Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 385
Year: 2014 (17 April)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Enemies at Home by Lindsey DavisReview
Flavia Albia is an informer and she’s good at her job – and how could she not be with Marcus Didius Falco as her adoptive father? When the rather handsome grey-eyed aedile Tiberius Manlius Faustus hires her (over a rather dodgy breakfast in the even dodgier Stargazer bar) to investigate the murders of newly weds Valerius Aviola and Mucia Lucilia, there is a sting in the tail. The slaves of the unfortunate pair are all suspected of killing their master and mistress and, despite having claimed sanctuary in the Temple of Ceres (an unhappy state of affairs for the Temple’s administrators), their days are numbered. Torture and the arena lions will be their destiny unless Albia is able to prove that they are innocent. Of course, this presupposes that they are innocent and Albia only has to take one look at the slaves lounging in the sunny courtyard of the Temple to have her doubts on that fact.

There is a second sting in the tail – Albia finds herself lumbered with a slave problem of her own in the sullen shape of Dromo, a loan from Manlius Faustus. No doubt he thought he was being helpful.

Enemies at Home is a whodunnit and it is an excellent one. Flavia Albia has quite a task on her hands. The murdered couple seemed to be in the grip of newly wedded bliss but as Albia digs she uncovers more than a few secrets, as well as the odd legacy-hunting relative. With the master and mistress dead and the majority of the slaves hiding in the Temple, Albia is largely left to the opinions of steward Polycarpus, a freedman with ambitions of his own, and the neighbours, the majority of whom appeared to have been afflicted with deafness on the night in question. Luckily, Albia is tenacious and streetwise, drawing on her own past experiences, as well as her extraordinary intuition. As a young independent working widow, potential witnesses are not quite sure what to make of Albia, who is not at all a slave but is slightly less than respectable.

Apart from the mystery itself – which is a good one and kept me gripped right to the last satisfying page – the case throws up all kinds of interesting themes about life in 1st-century AD Rome, such as the rights of women but most especially the lot of the slave. Albia is under no illusions. There is an air of resignation about some of the things that Albia says, dutybound, to the slaves in this novel. The uncertainty that slaves would face on the death of a master, quite apart from any of the suspicion that might see them tortured or worse, was horrendous – being paraded naked in Rome’s slaves markets, separated from ones children, for sale – what kind of a reward is that for several years of one’s life, perhaps all of one’s life?

Albia’s relationship with Manlius Faustus is intriguing and fun, even romantic on a very rare occasion or two, but her relationship with the boy slave Dromo is fascinating and really quite complex, especially as the story develops.

Over the years, I have developed a deep attachment to Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels (and Falco himself). But while the earlier novels are well-read with tattered corners, the later books have not captivated me in the same way. Perhaps, this new series is a sign that Davis is herself less interested than she used to be. I hoped that this new series featuring Falco’s daughter would reinject some zest into this world and it really does. Lindsey Davis is a master of colouring in Rome’s history. Everyday details are scattered throughout, bringing Rome and its inhabitants to life. We follow Albia as she walks through the streets, between landmarks, and it is so easy to visualise. I know Rome quite well and I recognise it here. It really is so well done.

I am delighted to once again have a series by Lindsey Davis to follow through the years. I like Flavia Albia very much. I like the cameo appearances of relatives that we already know well from the Falco novels (although Falco himself is absent) and yet there are plenty of new characters and haunts to give this series its distinct flavour. It is very different from the Falco novels – the tone and tempo are different – and Albia, our narrator, has a voice of her own. Enemies at Home also has, very importantly for a murder mystery, a story that makes you want to keep turning the pages and following the clues and red herrings until you find out who did it.

This is the second of the series. It doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the first, The Ides of April. I haven’t, but I intend to correct that very soon.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 306
Year: 2014 (10 April)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Lagoon by Nnedi OkoraforReview
Three people, who each find themselves for different reasons on Bar Beach, Lagos, are swept into the sea during the aftermath of an impact into the ocean, which is of such magnitude that its shock blast brings birds falling to the earth like stones. When Adoara (a marine biologist), Agu (a sodier) and Anthony (a famous rapper from Ghana) are washed back onto the beach, there is another figure with them – a nameless female that Adoara calls Ayodele, after a childhood friend. Ayodele is not human. She is an ambassador of her species, an alien that can shift shape, and whose mission is to negotiate with humans, warning them of what is to come. The three people accept the roles of intermediaries and they escort Ayodele into Lagos, a city that must deal with the revelation of first contact in all its many ways.

