Reviews

The Unwise Woman of Fuggis Mire by Raven Dane. Book review

July 10, 2011

The Unwise Woman of Fuggis Mire by Raven Dane. Prosochi '11.99

Reviewed by Matt Johns

A new(ish) entry to the comedy fantasy genre, Dane's book contains some great parodies of classic novels and films. Her world is populated by many well-known fantasy species ' elves, demons, dwarves, boggarts and heavy metal-loving flower fairies.

The titular Unwise Woman of Fuggis Mire is Morven, purveyor of rather unusual potions, poultices, cures and advice to those who seek her out. Morven takes the mantle of Unwise Woman for many reasons ' her advice is often far from wise: her own personal life shows just how unwise she is. Madly in love with the dashing, promiscuous, steals-anything-that-isn't-tied-down and sleeps-with-anything-female-and-still-breathing highwayman, Jed Moonraven, she lives in a swamp beset by questing fellowships and apprentices seeking their hidden destinies (of which there are many) in between short-lived but passionate trysts with her beloved.

Dane is clearly a devotee of high fantasy such as Tolkien, and her work resounds with fond parodies of the many characters and scenarios that often appear in such novels. Many witty situations, Carry On-style smutty humour and fantasy in-jokes arise throughout the book, making it overall an excellent read. Comedy fantasy authors always end up with the inevitable comparison to Pratchett, which while undoubtedly flattering is unfair ' Dane deserves to be judged on her own, substantial merits.

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The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett. Book review

June 25, 2011

The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett. Orbit '7.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Superficially, this novel would appear to be an historical crime set at the time of the rise of the unions in 1919's America. While it is that, it is also alternative world science fiction and although set in the past it has elements that could place it in any other era.

Cyril Hayes is not a particularly prepossessing main character. He has a tendency to drink and visit the opium dens of Evesden. His problem is that if he spends too much time in the company of one person, their thoughts begin to leak across into his mind. This makes him a very useful tool to the McNaughton Corporation, the Company of the title. He can find out things others can't.

Evesden, a port city on the west coast of America, has expanded rapidly due to the success of McNaughton. The Company has produced and provided the rest of the world with all kinds of technology from airships to guns, shaping the world slightly differently from ours, and has become wealthy and powerful within the political arena. Donald Garvey, a policeman and one of Hayes few friends, calls him to view a body fished out of a canal. If the corpse is a company man, the Company wants to know. Five weeks later, a trolley arrives at a station laden with the corpses of union men. Hayes, Garvey and Samantha Fairbanks (Hayes new assistant) have to piece together what has happened to prevent the city self-destructing.

The Company Man is an unusual book in that it successfully manages to combine elements of a number of different genres. It is well written and the characters are plausible. Sometimes it is lacking in emotion; and although there are detailed descriptions in some places, those of the new technology are sparse. Worth reading.

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Deadline by Mira Grant. Book review

June 25, 2011

Deadline by Mira Grant. Orbit '7.99

Reviewed by Jenny Barber

After the shocking events of Feed, Deadline picks up with Shaun Mason and his band of intrepid bloggers as they get dragged into a new set of troubles thanks to the faked-her-own-death scientist that turns up on their doorstep. There's something hinky going on at the Centre for Disease Control, something to do with the zombies that roam the land and a lethal conspiracy that's going to create some significant changes to all their lives. If they can survive the cover ups, the mad scientists and the persistent threat of a mutating virus that still has a few more surprises, that is'

Grant has created a fully realised world that's completely believable, filled with fascinating technical detail that doesn't overdo it and characters so well drawn that the story successfully wrenches deep emotional reactions out of even the most cynical reader. And that's before you get to the action packed plot, which is, quite frankly, made of awesome. 

There are eye-popping plot twists that keep springing up to hook you and drag you further into the carnage. There are constant and evolving threats that leave everyone's continued existence in doubt. There's mad science and madder scientists and ever-deepening conspiracies and political shenanigans and dodgy genetic engineering and clones and zombies ' and ' and ' dear God, people, what is not to love about this book. It's glorious! Always compelling, by turns terrifying and tragic, and with an ending that's so evil that waiting for the next one becomes a torment, Deadline is a definite must-read.

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Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. Book review

June 25, 2011

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. Orbit (2011) '8.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

The latest in the Culture series takes place around 2770AD. If you're new to the series, don't worry; this is a self-contained novel. It does take some getting used to, though. A viewpoint character is killed off at the end of the first chapter and the next viewpoint character is killed off at the end of the second chapter. An intriguing literary technique? Possibly ' but not in this novel. Since people can be downloaded into virtual realities after their deaths or even reincarnated in fresh bodies, death is not always fatal.

