Friday, 28 February 2014

'Rags & Bones' - Cover Art and Table of Contents

You know those books that you wouldn't normally read but somehow just look intriguing? Books that you end up reading despite the fact that you have a heving pile of books to read anyway? I reckon 'Rags and Bones' could be one of those books for me. I normally stay away from YA books (just because there's a lot of adult books that I want to read first) but the authors in the table of contents, along with the whole 'reimagining of classic tales' thing, has got me wanting to make a little room in my schedule. Have a look at the TOC and see if you don't feel the same (what's in the brackets is what is being reimagined),

That the Machine May Progress Eternally by Carrie Ryan (E. M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops')
Losing Her Divinity by Garth Nix (Rudyard Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be King')
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman ('Sleeping Beauty')
The Cold Corner by Tim Pratt (Henry James's 'The Jolly Corner')
Millcara by Holly Black (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Carmilla')
When First We Were Gods by Rick Yancey (Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Birth-Mark')
Sirocco by Margaret Stohl (Horace Walpole's 'The Castle of Otranto')
Awakened by Melissa Marr (Kate Chopin's 'The Awakening')
New Chicago by Kelley Armstrong (W. W. Jacobs's 'The Monkey's Paw')
The Soul Collector by Kami Garcia (The Brothers Grimm's 'Rumpelstiltskin')
Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy by Saladin Ahmed (Sir Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene')
Uncaged by Gene Wolfe (William Seabrook's 'The Caged White Werewolf of the Saraban')

Early 'must reads' for me are the Wolfe, Ahmed, and Gaiman so no real surprises there then. 'The Soul Collector' looks interesting though and maybe 'Losing Her Divinity' as well. Would you read any of these stories? I'll let you know how it goes...

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

‘The Nights of Dreadful Silence’ – Glen Cook

I think I have all the Nightshade Books ‘Dread Empire’ series now (although I’ve been thinking that for a while now and new ones keep popping up…); I just need to work out the order that they go in. I’ll get back to you on that one…
While I steel myself for what looks like an absolutely massive series (seriously, have a look at these books on the shelf) I like to dip in and out of ‘An Empire Unacquainted With Defeat’; a collection of ‘Dread Empire’ tales that give you a pretty good idea of what the setting is all about. I’m growing to love short stories more and more by the way; a great way to get my reading ‘fix’ when my head isn’t up to something longer.

‘Nights of Dreadful Silence’ was the first ‘Dread Empire’ story published (way back in 1973, in the September issue of ‘Fantastic Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories’; you can read it Here if you like) and naturally seemed like the best place to start reading in this setting. The fact that it’s only eight pages long was also appealing. Like I said, my head isn’t quite up to longer books.

When Glen Cook writes fantasy he doesn’t mess around, preferring to just tell it how it is, and that’s ‘Nights of Dreadful Silence’ in a nutshell. A wizard is cheated out of his dues and enlists the help of an adventurer to get what is owed. That’s it and Cook clearly sees no need to embroider his tale at all, hence the brevity. It ends pretty much the way you would expect as well although there are hints that Bragi and Arisitithorn are not done yet. I’ll have to read more to find out as they bounced off each pretty well and I reckon they could easily do the same again.

What I found though is that this straightforward approach brings out a lot of humour that I don’t think you would notice otherwise. It’s not like Cook is cracking jokes either; it’s more the offhand remarks that a man on the battlefield might make to someone else. There is more than one kind of battlefield and Cook uses this to good effect with laconic observations that both Bragi and Arisitithorn come out with.
Not only that though, Cook’s observations of how people deal with the silence, cast on the city, are cause for a few wry chuckles at the very least.

‘From there, he watched amazedly as refugees dismally came out Itaskia’s gates and marched toward the boundaries of silence. He saw many a stout wife dragging her man toward where she could catch up on her backlog of nagging. Compulsive talkers shouted with glee when they were free of the curse and could once more bore their neighbors with tales of themselves.’

‘The Nights of Dreadful Silence’ is a little too short, and to the point, to be really engrossing but those little chuckles you find yourself having while reading make up for that to an extent. I for one wouldn’t mind more of that in Cook’s longer work…

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

'Dr Bloodmoney' - Philip K. Dick

I used to have an old 'Sci-Fi Masterworks' copy of 'Dr Bloodmoney' but it vanished during one of the periodic book purges that I have. That's the way I roll and a couple of years later, without fail, I will always realise that I made a mistake. I found this copy at the Nine Worlds convention, last year, and I actually prefer it to the edition that I used to have. I know it's the same book but hear me out :o)
I love old books, possibly due to my getting a bit older myself and also because I like the idea of being a little part of a books history. This edition of 'Dr Bloodmoney' is ten years older than me and I reckon it will still be going long after I stop. There's also an innocent charm about a book that has a picture of a flying foetus on the front cover. I mean, you wouldn't get that nowadays would you? It makes me feel a little bit nostalgic in a strange kind of way. Not that I ever lived in a time of flying foetus' but you know what I mean, I hope :o) Enough of that though, here's the blurb.

Seven years after the day of the bombs, Point Reyes was luckier than most places. Its people were reasonably normal - except for the girl with her twin brother growing inside her, and talking to her. Their barter economy was working. Their resident genius could fix almost anything that broke down. But they didn't know they were harbouring the one man who almost everyone left alive wanted killed...

‘Dr Bloodmoney’ isn’t the book that you think it is. Well, it wasn’t the book that I thought it would be; about a society trying to rebuild after a nuclear holocaust. For a start, there isn’t really an awful lot to rebuild once you get out of the cities; people are finding it hard but are getting along rather nicely actually. Is this what they call a cosy catastrophe? Could be… In any case, society in many ways seems to be better off than it was before the war.
‘Dr Bloodmoney’ is more of a book about people and how they react when they realise that it will actually take more than a nuclear war to help them resolve whatever they had going on before it started. There are some exceptions like Hoppy Harrington who finds that he is now in a position where he can affect great change, both in his life and in others, but mostly it’s the same people trying to sort out the same problems they’ve always had. It’s a novel about the therapeutic process and how, ultimately, it’s up to you to sort your own stuff out if you want to move on. Dick really goes into some depth with his characters in this respect and works through their problems in such a way that we’re fully aware of just what is going on.

‘Dr Bloodmoney’ isn’t just a novel about therapy either. It’s a book that really makes you question the world that the book takes place in and the abilities of the people living there. Is Dr Bluthgeld ill or did he really start the bombs falling with the power of his mind? Was Hoppy bitter anyway or did the world make him so? Dick leaves a lot of things unanswered and he makes them questions that stick with the reader (well, this reader) for a long time after putting the book down. It’s a book that makes you question the nature of this reality; don’t be surprised if you don’t have any answers at the end of it, just the same questions.

