Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Like most of us, the current global situation has thrown me through a loop. But, maintaining the things that keep us mentally and physically robust are key. For me, that’s training hard and reading awesome books. Cue Mark Lawrence’s latest novel The Girl and the Stars.

Honestly, I’m kicking myself I haven’t read more from Mark Lawrence (though perhaps that will change very soon) as he’s such a great author. Point in case, this start to a new series of books has me hooked. Set amongst nomadic tribes living in harsh, artic conditions, the Ictha are the hardiest; their existence is one of survival on the ice with little room for anything else. Yaz and her brother, Zeen, are travelling to a gathering of the tribes where children will be inspected by priests and those deemed unable, weak or different will be cast into the Pit. Yaz knows she is different and, though she survived the reckoning four years earlier, expects to be thrown into the dark pit.

What happens next is beyond her expectation. The priest sets her aside, to take her back to their stronghold. It seems Yaz has escaped her deadly fate though she still won’t return with her tribe. But, when her brother is cast down, Yaz makes a leap; she realises that her brother’s life is worth fighting for and that she can’t stand aside while he is thrown away and discarded. Diving into the Pit after him, Yaz discovers a world beneath the ice. In fact she discovers worlds beneath worlds; secrets long buried and truths almost to hard to bear.

As Yaz struggles and fights to save her brother, she peels back layer upon layer, revealing more and more. Magic, giants, enchanted hunter robots, simulated realities, dark secrets and histories, and long extinct alien races. Yaz strives and fights, pushing against the current alongside a cast of characters each as different as the next, and all trying to find their place. But, as an agent of change, Yaz is caught up in conflicts within conflicts and hunted by more than one enemy for reasons she is yet to fully understand.

The Girl and the Stars is full of amazing worldbuilding. There’s little fat to the writing as it drops us straight into the frozen landscape and the harsh conditions of Yaz and those cast into the Pit. It’s a dark world, where little is fair and choices are even harder. Yaz wants to save her brother, her friends; she wants more than to merely survive. It drives her. But whether it will be enough remains to be seen and I can’t wait for the next in the series to find out more.

Review copy

Published by HarperCollins

Whilst choosing to read books with a post-apocalyptic bent created by a virus might not seem the best choice during the current pandemic we are all experiencing, The Raven is an exceptionally enjoyable and satisfying read. When age-old mythological monsters are made real, one man’s journey to redemption is paved with blood and guts.

After a cadre of scientists, determined to rid the world of humankind’s destructive and polluting nature, unleash a virus across America, all hell (literally) breaks loose. The virus alters people’s DNA, releasing, for many, their inner monster. The old stories of vampires, werewolves, witches and other beasts are actually real accounts and, hidden in our genetic coding, are our ancestor’s true natures. People turn and become bloodsuckers or, worse, flesh-eaters; cannibals who can consume other people’s power. Though some, like protagonist Dez McClane, are unaffected, the population is decimated and only the strong survive.

Normal people are hunted for flesh, blood and other nefarious desires. Dez, having survived for a few years amongst colonies and groups, is attacked and loses his girlfriend, Susan, to a warlord who captures and sells people. Determined to get her back or achieve his revenge, Dez sets out to find the Four Winds Bar and the man who runs the trade in bodies.

Gloriously, The Raven is a rock-em, sock-em adventure across a dark and brutal land. Dez is soon battling huge, muscle bound cannibals and wild, unstable werewolves as he seeks the bar. In amongst it all, he is plagued by his own inner-demons; the loss of his father and his son and his futile and ineffectual attempts to save them. It’s the galvanising factor behind his quest to find Susan and quiet the voices that admonish him for his cowardice. And, when he finds the bar, he holds nothing back.

Fast paced and eminently readable, The Raven is a violent, post-apocalyptic, fantasy adventure with an intriguing premise and a likeable protagonist. Plus, when the smoke clears, it seems that Dez McClane isn’t finished with his quest just yet and Jonathan Janz has more in store for his readers.

Review copy

Published by Flame Tree Press

Echo Cycle is a unique novel; a tale told from two perspectives, bifurcating from an imagined present into the long distant past and simultaneously forward into a near future. Told by two very different men, facing two very different paths yet swirling around Rome and it’s place in history; a city acting like a strange attractor.

