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Aside from reading my son his collection of The Little Red Train books by Benedict Blaithwayt (which are excellent for toddlers), the Dark Cities anthology has me equally enthralled.

Grit by Jonathan Maberry features that city within a city; the housing estates of the UK or the projects of the USA. The kind of places that have their own ecosystems and rules, where the locals implicitly understand the unique laws they live by. Working amongst that grim collective of hustlers, addicts, survivors and criminals is the protagonist; ostensibly a bounty hunter for two enigmatic bondsmen yet also a man who deals in things on the other side, both of the law and the natural.

Big, ugly and covered in tattoos, he’s a man who is capable of reaching through the veil. Communicating with ghosts and uncovering the identities of their murderers, he can understand the pain of the lost and wandering souls. Tasked with just such a job, Grit is a rough and violent episode into a place best avoided.

The horror contained in Simon R. Green’s Happy Forever is an enigmatic one. A thief of unusual and exceptional items is contacted by the father of his ex-girlfriend a decade after her disappearance. Though he claims to be free of any attachments, even to his own name, this request immediately draws him in as he seeks to save her and thereby show his true feelings.

Her ‘prison’ is an unassuming suburban house where time has stopped. The thief appears to be in control and on route to fulfilling his task. The darkness of this tale comes in the last few paragraphs and leaves and unsettling feeling.

Paul Tremblay does an amazing trade in dealing out dualities; stories full of more questions than answers and answers with no clear meanings. The Society of The Monsterhood is told from the perspective of a neighbourhood regular, witnessing events from his front porch. Four kid are given the opportunity to attend a good school on a scholarship. This immediately makes them a target for the other residents in the hood where they live.

Verbal and physical abuse ensues. The kids become teens and then something changes. They issue a threat, one which has dire consequences for those who don’t leave the four of them alone. It’s here that Paul Tremblay interjects uncertainty, giving the story numerous facets and a heavy degree of weirdness.

Review copy

Published by Titan books

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Helen Marshall’s The Way She Is With Strangers is a wonderfully poetic, musically written short story. It’s a strange but engaging tale of Mercy, a women who has moved away from her place of birth to a new city and a new existence where her daughter regularly visits and where she seems to have found happiness amidst the difference. But, as the story progresses the rhythm alters. Oddities occur and suddenly strange clues are left to be unthreaded.

The Way She is With Strangers is strangely beautiful. Pathways and boundaries, maps and geographies all hint at something beyond as Mercy tries to help those looking to find a way out of the city; a way only ghosts can walk. It’s a wonderful story.

Coming at the idea of a ghost story from the polar opposite direction, Good Night, Prison Kings by Cherie Priest is a grim and gritty tale of vengeance. The story is a slowly revealed by the protagonist, Holly, as she finds herself remembering the circumstances of her current existence. Sat in a mundane interview, Holly realises that she is dead and that her interviewer is offering her the chance to conclude some unfinished business.

That ‘business’ turns out to be the opportunity to avenge her own death. To bring retribution to those who have wronged her and the elderly family members she was looking after. Holly turns out to be a violent conduit for justice but it’s the targets of her anger that add such a grim taint to the tale.

What I’ve Always Done by Amber Benson is an engaging yet odd snap shot of a strange life. Told with few details but in with exceptional style, this is one of those short stories that has the immense ability to pull the reader into a world using but a few sentences. It’s violent and dark, hitting the brief perfectly.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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The strap line for this anthology reads ‘all-new masterpieces of urban terror’ and with an impressive list of authors to boot, it’s a collection I’ve been keen to read. Premised on the idea of the city, each writer has scraped back the veneer of metropolitan living to reveal the horror lying beneath.

First up and making an immediate impression was Scott Smith’s The Dogs. A mix of supernatural and bizzare properties, it’s the kind of tale where once it’s stall has been laid out you kind of know where it’s going. But, that doesn’t diminish its power or ability to unsettle. A young women who enjoys meeting men on Craigslist, suddenly finds herself in a situation that is
only ever going to end badly. However, it’s not the normal ‘met a guy who turned out to be a serial killer’ type bad; somehow it’s worse yet also pleasantly mundane. A mysteriously magical flat; murderous, talking canines; and the choice between killing or being killed. Superbly written and brilliantly paced, The Dogs is understated horror at its finest.