I wasn’t so keen on the anti-climactic ending (which happens off screen and then is explained away) but, on the whole, ‘Dr Bloodmoney’ is a very intelligent and thought provoking piece of science fiction that I would say deserves to be included in the ‘Masterworks’ series. I haven’t said all that I want to say about it but had the feeling that if I kept putting this review off then it would never be written (there’s so much to say and consider in these pages).
I think there’s a new ‘Sci-Fi Masterworks’ edition that has been released, do yourself a favour and grab a copy.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Comic Books That I'm Reading...

I’m reading a lot of good books at the moment but have somehow found myself in the position where I’ve either only just started them (most of the books but Leigh Brackett’s ‘The Long Tomorrow’ in particular) or am trying to work out what I want to say about them (Philip K. Dick’s ‘Dr Bloodmoney’ which was a great read but I want to say a little more than that). Hopefully you will see some of them in a few days’ time but right now, I’m easing myself gently into the week by having a little post about some comics that I was reading on the way to work this morning.

‘Terminator Salvation: The Final Battle’ #4 (Straczynski, Woods)

As a rule, I will read anything (comics in particular) with the Predator, Aliens, or the Terminator on the front cover. Being a child of the eighties it kind of comes with the territory really. With ‘The Terminator’ though I can’t help but wonder if the story has run its course; especially when the old time travel trope keeps getting wheeled out to jam yet another plot into an already creaking timeline. I’m kind of late to ‘The Final Battle’ but I couldn’t help but get the same feeling here… Don’t get me wrong, it all looks very good; I love the way Woods draws the Terminator point of view and the battle scenes are as good as they are in the films but… Another ‘time travel just when humanity is about to win’ plot though? That’s what it looks look to me and, even now, it looks like it will feed into a well-established plot anyway. Straczynski offers a fresh spin on the Terminator, in terms of its evolution, but doesn’t (can’t?) do an awful lot else. Of course I’ll be following this story (it’s the ‘Terminator’…) but more out of polite interest and a wish to be proved wrong.

‘Get the Lobster’ #2 (Mignola, Arcudi, Zonjic)

I don’t know why (really can’t put my finger on it…) but Lobster Johnson is my favourite thing about the ‘Hellboy’ universe. It might just be the name, I really don’t know… Anyway, the man himself has a mini-series going on; I’ve missed the first issue but there’s a lot to enjoy here even if I’m not entirely sure what is going on. There’s a midget with a transistor radio in his head and the police are gunning for Lobster because the Chief doesn’t like vigilantes tearing up his city (understandable really). Mignola and Arcudi offer up some intriguing mysteries (and a possible hint at the Lobster’s past) while Zonjic goes for a understated feel that perfectly captures nineteen thirties New York while casually stepping things up a gear when the bullets start flying. It’s a perfect combination really and I’ll definitely be following this one to its conclusion. I’ll even have to see if I can find that first issue.

‘Veil’ #1 (Rucka, Fejzula)

A girl wakes up naked in a subway tunnel with no idea of who she is but an instinctive grasp of the power that she can wield if someone threatens her… And… that’s it :o) We basically have a whole comic of this girl spouting nonsense to herself and slowly beginning to find her place in the world. You know what though? It works really well and I’m already hooked. Rucka does an amazing job of spinning out the mystery into a climax that answers questions and raises more all at the same time; all the more so because Veil doesn’t really do anything until the last couple of pages.
Feizula’s art is gorgeous, hinting at overworldly influences in the plot as well as capturing the neon excesses of the city. I can’t wait for more of the same in the next issue.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

‘Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric’ – Ian Briggs (Target)

I told you that some of the books here would be a little different from what I used to cover over at the other blog, didn’t I? I think there’s a real urge sometimes to concentrate on the ever moving conveyor belt of brand new books, headed our way, and I don’t blame anyone for doing that. I mean, look at all the cool books! Of course we’re going to want to read as much of that as we can. Inevitably though, it comes at the expense of all those old favourites (classics or otherwise) that you always mean to go back and read but forget to because, you know, new books and all that.
I’ve got a room stacked so full of books that it would be a crime to leave them all unread in favour of the new stuff and so this blog is going to be a healthy mix of old and new books. Well, that’s the plan anyway; we’ll see how I’ve done at the end of the year.

I grew up on the ‘Doctor Who’ Target novelisations; there was a library bus that came round every week (or something like that) and I used it to read as many of the books as I could. You can’t blame me really, there was no other way I was going to be able to catch up on all the adventures of the Doctor (in the days of ‘no DVDs’ etc) and there were so many even then. Those books were a massive part of my childhood and although most of them wouldn’t hold up to a determined read these days, I owe them a lot and have real fond memories of them.
Having said all that, I never read ‘The Curse of Fenric’ as a kid, it was the TV show that scared the life out of me and had me cowering in bed (but that’s a story already mentioned on the old blog…) I bought myself a copy of the novelisation, after reviewing the DVD back in July 2012, and promptly forgot about it because… new books :o)
Until now that is. I’ve been trying to mix up my reading a little bit, just recently, and this is where I ended up… Blurb shamelessly copy and pasted from the old blog because I’m tired and fancy cutting a little corner…

The Doctor and Ace find themselves at a secret military base, during the Second World War, where elements of the British army are about to lure their Russian allies into a deadly trap. A far deadlier trap is about to be sprung though as an ancient evil stirs beneath the waters of the bay and an old Viking Curse comes to fruition. Only those with faith will survive and, even then, they may not have much left afterwards…

What’s great about the old Doctor Who novelisations is that the reason they’re so good for catching up, with old stories, because they stick so faithfully to what happened on the show. You could see it playing out in your mind just as you would have done on the screen; just like the 70’s or 80’s version of a DVD ;o) They didn’t make for particularly challenging reading then but that wasn’t really the point. They were there so kids like me could read about adventures the Doctor had on TV before we were even born (and that’s pretty damn cool isn’t it?)
‘The Curse of Fenric’ really stands out from the pack by bucking that trend; I don’t think I’ve seen a Doctor Who novelisation like it in fact. It looks like all the stuff Ian Briggs wanted to do with the story on television made it into the book instead and the end result is a book with a lot more depth than you would expect to find in one of these novelisations. A shared history between Judson and Millington makes a lot of the stuff that happens on screen, with these two, suddenly make a lot more sense. Other characters get similar treatment (I would never have guessed who the double agent was or even that there was a double agent in the book…) and the end result is an extra layer of meaning that sits very well with the standard ‘tell it how it is’ approach that is going on at the same time.

What I really liked though was the mention of the game of chess that the Doctor played with Fenric; not just a mention actually, a full blown account of the game as told in ‘Ancient Arabian Tales’ translated by one William Judson. There’s an epic feel to the Doctor’s life now and Briggs does very well to tie up all sorts of plotlines that occur over centuries. That’s Steven Erikson territory and Briggs shows here that he’s more than capable of the same kind of thing.

