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The story behind Waking Hell by Al Robertson

When I sat down to start thinking about ‘Waking Hell’, I knew three things about it. First of all, I wanted it to be a science fiction story that also worked as a horror novel, just as my first book, ‘Crashing Heaven’, is fantasy as much as SF. Secondly, I wanted to balance ‘Crashing Heaven’s two lead male characters with a female double act. And thirdly, I wanted it to tell a stand-alone story, albeit one suffused with both revelations about old mysteries and hints of new ones.

Oh, and of course it’s an SF book so it needed to be powerfully futuristic as well. Most of that was already in my head, partially as an evolution from ‘Crashing Heaven’, partially from spending time with tech folk over the last couple of years. Amongst other things, ‘Waking Hell’ talks about augmented reality, virtual worlds, digitised selves, the internet of things, the importance of data integrity and when to fork personalities. And it’s set on Station, a giant inhabited asteroid orbiting an abandoned post-apocalypse Earth. That’s all great from an SF point of view, but looked at as horror fodder there’s one problem with it all – none of it’s very spooky. So, I started watching lots of horror movies. Inspiration hit me hard from two very different directions.

First of all, British horror movies from the forties and fifties – films like ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘The Innocents’ and ‘Dead of Night’ – raced into my mind. Watching them, I felt an odd combination of terror and nostalgia. On the one hand, these are authentically disturbing films, majestic classics that both demand and reward repeated, terrified re-watching. On the other, they come to us out of a simpler past that, when compared with the fearsome complexities of the present, can seem deeply attractive. I made a note of both emotions. Station is inhabited by digital ghosts called Fetches. I knew that I’d be writing about them, about how their society had developed since the end of ‘Crashing Heaven’. The sense of haunted longing that these aging classics evoked in me helped set the mood for their dead lives.

Secondly, I found myself sucked deep into some of the 70s’ more lurid horror flicks – surreal oddities like ‘Le Frisson Des Vampires’, anything Dario Argento ever made, ‘Daughters of Darkness’, ‘To the Devil A Daughter’, and so on. As I watched them, I found fascinated by their bad guys. So many of them were – to my 21st century eyes – ludicrous 70s fops, impressively hairdressed men doing their best to look villainous as their flared trousers and massively over-collared shirts and jackets expanded around them in some weird singularity of tastelessness.

And yet I found them profoundly unsettling. Almost every single one of them had an unshakeable authority that I couldn’t ignore. I realised that, the last time I’d been around people dressed like that, I was tiny and they were grown-ups. I was struck by just how strongly I still felt that elemental adult power. So I lifted it up, moved it over and built it into the book’s antagonists – the Pressure Men. They too are archaic, with all the out-of-time absurdity that that can bring, but like grown-ups to a child they’re also a very powerful, overwhelming presence.

And then there was ‘Waking Hell’s heroine, the fetch Leila Fenech, and her sometime sparring partner, sometime sidekick, fraud investigator Cassiel. Crashing Heaven’s hero, Jack Forster, was in his way quite posh; he’s an accountant-turned-space-warrior who’s spent most of his life at the upper end of the greasy pole that is Station society. So Leila begins the book right down at the bottom. She’s an estate agent, barely hanging on to a job she hates. And through her, we see a whole different side to Station life, understanding what life’s like for the other 98%. We also get an oblique critique of the characters of the first book, as we’re shown just how privileged they really are.

Cassiel works in a different way. She’s a Totality mind, an AI running within a human-shaped blob of nanogel. The Totality are a rebel society of humans and AIs who live on the outer edges of the Solar System. ‘Crashing Heaven’ is set just after the Totality comprehensively defeat the Pantheon, the corporate gods of Station, in a Solar System-wide space war. We hear about it but we don’t really get to see much of it. I wanted to explore exactly how fearsome you’d have to be to win that kind of battle. Cassiel became a vehicle for that, bringing a certain elegant lethality into ‘Waking Hell’. Through her we also get to learn a little more about Totality society, understanding what it values and how it’s developing.

I also had to think about how Waking Hell would interact with ‘Crashing Heaven’ in broader terms. Waking Hell has two female leads to balance ‘Crashing Heaven’s two male ones; an at-first penniless heroine to balance a wealthy one; a sister with a loving brother to contrast with a son whose parents were lost to him; a fiercely moral Totality mind to balance Jack’s sidekick, psychotic virtual ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo Fist; and so on. But these were all just individual points of detail. I started to think about how the book as a whole could contrast with Crashing Heaven.

It struck me that ‘Crashing Heaven’ is quite a forward looking book. It’s all about what happens next; what happens after a space war, what happens when a crime is revealed, what happens when Jack and Hugo find themselves in an intolerable situation and can only push forwards to get out of it. The simplest, most effective way of balancing that seemed to be to look backwards – to have a plot defined by the dangers of yesterday rather than the possibilities of tomorrow. And so, as I wrote ‘Waking Hell’, I thought a lot about how memory, power and the self interact. All of us are made of yesterday; all of us guard and curate our pasts very carefully, because they define us. All of us move forwards while actually looking backwards. But what if someone else can take control of all that history? The book explores what that might mean.

Oh, and there was one last bit of the past in there. It came to me from Paul Koudounaris’ wonderful book ‘Heavenly Bodies’, which explores how the skeletons of ancient Roman religious martyrs were taken up by the Catholic church and ended up as beautifully decorated icons all round Europe. It was profoundly inspiring – but telling you why would be a bit of a spoiler, so all I’m going to do is encourage you to google the book and check out some of the astonishing images in it.

And finally, there’s ‘Waking Hell’ as a stand-alone novel. It is very definitely that – it tells a story that’s complete in itself and that absolutely doesn’t need any knowledge of ‘Crashing Heaven’ to understand. But I did seed it with details referencing the earlier book. We find out more about the Solar System’s main cultures, we check in with some of ‘Crashing Heaven’s key characters and we learn more about Station itself. And I looked forward too – as I wrote, I was toying with ideas about what might happen next, so I dropped some hints into ‘Waking Hell’. There’s a larger, deeper story going on behind both books, and ‘Waking Hell’ in particular holds several clues that begin to reveal it.

So that, in very broad summary, is how ‘Waking Hell’ came together. On the one hand, it’s a very pure science fiction book, suffused with all sorts of SF craziness. But on the other, it draws on quite a wide set of definitely strange and hopefully interesting non-SF inspirations. So it really is both a science fiction and a horror novel – and I hope it’s equally enjoyable as both.


Rod Reynolds
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REVIEW: Waking Hell by Al Robertson

 

"Crashing Heaven" was one of the best sci-fi debuts of last year. With hints of Iain M. Banks and Alaistair Reynolds but still with plenty to make it its own, this astonishing debut instantly made Al Robertson a formidable force to be reckoned with. To further prove the point here's "Waking Hell", "Crashing Heaven"'s sequel and a second installment in a series chronicling the events around Station, humanity's last outpost (and some might say its last chance).

