The story behind The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

The Seeker is the first in a series set in the 1650s London of Oliver Cromwell and featuring Damian Seeker, an army officer in the intelligence services of the Protectorate. Seeker operates in a London buzzing with coffee houses, illicit newspapers, radical lawyers and royalist agents. When one of Cromwell’s favoured officers is murdered in Whitehall Palace, Seeker finds himself delving in to the world of the City, and the secrets of a diverse selection of characters – a wealthy merchant, an impoverished lawyer, a Dutch scholar, a Scottish minister, an itinerant peddler and the dead man’s Royalist widow amongst others – who encounter each other in a coffee house run by an old parliamentary soldier and his niece. The story takes Seeker from the vibrant heart of the city, via the university town of Oxford to the court of the Lord Protector himself, and in the course of the story, it is revealed that Seeker has a few secrets of his own.

The Seeker, like my Alexander Seaton series of books, was inspired primarily by place. The Seaton books, set mainly on the north-east coast of Scotland and in Ireland in the 1620s and 30s were inspired by places I knew well, had long been intrigued by, and whose history, architectural remains and landscapes I had come to love.

However, from an early, stage in our relationship my editor had been pressing me to consider sending Alexander Seaton to London. I had manfully resisted – I had no connection to London or history with the city. I knew little enough about the life of the 21st century metropolis, never mind that of the 17th. Eventually, in a fairly disgruntled manner, I agreed to consider it, but although there were plenty of reasons for someone like Alexander Seaton – a failed minister turned University teacher who does a lot of sleuthing – to go to London in the 1640s, I found he was even more opposed to the idea than I had been: he simply wouldn’t go.

I thought my publisher and I had reached a parting of the ways, but at about the same time, I noticed that BB4 was airing a documentary of seventeenth century London. It was presented by the very engaging Dan Cruickshank, and I was soon hooked. And then he came to the emergence of the London coffee house in the 1650s and I felt the old familiar buzz of excitement that told me there was a story here. I went away and started reading up on 1650s London, Oliver Cromwell’s London, and the new phenomenon of the coffee house in particular. The coffee house was an amazingly egalitarian institution where individuals from all walks of life, strangers or friends, would meet to drink coffee, smoke, and talk, and they talked of anything – trade, politics, gossip, sedition. Concurrent to this was the rise of the newssheet or news book – the fore-runners of our newspapers, and it was in the coffee house that people read and exchanged the news. The London of Oliver Cromwell was obsessed with news, absolutely buzzing with rumour, gossip and intrigue, and I thought a coffee house would make the perfect setting for an ensemble cast of characters to come together. Murder would, of course, ensue.

            I didn’t bother getting in touch with my editor about this – I assumed I’d been tacitly dropped – but I carried on working away at my idea. Then, a week or so before Christmas 2012 she called me and said, ‘How’s the book coming on?’ I only just managed to stop myself saying, ‘What book?’ Instead, I told her my idea, about the coffee house, the cast of characters, the murderer. She liked it very much. Then she said, ‘Of course, you’ll need to think carefully about the detective character.’ Again, I managed to stop myself saying ‘What detective character?’ I had planned that the identity of the killer would just emerge in the course of the story, and had had no thought of a detective character at all. So, at the end of the phone call, I pulled on my wellies and hauled the dog to the woods, racking my brains about what on earth I was going to do about it. It was a typically Highland gloomy, drizzly December day. After about fifteen minutes, we came to a point in the woods where the path splits in two directions, on one side disappearing between a tangle of whin bushes, and in my mind’s eye, through the gloom, I saw a figure emerge from the bushes and present himself to me. He was very tall and strongly built, and was wearing a helmet, boots and a long black cloak – something like a mixture of Darth Vader and Brix, Sarah Lund’s boss from The Killing – and I knew his name was Damian Seeker. Now, I was perfectly aware that I was not seeing this in reality, but the picture came to me very clearly in my mind, and I knew I had my detective character.

            The Seeker is quite different from the Alexander Seaton books in several ways other than simply location. The Seaton books are all written in the first person, from Alexander’s viewpoint, whereas the Seeker books are 3rd person, and show several viewpoints. Alexander is prone to self-examination, angst if you like, and is very driven by religious belief or doubt. Damian Seeker doesn’t do ‘angst’, and he certainly doesn’t do religion. Seeker takes his orders from John Thurloe, Secretary of State and Spymaster General of the Intelligence services of the Cromwellian Protectorate. He is a northerner, a Yorkshireman, utterly loyal to Cromwell, unimpressed by any sort of pretension, and brutal when he has to be. He has, of course, a sensitive side, but one that few get to see. After reading an early draft of the book, my editor and agent both agreed on one thing, they loved him, and wanted a lot more of Damian Seeker in the book. I obliged, but I still haven’t had the heart to tell either of them that he wasn’t part of the initial plan at all.


S.G. MacLean
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REVIEW : Path of Gods by Snorri Kristjansson

 

One of the most anticipated books of the year is here and it is a blast! Final part of Snorri Kristjansson's strange fantasy trilogy set around Norse history and mythology was always going to be good. When you build your story on rollercoaster rides such as "Blood Will Follow" and "Swords of Good Men" even a rethread of familiar ground would be an enjoyable experience but in "Path of Gods" Kristjansson has really upped the ante.

Story of the "Path of Gods" finds Audun and Ulfar driven by common goal. Our immortal couple are the only one who can stop the march of White Christ alliance that threatens the destruction on the North. They're led by King Olav Tryggvasson, a self-appointed leader and their arch-nemesis, who is having plenty of trouble on his own. Keeping peace during the times of war is never going to be easy and there're chancers everywhere just waiting to depose him. King Olav is truly horrific creature, succumbing to doing the most heinous acts imaginable to spread his religion. Unbeknownst to other, an old, forgotten evil is starting to stir. Some very familiar names from the Norse Pantheon make a welcome appearance.

Kristjansson's "Path of Gods" feels like fireworks going on everywhere at the same time. The entire series has been a gargantuan feat of imagination and "Path of Gods" provides a worthy final stop filled with heart-warming revels and blood curdling showdowns. It is completely bonkers, slightly strange, and such great fun. If you haven't done it by now, do yourself a favour and get the entire trilogy - it's truly unique.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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REVIEW : Stallo by Stefan Spjut

 

Considering the tremendous success of John Ajvide Lindqvist's "Let Me In", it is something of a wonder that we're not seeing more Scandinavian supernatural thrillers on our bulging bookshelves filled with translated titles. Thinking about it, there's only been a handful of such tiles published in recent history, coming from either from those reliable stalwarts of foreign fiction Pushkin Press and MacLehose, and they've all been invariably great. Seems like those cold Scandinavian nights offer plenty to inspire authors willing to step away from the standard Scandinavian crime literature, especially those willing to explore darker and stranger recesses of human condition as imbued by myth and tradition. Stefan Spjut's atmospheric "Stallo" is a welcome addition to this sadly understated sub-genre and it is instantly an appealing read.

Nothing sets the tone for what follows better than this opening:

"The worm glued to the tarmac is as long as a snake. No, longer. It reaches all the way to the grass verge beside the main door. The boy's eyes follow the slimy ribbon and notice that it stretches across the ditch and curls into the belly of a grey animal. Its eyes are black glass and one paw has stiffened in a wave."

The story continues to revolve around the strange and unexplained phenomena. Ever since a boy disappeared in the woods back in 1978, him mother has claimed that he was abducted by a giant. Of course, no one believed her even when it transpired that a year ago, a wildlife photographer captured another similarly bizarre phenomena on film.

Back in present day, Susso Myren is updating her web page. She's one of those conspiracy theorists who believe in all sorts of dodgy stories including the Yeti and the Big Foot. His father, the wildlife photographer who 25 years before took that bizarre photo, has instilled in her a deep love for photography so when an old woman recount a tale of a strange creature that observers her house for hours on end, Susso sees an opportunity for a story of a lifetime. Armed with a camera, her ex-boyfriend Torbjörn and her mother Gudrun she embarks on an adventure far stranger and perilous than could have possible imagined.

The quote from Karl Ove Knausgård, which graces the cover page, is a good indication about what sort of a book "Stallo" is. Despite its magical and supernatural elements, it is a glacially slow tale that unfolds in layers and is best enjoyed when read slowly. This is my first encounter with Stefan Spjut's writing so I don't know whether this is due to the excellence of translation or just plain old good storytelling, but I found "Stallo" to be beautifully written with plenty of depth that keeps you guessing even when you think you've understood it all. As is often the case with Scandinavian literature, "Stallo" positively destroys the boundaries between genres and is a book that isn't limited by mere limitations of any particular genre. It's serious enough to be enjoyed by those looking for something more mainstream while strange enough to attract those looking for intelligent fantasy fare. "Stallo" is a menacing, atmospheric book that will occupy your thoughts for days. More of the same, please.


Review copy provided by Faber Books.
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The story behind Silent Running by Pauline Rowson


Win an ebook of Pauline Rowson's new crime novel Silent Running - Severn House Publishers are giving away 5 FREE ebooks of Silent Running - Click to enter


How a broken down lift inspired Silent Running the first in an explosive new marine crime series by Pauline Rowson featuring former Marine Commando, Art Marvik

The idea for Silent Running first came to me when I stepped inside a lift in a high-rise building in London, which also happened to be a club for service personnel and veterans (my husband being a former RAF Police Officer.) I wondered what would happen if the lift got stuck and if I was in it with one other person, a man I didn’t know. I dislike lifts and avoid them if I possibly can and I thought of a woman in this lift alone with a man she’d never met before. What would have enticed her into that lift if she was afraid of them? Who was the man with her? Did she know him? What would they speak about while waiting to be freed? Why would she invite him back to her room after they’d been released? And why would he kill her? The rest of the plot sprang from there.

