Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



An Interview with ANTONIN VARENNE

image003 (1) Name: ANTONIN VARENNE

Author of: BED OF NAILS (2012)
                      LOSER’S CORNER (2014)
                      RETRIBUTION ROAD (2017)

Antonin Varenne was awarded the Prix Michel Lebrun and the Grand Prix du Jury Sang d’encre for Bed of Nails, his first novel to be translated into English. His second, Loser’s Corner was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs Quais du polar – 20 minutes and the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone. Retribution Road, translated into English by Sam Taylor and published by MacLehose Press is now available.

Thank you, Antonin, for taking the time to chat with us.

The scope of Retribution Road is vast, ranging from the East India Company’s campaign in Burma to the fledgling American West almost a decade later. What sort of research was involved in ensuring you got all the detail correct?

Research materials come from all sorts of sources, books, movies, documentaries, the internet and a few blogs. I read hardly any novels about this time period and the places in the book, only studies, biographies, even a bit of Darwin’s theory that I had studied at the university years back. I read the books that the main character, Arthur Bowman, discovers along his journey; Irving Washington, Thoreau… but they were not novels either. Reading a contemporary historian like Howard Zinn was inspirational too. The scene of the arrival of Bowman in New York, in the middle of a demonstration of female workers, is a tribute to Zinn’s historical work and political engagement. Sometimes, I read to get material for a scene, sometimes reading gave me the idea of a scene. It goes both ways.

And how does this compare to the research involved in writing a contemporary French-set thriller such as Bed of Nails?

The freedom of imagining a story is comparable for two books as different as these two, but in a contemporary universe, a lot of things don’t have to be checked: I know the speed of the cars, the name of the train stations, I know the towns… In Retribution Road, I had to check everything: how fast does a rider on his horse travel, when does he have to change the horses, was there a town or waterway on his itinerary, could you drink a draft beer in London in 1858? Take a train to Liverpool and be back the next day? How long did it take to sail from Madras to Rangoon? How many soldiers were there on a war ship of the East India Company? Were there worker unions in the US in 1859? And so on. To be accurate, you sometimes spend two or three hours to fine-tune a little detail, which is something you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction. But it is part of the pleasure as well, to immerse yourself into the research. As I mentioned before, it is fuel for the imagination.

One of the most striking things about the novel is that we never learn the whole truth about what happened to Arthur Bowman and his team during their six months of captivity in the jungle. We catch little more than glimpses of the horror they experienced as the story progresses, and through the map of scars on Bowman’s body. Can you talk us through the logic behind this decision?

It came from a decision I made after I published my very first book in 2006 (not translated). I didn’t think too much about the impact it could have, and it had almost none since it sold only a few hundred copies! But it was very violent, a serial killer story. Then I realized that violence had become an industry in the thriller genre, that if I was to really become a writer, I had to take a position on that matter. So I decided not to not write about violence, but to not do it lightly. No blood for the thrills, but to talk about something with more importance, like war and its traumas (Bed Of Nails), torture (Loser’s Corner). When I chose a veteran as the main character of Retribution Road, both executioner and victim, I still decided be careful with the treatment of violence; in this book there is another serial killer, but the causes that induce his behaviour are more important than the creation of yet another killer, just for the sake of it. So the descriptions of the murders are rather elliptic, and the same goes for the torture in Burma. Another thing that I had discovered writing Loser’s Corner, about the institutionalization of torture during the Algerian war, is that sometimes not seeing is as scary and potent as telling everything.

What are you working on now? Should we expect more sweeping historical epics (and maybe even a return of Arthur Bowman), or are we likely to see a return to the Gallic noir through which we first encountered you?

Well, I just published a book named “Equateur” in France, not really a sequel to Retribution Road, but a story starting where Arthur Bowman’s ends, in the USA, in 1872. But this time the travel doesn’t follow the sunset in the west, but goes down south, in Central America, then French Guyana where I spent a year with my family. And I am now writing a story whose principal character is related to Arthur Bowman (I don’t want to spoil his story), in 1900, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. I think this third book would be the end of this cycle. After that, I think about something completely different.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

It’s hard to just mention a few names, and to know which ones really have been influential on my writing: but in France I would say Jean-Patrick Manchette, and one of the first American writers I discovered, James Ellroy, but my admiration for him is fading (he never went past his obsessions, and his creativity kind of dried out, or it’s me who’s not into that kind of reading anymore, I don’t know); same kind of lost love for Cormac McCarthy (I thought he was the king of using the least amount of words necessary, then I realized that in fact he was sometimes very, very talkative; I could never finish reading Blood Meridian; he is a fabulous writer, but I just got bored, or I had something else to do…).

And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?

That would be We Come Back As Shadows (don’t know if it is the title chosen in English) by the great Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II. He is an historian by trade, and an eternal creator of amazing adventures in different time periods of his home country. He is a political activist, a heavy smoker, a man who cultivates friendship and love.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Antonin Varenne look like?

A writing day must start early in the morning, without a hangover and without too much sun, because then I go ride my motorcycles. If it is a good day for writing, I will skip lunch, human communication with my family, and come out of my office like a zombie, wondering what is that strange unreal world surrounding me.

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

Wow. To pursue fiction writing, you need to like and want to write before thinking about making a career out of it. It seems sometimes that success in literature comes from a recipe, ingredients well mixed and good marketing; but it is because somebody somewhere started something and usually did it sincerely, genuinely; then it became a trend and the others followed and copied. So to make a career, you start by writing what you want. And if it is different, it might take a while to find its readers, but if it is good, it will take off. If you worry about what people will think and want of your books, your personality is dead. It’s like starting to wonder: what people will think about Antonin Varenne after reading this interview? Is he spontaneous or a pretentious prick who says Ellroy and McCarthy aren’t that good? If I asked myself the question, I would write and rewrite my answers indefinitely till I turn crazy trying to please every reader. And the only way to do that is to write platitudes. The truth? I’m in the middle of an insomnia, it is dawn and I’m awake since 3 in the morning and my brain runs on its own weird sugar. Probably a good time to start a new book!

