Category Archives: Review

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.

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….

The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamilton (Night’s Dawn 2)

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 1273
Year: 1997 (this Pan edn 2012)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F HamiltonReview
I’m giving my Peter F. Hamilton addiction some serious attention this year, feeding it the Night’s Dawn trilogy. I have now reached the finale, The Naked God, and I’m currently halfway through this masterly unwinding of a story that has gripped me for the last 3000 pages. It also serves as a reminder to me to write a few words about the second book – The Neutronium Alchemist. Obviously, you’re not going to start a trilogy with the middle book, or the final book for that matter, so do be aware that there may be some minor spoilers below for the first, The Reality Dysfunction. You can read my review of that here.

I’m not going to attempt much of a synopsis for The Neutronium Alchemist. There’s far too much going on in its 1250+ pages. Suffice to say that the plague of the possessed has now spread beyond Lalonde, threatening a number of planets, asteroids and sentient space stations or habitats. What that means is that Hamilton takes us on a voyage across the settled and now uneasy Galaxy, focusing on key individuals as they try to combat, flee from or welcome the onslaught of the reborn souls from the beyond. While the the nature of the attack has become horrifyingly clearer since The Reality Dysfunction, its menace has intensified deeply and this is compounded by the questions that it raises about religion, God, death to a society that, to a great extent, had come to terms with its fate. Desperate times calls for desperate measures and that’s where the neutronium alchemist comes in. Dr Alka Mzu barely featured in The Reality Dysfunction but her liberation from the habitat of Tranquility opens a Pandora’s Box here. She is believed to be in possession of a superweapon, a planet buster. Whoever – or whatever – has that weapon may have the fate of the Galaxy in their hands.

But that’s one thread and there are a whole lot more. If this series has a hero it’s probably the gallant, swashbuckling (in a manner of speaking) Joshua Calvert, Captain of the Lady Macbeth. His role is just as important here, not least for the hearts he breaks (and the seed he sows) along the way but such is the richness and variety of this trilogy Joshua barely features in the first half of The Neutronium Alchemist at all. Likewise, the chief villain of the piece, Quinn Dexter, also has to take his turn for our attention. Instead, we are invited to take our time exploring the conquest of two planets – Norfolk, a Jane Austen-esque colony that produces the finest wine in existence, and New California, a world that is transfigured into a mirage of 20th-century Chicago, thanks to the identity of its main possessor.

And here we have one of the great strengths of the Night’s Dawn trilogy. The baddies may be bad but many of them we get to know very well while others actually aren’t that bad after all. New California’s boss is (or was) none other than Al Capone while the possessor who comes to the gallant aid of Louise and Genevieve Kavanagh on the planet of Norfolk is Fletcher Christian. This could be naff but it really isn’t and that’s partly to do with the amount of time that Hamilton gives us to get to know them. One memorable sequence set on another world under attack is when a group of possessed put themselves at great risk to guide to safety a group of untouched children. There are a lot of souls out there in the beyond. Not all of them are evil and those who fight them have to be aware that all too soon they may be among them.

There are moments of wonder in The Neutronium Alchemist and for me, as in The Reality Dysfunction, many of those are to be found on Tranquility. I love the scenes with Haile the juvenile Kiint alien, jumping for joy in the habitat’s ocean. There is also something very dark at work on the habitat of Valisk, in which the habitat personality and his successor Dariat must endure years of unhappiness and cruelty in their relationship with one another, until they are invaded and there is no alternative but to unite. Thoughts of religion, the existence of God and the destiny of the soul are never far away throughout this novel in which human sentience can already be gathered by habitats, ships, even soldier constructs. It adds a fascinating and often tragic dimension.

The Neutronium Alchemist, as with the other two novels in the trilogy, is full of distinct, wonderful stories, each contributing to the magnificent whole. This is no standalone novel. The three books, if it weren’t for their size, could be in one volume. They certainly deserve the commitment of being read in quick succession. So many characters stand out and so many of the stories are unputdownable, sped along by the novel’s structure which moves from world to spaceship to habitat to asteroid to hell and back.

Peter F. Hamilton writes so (deceptively) lightly. There are strange aliens and space battles, there is hand to hand conflict on the ground, there is horror mixed with the science fiction – ghosts and demons walk these worlds. There is no escape, not even in death, and through it all strides a few key individuals that you care about (how could you not with what they have to endure?) and some that you probably shouldn’t care about but you can’t help it. There are some, though, who are utterly horrifying and cruel and Hamilton doesn’t avoid showing their brutality any more than he hides the heroism of others. With this book, as with so many others of his, Peter F Hamilton achieves the remarkable – a brickbook that knows just how to obsess its reader. This is a novel to be read in big, glorious chunks. And when it’s over you reach for the next.

