Category Archives: Review

Prototype by M.D. Waters

Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 384
Year: 2014 (24 July)
Buy: Hardback
Source: Review copy

Prototype by M.D. WatersReview
Prototype is the sequel to Archetype, published just a few months ago, and picks up where its predecessor left off. You wouldn’t want to read Prototype first so, if you read this, do be aware that it contains information about what Emma endured in Archetype. Suitably warned, on with the review!

Set in a dystopian near future America, this is a society in which women are few and far between, fertile women even more scarce. Girls are confined to Women’s Training Centers (WTCs), where they learn to be wives, waiting to be selected by the sons (or fathers) of the rich. Emma Wade knows now that this is all a lie. These girls are cloned, the hosts then killed, their new bodies engineered for childbirth. Emma had been the wife of Declan Burke, the man who created all this, but now she knows who she really is – a clone, the re-working of another man’s stolen wife, a mother, a witness to the process, someone who can never forget the original Emma’s memories of a loving husband, giving birth and fighting in the rebellion.

While Archetype followed Emma Burke’s journey to self-awareness, a path that is challenged by her strong feelings for both Declan and flashbacks of her original husband Noah, Prototype focuses on Emma Wade’s reintegration into the rebellion. It traces her painful relationship with Noah and their child (and Noah’s new partner) and, above all else, her vengeance against Declan, to claim back the lives and identities of the girls and women he has destroyed, and is still destroying. Meanwhile, Declan will stop at nothing in his determination to get Emma back.

Prototype is as fast and entertaining as its predecessor, largely thanks to the extremely likeable and confused heroine, Emma. Told in the first person in the present tense we are intimately connected with Emma’s desperate and frightened search for truth and identity. This inevitably means that other characters are less well-realised but that is largely because Emma is no more aware of their motives than we are. There are some difficult obstacles in Emma’s path and despite the fact that the rebel comrades of the original Emma know that she is strong, we know her fragility.

Archetype was confusing in places due to the mix of real time events with dreams and memories. It was difficult trying to keep pace with what was real and what was in the past. This confusion is removed in Prototype and the narrative benefits from that. As before, though, the world-building is largely absent, limited to transporters and clone technology. I would have liked to have known more about what was going on outside Emma’s world, and also outside America. There are hints that the outside world is very different. There would also have been room for more about the Women’s Training Centers and about the actual procedure of cloning.

Instead, the emphasis throughout remains on Emma’s mind as she works through her feelings for Noah, their child and Declan. The romance and dystopian themes about young womanhood, as well as the cover, suggest that this is a Young Adult book although it is not intended to be. Nevertheless, I would argue that both Archetype and Prototype would be greatly enjoyed by older teens.

I am very pleased that Prototype followed so closely on the heels of Archetype – I’m not good at dealing with cliffhangers. I think, though, that the two books would have been better served up as one. However, Prototype proved a satisfying end to an enjoyable and pleasingly disturbing story.

Other review

Masters of Rome by Robert Fabbri (Vespasian V)

Publisher: Atlantic Books/Corvus
Pages: 416
Year: 2014 (7 August)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Masters of Rome by Robert FabbriReview
Britannia, AD 45. Sabinus, elder brother of Vespasian, has been snatched by the druids, betrayed by spy Alienus, suspended naked and filthy in a cage until his brother should come to his rescue at which time both men will be sacrificed to the goddess Sullis. Such is the plan but Vespasian is a soldier and officer who has learned his craft, forming meaningful alliances with local chieftains, able to take those harsh decisions which can save an army at the cost of the valued few. But in the druids, Vespasian’s might and determination, a mirror of Rome, comes against an enemy of a type he’s not encountered before. The battle will take all of his cunning and take Vespasian to the very edge of what he can endure.

Rome, though, is no safer a place. These are the days of Claudius, an emperor only slightly less mad than the man who preceded him and the one who is to follow. The dribbling fool is in the thrall of his captivating wife, Messalina, a woman notorious to all (but her husband) for her voracious sexual appetites. Rome is ruled in all but name by Claudius’s three freedmen but even they cannot compete with the reach of the empress. A plan is hatched, Vespasian is caught in the middle. Having proven himself in the field, Vespasian must now use every political skill he can muster to bring down Messalina while all the time securing his family – and his wealth – for the future that has been prophesied.