But I needed a new hero to solve this case rather than my flawed and rugged detective, DI Andy Horton. I wanted a character who was not bound by the official rules of the law but who was nevertheless on the right side of it. I like heroes so my new character definitely had to be that and as I’m a sucker for adventure stories and mystery there was no doubt that this was what Silent Running had to be. It also had to have the hallmarks of my brand – a troubled hero, the sea and lots of action. So already the stage was set, enter former Royal Marine Commando, Special Boat Services Officer Art Marvik newly out of the marines. Why did I pick a serviceman? Well, everyone knows the marines are tough, and those in the Special Boat Services are an elite force, highly trained, fearless, intelligent and supremely fit. He fitted the bill perfectly.

Every character has to have a back story, they don’t spring afresh on the page. DI Andy Horton tries to unravel the mystery surrounding his mother’s disappearance when he was ten. Marvik has dismissed his parents’ death on a dive while undertaking one of their many marine archaeological expeditions as an accident, but was it? He too like Horton was abandoned by his parents but whereas Horton was consigned to children’s homes and foster homes in inner city Portsmouth, Marvik was sent to an elite and expensive boarding school at the age of eleven. He grew up feeling his parents loved their quest for aquatic treasures more than they loved their son. After their death when he was seventeen he joined the marines at eighteen and put his parents, their life and their wealth, behind him. Langton, the psychiatrist who treated him after a head injury sustained in combat, said Marvik was running away from his emotions, maybe he was, but as far as he was concerned he would continue running, the past was the past, except he soon finds it has a nasty habit of catching up with you.

But, of course, it’s not all roses in the garden for Marvik. Injuries inflicted while in combat have finally forced him to leave the marines. He thought he’d be able to adjust but his first job as a private maritime security operative goes very wrong when the luxury motor cruiser he was detailed to guard, gets attacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean, and Marvik finds himself with a bullet in his shoulder and the boat’s owner dead. He’d failed on his first mission in civilian life, and Silent Running opens with him reeling from it.

Marvik is recovering in a remote cottage on the Isle of Wight uncertain of the future. Then a former marine colleague, Special Services Communications Officer, Shaun Strathen, renews Marvik’s acquaintance and asks for his help to locate a missing research scientist. Strathen has also been injured in combat and invalided out of the marines. He’s set himself up as a specialist security consultant and with a prosthetic leg seems to have adjusted to life better than Marvik. Failing to locate the missing research scientist, Marvik returns on his motorboat to his rented cottage to find he has a visitor, a former girlfriend and a navy nurse, Charlotte Churley, who insists she’s being followed. Marvik is ready to dismiss this as a symptom of overwork until Charlotte goes missing. Then Marvik finds himself being used as bait to catch a killer before he can kill again, this time it will be Charlotte.

Marvik’s mission takes him along the South Coast of England to marinas and bays, a landscape familiar to me and one that is never without incident and atmosphere. In a race against time, Marvik is sucked into a dangerous assignment and a web of deceit that will need all his skills, and those of Strathen, to get to the truth. Does he succeed? Well I’ll leave you to find out but let’s just say I’m working on the second in the Art Marvik series, which I hope will be published in 2016.

Silent Running is published by Severn House in hardcover in the UK on 30 March 2015 and in the USA on 1 July 2015 when it will also be published as an ebook.


Pauline Rowson
Pauline Rowson is the author of the DI Andy Horton Marine Mystery Series of which there are currently eleven. Number 12 in the Horton series, Fatal Catch, will be published in September 2015. She is also the author of two standalone crime novels, In Cold Daylight and In For The Kill. You can follow Pauline Rowson on Twitter or visit her website at www.rowmark.co.uk.
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The story behind The Knight by Pierre Pevel

"The Knight" was born of a project I had been nurturing for a long time: writing a historical saga. Or rather, a pseudo-historical saga, since I wanted to move away from real history in order to invent a world of my own. But the models I had in mind were several great series of historical novels, some of which may not be well-known outside of France: The Accursed Kings (Maurice Druon) or Fortunes of France (Robert Merle). But also North and South (John Jakes), for example. In short, I wanted to recount a troubled ‘historical’ period through the destinies of several characters.

Initially, I intended to write short novels that, in France, would be released directly in mass-market paperback. I planned to write two or three per year. But as I kept writing, it seemed to Stéphane Marsan, my French publisher, that my project was growing in scale and that the short novel format was no longer the most appropriate. Stéphane felt that my project deserved a format commensurate with its scope. He persuaded me of this and I found myself writing a big book . . . which would even become the biggest I had ever written! (Although I eventually broke my record with the sequel: L’Héritier.)

"The Knight" represents a lot of labour and its delivery was at times difficult. But I don’t regret it and I must confess I’m fairly happy with the result. The book is selling well in France and I hope it will be well-received in Britain because I have plenty more stories to tell. The Knight is merely the beginning. With L’Héritier (The Heir, released in France in November 2014), I’ve completed a first duology set in this universe, but I’m already thinking about a stand-alone volume and a trilogy that will bring new characters into play. So I know I’m far from being finished with the High Kingdom. Long may it live!


Pierre Pevel
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The story behind The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano QA

We're rather excited about the publication of The Seventh Miss Hatfield! What can you tell us about it?

I’m super excited about it too!

The Seventh Miss Hatfield explores a series of firsts--first love, first loss, and the first realization that memories are fragile.

When a drop from the Fountain of Youth turns 11 year-old Cynthia immortal, she is forced to take on a new identity as Miss Rebecca Hatfield—the seventh Miss Hatfield to be exact. Sent on a mission to time travel back to 1904 to retrieve a secret painting, Rebecca uncovers more than what she bargains for: the turn of the century transitioning into the modern world, a man terrified of death, and a love that will leave her reeling.

Where the idea came from and what can you tell us about your writing process?

Even before I came up with the story, I came up with the character of Henley. After Henley, I dreamed up Miss Hatfield. I fell in love with these characters and built a story around them.

The concept of the story was largely inspired by my curiosity with why we as humans are always so equally fascinated and frightened by death. One interesting way to examine mortality is to write a story about immortality, and explore how the characters deal with such issues as identity, love, and loss. These are among the central issues of all stories, but by introducing immortality into the mix, I was able to have fun seeing what changed, and conversely, what is unchanging in all of us. I hope that I created an enjoyable story, but left the reader something to think about when it is all over.

My writing process frequently involves me staring blankly at a wall. Every so often, I’ll jot a note down in a notebook I keep on my desk, but I really look like a procrastinating teenager. I try to think through the story and imagine it playing out, writing down notes for crucial parts or scenes I can imagine clearly. I then take these notes and try to formulate an outline, so I feel I’m not going into the writing process completely blind. Once I start writing, I almost never follow my outline. The story seems to write itself and I just follow along.

Without succumbing to spoilers, Rebecca is a very feisty girl and I've really enjoyed following her adventures. What can you tell us about her and how much do you resemble her? If you were in her position would you behaved differently?

I think there’s a part of me in every character I write. I find it’s almost unavoidable when I try to make characters as realistic as possible. Each one carries a bit of my hopes, beliefs, and flaws.

If I were Rebecca, I think the book would have turned out every differently. For one, in the beginning, if someone told me all of a sudden that I was immortal, I would have panicked a lot more. I’m also known for being much more gullible and easily strung along than she is. I have a feeling that Miss Hatfield would have definitely used that to her advantage.

I've been especially impressed by the setting of the book and the seamless transition between different eras. How do you get to create something like that? Have you done a lot of research?

I did do a lot of research, but it was very fun, so I could hardly call it work! The more I learned about the turn of the century, the more I was enthralled by it. To me, the time traveling, along with the immortality, was a vehicle to further examine what it means to lose your childhood, your family, and your friends—everything that roots you to a particular time and place. I also wanted to examine a few relationships on a closer level, including romantic relationships, and the father-son relationship. To do all this, it was necessary for me to use enough historical detail to set the scene, but not so much that the modern reader could not connect with the characters.

I found it fascinating that you've finished this novel at the age of seventeen. Personally, I think that it is a great achievement. But since then I've discovered that you've actually written a dystopian novel "All That Is Red" even before. What made you want to start writing in the first place? How does your working day looks like and what motivates you keep on writing?

I’ve always loved to write. Of course, when I was little, that used to be extremely short stories often accompanied by crayon drawings. Ever since I could remember, I told myself that one-day, I was going to write a novel.

Another thing you should know about me is that I’m an only child, and normally every summer my dad does what most parents of only children do—sign their kid up for summer camp so they don’t spend their summer on the couch. One summer, to escape summer camp, I told my parents that I was going to write a novel. I loved to write short stories, and I had always meant to write a novel someday, so I decided that that was as good a time as any. Of course, my dad said what any parent in their right mind would say: “Yeah, right.” I ended up parking myself right in the middle of the dining room table all summer to write the first draft of what would later become my first novel, All That is Red.

A typical work day for me includes getting home from school to work on homework, before trying to squeeze in a little writing before the end of the day. In the summer, like most students, I have more time. I spend most of it indoors writing, which explains why I seem to be the only person in California without a tan.

My motivation comes from the fact that I love what I do. Writing is a cathartic experience for me. I love being able to explore, through my writing, the experiences I have growing up. I hope I get to continue to write about what I think is important. As I get older, I think the subjects on which I write will change. I just want to keep doing it!

So how did you feel when you eventually signed contracts with Gollancz?

It’s always such an amazing feeling when you find people who believe in you and the story you have to tell. I’m especially fortunate to have signed with Gollancz with a fantastic editor and an equally stellar team.

Who were the authors who originally inspired you to write and what recent titles would you recommend to our readers?

Francesca Lia Block's I Was a Teenage Fairy is one of the first truly shocking books I remember reading. Being no older than 11, I had originally picked up the book because of the word "fairy" in the title, but I soon discovered it was more than just about a tiny mythical girl with wings. Instead it was a metaphor for a young girl's painful encounter with an uncaring adult world that used her for its own ends. I think it was the first book that made me start thinking about using writing as a vehicle to explore difficult emotions.

