Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



Exclusive Excerpt from Sven Hassel’s WHEELS OF TERROR

image005 WHEELS OF TERROR: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Sven Hassel (

Jordy Diago (

Weidenfeld & Nicholson (


This week sees the UK publication of the graphic novel adaptation of Sven Hassel’s 1959 novel, Wheels of Terror. Adapted by Hassel’s family, and brought to life by the stunning artwork of Spanish artist Jordy Diago, the book is published to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

To celebrate the book’s release, the publisher have very kindly made the complete Chapter 9 available to Reader Dad for everyone to enjoy. Click on the image below to download the PDF file and enjoy this beautiful, if gory, glimpse at life on the Front.


THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky

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

Daniel Polansky (

Hodder & Stoughton (


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Audrey Magee (

Atlantic Books (


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Brian Payton (

Mantle (


John Easley, a reporter for the National Geographic is ejected – along with every other journalist in the region – from the Aleutian Islands when the Japanese make their first incursion onto American soil. When his brother, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, is later shot down over the English Channel, John’s grief leads him to the decision that the people of America deserve to know the truth about what is happening in the Aleutians. Sneaking into Alaska and thence onto the archipelago, John finds himself stranded on the island of Attu when the plane he is on is shot down by the occupying forces. Given the choice between survival in this barren land or torture at the hands of the Chinese, John decides to take his chance with the elements. Back in his home town of Seattle, his wife, Helen, is beginning to worry about his silence, and about their parting words on the night he left to return to Alaska. Signing up with a USO troop, Helen leaves everything behind – including her ailing father – to go in search of her missing husband, convinced that he needs her help.

When Brian Payton’s The Wind Is Not a River opens, we find John Easley waking from unconsciousness following his parachute jump from a fatally-wounded plane. His knowledge of the chain, and the proximity of Japanese anti-aircraft fire lead him quickly to understand that he has found himself on Attu, one of the few islands in the long chain that is known to be occupied by enemy forces. Forced to remain on the beach where he has awakened in order to avoid the attention of the small army that is just over the ridge, he sets up camp in a small cave, the limited supply of driftwood his only source of fuel and the mussels and slower seabirds his only source of sustenance. This is a barren land, and Payton goes to great lengths to ensure that we are aware of  just how much trouble Easley is likely to be in this little-known part of the world: the lack of food, the less-than-clement weather, the lack of wood for burning.

"You’ll be attracting plenty of attention," Cooper observes [to John’s wife, Helen]. "We have a saying out here: ‘There’s a woman hiding behind every tree in the Aleutian Islands.’"

When John discovers a tea tin buried at the edge of the beach containing all the worldly possessions of a young native woman called Tatiana, along with a letter to her lover, John finds himself falling love with this person he has never met, while all the time wondering what has become of her and the people with whom she shared the small village now occupied by the Japanese. It is the thought of Tatiana, rather than his wife, that keeps him going through his darkest hours, and yet there can be no doubt that this man loves the woman he has left behind in Seattle. The letter in the tin contains the line that gives the novel its title, and its meaning – when John finally works it out – comes as something of a revelation that puts the entire situation into some kind of perspective.

But the story of John is only half the tale told in this remarkable novel. Alternate chapters are told from the point of view of Helen, and we follow her as she decides to leave her home and her ill father behind to go off in search of her missing husband. There is something deeply touching, irredeemably romantic, in this gesture and, despite the long shot we know Helen is taking, we can’t help but wish her luck and hope that the two lonely protagonists at the centre of this beautiful tale do finally connect. With the help of a USO troop, and a doctored CV, Helen finds herself heading to Alaska and points beyond not only at no cost to herself, but with the full blessing and protection of the United States military. Determined to speak to as many people – both on and off the military bases she will be visiting – as she can in the short time she has available, Helen’s determination to find her husband is matched only by her husband’s determination to stay alive and out of the hands of the Japanese.

Brian Payton centres his story in one of the most remote locations on the planet – the beautiful but desolate chain of islands that almost joins Alaska with Russia – during one of the least known battles of the Pacific Theatre. Combining the cruelties of war – and, as history has shown, there were few more cruel than the Japanese military – with the cruelties of nature, the author presents a story that is as stark and beautiful as the landscape in which it is set.

"This is how they fight." The staff sergeant points at the gruesome sight. "First, they kill their own wounded before coming after ours. Kill the helpless men, then blow themselves to smithereens. This is the value they place on human life. Even their own. Where’s the honour in that?"

The third-person narrative means that nothing is predictable, nothing certain. The ending, when it comes, is handled perfectly despite being absolutely devastating (make sure you have some tissues handy), and the story throughout is intimate, touching and, often, more than a little playful.

Together they tried pitching stones baseball-style at gulls and puffins.  The boy had superior accuracy, owing to his American childhood. Easley grew up playing hockey, a sport with no obvious correlation to hunting, unless they were hunting dark mice scurrying across a frozen pond.

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

RED RISING by Pierce Brown

Red Rising - Pierce Brown RED RISING

Pierce Brown (

Hodder & Stoughton (


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope they do not bury me.

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

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

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

WHERE I LEFT MY SOUL by Jérôme Ferrari


Jérôme Ferrari

Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

MacLehose Press (


Released: 10th October 2012

I am always slightly surprised when I come across a book that deals with a period of history of which I have been woefully ignorant. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul, the French author’s first novel translated into English, presents just such a period, dealing with the decades following the end of the Second World War during which the French Empire appears to have completely collapsed, leaving an entire generation of young men feeling used and betrayed by their government.

One such man, André Degorce, stands at the centre of this short, bleak novel. Having joined the French Resistance at the age of 19, halfway through 1944, he finds himself captured by the Germans. In May 1945, he leaves the camp at Buchenwald weighing five and a half stone. Almost exactly nine years later, he leaves a re-education camp in Vietnam, having been captured by the Viet Minh. Now, 1957, Capitaine Degorce is at war again, this time in the Northern African climes of Algeria, and this time the shoe is on the other foot.

Degorce, now a torturer, has been tasked with capturing Tahar, one of the commanders of the National Liberation Army. Lieutenant Horace Andreani, a man with whom he was captured in Vietnam, has joined him once again in Algeria, seemingly enjoying his new role much more than the Capitaine. When Tahar is captured, Degorce senses a kinship and during the short period when Tahar is his prisoner, the Algerian also becomes a confessor. When Tahar is transferred to Andreani’s care, Degorce is lost, unable to comprehend what he has become.

The bulk of the story takes place over the course of three days at the end of March 1957. These third-person narratives from the point of view of Degorce are interspersed with a first-person rant in the voice of a much older Lieutenant Andreani, a stream of bile and invective aimed at Degorce, a man once respected, even loved, now reviled and considered a traitor. What slowly unfolds as the story progresses, are the portraits of two men broken in very different ways by the same circumstances. On the one hand, Degorce, a man filled with remorse, increasingly questioning the tactics he uses on a daily basis, unable to comprehend why he is slowly becoming the same as his captors in Buchenwald and Vietnam; on the other, Andreani, a man willing to do anything in the name of his country, remorseless and happy, the perfect tool.

Ferrari states in his preface, that it’s not about the war, nor the politics:

“…it was not French wounds, nor even history, that interested me; I was only interested in the trajectory these officers followed, as a paradigm of the way in which man, as he plunges into his own inner darkness, loses his soul.”

In this, at least, he succeeds. We meet André Degorce as his world is about to collapse around him. Through a series of flashbacks we discover how he has arrived at this point, and can infer certain things about the choices he has made. The capture of Tahar, and the similarities Degorce sees between himself and his captive, serve to push him over the edge, and we witness a man whose world is falling apart around him: his remote and crumbling relationship with his family, who have no idea to what lengths he has gone in the service of his country; and his position within the army, a job that suddenly seems irrelevant to him, his unquestioning loyalty now at an end, a source of embarrassment and shame.

