Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



An Interview with VIC JAMES


Author of: GILDED CAGE (2017)

On the web:

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 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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Anthony Quinn (

No Exit Press (


In the dying days of 1917, the body of young woman is washed ashore on the west coast of Ireland, near Sligo. She is in an old and decomposing coffin. Before her death, she sent a letter to London, to the poet William Butler Yeats and his Order of the Golden Dawn, foretelling her own death, and asking him to seek out her murderer should it come to pass. A noted spiritualist and supernatural investigator, Yeats charges his young apprentice, the ghost-catcher Charles Adams, with travelling to Sligo to find her ghost, and find out how she met her end. Met by suspicion and loathing, Adams finds himself in a country torn apart by political and religious sectarianism, where the English are less than welcome, and where the supernatural will be the least of his worries.

Taking a break from his Inspector Celsius Daly novels, Anthony Quinn takes the reader back to Ireland in the early part of 1918. Europe and much of the rest of the world is at war, but it seems to have little effect on this part of western Ireland – Sligo and its surrounding areas – which is dealing with its own troubles. It is almost two years since the events of the Easter Rising and many of the rich people who call this part of the country their home – ex-patriot Englishmen, for the most part – have been hounded from their manors and estates and sent on their merry way back to whence they came. This is the heart of Irish nationalism, the domain of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Daughters of Erin.

It is into this politically-charged environment that Charles Adams arrives at the behest of his mentor, the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, an Englishman with no concept of the history of this place, or the current mind-set of the people he is likely to encounter. Charged with finding the ghost of Rosemary O’Grady, it quickly becomes clear that a more natural course of investigation is likely to yield more results. Adams begins asking questions that see him viewed with suspicion by the locals, and brings him into contact with both the local constabulary, and with the Daughters of Erin, in the guise of Yeats’ old lover, Maud Gonne. Adams also finds himself plagued by Wolfe Marley, an Irishman who is employed as a spy by the British Admiralty.

Despite the supernatural elements – or the suggestion of supernatural elements – the mystery at the heart of The Blood Dimmed Tide has a wholly natural explanation, something mundane yet very cleverly constructed to allow the user to catch glimpses of the truth as the novel progresses, while still withholding enough to surprise us in the final act. What is most interesting is how each of the two central characters – Yeats and Adams – approach the question of how and why young Rosemary O’Grady died. Yeats, obsessed with the supernatural, has become an investigator of sorts, a debunker of fake mystics and psychics in much the same way that Houdini was. For him, there is no other way to determine the cause of death than by finding and asking the dead girl’s ghost. Adams, on the other hand, takes a more grounded approach, despite his reputation as a ghost-catcher of some talent. For him, the political environment in which he finds himself when he arrives in Sligo raises more questions about the girl’s death and sends him on his inevitable collision course with the locals, and the local powers-that-be.

The Blood Dimmed Tide is a wonderful character-driven mystery that is defined in large part by place and time. Nowhere else could the story have taken place than the tumultuous west coast of Ireland in the dying days of the Great War: the environment in which Charles Adams – and, later, W.B. Yeats himself – finds himself, and the atmosphere that Quinn generates for the reader are as important to the story as the murder victim herself. Along our journey, Quinn introduces us to secret occult societies, Irish rebels, the last remnants of the British Empire in Sligo and smugglers. All this plays out as war rages in mainland Europe, and German U-boats lurk off the coastline, an ever-present threat for some, and a potential ally for others.

Quinn has done an excellent job evoking the spirit of Ireland in the years following the Easter Rising, and examines the politics of the time by placing an Englishman – and an Englishman with no clue as to what he’s letting himself in for, at that – into the middle of this powder keg of emotions and barely-restrained violence. His characters are well-drawn, his use of the first person allowing us to see inside the mind of young Charles Adams as he undertakes his mission. These sections are interspersed with third-person narratives, which give the reader some insight into the other characters we encounter. The inclusion of Yeats seems superfluous, and indeed he is a character who spends much of the time on the side lines, but it does leave this reader wondering if there are deeper themes at play here, things I might have picked up on had I read any of Yeats’ work in the past (shameful, I know!), or if he’s just a vehicle to introduce the supernatural aspect of the tale. Either way, it’s interesting to see this side of one of Ireland’s most famous sons.