Masters of Rome is the fifth novel in Robert Fabbri’s superb series chronicling the life and career of Vespasian, a man who against all odds survived Rome’s most infamous emperors only to ascend – somehow, miraculously – to the purple himself. Vespasian is now in his late thirties, a married man with two children, albeit children he barely knows, a difficult wife and a tolerant mistress. The events of previous novels continue to exert their influence, leaving debts that Vespasian must continue to pay, but the price is now exceedingly rich, demonstrating yet another stage in Vespasian’s transformation. There is a strong sense that Vespasian is conscious throughout of the damage that his ambition is doing to his soul and this is one of the major themes of the novel – in Masters of Rome we are given a glimpse into the religion that determined the Roman character, walking hand in hand with its materialism and greed, and the spirituality with which it was assaulted. There is a wave of fear that courses through the pages of this novel, spreading from the groves and springs of Britannia to the temples and gardens of empire. Vespasian feels it and, reading it, so do we. Vespasian must also learn a stark lesson about the Rome that he serves – the ideal is now becoming the personal.

The last novel in the series, Rome’s Fallen Eagle, is a marvellous book and was my favourite of the sequence and one of my top reads of 2013. Masters of Rome, though, surpasses it. This is an achievement indeed. As with the previous novel, the book is divided into two, but here the two are unified by what they reveal about the character of Vespasian and the world he must face and conquer. Liberties are taken with history but they serve a dramatic purpose and the result is a novel that is never less than harrowing, powerful and unputdownable until the very last page.

Every one has their own idea about what the druids would have been like and Robert Fabbri plays with this brilliantly, tapping into the fears of Rome and projecting it onto the page. The novel becomes imbued with superstition, dread and evil. Anything can happen and it does. What matters is that Vespasian must believe it. But this is not the only religion Vespasian encounters in Britannia – there is the stuff of legend here as well as the origins of Christianity.

Back in Rome, Vespasian encounters a state of affairs no less horrifying than the druids as decent men are destroyed at the whim of an insatiable harlot and her pitiful husband. Vengeance becomes a key theme and it’s no less potent or satisfying when exercised against empresses than betrayers.

Each of the Vespasian series could be read as standalone novels, each contains unobtrusive clues to previous events, but to read one without the others would be such a shame. Robert Fabbri is a superb storyteller. He doesn’t shy from depicting violence or venality, far from it, but it always serves the purpose of the story. Fact and fiction mix well in these pages, the goal always being to show the progression of one of Rome’s most remarkable men – Vespasian – while presenting the extraordinary world in which he moved. Masters of Rome is also, I would argue, the most exciting of the series. Nothing was going to get between me and the last 150 pages.

2014 is proving to be an outstanding year for historical fiction – Masters of Rome is right up there with the very best. Long may this series continue.

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

Publisher: Del Ray
Pages: 269
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. BuckellReview
Prudence ‘Roo’ Jones used to be a spy for Caribbean intelligence services but now he is retired, focused on raising his teenage nephew Delroy, whose parents were both killed in a hurricane. Another such storm, one of many, is about to hit the islands but, as Roo and Declan batten down the hatches of their boat, prepared to ride out the onslaught in the mangroves, Roo receives a phone message from one of his old brothers in arms, Zee. But the message is a failsafe, only to be heard if Zee is dead. Zee’s voice asks for help, for his murder to be avenged, a request that Roo could never refuse especially when it is backed up by the arrival on the island of Kit, Zee’s sister, who is after vengeance of her own. But Roo knew Zee very well – and he was not a man with a sister.

Set in the near future, at a time when the environment has taken some punishment, submerging islands, producing a conveyor belt of hurricanes, mankind has also been given a genetic boost. Devastating injuries are now quick to heal, moods easier to calm, but with this technology comes a threat that is every bit as deadly as the storms that batter the Atlantic and Gulf shores. As the very wealthy gather for a Hurricane Party, safe in the knowledge that they can escape at the last minute, Roo and Kit have a conspiracy to fight, one that killed Zee and could very well kill almost everyone on the planet if not stopped in time.

Hurricane Fever is a fast and furious thriller. It’s not long at all before the pace and tension builds and then it doesn’t let up for a moment until the book is done. I am a big fan of technothrillers, especially when they throw environmental disasters and genetic threat into the mix (Michael Crichton could do no wrong in my eyes), and Hurricane Fever delivered just what I hoped. The hero Roo is an interesting, likeable man and enough time is spent on him to make the reader genuinely care about him and want to know more. He’s not your typical James Bond figure – he’s dreadlocked, Caribbean and a boatman – but he’s all the more exciting and unpredictable for that. Kit is also intriguing, not least because for much of the book we’re trying to work out who she is, every bit as much as Roo is.

