Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll — book review

August 14, 2011

Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll. Bantam Books '7.99

Reviewed By Ian Hunter

Nice cover, that long walk, that glance over the cover, and she should be worried, our heroine, because she didn't really want to do that. Like those old warnings: don't go off the path, don't go down into the cellar, or the attic, or the graveyard, or run away from the zombies/creatures/killers/whatever, because you are bound to fall over and twist your ankle. Just don't, DON'T do any of the above and especially don't go into that strange little shop you've never noticed before run by that odd little old man and agree to help him open that box that's shut tight, just don't, okay? Even if the box does bear some markings that are the same as on the ring and necklace you are wearing. Ach, didn't I tell you not to do that? Too late, down on her luck jeweller, Garet James, agrees to help and the box is open and everything has changed. Our world has merged slightly with the unseen world of the fey, and the demons are out of the box, so now is a handy time for Garet to learn she is one of a long line of guardians which stood guard between both worlds, and now if only she can find reborn 16th Century magician Dr. John Dee and get him to help combat those demons it will be like she never opened that box. Which sounds like a great plan in the grand scheme of things, but Garet has a whole lot of other issues to deal with to do with her financial worries and her father's failing health

Okay, I'm being more than a little unfair on a book (written by the husband and wife team of Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky) which is actually very well-written and imaginative, despite having a few familiar stock characters in the shape of vampires (oh, no, Garet, just don't fall for him ' haven't you read my 'don't' list?) and dragons, but at least Garet comes across as a more 'grounded' heroine. It's got romance, horror, a good dollop of urban fantasy, and a lot of research which doesn't slow things down too much, and all in all makes a welcome addition to the urban fantasy field.


Do Not Pass Go by Joel Lane — chapbook review

August 11, 2011

Do Not Pass Go by Joel Lane. Nine Arches Press/Hotwire '5.00.

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

Joel Lane writes with a passion for Birmingham's dark side, and that of the equally dismal surroundings in the Black Country. Sure, the place names may not mean much if you don't know the locations used by Lane. But to this reviewer, who spent twenty years in that city, they evoke memories and feelings (some good, some not so) of England's "Second City". Into this arena, Lane's characters attempt to deal with their weaknesses, their failings, their vices. The five stories contained in this chapbook (one original, four reprints) exemplify these superbly. They are always human, always vulnerable -- even when one might think otherwise.

Nine Arches Press's imprint, Hotwire, has produced a neat, clean-looking chapbook (40 pages). I especially like the cream-coloured paper and the black end pages. They add a touch of sophistication that contrasts with the dismal episodes described herein. Even though it's a slim publication, a contents page would've been useful. And I would've preferred some more imaginative artwork on the cover.


The Sixty: Arts of Andy Bigwood — book review

August 11, 2011

The Sixty: Arts of Andy Bigwood by Andy Bigwood. Immanion '31.99

Reviewed by Chris Morgan

As an art collector and auctioneer at conventions, I've noticed the increasingly impressive artwork that Andy Bigwood has been bringing along to cons for several years. And he's been the cover artist for quite a few recent anthologies, novels and non-fiction, notably from Immanion.

This book shows the range and versatility of Bigwood's work, with SF, fantasy, horror and some non-fantastic figure and landscape pictures. Fans of his art will be delighted to see a bookfull of his art. He's a digital artist, who works partly from his own photos: more details of him and exactly how he works would have been helpful.

There are lots of exciting images here. My own favourite is "Future Bristol" with its massive Cities in Flight architecture. In sharp contrast is the delicacy of "Alien Tea" (a BSFA award winner from 2008) and some of the figure work. In a few cases it looks as if the pictures have been over-enlarged.

The book is an anthology of 1-page stories and extracts from 43 writers, including big names like Ian Watson, Ken MacLeod and Juliet McKenna. With a maximum of 500 words, only a few of these pieces are really successful. On the whole each fits reasonably well with the accompanying illustration, though the overall result is disjointed, some of the pieces being unexplained snippets, unfair on their authors and on the reader. Even Bigwood's longer story at the end (magic and heroic fantasy among centaurs) is too brief for its concept -- though it does explain the book's title. Another problem is that the text appears not to have been edited or proofread; paragraphing and punctuation are eccentric and vary from piece to piece. But art books stand or fall on the quality of the art; this has plenty of impressive pictures.