Lagoon is a beautifully told story, as much about Lagos as it is about Ayodele and her message for humanity. The narrative moves between people and places, even between animals and things. This is a world in which spirituality and life are interconnected, not always positively, as can be seen by Father Oke who uses his influence to collect money from his flock or by Chris, Adora’s husband, who calls his wife a ‘marine witch’. On the other side of this are the animals, some of whom are briefly given a voice here, who are self-aware and know that they will be reborn as other animals. The arrival of the aliens doesn’t just have an enormous impact on humans, it also transforms sea creatures, allowing them to develop as they wish in waters now cleansed of oil and other human contamination. Humans themselves are now no longer welcome in the sea. But there are big surprises in Lagoon other than the transformation of sea life – a notorious Nigerian road is revealed as alive and hungry. Absurd this might be but it is also terrifying.

It is refreshing to read a novel that treats first contact from such an unusual perspective, also setting it in a place less familiar to many readers, including this one. Lagos is depicted in all its vibrancy, colour and corruption. The story mixes with fable and legend, just as fantasy and science fiction mingle. Everyone wants the alien Ayodele for their own reasons and Ayodele is given plenty of opportunities to re-evaluate her opinion of her human hosts. Meanwhile, there is the mystery of the alien invasion itself. What does it mean?

There are sections of Lagoon that are immensely memorable and powerful, including segments in the first person towards the middle that recall where the speaker was when these events took place. I particularly loved the scenes in which animals revel in new found confidence and self-awareness, whether in the seas, the skies or creeping on the ground. The transience of their lives, the destruction caused by human beings, is evoked in such a rich and meaningful way. As a result, the novel’s message to care for the planet is all the more powerful.

As for the human characters, there are some intriguing stories here, some of which are just lightly touched upon while others are given more time. Adoara and her family are the most fully realised characters and as such I felt more connected with them than with the others. Agu and Anthony, as well as the President and his wives, are fascinating and I would have liked to have known more about them. Some dialogue is written in Nigerian and Pidgin English and, although there is a glossary at the back, this did interrupt the flow – a failing of this reader rather than of the book. These factors did lead to some detachment from the spirit and story of the novel.

There is both hope and dread in Lagoon, just as there is beauty and ugliness. Not all of my questions were answered but what I was given was a beautifully poetic novel that comes to life, especially during the second half, and tackles a favourite science fiction theme in an original and rather magical way.

‘I am a writer with a plan’ – Guest post from Paul Fraser Collard, author of the Jack Lark adventure series

Tha Maharajah's General by Paul Fraser CollardOne of the historical series that I’m currently enjoying watching develop is Paul Fraser Collard’s Jack Lark adventures. Jack has become a habitual imposter, popping up in some of the 19th-century’s most perilous hotspots as a redcoat officer in the British army. Far from being all bad, Jack is a likeable rogue, making the best of what fate has thrown at him and through him we are able to get glimpses into some of the most fascinating and exotic (not to mention lethal) reaches of the growing Empire. The Scarlet Thief threw us, and Jack, headlong into the battlefields of the Crimean War while its successor, the fabulous and rich The Maharajah’s General, takes us to the hot deserts of Bhundapur, India.

To celebrate the recent publication of The Maharajah’s General in paperback, I’m delighted to be part of the Blog Tour. In the author’s post below, Paul tells us about how he plans the development of the series, giving hints about Jack Lark’s future. Long may the adventures continue!

A Writer with a Plan

I am a writer with a plan. I don’t think there are many others who have the outline for half a dozen future novels sketched out in their mind but I have to confess that I do. I am proud to say that my Jack has an interesting future ahead.

As the main protagonist in an historical fiction series, it should not be a great spoiler to know that I plan for Jack to survive, at least for a while (please now insert a James Bond villanesque laugh here!) I have set out my stall to base each Jack Lark story in a new setting and so we are going to see Jack venture far and wide as he struggles to find a place where he belongs.

