indeed, fiction. The central characters – the Deacon, stiff-upper-lipped Great War veteran, French alpine expert Jean-Claude and the always-feeling-out-of-his-depth Perry – are beautifully-wrought, vividly individual and engaging enough to immediately take up permanent residence in the mind of the reader.

Towering over the novel, both literally and figuratively – as is only right for Chomolungma, "Goddess Mother of the World" – is Mount Everest itself. Everest is one of those landmarks that seems to have become part of the human psyche: it’s a location that fascinates and enthrals, catching our attention when we’re young and pliable, and remaining with us as we grow older. Perhaps it’s this that makes The Abominable all the more engaging. Here, after all, is a detailed description of something most people can only ever dream of: an ascent of the tallest mountain in the world. Simmons goes to great pains to ensure we, the reader, are aware of the dangers: the sheer scale of the mountain and the fact that, should you fall, there is likely to be little more than a widespread mush by the time you hit the bottom, as far as five miles below; the high altitude, and the dangers it brings, the inability to take a full breath and the impact of an oxygen-starved brain on such dangerous terrain. And, most obviously, the cold. In a way, this is where Simmons excels: read Song of Kali and you’ll feel the oppressive heat and smell of Calcutta. Read The Terror and you can’t help but go searching for more layers to keep the heat in:

Irving clamps his mouth shut again, but the effect is ruined somewhat by the chattering of his teeth. In this cold, teeth can shatter after two or three hours — actually explode — sending shrapnel of bone and enamel flying inside the cavern of one’s clenched jaws. Sometimes, Crozier knows from experience, you can hear the enamel cracking just before the teeth explode.

On the mountain, we find an entirely new species of cold, but one that is no less dangerous. The high altitude, thin air and direct sunlight, all conspire to leave the climber sunburnt, despite the sub-zero temperatures in which they find themselves.

We’re also given a taste of the local political situation, the relationships between Tibet and the rest of the world, Nepal and the rest of the world, and Simmons even takes time to give us a quick look at the changing face of European politics following Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Pustch at the end of 1923. The combination of title and author, with the brief description of the book’s subject, will ensure the reader enters this novel with a certain set of expectations. Unsurprisingly for a Dan Simmons novel, these preconceptions work well for the author, while the multi-layered narrative ensures that what the reader experiences may not be exactly what they signed up for.

Everest is still 40 miles away but already it dominates not only the skyline of white-shrouded Himalayan high peaks but the sky itself. I suspect that the Deacon has brought a British flag to plant at the summit, but I see now that the mountain already bears its own pennant – a mist of white cloud and spindrift roiling in the west-to-east wind for 20 miles or more, from right to left, a white plume swirling above all the lesser summits to the east of Everest’s snow massif.

Mon Dieu,” whispers Jean-Claude.

Part historical fact, part thrilling boys’ adventure tale, Dan Simmons’ latest novel takes us to the top of the world, and keeps us on the edge of our seats for the whole journey. Cold and atmospheric, peopled with the type of characters that you want to spend as much time with as possible, The Abominable is an intelligent thrill-ride of epic proportions. The perfect companion piece to Simmons’ 2007 novel, The Terror, it serves to remind the reader of one important fact: regardless of genre – and he’s tried quite a few – Dan Simmons is still one of the finest purveyors of fiction living today. If you’ve yet to try his work, this is the perfect starting place.

THE JACKAL’S SHARE by Chris Morgan Jones


Chris Morgan Jones (

Mantle (


Iranian billionaire Darius Qazai is heading for retirement. When an attempt to sell portions of his business result in a report linking him with art smuggling, he hires Ikertu Consulting to dig into his past and prove that he has nothing to hide. Assigned to the case, Ben Webster takes an instant dislike to the man. As he digs into the life of Qazai, and the lives and deaths of the people closest to him, he discovers that Qazai does indeed have something to hide. With a mounting body count, and the resurfacing of an old scandal, it isn’t long before Webster finds his own life – and the lives of his family – in danger.

