Book one in the Raven’s Mark series, Blackwing is a fierce, grim and highly entertaining debut from Ed McDonald. Chock full of sorcery, swords and gunpowder, it’s a novel that holds no punches and grips the imagination from the first page.

Set in a frontier town, hard against a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of frightening ghouls, Blackwing tells the tale of immortal wizards battling for supremacy against a backdrop of human despair, hope and the instinct to survive. Told from the perspective of Ryhalt Galharrow, a mercenary captain of sorts, the book builds a world as intriguing as it is cruel. A centuries old war still wages as the Republic polices the broken and polluted land across the border, still fearful of the Deep Kings and their hordes of mutated warriors. Protection lies in the form of the Nameless, almost gods, most certainly powerful, and a weapon that has unimaginable force.

Galharrow, a man well versed in the ways of the wasteland, termed the Misery, is soon tasked to protect a person he thought he’d never see again. And so begins a series of events that rocks the very core of his few beliefs. As gritty a protagonist as possible, Galharrow solves most issues with violence but, set against inhuman wizards and a conspiracy that reaches to the very top of the Republic, he’s forced to find new ways as well as confront things he’d considered long buried.

As the novel unfolds, the world building and detail of Galharrow’s reality is brilliant. An epic mix of apocalyptic horrors, magical myths and long lost knowledge, Blackwing is captivating as it bounces from political intrigue to exhausting sword fights to eternal sorcerers and back again. Ed McDonald has achieved something brilliant in fantasy writing with his debut. The story flows effortlessly, the plot is suitable tricky and harsh fitting the gritty and dark world he has created, populated with a cast of tough, hard and yet likeable characters.

The next book in the series should be released soon and will, undoubtedly, jump to the top of my reading pile.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

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Sometimes I feel guilty for reading a book so fast considering how much effort the author must have put into the novel. But, it’s also a testament to just how enjoyable it was to read, and that goes doubly for Nyxia. Billed as a YA novel, Nyxia definitely hits all the right notes for a coming-of-age adventure yet it is also a brilliantly written, gripping tale of a young man struggling against the odds to ensure that his family and his future are more than his social status would dictate.

Emmett is a thoughtful, brave, complicated teenager who, as the protagonist, carries the story on broad shoulders. Plucked from poverty along with nine other hopefuls, he is whisked away on a journey that will change his life forever, though only if he can survive. In a near-future, Emmett and the others are contracted to travel to a distant planet by a company with technology far beyond his wildest imagination.

However (and there’s always one), whilst the explorers will be made exceptionally rich, they must compete with each other to secure their place with the company. It’s a competition of ruthless rules, changing goalposts and huge rewards; for a group of impoverished teenagers, the stakes are massive. Nyxia captures all of the emotionally charged games, the tentative alliances and the brutal struggle to succeed brilliantly, keeping the pace high and the action engaging.

The company, Babel Communications, and more importantly the man in charge, Marcus Defoe, is both alluring yet dangerous though even Emmett’s street smarts can’t give him the edge he needs to take control of the situation. Constantly on the back foot, desperate to succeed and being forced to make choices designed to break even the toughest, mentally and physically. Yet, looming behind the competition is the planet Eden, it’s humanoid population and, more importantly the substance they are all travelling for – Nyxia. It’s something no-one really understands containing power and ability of epic proportions and a history that Babel is trying to hide.

Nyxia is a gripping, engaging and fun read. Scott Reintgen has created an amazing cast of characters with a protagonist who is captivating in his honest struggle to survive yet succeed along with worldbuilding that holds the promise of amazing sequels.

Review copy

Published by Penguin Books/Michael Joseph

The Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard K Morgan are among some of my favourite books. The world building and vision is astounding whilst the gritty and cynical protagonist, coupled with the hectic action, combines to form a top notch cyberpunk novel. Thankfully, the Netflix produced T.V series captured all of this in full technicolour.

For those not in the know (unlikely), Altered Carbon is a crime thriller set in a far future where humanity has achieved the ability to download one’s personality and, in theory, live forever by using different ‘sleeves’ or bodies. Space travel is possible by needlecasting; sending your personality data to be downloaded into another body. The possibilities of the tech are far-reaching, creating a fecund and fascinating culture as a background to an intriguing story.

