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REVIEW : The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick

Den Patrick's debut novel was announced with a staggering news that Gollancz went deep into their pockets and shelved out a high-profile six-figure sum to acquire the world rights for the entire Erebus Sequence. "The Boy with the Porcelain Blade", being the first novel in the sequence, was then described by a publisher as a dark fantasy with echoes of Mervyn Peake, Robin Hobb and Jon Courtenay Grimwood making it instantly one of my most anticipated novels of the year. Now that it is finally here I can clearly see why Gollancz are getting so worked up. "The Boy with the Porcelain Blade" is really something.

Set in a quasi-Renaissance Italy, "The Boy with the Porcelain Blade" takes place in the troubled Kingdom of Landfall. Our protagonist Lucien di Fontein is a talented but lonely ear-less fighter. He is in fact an Ofrano, a deformed and mishapped mysterious witchling who is struggling to find his way in a political landscape ripe with corruption. Landfall is led by an insane King who lives in isolation and his Majordomo who actually rules the Kingdom. But the complicated politics is only part of the problem. Deep in the countryside the girls are going missing and the actual truth behind the events is much grimmer than anything Lucien thought possible. While notionally being the first novel in the series, "The Boy with the Porcelain Blade" concludes the story in a satisfying way but it does end up with a conclusion that will have readers up in arms.


photography by Lou Abercrombie

Despite not being (at least in fantasy standards) a long book, "The Boy with the Porcelain Blade" packs a lot of punch and is extremely well written in an excellent literary style which is sadly often absent in modern fantasy. While I didn't see much resemblance to the works of Mervyn Peake, I definitely saw many similarities with Jon Courtenay Grimwood's excellent Assassini series which is also set in the pseudo-Italy. However, I think that it will definitely appeal to readers of Robin Hobb. Most interestingly, Patrick uses a quite effective literary device to get his story across and we are slowly brought up to speed by using alternating chapters, some set in present, some in past. As such, "The Boy with the Porcelain Blade" is a rich, literary fantasy thriller which bodes well for the rest of the series. 


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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The story behind Back Behind Enemy Lines by Chris Bridge

I started off in Education and spent many years as an English teacher, before becoming a Headmaster, so writing and books have been a part of my life for quite some time. In my professional life I wrote scripts for school shows, including one called “Cotton On” which I successfully took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

However, the inspiration for this book came from a different source altogether. Reaching my late fifties, inevitably at social gatherings with friends, the subject would turn to that of elderly parents and how best to take care of them as they became increasingly frail. Care Homes just didn't seem like the best option, but what were the alternatives?

My mother, at ninety-five, claimed she was coping living on her own, but I wasn't so sure, and I lived too far away from her to visit regularly. So on the advice of my mother's well-meaning friends and acquaintances, I began to “spy” on her. I realised that my mother, who was fiercely independent, wanted to stay in her own home at all costs. It wasn't just my mother, there were countless other elderly people who were constantly worrying about whether one mistake too many would lead them to a Care Home and the loss of their freedom, as if they were fighting a battle, a struggle “behind enemy lines”.

The more I thought about my mother's predicament, the more I tried to see things from my her point of view, and the inspiration for Anna's character was born.

I wanted to create a woman that the reader could both sympathise with and admire. A woman who could be seen as more than just an elderly lady with her life behind her. So the young, courageous Anna became a secret agent, working for the SOE (Special Operations Executive), and trained to be parachuted into France in 1944.

This character development meant that I needed to do some research on World War Two. I had already read quite a few books about the brave women who served in the SOE, such as Charlotte Gray and They Live for Danger. I had been to Normandy more than once and visited some of the war graves and memorials, but I think what brought their bravery to life for me, more than anything else, was the chance to sit in a Halifax Bomber. Just being able to imagine the experience of one of these women having to jump through the small hatch of the bomber in darkness, not quite knowing what they would encounter when they landed.