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

Purely business! A biography and engineering piece: Rudolf Diesel, The Man And The Engine!

If Arthur Bowman’s story should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Argh. I’m sure Bowman’s role can seduce lots of actors (strong, broken, heroic, romantic too, on his way to redemption), and I have no doubt lots of them have the talent, but it will take an actor with wide and strong shoulders to do it, because he is carrying a whole world on them, the colonial 19th century, plus all his personal idiosyncrasies!

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)?

Well, I would have a few drinks of any sort with Jack London. Probably, the first few rounds would be friendly, but later in the evening we’d have to discuss why a clever, talented and adventurous human being like him was such a racist pig. Him being a much stronger boxer, it would end up badly for me, but it could as well be the beginning of a real friendship, no?

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

RETRIBUTION ROAD by Antonin Varenne


Antonin Varenne

Translated by Sam Taylor (

MacLehose Press (


Sergeant Arthur Bowman is a fifteen-year veteran of the East India Company’s private army when he and his team are taken prisoner in Burma in 1852. Six months of torture leave him mentally and physically scarred when he is released along with nine of the men who were captured with him, and he returns to London. Working as a policeman, he finds a body in the sewers, a body whose mutilation is uncannily like his own, with the word “SURVIVE” daubed in blood beside it. Only ten men could have perpetrated this horrific crime, and Bowman is determined to find out which one before the crime is pinned on him. From Burma, through Nineteenth Century England and the burgeoning New World, we follow Arthur Bowman is his search for a killer, and for a reason to live.

Antonin Varenne’s new novel is a wild departure from his earlier, noirish offerings, but anyone who has read those earlier works will immediately recognise the author’s skilful hand in this Patrick O’Brian meets Arthur Conan Doyle meets Larry McMurtry epic of one man’s search for retribution and redemption in both the beautiful narrative style and the intense, gritty world that Arthur Bowman inhabits.

Bowman himself is a hard character to like, a man who speaks little and seems to hold those around him in contempt for much of the time. When he is tasked with picking a group for a special mission that he will then lead, he finds himself facing capture or death, and shows – in no uncertain terms – what he is prepared to do in order to survive. Varenne places us, very early in the story, in the middle of a pitched river battle in which we get to see the true Arthur Bowman, a man for whom we have had very little empathy up to this point, but whose actions and interactions endear him to us as violence rages around him.

His time in England, just another damaged war veteran, builds upon this stoic character to show us how far he will go to obtain justice. One of the men he chose that day in Burma is now a murderer, and Bowman feels no small measure of blame for it and so, pulling himself together, getting his life into some sort of order, he sets out to find which one and make him pay, going so far as to follow the series of murders first to America’s East Coast and then out west to where many are attempting to make their name and their fortune in fabled lands riddled with gold.

As Bowman’s story progresses, our opinion of him changes as we watch him come out of his shell, a man of integrity and a sense of duty who carries on despite the pain it might cause him. Bowman is obviously damaged, both in terms of the physical scarring that covers his body, and of the less-visible emotional scars, but is not so damaged as to still understand that what he suffered has no place outside the jungle camp that was his home for six months. What’s interesting here is Varenne’s decision not to focus on the violence, not to describe what Bowman went through, nor for that matter, what the killer’s corpses look like. It is somehow more harrowing knowing that something happened, even if we only catch brief glimpses of the details in a throwaway line here – about Bowman’s facial scarring – or there – about memories of other men being taken from their cages.

Retribution Road feels like three distinct novels in one: the historical epic covering the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852; the detective novel set in the grimy streets of Victorian London and England; and a story of rebirth as Bowman reaches the vast plains of the wild West. It’s beautifully written, Varenne’s distinctive style shining through Sam Taylor’s wonderful translation, and impeccably researched. While Bowman stands firm at the centre of the story, he comes into contact with many other people who leap from the page, regardless of how briefly they appear therein, or of how much impact they have on Bowman’s journey, on his transformation from automaton-like soldier to human being, lover, father, friend.

A stunning, epic tale from an author who is not afraid to step outside his comfort zone, Retribution Road is an entirely engrossing read that, despite its heft, will still leave the reader wishing for more. It’s a dark story with a surprisingly warm heart, the tale of a man who we should never come to like yet who, against all odds, settles himself comfortably into the reader’s consciousness, staying with us long after the story has finished. With Retribution Road Antonin Varenne proves that he is an author who deserves to be on your “must-read” list, and offers his work to a much wider audience than his earlier novels might. If I could only recommend one book this year, this would probably be it.

THE WOLF ROAD by Beth Lewis


Beth Lewis (

The Borough Press (


At the age of seven, a young girl finds herself lost in the vast forests of British Columbia. Stumbling across a shack, she attempts to steal some jerky and finds herself staring down the barrel of a gun. The gun belongs to a man she comes to know as Trapper, a man who teaches her everything she needs to know to survive in this harsh wilderness, a man she comes to think of as her father. When she is seventeen, Elka sees a Wanted poster in the local town, a charcoal drawing of a man called Kreagar Hallet, a man who looks uncannily like the one with whom she has lived for the past ten years. When she bumps into Magistrate Jennifer Lyon and discovers the horrific nature of Hallet’s crimes, Elka flees north, her only plan to find her parents, who left her as a young child, and to outrun Hallet and Lyon in the process.

