REVIEW : When the Moon Is Low by Nadia Hashimi

 

These days I am seeing immigrants everywhere. Those poor souls that were forced to leave their homes for fleeting chance at a better chance of better life in Europe. It soul shattering seeing so many hopeless young people and knowing that their dreams probably won't come true. Nadia Hashimi's powerful and evocative "When the Moon Is Low" explores this theme in the only possible way. With compassion and understanding. It is one of those rare book that has the tendency to go straight for the heart of the reader, never to release its firm grip until the final full stop. Not dissimilar to her debut, "The Pearl That Broke Its Shell", "When the Moon Is Low" is often hard to read and yet, behind all of the agony and sadness, it is a celebration of the strength of the human spirit told through the prism of some of the most harrowing experiences imaginable.

"When the Moon Is Low" charts Taliban rise to power through the eyes of an ordinary people. Before their country is thrown in the chaos of war, Mahmoud, a civil engineer working for the Ministry of Water and Electricity and his beloved wife Fereiba, a schoolteacher, lived a comfortable and slightly boring middle-class life in Kabul. It all changes when one day suddenly authorities come for Mahmoud. Ultimately, he is murdered by the fundamentalist regime, and Fereiba is forced to flee the city, together with her three children. In an act of desperation, she is forced to undertake a perilous journey from Iran to Europe, all in hope of reaching her sister's family which lives in England. Her voyage there is marked by profound desperation to stay together and to survive. In all of the despicable evil, there are occasional glimpses of kindness which give everyone hope and strength to continue, even as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Once she arrives in Greece using false documents, bribed and sheer determination, Fereiba's troubles are only just beginning as her son Saleem is separated from her and she's forced to make an impossible decision. She has to continue going forward and leave him behind, if she wants to have a slightest chance of saving her other children and herself.

Hashimi masterfully builds her story by using two contrasting realities - one before the Taliban and one after they came and ruined everything. "When the Moon Is Low" is a heart-wrenchingly sad tale that will leave you breathless and will often reduce you to tears. More importantly, it will definitely change the way you look at all the immigrants arriving on European shores on daily basis. Perhaps you will even manage to gain a deeper understanding of their desperation and their need for better life, and give them a chance. "When the Moon Is Low" is an important and a topical book, especially in these times where media is so quick to judge everything and immigrant-phobia is hitting an all-time high. I can't recommend it enough.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : Steeple by Jon Wallace

 

"Barricade" by Jon Wallace was one of those reasons why it is always worth to give new authors a chance, even at a time when your favourite author has just published a veritable door-stopper that you are just gasping to read. To put it bluntly, Jon Wallace's debut was a proper statement of intent. An opening that promised a lengthy career filled with equally exciting rides. Needless to say, I was rather excited about “Steeple”, a next installment in the series which promised more adventures with Kenstibec set in the dystopian madcap version of Britain that Wallace built around him.

For those who have missed "Barricade" (shame on you!), the main protagonist of the series is a slightly psychotic individual named Kenstibec. He's a member of the Ficials - a genetically engineered human who after failing to fulfill his true purpose works as a taxi driver driving around his enemies. Understandably, he's often a cynical and bitter character blessed with a wicked sense of humour. In "Steeple" Kenstibec is dealing with consequences of his actions and is dead set to save his own life after the tech that kept him alive is finally starting to fail. To do that, he must climb a towering hulk looming over London which, if the legend holds true, contains a mysterious treasure. A thousand storey tower is called Steeple, and Ken undertakes this desperate quest together with it associates Fate and Bridget. It's a mission filled with peril and quite unlike anything else he has encountered so far. His journey is filled with claustrophobic crawlspaces and dangerous impossible creatures such as another murderous Ficial and an occasional cannibal. Similarly to "Barricade", "Steeple" revolves around a journey. However, this time around, the story itself is rather more self-contained which is ultimately a good thing because it provides plenty of opportunity for character development and introspection without any need to sacrifice the action packet sequences.



"Steeple" is just like its predecessor an absolutely furious affair. It finished way too fast and too early for my liking but that is really not a serious complaint because "Steeple" is in almost everything superior to "Barricade". For starters, Wallace's Britain is finally showing its true colour. It is a strange place that only a twisted mind could think off. There is a hidden, new found depth in the overall setting and evident hints of a bigger picture that will probably reveal itself in the future. Even Ken's dark sense of humour comes with a fresh nuance to it so he's becoming more likable even as he's becoming more sinister.