The Scarlet Thief by Paul Fraser CollardI decided on this course of action as soon as I sat down to plan The Scarlet Thief. This central idea to my series will allow me to create the extra drama of a reader never quite knowing where Jack will turn up next. As a rogue and an imposter, Jack is not tied to a regiment, to a military campaign or even to the notion of a typical career and this gives me free rein to move Jack all around the globe. The Maharajah’s General is the first example of Jack’s travels and sees him venture to the wild frontier of the British Empire where the political officers of the East India Company look to seize on every opportunity to push back the boundaries of the Empire.

However this does not mean that Jack will merely slide into a series of convenient identities that happen to be left lying around whenever he happens to need a new one. I suspect that would be a rather trite way of doing things and most certainly not something that could survive for long. Instead I have a few ideas stashed away that will see Jack thrive in his roguish existence, or at the very least, survive it, and I hope to take my readers on a merry dance from country to country and even from continent to continent as Jack does his level best to prove himself in a world that had denied him any sort of a future merely because he was born poor.

Happily for me, the middle of the nineteenth century is a vibrant period in world history and I have no shortage of options for where to send Jack next. The period is dotted with all sorts of small wars and minor skirmishes that are just ripe for a man of Jack’s talents to experience, many rather unknown and so worthy of coverage lest they be totally forgotten. Then there are the major events that defined the Empire, with the cataclysmic events of the India Mutiny looming large on the horizon. Jack is nothing if not a survivor. I like to think he will continue to win through and I can picture his return to the East End of London dressed in the full (stolen!) finery of British army officer. From there, the Victorian world is his proverbial oyster and I can picture Jack on the battlefields of Europe before he follows thousands of other folk to America and beyond.

Jack’s future will be nothing if not interesting.

Reviews
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General

Paul Fraser Collard’s website
Paul’s Twitter

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements

Publisher: Century
Pages: 552
Year: 2014 (10 April)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby ClementsReview
It is 1460. A young nun, Katherine, is attacked while outside her convent’s walls by bandits led by the lawless son of Sir Giles Riven. She is saved by a monk, Brother Thomas, whose natural talent for fighting is borne out by the loss of Riven’s eye. There can be no safety for Katherine and Thomas now. The vengeful rage of Sir Giles is matched only by the brutality of the prioress. There is no alternative but for the two to flee, Katherine disguised as the boy Kit, into a world of which they have no experience. Thomas believes that they may find forgiveness in the holy city of Canterbury but their plans are waylaid before they are almost begun.

They are taken under the wing of ex-Pardoner and, for very different reasons, outcast Robert Daud who has treasures of some sort or another in his bag. Events take an upper hand and the small group find themselves ensnared by the warring factions of the day, the deadly duel of York and Warwick against the king and his stronger foreign queen. Thomas, an archer in the making, and Kit, gifted with healing hands, become trapped in loyalties, patronised by Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard, caught on a course that will take them to Calais, to south west Wales and to sites of slaughter in the Wars of the Roses, most notably and horrifically the Battle of Towton.

Toby Clements’ Kingmaker is an extraordinary novel and one that will not be easy to do justice to here. I am most used to (and normally prefer) reading historical novels that take as their main characters leading figures of the day, the people that shape the action described. Katherine and Thomas, though, are perfect witnesses to the tragedy and appalling mess of the Wars of the Roses. By having experienced little of the world due to their confinement in religious institutions, they are as unprepared for what awaits as anyone might be. They have to learn to recognise the names, the heraldry, the allegiances of the great men of the day. It takes great skill but not as much skill as simply staying alive. If their true identities were discovered, Thomas and Katherine would be hung (or worse) as apostates. They have very few options. The patronage of Sir John is a solution of sorts. But they have to earn their keep. They also have to deal with the spiritual and philosophical trauma of what they have suffered. Their institutions were violent and loveless, their knowledge of God is troubled and needs support. Katherine has no experience of men and yet here she is, dressed as a boy, living among soldiers. The way she manages it is not dealt with lightly. Her efforts and courage are treated with great respect by the author.

Told in the present tense, the narrative is not only richly alive, it is also vibrant and immediate with the unexpected and the sudden. Death can come at any time, as can discovery, and for many of the characters in this story there can be no happy ending. Although I’m usually uncomfortable with present tense in historical fiction, yet again Toby Clements challenges my sense of comfort by excelling in telling his story in the most perfect of ways. Reading this novel, unbelievably a debut, you almost feel like you’re alongside the characters, not just Katherine and Thomas, but many others who fight with them or against them.