Like I said earlier, the overall effect of ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a really positive one and I’d mark it as one of the better Doctor Who books that I’ve read. I can’t get away from the feeling though that you would have to be a real fan of the show to enjoy this book and that’s weird because there’s nothing in the book to suggest this (other than that it’s Doctor Who and people either love it or are completely indifferent about the whole thing). I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Friday, 21 February 2014

‘Wolf of Sigmar’ – C.L. Werner (Black Library)

While ‘Blighted Empire’ had its flaws (scroll down a bit for my review or click Here if that seems too much like work for a Friday…) I had a lot of fun reading it and there was no doubt at all that I would be back for the final instalment. The series so far had been a good combination of an engaging storyline and a well realised world that is very easy to spend time. I have a feeling that if there were more Warhammer Fantasy books, I wouldn’t have time to read much else! Anyway, back to the book at hand.
It’s always a funny feeling to finish a series isn’t it? Something that you’ve invested a lot of your time in is suddenly gone and you’re left thinking, ‘oh, what now?’ There’s also that wrench where you have to leave that fictional setting for the last time (I know you can re-read but sometimes it isn’t quite the same second time round). I had all of that after I finished ‘Wolf of Sigmar’. Again, it’s not a perfect read but what it does do right is done very well and ‘Wolf of Sigmar’ is a fitting way to round off what has been a surprisingly good series.
Blurb you say? Here’s the blurb…

The Black Plague has done its work, and the ravaged Empire is ripe for the picking. As the dread armies of the skaven sweep across Sigmar's realm, each of the great cities looks to its own defence - except Middenheim. As he gathers warriors to his banner and liberates towns and villages from the verminous menace, Graf Mandred begins to embrace his destiny as the future leader of a united Empire - if he can survive the trials to come.

To be honest, ‘Wolf of Sigmar’ doesn’t do an awful lot that is different from ‘Blighted Empire’ and that isn’t such a bad thing in itself (if it works then you don’t really need to fix it do you?) He does make the same mistakes as he did in ‘Blighted Empire’ but the good stuff still balances things out. The main thing is that we’re approaching the finish line and Werner does a very good job of tying up all the loose ends. Where he leaves something hanging, you get the impression that it’s for dramatic affect and also because sometimes things don’t just come together all neatly; they drift until they’re so far away that there’s no point in recounting them. It’s an approach that works very well here as it really fleshes out the Old World setting and leaves you with the feeling that there are far reaching ramifications still to be seen. I like that and can’t help but hope, a little, that Werner revisits certain characters somewhere down the line.

The conflict with the Skaven is drawn as well as ever and the resulting battles are spectacular with Werner really making good use of the fiendish inventions that the rat men come up with. It’s stirring stuff but what I found to be more interesting though were the politics between the human factions and the journeys that several of the characters take. It’s a hard old world and Werner really puts his characters through the wringer if they are to have any chance to come out ahead of the game (and most of them don’t). Clergymen (albeit really brutal ones who you don’t want to mess with) will got to any lengths to ensure that no-one holds any power over them. Murder for political gain is commonplace and the villainous Kreyssig looks positively reasonable sometimes when you see what others are capable of. Werner is full of surprises here, the kind of surprises that make you wince and think, ‘did that really just happen…?’
Mandred’s journey is predictable but at the same time compelling to follow. Werner paints a really detailed picture of a self-aware young ruler tortured by his own base motives for pursuing a war that is righteous on the surface. The reader ends up really rooting for Mandred, a character for whom Werner saves some of the cruellest cuts of all.

If there’s one issue that I had with ‘Wolf of Sigmar’ it’s that Werner perhaps tries to tie up too much for one book; namely the pacification of an entire Empire. I get that it had to be done but Werner does it by dividing the book into two timelines which can be a little confusing at times and also robs the book of a little uncertainty that is needed to make sure that the reader’s attention is gripped solidly. Pay attention to those dates at the start of each chapter is all I’m saying here, learn from my mistakes! ;o)

It’s a small niggle though and ‘Wolf of Sigmar’ is ultimately a very solid ending to the trilogy. Warhammer fans will love it but I think there’s a lot here for the casual reader as well. I’m well behind with all the Gemmell Award business (should really pay more attention) but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if ‘Wolf of Sigmar’ was a nomination at some point; I reckon it would do well.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Book Signings and Books...

It feels like an absolute age since I've made it out of the house for anything other than work and/or walking Elana to get her to sleep so the opportunity to go to Forbidden Planet and get my copy of 'The Copper Promise' signed was too good to miss; especially when there were drinks to be had afterwards. By the way, read 'The Copper Promise' if you haven't already; it's a lot of fun and thoroughly deserves all the readers that it gets.

The birthday cake would have made the signing awesome all by itself but what really made it for me was bumping into a whole load of people that I haven't seen for ages and inevitably getting drunk with them whilst talking Doctor Who. And I did it all on about four hours of sleep from the night before; I've still got it :o)
That's a (slightly late) New Year's Resolution to make I think; spend more time with friends. It's always good.

And then there were a couple of books that managed to find their way home with me. What? First night out in a long time, I kind of felt like I had to get them :o) Have a look, go on...

I was very pleased to pick up 'Reap the East Wind' on the 'Sale Shelf' for about half the price it normally goes for. I have no idea what order these collections run in (I really need to find that out don't I?) but I think I've got them all now so that's a good start. Plus I get to have some more Raymond Swanland art on my shelves and you can never have too much of that.
I'd forgotten that there was a new 'Garrett' book out (well I say 'new', you know what I mean) so when I saw 'Wicked Bronze Ambition' it pretty much bought itself really.

And that's me on this grey, rainy but strangely optimistic Thursday afternoon :o) I'm off to nurse a slight hangover and convince myself that I really don't need to visit more bookshops on the way home tonight...

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Guest Post! 'The Reader Is The Choreographer: Writing Fight Scenes' - Sebastien de Castell

Sebastien de Castell is the author of the rather splendid (at least, from what I have read of it so far) 'Traitor's Blade', the first book in 'The Greatcoats' series, and I've just found out that he also writes a mean guest post if you ask him very nicely. I must have asked very nicely as Sebastien very kindly wrote this for me...

The Reader Is The Choreographer: Writing Fight Scenes

I’ve been getting asked about how to write fight scenes a fair amount these days so let me start with a first principle:

Violence is boring.

There are so many fights, stabbings, murders, and assorted forms of torture in media these days that it’s easy to confuse violence with drama. But violence isn’t any more inherently dramatic than ordering coffee. Don’t believe me? Imagine two martial artists walking into a room. Neither one has any expression on their faces. They begin fighting - punching, kicking, jumping, spinning - with speed and precision. They whirl around each other for a few minutes and then one man successfully subdues the other and breaks his neck. Do you care whether it was character A who killed B or B who killed A? Is there anything dramatic in the outcome?

