Reviews

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Book review

March 25, 2011

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Harper/Voyager '18.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Guy Gavriel Kay is a man who likes to play with history. In Under Heaven he travels east down the Silk Road to the China of the Tang Dynasty. This was a highly civilised and mannered society. To rise in society it was necessary to pass examinations. Even the humblest needed to be able to read and write as well as to know history and to write poetry.

Shen Tai, is prevented from taking his exams by the death of his father. According to custom, the family was expected to withdraw from society for a period of two and a half years. The only exceptions are for those with military rank. Tai decides to spend his period of mourning on the plains of Kuala Nor, the site of fierce battles between the Kitai and the Tagur. He spends two years alone, burying the bones of the dead.

Lives can change on a whim. When the Kitan princess, who was sent to Tagur as a bride, hears of Tai's efforts, she gifts him with two hundred and fifty of the most sought after horses in the whole of Kitai, making Tai immediately the target for assassins. One is already on the way, sent by Wen Zhou, the new first minister but for an entirely different reason. Tai has to negotiate through the minefield of manners and political intrigue. A casual gift has already changed his life; it could change the fate of his nation as well.

This is a book that starts with a strong image and unfolds in a mannered way. It is never short of interest, the life in ancient China being painted with deft strokes and the beauty of fine poetry. The fantasy element is small but to compensate there are strong female characters, including Tai's bodyguard.

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Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Book review

March 25, 2011

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Gollancz '12.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

Ordinary people are going mad, committing serious assaults and murders after which their faces implode; all of which revolves around failed, deceased actors, and Mr Punch.

The lead character, Peter Grant, is a probationary London cop waiting for his final allocation to section. He thinks he is very ordinary trainee headed for a boring desk job, and so does everybody else. Until, that is, he finds himself on duty in the wee small hours at the scene of a brutal murder in Covent Garden. After a chance encounter with a ghostly witness, Grant realises he can both see and talk with ghosts, and has a witness to prove it in the shape of Inspector Nightingale, head of the Specialist Crime unit. Grant finds himself seconded to Nightingale's team of two, as the latest and only apprentice wizard in the Met Police, with all of the weirdness and wonder that such a post can bring.

Nightingale and Grant are on the case and, at the same time, Grant's magical education is underway, plus his other SCU duties, such as averting a turf war between the various gods and goddesses of the Thames and its tributaries.

Rivers of London is a crime police procedural with a huge slice of dark fantasy. Here the crime investigation has such a sense of verisimilitude so that you can believe that police procedures as described come from personal experience, without it ever getting bogged down in detail. The fantasy side, the magical training where Grant, though born with a gift, has to work in order to learn what he needs to know, feels as if he really is on a learning curve.  Best of all, this is a fun book, with enough wry humour without it being a slapstick comic fantasy.

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Grave Stones by Priscilla Masters. Book review

March 25, 2011

Grave Stones by Priscilla Masters. Alison & Busby '7.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

Grave Stones is the ninth novel in the Joanna Piercy crime series. Masters' first novel, Mr Bateman's Garden, was a fantasy, but the only fantasy-related element here is one of the characters who fancies herself as a psychic. However, she's given short shrift in this police procedural. Each of the titles can be read as a standalone mystery although Masters is gradually building a life-story for Detective Inspector Piercy and her Staffordshire-based colleagues as the series progresses. Our heroine gets engaged in this volume.

The murder takes place in the countryside somewhere outside of Leek. An unpleasant farmer is found dead on his farm. He's been lying there for a while until someone eventually investigates the smell. For the readers, at the start, the obvious suspect will be his unpleasant daughter, but there is also a new estate of around eight houses build on land that was formerly his. All the residents are also deliciously unpleasant and there is a strong possibility that dodgy business deals are involved.

Masters's unadorned prose builds the plot and hides the resolution until near the end, even if she has to shoehorn one clue into the narrative in a very obvious manner. Piercy's domestic drama is also kept under control and the murder mystery holds centre stage. The conclusion is slightly ragged but Masters can be forgiven that for the enjoyment of the journey.

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For The Win by Cory Doctorow. Book review

March 25, 2011

For The Win by Cory Doctorow. Harper/Voyager (2011) '14.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

For most kids of today, having a job where you would be paid to play computer games all day would be some kind of heaven. In this near future world, they can do just that. On-line games are big business and experienced players are needed ' but game-playing is not always fun.