As you’d hope with a thriller such as this, the baddies are particularly nasty and their plan is suitably ambitious. There’s little doubt that good will win in the end but there are a fair few shocks along the way, including one that really did make me stop and start.

My one complaint is that Hurricane Fever is a little short at well under 300 pages. But this does mean that the thriller is well-focused and little time is wasted. It is also very well written. I read it in a day and the book was great company. It would make for perfect holiday reading (perhaps less so for a Caribbean cruise). This isn’t the first of Buckell’s novels to feature Roo – Arctic Rising is also available. I snapped it up straight away, although I sense that by comparison with Hurricane Fever, this one could prove a little chilly…

Kingdom by Robyn Young

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 484
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Kingdom by Robyn YoungReview
The year is 1306 – Robert Bruce is finally crowned King of Scotland, his rivals to the throne murdered or in retreat. But the triumph is shortlived, the prophecy as fragile as ever, as Sir Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke and cousin to Edward I of England, heads northwards, taking advantage of all those with an axe to grind against Robert, forcing the rebel king to the north-western edges of this unhappy kingdom. So begins eight long years of tug of war between Robert and the English for control of Scotland, culminating in Bruce’s great victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Nothing about this is straightforward, though. Bruce has to fight tooth and nail to hold his men together, to inspire them to keep on fighting, to bargain ruthlessly with the mercenaries and disinherited, to brave the greatest hardships and personal dangers and, most horrible of all, to endure the loss of his wife, daughter and sisters, captured by Edward and treated with great cruelty – his daughter and sister caged like animals.

Kingdom completes Robyn Young’s Insurrection trilogy – three meticulously researched, passionately intense novels that bring to life the figure of Robert Bruce with all his strengths, weaknesses and drive. There is no doubt that Robert had his flaws, his repeated switching of sides in the previous novel Renegade made him a difficult character to like. He is also not easy to love, just look at his wife, brothers and father. But Robert Bruce is a man with a destiny and in this world in which legend and prophecy are vital, if only as inspiration to others, he cannot turn back.

In Renegade I had a real problem with Robert. I thought him a dishonourable man. I liked him no more than I did Edward I. By contrast, there were an awful lot of women I felt sorry for as well as the men hurt by Robert’s betrayal. In Kingdom, though, Robert atones. In this novel, everything comes to a head, literally at Bannockburn, but also in every other way. He is now set on his destiny and he becomes the hero we want him to be. He is king and there’s no turning back. Sir Aymer is now the unsympathetic figure, chasing Robert and his men over hill and dale, through forests and across rivers and seas. Edward I is a dry husk of a man, dying piece by piece, drained of blood, but unable to let go of life, still able to fly into violent fury at the behaviour of his son and heir, intoxicated by his lover Gaveston. The men that Robert betrayed, notably Humphrey de Bohun, the Constable of England, fight for Edward and his son but loyalties are severely tested, particularly when Humphrey suspects that King Edward’s reimagining of an Arthurian circle of knights was based on lies. Humphrey never loses our sympathies even though he fights on the ‘wrong’ side.

As with Renegade, the female characters are especially powerful in Kingdom and complement the male dominated military action perfectly. Robert’s queen, Elizabeth, is an intriguing figure, tragic, I think, and I liked the pages spent with her very much. Another character that stands out is Alexander Seton, a nobleman who discovers he no longer knows what he’s fighting for. The muddle he gets himself into is hugely involving and it’s hard not to like him. There is no fear of liking either Edward the father or Edward the son, although both are highly entertaining on the page. But Robert now comes into his own, filling the pages of Kingdom with his personality, working on the reader’s affections, winning us over bit by bit, revealing a little of his personal struggles and motivations, making him seem more human than kinglike, earning our approval and support until the book becomes an exercise in tension, drama and suspense.

Robyn Young writes so beautifully. Her medieval knowledge is clearly vast but it is coated in the most stunning prose that moves the story forward while injecting it with a world of historical colour and flavour. The battle sequences, which feature throughout the novel, are brilliantly done, but so too are the moments of reflection. At the heart of Kingdom, though, lies the complicated and often painful relationships between these remarkable people. This is so well done and shows what a miracle it was that Robert was able to tie it all together to bring about such a great victory.