Now instead imagine an elderly woman walking into a coffee shop. She stumbles along with her walker, barely able to make it from the door to the counter. The ravages of the cancer in her bones make this simple trip - one she’s done a thousand times before - the last before she will move into the hospice that will house her for the paltry remaining days of her life. The little moments of this journey - saying hello to the young man behind the counter, choosing which coffee to buy, opening her purse, making the last purchase she’ll make for herself - are the memories she’ll take with her. It’s not much, but it’s everything that’s left. But the man behind her in line is annoyed. The old woman is taking too long and he’s sick of coming into this damned coffee shop on the way to work every day only to end up being late for a meeting because of some old codger holding up the line. He starts to rush her. He’s loud and he’s angry and all this old woman wants to do is shuffle away, with her walker, away from the counter and out of the shop. Sensing she’s about to leave, the man begins to push past her with a perfunctory “excuse me." But the old woman turns. Just in that moment she turns to this man who threatens her with nothing more than his bluster and angry words and she says “no.” The fight begins.

The Best Fights Are About Character, Not Plot.

The mechanisms of violence aren’t what make a fight interesting. What’s interesting about a fight scene are the stakes for the character; the way that character fights first with their own fear and only then with their opponent, and the way that individual character’s approach to fighting tells us about them.

Take the following two films: The Princess Bride and The Duelists. You’d have trouble finding two movies whose tone and style are more different. The Princess Bride is a light-hearted swashbuckling fantasy, choreographed by the incredible Bob Anderson (who worked with folks like Errol Flynn back in the day.) The Duelists is a dark, gritty Napoleonic tale based on the short story by Joseph Conrad. The fights were choreographed by William Hobbs who was instructed by director Ridley Scott to make sure the fights looked dirty and ugly and nothing like the swashbuckling of earlier films. But despite the radical differences in the fights of those films, in both cases every action tells you about the character in the fight. The way the two opponents go at it are a reflection of their personality, their fears, and their backgrounds.

We care about Wesley’s fight with Inigo in the Princess Bride because we can sense that these two men admire each other. Their fight is as much an exploration of the other’s talents as it is a duel. In fact, our sense of jeopardy comes from the fact that these two men shouldn’t have to be enemies, and yet, their situation means that one may well die at the hands of the other. Contrast this with the messy, stuttered fights between Feraud and D’Hubert in The Duelists. One man, arrogant and lusting to use violence as his way of getting back at those he believes look down on him. The other, desperate and unsure of what to do - fearing that this fight will end in either death or dishonour. The moves matter; the weapons matter; but only because they allow the audience to see inside the characters and their conflict. I love writing Falcio’s fights because he sees each one as a problem to be solved - he tries to intellectualize the battle and find some ingenious way to survive. But his own past sometimes comes to the fore and takes him over. In those moments, all of his skill and intellect disappear, replaced by rage and recklessness, and we realize he’s not the man he thinks he is.

The Reader Is The Choreographer.

Ultimately the writer’s job isn’t so much to meticulously choreograph the fight - it’s to give the reader the bits of insight that enable them to build the scene in their minds. In that sense, it’s really the reader who choreographs the fight and the author simply gives them the tools to do so. One of the most dramatic fights in Traitor’s Blade doesn’t happen on the page at all: Falcio is about to face a smiling armoured man with an axe - a fight he doesn’t think he can win - when the tragedy of his past comes crashing down on him. We shift from the fight into that horrific memory, and when we come back, Falcio’s opponent is dead on the ground and he himself is in a state of shock. At no point is a single move of that fight described, but when I ask readers about it they remember it happening in detail.

For me as a writer the goal is to write a fight scene as if it were dialogue - to do my best to make each character’s actions as distinct, personal, and emotionally motivated as the words they use. If I can do that well enough, then I can shift out of the movements themselves and let the reader begin to shape the back and forth of the battle inside their own mind and fill in the details so that I’m always telling a story rather than documenting a series of movements.

Thanks Sebastien! 'Traitor's Blade' will be published in a couple of weeks by Jo Fletcher Books, you should be able to catch my review a little before then.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

‘Annihilation’ – Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate)

For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.
‘Annihilation’ is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.
But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.

'Annihilation' is a journey, a promise, a post-hypnotic suggestion and what must be the slowest most drawn out invasion ever (and who is invading who, we have to ask). Above all else though, 'Annihilation' is the promise of inevitable change and a whole load of questions. What are those questions? Read the book and you will find that you have loads of questions. I get the feeling that Vandermeer has already told us everything that we need to know but he has hidden it all within the gorgeous background of Area X and beyond the sight of an expedition that doesn't really know what to do in Area X now it's there.

Those are the hooks that Vandermeer uses to draw us in and they work a treat. I always enjoy Vandermeer's work so wouldn't have put this book down anyway but Area X is so lavishly recognised on the page that it is all too easy to just become completely immersed in it; especially when we view it through the eyes of the Biologist, a woman trying to come to terms with Area X in the only way that she knows how (by cataloguing it). Strange sounds in the night (and the Crawler…) also make for an unsettling atmosphere that sits just on the edge of your reading; just the right place for it to send little tendrils of fear into those parts of your brain that still fear the unknown beyond the light of the campfire…
As the book progresses, the Biologist’s questions become our questions which lead to more questions of our own and, before you know it, the end of the book has arrived and you want the next one sooner rather than later. That's me by the way, I've got my own theories and I'm eager for the next book to arrive so I can see how they play out.

If one thing is clear about ‘Annihilation’, Jeff Vandermeer is bloody good at spinning a tale that tells us everything and nothing all at the same time (especially so given that the book itself is only a couple of hundred pages long). Not only that, he keeps the reader on board when a lesser writer would leave the reader feeling frustrated at the opacity in the text.
If you’re thinking about giving ‘Annihilation’ a go, I would say stop thinking about it and just do it. There is so much to think about here and even though Area X seems like it is safely locked up behind words, it will change you nevertheless.

Monday, 17 February 2014

'Alien: Out of the Shadows' - Tim Lebbon (Titan Books)

I know this is something that just isn’t said but I’ve always found the ‘Alien’ films to be a bit hit and miss and in completely the opposite way to everyone else. There, I said it.
I’m not going to deny that ‘Aliens’ is utterly awesome and probably the best film in the franchise but ‘Alien’…? I’m sorry but I just wasn’t scared at all. ‘Alien 3’ is pretty cool though and I don’t care what you say ;o) I’m thinking about the bit where you get to see through the alien’s eyes as it chases the convicts through the tunnels; I could watch that all day. ‘Alien Resurrection’ though? Ok, that is pretty awful… I guess what I’m saying is that if they tacked on some ‘Alien 3’ bits onto ‘Aliens’ and got rid of the other films I would probably be quite happy with that :o)

As far as the books go, I’ve read a couple (have a look on the old blog for the reviews) but wasn’t all that fussed if I recall correctly. When I saw that Tim Lebbon was writing an ‘Alien’ sequel though I was definitely up for a read as Lebbon is an author whose books have always gone down well with me in the past. I say ‘sequel’… What do you call a book that is the sequel to one film but a prequel to another? I have no idea so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
But onto the book itself. It’s a Monday afternoon so have some cut n’ pasted blurb…

As a child, Chris Hooper dreamed of monsters. But in deep space, he found only darkness and isolation. The on planet LV178, he and his fellow miners discovered a storm-scoured, sand-blasted hell - and trimonite, the hardest material known to man.

