Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

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Adrian Tchaikovsky describes this collection as one focusing on the peace between conflicts in his larger stories. If this is what his world is like when it’s not at war, then it’s a very frightening place. Fallen Heroes epitomises that idea; a tale of a minor skirmish between competing gangsters, or ‘Fiefs’ as they are called, over some territory and the tenement housing within.

A young fly-kinden, tired of how everyone around him has capitulated to a higher power, and enamoured by the idea of heroic, free-spirited warriors, sets out to find a champion to help protect his home. However, he finds both more and less than he bargained for. It’s a classic, gritty idea as romantic notions are dashed by hard realities; personal ‘heroes’ are knocked from their pedestal and unlikely protectors are more fearsome and cold blooded than they are valiant. Tough truths and a fantastically brutal western-esque feel gives Fallen Heroes real weight for such a short story.

There’s little let up in the grit department in The Price of Salt where, just like Fallen Heroes, the reader is introduced to the history of certain characters from the novels. After capturing, killing and decapitating a man with a decent bounty on his head, four mercenary rogues find themselves caught up in some bad business, far away from where and what they know. The head, cleverly pickled in salt, has been spirited away by a young lady, much to the chargrin of the nominal leader of this grim group. It’s all a ruse, however.

She doesn’t want the head; she wants their prowess as warriors and killers. Once again, this is a great example of how the author has taken the idea of insect-kinden and used it for a properly innovative basis of a story. As their numbers swell out on the desolate steepes, the Grasshopper-kinden become susceptible to the Grand Moon; an event as inexplicable as it is unpredictable. As the moon rises, those with the Art turn away from their normal, calm and peaceful behaviour into a wild, violent Locust mob.

What ensues is a fight for survival as the four mercenaries are trapped by the mad, mindless, Moon struck kinden. It’s as brutal and fantastic as it sounds.

Back in Helleron, the same city where Fallen Heroes takes place, the story of just how far a lost, alcoholic, Wasp can fall unfolds. The city, teeming with factories and tenements, rich and poor, dives and fine establishments, is a machine that grinds everyone down. It’s a realisation that Varmen is trying to drown in drink. A former elite warrior for the Empire, Varmen is now a penniless drunk; no less dangerous nor violent but near impossible to employ. His pride remains, driving him deeper into debt as he cannot find it in himself to lower his expectations.

In the end, he has no choice. Debt forces him toward avenues he wishes to avoid but fate, and a drug addled roommate, conspire otherwise. The Last Ironclad is a redemption story of sorts for though Varmen has fallen as low as is possible, he finds that thing within him to escape. Rather than be mere grist to the wheel, the Wasp fights and, though he is an obsolete soldier in the eyes of the Empire, that which made him an elite warrior remains.

This collection has really impressed upon me just how good the Shadow of the Apt novels must be. Even though I’m not familiar with the lore, these stories are exciting reads, offering windows into an intriguing world of fantasy.

Review copy
Published by NewCon Press

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I haven’t read any of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Shadows of the Apt and, now, I’m really kicking myself for not exploring the series earlier. The premise behind the worldbuilding is fantastic as clans of different ‘insect-kinden’ clash in a complex, politically fraught realm. In this collection of short stories, the author explores ideas outside of warfare – no less dangerous and no less intriguing for it.

As the opening gambit in this collection, Loyalties is a brilliant slice of backstory and character development. The protagonist of the tale, Balkus, might be more of a side player in the bigger novels but, here, we are given an intriguing look into just who he is. A set piece that shows the complexity of the world Tchaikovsky has built, the gritty, hardened mercenary and the naive, in-training, young heiress combination is turned on its head when Balkus realises he’s been played on a number of fronts. Though I’ve not read Shadow of the Apt there’s enough here to truly grip a reader’s interest (and encourage them to read more of Tchaikovsky’s work). The writing is exemplary and the world is so clearly and cleverly defined it’s easy to find a way in and enjoy the story. There’s an added bonus as the author includes a little post-script for each story, explaining its origins, which I found most compelling.