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 346
Year: 2014 (27 March)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine ClementsReview
Ruth Flowers is a servant in the house of Oliver Cromwell but her life is almost destroyed by the brutal events which force her from her Ely home and drive her to London and the haven of the Poole household. Protected by tailor Master Robert Poole, Ruth is soon the maid and confidante of his daughter Elizabeth, or Lizzie, ousting Lizzie’s former maid Charlotte from her affections, fast becoming enraptured by Lizzie’s beautiful face, her political and religious fervour, and her spirit.

Set in the late 1640s, these are the last days of the English Civil War but they are still dangerous times. The King is captured and under threat of trial and worse while Cromwell’s New Model Army is divided by the Levellers. Meanwhile, in the countryside, women are falling prey to the fervour of the witch hunts while in the city of London plague strikes at random. Ruth and Lizzie embark on a perilous path, not only in their relationship but also in their interest in the fate of the King. For women, there is a thin line between being considered the voice of God or the mouthpiece of the Devil, and it is possible that not even Cromwell, Ruth’s former kindly master, will be able to protect Lizzie and Ruth should they cross it.

I enjoyed The Crimson Ribbon, perhaps more than I was expecting due to my usual preference for Civil War military/political fiction. We see hints of what has gone on in battle thanks to the presence of Joseph, a pamphleteer and former soldier, traumatised by his experience at Naseby. Otherwise, though, the Civil War itself is a conflict that is about ended, at least this phase of it, leaving its victors with the problem of what to do with a divinely annointed King, and division now is fired by religion, superstition and idealism. Oliver Cromwell himself does feature – as a farmer and householder becoming transformed into powerful conqueror and ruler – but it is a minor role. The Crimson Ribbon is the story of Ruth and Lizzie, told in the present tense by Ruth herself and as such it is a much more personal tale – showing how Ruth’s life is defined by her love for Lizzie and by the great tragedy of her life, made even worse by the increasing possibility that events could be repeated.

Despite the big themes and great dramas, The Crimson Ribbon is an intimate story, and has an air of romance to it, although the sexual content is small and never gratuitous. This is a love story – between Ruth and Lizzie but also between Ruth and Joseph, although the latter is of far less significance for the book – and the feelings of Ruth for Lizzie take precedent over everything else. Through Lizzie, Ruth meets preachers and writers, generals and thinkers, but none matter much to Ruth and so we learn little about these things, which is perhaps a shame. Apart from romance, the other main emotion of The Crimson Ribbon is outrage at the injustice and barbarity women endured in 17th-century England at the hands of witchfinders, zealots and politicians.

I had one issue with The Crimson Ribbon and that was its distortion of the life of true historical figure Elizabeth Poole. Personally, I would have preferred this character to have been completely fictional, like most of the others in the novel, rather than a re-imagined version of what was in its own right a remarkable life. Perhaps because of this, Ruth is a much more rounded character than Lizzie, who often appears petulant, weak and less than likeable.

The Crimson Ribbon is a lot of fun. Its historical setting is vivid and rich and the experiences and psychology of Ruth rang true. There is a lightness to the narrative that makes it dance along. It provides a different perspective of the English Civil War from the one I would usually seek out but I found myself immersed in its portrait of superstitious and troubled England, and London especially, in the late 1640s.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Pages: 304
Year: 2014 (27 March)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Bird Box by Josh MalermanReview
Malorie discovers she is pregnant at the same time as the first reports appear on the news. The violent stories are easy to disbelieve – people in random locations across the world are suddenly and uncharacteristically driven to harm others before killing themselves. As the reports increase in number, worry grows, as does disconnection between places, friends and families, until Malorie and her sister Shannon are left to hide in their house behind windows shielded with mattresses. It is rumoured that it is the sight of something that drives people to murder and self-murder. The internet and television die and, finally, when she looks out of the window, Shannon dies. Malorie has no choice but to seek help blindly, driving with eyes closed towards a nearby house she’d found advertised as a safe haven in a paper’s adverts. When Tom and his companions, blindfolded, open the door to Malorie a new phase in her life begins. Nothing will ever be the same again. Daylight and fresh air are one’s enemies, safety can be found only in dark, stale rooms, filled with fear.