When a shuttle crashes into the mining ship Marion, the miners learn that there was more than trimonite deep in the caverns. There was evil, hibernating-and waiting for suitable prey.

Hoop and his associates uncover a nest of Xenomorphs and hell takes on a new meaning. Quickly they discover that their only hope lies with the unlikeliest of saviors...Ellen Ripley, the last human survivor of the salvage ship Nostromo.

‘Out of the Shadows’ has a lot going for it and I read it through to the end just to see how Lebbon tied things up. There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming out of the first film that finds its way into the book and I think Lebbon does an amazing job of coming up with a book that you could read in between ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’ and not notice the joins. He has it all covered and what we get is a fascinating picture of Ripley in between films, someone who is just about to find the strength that she will need to carry her through what is to come; a broken woman who is only just getting her head around the Alien and what it means to her.
The addition of Chris Hooper and his crew makes ‘Out of the Shadows’ a story that isn’t just about Ripley and I liked that move in terms of how it not only fleshes out the setting but gives us a whole new cast to root for in the face of an old threat. Lebbon clearly isn’t afraid to let his characters die and this makes for some tense and visceral moments as people you’ve got to know are suddenly taken in a flurry of teeth and claws.

It’s a bit of a shame though that these moments feel few and far between. Both the ship and the mining installation, on the planet below, are absolutely massive and Lebbon is playing with a very small cast of humans and aliens so there are long periods where the narrative builds up an air of tension that cannot be sustained long enough for the payoff to be reached. There’s just too many corridors to get through first. When the payoff does come it is merciless but Lebbon makes you wait for it just a little bit too long.

‘Out of the Shadows’ is a good read but one that suffers from a backdrop that is just too big for the plot to fit comfortably in (I think I’ve said this about Lebbon’s work before…) Fans of the franchise will get a lot out of the book and it has done enough that I will more than likely stick around to see where things go in the next story. I might even have to dig out my copy of ‘Aliens’ tonight…

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The 'They don't make covers like this anymore...' Cover Art Post - 'The Anvil of Ice' (Michael Scott Rohan)

The 'Winter of the World' re-read is officially on (way past time really...) and what better way to whet the appetite than with Ian Miller's absolutely drop dead gorgeous cover art for 'The Anvil of Ice'. I have no idea how cover art rights work but I've always thought that SF Gateway missed a trick when they went with a plain yellow cover (for the 'Anvil of Ice' ebook) rather than this...

Isn't that gorgeous? That's the kind of intricate detail where you wouldn't be surprised if the cover art took as long to draw as the book did to write. Not only that but it makes me want to visit that city, under the mountain, all over again and walk those battlements. So that's exactly what I'm going to do :o)

There's no real schedule here (every other week or so for each book) so joining me in this endeavour could be problematic, sorry about that. I would thoroughly recommend picking these books up though as they are great reads. Come back in a week (or so) and I'll start telling you why...

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Some Cover Art... 'The Quick' (Lauren Owen)

I love this cover, purely because I can't help but wonder if this dapper chap ever thought he might appear on the cover of a book in the dim and distant future. Unless there's photoshop trickery going on here then, in which case, erm... it fooled me :o)
Either way, I love a cover that gets me thinking (even if it's one of my weird tangents) and the cover for 'The Quick' got me thinking. Have some blurb,

London, 1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing-rooms of high society, and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Unnerved, his sister, Charlotte, sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine city that greets her, she uncovers a secret world at the margins populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of one of the country’s preeminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the most ambitious, and most dangerous, men in England.

'The Quick' is being published in the US in the middle of June but, if the weather carries on like this, I could see myself reading it a lot sooner. There's something about all this rain and wind that makes me want to curl up with an absolutely massive book and get lost in it (although if Hope wants me to play 'lightsaber fights' then I might have to wait a little while longer...)

Friday, 14 February 2014

‘Monsters & Other Stories’ – Gustavo Duarte (Dark Horse)

I’m not bad at getting across what I want to say here but, every so often, a book comes along that leaves me scrabbling around for the right words to say how awesome I think it is. More often than not, I fail miserably and end up with a post that can be summed up as “this book is good, duh…”
I’ll warn you now, Gustavo Duarte’s ‘Monsters & Other Stories’ is one of those books and I am going to do my level best to come up with a post that sounds all rational and stuff. It may not pan out like that though so if I don’t make it, tell my family that I love them and then go and get yourself a copy of ‘Monsters’; it’s more than worth it.

In ‘Monsters’, Duarte presents his readers with the eponymously titled ‘Monsters’ (monsters smashing up a city with only an old fisherman to stop them), ‘Cos’ (a farmer deals with the strangest alien abduction I’ve ever seen) and ‘Birds’ (a story of the inevitability of fate). All of these tales are have no dialogue at all but are astonishingly eloquent nonetheless because of the high quality of Duarte’s artwork. We’re talking artwork that is compelling to follow not only because of Duarte’s distinctive style but also because there’s a sly humour always bubbling under the surface that has you chuckling to yourself when you least expect it, even when the horror makes an always welcome appearance. I couldn’t pick a favourite from the three stories if you made me; they are all quirky with a hint of the subversive about them that makes reading ‘Monsters’ a real pleasure. There’s no question about it, this is a collection that I’ll be returning to over and over again.

That artwork though… The best thing here I think is to let it speak for itself, check this out…

Glorious isn’t it? Reading ‘Monsters’ is the best time I’ve had reading a comic book for a long time, get yourself a copy and have some of the same.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

‘Blighted Empire’ – C.L.Werner (Black Library)

It was way back in the days of 2012 that I first read C.L. Werner’s ‘Dead Winter’ and enjoyed the hell out of it; surprisingly so in fact as my previous experience of his books had been more on the ‘hit and miss’ side. I still love ‘Dead Winter’, by the way, and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read any Warhammer fantasy and wants somewhere to jump on. Give it a go if you want a good read.
Anyway, enough of that. I was really eager to continue with this series but life got in the way (it really did as well, kind of glad that’s all in the past now…) and it never happened. Until now that is, several months late but better late than never, especially with a book like ‘Blighted Empire’. What we’re looking at here isn’t without its flaws but remains a thoroughly engaging read that typifies exactly what life in the Old World is all about. Before we get going in earnest, have some shamelessly copy and pasted blurb

The Black Plague spreads across the Empire, followed by a tide of monsters from legend: the skaven. In Altdorf, Emperor Boris’s troops valiantly hold off the ratmen while the corrupt Emperor escapes to safety. In Middenheim, Graf Gunthar and his son Mandred defend their city against a horde of the vile invaders. And in Sylvania, the skaven find more than they had expected in the form of the necromancer Vanhal and his army of the dead... an army that gets larger as the plague worsens.