In Bones more of the world and setting is laid out by exploring something of its past development. Tchaikovsky gives insights into the ideas of the Art that humans use and how it manifests in unison with different types of insect-kinden. Seeing how each clan and its association to types, such as spider or fly, operates in the world is fascinating, especially as a first time reader to his work. At the heart of this story lies dark politics and a hierarchy determined to maintain control whether that be physically or intellectually. There’s a darkness bound to hiding knowledge and keeping it secreted for the “greater good” and in Bones we get to see first-hand those who wish to perpetrate such benevolent policing upon a world.

Whilst I am new to The Shadows of the Apt realm, these windows into that world have definitely caught my imagination. Tchaikovsky is, obviously, a great writer and I really enjoy reading short stories by authors who have created such complete fantasies as the depth and quality of the work really comes through in spades. More from this volume to come.

Review copy
Published by NewCon Press

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I felt the need to scratch that post-apocalypse zombie itch (again) and remembered I had Monster Island sitting on my bookshelves. Unread. Published in 2006, David Wellington was definitely one of those authors at the forefront of the zombie resurgence but I was happily surprised by what I discovered as I read this fantastic novel.

Kicking off by introducing one of the main protagonists, Dekalb, a UN worker caught up by the apocalypse in East Africa, Monster Island continues to make interesting and inventive turns and twists throughout. Under the ‘protection’ of a Somali warlord, Dekalb is offered the opportunity to keep his daughter safe; all he need do is find enough HIV/AIDS medication to keep the warlord alive. Unfortunately, it’s a far from easy task and, along with a squad of teenage girl soldiers, Dekalb is soon expanding his search all the way to New York.

Here, things truly turn. Dekalb meets our main antagonist Gary. A former medical student and self-made undead, Gary realised that zombification was inevitable but, if done on purpose and with some thought, might result in reanimation without total brain damage and, therefore, loss of personality. However, Gary is still a zombie and his hunger, and situation, can’t be overcome. New York is now the battleground as Dekalb and his girl warriors strive to survive and complete their mission against teeming odds.

What I found interesting is that David Wellington uses the zombie genre as a fantasy setting. It allows him to introduce ideas and characters way outside of the accepted apocalypse tropes. Whilst we still have armed survivors making a stand, military assets being deployed and zombie hordes, others join the fray including a long-dead Scottish Druid with magical powers. It’s a heady mix of fantastical undead proportions and makes for a tumultuous landscape against which Dekalb tries to do the right thing whilst trying to get back to his own daughter.

In the end, Monster Island retains its brutality. It is both fantasy and zombie apocalypse and though there are sparks of humour and touches of character introspection, the conclusion is quite terrible in its honesty. Like all good zombie fiction, Monster Island isn’t just about cracking skulls and drinking toilet water to stay alive; it’s about the cost of the choices made in the desperation to survive that reveals so much about humanity.

My copy
Published by Snowbooks Ltd

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I picked up this omnibus a while back and, though I’ve seen it recommended many times, it’s lingered in the ‘to be read’ pile too long. The Black Company gets bandied around a lot for being a precursor to the recent ‘grimdark’ movement in fantasy and it’s easy to make comparisons. Written in the 1980’s this isn’t your average tale of heroes and damsels in distress; it’s a morally ambiguous story of mercenaries told from the perspective of the boots on the ground.

Though there are still plot points regarding portents and sorcery, a chosen one and the battle of good versus evil, much of these tropes are flipped on their head. The main point being that the eponymous Black Company, a troop of sellswords, are potentially fighting for ‘evil’ in a conflict that has both huge consequences and, seemingly, no ‘good’ side.

Told by Croaker, the doctor and historian, and written as entries in the company’s Annals, we are introduced to an assortment of characters, giving flesh to the wider world as well as the battalion. After being forced to break a contract to a corrupt Lord, the company find themselves hired by a mysterious, leatherclad sorcerer called Soulcatcher, who, in turn, is one of the Taken, a group of powerful magical warriors controlled by the Lady (herself a kind of immortal wizard).