Beth Lewis’ debut novel, The Wolf Road has, from its opening pages, the feel of an old-fashioned Western, but it isn’t long before we understand the real setting: this is British Columbia, or BeeCee, in a future where wars have escalated to the point where nuclear weapons have been employed, and the world’s population all but wiped out in an event that is remembered as the Damn Stupid. But The Wolf Road is a story that could have taken place in any wilderness, at any time past or future; it’s a coming-of-age story wrapped up in a tale of survival against the odds, a story of family and identity. It’s a story with a huge heart in the form of its protagonist, Elka.

Though we find ourselves looking at this new world through Elka’s eyes, we know very little about her, mainly because she knows very little about herself. She has no idea what her real name is – Elka is the name bestowed upon her by Trapper when he took her under his wing – nor where she came from. She remembers her grandmother, and a letter from her parents which will ultimately become an obsession, a map that will lead her north in search of them and the fortune she is certain they have found. Lewis takes great care in building her central character up, and ensuring she is someone with whom the reader can identify, despite the gulf that will inevitably separate us from her. Her voice is truly distinctive, and it doesn’t take long for us to fall into the rhythms of her speech, or her little quirks; coupled with her insights and philosophies, her voice is what makes Elka stand out, and hang around in the reader’s mind long after the story is done. (Of course, it helps that she usually speaks sense:

Smell a’ bacon.

Ain’t nothing in this world like it. Salt-cured, sliced thick, line a’ juicy fat crisping up in the pan. Anyone what tells you they don’t like bacon is either stupid or lying. Either way that ain’t no one you can trust.

) It is difficult to read The Wolf Road and not think of Mattie Ross, the precocious young girl at the heart of Charles Portis’ True Grit; it’s a comparison that sits well: while Elka has no Rooster Cogburn to help her on her way, she has the same determination and strength of spirit as her predecessor.

As Elka’s journey north continues, Kreagar Hallet hot on her heels and Jennifer Lyon seemingly always one step ahead, she encounters a cast of characters that would strike fear into the strongest heart. There comes a point where the reader prays for the author to give this young girl a break, to allow her to run into someone without evil or nefarious intentions. With the exception of Penelope, whom Elka rescues from people traffickers, and who accompanies her north, the inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic world are a bitter and hardened lot, each out for their own best interests.

At the core of Elka’s story is the realisation of who her protector is, and more importantly what he is. There are questions of Elka’s complicity in his crimes or whether she understood what he was doing and tried to hide it from herself. The reader has a fair idea of some of it from early in the proceedings when we catch a brief glimpse of Missy. But it isn’t until the novel is drawing to a close that we understand the full extent of his evil, and of the terrible things Elka has spent so long trying to forget. With five simple words, Lewis turns what we think we knew on its head and leaves us trying to pick up the pieces – not to mention our jaw – before we go any further. It’s a rare thing for me to become so engrossed in a story that a single sentence can feel like a punch in the gut, but Beth Lewis pulls it off admirably in one of the finest books I’ve read in a long time.

The Wolf Road is a novel that ignores genre boundaries in order to be the best story it can be. Beth Lewis writes with a confidence and sense of control that belies her debut novelist status. Through the characters, the language, the geography, the brief world history, she has constructed a complex and satisfying story that is at once thriller and horror, Western and crime drama, speculative fiction and character study. The result is so much more than the sum of all these components: an engrossing story built around a unique and memorable protagonist, a standout piece in a year filled with big-name releases. Get on at the ground floor – you’ll be hearing a lot about Beth Lewis in the coming months and years, so take the time to enjoy that sense that you’ve discovered The Next Big Thing before everyone else.



David Towsey (

Jo Fletcher Books (


Thomas McDermott has left his family, and his community in the small town of Barkley, and gone off to fight in a war in which he has no conviction. When Thomas returns home, he will be a much changed man – Thomas is dead, a Walkin’, an abomination in the eyes of his friends and neighbours, an abomination that cannot be allowed to continue existing. When the religious fanatics of Barkley decide that the offspring of the Walkin’ must suffer the same fate as their parents, Thomas flees into the wilderness with his daughter – a posse chasing close behind – in search of a rumoured haven for the his kind.

Set almost 1000 years in the future, where the Earth is a desolate place, a shadow of what it once was. According to the histories, Automated Man has long since fallen from scientific grace, the cause of which has been lost in the mists of time. What is known is that one of that age’s greatest discoveries led to a mutation in a large portion of the population that caused the dead to return to life, the mind active while the body continues on a steady downward path of decay.

David Towsey introduces us to the town of Barkley through the sermon of the fanatical Pastor Gray, immediately giving us some idea of the mind-set that drives the people of this small town. In parallel to this, we meet Thomas as he awakens at the bottom of a funeral pyre pit, partially-burned and almost immediately fully aware of what he has become. When one of Thomas’ comrades, also newly risen from the dead, stumbles into town, we learn how the people of Barkley, under the leadership of Gray, deal with the Walkin’, and their families. From there, the course of the novel seems strangely inevitable, as Thomas turns towards home, dooming not only himself, but his teenage daughter, Mary. And yet, there are surprises in store as we watch the dynamics of the important characters in this small town: the pastor and his acolyte, the law man, the grave digger, the elder, and Thomas’ wife, Sarah.

There is a post-apocalyptic feel to the novel, though there is no evidence of any single catastrophic event that might have led humanity to this point. This is a world with no technology, a world that has reverted to a much simpler time and, as such, Barkley feels like it’s located in some remote corner of the Old American West. Without the documentation and transcripts that act as chapter leads, this might be an old-fashioned weird Western – The Walking Dead meets Shane – or a tale set in some fantasy world, like Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country. As it is, the actual location matters little; this is a tale driven purely by the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves.