This is a merciless and savage story, contrasting with our affection and worry for the main characters. The elements make their force known, whether at sea, on mountains or on the battlefield. Ice, snow, mud, rain, blood punish the body and there are sections in Kingmaker which are truly upsetting. Several scenes stand out but, for me, the pages set in Wales are unforgettable. The violence is unsparing and so too are the accounts of medical treatments by Kit. She is worried and this is transmitted to us by the way in which she almost talks us through it. But there is one scene in particular – and you’ll certainly know it when you read it! – that I most certainly wouldn’t want to read within a couple of hours of eating. But this isn’t gratuitous, it’s in perfect keeping with the story and the struggle of Katherine and Thomas to fit in and come out on the other side.

As for the Battle of Towton, without doubt this is the most harrowing and vivid battle scene that I have ever read.

What a book! This superb novel, alive with fire, blood and mud, has brought me as close to the Wars of the Roses as I could ever want to get. Historical fiction at its best, not least because it reveals the heart and human tragedy that suffered in a civil war that was fought around towns and landscapes that we know so well today and yet they now show so few scars from this violence and division. Normal people, not just nobles and knights, suffered horrendously in this war, as in any war, and yet, as Kingmaker shows, away from the battlefield, in the convents, houses and towns of 15th-century Europe, life could be almost as dreadful. But this isn’t a depressing tale, it’s simply mesmerising.

Kingmaker is one of the finest historical novels I’ve read and fortunately it’s just the first in a trilogy. I look forward to much more from Toby Clements.

Giveaway

I was fortunate enough to have been sent not just one hardback of this magnificent book, but two. This isn’t a formal competition, but I’d like to give one away to a good home. Unfortunately, this has to be within the UK due to postage costs (it’s a big book!). If you’d like your name to be entered into the virtual hat, just leave a comment below and I’ll randomly select a winner in a few days.

Under Nameless Stars by Christian Schoon (Zenn Scarlett 2)

Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Pages: 304
Year: 2014 (1 April)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Under Nameless Stars by Christian SchoonReview
As a lover of animals and aliens and spaceships, there is no way that Under Nameless Stars could not appeal to me. Zenn Scarlett is a 17-year-old novice Exovet (vet for alien animals) and, in this second part of her adventure, Zenn is cast out from her familiar Martian world and set adrift to a place full of unfamiliar skies, absurd and querky aliens (intelligent and less intelligent) and all under the shadow of enormous danger. For Zenn is on a mission, inherited from the first novel, and she will let nothing stand in her way, however many legs it might or might not have.

The first thing to mention is that Under Nameless Stars follows straight on from the end of Zenn Scarlett (review here). Reading the second book without having read the first could confuse. It would most certainly spoil the first so do be aware that spoilers are inevitable here. The next thing to note is that, though I enjoyed Zenn Scarlett, I found Under Nameless Stars to be a much more entertaining read and a better novel. Escaping the confines of Mars does our brave, young heroine – and the story – a lot of good. Warnings for spoilers for Book 1 having been issued, on with the review.

Zenn (with her cute but irritating alien pet Katie) and Liam have stowed away aboard the Helen of Troy, one of the great interstellar vessels driven by the Indra, alien behemoths that tunnel their way through star systems. Their initial mission, although of great personal importance to Zenn, is soon consumed within a far greater mystery – the increasing instances of vanishing Indras, complete with ship, crew and passengers. Conspiracy is everywhere and as Zenn and Liam try to stay hidden within the massive vessel they find danger almost everywhere, as well as beings of great wonder.

Zenn is a natural healer of animals and this warmth and empathy regularly drops her into troublesome hotspots as she is unable to resist the cries and trembles of beasts in fear and pain. This is intensified by Zenn’s mysterious ability to connect mentally with aliens in distress. But while this gets Zenn into difficulties, it also means that she attracts a growing number of friends. Many of them are curious but none are so wonderful as Jules, a dolphin in a walking suit (with a gambling habit) whose speech is thoroughly entertaining and endearing as well as displaying perfect unintentional comic timing. Apart from Jules, though, there are a host of alien marvels here, all beautifully imagined and fantastically brought to life. I won’t tell you about them, one of the book’s many delights is discovering them for yourself.

