Here's what we've been reading at the Speculative Faction recently.
Dyer Street Punk Witches
In the darkest corners of Ordshaw, in its shadowy underbelly, we meet the criminals who have used the city's supernatural energy for their own purposes. Or, those who were naive enough to allow their powers to be used to such violent ends. Such outcomes always have consequences, as the Dyer Street witches dicover to their cost.
Menace pervades the events of this story, like a predator stalking its prey. You don't know when it will strike, or how. All you know, with any certainty, is that it will strike. I loved this story for that reason.
And don't forget to collect Aaron Wise's trading card to add to your collection. Visit other blogs to find more.
This is an urban fantasy for a bleak and realistic twenty-first century.
After a two year, "writer's block" enforced sabbatical, Jasper Fforde is back and in brilliant form. He's lost none of his wit, inventiveness and utterly ridiculous situations that pepper a story which had me unable to put the book down. You giggle, you turn pages with urgency.
There's a Lewis Carrol quality to Fforde's writing now. It has its own internal logic, where each plot brick relies on those beneath/before it, to make sense of the craziness. Yes, it can be surreal at times but then you find yourself accepting the premise after a while. Then that premise morphs into another that's even weirder. It's clever, it's brilliant.
There is no one like Jasper Fforde. What a mind that guy must have! Click the link below to read the full review. Then go buy the book!
Why Odin Drinks
Satire isn't easy to write. Bjørn Larsson manages it - with style. This is a funny story with lots of laughs along the way. I giggled out loud at times (and I'm miserable and old, I don't do that usually). But this is a creation story which subverts and parodies what it means to be a god - and a human. Funny how similar the two are.
It's a light-hearted, sardonic romp through the story of creation from the perspective of the Norse pantheon. The world is created more by accident than design. (After all, who in their right mind would deliberately create mosquitoes and celery?)
But the satire in this story gives you pause too. It makes you think - the ending especially with what is currently happening in the world. It isn't just funny, it's clever with it. It's Jonathan Swift for the modern age.
Nectar for the God
Nectar for the God is the second novel in Patrick Samphire's Mennik Thorn series - and it's even better than the first! I loved this book, a lot!
Mennik is not your conventional hero in many ways, apart from being a Good Guy. His heart is in the right place, he tries to help people too. But being surrounded by criminals, powerful mages and the occasional crazy god, he tends to suffer a lot. For me, it's Mennik's voice that engages me most. His wry and sardonic humour, the lightness of touch. It's distinctive and leaves me with a smile on my face.
It's also a wonderful story, filled with great action sequences but also moments of sadness. It's dark but not unnecessarily violent. The world building is vivid, credible. Samphire has used his second story to expand on its characters and has created a world you want to explore more and more.
Click the link to read my review of this brilliant book! Highly recommended!
Given to Darkness
The second part of the Ikiri series picks up where the first book ended and loses none of its pervasive menace - in fact it increases it. The sense of unease is palpable in each chapter as it ratchets up the threats facing our rag-tag heroes. It's the sounds in the distance, the shadows in the corners of the room, the look from the mysterious man in the hotel. It's all these things.
What I love about the Ikiri stories is how they don't fit into traditional genres and they avoid the usual tropes. Phil Williams' is usually considered a writer of urban fantasy with his Ordshaw novels - this series defies all that. I'd go so far as to say there are elements of science fiction here. But this series is different and original and I want to see more ground-breaking stuff like this.
So if you like the unconventional and enjoy pervasive menace in your stories, this is for you! I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read my full review by clicking on the link.
Kept from Cages
Phil Williams extends his reach with the strange and bizarre things that happen in his stories, going beyond Ordshaw to arrive in Norway, Louisiana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite the distances travelled, the pace of the story never lets up. This is just as thrilling, violent and unpredictable as his other novels. Perhaps more so.
The plot is a huge jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are owned by very different people across the globe. Mystery unfolds slowly, right up to the final page, keeping you guessing throughout.
The characters are Phil's strength again, often eccentric, oddly sympathetic or downright villainous. This is such a skillful story, woven together tightly so its pace is relentless. And don't you just love that cover? So fitting!
I loved it. I'm sure you will too.
Duckett & Dyer
In my review I label this book as a 'tonic'. It genuinely lifted my spirits. I giggled all the way through it.
Writing humour isn't easy. You've only got to read some of the reviews on Amazon to see that. You can't make everyone laugh. But this story works because of the main characters and their relationship, it's pure Abbott and Costello.