The Jackal’s Share sees the welcome return of Ben Webster, the protagonist of Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit. Still trying to come to terms with the outcome of that earlier case, Webster finds himself once more plunged into the dark political underworld of global enterprise where money, it seems, always has more value than human life. Unlike Agent, where the narrative was split almost equally between Webster and his opposite number on the Russian side of the fence, Jackal brings the former journalist more centre stage, telling the story exclusively from his point of view.

While the move from a Russian enemy to a Middle Eastern one – much of the threat comes from parties based in Iran – introduces a more immediate sense of threat for the reader, Jones still manages to maintain an old-fashioned feel throughout the novel, the same Cold War-era feel that made Agent work so well. Webster is a man who earns his living through wits and experience, with nary a ballistic pen nor pocket respirator in sight, the ubiquitous mobile phone the only electronic tool of his trade. As with Webster’s first outing, it makes a somewhat refreshing change.

Moving centre stage brings with it added danger for our favourite corporate spy. Dealing with an Iranian client, Webster quickly discovers that he is well outside his comfort zone; the assumptions he can easily make about the type of Russian with whom he usually deals are invalid and often dangerous here. The people with whom he is dealing have a seemingly endless reach, and Webster’s freedom is threatened quite early in the process. Things take a sinister turn when his wife and children are also threatened and there appears to be no easy means of escape. Jones takes this opportunity to put poor Webster through the wringer, leaving the central character physically and emotionally battered by the novel’s end, paving the path for a much different man, should we see him again in the future.

As with the first novel, Jones takes us on a tour of exotic locations – this time Cornwall, Dubai, Lake Como and Marrakech (another staple of the old-fashioned spy novels, if I remember correctly) feature heavily, and come alive at the hands of this skilled storyteller. He also spends some time fleshing out the people of his fictional world, giving us further background on returning characters – Webster’s wife Elsa and his boss, Ike Hammer, for example – and introducing us to new characters, both specific to Jackal – Darius Qazai and the creepy Yves Senechal – and ones we’re likely to see again as the world-building continues and Jones’ back catalogue grows – Fletcher Constance and Dean Oliver two characters that will hopefully show their faces again.

Jones has once again constructed a complex and involved plot that still manages to make sense at the final reckoning. Webster may be out of his depth with the shift to Middle Eastern and African politics, but it’s clear that this is far from the case for the novel’s author. As he has proven before, he has an innate ability to ration out only the information that the reader needs at any given point in time, so that there is always a surprise around the corner. It’s helped along by the fact that the reader only ever knows what Webster does, and in this way we’re often as surprised as he is when the plot takes a turn for the sinister, though, thankfully, much less bruised and battered for the experience. What results is a satisfying follow-up to An Agent of Deceit, a novel that builds on an already-strong central character, leaving the reader with a hunger for more while leaving the character’s immediate future completely in the dark; as with its predecessor, there are no happy endings here, and we can be safe in the knowledge that the events of A Jackal’s Share will shape Ben Webster – for better or worse – for future adventures.

Readers of Chris Morgan Jones’ debut novel will have been waiting for his follow-up with some measure of excitement for the past year. A Jackal’s Share fails to disappoint, living up to the exacting standard set by that first Ben Webster adventure. Building on the characters already established, Jones takes the focus from Russia – though there are hints that there might be Russian involvement in the low-level details of this second novel – and turns the spotlight on a region that is equally as alien to many Westerners, and as frightening to the current generation as the looming threat of Russia was to an earlier one. What doesn’t get lost is that Cold War-era feel that his first novel had, that sense that we might be reading the latest Le Carré or Deighton, rather than a contemporary piece of spy fiction. It’s not a bad jumping-on point for new recruits; while it does refer to the events of Agent, the two stories are completely standalone, and can be enjoyed as such. Jones has already mentioned that his third novel will shift the focus to a different character within his world, but it’s likely that we’ll see Ben Webster again (he says, hopefully). Proving that he is far from one-hit wonder, Jones’ second novel cements his position as one of the best spy novelists at work today.