Leonard is a sixteen-year-old American. As Wei-Dong he hangs out in cyberspace with a gang of Chinese players. His father tries to send him to a military school but Leonard runs away and gets a poorly paid job playing games. Mala and her army earn enough to get a better deal in the slums of Mumbai. One of their tasks is to help paying customers get their avatars up to higher levels where the in-game rewards are greater. They and Matthew's gang in China are also gold-farmers. There are players who will pay real money to have virtual items credited to their in-game characters. The gold-farmers get them, their bosses sell them. It is a commodity market. Real fortunes can be made or lost. The players like Mala and Matthew work in sweat-shop conditions. Big Sister Nor, who plays out of Hong Kong, wants better pay and conditions for the workers. She proposes a Trade Union, the IWWWW.

Much of the story is the struggle to unionise the workers and get recognition. This is a realistic, gritty and at times, bloody novel. Just as the original workers' unions had to fight for survival, so do these characters. Although this may look like a young adult book, For The Win contains deeply disturbing passages involving brutality and exploitation. These things are probably going on right now, in the places Doctorow describes. He has changed the parameters but the message is the same: act now.

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The Gathering Dark by Christopher Golden. Book review

March 25, 2011

The Gathering Dark by Christopher Golden. Simon & Schuster '7.99

Reviewed by Jim Mcleod

The Gathering Dark is the fourth part of Christopher Golden's Vampire Saga. Set ten years after the events of, Of Masques and Martyrs, we find Peter Octavian, having relinquished his vampirism, facing the biggest challenge to date. With the Book of Shadows destroyed, the boundaries between our world and that of the shadows are weakened allowing demons to walk freely on our plane of existence. It's up to the once former Shadow, who alone possesses the knowledge to fight the demons, along with an earth witch, a vampire and a priest, to fight the oncoming apocalypse. 

The Vampire Saga as a whole is one of the best urban fantasy series out there.  Golden has created a world that while familiar to fans of the genre is still fresh and highly entertaining. He gives a new spin on vampires, and their origins. This is a well written, fast paced and enjoyable read. Fans of Buffy might find some parallels to that series here ' not surprising considering Golden cut his teeth writing the tie ins.  While this is a good book that stands alone, I would highly recommend going back and reading the other three in the series, mainly because you will be missing out on a great saga.

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Outpost by Adam Baker. Book review

March 25, 2011

Outpost by Adam Baker. Hodder & Stoughton (2011) '12.99

Reviewed by Colin Leslie

Does the world need yet another post-apocalyptic zombie thriller? Adam Baker thinks so, and has delivered one, with his first novel Outpost. The Crew of the Kasker Rampart refinery are stuck in the arctic waiting for supplies when they realise things may not be going well back home. It becomes apparent that there has been an event (a global pandemic) and it's clear they are on their own. They set about planning their escape by exploring the surrounding snowy wastes. Then, when they come into contact with other refugees from the catastrophe, it becomes a fight for survival.

Okay, this isn't a zombie novel but those remaining act like zombies, so let's not be pedantic. This is a post apocalyptic novel, even though the true nature of the event is never revealed, and the oil platform, and sense of confusion, is reminiscent of the start of Conrad William's One.

While ramping up the tension and confusion, Adam Baker also ramps up the action and despite the limited canvas of the Arctic landscape, manages to devise an impressive variety of situations for the characters. The characters are perhaps the strongest feature of the book. From Jane, the faithless and suicidal vicar, to Punch, the laid back and heroic chef, there is a wide range of conflicting personalities.

There are some interesting themes lurking in the background with Jane's loss of faith, the contrast between the castle-like oil refinery and the sweeping panorama of the Arctic, as well as an ecological undercurrent. These backdrops are all kept low key allowing the pace to be maintained with plenty of short snappy action scenes. Outpost manages to satisfy with its mix of well drawn characters and action to deliver an interesting take on an overused genre.

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The Bitter Seed of Magic by Suzanne McLeod. Book review

March 25, 2011

The Bitter Seed of Magic by Suzanne McLeod. Gollancz. '12.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

Magical PI Genevieve (Genny) Taylor ' the half Sidhe/half vampire hero of previous volumes ' is tipped into fresh controversy as the Fae community fall over themselves to alternately court and/or kidnap her. Why? Because Genny, as the only Sidhe female in London, may lift the curse that has condemned London's Fae community to a childless decline. How? By bearing a child by one of the London Fae.