Whilst one protagonists is set up as an unreliable narrator, the other is painfully honest. As the first is thrown back in time to Ancient Rome, the other endures a worrying future where an isolated Britain has become a place of poverty and ignorance. School boy friends, separated when Monk disappears into the past, the two are reunited in the near future as Britain seeks to open its borders and reunite with the now very wealthy and technological advanced European conferaderacy. Understandably Banks, now a civil servant, finds it hard to believe his old friend’s story yet it’s detail and faithfulness is hard to dispute.

The novel is fascinating and engrossing yet the plot that drives it stays in the background, revealing itself almost unexpectedly. What remains is a brilliant portrait of two very different men and the fabric of their lives. Banks and his very real post-Brexit Britain, cutting ties with an economically floundering Europe. A future painted by American disaster, isolation and stagnation; of harsh winters and failing medical care, allotments and power cuts. Monk waking in the age of Caesars and thrown into history made real; forced into slavery and then gladiatorial combat. Both stories are about love and loss – loss of freedoms, of place in time, of lovers and their memories. Both tales are fascinating.

Yet, behind these stories is a powerful plot that puts Rome at the very centre. A seat of power both past and in the near-future world of Banks, it’s meaning and resonance reaching across time. Echo Cycle is both alternative history and near future sci-fi. It’s a portrait of humanity and its ability to adapt and survive. A tale of love and romance. A story of action, adventure, and strange ancient magic. As I said, Echo Cycle is a unique book. It is profound in places, thrilling in others and constantly fascinating.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

Review – The Boys

Posted: March 9, 2020 in Fantasy, Sci-Fi, TV show
Tags: ,

Amazon’ s adaptation of The Boys is as shocking as it is engrossing. Visually brilliant, the first series is visceral and full of action, never letting up the pace for a moment.

In a world where superheroes are real, America holds them in the highest esteem. More than celebrity, bigger than politics or entertainment or any other thing you can imagine, these real-life, super-powered men and women are revered. And, as such, can do whatever they want. On the surface, they, along with the company that promotes them, appear to work for the greater good (so long as a good profit margin is made). They save lives, protect freedoms and make America a crime free zone. Yet, behind the curtain, they are egoistical, amoral and completely unconcerned with anything other than themselves.

Caught up in all of this is Hughie Campbell, a shop worker. When his girlfriend is tragically killed after a superhero, A-train, accidentally runs straight through her, Hughie is suddenly and horrifyingly shown a side of things that leaves him more angry and vengeful than he thought possible. Just as inexplicably, Billy Butcher, an enigmatic and fairly unpleasant FBI agent, comes asking for his help in exposing the superheroes. Hughie goes along annd quickly finds himself way, way beyond what he thought he knew.

Vought, the company promoting ‘Supes’ is a money making, mega marketing machine. They want Hughie’s silence. The superheroes are megalomaniacs and the whole industry is a corrupt circus. But there’s more; some of it way worse. Hughie, Butcher and his accomplices uncover a deeper, darker truth about the superheroes. Something that will tear down the very fabric of their status and change everything. However, nothing is that simple especially when money and politics are involved.

The Boys is fantastic anti-hero action. ‘Supes’ are frightening protagonists when you imagine that they are practically unstoppable and basically uncontrollable. It’s an interesting allegory for what power (be that money or social position) can do and, more importantly, get away with. The whole show is riven with social commentary on the notion of the powerful and rich, the machinations of politics and mega-companies and the influence of propaganda.

It’s violent, irreverent and brutal. Hughie and Butcher are driven by revenge yet the system, from the law to the media, is tipped against them. As mere mortals, they seek to take down super humans. It seems success is unlikely but… never bet against the man with nothing to lose.

I will, no doubt, be watching season two as soon as possible.

The very kind and wonderful people at Gollancz sent me Joe Abercrombie’s latest novel, and I can’t thank them enough. The book is so good, I need to try not to gush; it is one of those books that you can’t put down but then mourn finishing.