THE AYLESFORD SKULL by James P. Blaylock

Ayelsford Skull - Blaylock THE AYLESFORD SKULL

James P. Blaylock (

Titan Books (


A girl is murdered in a cemetery in the quiet English town of Aylesford. She is found beside an open grave from which the skull appears to have been taken. The culprit is none other than Dr. Ignacio Narbondo; the Aylesford Skull – and more importantly, the modifications that have been made to it – are central to his latest plan. Kidnapping the four-year-old son of his old nemesis, Professor Langdon St. Ives, he flees to London and finds himself hunted not only by St. Ives, but by the headstrong young Finn Conrad, and old Mother Laswell, who has motives of her own. Narbondo and his associates are planning something big, and it’s up to Langdon St. Ives to stop him, and save his son in the process.

What at first glance may appear to be a clichéd and formulaic Victorian fable – the good guy and his nemesis fight a battle of wits with the world, or the Empire at least, at stake – gains much more depth the further we read. Langdon St. Ives may once have been an adventurer of some note, but he is now happy to have settled in rural England with his family. The upheaval caused by the return of Narbondo is unexpected and unwanted. When he learns the truth behind the missing skull, his scientific brain takes over and refuses to let him believe what he is being told, but he is not so close-minded that he is unable to accept the fact of magic when everything points to a supernatural explanation. Narbondo, the perfect foil for St. Ives’ character, is a larger-than-life, almost comical villain, the Joker to the Professor’s Batman. A man of few scruples, pure profit is his only motivation and there are no limits to what he will do to achieve his goals.

Around these two central characters, Blaylock has constructed a solid supporting cast, seeing the return of many characters from the earlier novels – Tubby Frobisher, Jack Owlesby, Bill Kraken and Hasbro, St. Ives’ factotum – as well as a few new faces – Finn Conrad, Mother Laswell and a certain young Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Doyle. Blaylock admits to an enthusiasm for 18th and 19th Century literature, and his love of the form shines through here, both in the narrative structure of the novel, and the dialogue itself. This authentic writing style only adds to the experience, and makes the book’s steampunk and supernatural elements more palatable for the reader.

One of the strengths of the novel is the world that Blaylock has created around his characters. The action takes place in the summer of 1883 in a world much like our own, with some technological advances. This is a world of dirigible airships, steam-powered church organs and miniaturised-clockwork gadgets, but for the most part the steampunk is subtle, much less in-your-face than, say, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, or Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine (both fine examples of the genre, don’t get me wrong). Blaylock weaves real-world history into the plot, setting the story against the politically charged background of 1880s London: a series of bombings blamed on Fenians and anarchists provide cover for Narbondo’s preparations. The result is a realistic and believable world not too far removed from our own.

James P. Blaylock is one of the fathers of the steampunk movement, and Langdon St. Ives is one of the genre’s most enduring characters, having first appeared in the early eighties. The Aylesford Skull is my first experience with both author and character: I have been lusting after the small press limited editions of the St. Ives novels for years, since they’ve been the easiest copies to find, despite the high price tag. Fortunately for me, and all those like me who have yet to meet the Professor and his companions, Titan Books are using the publication of this latest novel to re-issue at least some of the older novels, and hopefully in time we’ll see the complete collection as affordable paperbacks.

The Aylesford Skull is an old-fashioned adventure story with a sprinkling of technology and a hint of the supernatural. A fast-paced read, its audience is likely to be confined to fans of steampunk, or long-time readers of Blaylock, even though it deserves a much wider audience (it should appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and all possible stops in between). With a strong cast of characters, an engaging storyline and a writing style that demands the reader’s attention, this novel shows that James P. Blaylock is worthy of the “Steampunk Legend” tag that adorns the book’s front cover. Despite references early in the story to previous adventures, this is an excellent place for the new reader to start. A wonderful addition to the genre, The Aylesford Skull has left this reader looking forward to more tales of Langdon St. Ives, both old and new.

