Monthly Archives: October 2011

The End Specialist by Drew Magary

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 400
Year: 2011
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Review
If given the chance, would you grasp eternal life? In the near future this is the question that faces John Farrell and almost everyone else on earth (if they have the money). All it takes are three, admittedly painful, injections and you can take the chance that you will live forever. It won’t prevent you from catching cancer and other terminal diseases – although the chances are that cures for these are just around the corner – but there is every possibility that you will end a long, long life with the face of the person you were when you took that treatment, whether you were 16, 30 or 60.

This intriguing premise lies at the heart of Drew Magary’s The End Specialist. However, as the title indicates, the novel doesn’t present a utopian future but one in which mankind finds itself at risk because of the very thing it craves the most.

The End Specialist is written in such a way that you will race though it and every page will fly through your fingers. What we have is a journal, or collection of sources, from our protagonist John Farrell, as we follow him move from his exuberance at taking The Cure – at that time illegal and illicit – to his growing realisation that mankind has created insurmountable problems for itself and, finally, he faces the truth and what may well be the end for us all.

John is immensely likeable and very understandable in his goals and desires. He is the ideal Everyman. He has friends and family and he has things he loves to do. But, as The Cure is legalised for all, John realises that nothing is the same: how can marriage last forever? What about babies and children damned to never grow up? Will Man replace God? How will the planet cope? As the population increases, states take drastic measures – people disappear, people are tattooed with marks, the elderly consume valuable resources, cities are clogged up with humans and filth, violence takes the lives of one’s children.

The entries of John’s blog perfectly present this change of perspective as time passes but the writer never ages. At one point, John is just like us, excited in getting The Cure, keen to share and celebrate it with his bubbly flatmate. But, through John’s experiences, we see the horror of it all, and learn in the opening pages that this journal is preserved as a warning for all mankind.

I read The End Specialist in under two days. I’d have read it faster if it weren’t for work. Not only is it extremely well written and plotted but also it’s one of those novels that catches you under the skin, hooks you and makes you think. Big themes are presented in a very consumable and modern fashion. The science fiction element is perfectly satisfying and mixes well with the human drama which finds itself racing ahead of what it’s able to deal with. There are surprises galore, not least as we come to realise the true significance of the book’s title.

This excellent novel continues beyond the written page with a website. Staff at Harper Collins have also been mulling over the questions raised by The End Specialist and you can read those here.

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

Publisher: Marion Wood (US), Macmillan (UK)
Pages: 594
Year: 2011 (US), 2012 (UK) (Pb, 3 January 2013)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy (from US)

Review
The works of Sharon Kay Penman are close to my heart – Here Be Dragons is one of my favourite historical novels and I hold it responsible for my fascination with the 12th century (and I’m no medievalist). Penman’s books are rich, long and full of flavour for the past. Their reading is not to be rushed, it should be dallied over, and so it’s not surprising that their writing is equally painstaking and the publication of a new novel is an event. Lionheart is the latest, the first of two novels on Richard I (reigned 1189-1199), arguably the most fantastical of England’s kings and certainly its most charismatic.

Sharon Kay Penman states that she had preconceived ideas about Richard – his unsuitability for kingship, his irresponsibility and arrogance, and his disregard for England – but that through her research for the other Plantagenet novels, she came to see another Richard: the Lionheart who inspired his men, thousands of miles from home, who shared their suffering and dreams, who fought bravely, with a realistic strategy, and who, after all, was never an Englishman. While Penman accedes that Richard was, or became, a bad husband and that his heart wasn’t in England but in Aquitaine and on the battlefields of the Holy Land, she presents here the Lionheart that his men and family knew, not the one that history condemns. It’s refreshing to find him both flawed and very likeable.