In Stone by Tim Lebbon definitely added some welcome chills to this week’s epic heatwave. It’s a story that manages to do so much with mere suggestions and hints rather than outright horror but the effect is exceptional. An insomniac narrator, troubled by the death of his closest friend, begins walking the streets of his home city in the early morning hours. During these meandering wanderings, he sees a woman strolling down alleyways and sidestreets, and he follows her. Curiosity peeked because she seems so out of place, so elsewhere, the woman disappears.

It’s a mystery that leaves the narrator unsettled and he investigates the spot again the next day. However, what he finds inexplicably intrigues yet deeply frightens him. Soon he begins seeing signs of further offkilter happenings around the city and can’t help but look for more. In Stone never explicitly shocks but the creeping sensation it produces is impressive.

Both stories have found intriguing interpretations of the brief for this anthology and I’m definitely hooked. Featuring so many good writers, such as Jonathon Maberry, Paul Tremblay, Ramsey Campbell and others, I’ll be posting up more reviews soon.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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Maniacle and manic; those were my overriding thoughts after reading El Sombra. It’s no surprise as the author, Al Ewing, is known for his comic book writing and this novel, set in a steampunk alternative reality, had many of the same visceral, action packed set pieces along with a healthy dose of vile villains waiting to be extinguished in exceptional style.

In the shared world sandbox of Paz Britannia, Ewing takes the idea of steampunk and runs with it. Basing his story in a small Mexican town that has been overrun by ruthlessly evil Nazis, El Sombra is a tale of absolute vengeance. By that, I mean total and completely insane levels of retribution. The eponymous protagonist was once some sort of emo poet and general laughing stock while his brother was the exact opposite; handsome, charming, brave and liked. Opening at the brother’s wedding, the novel quickly finds its stride as Nazis murder the bride and groom while emo-boy blubbers and then runs away.

As a catalyst it’s result is impressive. Emo becomes El Sombra; a fierce, desert hardened, sword wielding mix between ninja and berserker. After nine years in the wilderness he returns to his village and wreaks havoc. The Nazi force are undertaking all kinds of experiments, mainly turning the populace into mindless automatons. El Sombra is a one man army and so begins his bloody, violent journey toward retribution.

El Sombra is a blend of self-reflexive pulp fiction, alternative history, steampunk and comic book violence. It’s glorious in its unrelenting, unadulterated, uncensored imagination. Flying Nazis, a steampunk powered Hitler, gore galore and a hero of epic proportions. It’s mental but in a good way.

Review copy
Published by Abaddon

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I read Kieran Shea’s debut and it was a definite hit. Similarly, Off Rock has all the panache, creativity and excitement but this time packaged up as a classic crime caper set in a far future, space mining facility. There’s a good natured vibe to the book that keeps the fun ratcheted up high even when the action truly kicks off.

Jaded and complacent, Jimmy Vik, is fairly set in his ways, working for various mining companies that exploit the material rich outer reaches of space. He’s bounced around, lived the maxim of ‘work hard, play hard’ and is now getting to that stage in life where he’s stuck with his lot and doesn’t care one way or the other. That is until he discovers a seam of gold, missed by the company scans and ripe for the taking. To Jimmy, it’s the chance to start everything afresh regardless of the very severe and life threatening punishment that comes with appropriating the mining company’s property.

It sets in motion a series of events, bluffs and double crosses as Jimmy is stiffed by his accomplice, Jock. An indebted gambler with a huge criminal cartel on his case, Jock takes little time stitching up Jimmy. Off Rock has, to my mind, the feel of the Ocean’s Eleven movie as each actor brings to the story another complication. Setting up the main heist story for the first half of the book, things quickly unravel as Jock puts his own plan in motion. Sure enough, Jock the fixer is greasing wheels and doing deals. But, the cartel have eyes on him and are determined to get the account settled or, more accurately, terminated. Add in to the mix Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend and supervisor, who is far from stupid and tough to boot, the gold has gone from a sure thing to a hard sell.

Off Rock is, from start to finish, a brilliantly fun read. It hits all the right notes of a caper as everyone scrambles to get their slice of the pie. Jimmy, as hard as he tries, continues to blunder into obstacles, and it looks like he’ll be lucky to get out alive. Off Rock is a strikingly impressive feat of writing from the characters and banter to the plot and conclusion. When all is said and done, this is a book that will keep you thoroughly entertained and leave you with a smile on your face.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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Following on from his slick opening gambit with The Hatching, Ezekiel Boone continues the arachnid apocalypse in Skitter and never lets go of the creepy-crawly tension. Though the majority of his cast survived the first book in the series, things haven’t got any better. In fact, this whole novel is all about just how bad things are going to get.

