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THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky

those-above-cover THOSE ABOVE (The Empty Throne Book 1)

Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)

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

£18.99

It is almost thirty years since the war between mankind and Those Above, the godlike creatures who live at the top of the great mountain city, The Roost. Now, as the warlike Aelerian people contemplate breaking the truce that has seen peace reign over the continent since those terrible days, a second war seems inevitable. Bas, general of Aeleria’s great Western Army and the only human ever to have defeated one of Those Above in single combat, has been promoted, and tasked with raising a new legion who will lead the charge; behind him is Eudokia, the most powerful woman in the country, whose husband was killed during the first war, and who has a thirst for revenge; in the lowest rung of The Roost, young Thistle progresses from petty criminal to murderer, and finds himself at the centre of a rebellion still very much in its infancy; at the top of the mountain, all but oblivious to the creatures with whom they share the continent, Those Above believe themselves untouchable, inviolate.

I fell in love with Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure within the first handful of pages when I read it back in 2012. The unique mix of fantasy and hard-boiled crime appealed to me, and the central character, Warden, demanded that I keep coming back for more. The Low Town trilogy went from strength to strength (to the point where I was unable to write a review of the final book, She Who Waits, because of how completely Polansky broke me in the process of laying out his story). It was, then, with some trepidation that I picked up Those Above – it, and the series that it begins, The Empty Throne, has a lot to live up to. Focussing more on the fantasy, and ditching the crime in favour of an ancient Roman vibe, it is, in many ways, a much different beast to Polansky’s first trilogy, while still keeping the hard core that made those books so enjoyable.

The first major difference is the novel’s scope, both in terms of the area it covers, and also in the number of point-of-view characters Polansky uses to tell the story. The story is told from four key points of view: Bas, Eudokia, Thistle and Calla, the human servant of the Aubade, one of the most powerful of Those Above. It’s interesting to note that, while we get dispatches from the lords of the First Rung through Calla, we never really get to see their direct point of view. For the others, the spread gives us an interesting insight into this new world of Polansky’s and the various types of people that populate it. The most interesting part of this world is The Roost itself, a mountain city that is split into five rungs, with the inhabitants split according to rank or status: Those Above live in the first rung, at the mountain’s peak, while society’s dregs (which includes young Thistle) populate the city’s lowest, or Fifth, Rung.

The history of the creatures that live in the First Rung is scarce, though we know that they are a long-lived people who differ physically from humans in many ways: their size, their four fingers, to name but a few. Their politics and rituals are shown through the eyes of Calla, and feel slightly less alien to us, the reader, because of her own closeness to the Aubade, and familiarity with their ways. Their lack of emotion, and their superior approach to humans – they are to humans what humans are to bugs – are a frightening concept and lead to some beautifully-wrought scenes of horror as the novel progresses.

Outside of these godlike creatures, Polansky presents us humanity in all its glory: the field general and his men; the political machinations in Aeleria’s capital city, machinations that would give George R. R. Martin nightmares; and the childhood gangs and violence spawned by poverty in the lower reaches of The Roost, which are a stark contrast to the conditions deeper within the city.

As I mentioned earlier, Those Above has a dark, hard core, a gritty sense of reality that can often be missing from fantasy novels, and a voice that is unmistakably that of the brilliant writer who brought us Warden’s adventures in Low Town. If I have one complaint, it’s that Those Above feels like what it is: the first book in a fantasy series that needs to put everything in place in order for the reader to feel at home. There is plenty of action, but it takes second place to the world-building and chess-like manoeuvring, and there is little more than a token gesture at encapsulating a complete plot within the confines of the book’s four hundred-odd pages. Not a shock, by any means, to fans of this kind of epic fantasy – and let me make that point clear, this is epic – but worth knowing at the outset. That said, what does exist within those four hundred-odd pages is pure gold, compelling character-building, world-building and story-telling by a master of his art, and more than enough to have me coming back to Aeleria and The Roost for many, many more visits.

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.

THE ABDUCTION by Jonathan Holt

THE ABDUCTION - Jonathan Holt THE ABDUCTION

Jonathan Holt (www.carnivia.com)

Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)

£12.99

 

WALL STANDING IS NOT TORTURE.

AT 9 P.M. THIS EVENING, SHE WILL NOT BE TORTURED.