To conclude, as was the case with "Barricade", the biggest problem with "Steeple" is the wait that you have to endure once you're done with it. Next one, please?


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

Like most debut authors, when I came to write my first crime novel I drew on an experience from my past. It’s often a small incident, something that remains perpetually unexplained, that provides the impetus to finally start the book you’d always wanted to write.

Walking to school one day in 1982, I was asked by a woman driving past to post a letter for her. She then tried to force me into her car. I was a fairly hefty schoolgirl and streetwise. There was no way I was getting into a strangers vehicle. But the incident stayed with me for years. I never told anyone because I was ashamed and embarrassed But I always wondered, probably morbidly, what would have happened if I had got into the car. "In Bitter Chill" opens with two schoolgirls encountering the same incident but taking up the offer of a lift. I thought it more likely that two girls would get into a stranger’s car and I also made the children younger than I had been, eight years old rather than twelve. I think at that age you still have a trust of adults that disappears when you reach adolescence.

In my novel, later that day one of the girls, Rachel, is found alive but is unable to remember anything of her kidnapping. The other girl, Sophie, remains missing which has a devastating impact on the local community. I grew up in a small town where there was one high school, a small shopping precinct and one doctor’s surgery. You couldn’t walk down the road without encountering someone you knew. A child’s kidnapping could devastate a small town such as this and I wanted to portray how a community could draw in on itself after such a catastrophe.

My protagonist, Rachel, is the child who was found alive in the 1970s and has grown up and become a genealogist. I find family history fascinating and am particularly interested in the matrilineal line and stories which pass down from mother to daughter. It’s a part of genealogy that can be overlooked because the names of women, if they marry, change each generation. The emphasis on the female line also allowed me to explore another preoccupation of mine. I’m convinced that women can be very good keepers of secrets. "In Bitter Chill" suggests that Rachel has inadvertently chosen a profession that holds the key to why she and Sophie were kidnapped.

But I also chose genealogy as a profession for Rachel because I love the idea of a private detective unpicking the clues of a mystery. But they’re hopelessly unrealistic: most of us have never encountered a PI in real life. However, there are a number of professions that have, at their heart, the skills of an investigator. I think that a genealogist is one such career and Rachel has all the talents that can help unravel what happened to her in the past.

"In Bitter Chill" is set in the Derbyshire landscape. I wanted to reflect the severity of the winters where I live but I didn’t want the setting to be a bolt-on to the narrative. Rather, I like to think the story couldn’t be set anywhere else. The idea of a frozen landscape also reflects the bleakness of how a mother might feel if her child remains forever missing. Landscape and story are inextricably linked. But Derbyshire doesn’t remain cold all year round. In my next book, we move onto spring and the challenges that this season brings. A warmer climate but, perhaps, more fragile.


Sarah Ward
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REVIEW : Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

 

The only possible way to approach "Go Set a Watchman", an impossible book that completely unexpectedly saw the light of day a week ago, is to learn something of its strange history. Despite depicting events that happen decades after Harper Lee's landmark, and until now, the only published novel "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Go Set a Watchman" was actually written before the former. It originally remained unpublished mainly due to the efforts of Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, who recognized what was really at the heart of the novel and asked Lee to rewrite the book before the publication. Lee went away and came back with "To Kill a Mockingbird", a very different book to its predecessor. From that point, "Go Set a Watchman" was instantly forgotten, its manuscript was lost and the rest is part of the literary history. That is, until now. The circumstances surrounding the discovery of a long-lost manuscript for "Go Set a Watchman" are still shrouded in mystery and provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. They occasionally read like an implausible story concocted by Dan Brown and yet, I am holding a copy in my hand and the fact simply beggars belief. Apparently, the manuscript was accidentally found in a Lee's safe by her lawyer Tonja Carter. To make things even stranger, Carter stumbled upon the very same papers years ago but ignored them, thinking they were just another early draft of Mockingbird. Recent reports mention the existence of another, partially finished manuscript of unknown origin so we might still be in for a surprise or two.