Battle after battle ensues; retreat after retreat eats away at the men of the Black Company. In all the slog and grunt the soldiers endure, Croaker is the perfect voice as he records and questions everyone, including the Taken. Written in clipped, terse tones, the scale of the plot becomes clearer as the war between the Lady and the Rebel escalates. Each chapter reads like a mini diorama in the larger campaign, drawing towards an inevitable and intense showdowns between the armies.

It’s an interesting format, created as a potted history of the Black Company, and (for the time it was written) a fresh perspective, taking the view of the soldier. Though the style is a little stilted, perhaps due to the voice of Croaker, this is a great introduction to a gang of mercenaries, each with a hidden past, all with nowhere else to go. As the start of the larger epic, it serves to set up a number of conflicts that I’ll explore very soon.

My copy
Published by Gollancz

Continuing the tradition of rounding up my best reads of the year, I’m going to do my utmost to pick some of the top books from a heap of excellent work I’ve had the pleasure to review. It’s taken some serious beard stroking and moustache twiddling but here goes…

I’ve read some great horror stories this year, two of which really stood out – Nod by Adrian Barnes and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Though very different both were psychological thrillers that picked away at the fabric of reality, personality and what grounds us in truth. Pleasingly, the shock and terror of each novel was produced alongside excellent writing and superb characters, making them both very memeorable books.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu was one of my top fantasy novel reads, in close contention with Brian McClellan’s The Crimson Campaign. A brilliant setting made even more enjoyable by the distinct and well defined protagonists, The Grace of Kings managed to mix political intrigue, epic battles and an original, atmospheric world. It’s quality fantasy in every sense.

When it comes to top notch, awesome fantasy, Joe Abercrombie consistently serves up some of the very best. His short story collection, Sharp Ends, set in his First Law universe was, without a doubt, sheer brilliance. New characters were introduced, older actors had their origin stories told and the whole world he’s built is weaved together with exceptional skill. Hugely enjoyable, Sharp Ends is a big, bold barnburner.

Whilst I admit I’m a fan of action, adventure and gritty battle based fiction, I’ve had the chance to read some intelligent and mindful science fiction this year. Savant by Vik Abnett epitomised that. Unique worldbuilding, a slightly retro yet original tone and an engaging story revolving around mathematics and companionship, this was a standout novel in my year.

Featuring a very different yet equally enthralling maths based concept, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is an amazing novel. Distinctive and innovative, Yoon Ha Lee’s inspired setting brings a new vibe to sci-fi. As I said in my review, ‘It’s a stunning piece of creativity that melds futuristic ideas of technology and the feel of an epic space opera with the ephemeral and magical vibe of pure fantasy’.

Finally, the self-published novel from Malcolm F Cross, Dog Country, proved to be another highlight. A thought provoking look at geo-political warfare, Dog Country is a brilliantly written piece of military sci-fi. Genetically modified, humanoid, dog soldiers fighting in a crowdfunded revolution whilst, simultaneously, trying to find their place in a society that created yet rejected them. Great characters, a clever concept and an even better plot.

I’ve also watched a few decent films but hats off to Mad Max:Fury Road. Though time has been a precious commodity this year (my wife and I still haven’t started season 7 of TWD) I did manage to catch Westworld and the sixth series of The Walking Dead – I will have some posts on that very soon.

I’m whittling my way through my reading pile and have some interesting books lined up. It’s been a good year for reading and I’m looking forward to more reviews and interviews.
Happy reading!

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This has been sitting on my shelf for some time and I’ve been eager to read it but for all the review titles I get sent (though I’m definitely not complaining). However, I couldn’t leave it any longer and now I’m desperate to get hold of the last book in this exceptional trilogy. I reviewed Promise of Blood here and can safely say, The Crimson Campaign is just as exciting and just as epic.