The third chapter starts off with some elephant-like aliens attempting to flee a virtual Hell and, at first, it seems that Banks has fumbled the ball in merely recreating a traditional Hieronymus Bosch-style environment for them. It later transpires that this is exactly the point as he skewers the hypocrisy in organised religion. There is a virtual war raging between civilisations that maintain virtual Hells and others (including the Culture) who are totally opposed to them. The virtual war goes live, of course, when one side feels that it is about to lose, and we are then treated to some very convincing space combat. The eccentric ships are amongst the most delicious characters.

The story winds its way through half-a-dozen characters, including Joiler Veppers, a text-book psychopath who is also the leading aristocrat in the Enablement, a much less flexible society than the Culture. It really doesn't matter if all the strands don't tie up as tidily as they might since Banks packs Surface Detail with dazzling writing and invention. At times his dark wit even reveals him to be a much bleaker version of Douglas Adams as he deftly satirizes our hubris. Highly recommended.

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Tales From the Deep by Cerys Mathews. Book review

June 25, 2011

Tales From the Deep by Cerys Mathews. Illustrated by Fran Evans. Pont Books '5.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

You might wonder why a pre-school picture book deserves a review from the BFS. But, then again, why not? After all, this is a book aimed at the demographic where a love of books and of fantasy will often begin, guided by the parents and grandparents who choose their books.

Tales From the Deep relates two traditional Welsh folks tales by Cerys Mathews, Welsh rock-diva, and illustrated by fellow countryman Fran Evans. And published by a Welsh Publisher. It is told in a totally uncompromising fashion, without smoothed edges or safely happy endings, yet lyrically, poetically ' as you would expect from a gifted lyricist.

Open one cover and you have 'Ghost Bells of the Lowlands' where a village watchmen falls asleep on the job and the entire place drowns. Flip the book over and start from the other end and you get 'Mfddfai Magic', where a mermaid marries a fisherman only when he agrees never to strike her. When he does ' inadvertently ' causing her bruises, she returns to the water and the fisherman's heart is forever broken.

These are traditional folk tales as they would have been related around firesides down the centuries by bards and poets Tales From the Deep is the kind of book that can impart a life-long love of real fantasy, horror and literature that challenges the senses. 

My daughter would have loved this at age four or five, but then her favourite book was The Tailypo by Joanna Galdone, which scared the pants off her brother; she was made of quite stern stuff. 

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Branded By Fire by Nalini Singh. Book review

June 23, 2011

Branded By Fire by Nalini Singh. Gollancz '6.99.

Reviewed by Rhian Bowley

Changelings, humans and the Psy occupy Earth, 2080. None of us are good at sharing. The Psy are emotionless psychics, connected and controlled through the PsyNet. Changelings look like humans, can turn into animals and their animal characteristics are present when they are in human form ' heightened senses and urges. Oh, the urges: sexy futuristic animal SF? Indeed. And it's great fun.

Mercy is a leopard and Riley is a wolf. Mercy has the urges of a cat in heat, but worries she'll never find a mate who can handle her dominant alpha-female ways. She has lots of sex with Riley, spends the intervening pages brooding that he won't be able to handle her strong femininity (even though he's clearly fine with it) and then sleeps with him again. In between encounters, while the scratches on their backs heal, Mercy and Riley lead military-style Changeling packs who are trying to protect their communities ' and all of civilisation ' from the latest threat. Someone's targeting the implacable Psy and turning them into suicidal killers. But who? And can the PsyNet ever recover?

This is pacey stuff, handled well with alternating points of view from each group. The writing is excellent and, although this is the sixth in the series, I didn't feel lost. While Mercy's libido does take up a lot of pages, the SF arc is interesting and balanced well with the romance. The main characters swap with each book to others from the Changeling packs, which means I can continue with the series even though I wasn't fond of Mercy. The tenth Psy-Changeling novel is out now, so if you like your SF-romance raunchy and intriguing you have some catching up to do.  

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The Strange Case Of The Composer And His Judge by Patricia Duncker. Book review

June 22, 2011

The Strange Case Of The Composer And His Judge by Patricia Duncker. Bloomsbury (2011) '7.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

It is worth remembering that the judicial system in other countries works differently from ours. In France, a judge is the one that collects the evidence, impartially, before a case comes to court.

This cerebral crime novel begins at the New Year of 2000 with the discovery of a semicircle of corpses lying in the snow. This looks like a mass suicide with children among the victims. Dominique Carpentier is a judge who has made a reputation investigating and prosecuting the leaders of sects who prey on the vulnerable. Her investigations of this cult take her back to her childhood village and the memories of her youth. The trail leads her to the charismatic German composer, Friedrich Grosz who quickly professes his love for her. Although she is portrayed initially as a cool analytical person she has a complicated love life, as a married colleague and occasional lover is besotted with her and is effectively stalking her under the guise of bringing her evidence to further the investigation.