WATCH IT LIVE ON CARNIVIA.

When the teenage daughter of a high-ranking US soldier is abducted from one of Venice’s sex clubs, it seems that the protesters against the new US Air Force base at nearby Vicenza have graduated from nuisance to terrorists. But videos of Mia start appearing on Daniele Barbo’s anonymous website, Carnivia.com, and it quickly becomes clear that there are other motives for the kidnapping. Led to Dal Molin for different reasons, Colonel Aldo Piola and Captain Kat Tapo of the Carabinieri find themselves working together on this high-profile case in a race against time to find this young girl before it’s too late. With the help of Barbo, and US military liaison Holly Boland, they might just have some chance of success.

Jonathan Holt’s first novel, The Abomination, was one of my favourites of last year. With The Abduction he returns to the characters and locales (both physical and virtual) that made the first novel such a compelling read. This time around there is a sense of opportune timing, with the recent release of the so-called “torture memos”, since earlier leaked versions of these documents form the core message of Holt’s narrative: Mia’s captors use the memos to direct the course of treatment for the young girl, with each Torture/Not Torture session broadcast over Carnivia.com for the world to assess and decide.

Holt has his finger very much on the pulse, and uses an excellent device to appeal to the modern reader, who is also, most likely, a voracious consumer of social media; the abductors invite the public to take to the Internet and decide for themselves whether what they are watching (described by the US government as “not torture”) is #Torture or #NotTorture. Holt uses this device to examine the current state of what we think of as “news”, examining the traditional outlets (TV and newspapers) and also the impact of newer, less-regulated channels, such as political bloggers.

Alongside this fast-paced countdown, there is another mystery, which is what initially draws Aldo Piola to the Dal Molin construction site: a skeleton is discovered in one of the construction vehicles during a break-in by the same group that have purportedly abducted Mia. This skeleton is over seventy years old, and Piola finds himself unravelling a conspiracy that came to life towards the end of the Second World War, and which involves the police, the Church (including one of their highest-placed clerics), the CIA and the Christian Democrats, who governed Italy for over forty years. The two mysteries dovetail neatly as the book draws towards its climax, leaving the reader more than satisfied on both counts.

At the centre of this clever novel are the four characters we first met in The Abomination. In the time since the end of that previous novel, much has changed: Aldo Piola is under investigation by Internal Affairs over the sexual harassment claim filed by Kat Tapo; Kat and Holly’s friendship has terminated in a rather abrupt manner that means they haven’t spoken in some time; and Daniele Barbo has retreated back into himself and taken refuge once again in the virtual world he has created. A large part of the attraction of this novel (and its predecessor) is the focus on the relationships between the characters, and the different personalities that Holt has created for them: the outgoing and promiscuous Kat;, neat and ordered Holly; introverted, nerdy Daniele. It’s an interesting dynamic, a group of people that should not work well together, but which has as much drawing power as the book’s central mystery.

Holt also provides us with some insight into the mind of Mia and her abductors, as we watch some of the proceedings through her eyes. The sense of fear is palpable, to the point that we get a vicarious shiver every time there is a hint that something unpleasant is on the way. A rapport develops between Mia and one of her captors, despite the fact that she never sees him without his carnevale mask. This viewpoint also allows the author to examine the torture memos in more detail, and provide some context for their inclusion in the story.

The Abduction, like The Abomination before it, examines, in some depth, the Italian political, legal and justice systems, their respective problems, and their inextricable links not only with organised crime in the country, but also with the Catholic Church, which – to Holt’s mind, at least – rules supreme from the extraterritorial Vatican City at the heart of the country’s capital city. It’s an interesting slant on the old-fashioned police procedural, and a unique problem for crime fiction set in Italy.

Very much in the realms of Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and their ilk, The Abduction is a mix of technological, historical and espionage thriller with a healthy dose of police procedural for good measure. Building on the world he has already created in last year’s The Abomination, Holt develops his characters, their background, and the shady Internet site that sits at the centre of the story, even further in this second outing. It’s a fast-paced and engaging read that works as a complete unit, while also providing deeper insight into the world of Venice and of Carnivia, laying further groundwork for next year’s third, much-anticipated (by me, at the very least) volume, The Absolution.