I loved this book. I read the final two thirds in just one day, despite the far less pleasant claims of work on my time. I would argue that each of the novels in this trilogy stands very well alone but as a collection they provide an extraordinary portrait of one of the great duels of medieval history as well as one of its most difficult to know figures. I can only look forward to discovering where Robyn Young will take us next. Kingdom has set the bar very high indeed.

Other review

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 342
Year: 2014 (17 July)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas SweterlitschReview
The near future is a dark and dirty place, especially for those few who survived the nuclear blast that turned Pittsburgh and its inhabitants into ash. In a society in which adware is fed directly into the brain and eyes, virtual reality is as real as the physical world – every glance, every desire is met by suggestive images, inviting the thinker to make a purchase, take a decision, get a thrill. Every scene that has been filmed is captured in the Archive, which allows the obsessed the perfect means to spend hours and days reliving the past, feeding the grief of Pittsburgh, reliving time with lost loved ones, making believe that the flash of light and heat never happened. John Dominic Blaxton was away from Pittsburgh when the bomb claimed his wife and unborn child. He now spends his days searching for ghosts in the Archive, looking for the murdered, the victims that others are working just as hard to delete from history.

Dominic is a fascinating character and he drives Tomorrow and Tomorrow. The fact that he is suffering is obvious. His is a portrait in grief and it’s a masterly one. He tries to relive over and over moments with his wife, resetting the clock, rewinding and repeating, constantly. Not surprisingly, it drives him to madness and drugs and breakdown, resulting in his dismissal from his job searching for mysteries in the Archive, particularly a young girl, found dead in mud. Her identity had been erased, clues found only by investigating what is missing from the Archive, tracing the trail of lost pixels. Finally clean again, Dominic is hired by mogul Waverly to hunt for his daughter Albion, another victim of the bomb, but another young woman who is being systematically erased from the record.

To say that the case is not straightforward is the mightiest of understatements and it’s not long before Dominic is on the run for his life, leaving a trail of the tortured and murdered in his wake.

The mystery that Dominic becomes committed to solve is only one half of Tomorrow and Tomorrow. It is an exciting and twisty hunt, ingeniously mapped out, but the significant achievement of the novel is both the portrait of Dominic and the world-building. Dominic is surrounded by a host of characters, some dead, some alive, some not who he thinks they are, and they are all richly hinted at. This is a chase, told in the present tense, increasing the immediacy and the danger, and so we never know more than Dominic himself. But what we are given is a thorough and beautifully written portrait of our main protagonist, a man who is only just holding on and is in dire need of leaving his past where it belongs. It’s extremely moving and it’s impossible not to feel greatly for Dominic. But, as the novel makes clear time after time, Dominic is just one of many who suffers from what happened in Pittsburgh, not to mention all those lost burned souls.

For many, pornography has become the choice method of escape. Nothing is sacred. The murdered become objects of titillation on reality TV, the rights to the bodies sold by their families. The female President of the United States is little more than a glamorous executioner, signing the warrants of death live on TV in front of the condemned, followed by scandal and all the more popular and electable for it. There’s no doubt about it – this is distasteful stuff, but it is not done salaciously. Thomas Sweterlitsch is a fine writer and he walks the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t very well (I am a most squeamish reader and I had no problem with this at all). This is a most unattractive future world – hardly unsurprising if it’s a place in which nuclear attacks take place – but there are moments of hope and lightness, seen most particularly in the scenes with Dominic’s friends and family.

Thomas Sweterlitsch combines so well a murder mystery with a stunning portrait of a near future world that is truly horrifying, not just for the obvious bomb devastation and the moral and political degradation of society, but also for its nightmare portrait of social media gone mad. Thrilling and thought-proving, Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a most intriguing and original read.

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Publisher: Century
Pages: 368
Year: 2014 (17 July)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Plague by C.C. HumphreysReview
A serial killer stalks the streets of London, stabbing gems into the mouths of the slaughtered. With murder, though, walks a friend – plague. The year is 1665 and the city reels under an onslaught of murder, poverty and disease. On the fringes dance the rich. The newly restored monarchy, epitomised by the bewigged and hedonist Charles II, is surrounded by fellow pleasure-seekers who jig their way through the reopened theatres. Everyone, from King to actor, thief and pauper remembers the recent wars. They have left their mark and in many cases a debt.