Two books in and one more to go then. ‘Blighted Empire’ is very much ‘the middle book in a trilogy’ then as it attempts to tie stuff up from the last book whilst making sure there is enough plot left to have readers coming back for the finale. I will certainly be back for the finale anyway but I would have to question how well ‘Blighted Empire’ achieved those objectives with the focus on Skaven politics holding things up a little too much. Werner loves his Skaven and it felt that their politicking came to the fore when it really would have served a better purpose underpinning the main Skaven character’s agendas. Maybe that was what it was meant to do but that wasn’t how it came across; it certainly didn’t help that I totally lost track of which Skaven character was which (I’m going to give the book the benefit of the doubt though and say that was probably down to me) The little homage to ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ didn’t quite gel for me either, felt a little too obvious when some subtlety could have really paid some dividends.

I couldn’t put ‘Blighted Empire’ down though and isn’t that the main thing at the end of the day? Everything that made ‘Dead Winter’ such a compelling read is here in abundance; a lavishly depicted display of a world gone mad where war waged against rat-men is only a surprise until zombie dragons appear over the horizon (seriously, zombie dragons). The initial premise may not look like much on paper but it is driven forwards in fine style by a cast of strong characters who can send the plot careening in all sorts of directions which kept me on my toes the whole way through. Kreyssig is as villainous as he was last time round and even though you know he’s being kept around for the final instalment , you have to admire how Kreyssig just keeps coming out ahead of the game. Emperor Boris… I know I complained about his cartoon villainy last time out but this time round his excesses are entirely in keeping with the hastening decline of his Empire and make for a stark counterpoint. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned (which I don’t think actually happened but it’s that kind of affect that we get here).

The battles are as well drawn as in ‘Dead Winter’ and Werner makes good use of the architecture (in each of the human cities) to spring all sorts of nasty surprises on the human defenders as well as the reader. We’ve already had it drummed into us that the Skaven are vicious and sneaky creatures but Werner still manages to make us jump and leave us in no doubt that nowhere is safe if there’s a sewer or cellar anywhere nearby. I still feel a little sorry for the tax collecting dwarf who got a little more than he bargained for when making his rounds.

I’m trying to be a little more disciplined with my reading but ‘Blighted Empire’ has left me really eager to see how things end up in ‘Wolf of Sigmar’; a very good read and highly recommended. If you’ve just finished ‘Dead Winter’ then I think you’re in for a bit of a treat here.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

This made my day yesterday.

Although the whole 'boiler possibly producing carbon monoxide' thing did take the shine off the day somewhat (and right at the very end too, we weren't allowed back into the house until half one this morning) Books turn up in the post and sometimes I just have to post about them because I am that excited. No really, I am :o) Take this book for example, a book that I've been waiting for ever since I had an inkling that it was to published.

For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.

‘Annihilation’ is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.

But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.

It might not be another 'Ambergris' book, that's ok I can wait, but anything by Jeff Vandermeer automatically jumps to the front of the queue (nudging out of the way all those other books that have jumped to the head of the queue). Vandermeer writes the kind of books that I want to read and he writes them very well indeed, it's that simple.
Just a few more pages of 'Blighted Empire' to read and then I'm ready for 'Annihilation' :o)

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ – Robert E. Howard

Every so often, nothing else will do apart from a Conan story. After a morning spent juggling two small children (not literally, although that would have been easier in some respects…) and my usual fight with the morning commute (I lost, again…) the need to sit down and watch the iconic barbarian hit some stuff with his sword was stronger than ever. It’s not just the swordplay though is it? Howard is a master of fight scenes but his tales also prove, time and again, that he was a man who just instinctively grasped the art of storytelling; both in terms of the worlds that he created and the plots he set loose in them. I haven’t come across a story of Howards yet that I haven’t wanted to pursue to its conclusion and, even though I’ve read it before, this was definitely the case with ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’.

Conan is the last man standing in a fight between rival Vanir and Aesir warbands but is not without injury and his immediate future, amidst the icy peaks of the battlefield, is uncertain. A strange lady appears on the battlefield and Conan’s thoughts turn, somewhat predictably, to more carnal ends but is this mysterious lady running away from Conan… or towards something else entirely? Whatever Conan discovers, will he be in any shape to deal with it?

So, this is the story where Conan basically spends a lot of the pages chasing a woman, Atali, because he wants to have sex with her. Atali’s running is drawing Conan into a trap but it’s clear that sex isn’t on her agenda anyway. It is for Conan though and that makes for some uncomfortable reading; if he catches Atali then he will be raping her, there’s no two ways about it (and Howard makes it clear that, even in his weakened state, Conan could still do exactly that).
As you keep reading though, it becomes clear that Howard has no intention of Conan doing anything like that to Atali; there are more important things to be done here than satiating barbarian urges and Conan’s base desires swiftly become redundant in the face of what is to come. We still have to deal with the thought of Conan being like that but then a whole load of other stuff comes along and, all of a sudden, we’re not talking about dark deeds on a battlefield any longer… All of sudden, Howard widens the focus of the tale and Conan is forced to confront a whole new world beyond the one he is comfortable with. It’s all done very subtly, we know it’s coming but Conan has got his mind on other things and misses it entirely…

And then, BANG! Conan gets a rude awakening and is forced to fight for his life against two frost giants. It kind of serves him right (and hopefully serves as a lesson that he can’t have every girl he sets his eyes on… oh hang on, it’s Conan we’re talking about here) but the reader has to admire the way Conan just throws himself into battle against two giants twice the size of him (even if we know how it will turn out).
There are some forces though that even Conan can’t stop and one of those is the intervention of an angry God. Hopefully this will serve as a lesson that he can’t have every girl he sets his eye on… (Hang on, I’ve said this already haven’t I…) This is the moment where Howard brings two worlds clashing together and I loved the way it then segues into Conan regaining consciousness and doubting whether any of it had even happened. The best time then for Howard to pull out a killer final couple of sentences and make everything crystal clear after all that messing with our expectations. There is a lot going on in ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ then. Not only are two worlds built and displayed for the readers pleasure but we get to see Conan make sense of them in the only way that he can, with the point of his sword and an eye for the ladies. It might get him in a lot more trouble than he would want but it all made for just the right kind of diversion that I needed on the trip in this morning.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Cover Art! 'Wolf of Sigmar' - C.L. Werner (Black Library)

For no other reason than that this is how I felt trying to get to work this morning... :o)

If you live in London then you know exactly what I mean, the daily commute brings out the worst in all of us sometimes (apparently, I have to fight to suppress my inner Skaven...) I love Black Library covers though and that's the other reason I'm posting today as the cover for 'Wolf of Sigmar' is so dynamic and in your face, it's like a shot of caffeine to the eyeballs.
Here's the blurb,

The Black Plague has done its work, and the ravaged Empire is ripe for the picking. As the dread armies of the skaven sweep across Sigmar's realm, each of the great cities looks to its own defence - except Middenheim. As he gathers warriors to his banner and liberates towns and villages from the verminous menace, Graf Mandred begins to embrace his destiny as the future leader of a united Empire - if he can survive the trials to come.

