If you haven’t read the first book in Gavin Smith’s The Bastard Legion series, then beware of spoilers ahead….

In The Hangman’s Daughter, the first in the series, we met Miska Corbin and her army of prisoners, enslaved and forced to do her bidding as mercenaries via explosive collars and the threat of immediate death. As that book unfolded we learnt the real reason behind her piracy of the prison barge and what was behind her motives. The murder of her father and her subsequent deep, deep black op mission set her on a course of undeniable mayhem. Her father’s killers were on board the barge and her cover as a merc gone crazy was a ruse.

However, running that cover story requires her to take on contracts and, in Friendly Fire, Miska and her team are tasked with recovering an alien artifact. By recover, read steal using any means necessary. It’s another undercover mission given by her, frankly, misguided CIA handler yet the stakes are extremely high.

All manner of obstacles lay in Miska’s path not least being that the world on which the artifact has been found is home to a number of her prisoners. People whose family (and criminal fraternity) would very much like them set free. The mission, understandably, turns into a horror show as enemies come out of the woodwork from all directions, some who want Miska dead whilst others want her captured, not least of those her own sister. Added to that is the fact that the object isn’t what they thought it was and the people in possession of it are much more prepared than Miska was led to believe. Hunted and hated from all sides, Miska must try to balance it all whilst staying alive so that she can discover who killed her father and why it was covered up.

Smith weaves the story with his normal, casual brilliance blending action shootouts, weird technology, human problems and fantastic world building into one awesome package. His ability to add flavours from different genres – such as Italian mobsters, Yakuza gangs, alien tech and crime heists- into the mix, displays a clear sense of fun, something which oozes from the pages. Military sci-fi is in capable hands when Gavin Smith opens up the throttle of his imagination and Friendly Fire is an exceptional example of his skill as a storyteller.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

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So, once again, I’m back. It’s starting to sound a little repetitive, like an overly used catchphrase, but..I’m back reviewing. Suffice it to say, life gets in the way. Having said that, let’s get started.

The Bastard Legion is a fantastic way to fire this blog back up. It’s a fast paced, high action, blood and guts thriller of a ride. Like a lot of Gavin Smith’s (aka Gavin G Smith) books, the characters are brilliant, the dialogue tight and the world building epic.

Set four hundred years in the future, in the aftermath of an alien war, humanity has spread far into space. But, humans being humans, little has changed about our inner nature. Corporations rule, capitalism remains king and politics is still a subject best avoided. Smith’s novel opens with his protagonist, Miska Corbin, taking her enslaved penal legion on a mission both morally ambiguous and dangerous. As the action unfolds, we learn a much about the future world and Miska; a former space marine with a furious temper, an equally intimidating sister, and a father whose legend as one of the toughest sergeants in the force still holds true, all of which informs much of her decisions.

After stealing a huge prison barge full of some of the worst criminals, Miska sets about becoming a mercenary for hire. Slaved to her every whim by explosive collars, the prisoners are trained in virtual reality by the ghost of Corbin’s father and drilled into something resembling a fighting force. What happens next is a tale of deceit, double crosses and brutal action.

Underneath it all, we begin to discover the motive behind Miska’s decision to go from black ops marine to mercenary and, with Smith’s usual skill, the truths underlying it all reveal a greater, even more thrilling prospect for the series. It’s like the Dirty Dozen on steriods. In space. And it is awesome.

The Bastard Legion is a brilliantly fun read. Action, adventure, space battles and close quarter combat in equal measure all underpinned by a bigger mystery as prisoners become soldiers, lines are blurred between right and wrong, and Miska shows just how prepared she is to find the truth. This military-esque sci-fi at its finest.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

Review – Bone Tomahawk

Posted: July 8, 2018 in Film, Horror, western
Tags:

Left to my own devices, my choice in films can be questionable (80’s action, anyone?). Whilst my wife has a gift for picking great movies that are either funny or feel-good, I end up watching stuff that,often, goes to dark places. Bone Tomahawk went there and went there hard.

It has a great cast, led by Kurt Russel as a no nonsense sheriff in a hardscrabble but tight knit frontier town. Opening proceedings with a pair of nefarious robbers murdering some sleeping travellers, the tension that runs through the core of the film begins to build. The bandits find themselves needing to escape a posse and stumble into a sacred burial ground, desicrating it in the process, setting in motion a tale of horror, sacrifice and survival.

One of the robbers shows up in the sheriff’s town and quickly finds himself in jail. Left under guard and with a local woman attending his wounds, the tale takes a sudden turn. In the morning all three have disappeared; the only clue an arrow.

A local Native American tells the sheriff that the arrow belongs to a tribe long shunned and best avoided. He, his deputy and a gunslinger decide to set off in pursuit. The woman’s husband, a tough cowboy (with a broken leg), refuses to stay behind but is soon struggling to keep up with the pace. The ensuing journey is one of hardships in a harsh environment which slowly reveals more about the ensemble cast of characters with each step. The gritty toughness of the pioneer spirit is on full display as the men push on even as the odds are stacked against them.

