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An Interview with VIC JAMES

VicJames2 C JAY DACY Name: VIC JAMES

Author of: GILDED CAGE (2017)

On the web: www.vicjames.co.uk

On Twitter: @DrVictoriaJames

Vic James is a current affairs TV director who loves stories in all their forms, and Gilded Cage is her debut novel. She has twice judged the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, has made films for BBC1, BBC2, and Channel 4 News, and is a huge Wattpadd.com success story. Under its previous title, Slavedays, her book was read online over a third of a million times in first draft. And it went on to win Wattpad’s ‘Talk of the Town’ award in 2015 – on a site showcasing 200 million stories. Vic James lives and works in London.

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

My very great pleasure, Matt!

The first thing that strikes the reader as they start Gilded Cage is the strange new world you have created, a contemporary Britain in an alternate universe, where ten years in slavery is mandatory for all commoners. Where did the idea for the “slavedays” come from, and how did the world develop as the story progressed?

I’m a current affairs TV producer/director by trade, and the story idea came to me while working on a BBC2 series called The Super Rich and Us – a slightly silly title for a serious look at widening wealth inequality and stagnating social mobility. I was speaking to billionaires, getting a glimpse into their world, and the thing none of them doubt is their ability to change the world through their wealth. That seemed to me to be almost the same as magic.

But I didn’t want this magic to suddenly appear. In the world of Gilded Cage, it has always been present, and 400 years ago the magical elite seized power in a reimagining of the Enlgish Civil War. The slavedays system was created at that time, so it takes the form characteristic of that period: a kind of indentured service. But the experience as described in Gilded Cage is a distillation and concentration of all that’s most unfair in our world today: grinding work, dwindling opportunity, educations wasted on unrewarding jobs, unaffordable homes, etc etc.

As for how it progresses, well, history is a theme in the books: learning from, repeating, or avoiding the mistakes of the past. You’ll have to wait till book 3, BRIGHT RUIN, to see which of those it is!

The book shows this world from the viewpoints of two very different families: the Hadleys who are just starting their ten-year period of slavery; and the Jardine’s, who are at the opposite end of the social scale. Do you find that there is much difference in how you write these different outlooks on the world, or is it relatively easy to switch between one and the other?

It’s much easier than I expected! Partly that’s thanks to my own family background: my parents are from the East End, my dad left school with no qualifications and my mum dropped out to marry him as a teenage bride. Then I won a scholarship to a school full of rich (if not terribly academic) kids, and went to Oxford where I met people who had actual titles and family fortunes in the millions and, yes, billions.

But I think it’s also because, whatever our class or background, whatever that top layer of perception or prejudice, deep down we all want the same things: freedom, love, justice, autonomy.

And on a related note, which is your favourite character to write?

Probably no surprises here, but I do love writing Silyen, the dangerous and gifted youngest son of the Jardine family. I have to ration writing from his perspective, because his goals and motivations are a key part of the plot drivers, alongside Luke and Abi Hadley’s pursuit of justice and truth. But there is more from his POV in book 2, and more again in 3 as his true interests become clear. In book 1, readers sometimes get the impression that Silyen is (i) all-powerful and (ii) has a master plan. But – without spoilers – we come to see that’s not quite the case!

Alongside the novel’s central plot, there’s a lot of political manoeuvring and back-room dealing, which, in turn, leads to a very complex, very involved plot. How much of Gilded Cage did you need to plan before you started writing the book? And did you find that your end-point changed as a result of unexpected events?

Great question! I absolutely loved this aspect of writing the book. I love twisty plots, and that moment at the end when you look back and see that everything you needed to know was there all along. Still, it turns out that writing a book like that is more effort than the best examples of the genre make it look!

I began the series knowing where it ended. In fact, the beginning and end were the first two things that came to me: a girl running desperately towards a wall, and a boy … no! Wait! You nearly had me there.

Because I know my characters inside and out, the action begins and ends in their motivation, so if I ever hit a knotty bit of plot (ie. what I think should happen) I can sort it out by simply working through how my characters would respond (ie. what they tell me happens). We usually agree. When we don’t, they win.

Dystopias must be an increasingly difficult sell in a world that seems to be moving in that direction itself. While there are elements (e.g. the magic) in your tale that are pure fantasy, do you feel that there’s a possibility of life imitating art if things continue as they are?

Life is art is life. It’s a continuous dialogue. These books could only have been written now, and I’m sure readers will spot plenty more current parallels in book 2, as well!