In future the dead are not completely dead but have reached evolutionary point where consciousness can be preserved and a person can continue living through the wires. Utilizing an elaborate technology that involves the use of holograms and weaves, reality itself can be redefined and can become whatever you wish it be - that is if you have the funds. And funds are exactly what Leila Fenech is missing. She is dead and is living as virtual entity and while her terminally ill brother Dieter is alive, he has lost a chance to have a decent afterlife due to insurance scam he fell for and which caused him to lose all his digital memories - a future equivalent of Nigerian prince, so to speak. Leila proceeds to investigate the case and slowly uncovers the plot that could threaten not just her and Dieter but the entire Station. What starts slowly ends up being a wildly exciting rollercoaster ride packed with thrills through the world in which the borders between physical and virtual have been completely blurred and where the Gods is software. It's all very highly conceptual and very readable, written in a story that reminded me a lot of another underrated and sadly forgotten science fiction series - Eric Brown's Bengal Station.

Even though "Waking Hell" is technically a second book in the series you will have no issues by not having read the first one. "Waking Hell" has a different cast of characters and Station is a place that organically evolves through time so even the constant readers will be slightly disoriented. It's a wonderful place that's worth exploring at ease - it seems like even Robertson seems to appreciate this, filling the first part of the books with less action and more character and setting development.

"Waking Hell" is anything but a difficult second novel. If anything, there seems to be lightness to Robertson's writing. "Waking Hell" proves once again that he has plenty to offer to readers looking for intelligent science fiction filled with engaging characters, drama, emotions and advanced technology. Very recommended.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

 

Usually whenever a tenth or twentieth or, God forbid, thirtieth anniversary of a book I like comes out, I suddenly feel incredibly old. I will remember the good old days (hah!) when I first read it and realise I was, say, 15 at the time, and instantly I'm ancient. Interestingly enough the revised definite tenth anniversary edition of Elantris (to give it its full title) had quite the opposite effect on me. I couldn't believe only ten years have passed since it was published! I had a good thought about it and I think this is due to Brandon Sanderson being a writing powerhouse that he is - it's almost too incredible to comprehend that only ten years ago, he was a nobody, a budding author, especially when you put it against his staggering body of work. Yet, I do remember when Elantris originally came out. Regrettably, at the time I've completely ignored it even though I received a review copy. Similar to now, at the time I was reviewing books and similar to now, I was conscious of the fact that reading every fantasy debut that comes out would kill me so I was very picky. Eventually I've only crossed path with Elantris after falling in love with Mistborn and I was stunned how good it was and by the sheer force of Sanderson's imagination. It was unlike anything I've read before and since, and I will never forget the tale of Spirit and Sarene set in gormenghastian Elantris. This tenth anniversary was therefore a welcome excuse to read through it again and whether you read it or not I advise you to do the same. It's still an incredible book to (re)discover.

So, what's in this definite edition? When you look at the body of the novel, not a lot really unless you are really pedantic. There are couple of tweaks that make the story more consistent (for example, one of the houses is moved from one side of the city to another), and there is a plethora of bonus contest (some 10000 words). Out of these the most interesting for me were the essays on the genesis of the novel as well as a quite interesting deleted scene.

It is difficult to answer whether you should buy this new version of Elantris if you already have it but I would rather say yes than no, if only to gift your old copy to someone else. For a start, it is the definite, authoritative version of a classic fantasy novel and the bonus content alone is worth the entrance fee. So, join me in saying happy 10th anniversary Elantris! You've aged well!


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

 

Obsidian & Blood was one of those series whose existence sounds completely implausible. I certainly never thought I'll ever get to read anything that even comes close to Aztec fantasy and initially I've thought that Angry Robot were taking a huge gamble with it. Couple of years later I simply had to admit that I was wrong and that Angry Robot had some really good editors at the time. The simple fact is that, putting the subject and the niche interest aside, Aliette de Bodard knows her way with words and that I would read her works even if she wrote about making a pizza dough. Perhaps I am pushing the metaphor too far but that's only to say that I'm not in the least surprised that she made it to the major league and that her latest novel, wonderful "The House of Shattered Wings", is being published by none other than Gollancz.

"The House of Shattered Wings" is a strange book but strange in this context is a good thing because it is a de Bodard flavour of strange. Story itself is slightly hard to explain. Taking place in a fantasy version of Paris, we find the city in the aftermath of Great Houses War that nearly destroyed the city with magic. The once beautiful city is filled with burning ruins and even some of the landmarks haven't survived the destruction. Notre-Dame is no longer recognizable. And yet, among all the chaos there is beauty in everyday life that keeps on going despite everything. One of the most powerful Parisian houses, House Silverspires, has lost a lot. Its leader Morningstar for a start. No one knows what exactly happened with him, whether he's dead or he just left and as if that wasn't enough there's a new trouble looming on the horizon. Within its rank, three people work together to salvage what’s left. First and foremost a Fallen called Isabelle, and an immortal but not Fallen Philippe, as well as alchemist Madeleine. Last but not least Selene, the Head of the Silverspires. It is up to them to navigate the fragile city ravaged by conflict and power struggle that takes no prisoner and try to find sense in the happenings.

Reading "The House of Shattered Wings" was initially slightly confusing. You, as a reader, are thrown in an aftermath of a monumental event that changed everything and yet, there's is scarcely any information about what really happened to cause the whole thing. And there's a wealth of things to understand in relation to the society itself. But in my opinion that's part of its appeal as it makes you read the book really slowly, with appreciation for its carefully crafted atmosphere and characters. To conclude, if you enjoyed last year's Son of the Morning by Mark Alder which was also published by Gollancz you should definitely pick up "The House of Shattered Wings". Its intriguing mix of mythos and magic is a perfect introduction to Aliette de Bodard's new creation and I’m already looking forward to sequels. This is definitely Paris like you've never seen before.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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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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The story behind Black Night Falling by Rod Reynolds

What makes a sequel interesting?

What do readers look for in a second book?

How does an author make a series compelling?

These are the questions I was wrestling with when I started writing my second Charlie Yates novel, BLACK NIGHT FALLING. Set six months after THE DARK INSIDE, the story sees Charlie return to the south, to Hot Springs, Arkansas - a small town rife with corruption and violence, and just a stone's throw from the place of his nightmares: Texarkana.

I hadn't initially planned to write a series - at least not in the sense of having a recurring protagonist. Inspired by the work of James Ellroy and David Peace, my intention was to write books set in the same universe, where some characters would recur and stories would overlap, but without each book being a direct sequel. However, once my publisher suggested one based around Charlie, the idea quickly grew on me.

The strength of some series lies in the unchanging nature of the hero; readers respond to the reassurance of an unbending, unbreakable superman; think Bond, Reacher, et al. But Charlie was never that kind of character, and it was important to me that the reader saw his evolution. He's a damaged individual at the start of THE DARK INSIDE, but he draws strength from believing he's hit rock bottom - only to discover that there are greater horrors waiting for him than he could ever have imagined. What effect would that have in the long run? In real life, no one could just shrug off a trauma like that. And then, how will he respond when, in Black Night Falling, he begins to realise that even after everything he endured, everything he risked, maybe the job was left unfinished - and the consequences are now being felt?