The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge is beautifully written but this kind of prose tends to be clinical, suppressing the emotions of the characters and the immediacy of the action. The portrayal of the French judicial system is probably very accurate; this is not a translation but is mostly written as if it were. The author is British but the characters are not. It is therefore rather disconcerting to have French speech being translated into English. It betrays a flaw in the author's approach to her material. Since this was first published in 2010 the use of hindsight to predict events in the characters' future comes over as a little too pat.

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Heaven�s Shadow by David S Goyer & Michael Cassutt. Book review

June 22, 2011

Heaven's Shadow by David S Goyer & Michael Cassutt. Tor (July 2011) '17.99

Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins

A Near Earth Object (NEO) enters the earth's orbit. Two rival spacecrafts set off, USA versus International Coalition, on a 'seek and discover' mission that will bring them more than they bargained for.

As you would expect from two such established screenwriters, Heaven's Shadow is a visually enhanced science-fiction thriller. Tracking the progress of the two crews as they journey to NEO Keanu, Goyer and Cassutt employ filmic techniques to inter-cut action from mission control, the two spacecrafts and beyond, to bring the possibilities of space to life in a political climate just a few years ahead of our own.

The book has already been optioned for film and it is easy to see why. The action kicks off from the start as character threads begin to interweave, planting conflict at every turn. Tension mounts at an adrenaline-fuelled pace and a sense of impending doom becomes apparent to all involved. Time is handled expertly, providing back-story and all important character histories at the appropriate time, without slowing the pace. Things that were dead and buried unearth themselves throughout the building crises, and for Commander Zack Stewart facing the past may be the only choice. As the pages count up to a fresh approach on the disaster-story climax, the only option the crews have left is to try to overcome the unknown.

Heaven's Shadow looks set to be the first in a highly lucrative trilogy. A contemporary and technologically savvy voice brings sci-fi thriller into the mainstream and anyone who loves action, space and a good deal of human conflict will enjoy this.

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The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Book review

June 22, 2011

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. Canongate '14.99

Reviewed by Jay Eales

When this book was published, and the author interviewed on a radio programme, the cry went out across the social media: 'A werewolf novel by a literary novelist? They come over 'ere, stealing our genres'' Generally, this was from people unfamiliar with Duncan's previous books. I, Lucifer, where it's the end of the world, and the Morningstar lives a month as a man to see if God will let him back into Heaven. Death of an Ordinary Man concerns a dead man exploring the mystery of his own death. Weathercock dabbles with miracles and exorcisms. Duncan may be mentioned in the same breath as Martin Amis and Will Self rather than Charlaine Harris and Laurel K Hamilton, but any accusations of him slumming it in the currently hot genre pool are wide of the mark.

I tore through the book's 346 pages in four lunch breaks. The chapters are short and punchy, the prose polished and considered. From the perspective of the main protagonist, 200 year old Jake Marlowe, we're given a man/monster in decline. It's a muscular novel, full of sensuous language and physical excess, just what you'd expect from the life of an animalistic avatar. The second section title sums up the werewolf lifestyle perfectly: killfuckeat.

Beginning with the news that the Berliner is dead, and that Marlowe is the last, we have a scenario where Marlowe welcomes his own oblivion at the hands of WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena), aka the Hunt. But Grainer, head of the Hunt wants more from his last great safari. But how to motivate a suicidal werewolf to make more of a fight of it? Naturally, he finds a way, and the game is afoot. Martin Amis + John Le Carr' + Joss Whedon = The Last Werewolf.

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The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon. Book review

June 22, 2011

The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon. Solaris (July 2011) '7.99

Reviewed by Colin Leslie

The Concrete Grove is an inner city housing estate in the North East of England. Dominated by drugs, crime, gangs and violence this is the place where teenager Hailey and her mother Lana find themselves following her father's death and subsequent debt issues. Thrown in among the violence, it's not long before they are drawn into the dark underbelly of the place.

At the same time Tom is struggling to come to terms with his wife Helen's illness which has left her confined to bed. Lana and Tom find salvation in each others company but it's Hailey who begins to see that the Concrete Grove and it's dominating skyscraper, the Needle, might just be hiding even bigger secrets.

As usual with Gary McMahon, the whole book has an extremely dark tone. His marvellously realised characters (apparently all of whom are based on real life figures) are fascinating, tragic and often dangerous and the darkness of the location is the perfect match for them. At the heart of the book though is a deeper level of parallel worlds and supernatural creatures. With more than a passing nod to the likes of Arthur Machen, McMahon offers us tantalising glimpses of a much deeper mythology. It's this undercurrent which sets this book apart from McMahon's other works to date and in my opinion places it above these. This book is an outstanding mix of urban horror and dark fantasy, hints of King's The Dark Tower series, hints of Holdstock's Mythago Wood, but above all the realisation of McMahon's talents as the outstanding British horror writer of our times.

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