Ghostgirl: Lovesick by Tonya Hurley — book review

August 11, 2011

Ghostgirl: Lovesick by Tonya Hurley. Headline '6.99

Reviewed by Ian Hunter

She's got the look, or rather the Ghostgirl series of books have. They have an unusual size ' not like your regular paperback. The first one in the series Ghostgirl had a dark cover and was very funeral-inspired with a cover that could double as a gothicy mirror and the rough outline of a coffin. The second title Ghostgirl: Homecoming continued the mirror motif, with a reflection of our dead heroine Charlotte Usher aka Ghostgirl, looking like a character out of Roman Dirge's 'Lenore' comics; while this third title Ghostgirl: Lovesick still retains that distinctive shape, but this time we get a red cover, and a heart-shaped mirror pendant, reflecting Charlotte, who is blowing a kiss'

If you haven't read any of the Ghostgirl series you will be unfamiliar with the world of the dead that Charlotte now inhabits, although to be honest, she has just as many problems as she had when she was alive with her Dead Ed classmates, Dead Ed handbook, the Dead Dorm and the Fall Ball to contend with.

Basically, it's Mean Girls or Heathers or any range of teen comedy/dramas except most of the protagonists are dead which does allow for some nice invention and wonderful characters like Piccolo Pam, Deadhead Jerry, Suzy Scissorhands, and Silent Violet. But just when things are starting to go right for Charlotte -- she's getting the hang of this being dead business and has a new boyfriend -- she had one last task to perform, back in the real world at the place where she died. Can she hold it together and get the job done? Well, no spoilers here, but what do you think? All in all, a good conclusion to the trilogy, but with a few strands left unresolved, so I wouldn't be surprised if author Hurley, lifts that creaky coffin lid once more in the future and let's us visit that Dead Ed class again.


The Final Evolution by Jeff Somers — book review

August 11, 2011

The Final Evolution by Jeff Somers. Orbit '7.99

Reviewed by Tony Lane

I broke the cardinal rule by reading the final book in a series first, and I was expecting to struggle to understand what was going on. I didn't. The Final Evolution works well as a stand-alone novel, though I would recommend starting from the beginning. There are points where background information and emotional investment was hinted at from previous books.

Avery Cates is a Gunner, a street-kid criminal pressed into the army as an assassin and implanted with cybernetic implants that, as well as giving him various physical advantages, also allowed his controllers to terminate him remotely. This dystopian society ends after a war, and like a cockroach Cates travels through the post-apocalyptic wilderness and cityscapes searching for the people who put him in this position. It is easy to relate to the trapped and manipulated situation that pervaded Cates's existence.

Everybody who spends any time near Cates ends up dead. He makes John McClane from Die Hard look like a lucky charm. He does the only thing he knows how to do and kills anyone and everyone in his way. The collateral damage in this story is epic. Some of the language used is just stunningly descriptive. My favourite example of this was, "His accent was English, bitten off with cheerful relish, as if words were fun." This is not an overly wordy book though; it is a quick and fun read that although concludes nicely does leave some questions for your imagination to consider.

I enjoyed this book and fully intend to read the whole series. It has roots in classic near future SF, but has enough original points to complement the plot of this aggressive action thriller.


Breverton�s Phantasmagoria by Terry Breverton — book review

August 11, 2011

Breverton's Phantasmagoria by Terry Breverton. Quercus '9.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

Breverton's Phantasmagoria is subtitled 'A Compendium of Monsters, Myths and Legends', and that about sums it up. It covers a whole raft of myths and legends from people and places to maps and strange sightings. An A to Z of research from Alchemist to Werewolves and from the Taos Hum to Zorro's Treasure, giving you tantalizing tidbits of information, with many line drawings and photos to illustrate the points. Though it does not give a great deal of space to in-depth entries on any one subject, Breverton's Phantasmagoria promises to be an invaluable little gem (373 pages), not just for the basic facts but also providing endless inspiration for any and every fantasy writer; or indeed anyone with a curiosity for the odd and mysterious.


Shadow�s Son by Jon Sprunk — book review

August 11, 2011

Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk. Gollancz '12.99

Reviewed by Karen Stevens.

Caim is an assassin with a strange magical ability that he barely understands ' the power to call shadows to conceal himself or his companions. Quite handy in his line of work you may think, but recently this power is becoming unpredictable and possibly dangerous. The rest of his life isn't going too well either; talked into accepting a job at short-notice, he finds the target already dead, brutally murdered, and himself set up to take the consequences. Escaping with Josey, the dead man's daughter, and his strange spirit friend Kit, Caim finds himself caught up in a sinister plot. As the death toll mounts, Caim will have to finally embrace his heritage if he's to survive the powerful enemies ranged against him and uncover the heads of this conspiracy.

Shadow's Son is a frustrating novel as it has an equal number of good and bad points. To the good, there's plenty of action right from the start as Caim and Josey struggle to stay one step ahead of their enemies. The main character of Caim is well-drawn and realistic, and the writing (barring the odd info-dump) is acceptable; adequate without being particularly inspiring. This is a novel where good and evil are starkly drawn in black and white without any shades of grey.