Things become even more surreal when you actually start reading "Go Set a Watchman" and try to compare it to "To Kill a Mockingbird". The transformation from one to another is simply unfeasible. While former is told in third person and depicts Atticus Finch as old and racist, as you probably know, the later changes the entire focus of the story and gives him an unforgettable voice - a voice capable of changing the entire society for better. It is especially bizarre reading how all across the board the story flows together with its successor. It almost like its publication was planned. More surprisingly, it is staggering how strongly it resonates with the current racially charged events in the USA. The disillusionment of its characters stands in stark contrast to the hope of "To Kill a Mockingbird".

I have read on more than occasion that the publication of "Go Set a Watchman" takes away a bit of the shine from the wonder and the phenomena that "To Kill a Mockingbird" had as a single published work by Harper Lee but that is clearly rubbish. Lee never pretended to be a one-book woman. There exists at least another few of her manuscripts that were never published because she simply wasn't satisfied with any of them, and basically didn't want the furore that came with fame and publicity. This pressure was the main reason she became a recluse and she has been escaping its grasp for ages. There's "The Long Goodbye" and a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer to mention two. As such, "Go Set a Watchman" an important historical literary document. It is definitely not a book that has the ability to surpass "To Kill a Mockingbird" and at worst it is a curiosity that gives an unique glimpse into the creative process of one of the most important and secretive literary authors of our times. At best, it is simply wonderful. As the publisher rightly says, it exists to bring fuller and richer understanding of its author and her beloved characters.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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The story behind Friends in High Places by Caro Peacock

Emperor Napoleon’s nephew invades France on a Thames steamer.
Cross dressing woman opera singer runs spy network.
Liberty Lane investigates murder.

Of these, only the third is completely untrue. Liberty Lane is my early Victorian investigator, and fictional. But Prince Louis Napoleon really did attempt a coup in France in 1840, hiring a steamer in London and landing at Boulogne with fifty armed supporters and a tame eagle (or possibly a vulture) on board. The attempt failed and he was imprisoned, though he did go on to become president, then emperor, of France eight years later, but that’s another story. As for the operatic spy, she was real too, a friend and quite probably lover of the prince. Her name was Madam Gordon, and she was born Eleonore Brault, daughter of an officer in Emperor Napoleon’s army. She was tall, beautiful, a good swordswoman, ruthless in the prince’s interests and according to one biographical source was his secret agent in both London and Paris. I’ve added some episodes to her life for the purposes of this book, but none beyond her talents and interests.

Writing historical crime novels is, for me, a balancing act between real events and fiction. My main character, Liberty Lane, is a young lady from a politically radical background who finds herself alone, with a living to earn, and discovers a talent for investigation. I tend to alternate the books between cases where she is involved in real historial events – like the aftermath of Prince Louis’ failed coup – and more domestic ones. For both,when I start thinking about a book I’m usually aware of the year and the month when the action will take place – sometimes not much more than that - and often start by looking at newspapers of the period. Partly that may be professional habit because I was a journalist before I wrote books. Of course many nineteenth century newspapers are now available on line, but I like to find libraries where they keep the papers themselves. Turning the pages of a newspaper that somebody would have read at breakfast in the time you’re writing about gives a real sense of immediacy. I had a dim memory of Prince Louis’ invasion attempt from history lessons a long time ago, but looking at it again, it seemed such a wonderful mixture of courage, bungling and sheer farce that I knew I wanted Liberty to be involved somehow. The problem was that she couldn’t be part of the attempt itself because at the time Louis was taking to his steamer, she was working on a case in Gloucestershire (in The Path of the Wicked). But the repercussions went on for some time, so I invented two refugees who’d escaped arrest after the attempt at Boulogne and got back to London. One takes refuge with an aristocratic friend of Liberty’s, who is naturally annoyed to find him hanging by the neck from her loft. That aristocratic friend, Lady Blessington, is another real character with a past so colourful it would have been hard to invent. And Benjamin Disraeli, at this time still only an ambitious MP, makes an appearance as he does in most of my Liberty Lane books.

One of the things that became clear as I was writing is that London in the 1840s had resemblances to the London of today. It was a lively time in Europe, with revolutions threatening all over the place, and London had become a refuge for exiles, plotters and malcontents of all kinds. This naturally led to a dense network of spies, with the various interests keeping watch on each other and a still fairly new Metropolitan Police force doing its best to keep up. As Madam Gordon says: ‘It would be a positive insult not to be spied on by two or three of them at least.’