Returning to the world of his First Law trilogy, set decades later, Abercrombie weaves a tale of epic proportions against a backdrop of industrial revolution, political disharmony and war. Whilst the places are familiar, such as Adua, yet changed by time, the cast are the sons and daughters of those great characters such as the Dogman, Black Calder, Jezal and the indomitable Glotka. Now, the likes of Logan Nine Fingers are figures of the past, part of the cannon of the world and it’s rich history. It’s a fascinating way to build upon those past stories and Abercrombie manages to do it effortlessly, creating a plot and an ensemble of actors just as interesting and just as alive.

As ever, in the cold of the North, the Named Men struggle over territory as Bethod’s sons continue to seek control over the land and push the Union out. Stour Nighfall, son of Black Calder and next in line to the throne, is set on making his own name as bloody as any man, attacking Uffrith and the Dogman’s protectorate. Rikke, the Dogman’s daughter is struggling with her own blessing, or curse, as a seer in training whilst Leo Dan Brock desperately tries to get out from under the shadow, or skirts, of his mother and become the great warrior and governor of Angland he knows himself to be. Meanwhile, Adua is changing as industry and business take over and a new breed of socialite rules. Savine dan Glotka being a prime example; ruthless, rich and fearlessly independent. Or so she thinks, though her dalliance with Orso, Crown Prince and a wonderfully feckless drunk, says otherwise.

Around these protagonists a wonderful maelstrom swirls. Bloody battles in the North and a brutal workers’ revolution in the south pitch each of them into the action. Amidst it all, Abercrombie has seasoned the story with his usual wit and observations, including some very interesting commentary on society should you wish to consider it. Older characters, like squeaky Bremer dan Gorst and the frightening Caul Shivers offer glimpses of lessons learned the hard way and newer actors add layer upon layer of brilliance to the story, especially Broad or Vick. Behind it all lurks Bayaz, first of the Magi, pulling strings and making trouble.

Opening a new trilogy, A Little Hatred sets up a number of fascinating plot lines peopled with a vast and enthralling cast of characters. The past casts its menacing shadow yet the folly of youth continues to shine brightly. Against what seems to be a conclusion Leo and Orso are suddenly pushed into the limelight before they are ready whilst Stour forces his own ascension to take his position prematurely. Savine, meanwhile, has undergone a traumatic change, her confidence cracked. And Rikke still needs to understand what her Long Eye means to her and other interested, magical, parties.

In short, Abercrombie has done it again. A stunning, gritty chunk of spectacular story telling.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

The third instalment in Ed McDonald’s trilogy, Crowfall just keeps on ramping up the action, desperation, tension and magical mayhem from the last book until we reach a fantastic finale. It’s brutal at times, heart wrenching at others but it never lets up.

Following Galharrow, a Blackwing captain under the immortal Crowfoot, the story starts six years after Ravencry. After all the sacrifice he suffered, Galharrow has forged a plan and ensconced himself in the Misery; an apocalyptic wasteland of horrifying monsters and weird magic. The war with the Deep Kings continues but the Nameless, including Crowfoot are weakened and at odds with each other. Trouble brews in every corner but the end is in sight, one way or another.

There’s so much to unpack in Ed McDonald’s world building, its brilliant. From the dire little horrors that scuttle beneath the scorched sand of the Misery to the inhuman immortals of the Nameless and their own self creation, the Deep Kings and their mutated army of Drudge and the dark magic that abides from millennia ago, hidden under ice and rock and earth. But, it’s so much more; Galharrow and the ghosts of his friends long lost as well as the companions he still tries to protect like Amaira, now a grown woman and Blackwing captain, and Valiya, the woman he refuses to love. It’s a sea of brilliant actors full of life, of decisions and repercussions, of betrayals and guilt and hope.

Crowfall is brilliant fantasy full of rampaging hordes and monsters, good versus evil on an epic scale with all to lose and all to play for. It’s gritty and bloody, as Galharrow turns himself into a monster of his own making, and fights tooth and nail for every last person he can save. Yet, underneath it all is a story of redemption. Galharrow, that most hardened and toughest of the Blackwing, is a man made from his own guilt; forged from his own sorrow at all his failings. Furious at being a mere piece in a game, seething at the carelessness with which the Namless expend the lives of loved ones, Galharrow seeks his own end game.