A fairly sparse blurb isn't it? Fair indication that you really need to have read the first two books in this trilogy first ('Dead Winter' and 'Blighted Empire' just in case you were wondering). I'm well into 'Blighted Empire' at the moment so hopefully I'll be able to let you know how that went by the end of the week.
What are you reading at the moment? Is it any good?

Friday, 7 February 2014

'The Troop' - Nick Cutter (Gallery Books)

If you know me outside this blog (hello!) then you will know that I have a pretty healthy appetite for food, albeit all the wrong kinds of food and far more of it then I should really be eating. This week has seen that appetite vanish though; partly because I've caught a bug off Hope (apparently it's funny to cough all over Daddy when you're not feeling well...) and also because I've spent the last couple of days reading Nick Cutter's debut 'The Troop', a book that has actually put me off eating. I didn't think anything could do that... You'll see why when you read 'The Troop' and you really should read it if you like a taut tale of terror that absolutely refuses to be put down. That's what we're talking about here. I couldn't stop reading until I was done and consider my loss of appetite a small price to pay.

Once every year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfire. The boys are a tight-knit crew. There’s Kent, one of the most popular kids in school; Ephraim and Max, also well-liked and easy-going; then there’s Newt the nerd and Shelley the odd duck. For the most part, they all get along and are happy to be there—which makes Scoutmaster Tim’s job a little easier. But for some reason, he can’t shake the feeling that something strange is in the air this year. Something waiting in the darkness. Something wicked . . .

It comes to them in the night. An unexpected intruder, stumbling upon their campsite like a wild animal. He is shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—a man in unspeakable torment who exposes Tim and the boys to something far more frightening than any ghost story. Within his body is a bioengineered nightmare, a horror that spreads faster than fear. One by one, the boys will do things no person could ever imagine.

And so it begins. An agonizing weekend in the wilderness. A harrowing struggle for survival. No possible escape from the elements, the infected . . . or one another.

‘The Troop’ is a relentless read, in terms of how it hooks the reader as well as the intensity of the horror that it visits on its cast of characters. No-one makes it to the end of the book unscathed and I’d have to say that the luckiest characters are the ones who are dead by the time the book draws to a close (and what a creepy ending it is, a nice way to keep you thinking long after you’ve stopped reading).
This is a book that shows us all too clearly that evil is pretty much everywhere, ready to be unleashed at a moment’s stupidity, plain ignorance or even more chillingly, with the full knowledge of what will occur. Whether it’s the scouts turning on their troop leader, the obsessive nature of Dr Edgerton in his experiments (regardless of any human cost) or implied big business concerns causing the military to take no corrective action whatsoever; Cutter shows his reader the dark side of human nature and the consequences of this, consequences that actually overshadow the bioengineered threat at times.

And Cutter pulls no punches at all with those consequences, resulting in a dark and horrifying tale the likes of which I haven’t read since… erm… I can’t remember the last time I read something so dark and horrifying. Childhood is wrenched away from the scouts and replaced with the simple desire to stay alive, both in the face of what invades the island and in the face of each other. The danger brings out the best in some characters but the worst in one character in particular who sees it as a chance to indulge in some seriously messed up behaviour. ‘Children can be so cruel’ is a statement that is taken to limits here that you would not believe and makes for scenes that will have you squirming in your seat.

Flashbacks to earlier childhood moments really flesh out the characters but sometimes this happens at the expense of the flow of the plot, slowing things right down when they’ve only just built up a nice head of speed. When things are allowed to flow uninterrupted though, ‘The Troop’ is a joy to behold with Cutter firmly in control of his plot and making sure that everything happens at the most terrifying moment.

This has been a particularly hard review to write coherently as, being completely honest here, I’m still living out what happened to Kent, Max, Ephraim, Newt and Shelley. ‘The Troop’ is a dark and vicious tale that made me feel physically sick at times but still unable to take my eyes off the page and the story unfolding. That’s the best kind of horror fiction, as far as I’m concerned, and I really hope that it isn’t too long before Nick Cutter tries his hand at it again. Highly recommended if you’re into horror fiction, perhaps not so highly recommended if you’ve eaten a meal and want to keep it down… ;o)

(I've been reading the US edition of 'The Troop', Headline will be publishing it in the UK and in the next couple of weeks I think)

Thursday, 6 February 2014

'Star Wars: Honour Among Thieves' - James S.A. Corey (Del Rey)

When the Empire threatens the galaxy’s new hope, will Han, Luke, and Leia become its last chance?

When the mission is to extract a high-level rebel spy from the very heart of the Empire, Leia Organa knows the best man for the job is Han Solo—something the princess and the smuggler can finally agree on. After all, for a guy who broke into an Imperial cell block and helped destroy the Death Star, the assignment sounds simple enough.

But when Han locates the brash rebel agent, Scarlet Hark, she’s determined to stay behind enemy lines. A pirate plans to sell a cache of stolen secrets that the Empire would destroy entire worlds to protect—including the planet where Leia is currently meeting with rebel sympathizers. Scarlet wants to track down the thief and steal the bounty herself, and Han has no choice but to go along if he’s to keep everyone involved from getting themselves killed. From teeming city streets to a lethal jungle to a trap-filled alien temple, Han, Chewbacca, Leia, and their daring new comrade confront one ambush, double cross, and firestorm after another as they try to keep crucial intel out of Imperial hands.

But even with the crack support of Luke Skywalker’s x-wing squadron, the Alliance heroes may be hopelessly outgunned in their final battle for the highest of stakes: the power to liberate the galaxy from tyranny or ensure the Empire’s reign of darkness forever.

So much for me saying that I wouldn’t be reading any more Star Wars books now that the licencing is headed Marvel’s way. More and more these days, my reading is about revisiting old friends and friends don’t get any older than Han, Leia and Luke (and the rest). More than that though, ‘Honour Among Thieves’ is James S.A. Corey’s first foray into the Star Wars universe (nice timing there…) and, given how he nails Space Opera in the ‘Expanse’ series, I really wanted to be in at the start to see what he made of this very established setting. The answer is ‘quite a lot as it happens’. Corey falls foul of some familiar pitfalls (that have taken other Star Wars authors) but ‘Honour Among Thieves’ is still a lot of fun and well worth the read.