What’s next for the Hadleys, and how far into the trilogy have you already planned? Do you see further books set in the same world?

Terrible challenges. Momentary happinesses.

To the end.

And I’ll let you answer that third question when you’ve finished book 3, because it assumes we end in the same world we’ve started in. *cackles in all-knowing authorial fashion*

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Simply can’t answer this. As a child I was the bookish equivalent of a Dyson vacuum cleaner – I hoovered up everything. That dust bag is my imagination.

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

We all write our own books. I can tell you one book I adore, and that is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I also love Nabokov’s Pale Fire. And some particularly twisted Japanese folk tales.

GildedCage_UKcoverWhat does a typical (writing) day in the life of Vic James look like?

Wake. Sit at desk. Write. Coffee. Write. Lunch. Write. Tea. Write. Supper. Write. Sleep.

(Wait, I should have put something in there about getting dressed, right…?)

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

Give yourself permission to take your writing seriously.

To expand: As an unpublished author, it’s very easy to feel – or be made to feel – that writing is an indulgence, or an impossible dream. It isn’t. But it is exhausting, painstaking, and there is never a guarantee of success. Improve your odds by making it a priority. When the idea for Gilded Cage came to me, I knew it could be ‘the one’. I was also in the middle of a massive project at work. So I cut everything that wasn’t work or writing: ie. sleep, and a social life. It was worth it.

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

My TBR is as tall as a towerblock right now. And there’s no such thing as reading that’s not for pleasure. The very act is pleasurable.

If Gilded Cage should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

For the director, anyone with ambition and vision – books 2 and 3 just get bigger and bigger. For the cast, whoever walks into an audition and speaks in my character’s voice. You know it when it happens.

And while we all wait for the movie *drums fingers* may I recommend the audio book? I got my dream narrator, Avita Jay, and sat in on 2 of the 4 recording days and she is absolutely sensational. Her performance paints the scenes as you listen. And her performance of Dog alone is worth the price.

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)?

Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan playwright, poet, and spy. I’d get him to tell me tales of his adventures – and whether he really did die, stabbed through the eye in a Deptford pub. Ale would be the tipple of his time, but I would take him to Bar Nightjar in Old Street, for devastating cocktails – I’m sure he’d fit right in.

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

My absolute pleasure, and thank you so much for having me!

Gilded Cage by Vic James is the first instalment of the Dark Gifts Trilogy. It is published in paperback 26 January 2017 by Pan Macmillan, priced £7.99. Be sure to check out the other steps on the Blog Tour.

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SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

9781447299486 SORCERER TO THE CROWN

Zen Cho (zencho.org)

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.

Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.

When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.

For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.

Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.

Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

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

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9781473212565 THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

Hardback £20
eBook £10.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aliette Says…

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

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

GUEST POST: The Feeling by EDWARD COX

The-Relic-Guild-Edward-Cox Name: EDWARD COX

Author of: THE RELIC GUILD (2014)

On the web: edward-cox.tumblr.com

On Twitter: @EdwardCox10

The great question: why do I write? I’ve been asked this a number of times, and my answers have been varied. I’ve taken the pretentious route, proclaiming that no one chooses to be a writer, writing chooses you. I’ve tried to brush it off by saying that writing is the only thing I know how to do. The truth is, I definitely do know why I write, but it is difficult for me explain simply. It comes from an experience, a visceral reaction that I now call the Feeling.

So what’s a good example of what I’m talking about?

Take The Diamond Throne by David Eddings. I bought this book in the late 80’s. I read it in a single sitting in my bedroom. Outside, the sky was dark, full of black clouds, and rain was pelting my window. To the distant rumble of thunder, the flashes of lightning, I turned to chapter one and discovered a knight riding a horse through a storm. Accompanied by the sound of hooves on cobbles, the knight slowly made his way along the streets of the city from which he had been exiled, as the dark sky drenched him with rain. Call it art imitating life (or should that be the other way around?), but it felt as though the weather outside my bedroom window was the soundtrack for this story, and I was sold.

I’m sure that the coincidence in atmospherics is what hooked me initially, and it sharpened up my receptors for what came next. I remember needing to know why this knight was returning to the home that had exiled him. I had to discover what adventures lay ahead for him. I remember battle scenes that made my heart race, camaraderie that made me laugh aloud. There were scary moments that made me acutely aware of being home alone, and that the only light on in the house was the reading light in my bedroom. I welcomed the knight’s friends, despised his enemies, and I wished to be a member of his fellowship that was on a quest filled with such wonder and magic. I was hooked by The Diamond Throne because it had given me the Feeling.