I enjoyed introducing and developing new characters in the second half of the book, from Anna's overbearing children to the “young things”, who come to Anna's aid, when she feels like she is once again “Back Behind Enemy Lines”. Anna is haunted by the war and how it has affected her entire life, but she was of that generation that never asked for anything or any help, when the concept of Post Traumatic Stress was not even recognized. This aspect interested me so I did some research on the subject as I didn't think it had been highlighted extensively in many books.

I hope that people enjoy reading the book because it is a riveting spy story, but I also hope that it will be provocative enough for them to really stop and think about the ageing process and how the elderly are treated in our modern society.


Chris Bridge
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REVIEW : Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant

I've read "Rendezvous in Venice" during recent winter holidays which I've happened to spend in Venice. It's was extremely cold. Low temperature accompanied with the kind of soul shivering wind that chills to the bone and yet Venice was as stunning as ever – even more so than usual. That is, if you manage to find those hidden corners where there are no countless tourists to spoil the picture. Philippe Beaussant's beautiful novella was a perfect reading material for the setting, especially since I've shared my time with a woman I passionately love.

Filled with shimmering, evocative prose, "Rendezvous in Venice" is about Pierre who, following in his uncle's footsteps, is trying to discover the secret hidden at the heart of a diary he left behind when he passed away. During the fifteen years Pierre and his uncle Charles spent working together, he always found him to be a charmless, sombre man dedicated sorely to his pursuit of art which he often clinically dissected down to its forming blocks. So suddenly discovering that once upon a time Charles deeply loved someone and subsequently lost her is a striking discovery. Pierre realises that he never truly knew his uncle and decides to embark on a quest to find out more about his secretive past. But when he tracks down Judith, the women from the diary he, instead of finding the truth about his uncle finds love instead. Sarah, Judith's daughter leaves him speechless.

It's not often that you encounter a piece of fiction that has the power to evoke sheer brutality and beauty of falling in love but it turns out Philippe Beaussant knows all the tricks. Pierre's descent into hopelessness of love is beautifully depicted and Beaussant's subtle vocabulary uses just a many words as it is absolutely necessary to get describe it. It is a perfectly measured approach which often delights. And yet it is not all about love of another person. Beaussant equally revels in his character's love of art. Charles's failure with Judith is not depicted as a failure but rather as another path to the same level of personal fulfillment. As such Venice is perfect place to read "Rendezvous in Venice". After all, it is a place built upon love and art, and yet it is irreversibly slowly sinking into mud.


Review copy provided by Pushkin Press
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REVIEW : Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

"Dark Intelligence" is Neal Asher's long awaited comeback to Polity universe and is something of a blinder. To be honest, I desperately wanted it to be great so I'm pretty chuffed that it really is. Long gone are the days when authors were just a name on the cover. Today we, as readers, are often treated to insights about their private lives, their real-life views, interests and passions. In my opinion we're better for it because often you learn to appreciate the authors for what they are and not just because they're, well, such talented writers. So through social media I was aware that Neal had an extremely tough year behind him and I can't even imagine how hard it must've been writing "Dark Intelligence". And yet, contrary to his previous very bleak Owner trilogy, his new one somehow feels carefree and effortless. It brings together all the best bits of the Polity universe while at the same time providing an excellent entry point to newcomers. It's simply a damn good book.

"Dark Intelligence" is story of Thorval Spear, who after dying a century ago in a war between humans and aliens is brought back to life. Upon wakening he learns that an artificial intelligence within rescue ship that should have saved them back then has in fact turned psychotic and killed everyone. For Speak hundred years passed in a blink of an eye and since said AI, called Penny Royal, is still rampaging around, he decides to have his revenge. On the other hand, Isobel Satomi has issues on her own with Penny Royal. A while ago she entered into an unholy alliance with her to stop her crime syndicate to fall into ruin, only to later discover that AI tricked her. She's evolving into a deadly machine that's any day now threatening to completely take over. So the time is running out for both Spear and Isobel. Will he be able to find Penny Royal before Isobel turns completely against him?

