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.
Destiny's Star tells the tale of Bethral and Ezren ' a world-weary hardened female warrior and a sickly shrivelled storyteller ' and tells of their seemingly forlorn love for each other. Neither of them believes they're good enough for the other, and the story meanders along quite merrily making unsubtle references throughout. The spanner in the works comes from Ezren the storyteller, for he is a man unfortunately possessed of a powerful fiery wild magic he has no proper control over, at least not until late on in the book. 'Twould seem, however, that this magic belongs to the people of the Plains and the fearsome Warrior-Priests thereof want it back, at any cost, including the sacrifice of Ezren himself. And so the story begins, with unquenched love forming the backdrop of a quite boring quest from point A to point B and back again...
Whilst Beth's world-building technique is good, the plotline in Destiny's Star is obvious. In consequence, though the last fifty or so pages shot by very quickly, the journey itself was rather plodding. This is the third book in the cycle, though the blurb does not mention this. Unless you're a devoted fan of Beth's previous work, I would not recommend starting here.
It's 1999 and Matthieu Zela is 256 years old. For some reason he doesn't die, he just ages very slowly. After the murder of his Mother in 1758, Matthieu flees Paris with his younger brother Thomas and starts a journey that will take him to many places, and to meet many people, including Charlie Chaplin and the Pope.
Matthieu is not like the angst ridden immortals we are used to in genre fiction, in fact he takes his long life extremely calmly, and that might be the main problem I have with the book. It is Matthieu's story, but I found it difficult to warm to a character that seems to take everything in his stride. Perhaps that's what living that long would do to you? The only time he seems animated is during the telling of his early life on the run, when he meets Dominique, the love that will dominate his thoughts forever.
There are interesting things happening with that early storyline and the one set in 1999, but the rest is just interludes in the past. I found myself only reading those parts to see what famous person or event might pop up next, rather than from any desire to hear about his succession of lovers/wives, or the long line of Thomases that are descended from his half-brother.
Overall, well written but dull. Only for those that like a meander through history.
Soon after moving to Granitehead, disaster strikes John Trenton, when his wife and unborn child are killed. John is visited by the ghost of his dead wife, but he soon discovers not all is what it seems. When the body of a local busybody is found impaled on a still hanging chandelier, John begins to investigate. Which leads him to the discover of wreck of the David Dark, and the terrifying secret that is held within its cargo hold.
This is horror novel from a master at the top of his game. Masterton presents a master class in how to move from a quite tension-filled beginning to a full blown terror-inducing conclusion. With believable characters, gruesome deaths a plenty and more thrills than you can shake a stick at, Masterton has created possibly the best novel of his career. This is a good old fashioned horror tale from a time when horror was fun.
Thirteen Years Later by Jasper Kent, Bantam Books, '7.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
There is a long tradition of playing with history. Crime and historical novelists do it as well as writers in the fantasy and horror genres. Some periods and places lend themselves to such treatments better than others especially where the only records are official ones and there is simultaneously a rich folklore to draw on.
Jasper Kent's previous novel, Twelve, was set in 1812 when Napoleon was traipsing across the Russian countryside, attempting to conquer vast tracts of wilderness. One of the soldiers fighting against the French was Aleksei Danilov. Amongst his group were mercenaries from Wallachia calling themselves Oprichniki. They turned out to be vampires. Aleksei believed he had killed them all.
Thirteen Years Later is set in 1825, another year of upheaval for Russia. Aleksei is acting as a spy for Tsar Aleksandr, infiltrating a group intent on overthrowing the regime. He returns home one night to his house in St Petersburg to find a message scrawled on the wall. It is in a code only a dead friend knew and following the clues, leads him to the realisation that his tsar and, consequently, Russia is in grave danger from a man he thought was dead.
Sequels to highly acclaimed books can sometimes be difficult reads but this is a pleasant charge through a turbulent period in Russian history. Just because we have not heard of vampires trying to subvert the Romanov dynasty does not mean that it didn't happen, we just have no proof of it. The novel treads a fine line between the truth and fantasy which is what makes the premise plausible. The best fiction allows a reader to stand back and think that this might have happened. There are many things I do not believe in but others do. Who knows who is right? Maybe there are vampires out there.
Dawn of the Dreadfuls: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Book 2 by Steve Hockensmith. Quirk Books, $12.95
Reviewed by Matthew Johns
The prequel novel to the smash hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dawn of the Dreadfuls is an original work of fiction that tells the story of how the Bennet sisters became zombie slayers. Hockensmith has tried to write in the style of Jane Austen, and while it's similar, it's considerably easier to read and enjoy than the original Austen texts.
The book details the gradual rise of the so-called 'dreadfuls', which had plagued England years before but seemed to have been defeated. As the years passed, most people gradually forgot about the dreadfuls (the 'z' word is considered uncouth).
The novel begins as the dreadfuls begin their return ' starting with a corpse reanimating at a funeral, and then progressing to entire cemeteries fighting their way from the ground. Fortunately, Mr Bennet, father to five daughters remembers the old days. After the first dreadful makes its appearance, he begins teaching the girls armed and unarmed combat. His neighbours have shorter memories and refuse to believe that the dreadfuls have returned, leading to the Bennet family becoming the subject of much ridicule in and around the village. After a while, the Bennets are joined by the mysterious and harsh Master Hawksworth, sent from the mysterious order to which Mr Bennet belongs, to properly educate Mr Bennet and his daughters in the martial arts.
