A+ A A-

The story behind the Kydd Series by Julian Stockwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Stockwin
Julian Stockwin is the author of the ongoing Kydd Series. The latest title is Pasha. He has also written Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany and a historical stand-alone, The Silk Tree, set in the time of Emperor Justinian. Learn more about him at Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @julianstockwin
Order Kydd Series by Julian Stockwin here:


REVIEW : Ultima by Stephen Baxter

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

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

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

Review copy provided by Gollancz
Order Ultima by Stephen Baxter here:


REVIEW : The Boy in the Shadows by Carl Johan Vallgren


Latest in a seemingly endless stream of excellent Swedish writers is Carl-Johan Vallgren, an author who in his official photo looks more like a rock star than an author. And lo and behold, apart from publishing some eight or nine books, he also enjoys a successful career as a musician. The marriage of these two artistic forms is evident in the pacing of "The Boy in the Shadows", his latest English translation set to be released this January by Quercus. While "The Boy in the Shadows" is being touted as crime fiction, in Sweden Vallgren is more known as author of imaginative speculative fiction and yet, for most of its parts, he feels completely at home in this completely different genre.

"The Boy in the Shadows" opens by playing on one of everyone's primal fears – losing one's child. In Stockholm underground station in 1970 a father is struggling to keep control of his two sons, Joel and Kristoffer. Joel is still in his pushchair so they have to take the lift but his older brother is throwing a tantrum and plainly refusing to do so. When a lady offers to help he reluctantly agrees and only out of the lift, the worst happens - Kristoffer is gone. Forty years later in 2012 same thing happens to second brother, Joel. He suddenly disappears and his wife Kristina is desperate. Joel's old acquaintance Danny Katz comes to help. Danny Katz is a very complex and well developed character. He's not without a troubled past on his one. Once a criminal and drug addict he's perpetually on the lookout for redemption. Initially Kristina's request comes as a complete surprise. He and Joel were friends years back but since grew apart. Still, Danny feels deeply touched by all the trust and accepts. Together with his ex-partner, Eva Westing he embarks on an investigation and what he discovers is that the truth is sometimes far stranger and disturbing than anyone imagined. Implausibly as it sounds, the two disappearances are connected.


Carl-Johan Vallgren's style is perfectly suitable for a kind of book that "The Boy in the Shadows" is. Dialogue feels cold and detached and his descriptions of characters barely scratch the surface. Often they feel like mere sketches. At times I wished he went a bit deeper but Danny's and Eva's histories make up for it. Apart from the final 100 pages, slow burning plot also leads to a very little excitement and yet, there's something very enticing about its atmosphere. Vallgren's feel for rhythm means that despite the slowness "The Boy in the Shadows" feels polished and engaging. I was simply hooked. I don't know whether there are any sequels in the planning but if there are I'll be the first in line!

Review copy provided by Quercus Books
Order The Boy in the Shadows by Carl-Johan Vallgren here:


REVIEW : Don't Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Most of the readers living in developed countries with be baffled by the glorification of McDonalds that occurs in the opening salvo of the Sandip Roy's superb generational saga but as someone who lives in an developing country I can perfectly understand it. When first McDonalds opened here there were queues going for hundreds of meters. In a way, for people on the streets McDonalds was a beacon of hope saying that the developed world has finally arrived on our doorstep and everyone simply wanted to be part of it. It was a promise of the future. Twenty years later and the future still hasn't arrived but there was that particular moment in time when everything seemed possible. Roy's characters experience many such moments over the course of their lives. When her husband Avinash suddenly died from a massive heart attack, Romola, a respectable Indian lady, changed her ways in accordance to tradition. This includes forgetting all about fish and meat and the fact weighs heavily on her soul. Months later she moves from her huge house in Calcutta to small apartment in America to live with her son Amit, his wife June and their child, and she is instantly attracted by fast food chain's bright light. Her son can't really understand it and his family is constantly on one or the other diet. Suddenly, one morning she's alone and she decides to tempt fate by trying to reach McDonalds and actually order something. It's probably the biggest act of defiance in her life and as she approaches her pulse is racing. Once inside she has a severe panic attack and flees the scene. Romola feels completely lost but realises that no-one actually noticed her inner turmoil. World is simply not bothered and our personal worries are often not all that important. When she eventually makes her move again she does something completely out of character. Her hand is forced by desperation and she later lives to regret it.

