Book Reviews

The Violent Fae

I know from experience that writing a trilogy is not only a massive undertaking, worse than that, it is equivalent to weaving a tapestry. A story made up of different threads that need to come together in just the right way so as to make sense to the reader. Plus, ensure it provides the right amount of satisfaction to reward the reader for sticking with the narrative.

It is not easy. But Phil Williams manages it. And does so with panache. He even makes it look easy. A crime, for which, I will never forgive him.

The Violent Fae is a fast-paced, action-led thrill of a ride. The dangers are varied and never-ending. Characterisation remains it's strength because the people in this fantasy are real, believable people. Even the Fae. They are just like us - just as conniving, violent sometimes too. You can't help but get behind the protagonists and cheer them on while you marvel at the imaginative twists and turns of the plot.

This final instalment is a hugely satisfying conclusion to a great trilogy.

5 stars.

A Little Hatred

It’s like meeting old friends after not seeing them for years. The familiarity with their ways, their foibles, they all fit back into the perceptions you had so long ago. It’s like that some of the characters in A Little Hatred. Admittedly those characters from The First Law stories are older by three decades. They’ve got adult kids now. The world has changed too, less dependent on magic as it encounters the problems and spurious advantages of an Industrial Revolution.

Joe Abercrombie's mastery of the English language is the prize feature of this book. ‘Her mouth tasted like despair’, ‘her dark hair was shot with grey and bound back as tightly as a murderer’s shackles’, ‘it was hot as an oven and noisy as a slaughterhouse and it smelled of old tar, unwashed bodies and rage’. It evokes so much in such simple ways.

For me, it hasn't captured that glorious ability he displayed in The First Law books though. Characters are fine but they're not the ground-breaking types like Logan Ninefingers and Glokta. These are diluted, pale imitations and it impacted on the story as a whole. A good story all the same.

4 stars.

Just One Damned Thing After Another

A really good book is often formed out of a chemical reaction. In this instance where action and humour combine to forge a story which is fast-paced and exciting while making you laugh out loud.

 

The tag-line for the book, is, for once, accurate. “If you love Jasper Fforde or Ben Aaronovitch, you won't be able to resist Jodi Taylor.” There is the crazy, Lewis Carroll-like-turning-the-world-upside-down comedy of Fforde, choice phrases that make you chuckle, witty observations of people and their behaviour that captures the eccentricities of the British. There is also the credibility of Aaronovitch in the research and knowledge that accompanies the adventures across history. And it’s not dry history either, its fascinating touches that you probably never learned in school – but ought to have done. The result is a book I could not put down, I simply fell in love with it.

5 stars

The Bone Ships

RJ Barker has done it again! 

 

I have never read a fantasy novel quite as original as The Bone Ships for a long time. There are few of the conventional tropes in it; magic appears in forms of Nature, dragons are whales and their skeletons are ships. There’s also the language of the story that makes it different. A style of narrative that reminds me of Victorian sea-faring tales, especially its dialogue. There’s more than a passing reference to Moby Dick here but nothing like Herman Melville imagined.

This is a very different type of book to his Wounded Kingdom trilogy. Again, it’s a brave writer that does something very different to what has gone before. That said, there are the same ethical considerations, the same strong women, insecure men and ruthless villains. I hope that people won’t judge this novel on the basis that it’s different to RJ’s other stories. That’s not fair, they are simply different. And just as stunningly good as ever.

5 stars

Wrath of Storms

I loved Symphony of the Wind, in my view it should have been the winner in SPFBO4. But Wrath of Storms is even better. It is a masterpiece in storytelling and establishes Steven McKinnon as the heir to Joe Abercrombie’s throne.

This is a story filled with so much pace there is never chance to catch your breath. I mean, the final 25% of the story is the climax! And that's because dramatic events are happening to so many characters! There's a set piece action sequence about a third of the way through the book that would represent a climax for many other writers! And remember this is Steven McKinnon, so the violence is visceral. 

But it's a story about people. The characters are the stars here, the excitement happens because we care what happens to them. We want them to find answers, resolve their problems, find redemption. But then Steven McKinnon is an expert is creating evil villains who thwart the protagonists in ever more conniving, bloody and horrific ways.  Just so much to love about this book!

5 stars

Ioth, City of Lights

I cried at the end of this story. It’s a confession I make to point out the strongest element of this book – its characters. You care so much about these people. Technically, this is their third story, if you include the short story compilation, Tales of Kingshold. In my reviews of these other books, I’ve commented about Dave’s ability to create normal, credible people and then put them in the middle of exciting, terrible and lethal situations. That is one hell of an accomplishment. And, to be clear, we’re not just talking about one or two ‘normal’ people – there are over a dozen. By the end of this novel, these people are your friends. The things that happen to these caring, humane, brave folks have you on the edge of your seat.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Six months in to 2019 and Ioth, City of Lights, goes straight into my top spot of Favourite Books of the Year. For all the reasons outlined but with one more; this book made me think and that investment I mentioned, stayed with me long after turning the last page. 

 

For me, this book has established DP Woolliscroft as a first-rate fantasy writer who deserves wider recognition. I hope this story helps him achieve it. Help him by buying this book and telling your friends to buy it too!                    5 stars

Priest of Bones

I’ve struggled to define this book’s genre. Some have labelled it a ‘crime thriller with a secondary fantasy element’, others have compared it to the TV series Peaky Blinders while others have invoked The Godfather. There are comparisons to The Lies of Locke Lamora but this is darker and far more wide-ranging in its world building. For me, the fact I couldn’t instantly label it, became one of its best points. This is an original story, full of grimdark elements, but it’s the story’s narrative voice that makes it stand out so distinctly.

It's also a war story, in that it illustrates the impact war has on the minds of people who fight in it. Each character suffers PTSD in some form or another and this is what makes the characters so visceral and interesting

The first person narrative makes Tomas come alive, we’re inside his head, listening to his distinctive commentary. A man who is not well educated but who is a leader first and foremost. That voice makes this book stand out and shows what a talent Peter McLean is!

5 stars

Sin Eater: Iconoclasts Book 2

Mike Shel is a masterful writer of fantasy. His second novel in his Iconoclasts series is proof, he's sustained the incredible high standards of his first work and provided us with a story filled with intelligent insight, exciting adventure, real and complex characters in a world like no other.

There is a sweet spot in all good fantasy stories where world building and characterisation meet; Mike Shel knows that place well. He’s found it again here. For me, the strength of this book lies in the characters forged in this corrupt and evil world. It examines the human condition from a position of expertise; Mike Shel is a clinic psychologist who has worked with survivors of trauma. It shows. Auric especially is a broken man, full of self-doubt who is forced to undertake an expedition that does not augur well for anyone, especially his daughter. It is a moving story as well as an exciting one. It left me with so many reactions, some of which I'm still processing.

It is also beautifully written, in a voice which is formal in one way but utterly appropriate for the characters and the story. Simple awesome. 5 stars.

Lies Sleeping

Ben Aaronovitch does it again, in the ninth book in the Peter Grant series about the apprentice wizard who has also just been promoted to Detective Constable in the London Metropolitan police force. This story Peter faces his greatest challenges to date. If you read the reviews of this novel, there are quite a few that believe the series is winding down, it’s lost some of its originality. I think the opposite is true.

I have been mildly critical of one or two of the latest novels but this is definitely Aaronovitch back on form. The police procedural detail once again makes this story so very credible, as does the numerous historic references to places in London that feature in this story. There's also criticism at the book's lack of humour. I do not know why, this is such a funny piece of work. Wonderfully sarcastic, wry quite often, certainly witty in the description. It is wonderfully written. 

An exciting, funny and character-filled 5 stars!

Ghost Electricity

This is a story Joss Whedon might have written if he had been part Australian, part British.

It’s got vampires, werewolves and monsters of all kinds and The Big Bad is something ghoulish, mega-powerful and not-of-this-world. Our plucky protagonists may have the same qualities as Buffy, resourceful, determined and with their own Scooby gang, but it looks like the nefarious beings are going to be just too big and bad.

The author maintains his story ‘blends fast-paced action, vivid characters and epic adventures in modern London.’ He is not wrong in that description and it’s why I loved this book. It is relentless in its pace. Like all good urban fantasy, we are in a world where there’s much more happening in the shadows and in the social make-up of this city. But this story goes way beyond Joss Whedon’s Buffy in some ways and does so with a casual nod of affection.

5 stars!

The City Screams

As an author of urban fantasy, I rate Phil Williams alongside Holly Black. It is their ability as a writer to conjure out of a world which is everyday normal, a setting which is not only frightening but “believably unlikely”. The Ordshaw stories does this brilliantly by turning an English city into a place where supernatural and mystical elements exist in the shadows. In The City Screams, the same effect is created in Tokyo.

This novella successfully leaves us feeling alienated as we follow the misadventures of Tova Nokes. It achieves this disturbing sense of isolation by describing what it’s like to be in a culturally diverse city, on your own and as a deaf person. 

This truly original element raises the tension but also defines an environment most of us take for granted. Silence becomes the biggest threat and next to it, that inability to hear what dangers may be right behind you. 5 stars!

God of Broken Things

The sequel to The Traitor God is everything you demand of a follow-up. The threats, like its monsters, are bigger; its villains are a greater menace; the scale of conflict even greater. Yet, despite its galloping inflation, what made the first novel work so well, remains constant.

Its characters.

This is a story that has everything and is written with wry Scottish wit that you can hear in the background all the time, that leads you to suppose Edrin Walker is a character Cameron Johnston must love very much – and has every reason to do so. I am in awe how this wit is combined with such excitement whilst sharing insights into what makes humanity the complex race it is. 5 stars!

The Traitor God

I read the last 20% of this story in one session. I couldn’t put it down. Not just because the events are so exciting or because I had no idea how things were going to develop but because I’d invested so heavily in the characters. Yes, this is an action-packed, exciting, thrill-a-minute story and, in less skilled hands, characters would be overwhelmed by such things. But not when Cameron Johnston is in charge.

The best stories, as far as I’m concerned, is when you get behind a protagonist and their allies as though you’re fighting with them. You cheer them on, groan at every set back, gasp at their injuries and hope they can carry on. This is what happened with me and Edrin Walker, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because he was controlling my mind with his special brand of mental magic. It was definitely the writing. 5 stars!

Blue Angel by Phil Williams

Well, Phil Williams does it again with his second book in his Ordshaw series. In fact, I think I might have enjoyed this one even more.

The threat level for Ordshaw increases. So does the distrust and suspicion of its inhabitants, both human and Fae. The only people who have any kind of clue what's going on, is Pax and Letty, and even they're not certain about anything. Except that the rest of the population seem hell bent on stopping them - either because they have secrets to hide or, in the case of the Fae, they're just psychotic.

I love this series for the way it takes Normal and turns it on its head, twists it around a bit only to leave it upright again, dizzy and wondering what's going to happen next. 5 stars!

Under Ordshaw by Phil Williams

Under Ordshaw is a fun, thrill-a-minute urban fantasy full of unique characters, exciting action and wonderfully comic moments that made me laugh out loud.

I loved the consistently high threat level that is maintained against the main protagonists. There are so many dangers, all of them irrational and unpredictable, and those are the ones above ground! Go below and the monsters are not only highly dangerous but incredibly original in their inception.

All in all, a light-hearted but thrilling story, packed with action that never takes its foot off the pedal but also manages to maintain a well-crafted balance between fantasy and reality, as all good urban fantasy should do. 5 stars.