At the centre of the tale is the McDermott family; not only Thomas and Sarah and Mary, but also Thomas’ extended family – his brother ends up joining the posse sent out to hunt Thomas down. It’s a tale of the inexplicable bonds that keep a family together and make it whole, the love that exists between husband and wife, and between parents and children. There is no surprise when Thomas’ first thought upon discovering that he is now dead is to see his family once more, regardless of how dangerous it might be for him, or the harsh words spoken between him and his wife before he left for the front. Around the family are the other characters – the law man who may be sympathetic to their cause; the grave digger who has no desire to see more death than is necessary; and, most interestingly, the religious fanatics who believe they have been sent by some god or other to rid the world of evil. There is a long tradition of these characters in the horror genre (I’m always reminded most forcefully of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody); here, they work very well, because there is a ring of truth to them, a sense that we might see them on the evening news ranting about whatever pet hate drives them ever onwards.

Your Brother’s Blood is the first part of a series known as The Walkin’. Despite the name, and the subject matter, David Towsey’s debut novel bears no resemblance to that other modern zombie staple The Walking Dead (even though I’ve now mentioned it twice in the space of a single review). These are not George A. Romero-style zombies with an insatiable lust for braaaaaaaiiiiins!, but people whose physiology refuses to let them stay dead, allowing them to carry on as if nothing had happened. In some ways, it’s an examination of how war changes men, with resurrection presenting a much more literal change than the psychological impact normally implied.

Beautifully written, Your Brother’s Blood is literary horror at its best. David Towsey aims not for cheap scares or toe-curling gore, but for an all-pervading sense of doom that grows as we progress through the narrative. A gripping storyline and characters about whom we care (whether we want to see them live, or die slow and horrible deaths) ensure that the reader will be drawn completely into this relatively short novel. An intense and timeless tale of family and love, it is a wonderful introduction to an extremely talented new voice in genre fiction, and a great start to what promises to be a future classic.

GUEST POST: Questions and Answers by DAVID TOWSEY

David Towsey Name: DAVID TOWSEY

Author of: YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD (2013)

On the web:

On Twitter: @D_Towsey

I’m very pleased to welcome David Towsey to Reader Dad, to celebrate the release of his debut novel, Your Brother’s Blood, the first book in his The Walkin’ series. My review of this excellent book will be live on the site soon, but for now, here’s David with some background on the series, and his writing process.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I pose a lot of questions. Questions are one tool in a writer’s arsenal when trying to draw a reader into a new world and meet new people; and once they’re there, to keep them turning the page. I can’t imagine there are any authors who don’t generate questions for a reader in their fiction – but I’d be interested to hear suggestions to the contrary. But there is tremendous variation between authors when it comes to answers.

It sounds basic, and that’s because it is. The setting up of questions followed by the gradual process of answering them is arguably the foundation of fiction. ‘How will character X defeat situation Y?’ etc, etc. There is a kind of contract between reader and author: if a reader is going to put themselves into a position of receiving the question then the author must, at some point, deliver the answer.

This is further complicated by ideas of satisfaction and individual preference, which is what makes the whole thing interesting. Some readers want all the answers and they want them now. Other readers only want some of the answers and are willing to negotiate when they get them. There is, I think, a minority of readers who only want one answer and are happy to have the other questions remain unresolved. I don’t believe any of these approaches are better than the rest, but I am definitely part of said minority.

‘I write books I would want to read.’ Heard that one before, huh? Bear with me; it’s a useful cliché for what I’m trying to say.

I like reading books that show me a world, resolve a particular narrative within it, but do not resolve that entire world. The example that leaps to my mind, and forgive me for choosing a film rather than a book, is THE MATRIX. Like many people I was blown away by the first Matrix film; I guess I was at the right age and the right demographic for it to have a major effect. Ignoring the kung-fu action and the cyber-punk aesthetic, both of which enthralled me, the ending of that film was possibly the most satisfying ending for me as a “reader” of SF texts that I can remember.

Neo is standing in a telephone box. The audience doesn’t know specifically who he is calling, but it becomes apparent he’s addressing the machine consciousness as a whole. He admits he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He hasn’t saved the world or defeated the villain – not completely. There are so many hinted at or inferred possible futures. It is a narrative that is both complete in terms of the contractual agreement the audience has made with the film makers, and incomplete in terms of the internal world of that narrative. So much so it spawned THE ANIMATRIX (which I greatly preferred to the following sequels, for reasons that are probably now obvious) and a narrative heavy MMORPG. After my first viewing of the film I came away satisfied I’d experienced a story, but also excited about other stories. I wanted to write a book like that.

In YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD I created a world but I only wrote one story. The story of a soldier, Thomas McDermott, that dies, comes back to life, and is desperate to see his family.

*** SPOILERS ***

The journey he takes with his daughter is the only question that is fully resolved by the end of the book. Neither side has won the war that killed him. The religious regime in the town of Barkley is undermined but still in place. The questions of what the world will do with Walkin’ like Thomas, or what caused them in first place, are left unanswered.

As the first book in a trilogy I sense YOUR BROTHER’S BLOOD is being cut some slack. Readers that might otherwise dislike the open-ended nature of the book are reserving judgement. But with book two pretty much finished and being halfway through book three, I can say with some certainty that I’m still channelling that Matrix vibe that excited me so much as a youngster. I might be finishing the McDermott family saga in these three books, but this is not a resolved world. I still have questions, and so will my readers.