Lionheart covers the Third Crusade, which was far from glorious. The vast dramatis personae of the novel highlights the problem facing Richard – the Saracens were more honourable than the French and Austrians on his own side, so honourable that he even knighted some of them while they sent Richard fruit chilled by snow when he was ill. With the future of Jerusalem’s royal family focused on a young woman, Isabella, who is married off from one rival faction to another, it would seem that all Saladin had to do was watch and wait. While the French abandoned the Crusade altogether, leaving their allies to support Richard in nothing but name, Richard was not able to direct the fighting where it counted. The Crusade was doomed; it was hot; there was disease; poisonous and irritating creatures; men were homesick; they saw dreadful things. Richard led from the front, often placing himself in danger, and inspiring great acts of courage from his followers – all resulting in the admiration of his enemy and chroniclers.

All this, Sharon Kay Penman evokes beautifully in a book where every page is a joy. From the outset, when we find ourselves experiencing the terror of a young girl, orphaned and shipwrecked and frightened, we are placed beside the witnesses and protagonists of history, whether they are Richard himself, his sister Joanna, the widowed Queen of Sicily, his young, brave and innocent bride Berengaria of Navarre, or the exciting and noble Henri of Champagne, the nephew of both kings of England and France. The perspective shifts wonderfully.

The style is not fast – instead, it is measured and deeply thought through. But Penman’s extremely careful prose places the reader directly in the heart of Sicily, Cyprus and in the tents, towns and castles of the dangerous and inhospitable Outremer. The fabrics, foods, drinks, sounds and smells of life on Crusade are brought before us in a way I haven’t experienced before in a novel of the Middle Ages. It’s a dangerous world but women share it with men, including Richard’s sister and bride from whom, almost unbelievably, he could not be parted. At times, I felt some frustration that we were kept back with the women but, elsewhere in the novel, women were banished from the frontline while we were spared nothing. This tension in narratives, though, is invaluable in creating the mood of the novel. Throughout the narrative is the reminder, constant in many of Penman’s novels, of how extraordinary the Plantagenets were and what a gift they are to a novelist as fine as this.

Lionheart is a throwback to the novels that Sharon Kay Penman has rewarded us with through thirty plus years of superb, eloquent fiction – these aren’t so much novels as chronicles. I’m fortunate to have read every one (can there be a better novel of medieval warfare than The Sunne in Splendour?) and I’ll make sure I read every one to come.

I read an American copy and the look of it was stunning. The beautiful cover was matched by the font, maps, typesetting, everything about it. I hope the UK edition out in the spring will be as good. If I were you, though, I wouldn’t wait. The conclusion to Richard’s story, A King’s Ransom, will follow.

Guest Review: The Exorcist (40th Anniversary Edition) by William Peter Blatty

I’m delighted to post here a guest review by Rob Wickings – writer, film maker, cook, good friend and horror maestro. I can think of no-one better suited to review the new commemorative edition of The Exorcist, a book with the tagline ‘The most terrifying book ever written’. As someone who was traumatised by Watership Down, I was fortunate in that I could pass this demonfest along to an expert in the genre. Many thanks to Rob, whose work you can read on Excuses and Half Truths, and to Transworld for the review copy. Published this month, you can buy a copy here.

Review
For any horror fan that knows the genre, The Exorcist is the alpha and the omega. A dark, brutal trap of a film, and one of the few whose reputation remains unsullied and potent.

But the book, published in 1971, came first. A sensation on it’s release, a large part of the success of William Friedkin’s adaptation is due to how closely it cleaves to the original story. Now a fortieth-anniversary edition has been brought out, with tweaks and tidying by William Peter Blatty – an excuse, as he says in the foreword, to polish “the rhythms of the dialogue and prose throughout.” The original, as he admits, was rushed, and subject to editorial meddling. We have been presented with something closer to a director’s cut. Although fear not – there’s no George Lucas-style redecoration here.

Blatty began his writing career as a screenwriter, and those skills are obvious in the book. The story moves like a runaway train, at a pace that becomes ever more hectic. The purple prose that he uses in the prologue, set in Northern Iraq, is something of a red herring – the main body of the book uses a cool, distant style. Reportage that only makes the horrifying events in the book that bit more awful.