Captain Coke is a gentleman but he is also a highwayman, albeit one with a bulletless pistol. He does good, adopting as his own his rather gormless apprentice Dickon, teaching the boy to read using sensationalist leaflets, the only literature the boy is interested enough to struggle through. When Coke discovers the bodies of his next intended victims slaughtered upon the highway, he finds one just alive, a young woman who dies in his arms. He flees but he cannot forget. Although Coke should hide, particularly once the thief-taker Pitman catches his scent, he is unable to resist the pleas of friend Sarah Chalker, whose husband John, an actor, is missing.

And all the time, more and more houses are sealed up, their inhabitants locked inside, keeping company the corpses of their relatives killed revoltingly by the hungriest of plagues.

Plague is rich in atmosphere, you can almost smell the stink of the stews and the sickly perfume of the rich. Much of the novel is spent in the poorer streets of the city or in its theatres among the actors and their audience. It’s a far from glamorous society with actresses preyed upon by nobles but it is a world away from the horror of the squalid rooms where the sick die of plague or the tortured die of agony. There are some wonderful cameos here, especially the King and his libertine poet Rochester. I also thoroughly enjoyed the conflicted character of Captain Coke. This is a man who is tormented by his memories from the recent wars – after what he’s gone through how can he live a normal life? Pitman, too, is an interesting character, especially once he has formed a partnership with his prey, but it is Coke, painfully haunted, who stands out for me. Amongst the many believable men and women, though, there are melodramatic, sinister figures, not least the man that Coke must chase.

This is a violent novel and, not surprisingly considering its subject matter, it is exceedingly grim in places. C.C. Humphreys does not flinch from his depictions of murder, torture or plague symptoms. I liked the historical setting enormously and much of the characterisation and narrative but it did cross my squeamish barrier at places, although admittedly it is not a barrier set high. I do think, though, that Plague will be much enjoyed by readers of historical crime fiction.

The Storms of War by Kate Williams

Publisher: Orion
Pages: 514
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Storms of War by Kate WilliamsReview
It is 1 August 1914 and war is just days away. For German immigrant and meat merchant Rudolf de Witt, his English wife Verena and their four children, tensions are greater than for most. A village party hosted by the de Witts ends in humiliation, snubbed by the villagers, a trivial event in itself but a sign of how lines have been drawn between the British and those who are now regarded as the enemy. For youngest daughter, 15-year-old Celia, this is a time to cast off her childhood clothes and to raise up a notch her flirtation with servant and groom Tom. Her sister Emmeline is about to marry Sir Hugh, sealing the respectability of this half-British family, while no one would seem to hate the Germans more than brother Michael. Of Arthur, the eldest brother and away in Paris, there is not a word.

But when war breaks out on 4 August everything changes for the de Witt family and their servants, leaving only Verena safe in her grand home of Stoneythorpe, bewildered and abandoned. Celia, Michael, Tom and Rudolf undergo years of horror, each leaving mental and physical scars, and it is their stories that come alive in this fine family saga.

The Storms of War is essentially a novel in two parts, the first preparing us – and the characters – for what is to come in the second. The point of view shifts through the novel, spending time in turns with Michael and Celia in particular. Celia’s story is initially a domestic one, continuing her lessons, dealing with her sister and mother, and coming to terms with the absence of Michael, Tom and her father. Michael’s perspective is unbearably different, surrounded as he is by the fear, dread and danger of trench warfare. Kate Williams, a historian whose love of the past shines through these pages, brings the horror to the fore through descriptions of dealing with the lice, the rats and the dirt. It’s a riveting read.

Once Celia embarks on her adulthood, her story rivals – and exceeds – that of Michael in its depiction of war. Celia’s experiences as an ambulance driver in France are enormously powerful and horrifying. The camaraderie between the girls, brought together from a range of backgrounds and motives, mirrors that between the men in the trenches, the men that these girls collect in pieces.

The descriptions of war are outstanding, all the more so because Kate Williams has made us care so much for the characters – whether major or minor. The contrast between the chapters set in London and Stoneythorpe and those set in France or in hospitals at home is dramatic and poignant. The trivial versus the fundamental. As a result, I had very little time for Emmeline and only slightly more for Verena. My feelings for Rudolf were also mixed, as they are supposed to be. But I had all the time in the world for Celia, Michael and Tom – especially poor, young Celia, brave beyond her years, with demands made on her that should never have been made and so much heart despite the efforts of some to tear it apart.

There is so much going on in The Storms of War, its pace is furious and never lets up. I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey and so I thoroughly enjoyed the saga’s great dramas, one after another, the characters that come and go, leaving devastation and turmoil in their wake, the twists and turns (pleasurable despite their predictability), and the tragedies that will endure for years. Despite the bloody war scenes, this is not a heavy read. Its purpose is to inform and to be enjoyed and it succeeds perfectly.