The Blood Dimmed Tide is a dark and gripping tale that takes the reader to Ireland’s very own Wild West. Beautifully written, with a cleverly-constructed mystery at its core, the story blends crime fiction, politics and occultism in a way that keeps the reader interested in every aspect of the story: the political situation as much as Rosemary O’Grady’s cause of death or the insight into the various rebel factions. The book is likely to appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, or those interested in the work on the occult carried out by Houdini around the same time period as the novel’s setting, and introduces Anthony Quinn as a fascinating new voice in the latest wave of Irish crime fiction writers, and one that I’ll be watching closely in the future.

TRAITOR’S BLADE by Sebastien de Castell


Sebastien de Castell (

Jo Fletcher Books (


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Den Patrick (

Gollancz (


On the weather-beaten island of Landfall stands the sprawling Demesne – four great Houses built around a central Keep which houses the reclusive, and reputedly mad, King. Lucien ‘Sinistra’ di Fontein is Orfano, a disfigured foundling taken in by the nobility of Demesne and trained as a swordsman. When he turns eighteen he, like all the Orfano who have come before, and all those who will come after, will face his final test and gain acceptance into one of the major Houses. But there are forces arrayed against Lucien, and against his Orfano brothers and sisters. The political climate in Demesne is shifting and Lucien must shift with it. His very existence depends on his skill with the sword, and his cunning.

Den Patrick’s first novel introduces us to the closed community on the island of Landfall. Centred around the castle-like structure of Demesne, Patrick introduces us to a world that bears remarkable parallels to our own. Using the Italian Renaissance as his model, Landfall is an insular world built around a mad and reclusive King who has created four great Houses – the military Fontein; the agricultural Contadino; the educational Erudito; and the craftsmen of House Prospero – around him to ensure the continued existence of his people. Into this fragile political ecology Patrick introduces the Orfano, rare beasts who normally appear three or four years apart, disfigured foundlings who have the protection of the King and his sinister Majordomo, and who play an important part in the inter-House dynamics.

Lucien, the book’s central character is one such Orfano, a young man about to move into adulthood and the responsibilities that invariably involves. In the background, plans are put in motion, plans to cross the King and his beloved freaks and wrest control of Demesne from the hands of the mad hermit who hasn’t left the central Keep in almost two hundred years. As Lucien finds himself drawn inextricably into this plot, he discovers that it is but a single layer of a more complex web of deceit. As we follow his journey through the political minefield, we are given insight into this young man, and the people who surround him, in a series of flashbacks to various points in his childhood. The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is as intricately-plotted as any novel of intrigue – not a word is out of place, and every scene that plays out in front of our eyes, regardless of how relevant it seems at the time, is key to the ultimate reveal – while still maintaining a pace and sense of action that we’ve come to expect from this type of fantasy fiction.

Patrick surrounds Lucien with an unforgettable cast of characters: the other Orfano, each with their own unique disfigurations and crosses to bear; Superiore of the Maestro di Spada Giancarlo, who has a severe dislike of Lucien; the wise Virmyre, one of the most important influences in Lucien’s education; Camelia, the cook who plays the part of Lucien’s mother as he grows; and, most striking, the sinister, hooded Majordomo, the voice of the King and that madman’s sole representative within Demesne. Demesne and Landfall themselves are locations that stick in the mind of the reader: we get a potted part-history, part-myth about the origins of the island nation (cleverly and naturally told), but Patrick never spends time examining ancient history. There are hints – the Italian language; the histories that the characters read – that Landfall might be related, in some strange way, to our own world, but the novel still maintains the sense of a secondary-world setting, where our own rules don’t necessarily hold true and where, as a result, anything is possible.