The Feeling is investment, the moment a story grabs you by the collar and drags you into the fray . . . it’s being Luke’s co-pilot as he storms the Death Star; it’s taking Sansa’s hand and running away to safety; it’s telling Harry to be brave in his cupboard beneath the stairs; it’s standing alongside Druss on the battlements of Dros Delnoch; it’s begging the crew of the Nostromo to stay inside the ship. There is nothing on Earth like a good story, and I want someone, somewhere, to read my stories and experience the Feeling. That is why I write.

The Relic Guild by Edward Cox is published on the 18th of September by Gollancz in Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio Book. Be sure to visit the other stops on the blog tour (see the banner to the right). 

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THE COPPER PROMISE by Jen Williams

THE COPPER PROMISE - Jen Williams THE COPPER PROMISE

Jen Williams (sennydreadful.co.uk)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£13.99

hrpv2For the fifth title in the Hodderscape Review Project, we move into the realms of fantasy with the debut novel from Jen Williams, The Copper Promise, released this month by Headline. Don’t forget to check in to the Review Project site to find out what my fellow reviewers thought of this title.

The Citadel of Creos has stood for centuries, a remnant and constant reminder of the ancient mages, reputed to have been built as a prison for the gods. Aaron Frith, Lord of the Blackwood and last remaining member of his family, has endured hardship and torture, and now wants revenge. He believes that the secrets that lie within the Citadel will give him the power he needs to find and defeat the monsters who destroyed his family and stole his lands. Hiring Wydrin and Sir Sebastian, a pair of sell-swords, the trio head into the depths of the Citadel. In finding the power of the mages, they unwittingly release Y’Ruen, a dragon goddess, and the army of lizard-like women she has spent her centuries of imprisonment creating. Now revenge must take a back seat: Y’Ruen must by stopped before she lays the entire world of Ede to waste.

I can be a bit hard to convince when it comes to so-called “high fantasy”, the type of novels which take Tolkien as their inspiration and spend more time creating races of funny-looking people and languages to go with them than they do developing a plot outside the basic quest structure. Thankfully, Jen Williams’ debut, The Copper Promise, is nothing like that sort of book. Yes, there is an element of the quest novel here, though it is abandoned and picked up and abandoned again as the novel progresses; yes, there are strange new creatures, but it is how Williams handles them that sets this apart from the norm. The emphasis here is on the characters and how their decisions impact on the world around them, while still managing to tell a story that moves at a rollicking pace and provides the requisite amount of wit, blood and fire-breathing dragons to keep even the most sceptical of fantasy readers turning the pages as fast as they can.

At the heart of the story is the Frith family, all but young Aaron tortured to death by invaders whose sole aim is to find the location of the family’s secret vault. Left for dead, Aaron makes his way to Creos, having heard the rumours and stories about the Citadel, and hoping to gain some of the mages’ magic for himself in order to get vengeance for his murdered father and brothers. When it turns out that all of the rumours about the Citadel are true, and Frith and his hired muscle release the savage dragon-god, Y’Ruen on the world, Aaron finds himself faced with the choice between getting his revenge, or saving the world. Aaron’s companions are Wydrin, who styles herself the Copper Cat, and Sir Sebastian, a disgraced knight who was once a member of the revered order of Ynnsmouth Knights. Where Williams sets herself apart is that the majority of the development of these characters happens when they are apart. Unlike the standard quest structure of “here to here to here”, the band fractures quite early in the novel, the three individuals going their own way to seek their own adventures. This is a pattern that will repeat later in the novel, and the story feels much fresher for it, a proper examination of these unique personalities, rather than a constant trading of banter and insults.

Along with the dragon, the trio find themselves faced with an army of lizard-like women who have been created by the god during her captivity in the Citadel. These creatures have been brought to life as a result of Sebastian almost bleeding to death within the confines of the monstrous edifice. This has an unexpected side-effect, and Williams gives us some insight into this process, as members of the army gain self-awareness and develop their own unique personalities, to the point that they are choosing names for themselves.

‘I want to keep these words with me,’ said the Twelfth. She tried to gather up all the books and dropped them again.

‘Tear out the pages?’ suggested the Ninety-Seventh. The Thirty-Third frowned. Somehow she felt their father wouldn’t approve of that.

‘No,’ said the Twelfth, who apparently felt the same. ‘I will make them my name. You will call me Crocus from now on.’

