Archive for April, 2016

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I’ve enthused on Joe Abercrombie’s astounding skill at crafting characters and, once again, he continues to amaze. Wrong Place, Wrong Time consists of three stories featuring three characters who are all background extras in the larger novel Best Served Cold. Each story fills in a life using the smallest detail, outlining these characters brimming with their own narrative. Only each one is a mere bit-player; a witness, and at times a victim, to the bigger story of Monza Murcatto’s vengeance.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time is a great piece of writing. Not just for how each individual story is developed but also for how it fits into the bigger picture, giving life and flesh to the world of The First Law.

Set before Red Country and featuring the uncompromising Shy South, Some Desperado is, like the novel, all piss and vinegar. And dust. And the sense that if things are bad, they can definitely get worse.

On the run from her own bunch of bandit friends intent on earning the bounty placed on her head, Shy is not having much luck. Finding herself without a horse, a weapon, nor any way to get help, a showdown is all that’s left to her. The desperation almost sweats out of the page as her three erstwhile companions set about capturing their mark. Against the backdrop of a sun bleached ghost town and with nothing left to lose, Shy proves that she can punch way above her weight.

A great setting, a superb short story, and more action than seems possible considering the equal amount of soul searching Shy does. All in all – awesome.

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Published by Gollancz

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I’m really enjoying this collection of short stories by Joe Abercrombie. Being able to jump in and consume a perfect little slice of action during a lunch break is fantastic. But, as ever with Abercrombie and the world he has created, it’s not just the firecracker confrontations he so brilliantly crafts, it’s the characters behind them that truly stand out.

In Hell, Abercrombie let’s us walk, or more aptly run, in the shoes of a coward. Temple, the religious acolyte of Dagoskan, is running because the Gurkish have breached the city walls, the Union army is retreating and the Eaters are on their way. Through all the debris and smoke and startling description, Temple’s fear and cowardice are sumptuously laid bare. He knows what he should do yet he can’t; he despises what he does but he can’t help but do it. Wanting to live, regardless of the guilt is a powerful motivator and Temple is highly motivated.

Looking in on the fall of Dagoskan and watching the Eaters display their power, Hell is a clever commentary on a profound aspect of life; so few do what is right at the right time, especially Temple.

Two’s Company is another roaring tale featuring Javre the Lioness and Shev. Travelling in the North, attempting to evade the Templars of the Golden Order, the two women find themselves face to face with Cracknut Wirrun. The meeting, however, takes place on a very rickety rope bridge and neither warrior is in the mood to back down.

There’s a real humour laced through Abercrombie’s work and none more so than here. Wirrun and Javre engage in a classic conversation that leads to a fist fight. Before any conclusive blows are struck, a group of Bethod’s men show up looking for Wirrun. Mayhem ensues as Javre takes offence at the interruption, helping Wirrun to defeat his enemies. The favour is paid back when Javre’s foes arrive upon the scene. Throughout it all, Shev narrowly avoids death but not getting covered in blood and guts.

Shev and Javre are turning out to be brilliant actors and these stories are making me hope for a novel based around their exploits. More great stuff from the World of The First Law.

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Published by Gollancz

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Recently, I decided to look around for some horror-esque stories to read and a quick look in the book pile revealed Nod by Adrian Barnes. The back cover blurb sounded promising but it didn’t prepare me for the psychologically terrifying concept nor for the wonderful prose this novel offers.

Nod, much like the rest of the book, is woven with double meanings. Not only is it about sleep and the lack of, it also implies the same place that Cain was sent after being exiled from Adam’s garden in the bible. It’s about the layered meanings of words, sometimes polar opposites; about how words shape reality, and about how quickly meaning and structure, that which anchors are existence in the real, disintegrates so quickly once the thread of language begins to unravel.

I’ve heard Nod referred to as ‘creepy’ but it’s so much more than that. The idea is that one morning the world awakes to find that nearly everyone hasn’t slept whilst those few that did shared a collective dream. This isn’t the insomnia of snatched naps; it’s is the complete lack of sleep – the inability to reboot the brain and flush out all the madness of the day. Soon, the sleepless begin to panic, knowing that within a mere week they will descend into an inescapable psychosis.