RED COUNTRY by Joe Abercrombie


Joe Abercrombie (

Gollancz (


When Shy South returns home from town to find her farm burned, her friend hanging from a tree and her young brother and sister missing, she sets out to find the man responsible, her cowardly old stepfather Lamb in tow. It doesn’t take long to find that the man she is looking for is called Grega Cantliss, and that he is heading to Crease, a town nestled deep in the mountains at the far end of the Far Country. Throwing in their lot with a Fellowship heading west towards their fortune, Shy and Lamb set out to find the man and the children, little knowing that the Company of the Gracious Hand, under the command of Nicomo Cosca, is trailing along behind, hunting rebels. As they move further into the wildness of the Far Country, Shy quickly learns that there is more to Lamb – a most unsuitable name – than meets the eye and that there may be more than they bargained for awaiting them in Crease.

Red Country is Joe Abercrombie’s third standalone novel and is, once again, set in the world of his First Law Trilogy. It’s the first of Abercrombie’s books that I have read, but I’m assured that at least one of the characters played a key role in that original trilogy. While it’s billed as fantasy, it reads more like an old-fashioned, if somewhat blood-soaked, western, bearing all the trademarks of that genre: the discovery of gold in the far West, and the ensuing westward trek towards a supposedly easy fortune through hostile country populated by restless and savage natives. Crease is, to all intents and purposes, this world’s version of Deadwood while Nicomo Cosca’s band of misfits might well have deserted Fort Apache in search of richer pickings. In fact, for the vast majority of the novel, the “fantasy” elements do little more than distract from the key storyline: that moment when a character puts an arrow in their bow, or draws their sword, rather than drawing their pistol is the only thing separating Red Country from Lonesome Dove, and it’s such a shame.

Which is not to say that Red Country is a bad book. Far from it, in fact. Abercrombie has constructed a solid story, and filled it with characters that, despite their natures, it’s difficult not to like. Shy is a headstrong young woman with a past she’d rather forget while Lamb, once he gets started, seems all-too-keen to reawaken the demons of his own. Temple – lawyer, priest, carpenter – has a chequered past of his own that he, rather grudgingly, tries to put behind him when he becomes indebted to Shy. As the relationships between these three central characters shift and re-form, we see different facets of the people, each new aspect bringing new surprises and evoking new emotions in the reader.

Abercrombie’s world is well-established – this is now the sixth novel he has set in it – and it’s likely that there are details that a long-time reader will notice that I, first-timer that I am, most likely missed. But it’s not a bad starting place, because it requires no knowledge of what has gone before. There’s something familiar about the place, and perhaps it’s the similarity to the American West of countless films and television shows. This is not fantasy of the Lord of the Rings variety, and probably not even of the Song of Ice and Fire variety. Like Daniel Polansky’s Low Town novels, it obliterates genre boundaries, in this instance between western and fantasy.

There are times when the novel feels a little over-crowded, when too many things are happening at once and a feeling at the end that Abercrombie just couldn’t decide at what point to finish – there are a handful of what feel like logical conclusions before the final word is reached – but these are minor niggles in the grand scheme of things. Humour abounds, with each character more than able to hold their own in a battle of wits. There are times when it feels like you might be reading an Asterix comic, but in a good way – this is observational comedy at its best, with an ear for natural dialogue that equals the likes of Elmore Leonard or Cormac McCarthy.

He realised Friendly was standing next to him…. “What do I do now?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Temple. “What does anyone do?”

“I plan an authentic portrait of the taming and settlement of the Far Country,” Sworbreck was blathering. “A tale for the ages! One in which you have played a pivotal role.”

“I’m pivotal, all right,” said Sweet. “What’s pivotal?”

“My hand,” shrieked Hedges.

“You’re lucky it’s not through your face,” said Lamb.

A number of motifs thread through the story and define the characters: long-buried pasts that refuse to stay buried and the concept of “the easy way” – as opposed to “the right way” – are two of the more important themes that show up time and time again. The former will, of course, bring Easter Eggs galore for the long-time reader, and their ordinariness serves to ground this fantasy tale in something approaching a recognisable setting.

If Red Country is representative of the rest of his work, Joe Abercrombie deserves the buzz he has generated so far in his short writing career. It’s an entertaining novel that has more in common with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove than with anything else and, as a result, should appeal to fans of the western genre (assuming they can get past the front cover, which has very much a fantasy feel). There’s plenty here for everyone, though – a dry humour wrapped around a dark and violent heart that will definitely satisfy fans of great writing, regardless of any other preferences they may have. It’s the characters that bring the story to life, because they are ordinary, flawed people in extraordinary situations. Red Country has given me a taste of Abercrombie’s fiction; it certainly won’t be the last time I sample his wares. Whether you’ve read his work before or not, this is an essential read.


wind-through-the-keyhole-stephen-king THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE

Stephen King (
[See here for information on The Dark Tower]

Hodder (


Released: 24th April

I have mentioned before my love for the work of Stephen King, so it’s difficult to describe how excited I was to find his latest novel – a Dark Tower novel, no less – on my desk a month before the official publication date (many thanks to the wonderful folks at Hodder for the opportunity). As I read, I convinced myself that a straightforward review of the book might not be enough this time around. As a result, I’ve written a three-and-a-half thousand word essay that includes a review of the book in the context of the larger series, and also the work of King over which the Tower casts its influence. It’s something of an experiment for Reader Dad, and I appreciate it’s not what everyone wants to see. For that reason, I’ve made life slightly easier, and you can skip directly to the actual review by scrolling down to the section headed The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel. If you feel inclined to read the essay, I’d love to know what you think (Do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying? Does the experiment work, or should I stick to the type of review I’ve been producing for the past year or so?), so do please comment below. Thanks, as always, for visiting.

The Dark Tower

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

I probably hadn’t quite reached my early teens when I read this line – the opening line to Stephen King’s seven volume Dark Tower series – for the first time. What followed was a strange tale that was part fantasy, part science fiction, part western, and somehow much more than the sum of its parts. I quickly devoured the first two books in the series – The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three – and promptly got stuck halfway through the third. It took me two more attempts (and two more re-reads of the first two books) before I finally made it through to the end of book three – The Waste Lands – wondering what had held me up for so long. Since then I, like the many others who have read and enjoyed The Dark Tower novels since early in the author’s career, have had two long waits – first for book four (Wizard and Glass), and then for the final three instalments of the series (Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower), which appeared in rapid succession (a wait that was made marginally more bearable by the publication partway through of the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). Finally having a copy of that seventh volume in my hands brought a strange sense of relief that King had managed to finish what he started, something that was cast into doubt on that fateful day in June 1999 (it’s a worry that nags persistently at every fan of George R. R. Martin, and so many others, that the author isn’t getting any younger, and these massive works remain uncompleted).

The Dark Tower is probably one of Stephen King’s most divisive works, and there are many Constant Readers who have yet to read it for one reason or another. At the beginning, it was seen as a massive deviation from King’s standard horror fare (if anything he has produced over the course of 35 years could be called “standard”), but as the series progressed, and King’s back catalogue grew, it became very clear that this was not a separate work, but the backbone to almost everything King has ever written, and the influence of the Tower shows up in the unlikeliest of places, as if leaked through a thinny from that next-door world into this one.

Based loosely on Robert Browning’s epic poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, The Dark Tower tells the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger from the land of Gilead, and his quest across Mid-World to reach the Dark Tower. Along the way, Roland draws three people from our world – or close approximations thereof – at different points in time: drug-mule and heroin addict Eddie Dean; wheelchair-bound Civil Rights campaigner Odetta Holmes, who is sometimes the foul-mouthed and vicious Detta Walker and who ultimately becomes Susannah Dean; and the boy Jake Chambers, whom the gunslinger has already met, and lost, at an early point in the story. Rounded out by the billy-bumbler Oy, the ka-tet follow the Path of the Beam through a world that has, as Roland puts it, moved on. As the story progresses, we learn snippets of Roland’s backstory (the bulk of Wizard and Glass tells the story of a much younger Roland and his friends, a love lost and a treachery avenged), and discover some of the driving force behind his quest.

The Dark Tower forms the nexus of all possible worlds. As the series progresses we learn that these worlds exist on different levels of the Tower and for the most part are completely separate, but there are doorways (such as the ones used by Roland to draw his ka-tet) and thin places (thinnies) where the worlds merge together. Mid-World is part fantasy land, and part future post-apocalyptic version of our own world (clues like slightly off-key renditions of “Hey, Jude” point to deeper links than are immediately obvious). Technology exists, but it, like everything else in this world, is tired, and few know how to use or maintain it. It plays a large part in the group’s quest, often in an adversarial or outwardly threatening role (most memorably, Shardik, the great bear that guards the end of the Beam along which Roland will travel to the Tower; or Blaine the Mono, the insane monorail aboard whom the group flee the city of Lud). Behind the technology, the ever-more sinister North Central Positronics, which plays a pivotal role in the series’ climax.

It took Stephen King 30 years, give or take, to write The Dark Tower opus. Towards the end he makes an appearance in a complicated self-referential storyline that makes perfect sense when looked at within the overall context of the Dark Tower series, and King’s wider canon. There was always a danger that after all that time, and all those words, that the ending may not live up to expectation (it’s not a view I share, but it has been said on many occasions that King tells a great story, but lacks considerably in writing endings), but in hindsight, there was only one way that such a story could possibly end and King pulls it off with a skill and mastery that is, quite frankly, second to none.

There a number of themes, both literal and figurative, running through the series. Roland is driven by a strange sense of honour and duty that often places him in a difficult position; more often than not, duty to the Tower wins out over duty to anyone or anything else and as a result Roland comes across as a cold and calculating character, something that Eddie points out in colourful ways on more than one occasion. He may seem a strange choice for the hero of the piece, but it’s difficult, as the story progresses, not to like him, despite his faults. The concept of ka underlines all, a concept similar to destiny (or probably, more closely, predestination) that drives Roland on his quest, and binds this group of disparate souls together as a sort of family. “Ka,” King tells us on many occasions, “is like a wheel” and this is probably the underpinning ethos of the whole Dark Tower opus. With the final three books, King introduces the number nineteen (see the name of the ka-tet, for example), which takes on significance as the story proceeds towards its climax. It is a number that crops up in King’s fiction quite frequently.

In the Shadow of The Dark Tower

As the story of the Dark Tower progressed, and as King grew as a writer, Constant Reader started to find references to this larger work throughout King’s novels and, more importantly, references to King’s other novels within The Dark Tower series. It was probably with the publication of King’s 1994 novel, Insomnia, that he cemented the idea that the Tower forms the nexus of his own work, that all of his novels take place in worlds on various levels of the Tower. It is also in Insomnia that King introduces the villain of the overall piece, in the form of the Crimson King.

There are references to the Tower throughout King’s later work, often oblique and easily missed, but sometimes more obvious. Some of his novels are more closely linked: the fairy-tale-like The Eyes of the Dragon is set in some remote corner of Mid-World, and contains at its centre the same dark man that wanders through much of his other fiction; and the opening story of his collection Hearts in Atlantis deals heavily with the Tower, seen through the eyes of the people forced into a kind of slavery, their goal the downfall of the Tower. Some clever retro-fitting brings many of his earlier novels into the fold: the ka-tet arrive in a version of Topeka ravaged by Captain Trips, proving that The Stand takes place on a nearby level of the Tower (although this novel has much closer ties, as we’ll discuss momentarily); Father Callahan, who we met first in 1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot, turns up late in the series, and the group encounter him as they enter Calla Bryn Sturgis. The Tower also, surprisingly, has a heavy influence on King’s second collaboration with Peter Straub, Black House. Surprising because it is a collaborative effort, but the two series – The Dark Tower on the one hand, The Talisman/Black House duology on the other – do have similar themes and concepts driving them, which makes the crossover much more logical.

There is a single figure that moves through King’s work like a restless ghost, pure evil distilled in the form of man, although it’s immediately obvious, to the reader at least, that this is no mere man. We first meet him in The Stand in the form of Randall Flagg, and he turns up again and again throughout King’s works, often – but not always – bearing the initials R.F. We find him in many places throughout The Dark Tower: he is the fabled man in black who fled across the desert (who has been known as Walter, and as Marten Broadcloak), and appears in the city of Lud in the guise of one Richard Fannin. Flagg (the name by which he is most commonly known) is one of the most instantly-recognisable figures in King’s fiction, regardless of which disguise he wears, and without doubt, one of the most sinister characters in fiction.

The Dark Tower is, perhaps, King’s most personal work, so it was interesting to see him relinquish some creative control to his research assistant Robin Furth (author of the encyclopaedic The Dark Tower: A Concordance) for a series of comics from Marvel chronicling the earlier years of Roland, picking up where the story Roland tells for the majority of Wizard and Glass left off, and detailing the fall of Gilead and the beginning of the gunslinger’s quest. It is also interesting to note that Ron Howard is planning a series of film and television adaptations of the novels which will reportedly cast Javier Bardem in the role that was custom-built for a much younger Clint Eastwood.

About 35 years after the first publication of the first part of The Gunslinger in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and over 40 years since he first put pen to paper on the project), the Dark Tower still casts a shadow over much of King’s work. As recently as the massive 11/22/63, King is making reference, in some shape or form, to Mid-World, and the other worlds that branch from the Tower. Likewise, many Constant Readers (and I’m happy to be counted among their number) have lived in this same shadow, waiting for long periods for the next instalment, breathing a sigh of relief when that final volume was finished, and watching hopefully for any small reference in each and every one of King’s novels and short story collections.

Imagine, then, my surprise, not to mention outright glee (and that of many other people, presumably), at the announcement of a new novel set in Roland’s world. Seven years after King brought his gunslinger to the end of his quest, he returns to Mid-World.

The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel

There are a number of gaps in time during the course of The Dark Tower, presumably because a lot of walking and not a lot else went on. One such gap is between the fourth (Wizard and Glass) and fifth (Wolves of the Calla) volumes, as the ka-tet leave the Green Palace that wasn’t Oz and head for Calla Bryn Sturgis, and End-World beyond. The Wind through the Keyhole goes some way towards plugging this gap, picking up immediately after the events of Wizard and Glass and joining Roland and his companions as they follow the Path of the Beam towards the river Whye. Oy, the billy-bumbler, is acting strangely, stopping suddenly and raising his snout towards the north, and it takes the ferryman who carries them across the river to jog the gunslinger’s memory, and alert him to the approaching starkblast – a storm of such ferocity and freezing temperature that it can cause trees to implode, and birds to fall, frozen solid, from the sky.

Hurrying to shelter, and beating the storm by a heartbeat, the group settles down with enough firewood to see them through a couple of days and, finding themselves unable to sleep, they turn to Roland for another story. The gunslinger starts to tell them of a time shortly after his return to Gilead from Mejis when he and one of his original ka-tet, Jamie deCurry, were sent to the town of Debaria to capture a skin-man that was terrorising the town, and which had already claimed upwards of twenty lives. When they arrive, they find fresh slaughter, but this time there’s a survivor – a young boy no older than Jake – and Roland, already showing some of the coldness for which he will be well-known in later years, decides to use the boy to flush out the culprit. As they wait for the arrival of a group of suspects, with a wild wind blowing through the town, Roland tells the boy a fairytale, the story of young Tim Stoutheart and his encounter with a trickster in a dark cloak.

The Wind through the Keyhole is a tale within a tale within a tale. The titular story is a fairy-tale told to Roland as a child by his mother. Set in a remote corner of Mid-World, it is a coming-of-age story centred around Tim, a young boy willing to do anything to save his mother’s sight. Set on a quest by a man Constant Reader will know all-too-well — up to his old tricks, manipulating people for his own amusement — Tim finds himself out of his depth and in the path of an oncoming starkblast. This tale is sandwiched between the two parts of the story about Roland and his hunt for the skin-man (or were-creature) and the whole is book-ended by the story we know and love so well, the journey of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy along the Path of the Beam, moving ever closer to the Dark Tower.

King slips into Mid-World very comfortably, despite the fact that it has been almost seven years since his last visit. The feel of the world is unchanged, and the language has a handful of idiosyncrasies that weren’t there before, but in all, nothing has changed here and the return is as comfortable and natural for the reader as it apparently was for the author. This book, described on the cover as A Dark Tower Novel, was more accurately described by King in the original announcement as “Dark Tower 4.5”. What’s obvious is that this book will have no impact on the outcome of the series as a whole, and will contain very little in the way of character development (except in revealing more about the still-mysterious past of the gunslinger). As a result, it’s unsurprising that King spends very little of the book with the ka-tet (less than 50 pages all told) and launches as quickly as possible into Roland’s tale, which he then uses as a springboard for the main event.