Whilst the gods and wizards battle each other for power, for things beyond the scope of human comprehension, Galharrow and his remaining friends fight for things that, however fleeting, give life its meaning; love, friendship, humanity. It’s a powerful incentive. Whilst the sorcerers demand and take and subjugate, they’ve forgotten themselves, lost in their own warped games and struggles and desire for victory, however pyrrhic. Galharrow hasn’t and, as the book unfolds, we see that everything he’s done to himself has come to this moment.

It’s an epic tale, of vast proportions and huge characters. It’s fantasy at its finest; gritty, bloody, violent yet, ultimately uplifting. The Raven’s Mark trilogy is, without a doubt, part of that new cannon of awesome fantasy. Can’t recommend it enough.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

Where Would You Be Now by Carrie Vaughn is an extremely well written and considered look at life a few years after an apocalyptic event. The title is a repeating question, asked and answered by the main character and her immediate companions. Meditating on how life pushes on, Vaughn captures the essence of loss; loss of what could have been as well as what was. As the survivors slowly come to terms with their new reality, the issue of what the future holds becomes paramount. It’s an interesting essay on how the apocalypse bifurcated the paths of their lives comparing where they are to where they would be had it never occurred. A meditative, somewhat melancholy, story that digs into what the reality of a post-apocalypse existence would be.

As Good As New is as different from the other stories as could be. Author Charlie Jane Anders has taken a wonderful idea and runs with it. Whilst her protagonist, Marisol, survived the end of the world inside an impenetrable bunker, it isn’t until she explores outside that this story takes a massive swerve. Marisol finds a bottle, within which is a very sarcastic and pedeantic genie. What follows is a clever consideration of how genies (or any other wishing machination) contain within both potentially fantastic and catastrophic results. As Good As New is thoroughly enjoyable in its take on the genre and the tools it uses to convey its ideas.

Hugh Howey’s Bones of Gossamer is another quiet and contemplative look at what the ‘end of the world’ would mean. Yet, Howey takes the perspective of an isolated culture, far from the western world. A culture used to separation and disconnection; a man who grew up with distant parents who’d travelled to the ‘big island’ and who, once older, left to find work. Now even older, his children also gone to earn money, he watches as the silence stretches. Where a steam boat would make the harsh journey to deliver supplies once a month, the horizon remains empty. Where a new satellite phone would connect them, silence has returned. When a starving European washes up on the shore, talking of disaster, the old man realises he must somehow make the journey to find his children. It’s a journey both physical and cultural as he embarks on remembering what his ancestors knew before steamboats and satellite phones. Howey captures something here; something well worth reading.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

Comparisons to World War Z by Max Brooks might be apt but only in so much as this is a complete, and I do mean complete, history of a supernatural change in (fictional) human history. Where Brooks uses verbal accounts and different perspectives, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising goes further and deeper into what it would mean for vampires to appear in modern society. The author does a great job at looking at how law enforcement, the press, politics, religion and all the institutes in between would address such a person; a person who is suddenly more powerful physically and psychologically; who is now capable of living for hundreds of years; a person whose moral and ethical compass is drastically different.

Whilst the book is a history, and an exhaustive one at that, it is a narrative; a story told from numerous perspectives that overlap and, eventually, dovetail into each other. Told through the eyes of an FBI agent, a research doctor, a priest in the Catholic Church and a political campaign manager, the novel manages to iron out so many details that the ‘history’ takes on the feel of being real. Political wrangling and amendments to the law sit neatly next to creepy house raids and the worrying spread of vampire fandom. What starts with a body disappearing from a small town morgue turns into numerous threads, all chasing the idea of a vampire in its various forms: as a blood-sucking drifter, as a disease, as a supernatural force, as an ideal.