Bird Box is a relatively short novel and it is quite likely that you’ll read it, like me, in a day. Told in the present tense, this is horror at its most immediate and chilling – what could be more instinctive than to open one’s eyes to see the threat, recognise the danger and then be able to fight it? Not in this world. Here, collecting water from the well is the most terrifying test of courage. The person must inch forwards, blindfolded, fumbling, listening for any sound that might suggest that the threat is barely an inch from one’s face. Birds are used as alarms, like some kind of mine canary, while dogs are used as guides for the willingly blind. Everything comes down to survival – and not going mad – as can be seen by Malorie choosing to keep her children nameless. They are Boy and Girl and their senses are now nothing like yours and mine.

The atmosphere of Bird Box is thick with suggestion, horror and dread. This becomes mixed in with suspicion and distrust as the enforced darkness and claustrophobia of such a life closes in. There is a process of dehumanisation underway, although there are efforts to hang on to some kind of twisted normality in this post-apocalyptic world. Not knowing what’s out there and not seeing it makes whatever it is all the worse. The mind begins to compensate for what it’s not allowed to see.

The characters are intriguing and complex and each is different. The similar circumstances between Malorie and another woman in the house raises the tension – as if the tension could cope with being raised even higher. Likewise, there is competition between the men.

Above all else, Bird Box grips like a vice. It was impossible for me to put down. I had to know what was out there on the other side of the blindfold. A completely different type of world is presented and it’s beautifully described. The sounds are intensified, as are the other senses, most memorably in a scene in which Malorie and the children row along a river. As you’d expect, the horror is largely by suggestion but it does reveal itself on numerous occasions and those scenes are terrifying.

A lot is being made of Bird Box. It’s gathering lots of excellent reviews. Having been both mesmerised and frightened by Josh Malerman’s story and by his style and imagination, I can only agree with every word of the praise. Without doubt, Bird Box is one of the best and (perversely) enjoyable horror stories I’ve read for a long time. A great debut.

To get you in the mood…..

The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher

Publisher: Tor/Titan Books
Pages: 336
Year: 2014 (US 25 March; UK 28 March)
Buy: Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Burning Dark by Adam ChristopherReview
Captain Abraham Idaho ‘Ida’ Cleveland has been assigned to oversee the demolition of U-Star Coast City, an enormous space station that circles the remote and appropriately named Shadow star. But Ida is a hero, the man who saved a planet from the monstrous Spiders, intelligent alien mechanisms, the size of moons and planets. The victory was at great cost, many of Ida’s colleagues were killed and he himself was critically injured, but when he arrives on Coast City all of this is as nothing. There is no record of the battle or of Ida’s past. He is now nothing more than an inconvenience to the Marshal in charge who already has enough on his plate since the disappearance of Coast City’s commander.

Left to his own devices, within a slowly diminishing dismantling environment, Ida builds an old fashioned radio, the type once used a thousand years before during the earliest days of space exploration in the 20th century. He picks up a signal, a white noise, and through it comes the distant sound of a woman counting in Russian before calling out that she is hot and burning.

A near-empty space station is the perfect setting for a chilly ghost story and The Burning Dark develops this perfectly. We witness most events through the eyes of Ida – his obsession with the mysterious Russian voice, his frustration that nobody knows (or believes) why he wears his medal and his isolation among a sneering, bored crew. The marines onboard have little time for Ida, more interested in passing their time until they too can escape this dying station, but two among them, Serra and Carter, begin to notice the shadows, hear the voices. As people begin to vanish, Ida, Serra and Carter, form an uneasy alliance to search for a reason for this madness through the haunted corridors of the space station.

The Burning Dark is such a pageturner. I could not put it down. There are just enough clues hinting at the nature of the forces at work within the Shadow star to keep the pages flying through the fingers. I love ghost stories set in the chilly North and South Poles and The Burning Dark has a similar feel and appeal to it. It is deliciously frightening and I loved the memories it evokes of the early days of space exploration. The back story of the war against the terrifying Spiders – worse than ghosts – adds to the air of horror and threat. On top of that, there is the mystery of conspiracy.

The characters of Ida, Serra and Carter are fascinating but it was Carter who caught my imagination in particular. Carter might be a relatively minor figure compared to Ida but his history is jawdropping and created another world I wanted to investigate.

The Burning Dark is the first of Adam Christopher’s novels that I’ve read; the science fiction setting and theme drew me to this one and I wasn’t disappointed. While there was a section in the final third that lost me a little, and I guessed a twist (although I think that may have been intentional), these are minor points that are more than compensated for by the dark and fearful atmosphere and the absolute drive that the story instills in the reader to keep turning the pages. I’m not certain if there is more to come from this spider-threatened universe or not but The Burning Dark stands alone perfectly. Should there be more from the Spider Wars, I’ll be there.

The Burning Dark isn’t officially published until next week but it is already available to buy in shops and online.