It is this feeble balance that powers "Dark Intelligence". Spear and Isobel are perpetually on the knife's edge, and this constant tension works wonders for creating a page-turning atmosphere. It's a damningly gripping and infecting book so prepare yourself for a complete shut down from the world. However, do be prepared for a sudden come down because "Dark Intelligence" is only the first part of the proposed trilogy. Still, by now Neal has fine-tuned his art of writing trilogies down to perfection so for most of its parts "Dark Intelligence" feel like a standalone novel with just enough threads left loose to make you impatiently wait for the sequel. So come 29th, make your way to your local book store and grab yourself a copy - science fiction simply doesn't get better than this.


Review copy provided by Pan / Tor UK
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REVIEW : Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

You just know when you're reading a Sanderson book. They're always incredibly readable, filled with creative storylines and while they're not very deep, the always provide such great entertainment because of their twisty nature. His latest series entitled The Reckoners which deals with superheroes is not an exception. First book in the series, “Steelheart”, was a gripping, action packed roller-coaster ride about bringing on the change in the society while "Mitosis", a recent short story set in the same universe, dealt with the aftermath. "Firefight", next installment in the series continues with the same themes but this time on global scale. Remember, this is a society that's still reeling from the possibilities brought about by the killing of a High Epic - a seemingly impossible task. To put it bluntly, in "Steelheart", a 19 year old David Charleston has found a way to slay his Goliath and while Newcago metropolis is starting to function again, he has a new goal on his horizon - changing the entire world, getting thing at a time.So there's other cities with other High Epics to bring down and this time it's the turn of Firefight.

If you've enjoyed "Steelheart", "Firefight" is for you. It's an altogether bolder and more courageous tale that manages to expand the original premise. At its heart it has that classic fight against an all- powerful evil force that grace so many of Sanderson's book but as you would imagine nothing is purely black and white. For the first time we're introduced to epics that are not just plain evil. And yet, despite that "Firefight" feels much darker. David as a character is increasingly becoming a man driven with something resembling hate. However, is unconditional hate the answer? It's a fine line and in a way I'm worried that he is on the cusp of becoming what he always hated. It's an interesting moral dilemma and has a potential to redefine the meaning of The Reckoners in future installments. But in the end "Firefight" works so well exactly because of that particular reason - it takes David well out of his comfort zone. Babylon Restored or Babylar as it is locally known makes him pull out all the stops and when you combine it with generous helping of revelations that Sanderson peppers all across the book through the characters of Firefight and Regalia, the world of The Reckoners is suddenly presented in all its glory. It's an incredibly vibrant setting that showcases the entire breadth of Sanderson's talent. Expect to finish this one in single sitting.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

My motivation for writing the Huntress Moon series was pretty basic. I was sick to death of reading crime novels and seeing movies and TV  shows about women being raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered.

I’m not too happy about it happening in real life, either.

So my Huntress Moon series turns the tables. The books follow a haunted FBI agent on the hunt for a female serial killer.

There’s just a small problem with that. In real life, female serial killers don’t actually exist. (Oh, I know you’re going to bring up Aileen Wuornos. Not a serial killer. We’ll get to that in a minute!)

The fact is, one reason novels and film and TV so often depict women as victims is that it’s the stark reality. Since the beginning of time, women haven’t been the predators — we’re the prey. But after all those years (centuries, millennia) of women being victims of the most heinous crimes out there… wouldn’t you think that someone would finally say — “Enough”?

And maybe even strike back?

Well, that’s a story, isn’t it?

But it took a long time for me to figure out how to do it right.