Once again, the majority of the action centres around Field Marshal Tamas, his son Taniel Two-Shot and Inspector Adamat. Tamas is trying to combat the Kez army from invading Adro but is battling an enemy who have the power and wrath of an injured god backing them. Taniel, after surviving the devastating battle of South Pike, finds himself back on the frontline along with his companion Ka-Poel, an enigmatic young women. Adamat, having confessed his forced treachery to Tamas, is desperate to find his family and is in the hunt for his enemy, Lord Vetas.

Each plot line intertwines and affects the other brilliantly. Tamas is caught behind enemy lines and must fight his way back to Adro against all odds. Taniel finds himself fighting against a military command who thinks his father dead and retreat as the only option. Adamat, caught in a game of cat and mouse, must capture a villain more cunning and vile than he’s ever encountered before. Each has a protagonist to better, obstacles to overcome and help from unlikely places. Ka-Poel, especially, is revealed to be more powerful than anyone, including Taniel, could imagine.

The book, at nearly 600 pages, burns along at a terrific pace, each plot line building and keeping interest. This is proper epic fantasy, helped all the more by the stunning worldbuilding, excellent characters and all-out action adventure. There’s tales of vengeance woven throughout; of heroism and bravery. Yet, there is also the political machinations of Tamas’s post-revolution at play in the background witnessed by Adamat. Equally, Taniel discovers more than just cowardice behind the retreating Adro army. Finally, there is Nila – a seemingly peripheral figure at first – who is revealed to be more than just a laundress.

There’s a lot going on in this second instalment and I’ve hardly touched on a number of things. That said, there’s no extra fat. It’s all flintlock fire-fights, magic and mages, gods and powerful politicians and it’s awesome.

My Copy
Published by Orbit

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I’ve not read any of the Hooded Man books in the Afterblight universe but, if Paul Kane’s contribution to this collection is anything to go by, I really should. Flaming Arrow is quite a different prospect from the other stories collected in End of the End. Rather than the insidious psychosis that resides in Children of the Cull or the equally brutal and harsh landscape of a fractured Britain in Fall out, Kane spices his chapter in this shared-world series with the addition of magical mystery.

Drawing on the stories of Robin Hood and the legends surrounding the man, Kane infuses his post-apocalyptic tale with the idea that Sherwood Forest imbues certain figureheads with a supernatural power; to heal, to fight against evil and to help the downtrodden. In Flaming Arrow, we are introduced to this idea via an old man retelling the story of the ‘Hooded Man’ to a young scavenger.

It’s an interesting bookend that frames the narrative, one which offers an incomplete snapshot of a frightening scenario. In a way it feels like the set-up to a much larger novel – one which I hope gets written. Because, though it gives no conclusions, it suggests so much. Under the guidance of the Hooded Man, the Rangers have made Britain a safer place yet there are still threats at home and abroad eager to strike.

It’s a slow burn to start with but Flaming Arrow culminates in a monstrous showdown – one that implies a very serious ending to this harsh end times.

Review copy
Published by Abbadon Books

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This is a first for me, reviewing a colouring book (a current and very popular fad), but it is a Discworld colouring book and that makes it awesome. Check out the blurb below..

Paul Kidby, Sir Terry Pratchett’s artist of choice, provided the illustrations for The Last Hero, designed the covers for the Discworld novels since 2002 and is the author of the definitive portfolio volume The Art Of Discworld. If Terry Pratchett’s pen gave his characters life, Paul Kidby’s brush allowed them to live it. Containing black-and-white line drawings based on his hugely popular artwork as well as original pieces produced exclusively for this book – featuring such iconic Discworld personalities as Granny Weatherwax, Sam Vimes, Archchancellor Ridcully, Rincewind, Tiffany Aching and, of course, DEATH – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Colouring Book is required . . . reading? . . . for all Discworld fans.

Let me preface this by saying, I hid this from my son as soon as I opened the parcel. I love him but he’s a toddler and will daub colour and wild scribbles on anything that stays still long enough. Including me.