Do I need to tell the story? In broad strokes: actress Chris McNeil lives in a rambling house in a suburb of Washington with her daughter, Regan. The girl, a sweet-natured creature, starts to talk about an imaginary friend, Captain Howdy. The good captain gradually takes over, slipping into Regan as if he was shrugging on a suit. Howdy is no friend. Regan has become possessed by a demon.

The book is soaked from the first lines in a thick sense of dread. We’re never sure where Howdy comes from. A relic bearing his likeness is unearthed at the Iraqi dig that begins the book. Regan has been playing with a Ouija board. It’s never clear. It doesn’t need to be. All we need to know is that the girl has been taken, and that she will not be easily recovered.

In some ways, the story unfolds like a police procedural as Chris, and later the priest who becomes entangled in the case, the conflicted Damian Karras, try to find evidence that Regan is sick, suffering from delusions, somehow self-hypnotised. Like Sherlock Holmes, they eliminate the impossible to reach the incredible truth. The exorcist of the title, the haunted Father Merrin, only appears three-quarters of the way through the book. Before then we, like Chris and Father Karras, are struggling to make sense of the senseless.

The book still holds the ability to shock and unsettle. Sweet Regan’s transformation (is it any coincidence that her nickname is Rags? Howdy treats her as a puppet, throwing her around like a rag doll) is rapid and terrible, her foul language a shock when we have witnessed how her mother can’t even swear properly. Blatty’s clear, uncoloured description of what the possession is doing to Regan brings us to horror and revulsion in equal measure. We are rarely out of the Georgetown house, and as the focus becomes more claustrophobic, the tension builds. When Merrin arrives, in a moment that is the most memorable image of the film, the relief is palpable. But the worst is yet to come.

Blatty delivers his shocks like a swordsman’s coup de grace, leaving them to the end of a chapter, often in the space of one line. Then away again, leaving the resonance of what we’ve just read to clatter like a man thrown down a set of steps. It’s key to the pacing of the book. He doesn’t dwell on the horror. He knows that we’re more than capable of doing that ourselves.

The Exorcist remains a remarkable achievement in modern horror, a book that transcends any danger of pulpy exploitation in favour of something much darker and richer. Seen at the time as harsh commentary on the corruption of the American soul during Vietnam, it stands today as an allegory on the ugliness that lurks in everyone, and how it can infect even the most innocent of victims.

Howdy may be otherworldly, but he takes a lot of his material from the people around him. The book digs more deeply into the characters than the film can, drawing you more deeply into their suffering, into their conflicts, and into the awful understanding that is The Exorcist’s black heart. The sacrifice at the end of the book is almost inevitable – you can see it coming from page one. Evil has a price that has to be paid before any form of salvation can be reached.

Rome: The Coming of the King by M.C. Scott

Publisher: Bantam
Pages: 416
Year: 2011 (Pb 2012)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Review
Two years after the great fire of Rome and the close of Rome: The Emperor’s Spy, Sebastos Abdes Pantera has pursued Saulos to Judaea. As we recall, Pantera is a Roman spy and pupil of Seneca while Saulos is the arch enemy of Roman and Hebrew alike. Known to history as St Paul but here freshly interpreted as an agent of vengeance and death, Saulos has recovered from his severe burns, resulting from the fire, and now has his destructive sights fixed on Herod and his family and the annihilation of the entire Hebrew race. Pantera’s injuries are more of the mind. Still mourning his lost family in Britain and with his new family safely despatched to Mona, the sacred island of the Druids, Pantera focuses on restoring peace to Israel.

Pantera is a loved man – he is surrounded my men such as Mergus and women like Hypatia who would die for him. By contrast, Saulos is followed by the Berber huntress Ikshara who is tied to him only through lies and deceit.

The Coming of the King carries us around the Kingdom of Judaea in 66 AD. The focus is on the court of Herod, his sister Berenice and his niece Kleopatra. They are surrounded by rioting Hebrews and Syrians, pacifists and warmongers. As the influence of Saulos grows, the voice of reason dies, and the royal family leaves their palace at Caesarea for Jerusalem where they are effectively undersiege and under attack from without and within. Pantera’s influence also grows, uniting the descendants of the Galilean, gaining arms and support through a daring assault on the seemingly impenetrable fortress of Masada in the desert.