I worked as a screenwriter for eleven years before I snapped and wrote my first novel, and in that time I worked on several film projects featuring serial killers. One of my core themes as a writer is “What can good people do about the evil in the world?” – and as far as I’m concerned, serial killers are an embodiment of evil. So for several years I was doing research into the subject every way I could think of besides actually putting myself in a room with one of these monsters. I tracked down the FBI’s behavioral science textbook before it was ever available to the public. I stalked psychological profilers at writing conventions and grilled them about various real life examples. I went to forensics classes and law enforcement training workshops.

And while I was doing all that research, one thing really jumped out at me about serial killers. They’re men. Women don’t do it. Women kill, and sometimes they kill in numbers (especially killing lovers or husbands for money – the “Black Widow” killer; or killing patients in hospitals or nursing homes: the “Angel of Death”) — but the psychology of those killers is totally different from the men who commit serial sexual homicide. Sexual homicide is about abduction, rape, torture and murder for the killer’s own sexual gratification.

(And please don’t get me started on books and films that portray serial killers as having an artistic or poetic bent. Ridiculous….)



So back to Aileen Wuornos: she was not committing sexual homicide; she was a spree killer with a vigilante motivation. I find that psychological and sociological distinction fascinating. (I write about her case, and the psychology of other real life mass killers, in Huntress Moon.)

Then a couple of years ago I was at the San Francisco Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, always the most inspiring of the mystery writing conferences for me. One afternoon there were two back-to-back discussions with several of my favorite authors: Val McDermid interviewing Denise Mina, then Robert Crais interviewing Lee Child. As I’m sure you can imagine, there was a lot of priceless stuff in those two hours! But two things that really struck me from the McDermid/Mina chat were Val saying that crime fiction is the best way to explore societal issues, and Denise saying that she finds powerful inspiration in writing about what makes her angry. Write about what makes you angry? Well, see above! And then right after that, there was Lee Child talking about Reacher, one of my favorite fictional characters, and it got me thinking about what it would look like if a woman were doing what Reacher was doing. For one thing, it would be a lot crazier, because women just don’t DO that. But what if someone did? And that was it—instantly I had the whole story of Huntress Moon. It was a hugely exciting moment, because I’d been trying to write this story for practically ever.

I believe my job as an author is to give my readers a thrilling, sensory, gripping adventure that makes them feel — and also makes them think. It’s all about the fight against everyday evil, for me, and about the deep connections people make with unlikely other people when they commit to that fight. With the Huntress series I finally have an umbrella to explore, dramatically, over multiple books, the roots and context of the worst crimes I know. And at least on paper, do something about it.

Whoever she is, whatever she is, the Huntress is like no killer Agent Roarke – or the reader – has ever seen before. And you may find yourself as conflicted about her as Roarke is.

As one of the profilers says in the book: “I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more women acting out this way. God knows enough of them have reason.”

Books 1 & 2 of the Thriller Award-nominated Huntress/FBI Thrillers, Huntress Moon and Blood Moon, are available now from Thomas & Mercer. Book 3, Cold Moon, releases May 5, and is available for pre-order. Sign up on my Contest page for a chance to win audiobooks, signed print copies, and one of three Kindle Voyages!


Alexandra Sokoloff
http://AlexandraSokoloff.com

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The story behind the Kydd Series by Julian Stockwin

Once upon a time I was a software systems designer. I’d just signed off on my biggest and most fraught project. As I sank into an armchair, my wife Kathy thrust a large tumbler of whisky into my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Sweetheart,’ she said, ‘get a life!’ Her suggestion: that I write. And about the sea...

She’s a former magazine editor, and although she had no evidence of any Julian Stockwin writing skills at that time she persuaded me to give it a go.