“He was no longer even trying to shake off the grip of humiliation. He was simply waiting for the whole charade to be at an end. It occurred to him that Jeanne-Marie would see his picture in the papers next morning and would in all probability be proud of him. If she were to learn one day what he was really doing here she would be unable either to believe it or to understand it. And she would be right: in spite of all the logic in the world, it was at bottom impossible to understand and it was better for his wife to remain in permanent ignorance.”

In parallel with this, we also witness the descent of Horace Andreani into the same pit. It is a descent on a much different trajectory, taking over forty years to complete, and it is driven by the Lieutenant’s hatred of his one-time Capitaine.

The narrative is at times dense and slow-moving, particularly in the Andreani sections, where sentences span half a page, and paragraph breaks are few and far between. Despite the daunting appearance, Andreani’s voice is engaging enough, and what he has to say interesting enough, to allow the reader to make short work of these sections. The Degorce sections are more conventional, and give us a more detailed look at the soldiers’ time in Algeria, and the work they do: torture both physical and psychological in the name of dismantling a terrorist network that existed long before such a thing was considered the norm. Ferrari’s writing is beautiful, his compact novel giving us at once a shapshot of a specific time and location, but also a timeless scenario that could well be playing out in a handful of countries right now. The war, the politics, as was Ferrari’s intention, are secondary to the main story: a look at two men’s descent into hell, and the broken husks that remain.

Where I Left My Soul is a short, powerful tale that presents a look at the human soul in all its darkness. Behind that beautiful Monica Reyes cover is an equally beautiful tale that shows Jérôme Ferrari’s understanding of the dark side of humanity. It’s a quick read, but one that will remain with the reader for a long time afterwards, a consequence of strong characters and engaging storyline. In a year already bursting with wonderful reads, Where I Left My Soul still manages to stand out.


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

Myke Cole (

Headline (


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.

THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe


James Smythe (

Blue Door Books (…/blue-door)


At first, we thought the noise was just a radio.

Suddenly, the whole world is filled with static and, as it dies away, the words My Children. No-one has any idea where the noise has come from, or to whom the voice belongs. Hours later, the static returns, and the message continues: Do not be afraid. The world is immediately split into four camps: those who believe it was the voice of one or other god or God; those who believe it is a message from aliens; those who believe it is a top-secret experiment gone wrong; and those who heard nothing at all. As religious mania sweeps the globe and order begins to slip, fingers are pointed and pre-emptive strikes launched. But the voice has more to say, and the human race has even more difficult challenges to face.

The Testimony is, as the title suggests, a collection of first-person accounts detailing the events as they unfold, the gradual decline of order and sanity, and the descent into chaos. There are twenty-six such accounts (according to the book’s blurb – I haven’t counted), interspersed to form a loose timeline from the first occurrence of the static through to the book’s conclusion. Only a handful of these characters form what could be considered the core group, the characters essential to the central plot of the novel, and therein lies part of the book’s downfall.

As a fan of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Testimony, James Smythe’s first novel, should have ticked all the boxes for me. The idea is startlingly original and it details an all-too-plausible spiral of horror and madness as things fall apart. In some ways it is reminiscent of King’s The Stand, or Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, documenting the transition from the world we know to the one that remains when things go horribly wrong. In places it is gripping and horrific, showing glimpses of this brilliant young writer at his best, but there are too many problems and, ultimately, the book fails on a number of levels.

Some of the problems are fairly minor – nothing to ruin to story, but enough to jar the reader out of the moment. These are mainly continuity errors, problems that should have been caught before publication – names that change from one chapter to the next or problems with some of the timings: for example, everyone who heard the static heard it at exactly the same time, yet people in London heard it while eating their lunch and people in Leeds heard it at four-thirty in the morning. It sounds like nit-picky stuff, but when it’s noticeable enough to mar the reading experience, that’s a problem.

A more serious problem for me was the massive overpopulation. There are a handful of key players, and it quickly becomes obvious who they are. There are other, less-important, players who nonetheless play pivotal roles in key subplots, giving a different perspective to the events as they unfold. Beyond that there are far too many characters who seem to go nowhere: we see them once or twice for the duration of the novel, or they are frequent contributors who don’t actually add anything to the story. There is a sense, as we approach the end of the novel, that they are nothing more than padding, and it’s a frustrating realisation.

My biggest problem with The Testimony, however, is the fact that it fizzles to nothing at the end. It’s as if Smythe pulls away from the worst-case scenario at the last minute; instead of the brilliant post-apocalyptic vision of which we get glimpses in the middle section of the novel, we find a disappointing conclusion with a tacked-on feel.

The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.

JULIA by Otto de Kat

JULIA - Otto de Kat JULIA

Otto de Kat

Translated by Ina Rilke

Maclehose Press (


A brief flick through previous entries in this blog will show the reader that I have something of a fascination with the events of the Second World War. Not so much the war itself, but the individual stories that make up the fabric of time during which those terrible events occurred. Dutch writer Otto de Kat’s latest novel, Julia, is one such story, a surprising and heart-breaking vignette that chronicles Hitler’s rise to power through the eyes of a young, love-struck Dutchman.

Julia opens in the early 1980s. Chris Dudok, a man in his early seventies, is found dead on the floor of his study, apparently having taken an overdose along with his bowl of porridge. On his desk is a newspaper, an old German paper, dated 2 April 1942. On the front page, a list of names, circled in red. From there, we are taken back to Lübeck, February 1938, where a much younger Chris Dudok is working in a factory, sent to Germany by his father to gain some experience before he takes control of the family’s own manufacturing business. While in Lübeck, Chris meets and falls in love with Julia Bender, a young woman outspoken against the growing Nazi presence. As events culminate in Kristallnacht, in November of the same year, Chris flees back to the Netherlands, abandoning Julia at her command. It is a decision that will overshadow the rest of his life, and which will leave him filled with regret.

De Kat tells his tale in a series of flashbacks, the story coming together in three distinct time periods. Here is Chris in his seventies, on the night before he takes his own life, reminiscent and regretful. Here is the same man in his early twenties, full of life and love, in a country that is slowly succumbing to the grip of dictatorship, the world on the verge of war. And then there is Chris in the in-between years, trapped in a loveless marriage, possessing unwanted responsibility following the sudden death of his father and the passing of the reins to him. Behind everything lies the shadow of Julia, a young woman that we – and Chris, seemingly – know very little about:

Those moments in her company…Years hence it would be those moments, that time, that would count as the happiest he had known. Taken all together, what did they add up to? A few days, a fortnight?

We see Dudok’s life as a series of snapshots, as if we are seeing pages from the diary that he left in the car on his final night. De Kat shows us Germany in 1938 through the eyes of an outsider. Hitler is never mentioned by name, but his presence is felt in those pre-war scenes, and he is referred to as “the radio man” throughout. Chris watches his rise with the cynical and detached eye of the foreigner, unable to see what others see in him, why his ideas are finding footholds in the minds of the local population:

The radio man was a disaster, worse than Chris had initially believed. As for the never-ending palavers in Holland, the stultifying compromises, the wavering, all that was better than falling for the great lie of the national soul, the fixation on a mythical perception of blood and soil, the idiocy of one group being held superior to another. It was nauseating, loathsome, and also frightening.

There is an immediate rapport with Julia, an objector, the sister of a traitor to the cause, who becomes a shady underground figure and sends Chris away, ostensibly to keep both of them safe. There is an interesting juxtaposition of these two main characters – they share similar views, reached through different thought processes, yet one, in the eyes of the law, is a traitor, and the other not.

In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.

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