The spiders have wrought havoc and, though it seems the plague of flesh eating eight-legged freaks are dying off, it’s just the beginning. Country after country has suffered outbreaks of attacks and the world’s governments and armies are trying their best to destroy and burn out the egg nests left by the first wave. However, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a mathematical (and physical) impossibility to contain the situation using conventional military tactics.

That is the issue at the heart of Skitter. President Stephenie Pilgrim knows it; scientist Melanie Gruyer has realised it and the boots on the ground are seeing it – no matter what they do, someone infected or some nest will have been missed and is about to restart the avalanche of killer arachnids. Skitter is the calm before the storm and, as the second book in the series, sets up what will clearly be a catastrophic ending. Because, what was, at first, a tidal wave of death is actually something else. It was a first wave. Therefore, what is coming next?

Clues and conjecture, fragmented information and intuition start to form a picture as humanity is given a brief respite from the spiders. Huge caccoon eggs are discovered whilst a different type of spider appears; one that seems to nurse the gigantic egg sacks. Amidst all this, the US president is forced to make harder and harder choices. With China already a nuclear wasteland and parts of Europe and Indian crumbling under the arachnid threat, Stephanie Pilgrim must do the unthinkable to save her country.

Skitter is all about those tough choices. The tension and terror is present throughout the book but this second instalment is really concerned with what is to come and how to try and stop it. The ensemble cast of characters continue to impress, some coming in to contact with others, while some try their best to survive. It’s a real strength of the author that no matter who is in the spotlight, you’re made to care about them, for however brief a moment. If The Hatching was a summer blockbuster then Skitter is its tense, page turning counterpart setting the tone for a brutal, all out apocalyptic conclusion.

Review copy
Publish by Gollancz

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I’m a fan of all different flavours of science fiction and fantasy but there is something to be said for plausibility that truly gives a novel weight. Worldbuilding that recognises an internal logic is a praiseworthy quality and, though there might be aliens and space travel and all things fantastic, plausible actions and actors can often take a book from being good to being great. Netherspace by Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster does exactly that.

A ensemble cast of characters set in a future where multiple alien species have made contact with Earth and traded unimaginably sophisticated technology, Netherspace never relinquishes the very human characteristics that gives this book its depth. The two main protagonists, ex-army sniper and current assassin Kara and celebrated, rebellious artist Marc, make an interesting duo as they are coerced into a mission of epic proportions. Their bond, produced through a kind of mind-share technology, allows each to understand the other intricately and work together in unison; an important ability when dealing with aliens with whom communication is basically impossible.

Trade has occurred and humans have been gifted the means to travel huge distances across the universe by using Netherspace. It’s a way of slipping through realspace but it comes at a cost – the aliens demand a human life for every Netherspace drive. Kara and Marc, though ostensibly sent out to rescue a kidnapped group of colonists, are there to find out why. Why a human life for a drive? Where does the technology really derive from? And, most importantly, what is happening in Netherspace?

The story is set between the two groups, the colonists and the rescue team, led by Marc, Kara and pre-cog psychic Tse. Both groups must struggle to understand the aliens and Netherspace whilst simultaneously trying not to impose human ideas, emotions and motivations upon them. It’s a concept reiterated throughout the book: an alien is completely unknowable and there is no common ground upon which to base communications. Bizarre and frustrating, each group must still find their way towards comprehending the situation.

Separated by time and space, as the two groups near each other, I suddenly realised there was a tension growing in the plot that I hadn’t truly recognised. It grows into a mystery that has far reaching implications and, as the start of a new series, sets up some very interesting problems for the next book to resolve. Netherspace is a complex and considered book which has, at its core, a believable logic, sensible and real actors, and a mystery that will leave you waiting for the sequel.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

The authors of Netherspace will post a guest blog on the 26th May all about space travel, so be sure to check it out.