It's said that readers of series want the same book as before, but done differently. It's a paradoxical line that serves to illustrate the challenge writers face. In my case, I wanted to meet that desire but without retreading the same story. I also wanted to stretch myself - and from those requirements came the character of Ella Borland. A former prostitute with links to both Texarkana and to the murders Charlie comes to investigate, Ella was the character I was keenest to introduce. I'm fascinated by characters who are morally ambiguous - who exist in shades of grey - and Ella typifies that. While some might see her a villain, I wanted to show how she was, in many ways, a victim of circumstance; of an environment where women like her were, at best, playthings for powerful men - and at worst, disposable. In some ways, Ella became the counterpoint to Charlie; he's a man guilty of cowardice but also capable of acts of great courage. Ella, on the other hand, is a strong woman who sometimes lets her worst instincts guide her actions. Ultimately, it's up to the reader to decide if those actions are justifiable or not - and I wanted that to be part of the intrigue.

Introducing new characters is one way to make each book feel new and different, but the challenge still remains to keep the core of the series alive and interesting and fresh. In trying to tackle this, I eventually came back to my influences, to what I have enjoyed most as a reader, and started to think about what made Peace's Red Riding Quartet and Ellroy's LA Quartet so compelling. I came to realise that it was the continuity - in terms of style and atmosphere, but mostly in the sense that they all formed part of a single story arc - that propelled me so dizzyingly through each. Cause and effect were the watchwords. Unlike in many series, in those two examples we see how the events of one book set off reverberations of their own, and how that feeds into the next. Above all, we see how events have consequences.

That became my focus. My first novel was ostensibly about a washed up reporter chasing a serial killer - but it was also a story of redemption; of Charlie seeking to atone for his past mistakes, no matter the personal and psychological cost. In BLACK NIGHT FALLING, that bill comes due.


Rod Reynolds
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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland cover art and synopsis

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland will be published on Jun 13, 2017 by William Morrow. 

Synopsis:


From bestselling author Neal Stephenson and critically acclaimed historical and contemporary commercial novelist Nicole Galland comes a captivating and complex near-future thriller combining history, science, magic, mystery, intrigue, and adventure that questions the very foundations of the modern world

When Melisande Stokes, an expert in linguistics and languages, accidently meets military intelligence operator Tristan Lyons in a hallway at Harvard University, it is the beginning of a chain of events that will alter their lives and human history itself. The young man from a shadowy government entity approaches Mel, a low-level faculty member, with an incredible offer. The only condition: she must sign a non-disclosure agreement in return for the rather large sum of money.

Tristan needs Mel to translate some very old documents, which, if authentic, are earth-shattering. They prove that magic actually existed and was practiced for centuries. But the arrival of the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment weakened its power and endangered its practitioners. Magic stopped working altogether in 1851, at the time of the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace—the world’s fair celebrating the rise of industrial technology and commerce. Something about the modern world “jams” the “frequencies” used by magic, and it’s up to Tristan to find out why.

And so the Department of Diachronic Operations—D.O.D.O.—gets cracking on its real mission: to develop a device that can bring magic back, and send Diachronic Operatives back in time to keep it alive . . . and meddle with a little history at the same time. But while Tristan and his expanding operation master the science and build the technology, they overlook the mercurial—and treacherous—nature of the human heart.

Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson’s work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland’s storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible, and take you to places—and times—beyond imagining.


Order The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland here:

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson cover art and synopsis

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson will be published on March 16, 2017 by Orbit Books. 

Synopsis:


A new vision of the future of New York City in the 22nd century, a flooded, but vibrant metropolis, from Kim Stanley Robinson, the New York Times bestselling author of science fiction masterworks such as the Mars trilogy, 2312, and Aurora.

The waters rose, submerging New York City.
 
But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever.
 
Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.
 
Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.
 
And how we too will change.

Order New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson here:

The Corporation Wars Emergence by Ken MacLeod cover art and synopsis

The Corporation Wars Emergence by Ken MacLeod will be published on September 27, 2017 by Orbit Books. 

Synopsis:


The enemy is out in the open. The Reaction has seized control of a resource-rich moon. Now it's enslaving conscious robots - and luring the Corporations into lucrative deals. Taransay is out in the jungle. Her friends are inside a smart boulder on the slope of an active volcano. The planet is super-habitable - for its own life, not hers. But soon, the alien infestation growing on her robot body is the least of her problems. Carlos is out of patience. With the Reaction arming for conquest, the Corporations trading with the enemyand the Direction planning to stamp out the rebel robots and their allies for good, he has to fight fire with fire. Seba is out of time. Deep inside the enemy stronghold, the free robots have to spark a new revolt before the whole world falls in on them. As battle looms, the robots must become their own last hope.


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REVIEW: Crosstalk by Connie Willis

 

Connie Willis is a special kind of author. Fiercely intelligent with a keen eye for detail and an intriguing story to tell, she comes across as a modern version of a traditional storyteller - her tales will stay with you for a very long time and you probably won't be able to sleep until you know what happened in the end. Tomorrow you will wake up and tell your friends about them as they will be so fascinating and through intriguing. I still remember how impatient I was when I finished an advance copy of Blackout and was forced to wait for All Clear to arrive. It was not nice. “Crosstalk”, her latest novel is thankfully a self-enclosed tale and is not part of Oxford Time Travel sequence. On the face of it, it is something of a departure from her work up to this point but is still deliciously twisted tale that only she knows how to deliver.

"Crosstalk" may initially seem like a romantic comedy of sorts. Briddey is working in product management in mobile phone industry for a hip company called Commspan, and her biggest ambition in life is to surpass anything that new iPhone will deliver.It’s a worthy goal but in personal life she seems to have everything lined up as well as the love of her life (or at least love of the previous six week), Trent is working together with her and their relationship is blossoming. He is sharing with her everything apart from his inner thoughts and that is exactly what he is giving to her as a sign of his love - an EDD procedure. EDD is something truly frightening. If you thought people expose too much of their private lives on social media, EDD, or emotional telepathy as it is better known, will send shivers down your spine. It is basically a procedure that will enable two people to sense each other's feelings, experiencing their innermost emotions as their own. Doing something so intrusive can't possible end up right, and it's exactly what happens. Briddey gets much more than she bargained for as her procedure develops a staggering side-effect.

"Crosstalk" is not the most innovative or the best novel that Willis has written in her career but it is certainly the most playful one.  Extrapolation of present day technology where everyone is willing to share every last minute detail of their private lives to a whole new level is incredibly intriguing and for me absolutely terrifying. And yet the story itself is anything but. It is a light-hearted tale that borders on comedy of errors and a treat to read.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW: The Bone Collection by Kathy Reichs

 

Some of the best crime stories come in form of novellas. It is this shorter form that will usually bring out the fresh elements in any established author, one who would generally keep pumping out novels year after the year, setting itself into a comfortable routine. Novellas give way to a more experimental writing and allow space for stories not necessary fitting to be fleshed out to 400 plus pages but that still deserve to be told. Think of them as one night stands, or a passionate short relationships that fizzle out quickly even though you have the time of your life. "The Bone Collection", the latest collection by Kathy Reichs firmly occupies this territory. It features four blood chilling tales, one of which is completely new to this collection and goes to the very beginnings of Reich's most famous creation, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. It was amazing to realise that even after all these years that particular story has never been told before. One after another they're all exciting and unputdownable reads.

The collection opens with "Bones in her Pocket" and it is simply a showcase of why we treasure Reichs. A number of bones turn up in a lake and what initially looks like a clear cut case of identification ends ups being something far more complex. I particularly enjoyed the ending which came out of nowhere and simply blew me away. Due to limitations of novella, the characters are not as fleshed out as you would expect them to be but it's still fascinating to see how effortlessly Reich managed to condense a novel-worth of story into such short tale.