It is a descent perfectly portrayed by the author and it is here that the horror sets in. Paul, the protagonist and author behind the journal we are reading, is forced to witness his long term girlfriend’s inevitable end – from the first few days of frustration, panic and resignation into bitterness, hate and finally insanity. It’s a terrifying thing having to watch as your loved one begins to lose themselves bit by bit, day by day as memory and personality and emotion and being are relentlessly stripped away whilst you remain relatively unscathed.

Yet are you? As the world around Paul sinks into a fog of lunacy and dementia, he is equally cast adrift from reality. It is here that the author, Adrian Barnes, considers some very powerful ideas about human nature, social structures and the idea of self. Because Paul is an etymologist, the journal is full of wonderful prose and insightful examinations of words and meanings, imbuing the novel with such frightening realisations.

It’s a personal apocalypse, played out on a small stage ( as I suppose all apocalyptic events are). But, it is the terror of losing all that anchors us to the world; of being witness to the mental and physical decay that is so powerfully written by Barnes. Inevitably though, as the mania abounds, Paul is caught up in a number of people’s psychotic games as he tries to hold on to what was. It is here, in the small details, that the hardest punches are thrown; it is here that Nod struck me so harshly for both it’s beautiful language and for it’s dreadful depictions.

Nod is a fantastic novel (I actually swore out loud in shock and respect as I finished it). It’s a must read for anyone interested in psychological horror, speculative writing, post-apocalypse fiction or just brilliant writing.

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Published by Titan Books

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Joe Abercrombie has the ability to take what is ostensibly a set piece and imbue it with all manner of depth and insight into the world he has crafted with his First Law novels. Much like the excellent work The Heroes, his short feature The Fools Job is a character driven riot of a story. It’s the small details and the honesty of the actor’s inner thoughts that reveals so much and makes these tales so engaging. Yes, there’s plenty of Abercrombie’s patented action sequences but there’s also just as much of his sagacity.

The Fools Job centres around the Named Man, Curden Craw; slightly younger but no less honest and no less cynical about his role in the world. Leading his dozen on a mission to steal a certain item, Craw, along with his second Wonderful and new member Wirrum, does his best to keep everything on track. Yet, with sketchy information at best, things, obviously, don’t go to plan.

It’s a fantastic, action packed look into the lives of a Named Man and his crew trying to make things work in a world where everything is mud.

In Skipping Town we are back with Shevedieh and Javre as they try to find a way between making more enemies and, well, making more enemies. After a catastrophic though successful job to steal a jewel the unlikely pair discuss their options. Skip town and leave behind more marks against their names or enter into what is very possibly a double-cross and trap.

Javre opts to take it all on head first whilst Shev tries to do her best to avoid the inevitable violence. Whilst both these characters are new to me they’re equally and brilliantly fleshed out. Skipping Town results in a bar fight of epic proportions that shines a light on Javre and her intriguing background. It’s an another example of Abercrombie’s skill at crafting engaging protagonists and writing brutally effective battle scenes.

Sharp Ends continues to be a brilliant collection of stories full of Abercrombie awesomeness.

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Published by Gollancz

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The Dark Side is an eminently readable book. I mean that in the best possible way. It effortlessly blends the feel of a hardboiled crime novel with the science and scope of a plausible far-future tale. The pace of the book, with it’s cut-away chapters to a narrator who oversees the whole environment, really adds a noir-esque element to story. It’s a mash of styles that Anthony O’Neill has layered together perfectly.

Featuring the city of Purgatory, situated on the far side of the Moon, and the enigmatic (and villainous) Fletcher Brass the similarities to a Las Vegas crime novel are clear to make. But, it’s the true killer at the heart of the story which gives The Dark Side it’s edge. A psychotic android, reprogrammed and out of control is one thing but Leonardo Black is something else. Grinning, exceptionally polite and totally unhinged, Black’s murderous journey to Purgatory adds a creeping, inevitable terror that counterpoints the story of Lieutenant Damien Justus .

A scarred, fiercely honest cop forced to flee Earth to protect his daughter, Justus is everything you’d want from a hard bitten, no-nonsense crime novel. On the face of it, he’s thrown in the deep end, seemingly being played by all the major factions vying for power in the Moon’s less than salubrious colony. But, Justus is no chump. He’s seen his far share of the dark side and isn’t going to be anybodies stooge.