My rule is, when writing about real historical characters, not to have them behave worse in my fiction than they did in real life. In Friends in High Places that still gives me quite a lot of latitude.

Website: www.caropeacock.co.uk
Twitter: @CaroPeacock


Caro Peacock
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The story behind Code Grey by Clea Simon

In “Code Grey,” the ninth Dulcie Schwartz mystery, my heroine, Dulcie, is back once again in the library. It’s spring break, but she’s so close to finishing her doctoral dissertation that she can taste it. With her boyfriend and all her buddies out of town for the week, Dulcie figures she can focus on work: the research and writing that will, she hopes, get her the PhD in Gothic literature she’s been woring toward for more than five years.

It’s not like she’s going to be lonely. In addition to her cat Esmé (aka the Principessa Esmeralda), she can also count on the support and companionship of Mr Grey – the ghost of her late, great cat who returns from time to time to advice and comfort her. Only, on her way to the library, Dulcie runs into a disheveled former scholar. And when he ends up in the hospital and accused of stealing a rare book, Dulcie – and Mr Grey – are honorbound to speak out.

The Dulcie Schwartz series, with its ongoing involvement in both cats and academia with a touch of paranormal, might seem like an unlikely matchup. But the series, which started with “Shades of Grey,” was prompted by a real-life incident, one which I’ve never been able to explain.

Like Dulcie, I think of myself as supremely rational. No, I’m not a graduate student (as she is), but like her, I’m an inveterate bookworm. Also, like her, I’ve settled in my university town and love the research resources that I can delve into to enrich my personal and fictional literary lives. And like Dulcie, I spent most of my single years in the company of one very special cat, Cyrus.

My Cyrus – the model for the series’ Mr Grey – was a grey long-hair, with a face more Siamese than Persian, and an uncanny ability to suss out my moods. He would be playful when I needed amusing, quietly comforting when I needed nothing more than someone purring at my side. And when I was trying to work out a problem – in my fledgling love life or career – he would fix me with his cool green eyes as if he were both trying very hard to understand me and also to communicate. He would have had very wise things to say, I’m quite sure, if he could have just bridged that species communications gap.

He lived to the ripe old age of 16, and after he was gone, I missed him terribly. But life went on – and I tried to incorporate that sense of calm wisdom. Not that I was very good at it, and one day, as I was rushing off to a job interview, for which I was already late, I was sure I saw him. He was a very particular-looking cat, so distinguished, and there he was, sitting on the stoop of a house not far from me. It was him. It had to be him – but I was late, and the adult choice was to keep going, although I was curious what he had to say to me. After the interview, I went back and searched for him – or for any cat who might faintly resemble him. I never found him, and I became convinced that Cyrus had appeared to tell me something, if only I had the wit to know what. I do not remember if I got that job.

What I did get was a driving desire to write a story in which a young woman sees her late, beloved pet one more time. And that he does speak to her, warning her that something terrible has happened….

That’s been the driving theme behind the Dulcie Schwartz series: books and cats and a good mystery. Not too bloody – we wouldn’t want to scare the cats – but with some good puzzles to keep us reading. Ideally, with a warm cat right near by.

Clea Simon writes the Pru Marlowe pet noir and Dulcie Schwartz feline mysteries. She can be found at www.cleasimon.com and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.


Clea Simon
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Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks : July

 

When Grendel is drawn up from the caves under the mere, where he lives with his bloated, inarticulate hag of a mother, into the fresh night air, it is to lay waste Hrothgar's meadhall and heap destruction on the humans he finds there. What else can he do? For he is not like the men who busy themselves with God and love and beauty. He sees the infuriating human rage for order and recognises the meaninglessness of his own existence.

Grendel is John Gardner's masterpiece; it vividly reinvents the world of Beowulf. In Grendel himself, a creature of grotesque comedy, pain and disillusioned intelligence, Gardner has created the most unforgettable monster in fantasy.

A minstrel lives by his words, his tunes, and sometimes by his lies. But when the bold and gifted young Thomas the Rhymer awakens the desire of the powerful Queen of Elfland, he finds that words are not enough to keep him from his fate.

As the Queen sweeps him far from the people he has known and loved into her realm of magic, opulence - and captivity - he learns at last what it is to be truly human. When he returns to his home with the Queen's parting gift, his great task will be to seek out the girl he loved and wronged, and offer her at last the tongue that cannot lie.

Award-winning author Ellen Kushner's inspired retelling of an ancient legend weaves myth and magic into a vivid contemporary novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Brimming with ballads, riddles, and magical transformations, here is the timeless tale of a charismatic bard whose talents earn him a two-edged otherworldly gift.


Review copies provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

 

Sarah Ward is one of us. She is part of that insane crowd of people who are not satisfied by mere reading and instead almost pathologically just have to scream and shout about their love of literature. All of the time. Her author's note unapologetically labels her as an online book reviewer and I can't help but feel a little bit proud to be holding her book in my hand, despite never having met or having any connections to her. She managed to cross the Rubicon and to become a published author, and a crime author at that. Crime fiction is notoriously competitive field but early signs that Ward was onto something with her stories came in early 2014 when Faber snapped two of her books. Good news continued with her being announced as one of the 2015's Amazon Rising Star and judging by "In Bitter Chill", it is easy to see why Sarah's writing is so appreciated. "In Bitter Chill" doesn't feel like a debut novel. It's instantly gripping and feels confident not only because Sarah knows which buttons to push when she wants to capture reader's attention.

The story opens up as Detective Inspector Francis Sadler and Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer are called to the Wilton Hotel. A body of a woman has been discovered by a chambermaid but as the forensic officers examine the scene they discover that, what initially seemed like an ordinary suicide, hides a more sinister note. Placed on the chest of drawers is a book, full of newspaper cuttings and photographs, all pointing to a cold case from 1978. On 20th January, 1978, two girls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Rachel eventually returned but Sophie was never found. The woman who killed herself some thirty years later was in fact Sophie's mother.



"In Bitter Chill"is an interesting creature. Partly crime thriller, and partly psychological, emotional rollercoaster that borders on family drama, it is a cracking reading experience. I wouldn't go so far as to classify it as a book fitting a "Lifestyle/Health" category as Faber labelled it in jest or by mistake in their online shop but there's certain reinvigorating quality in its complexity. I have stormed through it in mere two days and was surprised by its well developed, three dimensional characters that are both strong and fragile, and by its story that flicks back and forth in time without ever revealing too much information. With its carefully paced tension, Sarah Ward's debut is without a question one of the best crime thriller debuts of the year. Well recommended.


Review copy provided by Faber Books
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REVIEW : Love May Fail by Matthew Quick

 

By now Matthew Quick has profiled himself as an author of quickly life-like tales about the protagonists whose lives I wouldn't want to share, but about whom I really enjoy reading about. It is clear straight from the synopsis that his latest novel "Love May Fail" is no exception. It promises an encounter with a ragtag characters such as sassy nun, an ex-heroin addict, a metalhead little boy, and her hoarder mother, all set around a Portia Kane's quest for finding hope and love in midst of a raging mid-life crises.

At the beginning of "Love May Fail", Portia Kane finds herself in a position where hope and love are the furthest things from her mind. She has just caught her pornographer husband in flagrante with a girl half his age and as she ruminates whether to kill them both, she suffers a complete emotional breakdown instead. In a bid to reclaim her life she decides to do something worthwhile with her life. She remembers Mr. Nate Vernon, an English teacher who the single person in her life who was always kind to her and who is going through a life patch as well, and so she returns home. After a classroom incident, Mr. Vernon is currently living a lonely existence in retirement, with his dog (brilliantly named Albert Camus) as his only conversation partner and copious amounts of alcohol. In fact, it is alcohol that plays a surprisingly central part in "Love May Fail" and it almost feels like our protagonists drink themselves well. It is definitely an interesting idea. Eventually, Portia effectively bullies Mr. Vernon from the edge of suicide.

"Love May Fail" will definitely appeal to Matthew Quick's constant readers. There's plenty of characters in it who are well thought out and complex enough to grasp your attention. There's even a decent amount of silliness that almost always follows Quick's books. This time it's Vernon's mother Sister Maeve Smith, a dead nun who writes letters to her son from beyond the grave. The elephant in the room is that "Love May Fail" doesn't really compare well to "The Silver Linings Playbook" but I don't think that was ever the intention. At the heart of it, "Love May Fail" is a very enjoyable tale and a fantastic way to pass the time. It is definitely good enough to hold its own ground against the rest of Quick's bibliography and due to its rather unique quirkiness I wouldn't be surprised if it was eventually made into a successful movie.