The Everafter by Amy Huntley is another book that fostered some growth in me. It's a YA book in which the protagonist is dead and has to piece together her life and the circumstances of her death, through glowing objects in the afterlife, which turn out to be all the objects she lost while she was alive. She realizes that using these lost objects, she can re-experience and sometimes change the outcome of certain events from her life. It was fascinating for me to experience the afterlife Huntley created for her character and the importance she places on past memories.

More recently, I’ve read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which I think ranks as one of the best books on writing and life that I’ve ever read. Lamott keeps a fun voice, while imparting such wisdom. There’s so much in the book that I agree with, but have never found quite the right words to express. Lucky for me, Lamott does it with grace. I highly recommend this book to anyone who writes, wants to write, or wants to get an inside view into writing.

To conclude, what can we expect in the next books?

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Seventh Miss Hatfield. It’s definitely exciting to be working with some of the same characters again. It’s like meeting old friends again. As for the plot, I can’t say much, but I think this one might even be more exciting than the first. There’s more in store for Rebecca than she had planned for!

Thank you for talking to us and good luck with "The Seventh Miss Hatfield"!

Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!


Anna Caltabiano
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REVIEW : Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock

Final installments of a series I like always fills me with mixed feelings. On one hand I'm desperately eager to find out what happens in the end while on the other hand I simply don't want the series to end. The thing is that ending of a series usually means saying farewell to its characters and the setting you've grown to love through previous books and entire years spent enjoying them. Tom Pollock's “Our Lady of the Streets” is a perfect case in point. Over the course of first two books Pollock has created one of the most inventive takes on an alternate London even written. Final part, "Our Lady of the Streets" is a series' swan song - it is even better book than both of its predecessors "The City's Son and “The Glass Republic”.

At this point I should probably mention that “Our Lady of the Streets” shouldn't be read before you're done with the first two books as the story continues directly. However, there's a significant departure in the way the story itself it told. While before Beth and Pen parts were mostly related separately here Pollock finally brings them both together. For the constant readers of the series this means that Pollock finally provided everything we were waiting for. Their friendship is simply a pleasure to read and with the Mater Viae, the Goddess of London causing mayhem on the streets of London, it is the only thing that can ultimately save them. Beth and Pen are not as you originally met them. They're changed by the events and their new found stable friendship is especially important for Beth who suddenly must up her game completely. She finally must discover what's behind her transformation and somehow find enough strength to stop Mater Viae. Pen on the other hand must finally face her inner demons.

However, the resolution of storylines is not all Pollock has set out to do here. As mad as it sounds he actually managed to further expand the London(s) he created. Even more surprisingly everything works together pretty well and once again I was completely stumped by his imagination. At times Pollock goes on to practically redesign London's landscape. It's mental. As it turns both magical London and London-Under-Mirror turn out to be a reflection of each other. After eventually finishing the book I found that I would be really sad it if all this carefully plotted worldbuilding went to waste. Pollock simply needs to return to this world and that's that. Until then there's the entire Skyscraper Throne Trilogy - a series of books which has just about redefined the way how Urban Fantasy should be written and which stands head and shoulders along the other great works such a Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Well done, Tom!


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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REVIEW : The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano

A lot has been said about the fact Anna Caltabiano has written The Seventh Miss Hatfield at tender age of 17 (it is her second novel already) but personally I don't think it's necessary to go on about the fact and underestimate young adults. If you look at the history of literature some of the finest classics have been produced by astonishingly young authors. Perhaps the main deference back then was that internet, mobiles and social networks were absent so young people had too much time on their hands but who really knows?

In any case, achievement or now, straight from the start it is definitely obvious that The Seventh Miss Hatfield is a product of modern age. The press release explicitly mentions the huge twitter following that Anna Caltabiano currently has and the novel itself is bursting at the seams with currently trendy cliches - there's time travelling, 15 year old heroine bored with life and mysterious stranger with a hit of trouble love on the horizon. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when some 50 pages in, Anna seemingly stopped with the onslaught of these predictable tropes and instead decided to change direction, opting out it only to create something which at times resembles a proper period drama.

And things started so obviously strange. Rebecca, a 15 year old American delivers a misplaced package to her next door neighbour and stays for a drink only to leave the place with an immortality. So in a turn of events she effectively becoming the next Miss Hatfield. As the events unfurl, Rebecca travels back in time to New York to steal a significant painting only to get stuck in an wealthy Beauford household. In fact it is this exact painting that holds the key to the story and without succumbing to too many spoilers, a fine story it is.

The pages flew by fast and while i can't say this was even nearly the best book I've ever read, I've really enjoyed it. Admittedly, there are some flaws that have to be mentioned: the language is at time forcedly descriptive and the story itself could do with a fewer cliches but all in all, I think Anna has done well. The Seventh Miss Hatfield is a short and sweet read which can only get better in subsequent installments. I think I would have liked it even more if there was a little less hype surrounding it so if you're living on an island without internet, mobiles and social networks, you're definitely in for a treat.


Order The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano here:

Review copy provided by Gollancz.

The story behind The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano

            The reasons authors write differ from author to author. Some find words fascinating and like the challenge of putting together whole ideas from scratch. Others find writing cathartic and a way to examine the real world from the safety of a temporary shelter.

Through my writing adventures, I’ve found both of these reasons, and many others, to be applicable to me at one point or other. Every story I’ve ever written seems to have had it’s own reasons it needed to be told. The reason I wrote The Seventh Miss Hatfield was the simplest reason of all—I had a story I wanted to tell. That was it. I was excited about my characters and wanted other people to meet them too. I wanted people to be able to experience time travel and immortality, to be able to feel the emotions that result from being forced to grow up too quickly, and to feel the firsts every teenager encounters—first love, first loss, and the first realization that not only life, but memories themselves are evanescent.

            I remember I thought of my characters before I thought of the plot, and one of the first characters that came to me was Henley. About two years ago, I was sitting alone in the café section of Blackwell’s in Oxford, after perusing their classic British Literature section. After handing me my cup of Earl Grey, the barista promptly left. It was midafternoon, but all the seats in the café were empty. Though I was the only one in the room, I still took a seat in the corner—habit, I guess.

            Twenty minutes into slowly enjoying my cup of tea, I heard someone walk in behind me. I didn’t have to turn my head, as he walked straight to the counter. I examined him, as he examined the menu.

            I couldn’t tell you much of what he physically looked like besides what he wore. I remember being surprised that a young man—practically a boy, since he couldn’t have been much older than I was—was wearing such formal attire. He was wearing a dark gray suit, almost black, with a purple button-down shirt.

The young man seemed to be waiting for someone as he smoothed down the front of his shirt. At first glance, he looked confident, taking up space where he walked, but his short, clipped strides gave away his nervous energy.

I watched as the young man managed to track down the barista to get a cup of tea. Then, tea in hand, the young man inspected the entire room for a place to sit. There must have been six empty tables, but he chose the one in front of me.

He flashed a smile and we both raised our cups to drink. In the empty café, it was as if we were drinking tea together. It was a small gesture, but it made us both feel less alone.

Little by little, people trickled in, filling the room. Some were wanderers, while others had distinct motives. He met an older man, and stood to shake his hand. I saw the people I was waiting for, and waved them over to my table. The short moment that we shared was long gone, but while we talked to our respective companions, our eyes would meet above their heads.

I would have given a lot to know what he was thinking in that moment. I imagined his life and the complicated relationship he had with his older companion. Maybe it was an uncle, or a father, with whom he had a formal, distant relationship.

In my imagination, I began to flesh out his life story. If I could not ask him about his world, I would create one for him. He seemed kindly, but lonely. Maybe, though young, he had fallen into an impossible love, from which he had never recovered. And thus began my story. I created a whole full life for him, and he doesn’t even know it.

The story is not only about Henley. In fact, he is not even the main character. But he is the one that inspired me, and shapes the character and evolution of the protagonist. I wanted to explore falling in love, especially when we don’t expect or even welcome it, and the inevitability, though unromantic, that love will ultimately lead to heart wrenching separation.

The concept of the story was further inspired by my curiosity with why we as humans are always so equally fascinated and frightened by death. One interesting way to examine mortality is to write a story about immortality, and explore how the characters deal with such issues as identity, love, and loss. These are among the central issues of all stories, but by introducing immortality into the mix, I was able to have fun seeing what changed, and conversely, what is unchanging in all of us.

            To the reader, the reasons why I wrote the story and the origins of my characters may be irrelevant. Every reader will build their own backstory of the characters—the events never explicitly outlined in the book that further defined the characters and the motivation for their actions. In the end, I hope that I created an enjoyable story, but left the reader something to think about when it is all over.


Anna Caltabiano
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REVIEW : The Knight by Pierre Pevel

French do things differently. Just look at their food and their comics. Literature is no exception and same can be said for their fantasy. Filled with well-written characters, rich in emotions and engrossing plots, French fantasy books are often such refreshing treats to savor. One of the best known French authors writing within the genre is Pierre Pevel, winner of Grad Prix de l'Imaginaire, a premium French award for speculative fiction. Pevel's writing is characterized by being instantly recognizable through his tackling of events from history through the eyes of bizarre and fantastic. "The Knight" is fourth novel of his to be translated to English (all published by Gollancz) and offers a slightly different proposition.

While previous trilogy, “Cardinal's Blades”, offered an exciting romp through France and Spain resembling finest Dumas, "The Knight" is much more straightforward affair. It is a properly massive historical fantasy much more fitting for readers of Gemmell or even, if you really want to stretch it that far, George R.R. Martin. It follows the story of one Lorn Askarian, a knight who spends last three years of his life imprisoned in dungeon for the crimes he didn't commit (nothing less than treachery). Time in captivity profoundly changes him. He's been touched by the Dark and is prone to rage and depression. One day High King decides to free him. Inexplicably, King even makes Lorn "Knight of the Onyx Throne" and tasks him with tackling the rebellion that's ravaging the nation. The truth is that the king is desperate. Kingdom is all but broke. He is also ill and just about everyone else around his is pining for the throne. It's a daunting task, especially for one burning with desire for revenge. What follows is pretty standard fantasy mayhem full of politics, violence and backstabbing. Lorn is an excellent Janus creation. The Dark is always near and often threatens to completely overwhelm him. At time he's so angry. It is this duality that keeps the novel afloat. Just when I started fearing that "The Knight" might be a slight disappointment Pevel completely unexpectedly turned things around and produced one of the most surprising ending I've had pleasure to read recently. It's simply massive and if I had it in my hands, I would've started reading the sequel straight away.