To the bad, some of the characters are shallow and under-developed and Kit is bloody annoying. The main problem, though, is that there's nothing new in this novel; if you've read fantasy, you've read most of this before. That said, this isn't a bad book by any means. If action-heavy fantasy is your thing, or you're new to the genre, it could be worth a look.


Rome Burning by Sophia McDougal — book review

August 11, 2011

Rome Burning by Sophia McDougal. Gollancz '8.99.

Reviewed by Jim Steel

This is the second book of the Romanitas trilogy and it has been revised since it was first published in 2007. I've no idea how much it has been changed but, supernatural elements aside, this version is a much better alternate-history novel than most of the straight what-if stuff on the shelves.

Philp K. Dick claimed that the Empire never ended and to some extent he was right. The state religion of the Roman Empire still holds sway over large parts of our world, and the trappings of imperial eagles and Kaisers are familiar enough. McDougal's trilogy is set in a present-day world where the Roman Empire still exists and its only serious rivals are Japan and China. It is a world that is very familiar for lots of reasons although, being a slave economy, it lags around fifty years behind us technologically.

The Emperor is very ill and his nephew, Marcus, temporarily becomes Caesar. He's aided by his telepathic lover, ex-slave Una, and opposed by his deranged cousin, Drusus. Japan has tested a nuclear weapon and war beckons over American incidents. Realpolitik threatens relationships and the slave problem is becoming a crisis.

It's a violent novel for a violent civilisation, although the upper levels of Roman society do seem curiously lacking in large characters.

The middle part of this middle book sags when events move to China and missing characters from volume one reappear, but the story picks itself up again and pushes onward to a cliff-hanger climax. McDougal successfully uses an unusual floating viewpoint that is hard to pull off (but makes the telepathic fugues effective), and she is extremely good at inhabiting her characters. Even Drusus has aspects that we can recognize in ourselves.


The River Of Shadows by Robert V.S. Redick — book review

August 11, 2011

The River Of Shadows by Robert V.S. Redick. Gollancz '12.99

Reviewed by Russ Nicholson

The River of Shadows is the third in a series of four books and appears to start more or less where book two, The Rats and the Ruling Sea, ended. It is clear from the quotes on the books cover that this author is highly thought of, and this may be so, but frankly I was lost more or less from its opening sentence. The book expects, it would appear, for the reader to be familiar both with the story and the characters, and allows no opportunity for someone who has not read the previous books to get to real grips with it. I floundered along trying to give the book and its characters a chance to 'speak' to me but I failed to get involved. I even thought at one point 'Oh, for a map!'' only to discover too late there was one at the back. Call me old fashioned, and many may do, but a map at the back' Why?

The young hero and heroine Pazel Pathkendle and Thasha Isiq have crossed, with their alliance of rebels, to the southern empire of Bali Adro, there to face strange adventures and to battle the ancient sorcerer Arunis for control of the Nilstone, a cursed relic of great power. In desperation our band of heroes join forces with some of their greatest enemies to win through, but are beset, as before, by betrayal and dark magic.

I'll be honest and say if you enjoyed the first two in the series then you will probably enjoy this. If you enjoy complex plotting with many complex characters with tongue twisting names you still may enjoy this book.


Hard Spell: An Occult Crimes Unit Investigation — book review

August 11, 2011

Hard Spell: An Occult Crimes Unit Investigation by Justin Gustainis. Angry Robot '7.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

Hard Spell can be neatly summed up with this line from the first page: 'My name's Markowski. I carry a badge. Also a crucifix ... and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets.'

Sergeant Stan Markowski is a Pennsylvania cop attached to the Occult Crimes Unit and he is on the trail of that most dangerous of villains, a vampire-wizard.  Going into the intricacies of plotting would give too much away, but you get the picture. Very much in the Sam Spade style, our hero strolls through the pages with a string of laconic one-liners, dispensing justice the way he sees fit. Interestingly, with a narrative very much in 'camera obscura' mode, portraying events precisely as they unfold, yet despite being told in first person, Markowski reveals very little of himself ' which can be both a great delight and a huge frustration.

On the whole, however, I think I have to come down on the side of delight. Yes I would have liked to see more of how Markowski thinks through his actions. As a BIG plus this vampire hunter does not, by and large, go around lusting after his supernatural suspects. If he can't arrest them, he'll stake them and then he'll move on. This I like.

Great tongue-in-cheek crime fantasy with a dark and sometimes violent edge. If you like your urban fantasy played out on the mean streets of the city, you will find Hard Spell a lot of fun.

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