The Storms of War is the first in the saga. The next will take the history and story of the de Witt family through to 1927. Some characters are merely hinted at in this first novel – especially brother Arthur and the mysterious General – while others make enigmatic appearances – the American Jonathan for one. I can’t wait to see what Kate will do with them all next as the stormclouds of war disperse.

Journal of the Plague Year by C.B. Harvey, Malcolm Cross and Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher: Abaddon Books
Pages: 396
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought and review copy

Journal of the Plague YearReview
This excellent post-apocalyptic omnibus brings together three novellas, each different, each set in different parts of the world (or off it) but all taking place within the chaos of the Afterblight – the aftermath of a devastating illness, the Cull, that wiped out most of humanity, at least those of it with the ‘wrong’ blood type. There are linking themes, including: religion versus science; the ascent of madness over reason; the survival of the most violent; the indestructible character of hope. They are also linked by something else – all three stories are not only thought-provoking and memorable, they are also extremely good.

Orbital Decay by Malcolm Cross – set aboard the International Space Station, this story takes place at the time that the Cull strikes. The Russian and American crews are separated from their families and from the news, having to rely on communications with Huston (or, more precisely, Tom) for information. At the beginning all is normal, as far as life can be in orbit, with wonderful descriptions of life aboard the space station, its rigid routine of experiments, sleep, exercise, recreation and time spent contacting Earth while looking out over the beautiful blue planet. But fear soon grows for those on Earth as they learn of the pandemic which doubles its number of victims each week. Hundreds become thousands become millions. The link with Houston is lost, the space centre attacked by zealots, maddened by disease and terror, and the astronauts are isolated.

I was captivated by this story, as I couldn’t not be being so fascinated by the ISS and its contact with those of us on the ground. Astronaut Alvin, our hero, if there is such a thing, is responsible for an experiment involving mice and disease. Its link with what is going on, out of reach, on Earth is obvious and it is extremely intriguing. The relationships between the crew in this increasingly claustrophobic environment is critical, both for their survival and for the success of the story, and it is well done. I did feel that the ending was somewhat rushed but overall Orbital Decay is a great story, full of tension, enriched by little details, and a fine start to the omnibus. I would have loved this as a full-length novel.

Dead Kelly by C.B. Harvey – if pushed, I would have to admit that this is my favourite of the three. Its antihero, Kelly McGuire, known as Dead Kelly to those unfortunate enough to know him, should have been dead before the Cull even hit. Leader of a gang in Melbourne, McGuire’s final raid ended in disaster and, betrayed by one of his own, he ended up in the desert, surviving there for months while, without him knowing it, the blight hit and mankind was culled. When he walks into the devastated streets of Melbourne, McGuire has vengeance on his mind as he creates new order out of chaos.

The character of Kelly McGuire is brilliantly created. It’s possible that he might think he has a moral code, that he’s fair and honourable, but we see the truth of his actions and the reality of the society he kills to create. What makes the story particularly enjoyable to read is that it is packed full of clever twists and turns, its characters linked together by all kinds of complicated relationships. Religion raises its head, or rather the religion of cults – a society in which gang leaders become gods and nuns become killers – a distorted society and twisted religion. Dead Kelly is also extremely exciting, hugely violent and pulse racing. It’s difficult not to become involved with the battle as its combatants take a step back out of the modern age into a time ruled by instinct.

The Bloody Deluge by Adrian Tchaikovsky – further time has gone by since the Cull and now society has regressed even further. Dr Emil Wagner and Katy Lewkowitz represent science – and hope – but they are directly threatened by a world gone mad. Caught between two religious factions – one inspired by 20th-century fascism and the other by medieval military monasticism – atheists Emil and Katy find themselves fought over to such a degree that they soon become almost irrelevant. The narrative shifts cleverly between perspectives, hinting at past pre-Cull lives, showing how far some have fallen while also highlighting how little lies between modern civilisation and chaos. The story is set in Poland, reminding us of past conflicts and persecutions.

The personal struggles that are played out in The Bloody Deluge are enormously powerful. The world now centres on a battlefield a few square miles’ across, the focus a besieged monastery. The Cull to some signals the Second Coming, it is God-given. It is in this environment that Dr Emil Wagner must argue for the survival of medical science, a debate judged by the remarkable figure of the Abbot. This is a very clever story, mingling the medieval and the modern, the religious and the scientific, all the time retaining the humanity of the characters at a time of unimaginable stress.