An Interview with SIMON TOYNE

Simon Toyne by Toby Madden USE
Photograph © Toby Madden

Author of: SANCTUS (2011)
                 THE KEY (2012)

On the web:

On Twitter: @sjtoyne

Simon Toyne’s career began in television, where he was a successful screenwriter and producer for over fifteen years. In 2011 HarperCollins published his first novel, Sanctus, an edge-of-the-seat apocalyptic thriller which, despite the inevitable comparisons to Dan Brown, still featured high on my list of the top books of the year. The Key, the second book in the series, was released earlier this year (and gets its paperback release on 22nd November), broadening the scope, in every conceivable sense, of the original novel. If his Twitter feed is to be believed, Simon is hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy, a book that involves Afghan languages and obscure American city districts in some shape or form.

I’m delighted to welcome Simon Toyne along to Reader Dad for a chat. Thanks for the taking the time out, Simon.

Nice to finally (virtually) meet you beyond the curt environs of twitter

I’d like to go back to the very beginning, and that powerful image that opens Sanctus: a man in green robes standing atop a thousand-foot high mountain, arms outstretched, before plunging to his death on the street below. Was that your starting point, or was that an image that came later? Can you talk about the origins of the tale?

I tend to start with the end and work backwards, so for Sanctus I had the big secret, the Sacrament, held inside an impenetrable fortress since before recorded history and worked backwards to see how it could be discovered, who could discover it, where this fortress could be etc. In the initial outline I had someone discovering the body of a monk brutally murdered with ritualistic wounds and finding clues on his body that would kick-start the journey towards revealing the mystery. I had this notion of a city within a city, a bit like Rome with the Vatican, and thought it would be interesting if the body was found right on the border, or just over the line where the jurisdictions start and end so that the various authorities could argue over who should investigate the murder. ‘The Bridge’ had a similar plot device involving the Danish/Swedish border. In my story the idea of what this fortress could look like started to form and from that I decided it would be more visual to have the monk fall from the top of some vertiginous structure rather than just be discovered.

The image of the Tau is hugely important in the first novel: the monk, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the very Taurus mountain range which forms the backdrop for the city of Ruin. How much work was involved in making the pieces line up so that the thread ran the whole way through the story and it all made sense?

I knew I needed a symbol that was very simple and timeless and could represent many different things and the Tau came out of research. I found out that the T-shaped cross would have been the actual shape of the cross Christ was crucified on for example and so it was loaded with different potential meanings that I could layer in throughout the course of the story. Francis of Assissi used to form the shape of the Tau with his cassock so I nicked that and I liked the idea that the famous statue in Rio might also tie in with this ancient mystery. As for the Taurus mountains, I had already decided to set Ruin there and it was only afterwards that I noticed the connection.

Sanctus reads well as a standalone novel, to the point that it wasn’t until after I had read and reviewed the book that I became aware that it was the start of a trilogy. The Key picks up almost immediately after the end of the first book, but interestingly it takes almost half of the second novel’s length before the shocking revelation at the end of Sanctus is, in effect, re-revealed to characters and readers. Was there any rationale behind this decision, or was it something that came naturally to the story?

In the first draft of ‘The Key’ I tried not to reveal what the big reveal at the end of ‘Sanctus’ was at all but I couldn’t do it. I figured if you’d read ‘Sanctus’ you’d know what it was and would be thinking ‘why doesn’t he just say it?’ and if you hadn’t read it then lots of the story wouldn’t make sense. Having Liv lose her memory and have to piece it together was a useful device both for putting her in a vulnerable situation and also for allowing her to remember slowly and thereby either remind the return reader or inform the new reader what happened.

One of my favourite new characters from The Key is the massive Dick (no sniggering at the back of the class). I was instantly reminded of Rex Miller’s equally massive Daniel "Chaingang" Bunkowski. Do you have any personal favourites that you enjoy writing, or are there characters you find more difficult to write than others?

Ah yes, the massive Dick. I should point out that Dick is short for ‘Dictionary’ because he likes to use words as big as he is. I do quite enjoy writing characters like him because they pose very specific technical challenges. You spend a lot of time with your main characters so you have the luxury of being able to really explore their backgrounds, motivations, fears etc. With the secondary characters you have to give them just as much impact with a lot less page time so you try and give them idiosyncrasies that make them stand out which makes them interesting to think about and write.

Since publishing my review of Sanctus in February of last year, one of the most frequently-recurring search terms that ultimately lead to Reader Dad is some combination of "Ruin" and "Turkey" (interestingly, it’s beaten only by people searching for information on the equally fictional Jodie, Texas). Ruin, and the mountainous Citadel that dominates the city’s centre, plays a central role in the two novels. When I first read Sanctus, it reminded me of Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond or China Miéville’s New Crobuzon; it’s a fully-formed city (quarters and all) that is nonetheless slightly off, and without which the books would lose much of their character. I recently had the chance to ask Daniel Polansky the same question about his Low Town, so I’m interested in how the answers compare: where did Ruin come from? What were your influences; is it modelled on any existing cities? And most importantly of all, is it mapped out anywhere other than in your head?

Ruin is definitely another character in the books and, like any character, the way others interact with it reveals things about both of them. The reason I made a place up rather than use a real one is because there is no place quite like Ruin and I didn’t want to take liberties with someone’s city. The story threw up very specific needs for the location: it had to be very old and remote, it had to have a monastery in the middle built into a natural pinnacle of rock, it had to have a modern city surrounding it that earned a great deal of its living trading off the history of the Citadel, just like places like Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela do. Physically it borrows from all sort of places, the journey up the streets of the old town for example is taken from a hilly medieval fortified Bastide town in France called Cordes-sur-Ciel (Cordes on the sky) where I lived for a while when I started writing ‘Sanctus’. And I did draw a map of it when I was writing Sanctus, boulevards, Lost Quarter and all. It helped me keep the geography straight in my head of where everything was in relation to each other.

You are hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy. Can you tell us anything about it, and do you have any idea what we can expect beyond the end of the trilogy?

It’s called ‘The Tower’. If ‘Sanctus’ was predominantly about Liv, ‘The Key’ was mainly about Gabriel then ‘The Tower’ is about how both of their destinies collide. The revelation of the big mystery at the end of ‘Sanctus’ was a bit like dropping a huge boulder into a lake that had been artificially calm for a very log time, ‘The Key’ and ‘The Tower’ both explore the huge ripples that follow.

After the trilogy I will trawl through my ideas file and see which one of the hundred or so ideas in there I would like to read most. Then I’ll write it. There are some other stories in there that could be set in Ruin, so I may revisit the place, you never know.

the key pbWhat authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Like most writers of my generation Stephen King is a huge formative influence. ‘The Dead Zone’ is still one of my all-time favourite books.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris. If you want to know how to write a thriller, read that book and study it. It’s perfect.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Toyne look like?

A typical day revolves around my kids (I have 3, ranging from 9 to 7 months). I try and work when the two older ones are at school, so between 10 and 3. I switch off the internet, play soundtrack music loudly and disappear into the story. If I’m chasing a deadline, though, this all goes out of the window and I end up surgically attached to the laptop. I try and write a thousand words a day.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

I would say read a lot and write a lot. It’s the only way you can get better.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

At the moment I’m reading nothing because I’ve got to deliver ‘The Tower’ in two weeks’ time and I’m at a book launch in Romania for three days of that. I’ve got a huge pile of books I want to read, though. They lie there in the corner of my office, taunting me like paper sirens.

Would you like to see your novels make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

My ideal would be to see the trilogy become a ‘Game of Thrones’/’Pillars of the Earth’ style mini series. That way you wouldn’t lose lots of characters like you do when you cut a novel like mine down to two hours. Having said that I’d love to see the story on any screen. I think Paul Greengrass (the second and third Bourne movies) would be a great fit for the themes and the action. Cast wise I always saw Emily Blunt as Liv and a young John Cusack as Gabriel.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

It would by Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village for a pint of Guinness. I would try and talk him into seeing a doctor before flying home to Wales.

Thank you once again, Simon, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

GUEST POST: Justin Cronin Reads from THE TWELVE (Video)

Justin Cronin - Photo credit Julie Soefer
Photograph © Julie Soefer

                 MARY AND O’NEIL (2001)
                 THE SUMMER GUEST (2004)
                 THE PASSAGE (2010)
                 THE TWELVE (2012)

On the web:

On Twitter: @jccronin

I’m very pleased to welcome Justin Cronin to Reader Dad today. Cronin’s breakthrough novel, The Passage, was published in 2010 to widespread critical acclaim. It stands as one of my favourite novels of recent years, and one of the finest horror novels of the last decade. This month, the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve, is released, picking up where The Passage left off and returning us to a post-apocalyptic world overrun by virals.

In the video below, Justin reads a short section from early in the novel. So sit back, relax, and enjoy.

If you missed yesterday’s blog tour stop, you can find the trailer for The Twelve over at The Book Smugglers. Tomorrow, the tour heads to Sci-Fi Bulletin, where you’ll find more exciting content.

THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin


Justin Cronin (

Orion Books (


Released: 25th October 2012

One [book] that doesn’t appear here is Justin Cronin’s forthcoming novel, The Passage. This epic vampire novel won’t be out until summer 2010, but you’ll want to mark your calendar. Take it from Uncle Stevie, this is your basic don’t-miss reading experience.

At the end of 2009, Stephen King, in his Entertainment Weekly column, The Pop of King, listed his top ten books of the year. He made the passing reference, above, to a book that was still ten months from publication and immediately put it on the radar of its target audience. In this reader’s experience, he wasn’t wrong: The Passage is not to be missed, and prospective readers should in no way be put off by King’s brief description, “epic vampire novel”. There is nothing sparkly here, nothing sexy about the “virals” that grace the book’s pages. The Passage stands, in my humble opinion, as one of the best horror novels of the past decade.

Two years later, Cronin returns to his post-apocalyptic world to pick up the story in the equally-epic The Twelve, the second part of his trilogy. It is nigh on impossible to sum up this complex novel in a few hundred words. Far from attempting it, I’ll touch on the main plot points as a taster of what you can expect between the novel’s beautiful covers.

The bulk of The Twelve’s action takes place five years following the events that brought The Passage to a close. Here we become reacquainted with the survivors of First Colony, who have settled into the new world they have found outside the walls that defined the boundaries of much of their lives. Some have settled down, taken jobs, married; others have followed in Alicia’s footsteps and signed up for the Expeditionary, fighting for the safety of their families and friends. And yet others are no longer in the picture, victims of the attack on Roswell at the end of The Passage, or the passing of time between then and now. One thing hasn’t changed: the desire to hunt down and destroy the remaining members of The Twelve, the death-row inmates who are the original carriers of the virus. But in five years, Alicia’s scouting and Peter’s enthusiasm have failed to find a single one, and the leaders of the Expeditionary are on the verge of giving up.

In Iowa, the town of Fort Powell has been turned into a concentration camp under the leadership of Horace Guilder. Reinhard Heydrich would have been proud, and the comparison is impossible not to make.

The bunks were stacked four high, twenty bunk-lengths in each row, ten rows: eight hundred souls crammed like cargo into a lodge the approximate dimensions of a feed shed. People were rising, jamming their children’s heads into hats , murmuring to themselves, their limbs moving with the heavy docility of livestock as they shambled to the door.

Almost 70,000 souls are imprisoned here, guarded by virals and kept in place by the fact that beyond the city’s walls, they are nothing but fodder. Fort Powell has a purpose – a construction project on the edge of the city – but none of the workers have any idea what that purpose might be.

The Twelve opens up the scope of The Passage and gives us our first proper glimpse of the world outside the walls of First Colony. Entire cities filled with people continue to exist despite the threat of virals beyond the walls. Large reserves of oil found scattered across the country ensure that electricity and motor fuel should not be a problem for the foreseeable future. This is a much different world to the one in which the First Colonists believed they were living. As the chapters cycle through the viewpoints of the original group from the first novel, we begin to see different aspects of this new world, the picture coming together slowly, and in small pieces. The five year gap at first seems a strange approach to take, given the action that brought The Passage to an end, but soon becomes clear as we learn the fates of the individuals involved. It’s a cleverly-constructed narrative that ensures the reader never knows more than they should at any given time.

There are two flashback sections early in the novel. The first takes us back to the Year of Zero, and shows us the world during this transition period through the eyes of a handful of characters both old and new. Bearing in mind that this is a period we have yet only seen at a remove – from the remote cabin where Wolgast and Amy hid – it’s interesting to see how the rest of the world fared. Cronin’s influences are clear here, this section most closely resembling the early parts of King’s The Stand: the formation of groups, friendships, loves; the search for a safe place to set up home. There is also a real-world precedent for some of the descriptions used here, and we get a feeling of post-Katrina New Orleans:

He came to other things in the road. An overturned police car, smashed flat. An ambulance. A dead cat. A lot of houses had ‘X’s spray-painted on their doors, with numbers and letters in the spaces.

Here, though it’s not immediately clear how, we see the origins of the camp at Fort Powell, IA, and those of the Donadio family, a line which leads directly to Alicia.

The second flashback takes us back to a field 18 years prior to the main action, and the abduction of a group of people – mostly children – by what seems to be a well-organised group of virals. Again, it’s not immediately clear how this fits with the rest of the story, but Cronin is building foundations for later revelations.

It was always going to be difficult to follow The Passage with something that packed as least as much – if not, preferably, more – punch. In a world where vampires rule, there is always one major consideration: the food supply. When the predators outnumber the prey, problems start to arise. Cronin takes a clever approach to solving this problem, and The Twelve, as much as anything, is about the consequences of this solution. The characters that we love from The Passage are, for the most part, here and intact; older and, in most cases, wiser. The virals, who for the majority of the first novel stayed mainly in the background, are still not the focus of attention here: they are a problem that needs to be solved, but this is not a vampire novel in the traditional sense; it’s a tale of survival against the odds, a post-apocalyptic fable to match the likes of The Stand and Swan Song. Which is not to say they aren’t a threat, and that they are aren’t creepy – they are, on both counts.

As we approach book’s final third, build-up gives way to action, as all of the pieces begin to fall into place. Here, the purpose of the flashbacks become clear, and pieces that were set up as early as The Passage come into play. The concentration camp theme holds, and the planning phase of the final operation resembles a scene from Escape From Sobibor or The Great Escape. It leads to an action-packed, and somewhat surprising finale, an abrupt end that leaves the reader feeling somehow flat, while leaving no doubt as to where the final book in the trilogy is headed.

Cronin slips easily back into the world he created two years ago in The Passage. The Twelve is a much different beast, as the central parts of epic trilogies tend to be. Starting slow, picking up the threads left loose at the end of the first book, Cronin builds slowly towards a false climax, tying up enough loose ends to leave the reader satisfied, while leaving enough to make us want to come back for more. The Twelve is a worthy successor to The Passage, and is well worth the two-year wait we have had to endure to have it in our hands. Cronin’s plotting is as tight as ever, his writing beautiful, flowing – this seven-hundred page novel is gone in the blink of an eye, a testament to how well written it is. Abrupt ending aside, there is much to love about The Twelve, not least the fact that we get to visit once more with old friends. Perfect autumn reading for fans of The Passage, it should also give new readers an excuse to dip their toes in the water. With luck, we won’t have to wait much longer than another two years to find out how this wonderful story plays out.

Powered by

Up ↑