GUEST POST: Foreshadowing by DAVID BALDACCI

David Baldacci Name: DAVID BALDACCI

Author of: ZERO DAY (2011)
                 THE FORGOTTEN (2012)
                 THE ESCAPE (2014)

On the web: davidbaldacci.com

On Twitter: @davidbaldacci

To celebrate the launch of David Baldacci’s latest novel, The Escape, as well as the paperback publication of his fourth Will Robie novel, The Target, we’re very pleased to welcome the author to Reader Dad as part of his blog tour.

I’ve been waiting for this moment since I finished the first novel in the John Puller series, Zero Day. Now the third novel in that series – The Escape – is out and we finally learn the answer to a question posed in Zero Day: What is the deal with John’s brother, Robert? When we first meet him he’s a prisoner at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, America’s most secure military prison. He’s serving a life sentence for treason. What exactly did he do? And, more importantly, is he really guilty?

I enjoy foreshadowing questions like this in a series. Readers have to be a bit patient to get the payoff, but hopefully it will be worth it. Writing about the military is a little dicey. First, I have a lot of readers who wear the uniform and so I’m conscious that I have to get all my facts as accurate as possible. I don’t want people who carry guns to be mad at me! Secondly, there is a mass of technical jargon and military acronyms in that world that soldiers use matter-of-factly, but which can be confusing for the layperson. Thus, I’ve tried to be judicious in their use and when I do employ them I try very hard to explain clearly what they mean and why they’re important to the plot. I don’t roll this stuff out willy-nilly; it has to be integral to the plot. And with all my research I always end up leaving most of it on the table. After all, I’m not writing a textbook.

So, in The Escape I tried to do multiple things. I wanted to develop John Puller’s character more, and in doing so flesh out the relationship he has with both his brother and his father. And in the novel I laid out another bit of foreshadowing about another important Puller family member. That will pay off in a future novel! Until then, enjoy The Escape.

371793-0-escapepbAll the lights, cameras and consoles instantly went out. And then the quiet was replaced with urgent cries and the sounds of men running. Communication radios crackled and popped. Flashlights were snatched from holders on leather belts and powered up. They provided only meagre illumination.

And then the unthinkable happened: all the automatic cell doors unlocked.

Military CID investigator John Puller has returned from his latest case to learn that his brother, Robert, once a major in the United States Air Force, and an expert in nuclear weaponry and cyber-security, has escaped from the Army’s most secure prison. Preliminary investigations show that Robert – convicted of treason – may have had help in his breakout. Now he’s on the run, and he’s the military’s number one target.

John Puller has a dilemma. Which comes first: loyalty to his country, or to his brother? Blood is thicker than water, but Robert has state secrets that certain people will kill for. John does not know for certain the true nature of Robert’s crimes, nor if he’s even guilty. It quickly becomes clear, however, that his brother’s responsibilities were powerful and far-reaching.

With the help of US intelligence officer Veronica Knox, both brothers move closer to the truth from their opposing directions. As the case begins to force John Puller into a place he thought he’d never be – on the other side of the law. Even his skills as an investigator, and his strength as a warrior, might not be enough to save him. Or his brother.

BARRICADE by Jon Wallace

barricade-cover-jon-wallace-gollancz BARRICADE

Jon Wallace (thingaboutchickens.blogspot.co.uk)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

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.

GUEST POST: Four Methods of Travel in BARRICADE: Kenstibec’s Guide by JON WALLACE

Jon Wallace pic Name: JON WALLACE

Author of: BARRICADE (2014)

On the web: thingaboutchickens.blogspot.co.uk

On Twitter: @Jon__Wallace

Kenstibec is the main character in Barricade. He is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans optimised for soldiering, engineering and other vital roles. They fought a war against humanity and turned Britain into a wasteland. Now they live in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors.

Kenstibec earns his keep as an armoured taxi driver, driving fellow Ficials from city to city. It’s not an easy job: getting a fare to a destination is not guaranteed when you have mined roads, corrosive rain and ambushing tribes to contend with.

A number of competing taxi franchises have sprung up in this challenging transport environment, offering very different vehicles. Here Kenstibec describes the main competitors, and his taxi own firm.