This in strong counterpoint to the journey that their father, Sebastian, is taking, sinking ever deeper into darkness until the point where he swears his sword, and all the blood that it spills, to a demon, as if his daughters are sucking the humanity from him in their own bid to become more like him.

While not quite as “un-fantasy” as George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise is certainly a lot more grounded than most swords and sorcery-type fiction. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book – and one of its biggest selling points for me – is the fact that it does in a single volume what many fantasy authors might try to do over the course of three or four books (five hundred pages before the dragon makes an appearance and our heroic trio finally escape from the Citadel, for example), while still leaving us with the promise of much more to come. The characters are well-rounded, fully fleshed-out and we find ourselves wanting to know what will happen to them next – this is most prevalent when they are apart, and we find ourselves wondering if they’re likely to get back together again, or whether they will continue on separate paths for the duration.

Fast-paced and wonderfully-realised, Jen Williams’ first novel is a delight, even for one so jaded as me when it comes to fantasy fiction. An intriguing premise made more so by the neat touches Williams adds to the story – the Secret Keeper is a prime example of these – the reader will encounter pirates, dragons, zombies, gods and demons, to name but a few, on their journey through this exciting new world. Not for the faint of heart, but you probably knew that already.

FORTRESS FRONTIER by Myke Cole

FortressFrontier_PBB_FINAL FORTRESS FRONTER (SHADOW OPS: Book Two)

Myke Cole (mykecole.com)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£7.99

Colonel Alan Bookbinder, a Pentagon-based paper-pusher, wakes from a nightmare to the feeling that he is drowning. Before the day is out, it is clear that Colonel Bookbinder has come up Latent, though he has not yet Manifested any particular powers. Surrendering himself to the SOC, he finds himself in a new office, doing the same old job. This office is in Forward Operating Base Frontier, in the alternate plane known as the Source. When Oscar Britton effects his escape, leaving what remains of the base open to almost-constant goblin attack, Bookbinder finds himself drawn out of his comfort zone, fighting for the survival of the base and his people. His options limited, the colonel finds himself on a collision course with the very man who left them all to perish.

Rather than picking up immediately following the end of the first book in the series, Control Point, Myke Cole takes us back in time and introduces us to Colonel Alan Bookbinder, and reintroduces us to this brave new post-Great Reawakening world from a new point of view. Career Army, Bookbinder has, nonetheless, never served in combat. Despite his rank, he does not have the respect of his subordinates, and feels that he doesn’t really deserve it. In many ways, Bookbinder is Oscar Britton’s opposite: when he discovers that he is Latent, he surrenders himself willingly to the SOC and finds himself doing the same job in a new base. Where Oscar is a combat veteran who is starting to question the methods of the Army in which he serves, Bookbinder finds himself recreated as a new man through his experiences in the Source: his fear is gone, replaced by a desire to not only lead, but to lead from the front; he finds himself endowed with a new sense of authority and quickly discovers that he has the respect of the relatively small group of men and women under his command.

As well as introducing this new central character, and the secondary characters that form around his storyline, Cole uses Bookbinder’s story to remind the reader of what has gone before: the rules of this strange new world, the various types of magic, and the makeup of the people based at FOB Frontier. He manages to re-cover a lot of ground while pushing the story forward and keeping the reader engaged. It’s also an interesting device in allowing the reader to see what happened inside the base when Oscar and his friends made their bid for freedom, and shows the consequences of the action that closed the first book.

When Bookbinder is firmly bedded in, Cole eventually returns us to Oscar, and picks up where he left off. Here, a lot of the groundwork prepared in the first novel begins to pay off, as Oscar tries to find a movement that will allow him to expose what is going on, and change how Latents are viewed by the rest of the world. The insurgencies mentioned in the first book begin to play a greater role here, and it’s no surprise that they view Oscar – sometime Public Enemy Number One – as something of a hero. Here, too, we see an expansion of some of themes Cole touched upon during Control Point: the mistrust between normal humans and this new breed of Latents, and the origins of this schism. It’s an interesting – and all-too-plausible – take on that age-old superhero problem.

As the story moves towards its final act, the paths of Britton and Bookbinder begin to converge, as it becomes clear that Oscar may be the only person alive who can help Bookbinder to save his people. On the journey, we see whole new swathes of the Source, and meet a handful of new races that may have been glimpsed, or hinted at, before. In one of the book’s most surprising turns, we run across an old, and completely unexpected, friend, serving to close off – perhaps a little too conveniently – one major plotline in the process.