Review copy provided by HarperCollins
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REVIEW : Leica Format by Dasa Drndic

 

For the last ten years I have lived in Croatia and if there is one rather strange thing that I will always remember about my time here, it is the fact that Croatians don't especially like those who have managed to find success in whatever it is they're good at. There is even a proverb that literary wishes for the neighbour's cow to drop dead. It is damningly bizarre thing to understand. Therefore it is no wonder that news about Dasa Drndic's rise were few and far between, even when "Trieste" was at the height of its success. Lucky for all of us, Drndic has surpassed the humble Croatian literary scene and found a global fame and respect so June sees her latest translation to English in print, this time of "Leica Format", her meditative psychedelic masterpiece that's rather hard to explain in few sentences.

"Leica Format" is best described as a series of meditative passages loosely woven into a tale that touches upon malleability of history and memory. Taking its name from a legendary camera format most famous for making documentary photography, you can hardly find a better title for what is presented here. "Leica Format" is like looking at a series of photographs but those from ages ago that we forgot. There story itself is re-built around the scene and as neurons that raiding our memory banks, you never really know which of the details will finally reveal the whole picture. Fragmented text strewn all through the book goes a step further to reinforce the feeling of loss and melancholy.

In my opinion, "Leica Format" is a lot harder to approach than "Trieste" but don't let that put you off. If you dedicate it enough time, you will realise its depth, allegories and hidden message, if that's the right word. I imagine it was an incredibly hard book to translate but having read the original, I can only say that Celia Hawkesworth has done a superb work. "Leica Format" is one of those books you won't forget in a hurry. It's experimental and original, and I'm really pleased that another great novel from one of the finest Croatian contemporary authors has seen the light of day as an English translation.


Review copy provided by MacLehose Press
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REVIEW : War Dogs by Greg Bear

There's always something Marmite-y about Greg Bear. Either you really enjoy his books or you simply can't be bothered to finish them. Luckily for the purposes of this review I'm firmly in the first camp so each time one of his titles gets published I know I'm in for a treat. I simply enjoy his action packed, cleverly thought out old school science fiction and that's that. While many consider his 2010 generation ship saga “Hull Zero Three” to be a book preceding "War Dogs", since 2010 when it was originally published Bear was in fact a very busy bee. For starters he published an immense trilogy of novels set in the Halo Universe. In typical Bear fashion his Halo:Forerunner trilogy was not just another Halo novel catering to the masses but a feast of high concept action which in equal measures confused and delighted many fans of the franchise. It is this trilogy of Halo novels that, in my opinion, holds the key to his new trilogy, first installment of which is his latest novel "War Dogs".

To put it bluntly, "War Dogs" is military science fiction of finest order which brings together massive conflict on an epic scale that Halo is best known for and Bear's worldbuilding skills. Set in the future after the first contact was made, human race is in the position where it can enjoy the benefits of knowing a more advanced spacefaring species The Gurus. Gurus are miles ahead when it comes to technology and are generally scientifically more developed but are lacking one very crucial thing when it comes to survivability - an ability to wage war. As a species which is very experienced in all matters of causing destruction, human race is asked to help them in their conflict against the Antagonists, malevolent race hot on Gurus' heels. In fact, the Antagonists already set their camp on Mars and it is Master Sergeant Michael Venn, combat expert specialized for off-world missions, who must together with his small team tackle the much more powerful Antags or perish trying. However, once they drop on Mars events quickly escalate beyond their control resulting in such glorious chaos which is a pleasure to read.

 

If you like Greg Bear's work and you can ignore headline-baiting names like The Gurus, The Antags or Skyrines which for a while made me feel like I'm reading The Sun, "War Dogs" offers an explosive ride across the red planet - that is once after you've passed the initial slow-burning entry. Indeed, for the most of its parts "War Dogs" does feel like a set up for what's coming in the subsequent books but as soon as you get down and dirty with Master Sergeant Venn the results are simply extraordinary. Caught in an unpredictable environment all the training that his team has goes out of the window and luck is suddenly as important as experience. The desperation of a modern soldier is palpable and it is often only the intuitive reflexes that make the difference between life and death. By the end Venn and his team are already battle-weary but their part in this war is only beginning.