Following on is "Swamp Bones", another previously published novella that sees Dr. Brennan going on vacation to Florida Everglades. While there Brenna is helping a friend with a local situation involving a python when human bones are found. It's such an interesting setting for a story and once one, there is much more to the plot than it initially seems. This is probably my favourite tale in the collection.

But if you enjoyed the setting of "Swamp Bones", it is nothing compared to one you'll find in "Bones on Ice", a story that involves mummified corpse retrieved from the Death Zone on Mount Everest. It's a breathless tale with plenty of twists of occupy your thoughts.

So far so good but the last novella in the collection will end up being the one everyone will be talking about. "First Bones" is a fascinating insight into how Temperance Brennan became what she is today and presents us with her first forays into the world of forensic science. Reichs has always tried to make Dr. Brennan an ordinary human being so it is not weird that she stumbles upon her future occupation almost by accident. Plenty of familiar face make an appearance so for fans of the series "First Bones" will be cherished and re-read.

"The Bone Collection" is an extremely accessible collection that I would wholeheartedly recommend to both new and constant readers of Reichs. Best enjoyed one at a time, these four novella showcase perfectly her ability in crafting a story that will leave you breathless and asking for more I am jealous of readers who are meeting Temperance Brennan for the first time - you are in for a ride.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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The story behind THE WHITE CITY by SIMON MORDEN

I don’t write the same story twice. Obviously, it’d be easier for me if I did: same characters, bigger bad guy, ramp up the peril, final showdown, victory, and onwards! It works for some. It works very well for some. For all I know, my publishers past and present would love me to do this – find a winning formula and stick to it. It’s not me, though. I have to do things the hard way, apparently.

So having chased a disparate bunch of people through the Underground and into Down by making them believe that London has been incinerated in a huge, unprecedented catastrophe, and then doing several unspeakable things to them before finally getting them to the end of Down Station, slightly ahead of the game – I’m not going to do the same thing this time, am I?

Hell no. Part of the reason why I don’t write the same book twice is because I’m not the same person writing the book. I’m older, for a start. I’ve absorbed new experiences, met new people, read new books, learnt new facts and been exposed to new ideas. Some people don’t want to change: they want to stay the same. Not me. If I’m not growing and learning and moving forward, then I suppose I’d have to say I’m shrinking and becoming more ignorant and I’m heading backwards. That’s not a good place to be, surely?

In the months between finishing Down Station and starting The White City, something incredibly significant happened: my father died. We knew throughout 2014 that he was ill, and he wasn’t going to get better. I managed to hand in the manuscript for Down Station before I went to help my mother look after him. Four weeks later, he was gone.

It took a long time to start writing again, and one of the reasons I finally forced myself to sit down in front of a blank page was simply because I was contractually obliged to do so. It was … incredibly hard work. Those first few chapters became as bleak as anything I’d written before. And slowly, I started to construct a story based around the themes of sacrifice and safety, and how much of one you’re prepared to do in order to get the other.

This isn’t to say that Down Station is a light-hearted romp, and The White City is a terrible, dark, soul-crushing tale. Neither of those is true. Down Station pitches the survivors from London into a world of slavery, barbarism and betrayal. The White City shows them beginning to not only survive, but if not quite thrive, certainly come to terms with their predicament and go some way to becoming agents of their own destinies once more.

The other part of the reason of not writing the same book twice is because it’s not just me who’s a different person: it’s the characters themselves. Mary is becoming more confident in her abilities. Dalip is getting used to having to make decisions for himself. And Mama stops trying to boss everyone around and learns to trust people, Dalip especially. That has enormous ramifications for the plot – there’s less of things that happen to them, and more things they actively do, to try and bend Down to their will. Of course, Down being a character in its own right, isn’t going to be bent so easily, and has plenty of surprises hidden away in the folds of the landscape.

In the end, The White City ended up one of the quickest books I’d ever written. The words just poured out of me. It didn’t stop there, either. 2015 saw me write somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million words. It was, I suppose, catharsis. But it was lots of other things too. Because you can never go back.


Simon Morden
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REVIEW: Obelisk by Stephen Baxter

 

If you have never read anything by Stephen Baxter, "Obelisk" is, in a nutshell, a perfect representation of his works. Stephen Baxter is something of a phenomenom in this day and age. With one foot he's firmly in the past and can be considered something of a spiritual successor of science fiction giants he admires so much, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke. With the other he is in the far future imagining alternate histories and possible futures for all of the mankind. 

Seventeen stories (two of which previously unpublished) in this collection are separated in four section, first one containing stories set in his recent duology "Ultima" and "Proxima". First one is "On Chryse Plain", a meditation on our reliance upon technology and the consequences of getting disconnected. After a nearly death crush that leaves three people stranded on the Mars' surface, the difference between the life and death will be decided by the unlikely source - an old piece of space tech you might be familiar with called the Viking. It's a stunning story to open a collection. Following on is "A Journey to Amasia", story that feel like the deleted scene from "Ultima" / "Proxima" and will also strike a chord with readers who enjoyed this year's collaboration with Alastair Reynolds, "The Medusa Chronicles". "Obelisk", the third story in the collection, is definitely one of my favourites and explores the development of human settlement on Mars, and the way low gravity can be user of incredible feats of engineering. It's wildly imaginative story that at its heart is still about the human condition. The final page will make many of you shed a quiet tear. Finally, in this section we find "Escape from Eden", a short but pleasurable episode in Martian life.

Second section "Other Yesterday" features the stories occupying a different side of the spectrum when Baxter's work is concerned. His constant readers will remember "Time's Tapestry", "Mammoth" and "Northland" all being series exploring alternative histories. This is where Baxter usually gets to be playful and explored what might have happened if a crucial turning point in history went the other way. Chilling "Darwin Anathema" exploring the concept of modern age inquisition digging up Darwin's corpse to ravage his life and work is one of the best stories Baxter has wrote so far. "Mark Abides" is another bittersweet stories that explored the final moments of human race as it succumbs to radiation sickness and internal fighting. Impressive stuff.

Third section "Other Todays", with only two stories as closer to home. Playful "The Pevatron Rats" involves particle accelerators, rats that propagate through black holes and quantum tunnelling. It's a sly dig at some of the ridiculous press stories surrounding the LHC. 

Final section, "Other Tomorrows" opens up with "Turing's Apples" and concludes with "Starcall", two of my favourites, first a powerful tale about the first contact and second an incredible tale about the AI controlled starship travelling to the stars and a little boy who grows up on Earth during the trip. Ever ten years he makes a Starcall to the AI and receives an answer in return. Through the calls, Baxter explores the development of society and science leading up to a heart wrenching finale. Simply stunning.