Takeshi Kovacs is one of those used to being resleeved. An Envoy with special training he is tasked with unravelling the mystery of why an obnoxiously wealthy man, who is basically immortal, would kill himself. The man in question has, himself, resleeved and questions abound; was he killed or did he commit suicide.

The resulting merry-go-round that Kovacs finds himself upon is both brutal and eye-opening. He uncovers all manner of disturbing truths about the unobtainably rich, called Meths, such as his employer’s predilection for rape/murder. There are worlds within worlds and layers upon layers of deceptions and double backs as people scrabble for power and status.

The T.V. Series is a visual riot grasping the world Richard K Morgan has created with a brilliance that dazzles. Equally, Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman, is wonderfully jaded yet excellently threatening. The weirdness of the ‘sleeves’ is captured amazingly well, causing a considered disturbance to much of the story whilst the action is violent and breathtaking. The series even got the A.I. hotel down too.

Whilst there might be a few niggles ( why they changed Kovacs backstory as an Envoy from the original book version), this is a thoroughly enjoyable, sumptuously created piece of visual entertainment. I’m really looking forward to the next season because, if it’s anything like the books, it should be awesome.

Following on from An Ancient Peace, Tanya Huff’s next novel in the series is, to put it mildly, awesome. Still trying to find her place as a Warden, ex- Gunnery Sargeant Kerr and her motley crew continue to work to keep the peace in a universe recovering from decades of war and the knowledge that it was a manufactured experiment by a bizarrely alien species.

After stopping a shipment of weapons from being sold illegally, Kerr and her team begin to uncover a plot designed to destabilise the peace between the ‘Elder’ races and newer members of the Confederation (such as Humans) as well as their old enemies, the Primacy. But, things are complicated. Not only is Kerr restricted by her new position as a Warden (and the Elder races obsession against the use of force) but she and her team must strive to keep the fragile treaties in place between the Confederation and Primacy.

All of that is made more difficult with the next mission handed to Kerr and her squad. When scientists discover plastic on a world where civilisation has disappeared en masse, a third party of mercenaries take the scientists hostage thinking the discovery of a plastic alien destroying weapon has been made. Adding even more complexity to the situation, Kerr is assigned a team of Primacy counterparts to accompany the rescue attempt.

Tanya Huff uses the set piece of the rescue mission to unpack and explore all the political intrigue and machinations of her universe. Old enemies are forced to work together, former soldiers broken by war and abandoned by their governments struggle to find peace, and bigoted extremists justify their racist ideologies as they seek revenge in all the wrong places. The boundaries are constantly blurred and redrawn as the hostages, mercenaries, Wardens and Primacy agents struggle to achieve their aims all against the backdrop of the plastic aliens’ troubling presence.

A Peace Divided, manages to be both action packed and thrilling whilst also considering some interesting ideas about post-war politics and cultural divides (as well as showing the total idiocy and pointlessness of racism). Behind the rescue mission stands a nefarious yet powerful antagonist, one who will no doubt appear later in the series, as Kerr and her strike team manage to overcome the odds and, once more, display what makes them such an elite force.

Huff continues her amazing world building, delving deeper into the politics of the situation whilst producing a fantastic, fun and frantic read. Personally, I can’t wait for more.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

I heard about Turbo Kid when it came out but didn’t get the chance to watch it until I spied a late night TV showing of the film and recorded it. I’m so glad I did. It’s a modern take on all the awesome 80’s sci-fi post-apocalyptic adventure movies, mashing up tropes and ideas into one brilliantly balanced episode. Plus, it features Michael Ironside (the baddy from Total Recall) as the antagonist.

Set in a post-apocalypse, where water is more than scarce and a possible robot uprising expidiated the end of society, Turbo Kid is bonkers. The “kid” is an orphan, living by his wits and scavenging the wasteland for things to trade, especially for ‘Turbo Rider’ comics. Emulating his hero, the Kid navigates the wasteland on his trusty BMX when he is forcefully befriended by Apple, an overly enthusiastic and amicable girl. And, here, is where things get mental. Apple is kidnapped by some nefarious thugs, notably a mute mask wearing henchman called Skeletron. Taken back to the big bad bosses HQ, she is thrown into the pit – a fighting arena used purely for violent entertainment where the dead are crushed by a machine and turned into water; the same water all the people of the wasteland trade for.