The political arm wrestling between Fletcher Brass and his daughter place Justus right in the middle of a turf war. The corrupt police department he is assigned to adds to the atmosphere and coupled with the richly detailed and considered world that O’Neill has created, The Dark Side flows off the page. It’s neatly constructed, wonderfully written and wrapped up with clever science. Anthony O’Neill has delivered a story that is equal parts pulp detective novel and killer cyborg sci-fi, and it’s perfect for fans of both genres.

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Published by Simon&Schuster

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My wife and I are slowly making our way through season 6 of The Walking Dead but we each had a number of questions we needed answered. Due to a bunch of factors (mainly being sleep deprived parents at the time) we’d both forgotten certain elements from the series. I decided to take one for the team and embarked upon an epic re-watch of the series during my lunch breaks. That said, please bear with me as I untangle my thoughts about season 1-4…

Going back and watching the show from the start has made a few things very apparent. Firstly, being a father changes everything. Rick’s relationship with Lori (and Carl) is something that became drastically different the second time of viewing. Initially, I found her character despicable; how quickly she moved on to Shane and her reactions to the resulting conflict between the two (former) friends. At first I thought Rick was weak for allowing the situation to stand because, of course, he knew before he was told. Yet, it takes a strong man to support his family, especially a wife possibly pregnant with another man’s child. There’s a steel will at the core of Rick’s character and this initial story arc showed just how deep his strengths go.

However, all of this was prefaced by Shane’s deceptions. This is another aspect of the first season that has repercussions over the course of the series. It portrays how, under the stresses of the apocalypse, people begin to unravel quickly. Or, using the cover of societies collapse, people’s real, unchecked desires come out. However, Shane was clearly a capable survivor but his crumbling emotional fortitude became his undoing. It’s a theme that stays current with all the characters: how the things they do in the name of survival change and warp them, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

And this brings me back to Carl. Rick’s sense of fatherly duty and love for his son sees him make harder and harder decisions quicker as time moves forward. Where he tried to maintain a moral code earlier on, it soon dawns on him (thanks to Shane) that he has to take decisive actions to keep his children safe. The protective instinct is something most parents feel deeply and his willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his family alive is a driving force that few can withstand.

Yet Carl, Glenn, Daryl, Carol, Michonne and others are all prominent protagonists each facing their own dark paths and emotional motivations. This is none so more apparent than towards the end of season 4. Glenn and Maggie have gone to great lengths to find each other and neither are the same as they were: Glenn is no longer a ‘yes man’ but is a husband, determined to make smart choices whilst Maggie has realised that she requires the whole family group to achieve safety. Carol has changed into a fiercely strong survivor yet her willingness to protect the core group verges on manic and she is forced to re-evaluate her choices though she remains willing to do what is necessary. On the other hand Daryl has lowered his emotional boundaries and become hugely important to the group, much like the emotionally damaged Michonne; a character who was, at first, reticent and obscure yet who has become integral to the group.

Yet, it is a discussion between Michonne and Carl that highlights an essential aspect of TWD. After witnessing a berserk Rick decimate a gang of human attackers, Michone is trying to explain to Carl how being a parent can drive a person to do anything it takes to protect their child. Describing how she became a monster after the loss of her son, Carl admits that he, like his father, is just another monster, committing acts of terrifying violence just to stay alive.

This is the crux of The Walking Dead in my opinion. It’s not the zombies that are the real danger in the story but other humans. From Shane to Merle and then to the Governor, it’s always these characters, twisted and unleashed by the end of civilization that pose the biggest threat. Whilst the undead create a shared psychosis within which all the survivors are caught, a perfect catalyst of loss and horror, it is the people, detached from social norms who are the true monsters at large.

Rick’s group need each other not just to stay alive but to also retain their humanity and it is characters like Dale, and then Herschel, who try to keep them from falling off the edge, who attempt to hold them back from the brink. However, at the end of season 4, trapped with Terminus, Rick offers a glimpse of where his crew are headed with the epic line, “They don’t know who they’re fucking with.” It speaks volumes about his resolve and determination to survive but also how far he is drifting without the likes of Herschel to temper him (something the fifth and sixth series display, though that’s another post).

This is what makes The Walking Dead such compelling viewing. The characters develop and evolve realistically within the framework whilst the storytelling and the plotting is wonderfully paced. It’s a brutal place and an effective crucible to tell stories about humankind and, in the end, that’s what makes post-apocalypse/zombie horrors such a gripping premise.