This is a scenario that will play out many times over the course of "Don't Let Him Know". Be it sexuality, relationships, or simply their place in the world, Roy's characters are shaped and often chained by the heavy burden of tradition and enforced family loyalties. It's like an unstoppable tsunami that often ruins lives. As such, secrets, long-lost love and regret are central themes of "Don't Let Him Know". Compromised of a series of connected vignettes, we see Romola keeping her secrets hidden in a diary as spends time reminiscing about past and what could happen if only she didn't listen to her mother and let the relationship with a famous Bengali star develop further. After all she even gave him his stage name. On the other hand, her husband Avinash has always been gay. From his early dalliances in the hair salon with a dashing hair-dresser Sultan, his relationship his best friend Sumit, and to his tragic experience in the park where he was raped, Avinash has led a secretive and repressed life. His marriage with Romola was, in accordance to tradition, arranged by their families despite their both being very unhappy about it and never having met before. Still, they both went along and live the rest of the their lives by numbers. Romola even knows about Avinash being gay but decides to say nothing. It's a deeply unhappy affair filled with regret and it would be unbearably sad if Ray hasn't offered some glimpses of hope. The change is on the horizon. Romola's and Avisham's son Amit hasn't returned to India and has, to everyone's dismay, married an American girl. There's clandestine gay parties being held on the streets of Calcutta and even people like Amit's grand-grandmother are willing to ignore the tradition in order to sneak a cheeky bite.

"Don't Let Him Know" carries a heavy burden of the past but is full of hope for the future. You can't but feel that the sooner it arrives, the better for everyone. It's will certainly bring chaos and uncertainty but hopefully people will finally be able to be what their are and because of it, even an eventual failure will be a much sweeter affair.

Review copy provided by Bloomsbury
Order Don't Let Him Know by Sandip Roy here:


REVIEW : God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Leger

When catastrophic earthquake ravaged Haiti's Port-au-Prince, countless lives were thrown in utter chaos. People lost lives, possessions and future seemed rather grim. However, sometimes things happen in an unexpected way and even the worst tragedies come with an occasional happy ending. "God Loves Haiti" masterfully plays with the fickle hand of destiny in this stunning meditation about this country's recent past and its passionate people. 

Strangely enough, despite the story revolving around the actual historical event, the main characters are all fictional which comes as something of a surprise considering they're in turn Haiti's president, his wife, and her lover. At first I was rather disoriented by this and wasn't really sure whether "God Loves Haiti" was written as a satire or perhaps, as Haiti's pseudo-history but as I was getting more and more engulfed by its language and impeccable atmosphere I realised that I didn't really care. “God Loves Haiti”'s story is universal and being in position they are means that our characters are free to pursue some earthly matter instead of struggling for mere survival. The love triangle at the heart of the story is formed around Natasha Robert, a beautiful and extraordinary woman who at the moment when the tragedy struck thinks about whether her lover Alain Destinè survived. Natasha is realistic about her life and accepts that she made mistakes in life - she didn't marry the man she loved and instead has chosen Jean, a weary and worried man who happens to be the president of Haiti. Perhaps this event will serve as crux and shell make things right? It's far more complicated than that. Leaving devastation in its wake, earthquake shuffles our characters around and forces them to explore their hearts and the land around them.


Rich in historical details and paying a nod to recent political and social situation in Haiti, "God Loves Haiti" was a very surprising read. I was expecting it to be great, after all its early reviews were simply stunning and were indicative of the kind of story I would usually enjoy. And indeed, what I received was just as I've hoped, albeit in a completely different form. Let's just say that comparisons to Gabiel Garcia Marquez's "The Time of Cholera" are not out of place. "God Loves Haiti" is all about human relationships and love, and Port-au-Prince's catastrophic earthquake serves rather as a catalyst than a simple cause. And yet, its symbolic value is unquestionable. It's just that sometimes earthquakes happen within one's heart.

Review copy provided by HarperCollins
Order God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Leger here:


REVIEW : Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman


Tom Bouman's debut "Dry Bones in the Valley" has been described as rural noir and, for once, it is a perfectly suitable moniker. Set in the vast wilderness of small time American, in a place called Wild Thyme in Pennsylvania, Bouman's dark mystery thriller definitely doesn't feel urban. Even of law has a limited reach with local allegiances often taking the upper hand. Its woods are seductively strange and yet primevally frightening. You never know what you're going to find. 

It is here, in this bleak environment, that we find Henry Farrell, veteran of Iraq war and a widower. Henry's working as a local police officer and at the moment he's enjoying the solitude that comes with a job. However, lately the landscape around him has been slowly changing. The fracking people are knocking on the doors offering vasts sums of money and the tensions are sky-high with some not willing to change the old ways. Once a body is discovered on a nearby property it is anyone's guess what actually happened. Henry throws himself into case but it's convoluted. As a newcomer, he still doesn't enjoy the confidence of the locals and the entangled relationships and grudges going back generations are hard to understand. When a second body appears, Henry realises that he must up his game and so he does.


The case takes him deep into wilderness, across frozen landscapes and desolate properties and it is this atmosphere that eventually makes the book. Bouman's writing translates well the feeling of solitude - you literary feel like you could disappear without at trace. And yet, for a character that plays a central role in the book, Henry is strangely unperturbed by the events and rather cold. Strangely I didn't find it off-putting as I expected him to be like that considering his past and general outlook on things. In the end, he's driven sorely by the chase and will reach the end whatever the consequences.

"Dry Bones in the Valley" is an atmospheric sinister mystery set in a small time America which, while not perfect, promises great things to come from Tom Bouman. I'm not really sure there's a potential for a series here or that it is even necessary to continue exploring the introverted psyche of Henry Farrell but with his panache for creating engulfing atmosphere nothing is beyond Bouman's reach.

Review copy provided by Faber Books
Order Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman here:


REVIEW : Dear Reader by Paul Fournel

According to a recent article in Guardian it seems that e-book phenomenon is fizzling out. Sales are slowing down and some are even proclaiming that e-readers as a concept are dead and dusted. Well, it certainly makes a good headline but I think that, similarly to previous concerns about print books, the reports of e-book death are greatly exaggerated. Despite my deep love for print books I think e-books are ultimately a very good thing. Thanks to reachability of e-readers some people I know are finally reading again. However, there's no escaping the fact that e-books are both wreaking havoc and providing new opportunities all across the publishing industry. Paul Fournel's "Dear Reader" charmingly explores this issue through the story of Robert Dubois, ageing publisher of Robert Dubois Books. Robert is a traditionalist and e-readers get him completely by surprise. It's not so much that he's a Luddite but more that he simply can't understand the existence of plot progression without the paper. How can you replace that tactile feeling of approaching the book's end? Those palpable moments when only a few pages are left and you know you're approaching the conclusion. Still, Robert gives it a go while at the same time continuing his ordinary life as publisher. At least author lunches are not digital. And yet, there's still a spark in Robert's mind. He has an idea that could potentially challenge our understanding of literature and together with his crack team of budding interns decides to give it a go.

I instantly took liking to Robert because I see so much of him in me. Despite being much younger, similarly to him, I have such deep love for all things written. I am also sometimes worried about the inevitable march of the future and the changes it will bring to our industry. I'm also embracing new technology while trying to attack it from new angle. But deep down, I know we'll be alright. Books will not go away, they'll just evolve as they did many times over the history. Robert's read enough books to notice that plots are slowly converging into each other. All reviewers suffer from this as well. While superficially "Dear Reader" reads like a satire (it is often very funny) little will the casual reader know that much of what is depicted is actually fairly accurate.

In a way, Fournel has written a gentle love letter to reading - to publishing industry, authors, editors and readers. It is perfect that "Dear Reader" was published as part of Pushkin Collection collection. With those glorious French flaps and impeccable design, this collection is in itself a celebration of reading and usually puts out only the finest works of literature. "Dear Reader" is a lovely book well deserving of its place.

Review copy provided by Pushkin Press
Order Dear Reader by Paul Fournel here:


REVIEW : Endsinger by Jay Kristoff

Readers in the future will be in something of a pickle when it comes to reading “The Lotus War” trilogy. The thing is that all three books in a series present their author in a different stages of development so while “Stormdancer” initially felt like a great book, compared to “Endsinger” it sometimes feels like mere dabbling. In a way, it is like comparing first and last Harry Potter book. As such, Endsinger is more bold, more inventive and more emotionally charged than its predecessor and nowhere is this more evident than in its ending which will leave you gasping for air. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

As you would imagine, “Endsinger” continues the story and finds Shima Imperium in the grips of civil war. Lotus Guild is using mechanical goliath to spread terror and hopefully bring peace through fear and oppression. Standing in their way are Yukiko and Buruu who are still reeling in the aftermath of Kin's betrayal. Against all odds, they still have to fight because surrendering is simply unthinkable and as the ending marches towards us, all of the big questions are slowly revealed but not in a way you would expect. There's plenty of epic battles and glorious mayhem in these pages but luckily the chaos never completely overwhelms. Kristoff is not big on happy endings and perfectly understands the brutality of war. In “Endsinger”, as in real life war, there are no winners, just different layers of loss. Many will shed a tear upon closing a book.

“Endsinger” is a proper full stop to “The Lotus War” trilogy and apart for occasional novella or short story which I'll always happily read, I don't think anything else needs to be added. It is a book that truly shows the capabilities and potential of Kristoff as an author as well as one of those trilogies where the ending pays off with dividends and respects all the time you've spent reading the story leading up to it. Once you're done, you'll probably feel sad and heavy hearted but that's the beauty of it - Kristoff simply decided to fail to compromise and as a result made a perfect ending. Well done, sir.

Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan / Tor UK
Order Endsinger by Jay Kristoff here:

Subscribe to this RSS feed
Bookmaker with best odds review site.