What ensues is a wild adventure as the Kid tries to save Apple with the help of an arm wrestling champion cowboy, another pit victim. Twists and turns abound as Zeus (played by Ironside) tracks them down. She turns out to be a robot, the cowboy a tough but fair ally and the Kid a resourceful hero as the film ends in an impressively epic showdown. The violence is gory but tongue-in-cheek and the tropes laid on thick and fast yet with originality. There’s an impressive retro feel to the film that permeates it’s visuals and effects yet it’s a great movie that tells a unique story.

The final instalment in this creature-feature, arachnid-apocalypse, horror series is a satisfying and entertaining read. As ‘they’ like to say – things have to get worse before they can get better; Zero Day epitomises this perfectly. The previous novels (reviewed here and here) set up this brilliant conclusion, tying in all the threads of the plot perfectly.

With the American President under immense pressure to act from her military advisers, nuclear bombs are dropped on U.S soil, the country torn apart and divided. Yet, it’s still not enough. However, a rag-tag group of survivors working in different parts of the country hone in on a way to defeat the spiders. Scientist Melanie Guyer’s research discovers ever more frightening aspects of the aptly named ‘hellspiders’ whilst backwood geniuses Shotgun and Gordo reconfigure their invention from failed weapon to arachnid tracking device.

Much like Guyer, their research doesn’t make things better. At all. The spiders in Boone’s novels just get scarier and scarier as the books go on and, in Zero Day, things really get worrying. Sprinkled in amongst all the big plays are numerous side stories adding to and painting the bigger picture perfectly. There’s great moments, some apocalyptically wild and some heartfelt and touching. But, Boone keeps the pressure rolling. A military coup, a final queen-sized hatching of new-and-improved spiders and a countdown to the end of days.

It’s a great finish to a very readable set of novels, perfectly balanced between adventure and horror.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

This is another of those books that I stumbled upon in a charity shop which had long been on my list to read. Written by co-authors Chris Bunch and Allan Cole in 1982, Sten is a military sci-fi adventure set far in the future and full to the brim with action.

Considering when it was produced, the novel does a great job at subverting the premise of a benevolent empire, focusing on a factory planet named Vulcan. Within, migrant workers (or Migs), are trapped in never ending contracts, forcing them and their children into a life of servitude. The company that owns the planet is a ruthless hierarchy of elitist capitalists who care for nothing other than profit. The Eternal Emperor, for whom the company works, turns a blind eye so long as the company remains loyal.

The company, and Vulcan, is run by one Baron Thoresen, a man of epic ambitions and absolutely no morals. When he carelessly murders hundreds of Migs, he sets in motion his own demise. One of the families he jettisons into space belongs to a young boy called Sten. Smart and capable, Sten, however, finds himself under the grindstone of the company and in short order begins to rebel. Soon, he tries to escape Vulcan, bringing himself to the attention of the Empire’s military when he joins a group of likeminded youngsters living in the tunnels and vents of the factory planet.

What ensues is a story of rebellion and revenge peppered with classic military sci-fi boot camp episodes, guerilla warfare and pitched battles as Sten makes his way back to Vulcan to end Thoresen’s reign of terror. The book is a fast, no-frills read and all the better for it. Sten is action packed and great fun. As the start of a series, this is a must for pulpy military action enthusiasts.

My copy

Published by Orbit

The Expanse (TV series)

Posted: April 6, 2018 in Sci-Fi, TV show
Tags: ,

I read the first few books when initially published and enjoyed them immensely. So, it was a no-brainier that when I saw this series available on Netflix, I put it on my list to watch. Unfortunately (or not depending on your perspective) my reading time has been limited. Due to life, work and training, I’ve instead found myself glued to the sofa in a state of exhaustion taking the easy route of watching television. Thankfully, series such as The Expanse, are excellent.