Once I’d overcome the initial shock, I realised there was a lot of sense in what she said. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been bewitched by the sea. Going to a decent grammar school was wasted on me; on the school bus I’d gaze out across the Channel at the low, grey shapes slipping away over the horizon on voyages to who knows where, taking my imagination with them. In the late 1950s, the sea seemed to be much more a part of our shared consciousness. As a young boy I remember the thrilling drama of the Flying Enterprise, when Captain Kurt Carlsen refused to leave his sinking ship and, with First Mate Dancy of the ocean salvage tug Turmoil, heroically fought to bring her within sight of port before she tragically sank. Then, too, London Pool was packed with ships flying the red ensign, and it was also the time of the very last of the square riggers. Theoretically, you could still sign up outward-bound on a commercial voyage.

The only member of my family to have any connection with the sea was a distant relative we called Uncle Tom. A gentle, quietly spoken old man, he’d been around the Horn in square sail, and whenever I could I would sit spellbound and listen to him talk about life before the mast on the seven seas.

My father thought he’d knock all this nonsense out of me, and sent me to a tough sea-training school at the tender age of 14. It didn’t work; there was no contest – Latin and algebra or splicing and boat-handling! So at age 15, I joined the Royal Navy.

I’m ‘Old Navy’ with a deep respect and admiration for the service, so it had to be the Navy I’d write about. I chose Nelson’s time, the great climax of the age of sail and a magnificent canvas for sea tales. This was an era when the sea was respected and wooed by men who didn’t have steam engines and brute force. I also wanted to bring the sea itself into a more prominent role, but was as yet unsure how to achieve this.

I soon realised that there were things from my time in the Navy that I wanted to bring to my writing; small things, but evocative even to this day – a shimmering moonpath glittering on the water, the sound of voices from invisible night watchkeepers, the startling rich stink of the land after months at sea, the comfort of a still hammock when the ship rolls about it, the unreal beauty of an uninhabited tropical island in the South Seas.

There were the darker memories, too. Savage storms at sea when you feel the presence of nature like a wild beast out of a cage; close inshore in a gale when you wonder if a mistake at the helm will end with those black rocks suddenly bursting in. I was duty watch in the carrier Melbourne that night when we collided with and sank the Voyager – there from the seaboat I saw men’s courage at work while 80 sailors lost their lives.

But to achieve that more prominent role for the sea, it seemed logical to take the perspective of the men who actually did the job out there on the yardarm, serving the great cannon or crowding aboard an enemy deck, rather than of those shouting orders from behind. So the lower deck it was – and then I came across some surprising statistics.

Unlike the army, where commissions were bought, all naval officers had to qualify professionally, and scattered among these were no more than a hundred or so common seamen who made the awesome journey from the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck, thereby turning themselves into gentlemen. Around a score became captains of their own ships; remarkably, some victims of the press-gang even became admirals. How could it be so? Just what kind of men were they?

I realised that I did not just have enough material for one book, it could be a series!

When I first began writing Kathy gave me an excellent piece of advice: write the book you yourself want to read. I have followed this since then, but with a twist. I write the book I want to read, but I write it to Kathy. There is quite a deal of sea technical information in my books, which of course greatly appeals to the Old Salts, but I am conscious that many of my readers do not share their very detailed knowledge. Kathy has grown to share my fascination for the sea and the skills of the eighteenth century seamen, but she is by no means a sailor! Capturing and retaining her interest in my writing is my way of bringing Tom Kydd’s world to a broad readership. And it has been very gratifying to hear from readers from all walks of life – ages thirteen to eighty, and of both sexes – that they are greatly enjoying the books.

Probably the happiest day of my life was April 3rd, 2001. That was when I stood before over 100 guests at the launch party for Kydd. It was held in the historic Admiralty House in London, which had been the official residence of the First Lord of the Admiralty from 1788 to 1964 – there certainly could be no more splendid venue to honour a novel set in the Great Age of Sail! As I stuttered my speech of thanks, around me I could feel the ghosts of all the great sea heroes of the past that noble building had seen.