With most of the groundwork laid in Control Point, Cole is free to spend his time telling a good solid story this time around. Once again, the use of fictional epigraphs – interviews, document excerpts, and the like – at the start of each chapter serve to expand our knowledge of the world without encroaching on the on-going story. Fortress Frontier feels a lot less disjointed than its predecessor; there is a more coherent flow to events, perhaps helped by the fact that the story is split across two main characters this time around, and less a sense of one short mission following another with no real connection between them beyond the characters taking part.

Myke Cole has found the perfect niche for his work. Military fantasy with a dash of science fiction, Fortress Frontier shows us a whole new side to the Shadow Ops world to which Control Point first introduced us. The introduction of a new central character gives us a chance to get a slightly different perspective on what we thought we already knew without contradicting anything that has gone before, while still managing to move the plot on considerably by the book’s action-packed ending. As fast-paced as the first, Fortress Frontier is, however, a much different beast: the origin story is out of the way; now it’s time to get down to business, and Myke Cole delivers beyond expectations. There is much to love here, and the reader is sure to come away with an intense need to find out what’s next.

CONTROL POINT by Myke Cole

Control-Point CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS: Book One)

Myke Cole (mykecole.com)

Headline (www.headline.co.uk)

£7.99

In the aftermath of the Great Reawakening, the world is a different place. Magic has returned, and people across the globe are turning up Latent, Manifesting in any one of a handful of schools of magic. Those who Manifest in the legal schools (Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, Aeromancy, Physiomancy) have the option of joining the Supernatural Operations Corps, and using their newfound skills for the good of mankind. Those who run – Selfers – are considered dangerous criminals, and eliminated accordingly. Those who Manifest in one of the Prohibited schools – Probes – don’t have the same luxury; their skills are much more rare, but much more dangerous, and they are dealt with quickly. Lieutenant Oscar Britton is a Marine helicopter pilot assigned to a team whose job is to provide support to SOC when dealing with Selfers or Probes; he’s well aware of the consequences, so when he Manifests in one of the Prohibited schools – Oscar has the ability to open doors to another dimension – he runs. Hunted down and captured, he discovers that the rumours of a secret training base are true: Oscar finds himself enrolled as a contractor and dropped into the middle of a secret war in a different world.

Myke Cole sets the tone of Control Point – his first novel, and the start of his Shadow Ops series – very early on. The action starts almost from the first page, and the story progresses through a series of action-packed – and, often, breath-taking – set-pieces to an arbitrary point that acts as the end of the book (think of the final sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, which is less an ending, and more a quick breath between two action-packed chapters of a larger story). When we first meet Oscar Britton, he is flying into action as part of a team tasked with bringing down a pair of Selfers. Britton is a career army man, but the actions of the SOC and the necessity of their mission – namely the murder of two teenagers – play on his conscience and he finds himself questioning his loyalties. This is a theme that runs throughout the book and, while some of his interior monologue comes across as decidedly whiny, it gives the reader a reason to root for Oscar – he’s a man of principles, the man we hope we would be, should we find ourselves in the same situation.

Unusually for this type of fast-paced action story, Control Point comes with a vast amount of backstory, drip-fed to the reader through chapter headers and conversations between characters. It’s here that we learn about the disaster at the Lincoln Memorial that led to the current controls on magic, about the Native American insurgency that forms a background to much of the story and about the different schools of magic, and the controls enforced on them. On top of this backstory, Cole has created an alternate dimension – the Source – and a race of beings – the Goblins – that inhabit it, and it is here that much of the novel’s action takes place. The marriage of magic and state-of-the-art military technology works well, and adds a layer of realism that might otherwise have been missing. As with Marvel’s X-Men or Samit Basu’s Turbulence, Cole also examines the relationship between these new magical post-humans and the rest of the human race, and we find similar themes coming through: distrust, fear, power-hunger.

Control Point is what it is: a scene-setter, the first part of a much larger work that promises to be the very best of military fantasy. As Oscar completes his training, we move from one fight scenario to another, each one designed to show not only what Oscar is capable of, but also the capabilities of his colleagues and his enemies. At times it feels slightly disjointed, like these are individual short stories whose only common denominator is the characters that populate them, but it is the most effective way to show us what we need to know for the coming instalments of the series. “Show, don’t tell” is advice often given to writers, and Cole does just that, giving us everything we need without slowing the pace or interrupting the flow of the story.