I am not generally a reader of novellas – I do like my brickbooks – but Journal of the Plague Year works so well for me because its elements have such unity. They present the chronological and thematic development of a disaster and its repercussions for society across the globe. One leads on to the other while each retains its unique character and voice. There are other novels and novellas in the Afterblight Chronicles – I will snap them up.

I should also mention that Journal of the Plague Year has my favourite cover of the year so far.

The Corners of the Globe by Robert Goddard (The Wide World 2)

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 400
Year: 2014
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Corners of the Globe by Robert GoddardReview
With the Great War over, the powers of the world assemble in Paris to decide on terms for victors and vanquished. While diplomats and ministers meet to discuss terms, agents and spies work to their masters’ agendas, dealing in secrets, hiding sins, removing obstacles. Circumstances, though, have made a spy of James Maxted, known to most as Max. With his father Sir Henry murdered, found in Paris at the end of a steep drop, Max is after answers and vengeance. The more Max learns, the deeper he descends into a most perilous world. The cost of peace is immense and no-one knows this better than Max, the man who survived years as a pilot and then a prisoner of war.

The Corners of the Globe is the second in Robert Goddard’s historical spy thriller series, begun so well with last year’s The Ways of the World. There is no pause from the previous novel. Max is now determined on his course of action. His father’s death might be less of a mystery now, proven to be murder and not suicide, but Max knows that Sir Henry’s killer was just one small cog in a wheel that surrounds Paris. Vengeance on the murderer is not enough. Max is after the leaders and to take them on he plays a very dangerous game indeed.

As the novel begins, Max is on a ‘mission’ for Germany’s chief spymaster, to travel to Orkney to rescue a document from the interred German fleet. It contains secrets so powerful they can draw out spies from the shadows. As British and German agents search for Max, the British secret service is in danger of collapsing from the inside out, its double agents making themselves known in the desperate scramble for the document. Meanwhile in Paris, Max’s old manservant, and now chauffeur to the British diplomats, Sam, is caught up in his own deadly game, mixed up in a power struggle amongst the Japanese delegation to Paris which strikes to the heart of what Sir Henry was up to in the city.

The result is an immense tangle of deceit and treachery. German, Japanese and British agents scramble for position, with Max pursued across Scotland and England to France and Sam fighting his own battle on the streets and rooftops of Paris. Both of them must decide who they are prepared to trust. Fortunately, they each encounter men and women prepared to help them, to stand up for what is right. But bodies fall on both sides.

The Corners of the Globe presents Max’s transformation into spy. His humanity lessens as his heart hardens. He directly puts other people’s lives in danger and he is prepared to live with the consequences, while they might not. There is one memorable scene where he comes across an old comrade from the war, begging on the streets, one leg missing. Max pretends he doesn’t know the man when asked and so he must then watch the light of hope fade from his old friend’s eyes. With so many lies and deaths, there is bound to be tragedy, and we encounter it in the sadness of bereaved lovers, sons, sisters and friends. It’s an intriguing mix, this contradiction between Max’s increasing hardness and the amount of suffering he meets, even causes.

Without doubt, The Corners of the Globe is a complicated novel. Fortunately, there are some recaps of what went on before in The Ways of the World and I found this vital. You could read this second novel without having read the first – enough is made clear – but a knowledge of The Ways of the World does add greatly to one’s appreciation of Goddard’s admirable plotting and the development of Max’s character. While I enjoyed the first novel greatly, I enjoyed the second even more. There is much more focus on what matters, less attention given to Max’s family in England, a greater number of puzzles, more danger and much more involvement by Max as the novel’s driving force. The secondary characters are also given additional life.

It’s all backed up by the most atmospheric and evocative worldbuilding. Paris in particular is given a life of its own, with rich descriptions of its famous streets and places, populated by a cast of characters from around the world, each of whom has his or her own agenda in the negotiations for peace and domination and revenge. The Great War itself gets little direct mention, except for the regular reminders and memories of shell-shocked, injured, dead servicemen. It is the trauma that overshadows all else.

My only complaint about this superb novel is its cliffhanger ending which is the most blatant cliffhanger that I’ve encountered and seems totally out of place in a book of such class. The novel as a whole makes me desperate to read the trilogy’s conclusion (I love the direction in which it’s heading), it doesn’t need such a cheap gimmick. Nevertheless, this is a minor niggle and it only slightly marred my appreciation for a novel that is, especially during the second half, an unputdownable thrilling race for answers.