Naively, as I walked out in a daze into the night, I thought I would now just return to my writing. But then it all started – interviews on radio, television and with print media journalists. Literary festivals. Book signings. My feet hardly touched the ground for the six weeks after the launch. By nature I am somewhat reticent, especially when answering questions about myself, but a strange thing happened – I found that when I started talking about the world of Thomas Kydd my inhibitions disappeared. I have a huge respect for the eighteenth century seamen – and I take particular pleasure when people can share with me the challenges and fascination of their hard world.

The events to which I have been invited have taken me all over the world, from press lunches in Manhattan to English venues ranging from a 900-year-old Minster in Nottinghamshire to the seaside resort of Southwold, and on to Hay-on-Wye, the tiny market town in the Welsh Marches that hosts probably the world’s most prestigious literary festival.

Initially I envisioned the series might run to a dozen titles. That figure seemed incredibly daunting then but as I’ve delved deeper into the historical record over the course of writing the series I’ve had to review this number upwards, to some 20 or more titles.


Julian Stockwin
Julian Stockwin is the author of the ongoing Kydd Series. The latest title is Pasha. He has also written Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany and a historical stand-alone, The Silk Tree, set in the time of Emperor Justinian. Learn more about him at www.julianstockwin.com. Follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/julian.stockwin and Twitter @julianstockwin
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REVIEW : Ultima by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter is one of my favourite hard science authors ever and, at least in my mind, he is the person who to this day is still successfully channeling the spirit of late Arthur C. Clarke. Baxter is unprecedented in his grasp of scientific fact and while his stories are anything but bombastic, his feel from writing tales about humanity and their relation to evolution and science means that even his strangest stories have that special something - no matter the surroundings. And yet, for the last decade or so, Baxter has decided to forget about the place in which some of his best works unfolded - the space between stars. Lately, he took us back in history through his superb Northland saga, explored dangers of climate change in Flood/Ark and yes, there is that parallel Earth bonanza he writes with Terry Pratchett and a certain Doctor Who book, but I still missed his Xelee and Manifold days. If you feel like me then his latest duology compromised of “Proxima” and “Ultima” is just for you. Last year's “Proxima” was his long anticipated return to intergalactic space while this year's "Ultima" continues the story and delivers a powerful endnote to proceedings while at the same time exploring the origin of just about everything that surrounds us. And what a brilliant conclusion it is! 

"Ultima" unfolds in the aftermath of a discovery that singlehandedly changed everyone's existence. Alien artifact known as the Hatch discovered on Per Ardua by Yuri Eden enable its user to instantaneously access the remote parts of the universe. With everything on our doorstep, our quest for science and knowledge are suddenly progressing in leaps and bounds. Nothing seems to be beyond bounds and it all to easy to ignore signs shouting "Here be dragons" in such vast and bizarre environment. I'm intentionally vague as I find it hard to summarize “Ultima”/”Proxima” in just few sentences. Scope here is simply staggering. As you do in every Stephen Baxter's book, you'll find plenty of wonderful speculations about the origin of everything including time and space and in his approach Baxter harks back to the days of his Manifold trilogy. It is very dense stuff which rewards patient reading. If you enjoy his other recent work perhaps you'll be interested to know that once again, Baxter weaved together his many historical elements that grace his recent books so we're treated to a vision of Roman Empire that simply continued and extrapolations of other societies – and there's plenty of parallel universes as well.

It's obvious by now that Stephen Baxter is a true visionary and in that context “Ultima” doesn't disappoint. However, this is still a pure Stephen Baxter book and those looking for easy gratification will be sorely disappointed. And yet, if you stick at it, “Ultima” is beyond fascinating. At more points that I care to remember my mind was simply blown away by its high concepts and more than a few times I wished that the was a few more books in the offing. As thing stand, “Ultima” often offers too much in too little time and occasionally overwhelms but I expected nothing less from Baxter. In a way “Ultima” is an amalgam of all his previous works and could be considered a crown of his career since it ties together many previously explored concepts with a neat little bow. It is hard, heavy and simply magnificent ride which ends is such a glorious fashion.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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