However, the action of The Coming of the King, although exciting, is not what makes the book. As with the previous novel, what makes The Coming of the King special is the deeply realised characters and the prose that is used to create them and shape their actions. Pantera and Saulos are not new to us – and I would certainly recommend that you read The Emperor’s Spy first – but Kleopatra, Berenice and Ikshara are brilliant additions to the series of novels while, rather noticeably, Herod himself is barely touched upon at all.

The prose is as beautiful as one would expect from Manda Scott. This is not a book to rush through. The past and fears for the future influence the actions of each of the characters as they keep an eye on the wider world at play here. The descriptions of the streets, the people in those streets, the politicians and soldiers, the fanatics and the desert dwellers – all are beautifully presented and make this feel indeed like a journey to 1st-century Israel, with its political conflicts and its religious struggles.

I would argue that this second novel does not quite reach the heights of the astonishing first book in the series, but it does conclude well the story of Saulos. Whether you agree with the interpretation of Saulos or not, there is a validity to the argument and power in its execution and the pairing of Saulos and Pantera is fascinating. Possibly, the problem here is that The Emperor’s Spy presented such outstanding characters – Hannah and Math (not to mention Nero himself) – that I missed them.

The story continues next year with The Eagle of the Twelfth, the story of the legion of the damned. I can’t wait.

Fire in the East (Warrior of Rome I) by Harry Sidebottom

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 448
Year: 2009
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Review
For a novel about the Roman world to succeed, in my opinion, it needs to combine historical accuracy, authority even, with an immediacy that snaps me out of the 21st century. I need to believe that the lives and events I am reading about could have existed, even if I know that they didn’t. It needn’t take much to throw a reader out of a historical novel but when the author is Harry Sidebottom the reader – and the characters- are in safe hands.

Harry Sidebottom is a Lecturer of Ancient History at the University of Oxford. By definition, that should mean that he knows his stuff. And indeed he does but it’s the way that he carries this expertise that makes his Warrior of Rome series (or at least the quarter of it that I’ve read) so believable and readable. It helps, of course, that the series takes place during a difficult time in Roman history, the troubled third century, when more than one emperor was attempting to hold sway at the same time. The action also takes place in the mysterious east, in Syria, on the edges of the retreating empire. On both counts, Fire in the East is different from many other Roman military novels.

Fire in the East introduces us to Ballista, the long-haired barbarian from the north, an Angle, who has risen from dubious origins (to say the least) to be a commander of the Roman army. His mission is to fortify the city of Arete in Syria and hold it against the Persian King of Kings at all cost. Ballista has to dig in, win the favour of the mixed community within the city, and use all his wit, guile and courage to protect Arete from the thousands of soldiers and hoards camped around the city’s walls.

With Ballista is his familia, gathered from across the empire, including Greeks and Spaniards. Not all are free, some are slaves, notably his bodyguard Maximus and his secretary Demetrius, but Ballista drinks with them all and will embrace them before battle. However, as Ballista is painfully aware, friendships are secondary when compared to the urgency of saving the city and its inhabitants.

This is a hugely exciting novel, carefully structured and paced, as we follow very closely Ballista’s strategies to defend Arete and then his courage in facing the enemy, so much greater in number. You can almost feel the arrows fly past your cheek or the artillery smash stone and men at your feet. Ballista is an enormously likeable young man and the reader’s feelings are intensified by the moments of vulnerability – for his past, his wife and child – that he lets slip to us yet to no-one else. He is mocked by the Romans in the city and yet the Romans are outnumbered in Arete by its eastern population and soon it’s Ballista’s name they chant. But the Angle can never forget that there are traitors around him and that his death may come just as easily, maybe even easier, from an act of betrayal as from an arrow or sword during battle.