In this book dead faelings (half breed faes) are found floating face-down in the Thames. Is somebody is trying to break the curse without her by sacrificing these girls? Genny, and her boss at Spellcracker.com, are set to investigate.

Plenty of scope for rampant sex, one would have thought. Though sex is discussed in great depth, and implied at every turn, there is surprisingly little in the way of 'getting down and dirty'.

The plots and counter plots are mind bogglingly intricate as Genny, for very obvious reasons, finds herself navigating her way through all of this to find a method of lifting the curse. Genny begins to disinter some of the dark secrets in her family tree and the reasons why she is so valuable to her friends and foes alike.

I liked this book immensely. Complex plots are something I love, though I found the explanatory narration was occasionally so convoluted it brought 'the vessel with the pestle' to mind. I did feel some of the sexual tension scenes in the last quarter, though evocative and well written, could have been shorter, as they did slow the action at a rather crucial point. Never the less, these things are minor.

The Bitter Seed of Magic is a real page-turner with good characterisations and expertly drawn senses of time and place. I read this in one sitting which has to be a good sign. Recommended for all the urban and para-rom fantasy crew.

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The Dragon Factory by Jonathan Maberry. Book review

March 23, 2011

The Dragon Factory by Jonathan Maberry. Gollancz (2011) '7.99

Reviewed by Colin Leslie

The Dragon Factor is everything a good techno thriller should be ' clever, imaginative and above all thrilling. This is the second in a series featuring the 'worlds oldest adolescent' Joe Ledger, following the best-selling Patient Zero.

In a tightly constructed plot which manages to keep many of it's secrets till the end, we follow Joe Ledger and the D.M.S (Department of Military Sciences) as they attempt to stop the evil Cyrus Jakoby and Otto Wirths from starting the Extinction Clock, a genetically engineered apocalypse. Of course things are complicated by politics and by Hecate and Paris Jackoby, the 'albino freaks' who are Cyrus' twin children.

What follows is a staircase of escalating evil with roots in Nazi propaganda and eugenics. The antagonists vie with each other to push the boundaries of nastiness involving racial disease, genetically engineered soldiers and the odd unicorn. To say the Cryrus's are a dysfunctional family is like saying that the sun is a bit hot, indeed it's the internal struggle between the twins and with their father that provides much of the conflict and most of the action.

At its heart though, this book is a thrilling adventure with Joe Ledger providing most of the interest and a fair few pints of blood as he battles internal demons, and external ones, in some furious action scenes. Think Jack Bauer on the Island of Dr Moreau with a healthy dose of Jurassic Park and you will be close to understanding this book. There's not much subtlety on display here but the cover image should probably have given you a clue about that and anyway, when you've got big guns, big personalities and unicorns, who needs subtlety?

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One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde. Book review

March 23, 2011

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde. Hodder and Stoughton (2011) '16.99

Reviewed by Matthew Johns

The cover of One of Our Thursdays is Missing bears a quote stating that this book is 'true literary comic genius' and describes the author as 'madcap', so I opened the book with some trepidation dreading another dismal Terry Pratchett knockoff. I couldn't have been further from the truth ' this cleverly written, intelligent and witty book had me captivated from the first line. Despite being the fifth book in the series, I was able to read and enjoy this on its own merits with no prior knowledge.

The Thursday that is missing is the renowned detective Thursday Next. Her exploits are legendary, and immortalised in fiction. In the Book World, where literary characters live and re-enact the tales that they live in for readers, the written Thursday Next starts to investigate the disappearance of her illustrious namesake.

Travelling through the various lands of Book World (each a separate genre: fiction, thriller, non-fiction, etc.) and even making a trip into the Real World, the written Thursday pieces together the clues in her search for the real Thursday Next, interacting with characters such as 'Loser Gatsby', sister to 'Mediocre Gatsby', and their elder brother 'The Great Gatsby'.

The author is clearly highly intelligent, well-educated and very well read. The book is peppered with clever literary jokes, puns and references to other works. It feels at times as though the author is channelling the spirit of the late, great Douglas Adams throughout the novel. If Eoin Colfer ever gives up working on the Douglas Adams sequels, Jasper Fforde would be a fine replacement.

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