Much fighting and general zombie mayhem ensues amidst romance, debauchery and unrequited love (and lust). All in all, an excellent prequel to the massively successful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky, Hodder & Stoughton '18.99
Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins
Welcome to Low Town: a place where the line between the law and the criminal is conveniently blurred, where sorcery and medicine mix, where the elite rub shoulders with the dregs of society. It is a place of addiction, violence and double-crossing, of seedy bars and backstreet dealing.
Warden, ex-soldier turned infamous member of the criminal underground, thrives in this town. It is his domain and he exists quite comfortably under the bureaucratic radar -- that is, until he finds a dead girl; and this one didn't die well. Suspected, pursued, he moves from one ally to the next, follows one clue to another, facing threats from sorcery, plague and worse. The only solution may be the straight razor cure.
Polansky's writing is confident and punchy from the offset. The action rips along at a brilliant pace allowing us to experience this gritty world through the eyes of a thrilling, dangerous, flawed, yet strangely endearing protagonist. This is modern, dark fantasy at its best and a debut to be envied.
City byClifford D Simak. Gollancz SF Masterworks, '7.99
Reviewed by Mike Chinn
Originally published in 1952, this is actually a collection of inter-connected short stories that relates several thousand years of future history: from the time mankind decides it has evolved beyond living in cities to when humans have left Earth to live on Jupiter (and aren't even human any more), leaving the planet to dogs, robots and ants.
Inevitably there is a degree of quaintness to be found herein ' the fiction is over sixty years old, after all ' humanoid metal robots, intricate machines that are controlled by dials, animals that talk like extras from The Waltons' But to concentrate on such things is to rather miss the point. Under the soft, cuddly skin there's often a hard surface. Helplessness in the face of distaster occurs more than once (a simple case of agoraphobia looses humanity a thousand years of advancement; dogs almost certainly doomed because the one thing that could have saved them was bred out from the start). The abstract callousness of a mutant human who could do so much to help the world (if he could be bothered). One of the last humans on Earth putting himself into an eternal sleep, because to stay would be to risk the evolution of the dogs (even though it's probably for nothing). Bleak irony abounds.
The stories are packaged as though they are ancient, curious fables; with the dog editor attempting to place each tale in context (balancing the conflicting theories of various historians as to the veracity of the works). It's an amusing conceit.
With an introduction from Gwyneth Jones, this is certainly the book for those who ' like me ' have never read Simak before. Or even if you have.
Waking the Witch is a part of the Women of the Otherworld series that began with Bitten in 1999. This particular chapter in the cycle concerns Savannah Levine, daughter of a Black Witch, and a Demon, who is the ward of, and works for, Cortez-Winterbourne Investigations.
When her guardian Page Winterbourne takes a well-eared holiday Savannah is drawn into her first case as lone investigator, when three young women are thought to have been killed as ritual sacrifices.
Fast paced and full of intrigue, this is essentially an Agatha Christie-styled whodunnit with a bit of magic ' and an awful lot more blood. An urban-private investigator-fantasy that fits a pattern -- but is a lot of fun, just the same. But it's none the worse for that. The only minor fault might be an assumption of familiarity with many of the characters.
Waking the Witch romps along at breakneck speed through the false trails and red herrings to its blood-soaked denouement with all the style you would expect featuring one of Armstrong's strong women.
The A-Men Return byJohn Trevillian. Troubador '18.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
Continuity jingle here and voiceover; 'Previously in A-Men: Jack woke up with no memory of who he was, only a book of folk tales to guide him, and he quickly found himself on the run with other renegades who formed the A-Men, and crossed paths with the mysterious Dr. Nathaniel Glass, and strange goings-on beneath Phoenix Tower in a world where the rich have left a decaying Earth behind and gone off into space.' End of voiceover.
The A-Men was a fast, furious, funny, read with many horribly memorable scenes and equally memorable characters which told the story in very distinctive voices from the viewpoint of Jack, or the Nowhereman as he is known, as well as Sister Midnight, Pure and Dingo The Wonder Dog and several others. So what of the sequel?
Well, Phoenix Tower is no more, and neither are the A-Men who have for better or worse all gone their separate ways. Dead City is in a poorer state than before. Take all the post-apocalyptical movies and books you have seen and read and cram them together until they reach critical mass and then pick at the deadly radioactive embers and it still won't add up to the plot of The A-Men Return. And I should have added into that mix an unhealthy dose of computer games and graphic novels. Life in Dead City is barely worth living, but in some space stations not very far away things aren't much better either as the super rich are succumbing to a virus, and their only hope may be something that is long-forgotten back on earth. Like it says on the tin, cue the return of the A-Men. As with the first book in the series we are treated to something that is vividly dark and savage which lashings of sex and violence and bad words that hurtles along to a climax or sorts that more than nicely sets up Forever A-Men, the final part of the trilogy. Can't wait.