All in all, "The Knight" was a great but not perfect read. By subtitling the novel with "A tale front the High Kingdom" Gollancz pretty much explained what you should expect. There's rotten kingdoms, heroes, impossible situations and plenty of excitement and if that is what you're looking for in your fantasy then you'll have one hell of a time. Personally, I think Pevel could have done a bit better but judging by the brilliant ending we're in for a treat with the sequel. Until then, I hope you'll enjoy "The Knight" despite it being a bit of an unpolished gem.  


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : Second Life by S.J. Watson

 

"Before I Go To Sleep" was such an unique book. It came completely out of the blue and made S.J. Watson's name as an off-beat author who can instantly grip the hearts of his readers. A successful Hollywood movie starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth followed and sealed the deal. "Before I Go To Sleep" deservedly became an international bestseller and won quite a few rewards. S.J. Watson is now back in the limelight with his new psychological thriller called "Second Life". Brilliant cover art clearly shows what to expect. In a similar way that "Before I Go To Sleep" did, "Second Life" is a about duality but told in a slightly different way which might not appeal to everyone.

"Second Life" follows the story of Julia, a woman who live an ordinary and slightly boring life with her husband and son. Everything changes when her sister Kate is brutally murdered. This is a new that shatters her life to bits. Kate and her have always been very close despite the fact that Kate has been living in Paris for a little while now. To make matters even complicated, Kate's son is being raised by Julia for reasons to complicated to explain now. Julia is disappointed by police's investigation and little by little decided to take matters into her own hand. After the discussion with Julia's flatmate Anna, she starts by exploring her sister's effect only to discover the other side of her life - a world of online dating and sex. As Julia digs more and more, her own life starts spiralling out of control and yet, she can't give - for her own and her sister's sake she must know what really happened.



"Second Life" is a much darker and atmospheric tale than "Before I Go To Sleep". It is an accurate portrayal of obsession and the need to put the final stop to a life that ended so tragically. As such, its slow and elegiac opening will be off-putting to those expecting a reprisal of its predecessor. Things pick up significantly in the second part while the surprising twist at the end will leave many readers gasping. However, I don't think "Second Life" will be even close to repeating the success of "Before I Go To Sleep" but that's not necessary a bad thing. Rather than repeating same trick again, S.J. Watson has decided to develop and to try something new. The result is a book that's much harder to instantly appreciate but once you do immerse yourself you'll come to realise how truly interesting and fascinating it really is.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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REVIEW : S.N.U.F.F. by Victor Pelevin

 

A few months ago I wasn't even aware of the existence of the Russian Booker Prize but Victor Pelevin's superb novel "S.N.U.F.F." is already a fourth book that either won it or was shortlisted. Russian Booker Prize is a cunning concept that surpasses the idea of a literary prize. In a regime where the publishing output is carefully controlled to suite the government, Russian author have decided to speak through their fiction. These carefully veiled attacks again the social and political situation in Russia are hard to prove as often they're disguised as Utopian allegories which could go either way. "S.N.U.F.F." is similarly ironical in its dystopian depiction of current political climate.

Pelevin sets his story in a backward Urkaine (not to be confused with Ukraine – sic) inhabitated by 300 million orks. Flying above this landscape is "Big Byz" (or if you prefer "Byzantium"). A technological marvel in itself, it is a city that has around 30 million inhabitants. "Big Byz" controls the lives of those situated below through a onslaught of carefully orchestrated media reports and artificially produced conflicts and events. Blissfully unaware of it all, orks' lives are lead down the path predetermined by those controlling the media. At the heart of it all is "S.N.U.F.F." or "Special Newsreel / Universal Feature Film" through which Orks' emotions are effectively controlled.

"S.N.U.F.F." almost mirrors the current life in Russia. This is particularly evident if you read "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia" by Peter Pomerantsev, a surreal non-fiction account of Pomerantsev's experience while working in Russian's media industry. Pomerantsev also clearly depicts what happens to those who oppose the regime so it is no wonder that Pelevin relies on allusion upon allusion to get his message across. Ultimately, the joke is on the Russian government because it seems that science fiction has once again become a vehicle for overcoming oppression and censorship. As such "S.N.U.F.F." is wondrously imaginative piece of literature that by far surpasses its humble premise. Obviously, there's probably more layers to it than I'll ever realise but interestingly enough, it works perfectly well even as nothing more than a good story.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : Uprooted by Naomi Novik

 

There's no other way to put it. Naomi Novik, together with Stephen Deas, made dragons cool again. Temeraire was such a great series so far and with each new instalment Novik grew as an author, offering more and more in terms of sheer depth of characters and pure excitement of action. But while we all wait for the next and probably final Temeraire novel, Novik decided to try her hand at something new. "Uprooted", her new fantasy novel, instantly feels different and refreshing. While Temeraire was a globetrotting historical romp, "Uprooted" is more of a fairylike creature. It also has a Dragon but not one of a kind you would normally expect to get from her.

"Uprooted" is story that follows Agnieszka, a quiet 17 year old girl who spends her life in a peaceful picturesque village surrounded by forest. However, behind the idyllic appearance, the villagers are continuously on edge of the precipice. They're indebted to a Dragon, a 150 years old wizard who keeps the evil forces of the Wood at bay in exchange for choosing a village girl as a servant every ten years. It a disastrous price to pay but the villagers have no choice. And it's not like the girls are killed or worse. In ten years, girls usually return with a sack of silver and education, but no one is really sure what is actually happening as the girl leave the village for good as soon as they return. As the time of the next choosing is quickly approaching everyone believe that Dragon will pick Kasia, beautiful and feisty girl who is Agnieszka's best friend but when the moment comes unthinkable happens. Agnieszka is chosen. Unbeknown to many, Agnieszka has a gift - she has magic. The story truly comes into force when Kasia is abducted by something in the Wood and Agnieszka ventures deep. The last third of the book is one of those moments in reading when the story captives you so much that you forget the world around you.



"Uprooted" is a lovely, pacy magical fantasy steeped in fairy tale traditions, that is simply delightful to read. It clearly shows that Novik is much more than a one trick pony and that there's more to her craft than writing about Temeraire. Funnily enough, after finishing "Uprooted", I couldn't help myself but to start wishing that she would embark on these other works strands often because as I said at the beginning, reading "Uprooted" was such a different and refreshing experience.


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan.
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REVIEW : The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

 

Terry Pratchett was one of two authors whose loss I've felt tremendously deeply. I'm not ashamed to say that I've even shed a tear. I've never met Terry but I grew up reading his books and it is still hard to accept that his brilliant mind is suddenly gone. Therefore these last few books that are coming out are all the more precious. And yet, ever since it started coming out, "The Long Earth" series has been a subject of some rather harsh criticism. Mostly it was down to people claimed that they're being somewhat slow, slightly boring and just not funny enough. I suspect most of these reviews have been written by Pratchett fans who have never read anything by Stephen Baxter before. Baxter is another of by favourite authors but I have to admit that his writing style stands in stark contrast to Pratchett's. His works are usually completely dry, steeped deep in hard science and relentlessly realistic. There's not a laugh in sight. The entire "The Long Earth" format is pure Baxter. He's specialised in writing this sort of chronologies, which just go over the subsequent years, never fully exploring anything and leaving countless threads open. And while "The Long Earth" spans less than a hundred year, some of his other books like "Evolution" span eons. What Prachett brought to "Long Earth" were the characters. Lobsang, Joshua and Sally are all vintage Pratchett and I don't even have to mention Beagles and Kobolds. I might be wrong but I don't think that Baxter wouldn't be able to produce a character like that even if his life depended on it.

Having said that, some of you will be disappointed to hear that, being such a recent creation, the fourth installment of "The Long Earth", titled "The Long Utopia" is almost pure Baxter. We're at a stage of story when Joshua and Sally have grown old and lost a bit of their passion. They're world weary and just want to be let alone. Lobsang is dead although not in a way you would imagine. He decides to re-inventing himself by becoming a middle aged man and, together with Agnes, adopting a son Ben. The Next are also mostly gone, and while the space elevator is slowly being built, there's no mention of the Gap, Long Mars, or the Beagles. But this calm moment is not to last as the George's refuge turns of out be a host to another one of those strange anomalies strewn across the Long Earth. Anomaly allows one to step North and due to Von Neumann Beetles the fate of an entire Long Earth hangs in the balance. I won't spoil the rest of the plot but this time around the story takes the center point and both the Next and humans must work together to prevent the worst. And there's awfully lot of science, dyson spheres and whatnots. We learn a lot about the history of Joshua's family.



I found "The Long Utopia" to be incredibly exciting and perhaps the best volume in the series so far. Sadly, lots of those mad, bonkers elements are missing but Baxter has done tremendously well in filling up the gaps with science and engaging story. The funny thing is that even four books in, "The Long Earth" feels like it is only just starting and "The Long Utopia" only goes to expand that feeling. There's so many new and completely unexplored threads here that at time I felt that the series going go on for many many more books. I know that now the future of "The Long Earth" hangs in balance but I certainly hope Baxter will continue alone. "The Long Utopia" was a pleasure to read and such a welcome opportunity to once again experience the brilliance of the inimitable Terry Pratchett.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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The story behind A Prospect of War by Ian Sales

A Prospect of War is the first book in the Age of Discord space opera trilogy. The second book, due in October this year, is titled A Conflict of Orders, and the third is A Want of Reason and will be published in March 2016. The trilogy is about a civil war in a large interstellar empire, the people who become embroiled in it, and the historical event which, more than one thousand years earlier, caused it. The trilogy sort of came about like this...