The multi-verse they inhabit, is pure Lewis Carroll. I cannot give this book a better pedigree than those two references. I recommend this book if you want a fun read and a happiness tonic!
Click the link below to read the review.
This is a wonderful collection of short stories provoked from a global pandemic. So don't expect sunbeams and unicorns. Instead, you will encounter stories with heart, that make you think and stir your soul. Global events should do that, shouldn't they? They're superbly written to craft an impact that will move you.
Short stories are not easy to write either, producing that impact in a few hundred words takes skill. These folk have it abundance.
The anthology doesn't take long to read but you'll spend a lot longer thinking about what it had to say about our race and our world.
Click the link below to read the review.
Choir of the Damned
The completion of a trilogy needs impetus. The energy to not just sustain the story but to build it even greater heights of threat and tension. In the case of The Raincatcher's Ballad trilogy, each story is filled with visceral violence, roller coaster like excitement and epic threats. How do you top all that in the final novel?
Steven Mckinnon broadens the story to include his entire world and we finally get to discover Serena's background and the epic dangers it presents our heroes.
For me, this is a masterclass in trilogy writing. This book tackles so many threats, so much can go wrong for Serena, Gallows and Damien. You won't stop reading till the last paragraph. Read my review and find out why.
The Maleficent Seven
I loved Cameron Johnston's earlier stories; The Traitor God and the The God of Broken Things (go and read them if they're not familiar. They are wonderful). However, The Maleficent Seven shows how he's developed as an author because this is an epic tale filled with Shakespearn levels of villainy and treachery.
It would have been so easy to get this concept wrong. To write a blood and guts action story without an ethical compass. This is a tale told with skill and a wry humour, with a sharp and efficient edge that matches an Orc's blade.
The best books leave you wanting more. I'm already impatient for the follow up! My review tells you more about my reasons, read it.
We Men of Ash and Shadow
I read this book in two days. I didn't want to stop because of the quality of storytelling. Yes, it's an exciting tale but Holly Tinsley has done more than that. She's created a dynamic between her two protagonists which sets the pages alight. John Vanguard and Tarryn Leersac are perfect grimdark characters. To describe them as merely dark doesn't scratch the surface of these men.
World building is excellent, the city of D'Orsee is a nightmare realm. The secondary characters are always vivid and varied, they reflect the complexities of the two protagonists perfectly.
My review tells you more about the book. But get a copy and read it. Holly Tinsley is going to be a big name in grimdark fantasy. Just wait and see!
Travis Riddle's second installment of his Houndstooth saga confirms my opinion that he is the most original fantasy writer in the genre. If anything, this story goes further in ripping up the traditional tropes and I recognise this may not be to everyone's liking. But this is a story full of heart. It endears you to its eccentric characters while its narrative constantly surprises you.
I admit that it took a while to process this novel. I needed time to reflect on the author's choices because Travis does things differently. He has his heroes discuss their campaign strategy in a restaurant eating wasp balls for goodness sake! Yet, at the end, I had this huge lump in my throat, such is the emotional pull of his characters.
Mother Pig is a story which will challenge and thrill you. Get it!
I loved this story for two reasons. Its main character engages you from the first page and doesn't let go of you until the last. Edda is a woman of great courage and resilience but she suffers in so many ways the reader becomes her cheer leader. The second reason is the immersive world-building of Viking culture. Forget what you thought you learned at school!
Yes, there are Vikings with superpowers but the historical context, the rich complexity of the characters make this a story which goes beyond such a simple premise. It leaves you emotionally drained, yet excited by the intensity and visceral detail of the battles. But always, at its core, the story of one woman determined to find justice.
I cannot recommend this story enough. Click the link to read more.
The Lost War
Justin Lee Anderson has reached the SPFBO6 final with this book and it's not surprising why. It is a formidable piece of writing. It is far more than a low fantasy adventure yarn, greater than the sum of its engaging characters and detailed world building.
This is a story with intelligence and depth. It makes you think.
I was hooked from the opening page and enjoyed everything from that point onwards. There is so much about this world which resonates with our own that gave this story real resonance. You see, at it's core, is a story about courage and redemption against all the odds and the endless battle against prejudice.
You need to get this book!
The Great Restoration
William Ray has this ability to blend genres like no one else I've read. He's like a vintner, combining different grapes to produce a vintage wine. I've recently reviewed his first book, Gedlund which blended fantasy and war together. This story brings fantasy into a world of Victorian detective novels. The Great Restoration has more than a hint of Wilkie Collins about it.