Other review
The Ways of the World

Warlord’s Gold (Stryker Chronicles 5) by Michael Arnold

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 448
Year: 2014 (3 July)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Warlord's Gold by Michael ArnoldReview
Warlord’s Gold is the fifth novel in Michael Arnold’s fabulous Civil War Chronicles – if you’ve not read the earlier novels then tread no further. Captain Stryker and his men, as well as Lisette, the Queen’s spy, must suffer the consequences here of what has gone before. The result is a particularly thrilling and tense historical adventure in which not only our heroes must suffer but also all of the land as the Civil War moves into another phase of its wrath.

Stryker, captain of a band of loyal and brave royalists, continues to chase the Cade treasure that he learned of, at great cost, in the previous novel, Assassin’s Reign. He is ordered to follow the golden trail to the Scilly Isles off the south-western tip of England. Cade had property somewhere on the islands and it is likely that the treasure could lie hidden there, its value enough to fund the Royalist cause for years. Unfortunately, what would aid the Royalists would also help the Parliamentarians and when Stryker and the remains of his shattered crew wash up on the rocky shores of the Isles, their ship destroyed by storms and all their papers and possessions lost, they are imprisoned as Parliamentarians thanks to the poisoned word of one of the most sinister and corrupt devils that we have met through the Chronicles, Roger Tainton, who beat Stryker to the islands.

In the Warlord’s Gold, Stryker follows the treasure in a chase across southern England to Basing House in Hampshire where one of the most famous sieges of the Civil War took place towards the end of 1643, forming much of the second half of the novel. Meanwhile, Lancelot Forrester, Stryker’s Shakespeare-quoting deputy, has been enduring his own personal battle, this one fought against the perpetually itchy Croatian Parliamentarian Major Kovac, from whose custody Forrester had escaped. Kovac’s pursuit of Forrester is as vindictive and obsessed as Tainton’s hatred of Stryker. It is inevitable and fitting that the siege of Basing awaits them all.

With no doubt at all, the Stryker Chronicles is my favourite Civil War series, responsible for sparking an interest in me in this period of history that is so strong I now seek out the places in the books to visit. I can’t think of another historical series that has brought the past so immediately to life for me. Warlord’s Gold exemplifies the reasons why I love these books so much. Despite the constant theme of the Civil War, each of the books is different, with familiar characters coming and going, sometimes absent for an entire book, then returning as fascinating as ever. Here, Stryker is more of a victim of circumstances than he has been in previous novels. He is vulnerable and near helpless during the scenes in the Scilly Isles and because we know him so well by now these are truly painful chapters to read. What the poor man must go through… His relationship with Lisette is never an easy one – how could it be during these uncertain, dangerous times? – and it undergoes a severe test in this novel. We are given more time with Forrester, just as in previous books we have spent time with others among Stryker’s men. It is time very well spent.

The Stryker Chronicles have the most excellent villains and in Warlord’s Gold we have more than one. Tainton is a terrifying, deadly individual but we know his past. The War creates monsters just as it also nurtures monsters already born. Several of the characters in the book are physically scarred but because both Tainton and Stryker have had their faces horrifically altered, while Kovac has his itch, it is no simplistic indicator of moral right. As with the other novels, Warlord’s Gold stresses that there is good on both sides, evil on both sides. Two best friends face each other as leaders of the opposing armies. There is division among both sides, even more so here as Parliament makes its deal with Scotland, something not all Roundheads are happy with. While Lisette is a close servant of the Queen, there is never a sense that Stryker is committed heart and soul to his king. For Stryker what matters is what’s right, his men and Lisette. People swap sides, civilians are killed and victimised, property is destroyed. Nowhere is safe, not even on the Scilly Isles, and no castle is invulnerable, not even Basing House.

Michael Arnold is a fine writer who brings history alive while populating it with living, breathing characters that the reader loves or loves to hate. His in depth knowledge of the Civil War, both politically and militarily, is more than obvious and it enriches each episode of Stryker’s tale. Arnold never loses sight of the adventure – this is extremely exciting writing! – but he fills it with inspirational historical detail. Assassin’s Reign, the last in the series, was a marvel but with Warlord’s Gold it has met its match.

Other reviews
Stryker Chronicles I: Traitor’s Blood
Stryker Chronicles II: Devil’s Charge
Stryker Chronicles III: Hunter’s Rage
Stryker Chronicles IV: Assassin’s Reign