Back in the late 1990s, I was in a British Science Fiction Association orbiter, a postal writing group, with, among others, Justina Robson. At some point, I thought it might be fun to write a space opera featuring a group of unlikeable characters - which is, I guess, what fantasy authors later went on to do when they created “grimdark”. The background to my space opera was, I admit, a bit identikit, although I threw in knightly orders and an aristocracy, likely inspired by the universe of the role-playing game Traveller. In the event, I only got three or four chapters into my space opera before I decided it wasn’t working.

I was living in Abu Dhabi at the time and, some time around the turn of the millennium, a new book store opened in the city. On its shelves, I found copies of the first eight books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, so I bought them and read them. I’d heard a lot about the books, but I only read them because I was interested in discovering what it was which had made them so successful. I never found out. I thought they were badly-written, derivative and clumsily-plotted - although one or two of them weren’t too bad. However, reading the Wheel of Time did give me an idea: that space opera I had trunked, I could try writing it as if it were an epic fantasy…

But my space opera was definitely going to be science fiction, so I threw Frank Herbert’s Dune into the mix - I’ve been a fan of the novel since I was a teenager, although more for its world-building than its prose. In fact, for my space opera I wanted exactly that sort of deep history Herbert put into Dune. I also wanted my story to be timeless, inasmuch as it wouldn’t really date since, like Dune, its setting would be completely unlike the real world.

I spent a long time working on the universe for my space opera, and even put together an encyclopedia, which I briefly considered offering as a companion volume. Since I was “borrowing” from epic fantasy, I thought it might be fun to throw in a few of the genre’s more popular tropes too. So my ingenu hero would be a “peasant hero”, there’d be a “hidden king”, a “dark lord” and a “dark lieutenant”, the plot would roughly follow the “hero’s journey” template, and so on…

However, as soon as I started writing A Prospect of War, every trope I stuck in sort of got turned on its head or twisted out of all recognition. Happily, this only improved the story, so I went with it. For the trilogy’s story-arc, I looked to EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series for inspiration - each new volume in my trilogy would reveal a deeper level to the conspiracy driving the plot...

But as I started writing about this conspiracy, I realised my personal politics aligned more with the villains than it did with the heroes. I mean, the plot was basically your standard consolary fantasy - nasty dark lord attempts to overthrow good king, but is foiled by a peasant hero with magical power - albeit in space opera drag. Except, a feudal space empire is a pretty nasty place for the bulk of its citizens, and the amount of privilege possessed by a royal family and high nobility I find deeply offensive. However, there’s no reason why I couldn’t mix it all up, have white hats and black hats on both sides - because after all it’s about motivation, about the reason why people do the things they do. In A Prospect of War I even have the leader of the faction fighting to defend the throne described as a terrorist by another character.

I like to think A Prospect of War and its sequels are more political that most space operas, that they interrogate their setting and don’t simply use it as an enabler for a story of interstellar derring-do. Not, of course, that they lack derring-do. I made sure to put plenty of that in. Space operas are pretty much defined by derring-do. In fact, I even dialled it up to eleven - I gave everyone swords. No guns, just swords. And there are battles too. Between armies, or with space battleships. And sword fights... Masked assassins... Mysterious allies... Equally mysterious enemies... A ball in a duke’s palace... An orbital city… A spaceship crash... An abandoned warship…

I didn’t throw everything into my space opera… but not for lack of trying.


Ian Sales
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REVIEW : The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

 

Milan Kundera is a changed man. This is obvious from the way "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting", or "Immortality" are different from "Slowness" and "Ignorance". Over the years he has grown weary and rather pessimistic. Humour is sadly often missing from his writing but "The Festival of Insignificance", his latest slim volume that can be easily finished over the course of a single sitting, goes a long way to rectify it. In it he attacks the most serious problems with a cheeky refusal to be serious and the results are often laugh out loud.

On the surface story is rather simple and charts the relationship between four elderly friends through a series of disjointed stories that explore the very essence of human condition and the unlikeliest body part, the navel. These episodes are not straightforward but are instead a heady mix of philosophy and history that requires a re-read to be fully appreciated. In Kundera's mind aesthetic is much more important that a self-contained plot and in a way "The Festival of Insignificance" acts like a summary of all his work so far. There are recognizable elements from all across his career and this short novel is both an epilogue and an overview. In short, it is simply Kundera that I love - almost unbearably intelligent author who is by far too clever to let it show.

"The Festival of Insignificance" is a subdued read that will be truly enjoyed only by his constant readers. I suspect the rest will simply be a bit confused but that's the part of the joke.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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REVIEW : Fall of Man in Wilmslow by David Lagercrantz

 

There was a public outcry when David Lagercrantz was announced as an author of "The Girl in the Spider's Web", fourth part in the monumental "Millennium" series by Stieg Larsson. This was mostly due to the fact that he's best known as the co-author of "I am Zlatan", autobiography of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of today's biggest and most outspoken football stars. Surely, this Lagencrantz doesn't deserve to follow in the Larsson's footsteps? Well, if you scratch under the surface some other facts come to light. Lagencrantz was a notable crime reporter as well and over the 80s and 90s he covered some of the major crimes in Sweden, most notably the Amsele murders, a brutal massacre that happened in 1988 when a whole family was killed over a stolen bicycle. Also, Lagencrantz is a great author. He wrote a rather splendid biography of Goran Kropp, a Swedish equivalent to Ranulph Fiennes and "Fall of Man in Wilmslow" a fictionalized account of Alan Turing's final days.

"Fall of Man in Wilmslow" opens up with events known from history. On June 8, 1954, Alan Turing in found dead at his home in Wilmslow. The story goes that he killed himself with a poisoned apple as a direct result of government's persecution on homosexuals. Detective Constable Leonard Corell is assigned to a case but he instantly feels there's something more about the situation than it's initially apparent. He notices the chemicals and the similarities between the crime scene and the Snow White. Coroner quickly declares the case the suicide but that's not the ending for Correll. He becomes obsessed with Turing's tragic fate and as he digs deeper through his papers, it is increasingly obvious that everything surrounding him is veiled in secrecy. There's even some rumours about him being a target of Soviet spies' blackmail due to his sexuality. Correll's chase leads him to Cambridge where it finally all clicks together. But as the Turing's role in the war becomes clearer so Correll's life comes into more and more peril. He's become a liability. It is a cat and mouse chase whose ending you'll have to discover for yourself.

"Fall of Man in Wilmslow" is an atmospheric Cold War spy thriller which plays wonderfully with paranoia that was so fertile in that era and those horrific social circumstances that spelled the end of one of the finest minds in human history. It's a fascinating and well researched piece of speculative history that makes much more sense than, say, the version of Turing provided by "The Imitation Game". More importantly, it is a successful first step of MacLehose Press' rehabilitation of David Lagercrantz as a serious writer.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press.
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REVIEW : The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell

 

When visiting Hamburg there's every chance that you'll encounter someone who came to a city after reading one of Jan Fabel's books. Currently it's still not huge as it could be but in Hamburg Fabel is quite a great thing. Two of the books have been adapted into quite successful movies and Craig Russell was the first and only non-German person to have been awarded the highly prestigious Polizeistern (Police Star) by the Polizei Hamburg. There's every chance that in the future Fabel will do for Hamburg what Montalbano or Wallander have done for Sicily and Sweden. I've always enjoyed Fabel books and while they're far cry from Sicilian sun-drenched adventures of Montalbano, Jan Fabel's cases are extremely intense affairs. The latest instalment, "The Ghosts of Altona" is no different though it opens with some rather unique elements.

The story opens up with quotes from William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker and is followed by explanation of near-death experience. In the first few chapters there's a Zombie and a Frankenstein. It's a rather a bizarre was to open up a crime novel but everything becomes clear soon enough. As you would expect, Jan Fabel, Head of the Polizei Hamburg's Murder Commission is no stranger to death. As the second decade of his career is coming to a close, he's finds that he's increasingly in an introspective mood. As he's recounting his past, a body of Monika Krone, a woman who went missing some fifteen years ago, has been found. Monika has been a part of the Hamburg's Gothic clique - a crowd of people obsessed with all things macabre. Fabel reopens a case as he sees it rather personally but soon enough things turn rather messy one of the most notorious criminals, a dangerous serial rapist escapes from a high-security prison. As the bodies start piling up, Fabel quickly realises that he has found his match.



"The Ghosts of Altona" is probably the finest Fabel novel so far. Craig Russell has managed to create something rather unique, a story that relies on a rather peculiar subculture, one that owes its existence to horror and which naturally harks on death. I was instantly hooked and I've had an awfully hard time letting go of the book once I've started it. As always, in Russell's writing Hamburg comes to life. If you've ever visited it, you'll remember that it is an incredibly vibrant place but one which, like all the big cities, comes with a dark note to it, especially after the clock strikes midnight. Russell has been tapping this rich seam for a while now and if "The Ghosts of Altona" is anything to go by, he's only just starting. An incredibly addicting book.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books.
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REVIEW : Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

 

Looking at the sheer volume of crime books published each month you would be excused if you thought that nothing new could possible be said in a genre that's been going for so long. And yet, while the nature of the crimes that occur and the mechanism of a subsequent investigation into it almost always follows the same set of rules, it is the characters that always surprise me the most. No genre has the capability to pinpoint the human condition so precisely as crime does and one of the best contemporary authors with a panache for writing gripping and engaging characters is Stuart Neville. His latest book "Those we Left Behind" is a first novel in a series featuring DCI Selena Flanagan who might be familiar to you. It is a bona fide psychological thriller that instantly feels like it might become this summer's runaway hit.