For some it’s an issue of law; clearly draining people of their blood is a crime but where is the line drawn when it comes to turning another person into a vampire? Ethically, what rights do these people have as citizens and active members of society. For others, what and how does vampirism occur; is it a disease that’s controlable or reversible? Are any of those things right to pursue? All the while the author poses and explores these questions, the book is also considering the darker side of vampirism and what a new species of superhuman wants. Heists and strange kidnappings, underground networks and nefarious doings abound. Not only on the vampire side but also from humans. Humans who morally or otherwise decide to take the fight to the vampires.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is intriguing. It’s not an apocalyptic event but rather a slow, steady burn as society is infiltrated and changed from within. The depth of consideration into all aspects of the idea is impressive in itself, but how the author has woven it all together into a bizarre tapestry of a story is even more admirable. There’s a creeping darkness underneath it all, lurking under the surface, making all the machinations above seem off centre and, in that sense, truly capturing the essence of human history.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

Continuing from yesterday, here’s one more awesome thing I’ve watched in a stupor of post-training fatigue..

I saw the trailer, more than once, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. I initially felt like this mini-series would be one of those melancholic, navel-gazing type shows where little would happen but much would be discussed. How wrong I was.

Maniac is anything but. Instead, it was a journey out of despondency and depression, spiralling upwards toward a kaleidoscopic expression of wholesome emotion. In a retro-futuristic world of robots and weird science, there’s an off-key, off-centre feel to its sci-fi background that is as intriguing as it is tricky to hold on to. Following the entwined stories of Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) the narrative simultaneously converges and fractures around a bizarre pharmaceutical trial. Owen needs the money to strike out and find his dependence from his domineering and overly successful family; Annie is chasing the drug on trial and it’s particular effects.

Whilst Owen is anxious and withdrawn, Annie is brash and bold, and the pair are soon thrust together in the same group testing the drug. Adding more unique layers to the already unusual worldbuilding, the pharma Company is itself a story that unfolds in fits and starts, revealing a scientist exiled from his own research only to be brought back at a crucial time and a computer that is so self aware it’s sabataging it’s own experiment.

The drug works by dropping the user into old memories and visions, helping them realise a healthier and happy conclusion. However, each time Owen and Annie find themselves in each other’s visions, as different people, in different lives but always thrown together. Eventually both do escape their most negative aspects and find inner peace yet the journey there is a winding and fantastical path.

As a vehicle for the actors it’s a chance to play multiple characters within a narrative framework. This is where the uniqueness works, ebbing and flowing forward and rising ever upwards. It was surprising and fulfilling and hopeful, all couched in a thoroughly distinct and inventive worldbuilding. It’s odd, hard to categorise but excellent it’s own special and quirky way.

I was recently looking for something to watch (in a state of post-training exhaustion) and it made me think about all the great things I’ve watched but not blogged about (because I’ve been training a lot and “recovering” on the sofa). It also made me think of all the things I stopped watching, though I’ll save that for another post. So, without further ado, and with thanks to Netflix and it’s great programming – The Umbrella Company.

Adapted from a comic book, this series was an instant hit with my wife and I. Drawing you in with great characters and a number of unanswered questions that are slowly and cleverly explained, The Umberlla Company is a bright, engaging piece of fantasy. Similar in style and feel to the Marc Caro/ Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, such as City of the Lost Children, there’s a mix of seriousness and comedy that seemlessly entertains whilst never losing sight of the story.

The ensemble cast of characters, each with their own deep, and sometimes dark, background are brilliant. Their wild abilities, their shared history of adoption and their sense of being cast adrift from any sense of purpose is thread through the narrative. Adopted as babies by an eccentric millionaire (himself a strange character) and nurtured to manage and develop their super powers, the children become poster boys and girls for the eponymous Umbrella Company. Saving the day and going on missions being all part of the fun.

However, little is normal here and when your name is a number and your surrogate mother is a robot, it’s no wonder things get weird. After one of the gang disappears only to return decades later looking just as he did, a twelve-year old, but acting like a fifty-year old, the mystery begins. It’s a wonderfully, tangly mix of time travel, apocalyptic prophesy and crime caper as secrets are unearthed and the bigger picture is slowly revealed.

The Umbrella Company does a lot of things right from it’s stylised worldbuilding to its witty and engaging characters. Fantastical and fun but with an edge.