"War Dogs" is Bear's best book in years but only if you're ready to commit for a long haul - this is after all just the first third of the story and next two books are still far in the future. The whole set up is engaging and while it does play with some of the more familiar tropes in science fiction its pitch-perfect delivery feels entirely refreshing. An opening to a series well worth checking out!


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : The Relic Guild by Edward Cox

 

For the whole past week Edward Cox has been suitably silly and tweeted picture where he's pulling faces while posing with the freshly printed hardcover of “The Relic Guild”. His enthusiasm is perfectly appropriate considering he's just about to publish a book through Gollancz, probably the finest purveyors of quality fantasy and science fiction around. However, one thing must be said. Cox's face in these pictures could be potentially misleading as his debut is anything but silly. In fact, it is a fairly dark tale without a pinch of humour in it.

The Relic Guild in question are a secret band of magickers whose existence is dedicated to protecting the Labyrinth, a mystical construction where million humans are forced to live after a devastating war destroyed the world around them. Before being cut off from the rest of the world for 40 years, Labyrinth once held a more noble purpose. It was a meeting place where Aelfir brought trade and riches but after the Thaumaturgists, rulers of both human and Aelfir, went to said war things instantly changed. Labyrinth these days is a chaotic place. Magic is forbidden and punishable by death and the city is bursting with peril for those not careful enough. In this dangerous environment lives Clara, a young woman who has a deadly secret. She's running for her life and as she's also touched by the magic, the only people who can help her are the Relic Guild.

"The Relic Guild" was a fast and pleasurable read and while it is not an instant classic, it certainly shows that Cox is an author who has enough writing potential to create some great things in the future. He knows how to craft a tale and to write an engaging characters and I've also loved his use of the Labyrinth as a vehicle for setting a fully immersive dystopian (with a dash of noir) atmosphere. It is a magical creation and a true feat of imagination which I'm looking forward to exploring more. However, I just wished Cox was a bit more courageous with his decisions in storytelling as well as with keeping the number of disparage elements such as magic, lycanthropy and all kinds of phenomena in check. “The Relic Guild” reads to much a lead-in to a grander story. As things stand, while I've really liked the idea behind “The Relic Guild”, I think I'll take an excellent second book in the series to make me fall in love with it. A promising debut which has yet to fulfill its full potential.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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The story behind The Relic Guild by Edward Cox - Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about "The Relic Guild"?

A: I like to think it’s a story about people doing the right thing even though they’ve been given every reason not to. It’s about magic, monsters and mayhem. It’s a fantasy adventure. It has moments of horror, and touches upon the themes of isolation and loss. Mostly, “The Relic Guild” is written as entertainment.

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

A: The book really is an amalgamation of the ideas and inspirations that I’ve collected over the years. There are elements of pretty much every genre and medium that has entertained me, from superheroes and fantasy books to RPGs and horror films. I think “The Relic Guild” marks the moment when I stopped holding back and let my imagination run wild. As for my process, I write a lot in longhand because I find it helps me order my thoughts and ideas, and then I bring anything useful back to the computer in my office. I like to start work as early as I can in the morning, and then write for as long as I’m able.

Q: "The Relic Guild" is your debut novel but you've already published quite a few short stories. How different was it writing a novel? Was transition to long form difficult?

A: This might sound flippant, but it’s the truth. I never really consider the length of a story before I start writing it, and I’m notoriously bad at predicting word count. I just write until I feel the tale is told. “The Relic Guild” was simply the first idea I had that was long enough for a series of books.

Q: So have you planned the entire series from the start and how much it changed from the initial idea?

A: Yes, this story was always going to be three books long. Like so many other writers, and certainly with just about everything I’ve ever written, I know the beginning, I know the end, but it’s the middle of the story that can change and develop in a way that feels surprising, unexpected to the author. Things usually unfold as I roughly planned them to, but I just find cooler ways to do it.

Q: I've been especially impressed by your setting. For the readers, the story takes place in a strange and fascinating places called Labyrinth which is effectively sealed from the rest of the universe. How do you get to create something like that? Is world-building hard for you?

A: Thank you! The Labyrinth is really just a riff on the forgotten village hidden in the dark depths of a haunted forest. Only this time the village is the size of a city, and instead of a forest it’s surrounded by a gigantic maze that never ends. I find world-building no easier or harder than any other part of writing. For me it’s all about balance, connecting the different pieces into a single story. I like to use world-building as a backdrop, and try to let the reader discover the world as the characters do.

Q: "The Relic Guild" is a very bleak book without many light moments. Still, you seem to be a very fun and chirpy person who likes to fool around a lot? Where did all the darkness come from?

A: Hah! You’re not the first person to raise this point. There is some humour in the book, but you’re right to say that it’s surrounded by a particular kind of bleakness. If I want to scare readers, I’ll think about what scares me. If I want to dazzle imaginations with landscapes or magic, I’ll consider what it might take to leave me astounded. I am happy for the most part; I’ve got a lot to be grateful for. But I also go through all that other stuff that most humans do. With the Labyrinth, I wanted to create a dangerous place, where no one would choose to live, and somewhere that’s far removed from the comfort of my own life.

Q: How was it writing Clara as she is in the book - a young woman in the middle of a very confusing and potentially deadly situation? How did you get into right frame of mind?

A: I would say, out of all the characters, Clara is the one who carries the most traits of my personality. She is founded upon the confusion, the angst and insecurity that I felt when I was eighteen. The more she learns about the world, the less it makes sense, the more dangerous and chaotic it seems. I enjoyed taking Clara away from an undesirable life, and injecting her into a strange and fearful place. As it was, and is, for me, nothing will ever be easy for her.

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

A: Well…There’re David Gemmell, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter – this is a list that changes and grows every day. Recent titles I’d recommend? I’ll go for my fellow Gollancz debuts. I read them all to discover who I was being published alongside this year, and I have to say it’s an impressive collection of stories. Check out Jon Wallace, Den Patrick, Anna Caltabiano and John Hornor Jacobs!

Q: To conclude, what's next? A sequel as the finale could possibly suggest or something completely new?

A: Definitely the sequels. Book two of “The Relic Guild” is now on my editor’s desk, and I’ve just started book three. That’s my writing card filled for the next year or so. 


Edward Cox
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REVIEW : The Silver Kings by Stephen Deas

 

Not too long ago dragons were decidedly uncool. They occupied the same place as unicorns and helpless princesses, and were mostly mentioned in the same breath as the cheesiest fantasy from the 80s. You know the one I mean, books with bursting bodices that we're all a bit embarrassed off when we mention that we read fantasy. But then came Stephen Deas and made the unthinkable happen. He somehow made dragons cool again. Partly this was due to his, simply brilliant, storytelling skills and partly due to the approach he took - his dragons are never simplistic affairs. They don't live in caves and for some particular reason live their lives only to aggregate gold. They're creatures to be frightened off.

The latest instalment of his wonderful series is here and I am really sorry to report that "The Silver Kings" is probably the final novel of it we'll ever get to read. Stephen Deas makes is clear from the start by bluntly stating in the foreword that this is the ending and that before embarking on the story in question you should at least read everything from "Black Mausoleum" onwards. It clear to see why. "The Silver Kings" pulls together threads from all across the series and brings them together in a suitably explosive fashion. There's dragons and there's more dragons and then, you guessed it... And they're all terrifying and fearsome creatures as only Deas' dragons can get. It is impossible to speak about the plot without spoiling the rest of the series but for what it is worth, I will just mention that "The Silver Kings" features some of the finest mayhem every put to paper.

As I've turned the final page there was Stephen Deas again, once more saying how this really is the end for this particular series. He's slightly apologetic but there's no reason for it as "The Silver Kings" is the logical and perfectly suitable ending. But as the last two pages of the book unfold straight after it, I couldn't help but wonder whether there a slight chance for one more run around the block. No one does dragons like Deas and I'm afraid that without him they'll slowly once again revert to the realm of unicorns - even Naomi Novik's Temeraire is too twee for my liking. It is probably not likely to happen considering recent rise of Game of Thrones and Dragon Age but still, with Deas out of the picture there's a dragon shape gaping hole left in a genre which will be hard to fill. So all I can say at this point is: Thank you, Stephen, it's been a blast and do come back, eh?


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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The story behind The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

I’m super excited about it too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Review copy provided by Gollancz.

The story behind The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anna Caltabiano
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REVIEW : The Knight by Pierre Pevel

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

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

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


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

 

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

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



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


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

 

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

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

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


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

 

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

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



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


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

 

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ian Sales
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REVIEW : The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

 

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

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

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


Review copy provided by HarperCollins.
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