Whether you are a constant or a casual reader, "Obelisk" is something you should treat yourself to. It's an incredible collection from a modern age successor to H.G. Wells.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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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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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
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REVIEW : The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

 

I should probably admit straight at the start that Adam Roberts' latest novel "The Thing Itself" confused me completely. It is one of those rare books that I have read twice in quick succession simply for the reason that first time around I've just skipped some of its more experimental chapters in an effort to grasp what's it about. It was a bit much for me as I just don't think I'm learned enough about philosophy to truly understand it. As I turned the finally page I wasn't even sure what it was that I have just read and I can already see that I should prepare myself for another thorough re-read. "The Thing Itself" is a really good novel but one I don't think I'll every completely figure out. It is basically a new genre in itself. In a similar way that Greg Egan writes the hardest Hard Science Fiction there is, Roberts has created something akin to Hard Philosophy Fiction, a metaphysical novel that explores the nature of the reality and existence through Kant, AIs and Fermi's Paradox. And it's dense. Very, very dense.

Purely on the story level, "The Thing Itself" is about a life-long connection between two men, Charles and Ray, who back in the 80s as part of ongoing SETI research embarked on a polar expedition together. They're total opposites and their stay at a remote base is strenuous at best. Ray is an introverted computer geek who's obsessed with Kant. On the other hand, Charles is a scientist who is very down to earth. He writes letters, even playing a chess game with a friend through them, reading newspaper that occasionally arrive. One night, Ray tries to kill Charles and leaves him to die in cold. After suffering though frightening hallucinations and frostbites, Charles loses fingers and toes, and effectively ends up scarred for life. Ray ends up in mental institution. From that point on Charles' life is one big downward spiral. First losing his job at the university, due to drinking problems he also loses his post as a teacher, and ends up working a bin men. All through his life he's been shadowed in his dream by a strange kid, Ray's still writing to him. It all comes back again when a stunningly beautiful woman appeared on his doorstep. She's asking him to join the shadowy Institute which does research into AI, remote viewing and the nature of reality in general. They want both Charles and Ray in their ranks. In-between this, relatively straightforward story, is a series of experimental chapters, each delivered in a different style - one that's particularly hard to read because there's no punctuation marks in it. Another one's written as numbered list.

So, in the end, is "The Thing Itself" a good novel? It's an experimental novel so it all depends on your preferences. Personally, I found it deeply fascinating but hard to understand. The closest reference point for me was Philip K. Dick's VALIS trilogy which fits in the same general literary area but "The Thing Itself" is definitely much more fun.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Eleven years in the making – or, how I got started on Revenger.

I can’t speak for other writers, but for me the act of commencing a novel is often the culmination of a period of creative gestation, a slow accretion of ideas and impulses over at the very least several years, and sometimes rather more than that. The feeling is of an itch that becomes more and more insistent, to the point where it’s no longer ignorable and must be scratched.

I’d finished a large, sprawling trilogy – the Poseidon’s Children sequence – and Stephen Baxter and I had just completed our collaborative tribute to Arthur C Clarke, The Medusa Chronicles. Both of those works were set in complex, detailed near-term futures with a strong emphasis on speculative plausibility. Now it felt time for something different. But what, exactly?

Revenger turned out to be the intersection of two unfulfilled ideas which had been bubbling away at the back of my mind for a long time. But seeing the connection between these ideas was anything but straightforward.

The first was the idea of a tense adventure story involving a kind of futuristic heist scenario, with a squad of experts breaking into a sealed-off alien worlds to recover valuable technology and information from within. The catch was that they only had a limited time in which to do so, before the world sealed itself up again. I thought that this scenario could be potentially quite tense and interesting, even more so if there were rival teams and many such artefacts available to be cracked.

My story notes for this go back to October 2005. Here’s a short excerpt from those notes:

Caverns are open for at least a specified time, long enough to enable normal teams to get in and extract some stuff, but not long enough to make a return trip to the far end and back. The high-pay teams therefore specialise in staying inside longer than the maximum safe time. There is a sliding scale of pay for those teams prepared to remain inside for the longest time: the rate of pay is constantly ticking upwards, as decided by the contract firms under the main combine. Teams are constantly arguing and breaking up, with members defecting to other partnerships.

I tried writing this story several times. Each time I got a certain way into the narrative before the momentum died and I didn’t know how to carry on. The heist scenario was fun up a point, but something more was lacking. I tried bolting it into the Carrie Clay universe (as featured in a couple of short pieces of mine) but the story died on me. That’s where I left it – but that itch was still present.

Fast forward half a decade to 2011.

I had another itch. I’d long been a fan of the Known Space stories of Larry Niven, and I loved the idea of a scenario in which humans used and adapted alien technologies for their own ends. In the Known Space books, human spacecraft are made up of all sorts of foreign technology, carefully integrated. I liked that concept, as well as the freewheeling, adventurous spirit of those early stories, but obviously I didn’t want to do a straight re-hash of Larry Niven.

Instead, I was homing in on a different scenario, but which would allow a similar action and adventure feel. My plan at the time – which I cunningly called “Project X” – was as follows:

Three stories of 7000 words each, establishing world and characters for an open-ended series.

Very far future, space-based setting. Locale must contain numerous worlds and venues – it should feel capable of containing many stories. Main protagonists would be human, but there would also be many secondary characters who are possibly posthuman, artificial intelligences, or aliens.

The intention was to write and polish the stories, establishing the cross-links between them, before attempting to publish them. I wanted to make a definite splash, introducing a new, fully-developed universe as if a curtain had just been pulled back on a magnificent stage-set.

Obviously those three stories didn’t happen. But the notes show the sketchy outline of what would eventually become the Revenger universe:

Our own solar system, transformed into a Dyson swarm, a billion years in the future. Countless posthuman civilisations have come and gone. Now a relatively small population of baseline humans has begun to spread out, explore and colonise the ruins. Throughout the stories, there could be the gradual peeling back of the larger mystery of what happened to the last posthuman civilisation. This would allow for an endless variety of worlds and societies, yet all within a few light hours of each other. Travel between parts of the swarm need not take longer than weeks at the most.

Tellingly, there’s also this throwaway remark about a putative character:

She would have a particular set of skills which involve some risky activity that varies from story to story – say, extracting artefacts or data from alien puzzle boxes.

So – the idea from 2005 is reiterated here, in slightly different form. You would think it would be straightforward then: the 2005 idea meets the 2011 idea and there’s a fully-realised set of stories waiting to be written, or perhaps a novel. There’s a world, a character, a challenging thing for that character to be getting on with. Enough, surely?

But none of that stuff is obvious to me.

These two sets of notes sat on my hard-drive, barely a mouse click apart, for another four years (into 2015) before it occurred to me that all I had to do was splice them together and I had enough material for a book. It wasn’t quite a Eureka moment, because I’m well used to this sort of tardy mental association by now – more a Homer-esque “doh!” that the answer was there all along, if only I’d had the wit to see it. I’d already been through a similar head-slapping process of belated realisation with Slow Bullets, which also only caught fire when I mated two different sets of story notes, both of which were years old.

So that’s the genesis of Revenger, in essence. There was a lot still to be done, needless to say – like actually writing the damned thing, and finding my way into a barely-imagined world, discovering the characters and their voices, and gradually stripping back the “tech” of my human society until, for better or for worse, we arrive at a kind of steampunk/valvepunk/age-of-fighting-sail mashup, with space-going ships with actual sails and rigging, pirate crews with crossbows, and all the nautical atmosphere I could summon from years of reading Forester, O’Brian and so on. I had tremendous fun with it, anyway, and I do think there’s a room for a few more stories in that setting. It’s take eleven years to get here, after all.

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds is out now, published by Gollancz in hardback


Alastair Reynolds
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The story behind Night Without Stars by Peter F. Hamilton

More of the same, only different.  It’s a perpetual problem for those of us writing long-running series; not just in fantasy or science fiction, which these days trends toward the multi-book format, but also for writers with much-loved detectives or secret agents.   The Commonwealth Universe, that I’ve been writing about since 2004 when Pandora’s Star was first published, is one that readers are now as familiar with as I am myself.   Paradoxically, although I have an entire universe to play with and explore, that tends to be quite limiting.  There are only so many ‘fresh’ worlds that the expanding Intersolar Commonwealth can encounter only to discover yet another deadly threat to civilization.  How quickly the familiar can become repetitive, a position from which the fall to boredom is a short one.  In the case of Night Without Stars this problem was particularly acute.  It’s the seventh book in the series, everybody knows the parameters, and I cannot mess with the continuity.

To carry the story forward, I had to rely heavily on the characters.  Fortunately, the previous six books have provided quite an extensive cast list to choose from.  But once again I didn’t want to fall back on the old reliables –with one major exception that allowed me a degree of continuity.

By focusing on the newer characters, I was able to return to the fundamentals of science fiction which is exploring ideas and how they impact on the individual for better or worse.  Today’s world is science fiction to someone from the fifties.  Yet for all its shiny gadgets and fast pace, so many old problems persist -we have simply adapted to them.  So how will people adapt to new problems progress will create?

This is where the author in me takes over, observing the world today and extrapolating mundane situations.  For Night Without Stars this all came together from a trip to Leipzig.  I was a guest at a convention there a few years ago, and my hosts very kindly arranged for several trips into the city.  One of the main attractions for the visiting authors was the Stasi museum, which by quirk of fate was actually the old Stasi headquarters.  

Looking round, for the first time I really started to appreciate just how intrusive the East European state had been into the lives of its citizens.   The extensive underground vaults built purely to accommodate the incredible numbers of files the Stasi had on everybody, all studiously cross indexed in rolodexes.  I could barely grasp the paranoia driving it, the amount of effort that the state put into monitoring people was phenomenal.  It represented an institutional level of behaviour I found deeply disturbing, as if a particular strain of insanity had become infectious.  This was an entire country gripped by fear and suspicion, with everyone content to inform on their neighbour.

On top of that was the spy technology on display, the jewel in the crown to captivate every ten-year-old.  The jacket with inbuilt (film) camera, where the collar button was a lens.  Micro-tape recorders –not cassettes, these had actual spools.  Microphone bugs.  Now bear in mind the Berlin wall came down in 1989, which is the time from which everything in the museum is preserved.  These gadgets were the best technology available.  Really?   I had the advantage of looking back across twenty years of digital development, however even taking that into account, everything was so primitive.  Yet because of that basic nature, it still worked.  It was less fragile, more reliable than today’s electronics where we upgrade everything every two years.

And there it all was, in context, sitting in glass cases in the very building where it had been used in anger.  So I started to look at it all through author eyes.  If something happened, if our smartphones and laptops failed, all the equipment around me could be started up again without much trouble.  All that was left to complete the nightmare was the return of paranoia, something would have to come along to justify the obsession and mistrust.

That was the key to creating the world in Night Without Stars; a civilization which had fallen from its technological and democratic peak. It was easy to picture a world under threat, allowing the political class to convince everyone that overwhelming state security was essential for their own protection.  It gave me the book’s character theme; those working tirelessly to do what they believe is their duty, encounter something new and strange, forcing them examine their world from a new and uncomfortable viewpoint.  Exactly what Science Fiction should be.

Night Without Stars by Peter F Hamilton is out now, published by Macmillan price £20.00 in hardback


The Story Behind Night Without Stars
Peter F. Hamilton
September, 2016
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REVIEW: Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote

 

Elizabeth Heathcote's “Undertow” is one of the more interesting debuts of the year. However, while a psychological thriller at its heart, "Undertow" is something of a trickier beast as far as its story is concerned. Filled with complex characters and plotlines, it is an immensely pleasurable piece of atmospheric domestic noir, which although not without its, admittedly easy to overlook, faults, manages to grip from the opening page.

Carmen is happy in her marriage with ten years older, successful lawyer, Tom, but unfortunately she can never escape the felling that something is missing to complete the picture. Problem is mostly with Tom who simply can't get over the death of his beautiful love Zena. He left his first wife for her even though they were happy and had three children. For outside, it's almost like he is doing the same thing to his second one as well as Zena is never out of him mind. However, Carmen is happy to gloss over the issue as she and Tom are looking forward to starting a family of their own until the moment where a series of tiny signs start to point towards an unbearable truth - that Zena's death by drowning was anything by an accident. It increasingly looks like Tom was responsible for her death. Carmen, journalist by trade, can stop herself being curious and slowly open a door to a terrifying fact and unpredictable outcome.

For a debut novelist Elizabeth Heathcote is surprisingly skilful with words even though I feel that some of the passages have been terribly overwritten. Luckily these are few and far between and Undertow is a perfect jumping board for Elizabeth to continue honing her skills. I have no doubt “Undertow” is an intriguing debut well worth checking out.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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REVIEW: The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

 

For the last couple of years Alison Littlewood has been one of the finest voices in contemporary British horror / paranormal literature so each time a new book of hers pops up in my mail box I can't wait to sink my teeth into it. Ever since her breakthrough novel "A Cold Season" was picked up by Richard and Judy as part of their book club, Alison has been churning out intriguing and clever chilling stories that always manage to raise my heartbreak. Her latest one, a strange historical twister called "The Hidden People" is no exception. It's one of those books that you will probably read over the course of a single night and wonder in the morning where the time has gone, as bleary eyed realise you have to go to work.

"The Hidden People" is a gothic tale that revolves around the tragic death of one Pretty Lizzie Higgs who was burned on her own hearth. Her husband was accusing her of being a changeling for a while now and therefore murdered her. Albie Mirralls met his cousin ages ago at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and knowing her is unwilling to accept the circumstances. He decides to leave his life in London and head to Halfoak, a small village where Lizzie lived. Not exactly knowing what exactly is he doing, he finds that the truth is far more strange and complicated than he bargained for. As he arrives Lizzie hasn't even been buried. She is kept in a garden cottage and it is up to Albie to organize a burial - to which no one comes. But that is just the beginning. In Halfoak, "Hidden People" and old wives' tales might have more than a grain of truth to them.

"The Hidden People" is an intriguing piece of work that takes its cue from complex mythology and superstition to weave a timeless story that equally delights and disturbs. It's a welcome addition to Littlewood's bibliography and mightily easily become one of the sleeper hits of the year.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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REVIEW : Blood and Bone by V.M. Giambanco

 

When crime fiction is discussed among ourselves, our editor often shares his opinion that Mari Hannah and V. M. Giambanco are two of the most important contemporary writers of the same. Never having read any of the fiction published by them I was pleasantly surprised when "BLOOD AND BONE", the latest novel in the Alice Madison series landed on my desk. You've guessed it, editor is reading the new Mari Hannah novel, “The Silent Room”, so this was my chance to find what the fuss is all about.

"BLOOD AND BONE" is the third novel in the Alice Madison series and quite unexpectedly it starts rather slowly, with an episode when our protagonist was just twelve. It is 1982 and Alice is running away from home. She’s taking with herself only the bare necessities with her, which include her copy of "Treasure Island" read to her by her mother. After her mother suddenly died, Alice was left to live with her father. There's plenty of dark hints as she makes her way to the nearby port and escapes on a ferry. It is a bleak and engrossing opening salvo which only serves as a hint for what is to come. Back in the present, Alice is attacked by two abusive men who get more than their bargained for. We are then treated to a slice of her, quite nice, relationship, and from then it's all the way to the heart of darkness. A man is found brutally murdered in his own home. His face is smashed without recognition and some of the jewelry is missing but what initially seems like a burglary turned nasty reveals itself to be a work of a particularly nasty serial killer whose victims go back for decades. There’s plenty of previously solved cases which will need to be re-investigated. And what about all those people that landed up inside for the crimes they didn't commit? I will step back from revealing too much but it is a damn good and addictive stuff.

If you go by the synopsis alone, "BLOOD AND BONE" might initially seem like a run-of-the-mill police procedural but just scratch beyond the surface and you'll see that it is much better than that. V.M. Giambanco works hard to establish her characters as real people, with feeling and anxieties, and this makes all the difference because once the going gets tough. You feel for their pain and frustration, and you want their issues to be resolved. I have to admit that I did feel like I lost something by starting from the third book. I found seemingly unconnected storyline with the character called John Cameron especially confusing but it was not too bad. I'll be making my way back to the beginning as soon as I'm done with writing this review but if you have no other choice, still give it a go. You won't lose too much and you might just agree with our editor in the same way as I did. V. M. Giambanco is definitely one to watch.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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The story behind Blood and Bone by V.M. Giambanco

BLOOD AND BONE is the third book in the Alice Madison series and one thing I knew for sure when I started writing it was that this was going to be a serial killer story – and then I proceeded to change the rules of the game, because that’s when the fun begins.

The Madison series in set in Seattle, a city in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and the main character is a homicide detective who in the first book had just joined the unit.

One of the great joys of writing a series is that you can develop characters and relationships in a way that is simply impossible with a one-off novel, and this has always been the main attraction for me. In BLOOD AND BONE things have definitely moved on for Madison and her relationships with the other characters have grown and changed – some in predictable ways and some in surprising ones. The core of the story – and of all the books in the series – is how the case that is investigated reveals and defines these relationships and, more often than not, puts pressure on them. I like my characters very much indeed but I’m happy to give them as much trouble as I can reasonably conceive.

I have always wanted to write a serial killer novel because one of my influences when I started writing was Thomas Harris and the Hannibal Lecter books, especially ‘Red Dragon’; and the challenge was how to make something fresh and interesting when it has been written about so brilliantly in the past. How do you take something familiar and turn it into a new experience that is going to be gripping from page one? Well, I started with the character: I needed a memorable villain, someone who would draw in the reader – almost making them complicit in their plans; someone who is dangerous and keeps the clock in the story ticking on; someone who has motive and a set of beliefs that make him more than a random killer; and, finally, someone who still had the spark of humanity that comes from a real person and not the bogeyman of our nightmares.  

As always with the Madison books, the locations become one of the characters in the story and I am very keen to use the wonderful Washington State wilderness as much as I can. I have traveled in the area quite a bit and every time I discover new spots that will be used in future stories. In BLOOD AND BONE I have at last set a particularly critical scene on one the local ferries – I have been wanting to do that for a very long time but was just waiting for the right situation.

In the end though BLOOD AND BONE is about Alice Madison and in this instalment I wanted her professional and her private life to be tangled up to the point where the whole structure might just collapse and she has to make some decision that will have repercussions on the rest of her life. It took three books to get her where she is now and I’m already wondering what trouble to throw her way next.  


V.M. Giambanco
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REVIEW: Terry Pratchett's Discworld Colouring Book by Paul Kidby

 

As every Discworld reader will know, Paul Kidby's illustration are crucial part of enjoying a Discworld novel. While Terry created and crafted the characters, it was Kidby who gave them shape and each time I read any of Terry's books, it is Kidby's illustrations that I'm seeing in my head. I have been told by someone in the publishing that last time someone decided to chance the cover art, sale of the book dropped nearly 30% percent as everyone wanted Kidby's covers. Thanks to him I know what DEATH or Rincewind looks like. Sadly, the great man is gone but luckily we still Kidby to produce wonderful, new illustrations, and boy, are they beautiful. And if you think about it what a better way to do it than through a colouring book that gives you a chance to make Discworld characters your own.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld Colouring Book is simply a lovely homage to a great man and his best creation. It is jam packed with Kirby's new, unpublished as well as familiar work illustrating some well-known scenes and while the first part of the book is obviously made for colouring by yourself, second part features some of the originals in all their glory. I would have spared you of my very own creations but since as part of the review process I do have, stay tuned for the update in the next couple of days. Nearly done. It's already criminally bad to say the least. I'm tackling Cohen the Barbarian so wish me luck!

In the meantime, do yourself a favour and pick a copy of this gorgeous volume. At 9.99 it is also incredibly cheap. If they sold it for less, they would be cutting their own throat!


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

 

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is an unexpected near future piece of biting social commentary that harks back to Margaret Atwood's finest works. Bleak and jam packed up full of information that threatens to overload but never actually does it, Shriver's latest novel touches the contemporary life through the prism of what might come if we keep on going with the wool in our ears. Speculative fiction is a perfect vehicle for this sort of storytelling and for a relative newcomer to the genre, Shriver does a splendid job. She unafraid to pay homage to what came before her and brave enough to make it her own. But the question is why go down that route at all? In my opinion the answer is simple. The present is scary enough and sometimes it is easier to discuss the issue but taking a bit of a distance from the heart of it all. "The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047" has a lot of elements that will be instantly recognizable - struggle for resources, compassion and social care in a world where just a handful of people own most of it. 

It all starts with economy. The dollar was struggling many times in the past but in 2029, a coordinated attack by many of the world's economies brings it down to its knees. By losing all of its value, USA is plunged into the default and hyperinflation. While driving to the shop, the money you have in your pocket is tangibly losing its value and soon enough you need a wheelbarrow filled with notes to buy bread. 

The Mandibles were always a well to do family, never really thinking about their wealth, so when everything is suddenly taken away from them, they are forced to take notice of their surroundings. As the world is slowly disintegrating around them each member of the family must cope in its own way and the results are offer very bleak. From Florence and her son Willing to Nollie who spends her days wrapped up in books, The Mandibles end up being an ordinary family - full of faults but still mostly sticking together through thick and thin. 

Wonderfully descriptive, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is a stunning document that documents the unravelling of America and its failure to cope. And yes, it's had Ed Balls as the Prime Minister. How bleak is that?


Review copy provided by Harper Collins
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REVIEW : The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey

 

Richard Kadrey is something of a puzzle to me. He a damn good writer as his Sandman Slim series continues proving time and time again. I am compulsively attracted to his books and really enjoy reading them but I am not really sure why. At the heart of it, they are clever but nothing you've probably haven't seen before so it must be Richard himself who is this elusive ingredient. The Everything Box is Kardrey trying something new and branching into a category of supernatural silliness mostly reserved for the likes of Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Moore.