The story's protagonist is one of my favourite characters from Gedlund, making me like it from the start. Lots of unexpected twists and turns but the world building, oh the world building!! This is a story which is highly sophisticated in its telling and in its construction. The blending of the two genres, the ultimate in refinement.
Travis Riddle is currently the most original fantasy writer in the genre. I said in my review of his earlier book, Spit and Song, that he was revolutionary. Flesh Eater proves it and has injected real innovation into the fantasy genre.
Don't let the title mislead you, this isn't some cheap horror story, far from it. This story is filled with endearing and eccentric characters, exciting spider races (who knew they raced?), bizarre locations in a world that's like nothing you will have imagined.
I cannot recommend this book enough! Get it. Read it!
A fantasy story which is as much about History as it is magic and monsters! It's why I enjoyed this book so much. It's a war story with a vivid and brutal portrayal of soldiers' lives. Yet one in which these soldiers battle goblins, the undead and magical beings with only guns and bayonets!
What this story does so well is to capture the pointlessness of war and how it's wrapped up in the trappings of heroism and patriotism. No one knows why they're fighting other than it's the only way to stay alive. It's a story which transcends traditional fantasy stories involving soldiers and battle. The characters, the world building, the horror - it's all here!
The Thief Who Spat in Luck's Good Eye
My love of Mike McClung's work continues! The continuing saga of Amra and Holgren's adventures develop along lines similar to Odysseus in this book, the gods intervene now!
It's a brave writer who departs from a tried and tested setting to drop their characters into a different landscape, to face very different challenges. For me it proves the integrity of a writer, there is nothing formulaeic here! Looking at some of the others reviews, I don't think people get that.
I read this book even quicker than the first, I couldn't put it down because the story is relentless, the evil cruelty of the antagonists equally so! I'm certainly planning to continue with this series!
The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble's Braids
I can always tell when I’m reading a truly great book; it’s when I can’t stop thinking about it. There is a moment of excitement as you pick it up, the joy of immersing yourself in the author’s story once again. The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung is such a book.
Mike McClung won the first SPFBO competition in 2015 with this book, unsurprisingly. So I'm late to the party with this one. My review doesn't attempt to rate it as such for this reason, instead I've written about what makes it so great. I rate it as a masterclass in fantasy writing. You'll need to read the review to see why.
I can tell you now, I've alreadt bought Book 2 and shoved the rest of my TBR back to make space for it. Yes, Book 1 of the series is that good!
In his final novel in his trilogy, Simon Kewin brings his high-concept, thrilling adventure to a nail-biting end. As the danger of a galaxy-wide Armageddon appears to become more and more likely, we never lose sight of the human qualities that have caused it - and may offer the rescue solution by the end too.
The scale of this story is breathtaking. The pace is relentless. In this respect it is a classic space opera. But this story has characters who are given opportunities to shine, for us to understand them and the events which have shaped them into what they have become - for good and for for bad. This is what I enjoyed so much. We also get to see the darker side of what happens when Evil is let loose - there are ethical issues explored in the story too. It's what makes it such an intelligent read.
I loved this trilogy so much! I cannot recommend it highly enough!
In his second book in the series, Simon Kewin proves why I have labelled him the next Arthur C Clarke.
This is another high-concept science fiction story which stretches across galaxies and millennia. Yet at its heart is a story about people and their attempt to restrain evil. Humanity comes in different forms in this story, not least in the enigmatic servants to a dead race who undergo their own search to discover what is right and wrong - and how best to react to it. Sacrifice features in a big way in this story.
But at the same time, this is an exciting read, full of twists and turns and fascinating characters. I strongly recommend this to all lovers of intelligent, high-concept science fiction, especially those who agree with me, that Arthur C Clarke was the instigator of this level of speculative fiction.
You know the old cliché about exciting books being a ‘roller coaster ride’? ‘Idols Fall’ would be the scariest ride ever and would probably fall foul of every health and safety regulation.
The conclusion of any trilogy has to be an exciting read, one that tops everything that has gone before. Wow! This story does that and goes even further! It's not just the challenges faced by Agnes Manteo and her Syraeic companions, now the whole world is falling apart. This story broadens out from the previous two to include all the Easter eggs hidden in the previous two books. It is a perfect example to illustrate the craft of writing a trilogy, with stylish storytelling and confident writing at its pulse-racing heart.