From the stylish cover to the excellent set of illustrations in the back of the book, this is both a testament to Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld and Paul Kidby’s brilliant visual interpretation of those characters and places.

Many of the drawings available to colour are accompanied by fantastic quotes from the Discworld novels, adding a great (and, for me, nostalgic) element to the concept. The illustrations are fantastic and I, for one, will not be attempting to let my (or my son’s) crayons loose on such a magnificent book.

Review copy
Published by Gollancz

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Rehabbing an injury means no ‘simulated fights to the death’ (or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to give it its real name) for me. But, that means more reading and Mash Up somehow happened to be neatly tucked in amongst my son’s toys, waiting to be read.

Daryl Gregory’s Begone is a mash up of ideas and themes that strikes at any family man’s heart. To be replaced, not just divorced, but ousted and superseded by another person playing the role of you in your own family is an awful thought. Tinged with echoes of the TV show Bewitched and painted with the emotional turmoil of a man desperate to reclaim his home, his place in the world and most importantly his daughter, this short story is equally amusing yet provoking. A wonderful blend of the fantastical and the very real.

The Red Menace by Lavie Tidhar is a compact story that reimagines history through the eyes of a man caught up in events of huge importance. Taking its emphasis from Marx and Engle’s The Communist Manifesto, Tidhar’s story is one that traces the line between the bizarre and the wonderful.

The threat of communism means something quite different in this alternative timeline. Teleportation gateways and alien technologies abound, transforming the political landscape of the era. War ensues but one in which Nazi and Allied forces are combined against the Soviet power. Yet, amongst all this it is the personal journey of one man, his choices and losses which says so much, imbuing the story with real heart.

“It was a dark and stormy night” – a line I’ve heard many a time and seen appropriated for many a story. I didn’t know it came from Paul Clifford written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Here, it’s used by Nancy Kress to kick off a tale entitled Writer’s Block, one which flows from the mundane to the murderous and into the realm of the magical in short fashion. A wealthy would-be writer is unable to find his muse. His wife just wants his money and has few qualms about getting it. Enter, stage left, a unique character who bestows a strange gift to the flailing author. A wonderful piece of writing Writer’s Block is thoroughly enjoyable.

Taking the opening line of the bible, Tad Williams’ Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air, is excellent. This is my first time reading Tad Williams but the story reminded me of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. Ludicrous, fun, humorous yet never cliche or silly. A great little idea brilliantly executed.

There’s definitely a lot more great stories in this anthology. Using the ‘first line’ prompt has clearly produced some inventive work, it’s such a fecund idea. Reading pile and time allowed, I’ll keep this collection handy for a quick fix of awesome.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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Book reviews had to take a back seat for a while as life conspired to get in the way of reading. However, an annoying injury (thanks to my other hobby – grappling) has seen me with a bit more free time recently. It’s been filled with an awesome zombie serialised story as well as MudMan by James A Hunter.

Levi, the eponymous “MudMan” is a golem made of clay, mud and the dead souls of countless murdered Jews. It’s a heavy origin story for an unlikely hero, one who spends his time hunting down and destroying Nazis, killers and supernatural monsters with unadulterated glee. However, it is exactly that murky and horrendous story of his creation which sets Levi on a collision course with a vile, centuries old homicidal maniac intent on resurrecting a god of death.

While the blurb reads like a pulp fiction action fest, there’s more to MudMan. It’s a mash of styles and creative ideas, blending religious mythology from Jewish and Christian beliefs alongside Nazi atrocities and supernatural ghouls. The plot is solid and characters, especially Levi, are interestingly detailed. For me, the story did read a little slow (and perhaps that’s my fault for being distracted) but the digressions of the actor’s thought processes sometimes took away from the helter-skelter action driving things forward.

The author has stated in his acknowledgements that this is a one off but the huge, dangling thread at the end of the book deserves his attention as his world building and inventiveness are definitely praise worthy.

Review copy
Published by Shadow Alley Press, Inc.