Tales of Kingshold by

DP Woolliscroft

I’m not usually someone to read an anthology of short stories. I began reading this one with some uncertainty for that reason. I quickly changed my mind with Tales of Kingshold.

Because Dave Woolliscroft has a book that captures so many highly successful features but in a subtle, under-played way.

The narrative style has wonderfully dry, wry humour that can disguise the events that suddenly rear up and make you realise you’re thoroughly engaged. No mean feat in a collection of short stories - he does this again and again. And never in the same way each time.

As for his characters? Despite the monsters, demons and the like, we see people dealing with these amazing things in a way that is so like our world. Dave Woolliscroft does Normal in the most amazing ways!

Big Red by Damien Larkin

Big Red is military science fiction, it sits alongside the like of Joe Haldeman and Robert Heinlein. In fact there are comparisons between this story and Heinlein's Starship Troopers for me. It's a story of soldiers thrust into a war they don't understand but are trained to fight and die in. Like Heinlein also, this author has military experience and this resonates in every page. It drips realism.

It is also an intensely human story, full of frailty and courage, the dark depths humans can sink to while taking risks that raise them to the heights of what we'd like to be. 

It's also told from the point of view of a character who might be defined as an Unreliable Narrator, a means to add great tension and uncertainty.

This is a five star story and definitely worth buying. 

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

This is a dense, complex novel. It is sublime in its writing. It is highly original in its concepts, which leads back to why its dense and complex. It’s been described already as ‘ground-breaking’ and I have no reason to argue with this. As a debut novel it showcases the amazing talent of Gareth Hanrahan.

Hanrahan’s use of the present tense in his third person narrative brings urgency and intimacy. Its rich in description, highly evocative in its allegories and the images they generate. It’s a writing style to bathe in and leave feeling enriched.

As a debut author, Gareth Hanrahan has firmly established himself as someone who has shaken up the fantasy genre. His work is exciting, highly original, beautifully written and full of humanity.

Symphony of the Wind - Steven McKinnon

Symphony of the Wind is epic fantasy, literally. Everything about it is huge and yet at no time does Steven McKinnon lose control of this narrative juggernaut. In fact, he takes every tight corner, every twist and turn of the plot with the skill of a downhill racer.

This is a story that leaves you reeling because no sooner has one threat been met, others are lining up to take its place.

Symphony of the Wind is a finalist in the 2018/19 SPFBO competition. Rightly so. For me, it has every factor needed to make it the winner. It is an astonishingly adept debut for a writer who will become a major name in the fantasy world in years to come

Aching God - Mike Shel

A novel filled filled malevolence, madness and magic

​It’s the world building that makes this story really hum. It is filled with malevolence, madness and magic. A place where religion has a very real power, where gods appear to exist. It’s also a place where the evil of the Djao, an evil race vanquished by these gods, still attracts the nefarious types who want to profit from this race’s artefacts.

I’m intrigued by the way Mike Shel comments on us, as a race, how we would likely do the same thing. Plundering riches with blatant disregard for the consequences. Just like the stories of how Carter plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen. This is just one factor that makes this story so good.

This gets an indisputable 5 stars 

Street Freaks by Terry Brooks

A disappointing new novel from a giant of the genre

​Terry Brooks is a giant of the SF genre but, though the premise is a good one and the plot is exciting, I found his use of the present tense and Passive Voice to rob much of the drama and reader engagement it could - should - have had. It leaves the reader as an observer and I found that frustrating.

Just 3 stars sadly.

The Heresy Within - Rob Hayes

A vivid, butal and gritty grimdark novel.