"Those we Left Behind" revolves around Ciaran Devine, a 19 year old man who leaves the prison after serving a seven year sentence for murdering his foster father. When it happened it was a case that shook the nation. Ciaran confessed to murder and Serena Flanagan, then a Detective Sergeant, was the person who took the confession after gaining Ciaran's trust. During his imprisonment he always fondly remembered the kindness she showed him and now that Ciaran's having troubles to re-integrate into society, DCI Flanagan is approached by his probation officer Paula Cunningham. DCI Flanagan instantly notices that there's much more to the case than it was initially obvious.

 

Despite not being obviously so from the start, "Those we Left Behind" is a fiendishly complex tale to pull off. There's more than a few strands happened both concurrently and seven years ago. The troubled relationship between Ciaran and his older brother Thomas towards whom he constantly gravitates throughout the book is done especially well but it is DCI Selena Flanagan who makes the story so appealing and tragic. She incredibly human. As the story open she just returns to work after suffering thought the most human ordeal of them all - a breast cancer, a surgery, and its impact on the family life.

"Those we Left Behind" is one of the finest books I've read this year. It is an intricately plotted tale that works so well because it manages to perfectly capture all the necessary nuances of one such horrific situation while being clever enough to let most of its violent elements to happen out of the reader's sight.


Review copy provided by Harvill Secker.
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REVIEW : In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomas Gonzalez

"In the Beginning Was the Sea", debut novel by Colombian novelist Tomas Gonzales was originally published in 1983 under the title "Primero estaba el mar". The story goes that Gonzales wrote his novel while working as a barman in Bogota nightclub and that its owner published it. Straight from the start it was a huge success because it transpired that, similarly to another great Colombian writer, Gonzales was able to evoke the most powerful emotions just by using words. Therefore it was with great anticipation that I awaited this latest Pushkin Press translation and “In the Beginning Was the Sea” didn't disappoint even though it wasn't exactly what I expected it to be. In Frank Wynne's wonderful translation Gonzales' horrific version of life on a remote island came to life impeccably.

Based on a true story, "In the Beginning Was the Sea" follows the lives of J. and Elena, young intellectuals who decide to leave behind their ordinary lives filled with parties to try something new. Moving to a remote island, J. and Elena have an idea to lead self-sufficient and naturalistic existence. They're so smitten by this Utopian idea that they enter the whole project completely unprepared. Only a few days in, the doubts set in and each day reveals new troubles. Soon the idea of paradise reveals itself for what it really is. Just a vapor dream.

It is at this point that Gonzales' writing skill comes to the front as their very lives are slowly unraveled up to a point when their ingrained experiences are all but gone. In a brilliantly executed turn of events, J. and Elena themselves are becoming one with nature and quickly forgetting all the values learned while being part of the civilization. They're effectively reverting and behaving like savages.

I absolutely loved beautifully sparse descriptions which somehow always show more than they really tell but "In the Beginning Was the Sea" is as good as it is because Gonzales manages perfectly capture the idea of isolation that surrounds our couple. The island serves both as an instrument and as means of pushing the point across and as I turned more and more pages the sense of dread and looming catastrophe was palpable. With a masterful eye for detail, Gonzales teases the reader with what coming only to move away again and again. And the pages go on... This symphony of dread will repeat many times over the course of the book and while I wasn't overtly sympathetic with any of the characters, I needed to go with the flow despite suspecting how it will all end.

"In the Beginning Was the Sea" is a fascinatingly dark character study. It is an unflinching, and pitch perfect trip into the dark heart of Colombia and hippy culture in general. It is above all a powerful debut and it'll be interesting finding out where Tomas Gonzales next.

Not to forget: I never get tired of saying how stunning Pushkin Press publications are and "In the Beginning Was the Sea" is not different. With their famous French flaps and beautiful illustration by Robert Frank Hunter, it is a thing of beauty.


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Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.

REVIEW : Radiant State by Peter Higgins

 

"The Wolfhound Century" is one of those series that defy easy description. Peter Higgins' literary fantasy tour the force is a historical tale steeped in Slavic mythology and it was quite unlike anything else out there. Oft quoted comparison to China Mieville was particularly apt while that to Vandermeer less so. Any yet, if the first two instalments were hard to classify, "Radiant State" completely tears up the rulebook. It's mad in a way to topple the scales with the final part of the trilogy and yet that exactly what Higgins has done here - he goes out with a bang.

"Radiant State" is a crux of all that happened until now and we see the Josef Kantor's plan as it reaches its fruition. The Vlast Universal Vessel "Proof of Concept" stands proud ready to take his latest reincarnation as President General Ozip Rizhin to the stars. The price of progress, as in countless many versions of Soviet Russia, is the suffering of its people. Vissariom Lom and Maroussia Shaumian don't share his enthusiasm. They're still reeling in the aftermath of the previous volume "Truth and Fear" but there's not time for rest. Standing on the knife's edge they're in their biggest pickle yet. They'll do everything to stop Kantor. And while this short synopsis might make you believe that the story itself is a rather straightforward affair, it is its delivery that sets it apart from other books that occupy similar territory, albeit with a slightly less supernatural elements, i.e. Jasper Kent's Danilov Quartet or Sam Eastland's Inspector Pekkala. Higgins peppers chapter with nuggets of wisdom, all carefully taken from rich soviet literary history. Particularly fitting is the opening quote from Mikhail Gerasimov, Russian poet from early 20th century who said "On the canals of Marks we will build a palace of world freedom". This quote perfectly sets the stage for what's to come. Some are downright frightening and ominous like Josef Stalin's "If you're afraid of wolves, stay out of the forest." All this makes "Radiant State" a rather immersive reading experience.

While I won't go further into details of the story, I'll just mention that I feel that the final, fourth part of the story provides worthy conclusion for the entire ride. It was a glorious tale, and "The Wolfhound Century" as a series has succeeded where many others have failed - it has managed to carve a new niche for itself. I predict it'll be a series against which many others with be judged.  It's innovative, often unique in its setting and so beautifully written. I expect I'll be returning to it many times in the future and if you're even a little bit intrigued by its subject or you like the poetry of Mieville or just plain gold old history, I urge you to give it a try. It might just blow your mind.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : Interzone 257

I come to Interzone 257 with a slight delay as last few months have been marked by some massive doorstoppers such as the latest from Neal Stephenson and Dan Simmons. After these behemoths, there's only one reasonable course of action and that is to fully immerse myself into short form and you already know by now, no one does it better than Interzone. 257 comes with big guns, nothing less than a new story by Alastair Reynolds called "A Murmuration" but I've instantly decided to leave it for the last. Interzone's greatest strength has always been those new, to me unknown authors, who they always so deftly manage to find.

Second in line is Fadzlishah Johanabas's "Songbird", a powerful and poetic tale about a woman Ariana who is being held captive in a hospital bed and made to produce drugs for her captors. Her only means of escape are vivid dreams that slowly awake her to her forgotten powers and a songstress gene. Fadz, a Fadzlishah likes to call himself so I'll take him on the offer, is a great writer and packs a great punch in this relatively short story. If there's one author I'll take away from this issue, it's him.

Next up is Rich Larson's "Brainwhales are Stoners, Too", a story that about Brainwhales, a whales amalgamated by the use of technology. It's an interesting premise but the story just didn't click it me. Perhaps it is due to the choice of terms used to describe the technological setting: in just a few pages you encounter ThinkTank, Brainwhale, 3D-printed frames and a characters called Vandermeer. I'm sure I'm thinking too much into it so I'll definitely be re-reading this one shortly.

Fourth story is Tendai Huchu's "The Worshipful Company of Milliners", a story that together with "Songbird" was my absolutely favourite in this issue. This being my first encounter with Tendai Huchu, I wasn't sure what to expect but is a metaphysical tale about ideas told through a series of diary entries going in reverse and fragments of tale. It's strange and rather innovative. Well recommended. Tendai Huchu has released his debut novel "The Hairdressers of Harare" in 2010 and I'll be definitely checking it out.

Final story in the issue is Aliya Whiteley's "Blossoms Falling Down" and is up to Aliya's usual standards - engrossing tales that begs for more. Built around a series of haikus and a Haiku Room, it's an interesting tales that's difficult to describe but one which was a total pleasure to read.

Finally to go back to the beginning and to Alastair Reynolds' "A Murmuration". It's seems unfair to put Reynolds in comparison with other authors as I absolutely adore his writings and over the year he has honed his fiction down to perfection. Reynolds is taken best in doses of over 500 pages and "A Murmuration" is only around 10 pages long but it's as playful as its much longer and older contemporaries. It's just great, full of hard science phenomena, chaos that is the publication of scientific papers and off-kilter development.

Not to forget, there's also a new "Time Pieces" column by our beloved Nina Allan and an editorial by Ian Sales so all in all a completely extraordinary issue of Interzone, even by the own rather high standards.


Review copy provided by TTA Press.
Order Interzone 257 here:

REVIEW : The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

It would be interesting seeing the expression on John Hornor Jacobs' agent's face when Jacobs described the idea behind The Incorruptibles. The thing is that this book is such a mash up of just about everything that on the surface of it, it can only be one of two things: the work of a genius or a complete madman. But that's why I'm not the agent or an editor. Decent agents and editors know how to spot great piece of work and it is obvious from the opening page that in The Incorruptibles Jacobs managed to pull it off. The whole novel is much more than sum of its parts and somehow it simply works brilliantly.

So how to describe it? In short, The Incorruptibles is made with healthy lashings of western and fantasy with a dose of steampunk and a pinch of Roman history. It is a librarian's nightmare. The story takes place in an Empire, a place not unlike our own world but always being just a little bit of piste. It is a troubled country, forever on the brink of a total war and its unexplored stretches are filled with everything from bandits to aggressive elf-like natives who recall Native Americans. In between all this a boat is travelling upriver. Upon it there are a governor with his sons and daughters and a hefty band of mercenaries who are all thrown together by circumstances. Out of these Fisk and Shoe are definitely an exception to the rule. Keeping each other backs, they worried about what's suddenly occurring in front of their eyes.

Interestingly enough, for such an accomplished setting, The Incorruptibles is a deeply personal book and I suspect this is exactly the reason why it works so well. If Jacobs has decided to go full scale from the word go I think readers would be simply overwhelmed by its vast scope while in this scenario you, as a reader, are slowly eased into the story. It's an act of sheer genius because rather than dwell on the setting I've actually cared about the characters and the events that were happening to them must more than I cared about what's around them.

To conclude, on paper The Incorruptibles shouldn't really work but somehow John Hornor Jacobs has beaten the odds and produced wildly innovative and highly readable story which, I think, should be nominated for quite a few awards next year. It is unlike anything else out there at the moment and I think many will be surprised by its unflinching ambition and often, beautifully poetic language.


Order The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs here:

Review copy provided by Gollancz.

REVIEW : Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

 

The press release that came with Al Robertson's debut novel "Crashing Heaven" is an impressive statement that clearly showcases how much the publisher is behind this book. It is always impressive when William Gibson, Alastair Reynold, Richard K. Morgan and even Neal Stephenson are mentioned in a single breath and the six figure sum always catches attention. Admittedly you'll be disappointed if you expect it to be an amalgam of their works in any shape or form because "Crashing Heaven" simply isn't what's promised on paper. It would be simply an impossible feat to achieve it but Al Robertson touched all of these authors in a small way. There's plenty of imaginative spirit in Robertson's writing and subtle nods to his contemporaries for "Crashing Heaven" to pull it off handsomely and that's an achievement in itself.

"Crashing Heaven" is a bleak, hard science fiction tale set in a future where the Earth is left behind and the humanity has moved to a Station, an asteroid made habitable by sentient consciousness of the Pantheon. Even in space the conflict is still raging and as it eventually folds, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist return to the station after a war against a group of rogue AIs called The Totality, only to be accused of treachery. In the middle of the conflict Jack surrendered to the enemy and everyone on Station knows it. Jack was an AI killer, primed for violence and combat. It was a traumatizing experience but despite what really happened, he's been the lucky one here. He has survived while his other friends have died. Determined to discover what actually happened, Jack is set to enter another war, one which threatens to destroy both him and Hugo. However, stakes depending upon the outcome of his struggle are much higher than he ever imagined. Even humanity's future is uncertain. For Jack the time is running out as soon Hugo is set to take over his body so there's not much hope left. Hugo Fist is a strange creation, a virtual entity designed to help Jack fight a war and is a great character in itself. Their internal dialog is such a treat. Similarly, Station as a living, vibrant space is depicted superbly. Robertson manages to capture claustrophobic and chaotic existence of one such place. Existence made bearable only by the application on augmented reality called the Weave - a popular mean of escape from reality.

Still, the synopsis itself doesn't do justice to "Crashing Heaven" because on the surface of it, it presents Al Robertson's debut novel as a set of instantly recognizable SF tropes which includes everything from messy post-apocalyptic aftermath, humanity's migration to space, rogue AIs and everyone's existence balancing on an knife's edge. "Crashing Heaven" is better than the sum of its parts. It's an all-encompassing landscape upon which the story unfolds and at times I was even slightly overcome by too much of everything. And yet, as I've mentioned before, the whole thing somehow works together. "Crashing Heaven" is a completely insane book and for what is worth I believe that publishers were right to believe so firmly in its success. Jam packed with innovative ideas and fresh approaches to storytelling, "Crashing Heaven" could just be the one book that everyone will talk about in 2015. I certainly hope so.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda

Siem Sigerius is a man of countless talents. Over the course of this book we see him as nothing less than an extraordinary mathematician, a judo champion, a university professor, director of the University of Enschede and to top it all, the minister of education. He is also enjoying a beautiful family life with his wife and two stepdaughters. He even likes his stepdaughter Joni's boyfriend Aaron and despite him being a truly intimidating presence the two strike an unlikely friendship, even starting to practice Judo together. However, behind the illusion of charmed life, Siem has a dark secret. His son from previous marriage is in prison serving time for murder and few people know about it. Now his son is about to be released and on the eve of this event his life unstoppable starts to unravel. This final collapse also coincides with the massive explosion at a fireworks factory and similarly to its disintegration, Siem's whole existence is unraveling in fragments. First he recognizes Joni's picture on one of the pornographic websites he frequents and as his son appears he's quick to blackmail him.

In "Bonita Avenue" Peter Buwalda has created a sprawling family drama which despite its relatively long length (it is over 500 pages long) flows like a thriller. It is wonderfully written and while I'm not sure whether this is due to an excellent translation or the beauty of the original text, i found the use of metaphors and descriptions so brilliant that I started marking some of them down. In Netherlands the book received an unprecedented critical acclaim and sold over 300.000 copies. It subsequently went on to win two literary prizes while being nominated for two more and I can definitely see why it impressed both the critics and readers so much. It is true that at certain points Buwalda does lose himself a bit in the sheer amount of details and elements but quickly enough he steadies his hand and as the family finally completed its descend into madness, I was profoundly shocked by the dark finale. An impressive chronicle of one family's downfall.


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Review copy provided by Pushkin Press.

REVIEW : Bete by Adam Roberts

I've been fortunate enough to be reading Adam Roberts' work ever since “Salt”, his debut novel, has been published in 2000. In my opinion “Salt” was one of those rare novels that managed to blur the boundaries between genres and offer a thought provoking analysis of the cultural differences between disparaging approaches to society, namely in that particular case fundamental religion and anarchism. With its ambiguous ending, “Salt” at times read like a political manifesto. Over the course of its 200 or so pages it revealed weaknesses in both movements while carefully introducing the readers to dogma of both. “Salt” was something new and I was instantly hooked with Roberts' writing. Over the next fifteen year Roberts became of my favourite writers of literary science fiction and I've been awaiting each of his books with impatience. The only ones I didn't really like were the parodies but that's just my taste. Luckily, Roberts is a very productive author and has been publishing, more or less, a novel a year. After this year's "Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea" which offered an original take on Verne's classic adventure, “Bête” is a more serious affair and reads like an amalgam between George Orwell's “Animal Farm”, H.G. Wells' “Island of Doctor Moreau” and talking cow out of Douglas Adams' “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”.

The premise is very intriguing. The latest initiative by animal rights movement sees them injecting domestic animals with artificial intelligence chip which means that suddenly they can talk back and defend their rights. Now, just before you kill them they're reason with you, plead for their life and make you feel bad. How dare they? The fact poses an increasingly moral dilemma for people used to eating them. Animal rights movements are hoping that this will change law's outlook on animals in general and that their status will be recognized by the international court of human rights. But are animals really intelligent or are they're just product of clever science? Unsurprisingly, The Smiths' "The Meat is Murder" makes an appearance. Animals and AI are not just a cheap gimmicks but a discussion worthy thought experiment.

 

In a world increasingly at pressure due to climate change and overpopulation, Roberts multi-layered tale feels very topical. Since I'm vegetarian I completely understand the importance of improving conditions for kept animals and the cruelty involved in their exploitation. Our behaviour towards them should definitely improve or even better stop and Bête will definitely make you think about it and the consequences of continuing as we are. The clever thing that Roberts pulls off here is that he makes animals feel like aliens to humans. He posits our behaviour towards animals, after they gained intelligence, more like a racism than like a speciesism. People are simply not used to their food talking back and playing on their conscience. "Bête" is a wonderful piece of social commentary and my favourite novel of Roberts for years. It's thought provoking, it has laughs in it and will impact your outlook on life a bit. Just like all the best novels really.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : Marked by Sue Tingey

 

This is the second time that I'm reviewing "Marked" since my original review got lost due to one unfortunate act of general clumsiness. To be honest I can't say that I find it to be a problem. It is such a nice little read that I profoundly enjoyed so I'll happily go down that route once again. The most obvious place to start is the proof itself. The publicists are always up to no good when it comes to bringing attention to their latest favourite but "Marked" simply pushed the boundaries to a completely new level. Just look at that beauty:

The dragon is on my key chain, of course. "Marked" definitely got noticed but we all know that looks are nothing when it comes to books. Luckily, Sue Tingey's debut is more than smoke and mirrors. This, occasionally bonkers, and exciting descent into hell tells the story of Lucinda De Salle (known to everyone as Lucky), an ordinary, if unloved, girl who has a strange power - she can see ghosts. This instantly marks her as something of an outcast so all through her life her best friend is Kayla, a ghost girl who has been her constant companion even since she can remember. It all changes when she's been called to her former school by the new headmistress. Three pupils have carelessly played with an Ouija board in the attic and summoned something from the great beyond. Lucky is instantly suspicious. The last time she's been to this same attic she has ended up expelled but alarm bells have really started ringing when Kayla bluntly refused to come. This had the potential to end up bad. And it was. She finds a dark man expecting her - an assassin by the man of Henri de Dent (French for tooth) who is after Kayla. The Underlands want her back. So begins Lucky's quest filled with peril, danger and lots of fun.

After this rather bleak opening, "Marked" tones down a bit and is rather handsomely easy to read and that is why I found it so pleasurable. It's simply not a standard urban fantasy fare, filled with broken hearts, downcast glances and gloomy characters despite notionally having all the familiar elements. If anything "Marked" more closely resembles John Connolly's "Samuel Johnson" series that a book with a black feather on its cover. Sue Tingey's debut is such great fun and a delight to read so I certainly hope there's much more to come in the future. I know I would love to read more and luckily this is marked as a first instalment in The Soulseer Chronicles. Let's hope that editor doesn't lose this review as well:)


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books.
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The story behind The Killing of Bobbi Lomax by Cal Moriarty

The Killing of Bobbi Lomax didn’t start where you might think, in an American desert, but in story-time, served up day or night by my Dad starting from when I was aged about 3. At the time, I was too young to question why all my Dad’s off-the-cuff kids'  stories seemed to involve an angry raven as black as night or some other dark, devious swooping animal. These dark tales were so exciting to my burgeoning desire for disturbing stories I just wanted more and more. Forty years later when he was diagnosed with depression I would figure out that my Dad’s scary dark stories were perhaps his creative outlet to attempt to off-set his hitherto undiagnosed depression. So, by a very young age I was hooked on the dark and edgy content and, after a brief flirtation with Enid Blyton and traditional adventure stories, I returned aged 10 or 11 to the macabre. I became an almost a permanent fixture in the newspaper shop at the end of our street which, at the time, was wall to wall magazines from all corners of the earth. There I could buy True Crime, True Detective and every other murder mag import from the States. By this time I had a sideline washing cars and had carved up our local Fulham territory with another local kid. We never strayed onto each other’s patch or it would have been squeeqees at dawn. And now, because of my growing empire, I could basically afford anything a child might want to buy and, most likely because my addiction to pictures of freshly dead bodies and gory stories greatly increased his profit margins, the newsagent never questioned my rather adult choice of reading material. 
 
My inability to look away from the horrific images and descriptions of murder forced me to question why people committed these crimes, and why I was so obsessed with such horror. Why did this person die? And why did the killer do it? How is not as interesting as why. Not to me. It’s the psychological make-up of the perpetrator that is the key to everything. And I believe that this is also the key to creative writing for every character a writer presents their readers/audience. We do our characters a disservice when we present them as mono-dimensional. Relying on ‘twists’ when writing is very limiting for reader and writer alike, burrowing deep down into your characters psyche whether they be your protagonist or antagonist is where it’s at for me as a writer. I want to know, both as reader and writer, if I follow a character for hundreds of pages I’m going to learn more about them as a person than I knew on page one. Otherwise, why bother reading on. And, if there is going to be ‘twists’ they better come from characterisation and not be the deus ex machina of plot randomly swooping down to save the day. 
I use the ‘why’ to create everything else a novel requires: characterisation, plot, structure, setting. All of it. To me everything should be developed organically from character, the why. When I wrote The Killing of Bobbi Lomax and explored the characters of Clark Houseman and Marty Sinclair it was important for me to understand and characterise why that recurring black raven of my Dad’s stories was so very very destructive. It's that search for why a character behaves as they do that keeps me writing every day.   
 
The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is out now (Faber and Faber, £12.99)

Cal Moriarty
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The story behind Truth and Fear by Peter Higgins

 

Originally Truth and Fear wasn’t meant to exist. I hadn’t thought of it. It wasn’t part of the plan.

When I’m working on ideas for what to write, I think first of all in terms of genre and atmosphere and setting: the characters come later and their stories come last (last but most of all, that’s where ninety per cent of the writing gets done). I get to know the characters and their stories as I’m writing, and they change and develop, often in unexpected ways, but basically, a new book starts off as a feeling for the kind of book I want to read, and that initial idea – what kind of book is this? – stays with me throughout. It’s what I hold onto.

A few years ago now, I had the idea for what became Wolfhound Century. I love fantasy, and I love thrillers (detective stories, noirs, police procedurals, spy novels, murder mysteries, call them what you will) so, I thought, why not write a book that’s both at once? Why not a full-on fantasy, set in a world different from ours, with hard journeys, a dark lord, a war for the future, the possibility of magic, extraordinary non-human creatures, and the future at stake, but one where the story would move with the pace and danger of a thriller? One that would be set in a world somewhat like Soviet Russia in the first half of the 20th century: a totalitarian state at war, with secret police and marching crowds, revolutionary terrorists and dissident intellectuals. At a human level, it would let in something of the darkness and cruelty, and also the huge sense of possibility and change of that period in our world’s history: only, because it was also a fantasy, this world would have giants and endless forests and living, sentient rain.

And so I wrote Wolfhound Century.

My first version was a single, stand-alone book. That was the original plan. It was only when I’d finished the first draft that I realized a single book wasn’t going to be enough.

I discovered in the course of writing Wolfhound Century that combining fantasy and thriller works in all sorts of ways. Each genre strengthens and helps the other. Both kinds of book start with a question: something strange is happening, something serious is wrong with the world, and has to be put right. The characters have to work out what’s causing the wrongness and try to do something about it (at great risk and cost to themselves) and the reader experiences that with them. The reader learns about the world as the characters do, and the characters grow and change, becoming more interesting and complex and powerful, as they confront the terrible threat.

But one big difference between the thriller and the fantasy as genres is time-frame. Thrillers have tight, fast-moving plots. The action starts near the point of crisis, and races along. The clock ticks fast and loud. Every day, every hour, every minute counts. Time is always running out. Fantasies, on the other hand, can take their time. You can follow characters for years: kingdoms rise and fall, wars are lost and won, dragons grow from eggs to adults, and magic-workers struggle to learn their craft. Above all, with fantasies you build a whole world, with its own geography and population and a history that matters.

When I’d finished that first draft of Wolfhound Century, I realised the work wasn’t done. The story wasn’t over, and the fantasy was still at work; the characters wanted to grow and become stronger; the world I’d built needed to be explored more, there were other places around the next corner and beyond the horizon; the tensions and conflicts that threatened to destroy this huge world were still there.

And so I took a deep breath and changed the plan. Instead of a single, stand-alone book it needed to be a trilogy. After all, there’s something about trilogies that works for fantasy, and has done at least since Lord of the Rings: the three-book structure feels somehow right, as a way of doing justice to a whole new world. Three books let it breathe. But I wanted to hang onto the thriller approach – that pace, that excitement, that danger shouldn’t be diluted. That’s what drove me to come up with the concept of a fantasy told in three thrillers: three books, each of which would cover a short period of time (that thriller clock still ticking loud) but together they’d build up to tell a bigger story, the story of a continent and a world.

Which gave me a whole new challenge.

When I started working on Truth and Fear, I knew that it was going to be Book II out of three, and I knew that the middle books of trilogies can be difficult. The risk is that they’re all middle: not filler, exactly, but transitional stories between a beginning and an ending that take place elsewhere and at another time. I was determined that Truth and Fear wouldn’t be like that: I wanted it to work as a thriller, I wanted it to be a great book in its own right, I wanted it to be surprising, and (excited though I was with Wolfhound Century) I wanted Truth and Fear to be better.

So before I started writing Truth and Fear I read as many middle books of trilogies as I could. I thought about which ones worked, and which ones seemed to fall a bit flat, and why. I watched movie sequels, and season two of great TV series. I looked for interviews with other writers who’d tackled the problem before me, though for some reason there doesn’t seem to be much out there about this topic. (I did find two fantastic gold mines: the bonus features on the DVD of the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, the second in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; and a talk at a convention by Juliet McKenna about the challenges and pitfalls of returning to a world you’ve made and writing more.

And out of all this ‘research’ (which was hugely more fun than that word implies) I made myself a set of ‘ground rules’ – principles for making a Book II that really works – which I held onto throughout the process of writing Truth and Fear. I wanted to take the first book as a starting point, but widen it out and raise the stakes. I wanted the world to get bigger – new places, new characters, new journeys – and I wanted the main characters’ relationships to deepen: in the first book they got acquainted, but now they’d learn more about each other and themselves, now they’d change and grow.

For the record, these are my personal ground rules, my ‘five principles for writing a Book II’:

  • as the characters get stronger, so does the opposition: the battles get bigger and harder;
  • open the cupboards and look inside: go back to things that were hints and peripherals in Book I, and see what they really meant;
  • overturn expectations – what you thought you knew may be just the start – but don’t play mind-games with the reader;
  • mourn the dead: people who didn’t make it past the first book live on in memory, and still influence action and emotions;
  • don’t hold on to everything: some things, even if they were important in Book I, have to fall and crash and burn.

And finally, and most importantly for me, although the overarching three-book story has to keep moving, Book II has to be a new story in its own right, with a new challenge, a new and harder struggle, and an ending that’s satisfying but also catapults you forward to the final conclusion in Book III.

Of course, there’s nothing definitive about these principles, and somebody else might come up with different ones, but these turned out to be mine: they’re what I tried to live by when I was writing Truth and Fear, and I thought they might be worth sharing.  


Peter Higgins
Order "Truth and Fear" here:

REVIEW : Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel

 

May sees the publication of the new English edition of Philippe Claudel's seminal novel "Grey Souls". Originally published in 2005 as "Les Âmes Grises", upon its publication "Grey Souls" was both a critical and commercial success and it even won the prestigious Prix Renaudot. In hindsight it was a crucial novel for Claudel as it set the stage for many works that followed in its wake, most notably "The Investigation" and "Monsieur Linh and His Child". Similarly to these "Grey Souls" deals a metaphysical aspects of an investigation and the consequences of living an ordinary life during the horrific war.

"Grey Souls" revolves around a murder of a young girl which was committed in 1917 but only solved two decades later. The story is set in a small French town situated near the Western Front, in fact the battles are fought so close that the sounds and smells of death are palpable in the streets. One winter morning, a ten year old daughter of an innkeeper is found strangled in a canal. In the chaos of war, blood boils fast and soon enough, two men, deserters, are accused and quickly executed. Witnessing this impromptu sentencing was our narrator who, after being deeply shocked by the injustice and the brutality of the event, has never been able to escape its influence. Now, 20 years in the future, our narrator is a policemen who is slowly trying to piece together the story of what truly happened to that poor girl.



"Grey Souls" has deservedly been a tremendous success and is firmly one of the Claudel's most enduring works. The contrast between the conflict in which countless died and the killing of a single young and innocent girl is a frightening thing to experience and certainly leaves a lasting impression. Claudel always knew how to stir up intense, vivid emotions in his readers (just remember "Perfums") and "Grey Souls" is no exception. It's just beautiful in that subtle, thought provoking fashion.

In short, "Grey Souls" is a welcome addition to the bibliography of one of the finest contemporary European authors at the moment and finds him at the height of his power.


Review copy provided by Maclehose Press.
Order Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel here:

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