There are some deft touches that set The Boy With the Porcelain Blade above the competition: here is political intrigue to put even George R. R. Martin to shame; here a sense of horror that makes this excellent debut a novel that blurs the genre lines quite significantly; here references to technology that show us that this is a world of science rather than magic. The most intriguing aspect is the one that gives the novel its title: the ceramic blades with which the Orfano are issued before they have proven their worth. It’s a strange choice of material for a fighting blade, but Patrick makes us believe it nonetheless.

With elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers – from fans of The Three Musketeers, to those who love to immerse themselves in the Song of Ice and Fire series – The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is a dark, gritty, horrific piece of fantasy fiction that grabs the reader on the first page and keeps them engaged to the end. The sense that this might not be a secondary world makes some of the horror more immediate than it might otherwise have been, and the character of the Majordomo, with his grating, monotonous voice, is one that will haunt your dreams for some time to come. A stunning introduction to a fascinating world, peopled with characters in whom the reader will be entirely invested, Den Patrick leaves us with only two questions: how long must be wait before we can return to Landfall? And, with a debut this strong, how can the second book in the series possibly stand up to our expectations?



Guillermo Orsi

Translated by Nick Caistor

MacLehose Press (


Argentina, December 2001. Against the background of a country in economic free-fall, we meet Pablo Martelli, a sixty-something bathroom appliance salesman with a history in the National Shame, an elite branch of the police force which lived up to their nickname during the dictatorship of the late ‘70s. After receiving a post-midnight phone call from an old friend, Martelli undertakes the long drive from Buenos Aires to the small coastal town of Bahia Blanca, only to find his friend’s corpse lying on the floor of his chalet. When the man’s daughter is kidnapped, Martelli is forced to investigate, and finds himself involved in a conspiracy that could bring down an already unstable government.

At its heart, No-one Loves a Policeman – the first of Orsi’s novels to be translated into English – is an old-fashioned hardboiled detective novel. Imagine Chandler’s Marlowe or MacDonald’s Archer brought up to date, aged a few years and relocated from the stifling heat of Los Angeles to the equally stifling heat of Argentina in the height of summer. Martelli, our first-person narrator, is a wise-cracking, gruff-natured man who it’s impossible not to like from the outset. He may be approaching old age, but he has a surprisingly modern view of the world and his insights, while amusing, are often spot-on. But at the same time, he has this history, this secret history, with the National Shame, for whom he killed his fair share of people, and from which he was ejected when he failed to toe the party line. We never discover exactly what the big secret is, and the reason for his discharge is decidedly ambiguous – was it because he went too far, or because he suddenly developed a conscience? This makes Martelli the epitome of the untrustworthy narrator, and I spent my time with the man wondering when he might stab me in the back.

The language is beautiful and evocative. The reader finds himself immersed in that troubled country, sweating along with the characters as the heat and the pressure build – mounting debts and no money to pay them because the banks don’t have the cash to cover everyone’s savings; a government in chaos, ministers resigning on a daily or weekly basis like rats abandoning the proverbial sinking ship. This background, and the style of writing, is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant novella, No-one Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba), which deals with very similar economic issues in Colombia forty years previous. Switching between narrative (“he said”, “she did”) and a love letter to a woman who abandoned Martelli when she discovered that he was a policeman (“you said”, “you did”), No-one Loves a Policeman is an exciting and captivating read.

The unsung hero here must be Nick Caistor (this is the second of his translations I’ve read in the past couple of months): no matter how good the source writing, a poor translation will ruin a perfect novel. That is far from the case here, and Caistor should be commended for a job very well done. Of course, credit is also due Orsi for constructing a complex story that is at once hardboiled mystery, political thriller and tale of unrequited love. He has given us a cast of characters who are vibrant and realistic, and a plot that – like the best of Chandler – requires a keen eye and a considerable amount of concentration.

In all, despite the questionable cover – there’s just something not right about that faux-Vettriano look – No-one Loves a Policeman is an excellent piece of crime fiction that should appeal to fans of the genre. I, for one, am already looking forward to Holy City which, according to the author bio, is forthcoming from MacLehose Press.

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