I’ve said all this before but this is a new blog so I think I can get away with saying it one more time here… ;o) The Star Wars books are hamstrung every time by the fact that certain characters are not allowed to die, especially if (in the case of this book) events are being recounted that come in between films. And that’s the other thing, we know how things are going to turn out and that kind of renders the whole book pointless really. ‘Honour Among Thieves' suffers from this just as much as you would expect. To be fair to Corey, he tries his hardest to please with a super weapon that beats all others (seriously) and loads of set piece moments designed to thrill. They almost do but, with the book being set so early on in the series (between 'A New Hope' and 'The Empire Strikes Back') there are no real surprises at all. You know that everyone will be just fine and they are. Job done, we can all go home now. I know some people say that this is the whole point and I agree with them but only up to a point. I think books need to have a little more than that if they are truly going to engage.

But I did say that 'Honour Among Thieves' was a lot of fun despite all that and it really is. Corey does an amazing job of not only digging into the seamy underbelly of the Star Wars universe but then tying it all into Solo's constantly questioning himself about his role in the Rebellion. What happens when the smuggling work runs out, what does a man do next? These are the questions that lend a thoughtful air to 'Honour Among Thieves' and a side to Solo only hinted at in the films.

'Honour Among Thieves' has a lot going for it then, falling into those familiar pitfalls but engaging in different ways entirely. If there are more Star Wars books to come from James S. A. Corey then I would certainly read them (even if I know how they will end...)

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

‘Unseen’ – David Guymer (Black Library)

In the depths of the Drakwald forest, a group of mercenaries gather around the fire, drinking to ward off the chill of the night. But more than cold is waiting for them in the darkness, and soon they find themselves being stalked by a creature more deadly than they could ever have imagined...

A short review today as not only have I caught Hope’s cold but she also decided to wake me up at half two this morning to ask me if today was a nursery day… Not a great way to start the day then and it isn’t surprising that my brain feels like a large lump of half melted cheese. In times like this, I can always count on a Black Library book to cheer me up a bit (despite what I’ve been saying recently), especially if it’s a Warhammer fantasy one that takes me back to the Old World. I love it there, a land in a state of perpetual warfare that seems to give rise to thoroughly readable novels more often than not. That was what I needed today and that’s what I got with ‘Unseen’, a short burst of fantasy fiction that gets its claws into you just like, well… whatever is paying a visit to the home of the wizard Heinrich Frisen. It’s a vicious piece of work and its encounter with the mercenaries, hired by Frisen, makes for brutal reading in a fight that is compelling purely because the outcome is never in doubt.

It’s not just these moments that make the book though. Guymer works very well to bring in the oppressive atmosphere of the Drakwald Forest and add that to the unease felt by the mercenaries, especially so given this is such a short book (forty six pages on my phone). It all makes for a tale where the tension is introduced subtly and then expanded on until just the right moment when it is set free. Guymer shows here that he has a firm hand on the plot and has the timing down to a tee.

‘Unseen’ is a tale that Black Library fans will get a lot more out of than regular readers I think; it’s not a long tale at all and I think Guymer uses this as a way of skipping detail where he can get away with it (assuming that the reader should already have some knowledge about the setting). I’d say don’t let that put you off though if you haven’t tried a Black Library book before; ‘Unseen’ may skimp on the detail but it does everything else just right and made for a read that filled in my lunch break just perfectly. Now all I need to do is get through the rest of the day…

Monday, 3 February 2014

A Weekend of Comic Book Reading (Slightly Hungover Edition)

This weekend was all about reading comic books again; there wasn't a lot of time for much else what with stag parties (nothing like one of those to remind me that I can't hold my drink) and spending Sunday with Hope and her casual swearing. Interesting times where I definitely needed books that had pictures as well as words in them; which kind of made it a shame then that I started off with...

‘Counter X: Volume 2'

I used to read 'Generation X' way back in the day and when I saw 'Counter X' in sale it just seemed like the right time for a little nostalgia trip (apparently; stag parties make me feel old as well...) to see what the guys had been up to in the intervening years. I have to say that I never got far enough to find out (although I’m sure I’ll give it another go, one day when I have literally nothing else to read). While Ellis’ script looked like it had some initial promise I personally found the artwork painful to look at and only got a few pages in before calling it quits. It looked like some really rough sketches that had been coloured in a last ditch attempt to make a deadline; not my kind of thing at all (especially when slightly hungover). Luckily for me, I had a few advance PDFs waiting on my phone so swiftly moved onto…

‘Clown Fatale’ #4 of 4 - Gischler, Rosenzweig (Dark Horse)

While I can quite easily tell you what happened in this final chapter (nearly everyone dies, ‘lurid’ is the word of the day here) I gave up trying to understand why a long time ago. That doesn’t matter though; ‘Clown Fatale’ #4 is just as much fun as the preceding three issues, a short sharp hail of gunfire (and, erm… breasts) that doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t and is all the more refreshing for it. I’m pretty sure it isn’t too late to start at the beginning if you haven’t been reading these books…

‘X’ #10 - Swierczynski, Nguyen (Dark Horse)

It’s all starting to kick off for X now with a released mobster making waves in Arcadia, the return of an old enemy and some guy that I have no idea who he is (one for another time I think). If that wasn’t enough, X’s identity has been blown (maybe) and things are about to get interesting there too. Well, things were going a little too easily for our man in the mask and that never makes for a good story (can you imagine, an ongoing series where the vigilante hero doesn’t have to do anything…?)
‘X’ #10 is full of everything we’ve come to expect from this series which means it’s not for the faint hearted at all, Swierczynski and Nguyen combine well to deliver any number of moments that make the reader wince and you can’t help but wonder… Would X really have cut that gangster’s face off and would Swierczynski and Nguyen have shown it happening? Maybe, maybe not, and that’s part of what makes this series so compelling; what is merely implied can sometimes be just as shocking as what you actually see. Some interesting back story waiting to be filled and a (literally) explosive cliff-hanger mean that, in a few weeks’ time, you will undoubtedly be hearing just what I thought of ‘X’ #11…

‘Creepy’ #15 – Various (Dark Horse)

I’m always a little wary about approaching these collections as the stories can be a little hit and miss while the comic relief ‘shorts’ have never worked for me. ‘Creepy’ #15 was a welcome break from all that though; the comic ‘shorts’ still didn’t do it for me but the stories themselves… they were great.
‘The Revenant’ signposted its ending a little too clearly for me but the characters reactions more than made up for that. It’s all too easy sometimes to forget that the fact we know the ending isn’t really the point; it’s our erstwhile grave robbers who are the point of it all and what happens to them is suitably horrifying. ‘Malhiver’ and ‘Second Childhood’ are absolutely awesome though, both delivering scares at just the right speed to give those last panels an impact that will have you gasping. If I had to choose between the two, I would go for ‘Second Childhood’ and the look in the baby’s eyes as our narrator finally figures it out; absolutely amazing work there.
So ‘Creepy’ #15 then, come for ‘The Revenant’ but make sure you stay for ‘Malhiver’ and ‘Second Childhood’…

Any comic book recommendations that you would like to share? I’m looking read more fantasy comics so anything you can suggest would be appreciated :o)