Zenn is a wonderful heroine, brave, strong and caring, and this empathy she has for all species is transmitted through her to us. As a result, we care deeply for the Indra. More miraculously, Zenn (and Christian Schoon) makes us feel something for some of the unutterably revolting species that Zenn also feels driven to help.

There are glimpses of romance, all nicely explained to us by Jules the walking dolphin with a taste for literature, but these are kept in check. Zenn has far more important things to think about and although these feelings do flit across her mind now and then she pushes them to the back of her thoughts.

While Under Nameless Stars may well appeal most to younger readers, I never felt myself excluded from its target audience. Christian Schoon is a fine writer and there were plenty of moments that made me laugh out loud while there were others that made me gasp with the whole ‘wonder of space’ thing that I love with good science fiction. The plot is far more satisfying than in the first novel – it felt good to be away from some of the closed mind characters of Zenn Scarlett. Under Nameless Stars is such an exciting adventure. There is a sense that anything or anywhere is possible. As a result, every chapter was a joy to read and much of it had me on the edge of my seat (Christian Schoon is a master of closing-chapter-lines). More, please!

Other review
Zenn Scarlett

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 416
Year: 2014 (8 April)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire NorthReview
As 1918 turns into 1919, Harry August is born in the ladies washroom of a railway station in England’s northeast; a birth that the mother does not survive. This, though, is not the first time. Harry August is one of the Kalachakra, or the ouroborans, people who are born time after time, reliving the same years but with the ability to make changes within their lives. This is because they are able to remember past lives. It also qualifies them to become members of the secret but widely spread Cronus Club, an organisation that exists to help those who are born this way but also there to ensure that certain rules are obeyed. When Harry is on his deathbed for the eleventh time, a young girl gives him a message handed down from the future into the past warning him of the end of the world. It is up to Harry, and men and women like him, to save the future.

The understanding that one will never permanently die, that one will always have to go through yet another childhood but with the experiences of an adult making one different from everyone else, has to twist and mark the character in so many ways. Along with the knowledge that past mistakes can be avoided comes the increasing awareness that it’s not possible to save everyone else. Harry August lives a succession of alternate lives, exploring different roles and relationships with wives and family, and trying to determine what the point is of it all. When Harry is given the apocalyptic message from the future he is given the chance to explore that point, bringing him into contact with other ouroborans, all of whom are dealing with the same problem of purpose in different ways.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a marvellous novel, rolling up several genres into one, including thriller and science fiction. It is clever and full of grand themes but it is also witty and alive with fascinating characters, many of whom have their own ideas about how to take on this world that won’t let them die. The humour in some of the situations – there are some great scenes from Harry’s academic days, especially when out punting on the Cam with friend and verbal sparring partner Vincent – contrasts with the violence of others. Harry has to endure great suffering during some of his lives. Then there is the matter of the Second World War – how many times would one want to fight in that?! The novel is told in the first person by Harry himself which means that we are able to engage with him as he works out who he is, what he is and what he can and cannot do. It is wonderful prose, always engaging and pacey, through good times and bad. Harry is an immensely likeable leading character and there are others, too, that it is impossible not to care for even when perhaps one shouldn’t.

Comparisons with Life After Life by Kate Atkinson are inevitable. In that novel, though, Ursula is in a very different situation, not able to remember the past, and the premise is used for an alternative purpose which has nothing to do with science fiction. In Harry August, discussions of the philosophical and moral consequences of the rebirth (and repeated dying) of the Kalachakra is paired up with a pageturning thriller, fed by its SF time travel, futuristic, multi-universe themes. Harry’s story hops and leaps between his different lives, travelling backwards and forwards between the realities, as he picks up the scent.

As the novel goes on, Harry August becomes an unputdownable race of a thriller. Its plot is brilliantly structured and paced. It twists the brain in all kinds of directions but never stops being thoroughly entertaining. Claire North is, apparently, a pseudonym of a well-known British author. After reading Harry August, I can’t help wishing that I knew who she/he is!

See you in a week!

Just a heads up to let you know I’m off on my hols to Italy for a few days (Naples and Pompeii) and will catch up with with you next weekend. Have a good week and happy reading! Luckily, I finished The Naked God yesterday, which means I won’t be carrying a 1300-page brickbook around with me….