After their horses are stolen the cowboy re-injures his leg and is left behind, perhaps to die. The others carry on and are soon attacked by the tribe. The gunslinger is killed whilst the sheriff and his deputy are captured. The true nature of the tribe becomes clear and the horror of the situation is played out in front of them in graphic detail. It’s a scene that stuck with me for some time as the guard from town is ritually killed and consumed.

What follows is a battle of wits and determination as the sheriff, deputy and nurse fight to overcome their cannibalistic captors. The appearance of the nurse’s husband, once again displaying a show of heart and will-power, turns the tables. Bone Tomahawk is brutal at times but equally enthralling, visually and psychologically. It’s a brilliant take on the western genre taken to another level as the tension and terror that underlines the film bears impressive results.

Author of the exceptional debut Blackwing and the soon to be available Ravencry, Ed McDonald has been kind enough to write a guest blog. It’s an interesting insight into his creative process and well worth a read.

So where do you get your ideas?

If you want to raise a wry smile among a group of writers, this is the question that will do it. It’s a highly complicated question, and the truth is that often, we have no idea ourselves. For some novelists there may be a single theme or idea that inspired the writing of a book, such as an experience in childhood, but for me that’s not the case. In this wonderfully hosted guest blog, I thought that I’d showcase how certain elements of Blackwing and Ravencry came about, and the kind of insight they might give into my own rather chaotic, haphazard writing ‘process.’ Although I’ve said before that there’s as much conscious ‘process’ in what I do as there is to throwing a bunch of alphabetti spaghetti on a plate and expecting words.

There are a number of places that ideas come from. Some emerge at random, some are long held passions, and some are engineered for plot reasons. For those that consider themselves writing ‘Gardeners’ then some of these things may seem familiar.

I don’t really know where Galharrow came from.

Galharrow was never an idea. He never existed in the sense that I sat down and tried to choose character traits for him. Everything that he is, from the narrative voice he tells the story in to the actions he takes, to his appearance, was either pre-formed in my mind, or developed subconsciously without any active thought. I wanted him to be 6’6 and weigh 300lbs because I knew he’d have a lot of action to get into, and physical prowess was going to help him out. His size also allows him to carry other people around, which is really handy. But the alcoholism, his lack of sympathy, and his ultimate nobility and heart were just kind of. . . there. His backstory emerged mid-page as I was writing.

Nenn was an accident

Nenn was never a conscious decision. In Draft 1, there was a character called Shent, who was supposed to be Galharrow’s right hand man, but he split into Tnota and Nenn. Nenn was a throwaway, one-line character, whose missing nose was mentioned purely as a fun detail to show that Galharrow’s company were scarred and war-weary, but as soon as I’d written her first expletive filled line, I immediately knew who she was and how she acted. I didn’t expect Nenn to become a fan favourite, or one of my own, and at times she ends up stealing the show. She became the counterpoint to Galharrow’s regretful, grumpy, calculating, brooding exterior; Nenn is reckless, savage, always wearing a grin and is defined by how little she cares about other people’s opinions – or at least that’s what she wants to present. In Ravencry we see beneath that surface. I really love how she evolved through the pages.

But you did worldbuilding for the Misery, right?

Alas, no. In fact, I don’t do any worldbuilding in the sense that people would normally mean – there is no heaving file of notes. I prefer to create details as I go along. For the Misery, I needed there to be a wasteland that divided two kingdoms at war. I also needed a reason that the larger, more powerful kingdom wasn’t simply marching over to claim victory, and the Engine (early names for Nall’s Engine were The Lightning Web and The Storm Wall) was created to provide the stalemate. Once I knew what Nall’s Engine was, it made sense that it would leave some bad magic in its wake. As it happens, that bit of story crafting then became the key plot element in both RAVENCRY and the book that will follow it.

So nothing is inspired or deliberately plotted?

No, not so. Sometimes I need something for a plot reason, or sometimes I just want to write it. My grandmother told me her stories of life during The Blitz in the second world war. She lived in Coventry, a major manufacturing centre in the UK, and as a young woman she had to endure the nightly bombing raids. Some of her stories were too inspiring not to write them into RAVENCRY. I don’t think that you can really capture the terror of such a time, but I hope that I’ve done some justice to expressing the helplessness felt by the innocent during periods of industrialised war.

The trick of writing a book is to get all this randomness to work as a cohesive whole – thank goodness for editors. I’ll finish by leaving a piece of advice for any budding writers who might be reading:

If you are like me – and you probably aren’t – and if you find that you’re not sure where to start, then just start writing. Trust that your subconscious, silent mind: it probably has much better ideas than anything that your vocal inner monologue is going to push out. Let those ideas flow, and if they aren’t flowing, go and look at the world, go sit somewhere else, take a walk, and then just start writing. I’m seldom aware of my own ideas until after I’ve written them.

The follow up to Ed McDonald’s Blackwing is set for release and I have the review copy next up on my reading list. In the meantime, the wonderful people at Gollancz have included me in a blog tour for Ravencry.

So, if you’re as excited about the second book as I am, please check out all the great content getting posted using the handy guide above.

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

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.