1. Aircraft: Ardeb Airways:

barricadeblogtourArdeb is a frustrated Medical Model. Took up flying to take his mind off the cull, which rather conflicts with his Hippocratic optimisation. Flies nap-of-the-earth most of the way, a real skilled flyer by all accounts – but he only visits York and Leeds barricades as the others don’t have landing strips.

Vehicle specification:

Unarmed “King Air”. Maximum speed: 315 MPH. Constantly requires treatment as weather chews through hydraulics for fun, even at the altitudes he flies. Flying that low means you generally pass any SAM-toting lunatic before he sees you – but you will get a strong taste of small arms fire. Be prepared to pick bullets out your rear for days after landing.

Also, your chances of completing the trip halve with every trip – that plane is going down one day. Ardeb treats the surfaces with anti-corrosive strips, but they’re usually fried by the middle of the return journey. After a crash, the last thing you want is to search a ten-mile debris field for your luggage.

Summary:

Sure, he gets you where you’re going quick, but it’s one shaky ride and it’s damn expensive. The days of stylish air travel are dead. There’s not even an in flight meal.

2. Boat: Lennos:

Lennos is a former Rig Mechanic Model optimised for the ocean wave. Lives on his own on Lincolnshire Island. Only pops up when in need of supplies, so service is haphazard at best. Offers short jaunts to Liverpool or Portsmouth and even to Brixton along the dangerous Thames route.

Vehicle specification:

Ex UK Border Force 42m cutter, with heavy adaptations – he named it Pander. Maximum Speed: 77 MPH. Armed with two automated GPMG positions to shred any tribal skiff that ventures too close. Powerful Ficial-designed Project 1208B-VV engines give the craft serious pace and manoeuvrability.

Sounds good right? Don’t sign up just yet. The craft is poorly suited to new littoral environment. Gronts hull is poorly fixed and takes on water. Several passengers had to literally hold the ship together under fire, while Lennos made repairs. In addition corrosive fogs chew up automated gun systems, causing them to misfire at awkward moments – alerting nearby tribes and shredding fares.

Summary:

Seriously, not a good option. Lennos has a reputation for being unreliable and constantly late. Worse, his navigation skills are not what they ought to be. If you fancy taking three weeks to creep around The Great Humber Floodplain, beaching on submerged housing, sign up. If you just want to get where you’re going, find another way.

3. Tank: Optant Travel:

Optant is a Solider Model. After bomb dropped he drove tank all the way from Salisbury plain. One of a number of armoured fighting vehicle offerings at the beginning of Barricade days, but now one of the last tankists in business.

Vehicle specification:

Vickers Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank. Maximum speed: 25-30 MPH. Armed with L30A1 rifled gun, 7.62 Cuploa machine gun, Gronts armour. There’s not much the Reals have that can challenge it, apart from maybe another tank, but I don’t believe they have the expertise to keep complex machinery like that in order. Optant’s adaptations have also made it well resistant to IEDs and the like, which took out many of his fellow tankists. Still, I would never drive a tank. You can’t see out, and progress is way too leisurely.

Summary:

OK, I can see why you might think this a better option than what we offer: all that armour and weaponry can look attractive. But let me tell something about tanks: they’re slow, and they break down. They’re also hard to repair. There’s a reason Optant is the last tankist standing. Think about that when he gives you his sales pitch.

4. Landy: Shersult Taxis:

Shersult, another ex-soldier model, manages a varied fleet of augmented cars, driven by various models including me. We pride ourselves on reliability, customer service and lethality.

Vehicle specification:

My own choice is a heavily adapted Land Rover Defender, produced by Rick’s Garage, Edinburgh. Complete on-board small arms provision. Limited Gronts armor plating. Top Speed: 165MPH. Other drivers favour other set-ups, but I believe in light, nippy, all-terrain transport.

Also, I occasionally use human guides. They are very useful if you want to pick your way quietly across the countryside. I pride myself on delivering luggage intact and unharmed, unlike some other drivers who think shooting their way along a straight line is the only option. I don’t underestimate people. I only kill them.

Summary:

The sheer number of our drivers should indicate the extent to which our business model is successful. Choose Shersult taxis every time for reliable, speedy, safe travel. Also, tips are included in the final fare.

Barricade by Jon Wallace is published on the 19th June by Gollancz. You can download your e-book copy of Barricade for £1.99 until the 26th June 2014!

THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross

The Killing Season by Mason Cross THE KILLING SEASON

Mason Cross (carterblake.net)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

The first thing you should know about me is that my name is not Carter Blake. That name no more belonged to me than the hotel room I was occupying when the call came in.

Caleb Wardell killed nineteen people with a sniper rifle before he was caught and sentenced to death. Now, free once more, and with a Remington 700 sniper rifle in his hands, Wardell decides to finish the job he started before his imprisonment, adding the names of the people who helped put him in prison to the top of his list of targets. FBI agent Elaine Banner is part of the task force assembled to bring Wardell back into custody. It doesn’t take long before Banner realises that independent consultant, Carter Blake – a man who specialises in finding people who don’t want to be found – has a better idea of where Wardell is headed, and a better chance of catching him, than anyone else on the task force. As a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues, the body count mounts, and Banner and Blake discover that someone else is using Wardell for their own sinister purposes. And Blake has secrets of his own, secrets that may hold the key to understanding where Caleb Wardell is likely to show up next.

Carter Blake, like all good thriller protagonists, is something of a mystery when we first meet him in Mason Cross’ debut novel, The Killing Season. Like the best protagonists, he remains a mystery when we reach the end of the novel, despite having spent a good half of the story inside the man’s head. He’s a fairly simplistic character – nothing but a false name and a set of rules – but Cross injects him with enough personality, and tantalising glimpses of a secretive past, to flesh him out and make him more than the two-dimensional cardboard cut-out he might well have become under less favourable circumstances. He’s a man who knows how to handle himself, a man with enough military and/or special ops (we never find out) training to ensure he puts up a good fight when required.

Counterbalancing Blake’s close-to-the-chest approach, Cross gives us Agent Banner, a single parent trying to balance her demanding job with the needs of her eight-year-old daughter. This is a character with whom we are on more familiar ground: we learn more about Elaine Banner in her introduction than we do about Blake over the course of the entire novel. She has everyday problems, and faces challenges with which we can easily identify: the demands of parenthood; conflict and tension in the workplace.

The third viewpoint we are presented with is that of Wardell himself. Like Blake, Wardell is something of a mystery, and we never know more about his plans than do his opponents, so his ultimate destination remains as much a mystery to us as it does to Blake and Banner until the final reveal. What we do learn quite quickly is that this is a man utterly without remorse and completely dedicated to the task at hand, despite the randomness of his targets. He’s a frightening and realistic character, plucked from the headlines, a prime example of art imitating life.

Around these three characters, Mason Cross has constructed a fast-paced chase novel designed to keep readers and protagonists alike on their toes. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Lee Child or Michael Marshall, Brit Cross has produced an American-set thriller that rings as true as if it had been written by a native Chicagoan. It’s not by accident that I’ve plucked those two names from the ether: Carter Blake shares some of the traits of Jack Reacher, and The Killing Season caught me in much the same way as Child’s debut novel all those years ago. And there are some structural similarities to Michael Marshall’s Straw Men trilogy – the multiple viewpoints, one of which is in the first person (that of Carter Blake himself, which makes the fact that we know as little about him at the book’s close as we did when it opened something of a coup for the author); the ever-increasing sense of tension as the novel progresses. Needless to say, The Killing Season stands on its own, a highly original and thoroughly enjoyable read, an excellent start to what this reader hopes will be a long and entertaining series.

“Number one: You pay me half up front, half when I catch your man. Number two: I work alone. I won’t be coming into the office nine to five. I won’t be joining the team for beers once we put this guy back inside. If you’re buying me, you’re buying an additional resource; that’s all…Number three is that if you’re paying me to catch your guy, you’re paying me to do it my way. My way is whatever works best. Sometimes it’s entirely legal, sometimes not.”

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee

THE UNDERTAKING - Audrey Magee THE UNDERTAKING

Audrey Magee (audreymagee.com)

Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

In order to temporarily escape the madness of the Eastern Front, German soldier Peter Faber turns to marriage. It is a marriage of convenience, the bride one Katharina Spinell, chosen from a catalogue, a girl he has never met. The benefits are mutual: ten days’ honeymoon leave for him; a war pension for her should he die on the battlefield. In Berlin, the attraction between them is immediate and mutual, and when Peter returns to the front, he leaves more than a memory; Katharina is pregnant and must raise the child alone while Peter moves ever eastwards, fighting a war that is always on the verge of being over.