Shadow of a Dead God
Patrick Samphire introduced his book to me as Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series set in an epic fantasy world. It's an apt comparison. There are murders to be investigated, the hero's lack of magical potency compared to his enemies means he suffers accordingly. Equally as important in this comparison, the story is filled with wry humour that makes this book so enjoyable. I read it with a permanent smile on my face.
It's also an entrant into SPFBO6 and I sincerely hope it does well. It should, because it's characters are engaging, the story is exhilerating as problems pile up for the nicest, friendliest protagonist you'll ever meet in fantasy fiction. Nik Thorn is such a nice guy. Trouble is, no one else agrees.
I think this is a real "feel good" story, it speeds along at a reckless pace so there's never a point to put the book down, I read it in 4 days! And I loved every minute. I strongly recommend it. It will really lift your mood!
A Voice That Thunders
Cully Mack has written an ambitious novel, as a debut author it has an epic quality in terms of its premise and world building. Characters are clear and well defined in the majority of cases.
There's exciting use of magic, in elemental form, which brings its own dangers. We have dubious, malevolent gods to deal with as well as an on-going romance.
There are exciting moments of conflict and deceit in different forms. I have a couple of issues with the story which affected my enjoyment though, hence the subtraction of 1 star I'm afraid.
After the Sky
Milo James Fowler sets his story in a dystopian, futuristic world ravaged by nuclear and biological warfare. The only people who remain have been locked away in bunkers but when the All Clear sounds, they emerge as different people. They have super powers.
As a long time fan of X-Men there are elements of this story which reminds me of the futuristic Sentinel storyline. There are even similar powers. This is a similiar story in the way it pursues human weaknesses - and their strengths.
It's a story told from multiple points of view, in first person narrative so it does involve some overlapping of the narrative. I'd have liked fewer occasions where characters pursue rhetorical internal monologues too. But this is a action-packed story with lots to enjoy about it.
Paternus: War of Gods
Whatever you thought Epic Fiction meant, be prepared to rethink that definition. This is Mega-Epic Fantasy. It covers worlds, dimension and Time. It has a cast of characters in their hundreds. Yet it never feels like you're in some lumbering juggernaut focused only on reaching the inevitable climax. This is a story about people doing what must be done to save others. It's an epic story with sacrifice and love at its centre.
It's also so exciting you're left unable to find a point to put the book down. I read the final 25% in one afternoon/evening. (And got in trouble for not helping to get tea. So thanks, Dyrk!)
It's a story full of vivid, engaging heroes and terrible, awful villains. It's a story evolved out of so much research it feels like it should be real. It's complex in its storytelling and beautifully, evocatively written. And during its final pages, I cried. I did that in Book 2. This time, I did it more.
You must read this book. Like me, you won't be able to put it down. Like me, you won't want it to end either. Read the review. Then get the book.
This is epic science fiction! It spans the galaxy. It addresses huge concepts, both scientific and ethical. It establishes space is not 'the final frontier', there is more to it than we understand. And of course, there are people whose religious doctrines tell them to repress and reject these concepts. That's why the story opens with global genocide.
But for all the huge concepts, this is a story about people. It addresses love and friendship, survival against all odds. What's different too? These 'human' qualities can be applied to forms of technology too. Sentient spacecraft, not a new idea, but here explored from the point of view of the same faults, lack of reliability and enigmatic answers as any human being.
This is a wonderful story that will stay with me for a long time. In the way the stories of Arthur C Clarke did when I was younger. My review explains!
This is a warm, exciting and highly imaginative story, well worth 5 stars!
This story is a world away from Phil William's Ordshaw series. It is set in a post-apocolyptic world, in a towering shantytown of a city where survival is an everyday battle. Into this world comes Deni, who possesses knowledge which could bring about change but the whole of society is desperate to stop her. Until she meets Tyler, a young man who foolishly believes people can be good.
This story shows the diversity of Phil Williams' as a writer. This city is nothing like Ordshaw. What is similar is his ability to create characters who are vivid and real and who are utterly engaging. He also knows how to keep a story racing along without ever taking the foot off the pedal. I read this in 3 days! Every chapter leaves you desperate to discover how Deni and Tyler will escape each threat and how they're ever going to win against such heavy odds.
This is a nail-biting, thrill-a-minute ride and worth all 5 stars!
Simon Debovar has settled into a life of self-imposed exile from the stinking, selfish morass of humanity. Content that his daily highlights will include hazelnut coffee, a long bath and the occasional jar of olives, his life is completely upturned by the discovery that his ornate living room carpet is the deciding factor in a bet between God and Satan. When mysteriously well-timed carpet thieves deprive him of the crucial heirloom, Simon is forced to leave his hermit's existence behind for a world of angels, demons, witches and immortals. And then it gets complicated.
Defined by some as another Neil Gaimen, Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt, Justin Lee Anderson is very much his own man. His style is unique - and it is very, very funny. It's difficult to sustain humour throughout a novel but Mr Anderson had me giggling from start to end.
At the same time, this story is exciting. The pace never lets up, the plot twists with the speed and unpredictability of a hyeractive boa constrictor. I strongly recommend this book. A hilarious, giggle-provoking 5 stars.
Tales of Ioth
Dave Woolliscroft does it again! Another collection of short stories - this time with a novella - that bring his world vividly to life.
Tales of Ioth bridges his second novel in the Wildfire Cycle, Ioth City of Light, with the third in the series. It's such an inventive concept. It allows characters to develop naturally as the series develops. It also enables him to broaden the world in which they live. In this anthology we get to find out a lot more about the Wild Continent which, until now, has been referenced only by a couple of characters.
It's an intensely emotional collection of stories too, the novella especially. The characters who have suffered after the dramatic events in Ioth are still reeling yet there is no time to deal with their grief. Stopping the threat which threatens to engulf the world is more important.
Tales of Ioth brings such a diverse range of stories, there is humour and tragedy. There is a story told which speaks to native cultures. It is testament to the high quality of writing of DP Woolliscroft. You need to get this book!
Spit and Song
I cannot recommend this book enough if you want to read something which is different to the run-of-the-mill fantasy story. Travis Riddle is a breaker of moulds, an inventively revolutionary writer.
Spit and Song is a buddy story but with two protagonists who are not human. With that premise comes a host of challenges for any writer - and reader too. You need to accept something with that acknowledgement. The story is slow to get going - it has to be like that because you are immersed in such a different world as you are introduced to its characters. You cannot rush this story because you'd miss so much of the the author's inventiveness.
Justine Bergman at Fantasy Book Critic, whose opinion I rate very highly indeed, said this about another of Riddle's books, ‘We need more of this. Fantasy isn’t just magic, battles et al. It’s about the newness of things. About the strange things you’ll never get to see, to feel. To taste and to read.’ She's right. Enjoy the ground-breaking joy of this book.
It gets 5 stars for its clever invention and for being a fresh breath of air.
I read this book as part of SPFBO5. It is one of the 10 finalists.
Oh how I love this book. I couldn’t put it down but at the same time I made sure I didn’t rush through it because I wanted to savour it. It is the equivalent of eating a wonderful pizza with a great Montepulciano in an Italian restaurant on a warm summer night. Yes, it is that good!
In my blog I’ve written about the need for engaging characters to engage the audience and this book (along with two others mentioned here on the site) was the cause of the post. This book is an object lesson in engaging characters – it has so many of them. Levi Jacobs generates them with such ease.
I've written in my blog about the importance of engaging your audience by developing engaging characters, you can read it here. This book (and the previous two from SPFBO) are what provoked that post.
This is my favourite book of 2020 (so far). Read it! Read it!!
The success of this story comes from its originality and vivid portrayal of life for two orphan girls in medieval Japan – at least a fantastical version of that country. I quickly became fascinated with not just the plight of Taka and Mishi, but by the culture in which they lived. The world created by Virginia McClain is so utterly realistic. Beautiful. Violent. Unfair.
The author lived in Japan for some years and her love for the country and understanding of its distinctive culture is apparent in every aspect of the story. I read this book as part of SPFBO5 and there are other stories with a very similar setting in the 10 finalists. For me, this is the superior one. It doesn't overwhelm with cultural terminology and language as some did. It is accessible. It keeps you engaged.
This is a stunning 5 star story. I strongly recommend it.
Oh how I loved this book! I read it in two days! Couldn’t put it down! It is a combination of ‘murder mystery’, political thriller and a magic/demon fantasy tale. That’s what I loved most – how it wove these 3 components together and never allowed one to dominate. Such clever plot craft!
I strongly recommend this book. I loved its originality, its engaging characters and how threat levels just keep rising without it ever appearing to be contrived.
This is a definite 5 star book! I read it as part of SPFBO5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
Blackwing - Ed McDonald
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.
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.