The quality of the production is truly top shelf and the script has a brilliant story to base itself upon. The multiple players in the political landscape are all portrayed fantastically – even the weird psuedo-London patois accent of the ‘Belters’. Caught in the middle of it all are the mismatched crew run, reluctantly, by Jim Holden. It’s an interesting focal point to take between the Earth and Mars power struggle and the oppression of the population living in the outer belt, as each member represents a different aspect of the conflict.

Thomas Jane absolutely owns the character of detective Miller, a kind of corporate owned police officer. It’s his investigation into the disappearance of an OPA sympathiser that uncovers a very scary plot using an alien virus. Whilst the book made more of the firightening and disturbing nature of this viral life form, the changes made for the series make sense. Most of the actors fit my reading of the novels but I did feel that one crew member, Amos, wasn’t as well cast as could be.

Never-the-less, this is an excellent and awesomely filmed series. If you’re into your big space sci-fi, it’s well worth the time.

I’ve read a number of Alastair Reynolds’ novels and what astounds me is his ability to create such different stories within his own universe from hard sci-fi epics to this crime thriller. Obviously, Reynolds is technically brilliant but the diversity of his themes is refreshing. Elysium Fire is sci-fi, make no mistake, but the bones of the novel are more concerned with acts of vengeance, threaded through with other twisting narratives that, in the end, converge to make a completed jigsaw puzzle.

Set inside Reynolds ‘Chasm City’ universe and featuring the excellent Prefect Dreyfus, Elysium Fire begins as the Glitter Band finds itself dealing with a frightening crisis as seemingly normal people are dropping dead. But, dead in a cruel way as their implants boil their own brains, cooking them from the inside out. At the same time a most charming (yet noxious) figure is pushing for settlements to secede from the Panopoly. As the number of deaths rise and the social dissent builds, the Prefects come under more pressure and more scrutiny, forcing Dreyfus into positions he’s far from comfortable with.

The novel keeps a pace that builds and builds and Reynolds cleverly seeds enough information throughout to make you think you can see the answers. Yet, the twist and turns of the narratives mirror some of the themes in the book and the conclusion climbs to a satisfying reveal and an epic showdown. Featuring some truly nefarious characters and a world building of stunning proportions, Elysium Fire is another excellent addition to Reynolds’ library of work.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

If I’ve said it to my wife once, I’ve said it a thousand times; Netflix is crushing it with their original sci-fi series. The Punisher is an excellent example. As a kid, I read some Spider-Man/Punisher crossover comics and, as a teen, I read more Punisher comic books. He’s a great character who populates a space in the superhero landscape that is unique. An anti-hero of sorts but one driven by the most pure albeit tragic of reasons.

The series does an amazing job of bringing that backstory to life, rebooted yet losing none of its power. In fact, it probably adds a layer of moral ambiguity to the character of Frank Castle that firmly places the series at the gritty end of dark. Jon Bernthal fills out the army issue boots of The Punisher in epic fashion with an intensity that is relentless and terrifying.

After dispatching a host of gangsters, drug dealers and mafiosa, who Castle blames for the murder of his wife and children, he is drifting under the radar having faked his own death. But a message from a certain ‘Micro’ brings everything back and uncovers the real power behind the killing of his family.

The dynamic between Frank and Micro is intriguing and complex, moving from enemies to friends and everything in between. The duo are, however, the perfect package to take on an enemy who has all the assets and all the power. Frank’s psychotic drive and ability to rain down death paired with Micro’s technological wizardry is an unstoppable force.

Yet, there are other players in the game such as Homeland Security Agent Madani. A woman compelled to find the truth and very much a white-hat in the story. It complicates Castle’s plans entirely as Madani is determined to bring The Punisher in, thinking he is responsible for all manner of crimes. As things begin to untangle, Madani and Castle begin to co-operate.

The Punisher is a brilliant series. Dark, violent and uncompromising. It also cleverly touches on some serious modern themes around the recent conflicts in the Middle East. But, the finale is one of the most brutal conclusions I’ve seen in screen. One which cleverly leaves an opening for a second series and I can’t wait.