 

​This is the first novel in the Ties That Bind series and it promises much. This is a grimdark novel without a doubt, but some reviewers have labelled Rob Hayes as an Abercrombie clone. He’s not. Hayes has mastered world-building and created a location filled with mystery and excitement while his characterisation is vivid, engaging and sympathetic, despite the violence and immorality of the 3 protagonists. Fight scenes are graphic, brutal, visceral. Sexual encounters are notoriously difficult to write by Rob Hayes manages it well, they are also vividly written yet never gratuitously delivered.

 

This is a stand-out 5 star read.

The Age of Assassins - RJ Barker

A novel that puts the grim in grimdark

 

​I wasn't certain I was going to enjoy this book. It didn't hold back on its cruelty and hardship in the opening chapter but I'm pleased I continued because, amongst the darkness there were moments of humanity and warmth. This is a truly grimdark novel. Life has little value, people are ruthless and heartless. The landscape is dark, soured by a destructive form of magic. But into this story comes Girton, the teenage protagonist, an assassin with a club foot. This is both a coming-of-age story as well  as (as RJ Barker describes it), 'a murder mystery with swords and magic'. 

 

A surprising a 5 star read.

Kingshold - DP Woolliscroft

A unique and original premise in fantasy

 

​Throughout the story I’ve tried to find comparisons for this book and decided there isn’t one. This is a story about an election. That’s it. Burgeoning democracy in a fantasy world. Sure, people are assassinated, pirates attack, monsters must be killed but this about a city holding an election. The election is the maguffin of course, but what a clever one, it makes the book unique. On its own that might not be enough. But this is a story told with wit, pace, exciting and well-defined characters and in a style that feels so wonderfully relaxed and easy to read.

5 stars

City of Lies by Sam Hawkes

A whodunnit in a fantasy setting

​City of Lies is Sam Hawke’s debut novel and it is perfect. It is a work of sophistication and subtlety, but it is also an exciting, full-throttle ride from beginning to end. It is charged with emotion that left me with a lump in my throat by the end.  City of Lies is proof that Sam Hawke is a talented new name on the fantasy bookshelves, one capable of bringing fresh insight into the genre.

A wonderfully, unique 5 star novel

Ravencry - Ed McDonald

A thrilling ride in a grimdark world

Ed McDonald's sequel is even more exciting and as dark and brooding as the original.

The need to reach the end was inexorable, a headlong-rush-to-the-bottom-of-the-hill-with-the-brakes-shot kind of relentlessness. All the time seeing the hero having more and more of his humanity peeled away from him.

It left me exhausted, empty, elated. How does a book do that?

5 stars!

Blackwing - Ed McDonald

Grimdark-with-heart

​Ed McDonald has redefined Grimdark and done so in an exciting, heart-filled way. This is a story where, at its core, its central character has honour, love and a need to protect others, though he doesn't believe that. He sees himself as a heartless killer. It's this contradiction that brings real ingenuity to a story already filled with heart-stopping and blood curdling action. It is a perfect combination.

A genre-defining 5 stars

Paternus: Wrath of Gods - Dyrk Ashton

The greatest battle in history continues

​I described Book 1 as a roller-coaster ride. Book 2 is the rocket-fuelled version.  Dyrk Ashton provides us with a masterclass in how to balance informed exposition with a story on steroids while providing a story that meant I had tears in my eyes by the end.

5 stars

Paternus: Rise of the Gods - Dyrk Ashton

The greatest battle in history 

​I'm awarding all 5 stars for a novel that defines the concept of 'epic' fantasy. Not only is it based on solid (and fascinating) research, it will not let you catch your breath as you reel from one drama straight into another. This is a story which includes god-like characters from every pantheon you can name (and probably many you can't!). It is appropriate to compare this novel to a roller coaster because it takes you in so many directions and at breath-taking speed. I love this book!

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Confidence tricksters in an evocative world 

Scott Lynch succeeds in defining one of the hardest areas of Fantasy; he vividly evokes the atmosphere of his imagined world. Camorra is equally as much of a character in this novel as Locke, Jean or the Grey King.

5 stars

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