As a result, the book deals very little with the key characters of the series (with one obvious exception), and is perhaps closer to The Eyes of the Dragon in that respect than even Wizard and Glass, which would be its closest counterpart from the original seven volumes. In his Foreword, King assures us that this book can be picked up and read even without the in-depth understanding of the surroundings and characters that comes with reading the original series and, to a certain extent that is true, but those readers will have a much different experience (most likely with much more head-scratching and -shaking) than people who followed Roland for the duration of his quest. The exception I mentioned above is, of course, the man in black, best known as Randall Flagg who sets Tim on his course because it amuses him to do so.

Ka is like a wheel. As we read, and as the elder Roland recounts the tale, this fact comes crashing home, and the parallels between Roland’s story and Tim’s are unmistakable. It also speaks to Roland’s stubbornness that, despite this realisation, he is as determined as ever to complete his quest and reach the Tower — he has a score to settle, regardless of who set him on the path, or what that person’s motives were.

Through all three stories, there is a constant wind — starkblasts ravage outer and inner, while a simoom blows alkali dust through the town of Debaria in the middle tale. The wheel is a metaphor that Roland used frequently when speaking of ka, but he also spoke of the mysterious force as a wind, before which nothing can stand. Blowing across the years, the wind carries revelations that shed greater light on Roland, and add a richer experience for the long-time reader.

As with all the Dark Tower novels, The Wind through the Keyhole contains a number of illustrations. Noted artists such as Michael Whelan, Bernie Wrightson and Dave McKean have illustrated past volumes, each stamping their own style on Roland, his world, the Tower. This time famed comics artist Jae Lee (who also provides the art for the Marvel Comics Dark Tower comic book series) takes his turn. As well as chapter and section headers, Lee has provided five beautiful full-page black-and-white pieces that help to set the tone. What’s missing, unfortunately, are the colour plates that he also produced for the novel, and which seem to be exclusively included in the limited edition of this volume from US publisher Donald M. Grant. It’s a shame, since past volumes from Hodder have included all of the artwork.

The Wind through the Keyhole is a welcome return to a well-loved world, and a set of well-loved characters. It doesn’t advance the plot and adds minimal character development to the overall arc, but it’s a welcome addition to the set nonetheless. King is a master storyteller, and this is as good a showcase as any for his talents, as he interweaves three seemingly unrelated narratives into a single, consistent whole that stands with some of his best writing. It’s a beautifully-written novel that is clearly close to the author’s heart and is sure to be well-received by long-standing Dark Tower fans. Will it win any new recruits? It’s certainly not a bad jumping-on place, in that it provides a taste of the world without the commitment to the complete seven-book series, but I suspect it will deter as many people from seeking out those books as it will drive towards them. It is the nature of a beast like this that in order for the standalone novel to work, it must still meet the needs of the multitude of existing fans, and elements of the Dark Tower series — the language, the history — are just too alien to hold the attention of the average reader.

For the aficionado, though, The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.

If you’ve read the series, I urge you to pick this up (though suspect I’m preaching to the choir on that one). If you haven’t, this one is definitely worth a go (and at just over 300 pages doesn’t require much commitment), but I would urge you to find a copy of The Gunslinger and see where you end up.



Patrick deWitt (

Granta (


The Western genre has come a long way from its sunny heights back in the golden days of Hollywood, when John Wayne ruled supreme and you could differentiate the good guys from the bad guys purely based on the colour of their hats. These days, there is more gritty realism, and the distinction between good and bad is often a difficult one to make. There is no place for John Wayne in Lonesome Dove or Deadwood.

Patrick deWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, falls firmly into this new, gritty style of Western. It is the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, hired killers from Oregon City in the employ of a man known simply as the Commodore, and of their latest job: go to San Francisco, find the thief Hermann Warm, and kill him. Told from the point of view of Eli, the more stable of the two brothers, it is a darkly comic tale of family ties and redemption, set against the background of the California Gold Rush.

Take Steve Hockensmith’s Amlingmeyer brothers (Holmes on the Range, etc.) and change the colour of their metaphorical hats, and you’ll have some idea of what’s in store when you crack open this book. Charlie, the older of the two brothers, is a man who likes to drink, whore and kill. Eli has problems with his temper which make him the perfect partner for his older brother, but he enjoys the drinking, the whoring and the killing a good deal less. They’re both decidedly likeable, despite their foibles, and it’s a pleasure to accompany them on their journey from Oregon City to San Francisco, as they move towards the realisation of who and what they are.

Despite the humour, and the brothers’ likeability, the reader is never in any doubt that these are a couple of psychopaths. deWitt deftly moves from high humour to taut drama at the drop of the proverbial hat, as the brothers switch to killing mode in a handful of short passages that will send a cold shiver up your spine. The name Sisters strikes fear in the hearts of all who hear it, and the reputation is well-earned. While Eli claims not to enjoy his work, it is clear that Charlie does not share the sentiment and at times the reader is left with the nagging doubt that the only reason Eli is still alive at all is because of the ties that bind the brothers together.

It’s a beautifully-written book with a voice reminiscent of Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross (True Grit) and an oddness evidenced by the motley cast of supporting characters with whom the brothers meet on their journey: the weeping man; the boy with a head that cries out to be struck with the nearest blunt object; the old prospector who brews dirt and convinces himself that it is the finest coffee. The prose and the dialogue run from the sublime:

“…Will you return the money or the pelt?”

“All you will get from me is Death.” Charlie’s words, spoken just as casual as a man describing the weather, brought the hair on my neck up and my hands began to pulse and throb. He is wonderful in situations like this, clear minded and without a trace of fear. He had always been this way, and though I had seen it many times, every time I did, I felt an admiration for him.

to the ridiculous:

“He describes his inaction as cowardice and laziness,” said Charlie.

“And with five men dead,” I said, “he describes our overtaking his riches as easy.”

“He has a describing problem,” said Charlie.

Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic is up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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