The story moves around Arete, its different communities and religions. A range of characters are given leave to give their perspective on events. We know, for instance, that there are spies here and, as the novel progresses, part of the game is to guess who might be one of these ‘corn men’. The city itself is also a character, with its walls, towers, mines and tombs. The desert around it, with the mighty river flowing through it, is vividly presented.

Played off against the action of the siege we have the drama inside Ballista’s head. Amongst his nightmares and dreams is the growing awareness that Rome is a long way away.

Fire in the East is the first in the Warrior of Rome series which, to date, comprises four novels, the three others being King of Kings, Lion of the Sun, The Caspian Gates.

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 384
Year: 1990
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Review:
Shortly after reading Consider Phlebas, the first in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, I stood in a local bookshop, looked at some of the other novels in the series on the shelf, and I wished that I could absorb each and every astonishing word, scene, character, situation by osmosis. I knew that there were wonders in those pages and the faster I could discover them the better. Spontaneous absorption isn’t an option and so I’m left with the rather marvellous task of exploring this perfectly visualised science fiction universe at a human pace, book by book. Use of Weapons, the third in the stand alone series, was recommended to me as the one I should read next. An excellent recommendation.

Use of Weapons tells the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a soldier with a flair for tactics and strategy, who is selected (or one  might say, saved) by Diziet Sma. She is a member of Contact, a part of the Culture’s Special Circumstances (think secret service) which aims to manipulate wars on less advanced worlds in order to bring about an outcome that benefits the Culture’s ideal of a peaceful universe. As the novel opens, however, Zakalwe has turned his back on the Culture and Sma has been told to uproot herself from her current pleasurable mission and seek him out so that he can bring out of retirement a politician known to him from earlier in his life who can put an end to another undesirable war.

This storyline, though, is just half of the tale. Mixed within it is a story in reverse, as we follow Zakalwe back through his life, back through the Culture missions that – to make matters even more interesting – are also referred to elsewhere. So, with one narrative travelling conventionally forward and with the other in reverse, with key events, circumstances or motifs hinted at in other pages, Use of Weapons is a remarkable portrait – with some parts distorted and others missing – of a tormented man.

Thanks to the Culture’s ability to rejuvenate the human body, Zakalwe survives more than a person should.The nature of his role determines that he exists almost exclusively in war, but, even so, he is regularly assaulted, once even having his body smashed and his head cut off. More than once, he finds himself with his memories incomplete and, as Zakalwe attempts to make sense of the circumstances and events that are pushing him though his life, he is confronted by images that haunt him. Chief among these is the chair and the Chairmaker.

As we journey with Zakalwe – and Sma – back through his life while trying to complete the mission assigned to him in the present, the foreboding mounts. The story in the present reaches its exciting climax at the same time that we reach the source of Zakalwe’s nature. By this stage, no-one will be able to prise Use of Weapons from your grasp.

As one expects from the Culture novels, Iain M. Banks has moulded a fully created universe. Landscapes, cities, starships are presented before our eyes and they are populated by men, women, drones, Minds and even multi-limbed aliens that are all different and complete. At times, they are also extremely funny. How can you not love a spaceship whose Mind believes that it is a cuddly toy and manifests itself as such just so it can be cuddled by its passengers? Then there’s Sma’s drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, that is in possession of not only deadly knife missiles but also a dry wit (the infamous hat joke is just one example). The humour extends through the names of ships and the ridiculousness of some of the situations – especially a party for those who have willingly dismembered themselves for a night of merriment thanks to the laser skills of a fashionable doctor. Horror and humour mix in parts of the novel while in others horror mingles instead with utter tragedy.

The entire book is enjoyable and exciting but the end is not only riveting, it is so mind boggling your first thought may well be an urge to read it again straight away. That second reading would be entirely different from the first. Use of Weapons is beautifully written and easily readable  – its complexity is in the ideas – but it is extraordinary and fascinating.

Use of Weapons is as intricate as the Culture universe it depicts and so I wouldn’t recommend it as the first of the novels to read – Consider Phlebas makes an excellent starting point and, after that, the world is your oyster.