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Future Space Travel

Let’s assume that we’re using a drive that doesn’t rely on controlled explosions. Make the control mechanisms as complex and high tech as you like, but you still only get forward momentum by making something go bang. So what does that leave us? Space sails? Nice idea – and originally a science fiction one (sigh) – but impractical. Space isn’t empty, a cloud of dust could wreak havoc and the sail would have to be so large it could take days to reach the damage. The sail enthusiasts have said repair-robots. When there’s a technical problem, someone always says robots. When there’s sexy but unsound idea – like a space sail – the human reaction is to add more and more tech to try and make it work. Humanity is programmed never to admit mistakes.
​NASA’s said to be working on two drives: “Alcubierre”, that distorts space; and the “EM”, that provides a better, stronger form of propulsion by using microwaves reflecting back and forth to (somehow) produce an asymmetric forward impulse. Which is good because the idea that humanity will be confined to the Solar System forever is just so wrong it hurts. Surely the universe couldn’t be so cruel? But this does open up a major problem: where do we build whatever craft will take us to the stars? Or even to the outer planets? Do we set up a vast manufacturing facility on the moon? Or conveniently discover anti-gravity (after figuring out what gravity actually is, as opposed to what it does) so we can build on Earth then float the craft into space?

​Actually we do neither. Nor do we set up a Navy Yard (sorry, Star Trek) in Earth orbit (or, as implausibly in J.J.Abrams’s reboot, somewhere in Kansas – how did they get the Enterprise up into space from there? And why?) Aside from the technical problems – did someone say ‘robots’? – mining and transporting the necessary raw materials requires machines and space craft so huge that building them would take years and consume most of our natural resources.

​The solution is hinted at in Netherspace. It’s not totally original, the late and wonderful Iain M. Banks began the idea, but we tarted it up some.

​Turn asteroids into spacecraft.
​Hollow them out, fix up living quarters, add a space drive – the Alcubierre space warp or NASA’s EMdrive – and away you go, protected from radiation and collisions by several hundred feet of rock. Because spacecraft do not need to be streamlined. They do not have to look pretty. All they have to do is take humans safely from point a to b (and we are reminded of the old cartoon in which a middle-aged businessman is talking to a car salesman, saying: “I want something that will get me from a. to c. without b. knowing.”) Okay, you may have to smooth them out to get a sensible centre of gravity. Spin them to increase that gravity. Still far, far easier than trying to build a cruise liner in space. And there are hundreds of thousands of them, all shapes and sizes, parked up in orbit and not that far from this very planet. Bit like a used car lot, really.

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The wonderful people at Titan Books have kindly including the BookBeard in a blog tour from the authors of Netherspace. So, expect a review (I’ve just finished the book today) shortly and an awesome guest blog post from authors Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster.

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Ubo is an unsettling book; from its impressive yet disturbing cover art to its complex and relentless exploration of humanity’s capacity for violence. Though there is some quite visceral horror throughout, it is that sense of disturbance, pervading the entire text and constantly scratching away in the background, that powers the story and captures the imagination.

Daniel doesn’t know where he is nor why he is being subjected to the terrifying mind experiments he is forced to experience. The only thing he has in common with the other prisoners is a shared nightmare, or hallucination, of being abducted by a large cockroach like creature, borne away from his life to a ruined, crumbling world. The discombobulating nature of the protagonist’s situation mirrors the reader’s own perturbed understanding of the story. Like Daniel, we are trying to work out what these experiments mean and why he and the other captives have been chosen. Yet, we are also tasked with understanding the place Daniel has found himself in, the giant insects guarding him and the worrying decay surrounding everything.

It’s a dark and terrifying world where Daniel is used daily as a vessel of consciousness to experience some of the most depraved and psychotic people in history. Via some strange technology, Daniel rides inside the minds of these killers and dictators, sharing and almost becoming them as they carry out awful acts. The horror of witnessing Jack the Ripper’s murders, for example, is compounded by being caught up in the mind of the madman. The unhinged hunger for violence, the crazed, incomprehensible desires are relentlessly disturbing. Yet, what is more unsettling? The narratives of these criminals or the mental violence perpetuated against Daniel and his fellows as they are forced to be conduits for understanding hatred and aggression on such an unprecedented, unfiltered scale?

Amongst these dual mysteries, the plot unfolds in ever more bizarre and scary ways. As ever in my reviews, I don’t like to give too much away or spoil the impact of the book. Suffice it to say that, with the theme of violence at its heart, it isn’t surprising that the world Daniel finds himself in is as equally unbalanced as the experiments. As a meditation on aggression, brutality and psychotic hatred, Ubo is a savage, relentless look into how violence pervades human history, even (or especially) when those perpetuating it are doing it for the greater good. Steve Rasnic Tem has created a sci-fi horror of impressive proportions with an ending that is horrific, uplifting, apocalyptic and optimistic, all in equal measure. A brutal book that is impossible to put down.

Review copy
Published by Solaris Books