Audrey Magee’s first novel is a thing of beauty. Split between the ever-shifting Eastern Front, and the relative comfort of Berlin, it shows two sides to the horrors faced by ordinary Germans during the Second World War, horrors often forgotten in favour of the atrocities committed by the upper echelons of the same army for which Peter Faber fights. On the one hand, we have Peter and the small unit of men with whom he lives and fights. Here is the reality of war: the front line, manned by the soldiers at the bottom of the pecking order, while those further up give orders from positions of relative safety. Magee presents these as a series of almost surreal, horrific snapshots, brief glimpses of battle and the aftermath, all seen from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. Why, exactly are they fighting? What will they gain? For Peter, at least, there is good enough reason in the form of his wife and child back in Berlin.

‘Why are you here?’
‘Cannon fodder for that lot in Berlin.’
‘Not that again.’
‘It’s all there is. You can hide behind your wife and child, kill all around you for your wife and child, but you’re really not doing it for them. You’re doing it for the fat bastards in Berlin.’

The other half of the story focuses on Katharina and her family in Berlin. Katharina’s father works for an important member of the Nazi Party and, as a result, receives certain perks that make the lives of the Spinells more comfortable than those of many people around them. We get a brief glimpse of the type of work Mr Spinell, on the orders of the charismatic Dr Weinart, does when Peter is on leave: their job is to evict the Jewish population of Berlin from their homes and send them packing to points east. A large apartment, plenty of food, even a Russian girl to take the pressure of housework from Katharina and her mother, turn out to be less than sufficient payment for the sacrifice the Spinells will ultimately make in the form of their son, Katharina’s brother, a solider also fighting on the Eastern Front. Set against the nightly bombing of the city, and the increasing scarcity of food, the story of the rise and fall of the Spinell family is strangely inevitable while also being heart-breaking to watch. Close to the book’s end, Magee manages to destroy us completely with one single sentence.

For the most part, dialogue forms the backbone of the story, with descriptive narrative very much taking a back seat. Magee’s ability to present a situation purely in dialogue (often without dialogue tags – ‘he said’, ‘she said’) is second to none, scenes running for pages at a time consisting of little more than fragments of speech spoken by two, three, four characters at a time. In these scenes, Magee accomplishes two things: to convey to the reader exactly what is going on, and what the context is; and to simulate a realistic conversation without ever leaving the reader wondering who said what, despite that fact that we’re rarely told explicitly. The characters in this remarkable novel, despite the subject – let’s face it, what could be more generic than a group of soldiers in the midst of war? – are all fully-drawn, each with a unique personality and recognisable voice.

The tone of The Undertaking has an element of the light-hearted. In many ways, this is a consequence of the dialogue-led nature of the story. Despite that, Magee never lets us forget exactly what is going on. We, the reader, find ourselves on the front lines with the men of Faber’s unit, filthy, hungry and cold with no idea if we’ll make it through the next five minutes, let alone to the end of the day. Halfway through, the story takes a sinister twist as Faber finds himself in the centre of the clusterfuck that was the Battle of Stalingrad. Around the same time, Katharina and her family seem to fall out of favour and things take a turn for the disastrous as shortages of food, fuel and medication take their toll on a family already torn apart by personal loss. The disappearance of Katharina’s husband compounds their problems, branding them, by association, as cowards and denying Katharina – due to the lack of any evidence that he ever died – of the war pension that was hers by right of marriage.

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

RED RISING by Pierce Brown

Red Rising - Pierce Brown RED RISING

Pierce Brown (pierce-brown.com)

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

£12.99

I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.

It is a world in which humanity has evolved into a colour-coded caste system, with Reds – manual labourers and menial workers – at the bottom, and the spoilt, rich Golds at the top. Deep under the surface of Mars, mining colonies, manned by Reds, are involved in the excavation of helium-3, a mineral that is crucial for the terraforming of Mars, and further colonies beyond. The Reds are heroes – or so the propaganda tells them – sacrificing themselves for the betterment and continued existence of their fellow human beings.