Smart, funny and packed to the endpapers with action, Control Point is a fast, fun read that sets up what promises to be an exciting new series. Myke Cole has written a first novel that finds the perfect balance between action and story, and filled it with characters compelling enough to make us want to learn more about them. The ending-that-isn’t is the perfect stopping point, and the perfect ploy: there is more to come, and anyone who has read this far is unlikely to want to miss it. A blend of military, fantasy and science fiction, Control Point and the Shadow Ops series will have broad appeal, making Myke Cole one to watch.

LOW TOWN: THE STRAIGHT RAZOR CURE by Daniel Polansky

THE STRAIGHT RAZOR CURE - Daniel Polansky THE STRAIGHT RAZOR CURE (LOW TOWN 1)

Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)

Hodder (hodder.co.uk)

£7.99

Warden is a drug dealer and hard man on the streets of Low Town. Ex-soldier, ex-lawman, it is only his past that keeps him above suspicion when he stumbles upon the body of a young girl. When a second body is found, Warden receives an offer he can’t refuse from his old boss: solve the crime in seven days, or die a slow and painful death at the hands of the Questioners. As the body count rises and time moves inexorably forward, Warden finds himself in the middle of something best left alone: inhuman creatures, last glimpsed over a decade ago on the battlefield, are roaming the streets of Low Town, and the long-banished plague looks set to return. But the truth of the matter is this: Warden is the only man in Low Town who can find the perpetrator and stop the wave of destruction.

You might be excused for thinking The Straight Razor Cure is just another fantasy clone, or an Assassin’s Creed-style video game adaptation. The fantasy-lite cover does nothing to dispel this notion, and while the blurb is slightly more helpful, it’s still not perfect. It took me awhile to pick this one up off the shelf, but within a handful of pages, I was more than well aware that this was something new and fresh – quite possibly the newest, freshest fantasy novel since Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It is, in short, the bastard son of George R. R. Martin and Raymond Chandler, an unusual combination of hard-boiled crime novel in a fantasy world setting.

Daniel Polansky’s first novel – and the first novel in a series set in Low Town – takes no time getting down to business. World-building happens as the plot moves forward, and we find our way through this strange city – and learn of its history – as we follow Warden on his rounds. This is a world where magic has the upper hand in the battle with science, but Low Town comes with a better “finish” than some traditional fantasy settings. There’s a gritty urban feel here, with office blocks standing shoulder-to-shoulder with taverns and restaurants; a rich part of town where the gentry maintain mansions, and the seedier parts where anything goes. Change the names and the technology, and this could be Chandler’s 1940s Los Angeles.

With the city comes a complex society, divisions by race, religion, wealth. Order is maintained by the city guard, while the Agents of the Crown rule with an iron fist from Black House. Warden moves through the city with ease, equally confident with rich and poor, with sorcerer or guardsman. His past, though, leaves him with a healthy fear of Black House and his relationship with the Crown is one of the many intrigues that make us want to follow this character in order to get to know him better. In Warden, Polansky has created the perfect antihero – a man with enough good qualities to make it okay for us to like him, and enough bad qualities to make him interesting.

The blend of fantasy and hard-boiled detective is an interesting choice and it works surprisingly well. Polansky is obviously well-versed in both genres and uses the different styles to their best advantage: the basic building blocks of this world drawn from the domain of Tolkien or Martin, while the characterisation, the crimes themselves, the snappy dialogue and the noirish feel are drawn from an entirely different time and place: the works of Chandler and Hammett, Jim Thompson and possibly even James Ellroy have a heavy influence here. Throw in a soupçon of the supernatural, and you’re left with a novel that does not so much straddle the genre lines as obliterate them completely, producing something wonderfully original that takes the reader completely by surprise.

‘Let’s see now – there was Tara, and the Kiren you paid to kidnap her. And Carastiona, and Avraham. We’ve already mentioned my old partner. And upstairs the Master took the straight razor cure rather than face what you’ve become – though I’m not sure suicide adds to your tally.’

Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure is an excellent start to what is sure to be a dark, gritty, but most of all exciting, series. Daniel Polansky has created something fresh and intriguing that should appeal to fans of fantasy and crime fiction alike. It’s an assured and accomplished debut that bears strong promise of more to come. For me, the only problem with this book is the sales pitch: it needs a strong cover, something less “generic fantasy”, and more emphasis on the crime angle. That aside, this is a surprising little gem from a talented author who, hopefully, has plenty more to offer.

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