The story opens up with angel Qaphsiel standing at the mountaintop, ready to finish off God's creation. 4000 years later and God's had enough of Humankind. It was a nice experiment but one that ultimately failed miserably. There's no beating about the bush, us humans ended up being a bit rubbish. As Qaphsiel is finally ready to put the final stop her he reaches into his pocket only to find out that the device his doomsday device has gone missing. The Everything Box is gone.

Fifteen years later, in Los Angeles a thief named Charlie "Coop" Cooper is on his latest assignment. He's trying to pinch a small box for a mysterious client caller MR Babylon and is blissfully unaware of its nature. Suddenly he's in the middle of it all - Angel Qaphsiel, DOPS (Department of Peculiar Occurrences) and more than a handful of God are after him.

Despite being a bit of a departure for Kadrey, "The Everything Box" is a wonderful piece of offbeat silliness. It's much lighter than the rest of his work and while I'm not sure there's a series in this, I feel like "The Everything Box" is more than a welcome additional to his bibliography. Sometimes you just have to laugh and you could do much worse than to pick up Kadrey's latest one.


Review copy provided by Harper Collins
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REVIEW : Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre

 

"Cry, Mother Spain" takes its inspiration from seminal French novel by George Bernanos, "Les Grands Cimetieres sous la Lune" published way back in 1938. At the time Bernanos' novel came out to a huge controversy and furore. Bernanos unflinchingly describes the atrocities of Spanish Civil war partially carried out with the complicity of the clergy. As Salvayre rightly says, it is a shame that these days Bernanos is largely unknown. It is hard to find such a free spirit as he was but here's Salvayre with her latest novel to redress the balance.

It is with his words that "Cry, Mother Spain" opens. On July 18, 1936, Montse is fifteen years old. Her country is on the cusp of a war and yet her remote village is going on as usual. It all changes when her brother Jose returns from work with his mind full of dangerous ideas. From that point on her life is completely changed in an unimaginable ways. Years later, when reminiscing about her part, it is "Les Grands Cimetieres sous la Lune" who offers guidance through these dark times.

It's no wonder Laura Salvayre is darkly fascinated with Spanish Civil War. Born in France as a child of a Republican refugees from a Spanish Civil War, this part of the Spanish history will always be a part of her. "Cry, Mother Spain" is partially based on her own mother recollections and the raw emotions pours from the pages. "Cry, Mother Spain" is a novel about pain and love, loss and hope in the middle of senseless conflict. More crucially, Salvayre writes with honest, passionate voice that succeed in capturing all these emotions and then some. Well recommended. 


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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REVIEW : The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist

 

Reviewing Per Olov Enquist is incredibly difficult because the only people who will actually understand what you are talking about are those who have read Per Olov Enquist so, in effect, they don't need the review at all. I know this sounds pretentious but Enquist is unlike anyone I have ever read before and I can easily imagine some of the readers actively disliking his work. Like Mondiano, the boundaries between autobiography and fiction are mostly non-existant and the fine line between stream of consciousness and the plot will usually be crossed more than few times over the course of a single chapter, let alone the entire book. Hence it beggars belief to know that in Sweden Per Olov Enquist is one of the most successful authors - it's just the fact that he's not very approachable but different strokes.

His latest work translated to English is "The Parable Book" and sort of works as a companion book to "The Wandering Pine", a hefty tome that was published last year. Slimmer in size, but equally powerful in symbolism, "The Parable Book" is Enquist as would expect him to be and is best experienced when read slowly with full concentration. It find him looking to the past, to an event when just as a 15 year old boy he has an affair with much older woman. Looking at himself across the vast stretch of time our narrator is amused by the innocence and hidden meaning of every stolen moment. Present is clinically dealt with and is reflected through the experiences that came before. The end result is that there is no clean conclusion to a story. Life and its building blocks are incredibly complex and disorientating.    

We'll never know what is fact and what is fiction but ultimately it doesn't matter. Enquist is about opening the doors and not closing them. "The Parable Book” is another example of everything that made him into a literary giants he is today. A lovely, evocative book.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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REVIEW : In Constant Fear by Peter Liney

 

Concluding part of Peter Liney's dystopian Detainee trilogy is something of a phenomenon in recent years. At a time when trilogies are not really trilogies and you can always expect a follow up, Liney actually offers an ending that closes the story in fitting fashion and if only for that reason alone, it is a pleasure to read.

At this point in the story, Liney presumes that a reader has read the previous instalments so "In Constant Fear" he follows on with the events of Clancy and gang as they're running away from the City and Infinity, a multinational corporation with blood on its hands and their ruthless leader, Nora Jagger and her Dragonflies. For a while it looks like they have succeeded, with Hannah, Gordie and Gigi at heart of their illusion of nuclear family. But their retreat in mountains is short lived and as strange incidents keep on occurring, it gets increasingly obvious that bad times are coming. 

In a way, "In Constant Fear" is the most claustrophobic of the three and a fitting finale to trilogy that managed to keep interest over the years. I'm not in the slightest surprised that Hollywood is interested is having a good crack at bringing it to the big screens. We'll see how that pans out. However, after turning the last page, the most interesting thing for me is seeing where Liney goes next now that he has to start anew.


Review copy provided by Jo Fletcher Books
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REVIEW : Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

 

The main reason why I get a tingling sensation whenever I am about to open a new book by Lauren Groff is because I am never sure what am I about to get. If there one thing that you can say about Groff's writing it is the fact that it has been constantly surprising. She dares to challenge herself and her latest, and by far the finest novel, "Fates and Furies" is no exception. "Fates and Furies" is a relationship saga, but one which strikes at the matter from the most unexpected perspective.

What if the people in a relationship truly loved each other? What if no one is actually a bastard? How to survive in those circumstanes? It's an innovative and, to me at least, a completely new concept to base a book upon. It's only after you start reading it that you can truly appreciate how refreshing it feels. If you think about it, relationship books where one or the other partner commits adultery, is unhappy or unfulfilled are ten a penny but you can't probably remember a single book which says otherwise.

"Fates and Furies", in short, explores the foundations of a great marriage and everything that takes to make it to stay great despite the ravages of time. If you've ever been in a long term relationship you'll know very well that it is not as easy as it seems. Love is not enough on its own because there's work, money and outside world to deal with and they will always seep through and cause trouble no matter how tough your barriers are.

Charting a period of some twenty-four years, Groff introduces as to Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder, a couple just made for each other. We initially meet this young, beautiful and fiercely ambitious couple, in their glory days, when the sparks are just flying. As years ticks by the couple continuously re-invent their opinion of each other, learning to appreciate the changes all anew and surprisingly, not least to themselves, discovering that they actually still like each other even after all the changes. While on the outside they marriage is the envy of all their friends, inside the bubble both Lotto and Mathilde realise how preciously fragile the whole thing is. They work hard (and always harder and harder) to keep everything afloat.

As the second part of the novel kicks in you truly get to realise the genius of Groff's writing here. The interconnectedness of everything that occurred before finally becomes obvious as each and every single action builds up to a bigger picture. Naturally, due to the nature of relationship, there two perspectives to everything and these are reflected against the Greek mythology and furies - "those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath ".

As a sum of a whole, "Fates and Furies" is nothing less than a brilliant and fiendishly clever exploration of a marriage and everything else that follows it. It succeeds against all odds and opens a brave new chapter for Groff.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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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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