Darrow is a Helldiver, a drill operator on a mining crew, who is happy with his lot. When his wife is executed for sedition, Darrow decides to do the unthinkable – he steals her body from the gallows and buries her. Sentenced to hang himself, Darrow is surprised to find himself alive and well, and in the company of the Sons of Ares, a terrorist band whose sole purpose is the freedom of the Reds of Mars. The propaganda is not true: Mars has been settled for hundreds of years and the Reds continue to toil underground with no hope of ever claiming the reward they have been promised for all these years. But this is their chance to get what is rightfully theirs, and Darrow is the only man who can help them achieve their ends. There is only one catch: he must become a Gold and force change from the inside.

From the opening of Pierce Brown’s debut novel, Red Rising, we find ourselves in the head of Darrow, a young hothead who is dedicated to his job and his colony, and deeply in love with his young wife. It is through the eyes of this young man that we first discover the underground world of Mars and – much later – the planet of beautiful, towering cities that exists above their heads. The son of a man hanged for trying to help his people gain their freedom, it quickly becomes apparent that Darrow has married a young girl who shares the same views. "Live for more" she tells her husband at the heart-breaking moment of her death – heart-breaking for the reader despite how early in the book it comes, purely because of how invested we become in the world that Darrow inhabits. When, shortly afterwards, Darrow learns the truth of the Reds’ situation, we watch as understanding slowly dawns and a thirst for vengeance becomes moulded by the Sons of Ares into a desire for freedom for his people, at any cost.

Brown has created a fantastical world where racism has been taken to the extreme. No longer is a person’s race simply an accident of birth, but the result of genetic engineering that defines not only one’s station in life, but also one’s skill-set and vocational leanings – Red for manual work; Copper for bureaucracy; Black for military service; Pink for pleasure. At the top of the pyramid, the cruel and cold Golds, who have practically destroyed the human race as we, the reader, know it,in their quest for complete control, the overthrow of Demokracy, and the founding of the Society. There is something faintly suggestive in Brown’s language, and the naming of the various factions that exist in this brave new world; a warning for Twenty-first Century humanity, a brief glimpse of what may lie in our – admittedly distant – future.

When Darrow finds himself inducted into the Institute – the school that selects the cream of the Gold population – we begin to see a world much different to the colonies below Mars’ surface. There is a distinctly Roman feel to this rich society, even down to the names of its members (Cassius, Julian, Virginia) and it becomes clear quite quickly that that ancient civilisation has been used as a role model for this new one. At the Institute, the students are split into Houses based on their traits, and set against each other in a year-long battle that will see only one victor. Darrow is under immense pressure to win if his plans to defeat the Golds from the inside is to have any chance of success. Despite the fact that there is no secret that this is the first book of a trilogy, there is still no certainty that Darrow will be successful in his mission. Let’s face it, when your narrator dies at the end of the first section of the first book, nothing is ever guaranteed.

I feel the door beneath me open. My body falls. Rope flays my neck. My spine creaks. Needles lance my lumbar. Kieran stumbles forward. Uncle Narol shoves him away. With a wink, he touches my feet and pulls.

I hope they do not bury me.

There is an indefinable quality to Red Rising that sets it above other novels in the same genre (it has been favourably compared with Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels – with a sly mention of young Master Wiggin in the same breath as the likes of Alexander and Caeser – and The Hunger Games, to name but a few). Once we meet Darrow and understand the position he is in, the book is almost impossible to set aside, for even the briefest of moments. The action is relentless, despite the span of time it covers (this first book in the trilogy runs from an arbitrary point shortly before everything changes for Darrow, through his transformation from Red to Gold, and the duration of his stay at the Institute) and with every turn of the page we find out something new about this strange new world. The fact that we find ourselves in Darrow’s head means that we’re learning the ropes here along with him, and unnecessary exposition is kept to a minimum.

The mix of far-future science fiction and ancient civilisation is reminiscent of Dan Simmons’ Ilium/Olympus novels (Roman here rather than Simmons’ Greek story), although the similarity ends there. Pierce Brown has very quickly and very adeptly created a world and a people that feels like a natural evolution of the world in which we live today, and which we find ourselves accepting without question. In Darrow he has created a leading man that we can follow without question, a man who will always be the hero, despite the difficult choices he must make. As he settles into the mind-set of the Golds who surround him, he becomes more like them, without ever losing the core that makes us root for his success. The themes of oppression and slavery are the obvious ones to take away from this story, but there is a deeper, more tender core built around love, family and, most of all, trust – the simple fact that not everyone is the same, despite their heritage, their genes; a message that should be obvious to all, but is often lost in the very black and white world in which we live.

Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.

SEAL TEAM 666 by Weston Ochse

SealTeam666 - Weston Ochse SEAL TEAM 666

Weston Ochse (weston-ochse.blogspot.co.uk)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Four weeks from completion, Jack Walker is pulled from his Navy SEAL training on Coronado Island, and assigned to SEAL Team 666. Highly classified and known to only a few key people, the five-man team which specialises in operations against supernatural threats has just lost its sniper; Walker’s background makes him the ideal candidate for replacement. Within hours he finds himself geared up and on his first mission. What they find in San Francisco’s Chinatown – a sweatshop where women whose mouths have been sewn closed are making suits out of tattooed human skin – is the first piece in a puzzle which sets the team on the trail of an army of demons who have the whole world in their sights.

Weston Ochse will be a name familiar to many frequenters of the horror fiction scene, though SEAL Team 666 sees his first commercial publication on these shores. The book is a straightforward mix of supernatural horror and military action that works surprisingly well, despite a couple of attempts to shoehorn more military jargon than is really necessary into the narrative. The premise is a simple one: military threats are not the only danger that the US faces on a daily basis. Since before the country was formed, a small team – five men and one dog – has protected its citizens from any number of supernatural threats, pitted against demons, homunculi and all things evil. In the modern US military structure, this team is made up of the best of the best, an elite unit within the Navy SEALs.

Ochse throws us into the middle of the action from the first blistering page, as we join the team on a mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan (yes, that mission). From there, we’re barely allowed time to breathe as we follow the team through one mission after the next, as they track down the man behind these suits made of human skin. Amongst all the action, though, the author finds time to flesh out the characters, and we learn something about the background of each so that they are more than just gung-ho paper cut-outs. This is done in such a way that it never impacts on the story, never slows things down or pulls the reader out of the moment, so that it feels natural and we never get the sense that the author is cramming important information in that we might need to remember later. Unfortunately (and this is really my only criticism of the novel), the same can’t be said for the technical information and military jargon that Ochse has picked up along the way and has presumably felt loathe to part with in subsequent drafts:

As he broke the Stoner down, he removed the rotating bolt carrier group. It was virtually the same as the piece-of-shit M16, which fired 5.56mm, but the Stoner was bored for 7.62mm as opposed to the 12.7mm of the Barrett. And also like the M16 and the AR15, the Stoner used a gas-impingement system to automatically move the bolt back and forth, enabling semiautomatic fire down the twenty-inch barrel. Rather than the regular floating barrel, the Stoner was reworked to incorporate the URX II Picatiny-Weaver Rail System, allowing for better application of any mounted hardware such as laser sights, telescopic sights, reflexive sights, tactical lights, and forward grips.

Impressive as this is, it doesn’t really add much to the story and serves only to interrupt the flow of the otherwise fast-paced narrative. Fortunately, instances of this are few and far between and by the second half of the novel, Ochse has mostly ditched them altogether.

That complaint aside, it’s a well-written and attention-grabbing piece of fiction. Ochse’s (it’s pronounced “oaks”, for anyone currently struggling with it) history with the horror genre serves him well, as he creates a world that is at once horrific and terrifyingly believable. The introduction of a military force whose job is to combat supernatural threats is by no means original, but the story and the world combine to set SEAL Team 666 apart from the vast majority of its predecessors. The fact that the supernatural elements only exist on one side of the fence also makes for a pleasant change. With the exception of some holy water, the Americans rely on good old-fashioned force and superior firepower to hold their side of the fight, rather than any magical or supernatural abilities of their own.

A refreshing and original take on the military-horror crossover, SEAL Team 666 should prove to be the breakout novel for one-time Bram Stoker Award winner Weston Ochse. Fast-paced and well-constructed, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, despite the sometimes laborious technical detail. A must-read for fans of Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series or Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, SEAL Team 666 is also an essential read for fans of good horror fiction. While this is one reader who is looking forward to the imminent second book in the series, I’m also keen to see how Ochse capitalises on the wider audience this novel is sure to bring and whether we’re likely to see a more commercially-available return to his traditional horror roots. Either way, Ochse is one to watch.

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