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There’s nothing as nice as reading more stories by one of your favourite authors; that familiar voice transporting you back to a world you enjoyed hearing about so much. Joe Abercrombie’s collection of short stories is exactly that – perfect little slices of life from his First Law series.

The collection starts with the fantastic A Beautiful Bastard, featuring the inimical Sand dan Glokta as a young, fit Colonel in the Union’s army. It’s a wonderful set piece that captures the man before we (as readers) meet him in The Blade Itself and goes some way to explaining why he is such a twisted piece of work. Boastful, arrogant and handsome, Glokta is portrayed as a complete bastard with no regard for anyone else. His act of heroism against the Gurkish – the battle at the bridge that resulted in his capture and torture – was in truth the act of a man so enamoured with his own self that he understood little of the consequences.

Watching him peacock and posture through the eyes of Salem Rews, we are shown so much with such deft little narrative moments. From his bullying and egotistical nature to his relationship with West – one both respectful yet competitive. It’s a masterful piece of writing that lands the reader right into the heart of Glokta and shows it for all it’s truths.

Next up in the collection is Small Kindnesses. Abercrombie is brilliant at crafting complex and full characters and in this episode we are introduced to Shev, the best thief in Westport, and Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp. Though trying to retire from crime, Shev is caught between her desire for a beautiful woman looking to use her skills and a horrible gangster looking to abuse those same skills. Set up by the former and threatened by the later, it’s through a small act of kindness that she manages to scrape out of trouble.

After taking in a battered and beaten stranger, Javre, and musing on how her generosity always lands her in danger, a grim little tale unfolds. Shev, it seems, has few choices and is soon forced into stealing an unknown object. However, the gangsters aren’t best pleased and it’s Javre who saves her skin, though it’s Shev who puts the finer point on things in the end. It’s another fantastic example of Ambercrombie’s skills and another brilliant look into the lives populating his world (there’s even an interesting introduction to a certain Severard and other hints.)

Truth be told, Sharp Ends has jumped the reading pile. I fully expect all the stories to be as excellent as the two I’ve read so I’ll be dipping in and out as often as I can. This collection is awesome, not just for the die-hard fans of Abercrombie but also as great examples of top notch fantasy fiction.

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Published by Gollancz

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In the far future, after the Loss of Earth, war has begun and an unknowable alien race has awakened, intent on the destruction of everything. Here and now, the end of the world has come. And the only way our species will survive is if two augmented humans can fight their way through apocalypse to a faint glimmer of hope. Long ago, the seeds of that apocalypse were resisted by the warrior tribes of Britain, with devastating consequences for them and their lands. And all three of these times will meet on another world …

I’ve included the blurb to give you an idea of the epic scope of this sci-fi series. It’s an enormous undertaking by Gavin Smith; one that he has succeeded in with a seriously intense final novel. The Beauty of Destruction is exactly that: it’s about destroying life; it’s about perceiving beauty in violence; and it’s about humanity trying to overcome the destruction – of beauty in the face of complete annihilation.

It is a novel of huge proportions and massive vistas as the narrative weaves the ancient Britain into the here and now, and then folds it all into a distant and warped future. It’s all about vast energies and powers, immortal perspectives and unknowable alien concepts. The Beauty of Destruction is also about violence, from the struggle to survive to the joy of destruction. Smith has created a wide cast of characters that each approach these ideas in their own distinct and unique way. His characters are relatable and human, unless they are not in which case they are frustrating and bizzare (and rightly so) in their actions.

There’s a lot of war, from the sword and sorcery of the ancients to the all-out apocalypse of the now. In the future death and destruction is a different concept yet it is still the main currency. In the end, Smith manages to bring all this chaos and violence into a coherent whole. The three time lines are all fighting the same enemy; the same massive, alien force that seeks to ease it’s own pain and insanity by erasing the universe it exists within.

The ideas behind all this total war are extremely interesting with alien forces ‘seeding’ the planets with biology and thereby kick starting human existence. Yet from this vast perspective there is also the individual. Each character portraying different yet similar objectives and each displaying the beauty of humanity in the face of death.

The Beauty of Destruction is a brutal barnburner that ends an amazing trilogy; it’s raw and violent yet it’s also brilliant piece of work.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz