Nucleus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2018 (25 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nucleus by Rory ClementsIt is the summer of 1939 and, although nobody leaves home without their gas mask, England is carrying on as normal. A more immediate threat comes from the IRA which has begun a bombing terror campaign. But events in Europe cannot be ignored indefinitely and world powers – especially America, Germany and Britain – are well aware that in the war that is to come the atom bomb, if such a thing can be created, will be critical for victory. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England has been a centre for scientific discovery and innovation and it is close to a breakthrough. America knows this and so too does Germany. When one of its scientists is murdered and another one disappears, Tom Wilde (a Cambridge professor but an American citizen) becomes caught up in the investigations.

Tom has been instructed by the American government to spy on the inhabitants of a local grand house, Hawksmere Old Hall, including a scientist (and an old friend of Tom’s) Geoff Lancing and Geoff’s sister Clarissa, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and famous film actresses. Meanwhile Tom’s love Lydia has gone into the lion’s den itself – Berlin. A German Jewish scientist and his family has been smuggled out of Germany but a child has been stolen, presumably for blackmail to make the scientist return. Lydia is determined to find him. But this is a conspiracy that stretches across continents and oceans and both Lydia and Tom are soon out of their depth. As Europe hurtles ever closer to war, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the danger to Tom and Lydia more certain.

Nucleus follows on from Corpus, the first novel to feature Tom Wilde. Before this, author Rory Clements was better known for his Elizabethan spy series but Corpus and now Nucleus demonstrate that he is a master of the spy novel whatever the period in which it’s set. Pleasingly, Tom Wilde is a professor of history, especially of the Elizabethan spymaster Walsingham and I love the way in which these two periods of history 350 years apart are shown to share similarities. Tom has his own spymaster to deal with as well as serious issues of who he can trust – it’s difficult to see the truth when you can only glimpse a small part of the bigger picture.

The plotting is superb and deliciously intricate. You do need to keep your wits about you and keep alert and the rewards are enormous. I was thoroughly immersed in the plot and caught up in the tension. The scenes in Germany are especially intense and I found them terrifying. There is one moment in this novel when I actually gasped and had to put the book down. I even flicked through a few pages to find resolution, I couldn’t deal with what I’d ‘heard’.

I love the portrayal of England during 1939. The Old House is a symbol of decadence and the old way of living, one that will shortly be made irrelevant. Lydia is arguably the most appealing and interesting of all of the characters in the novel. It’s good to read a spy novel in which women play an equal role, although if you’re after glamour you’ll certainly find it in Clarissa.

Rory Clements has created two fine characters with Tom and Lydia and he deploys them with cleverness and skill. There’s an air of intellectualism about these novels – as there would be with a professor for the central character – but there are no ivory towers here. The world is waking up to a second world war and Tom will have to get his hands dirty. I loved Corpus. Published in January 2017, it opened up the year’s reading in fine fashion and Nucleus has done exactly the same in 2018. With no doubt at all, this is one of the best historical and spy series being written today. I can’t wait for more.

Other review
Holy Spy


Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (16 January) | 624p | Gifted copy | Buy the book

Iron Gold marks the beginning of a new trilogy by Pierce Brown but it follows on from the Red Rising trilogy. You can read Iron Gold on its own but you will find in it revelations about what has happened before, as well as a return to many familiar characters. For the full impact of events, I’d definitely recommend that you read the Red Rising trilogy first. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

Ten years have passed since the Rising, a revolution that transformed our solar system, levelling the caste system that saw so many enslaved to the Golds. Darrow, a man of Red, turned the worlds upside down, liberating his fellow slaves, rising to the very pinnacle of this new society. But these ten years have not brought peace. The solar system continues to be divided, old prejudices remain, the caste system of colours survives, and war has brought violence and grief to the worlds and it will not end.

Three lives have such different experiences in this new world gone bad – there is Darrow himself, more determined than ever to win the war once and for all, whatever the personal cost; there are two Golds, travelling between planets and moons, striving to do right for the oppressed, but now caught at the very centre of the solar system’s pain; and a young freed Red woman who learns the hard way that slavery is not the worst state to befall a human being. All three stories thread their way through Iron Gold, each with the force and power to spellbind the reader. Countless lives are caught up in each, countless emotions and struggles, desperate battles to survive, to love and to do the right thing, or to hate and to kill, to tear down walls.

Pierce Brown is quite possibly the finest writer of tension and dramatic crisis that I have read. All of his books are epic, in the true sense of the word, their stories heroic, their characters gods and slaves. Morning Star, the third of the Red Rising novels was an extraordinary feat, almost exhausting to read due to the intensity and stress of its situations and characters. How could that book be outdone? The answer is with Iron Gold.

Iron Gold presents a new phase in this epic adventure. Time has exerted its pressure on everyone found in these pages. The ten years since the Rising have been difficult. The strain is about to snap. Pierce Brown is once more a hugely confident and gifted storyteller, putting drama and significance onto almost every page. And the story he tells here is fantastic, to put it very mildly indeed. It is richly layered, complex and engrossing and, above all else, it is full of colour and emotion, conflicting beliefs and perspectives. There are a host of characters here and yet every one of them has a believable past, a fully-rounded personality and a significance for the story. We move between them and look forward to the chapters in which we will return to each one. And the storylines are full of surprises. They come together at times but blink and you might miss the clues.

Pierce Brown is a master of worldbuilding. Whatever planet, moon, city or spaceship we find ourselves on, it feels real. Each is so vividly described. At times we’re presented with scenes of especial drama and action, and they are riveting.

Iron Gold is also a novel with big themes – about one form of government pitted against another, good versus evil, the responsibility of leadership, the duty of the citizen, independence and control, the tragedy of man, the hope of innocence. This is science fiction that has relevance to the present day and our own world, as perhaps the best science fiction should. Iron Gold is an exhilarating and immensely rich read. Its tension is extraordinary, the pain it inflicts at times on characters and readers is real. Pierce Brown has done something remarkable – he has surpassed Morning Star and set an incredibly high standard for his new trilogy. I am in awe of this author. We’re lucky to have him and Darrow’s world.

Other reviews
Red Rising
Golden Son
Morning Star

Traitor by David Hingley

Allison & Busby | 2018 (18 January) | 382p | Review copy | Buy the book

Traitor by David HingleyIt is May 1665 and Mercia Blackwood, with her child Daniel and manservant Nicholas, is at last returning home to England and London after her adventures in America. Surely now she has done enough to win back the favour of Charles II, the King who executed her father for treason, and all that he has promised. But after weeks at sea, her reception home could hardly be worse. It seems that he will demand more from her.

England is at war with the Dutch. The King, and his mistress Lady Castlemaine, believe that there is a spy at court, spilling secrets to the enemy, stolen straight from the King’s War Council. It is believed that the spy is named Virgo and she is thought to be one of the women in closest association with members of the Council. Who better to hunt the spy out than Mercia? She is, after all, herself adored by one of the Council, Sir William Calde. Mercia’s investigations will take her into the heart of the glorious yet debauched royal court. She will also witness the lives of those who serve the powerful, as servants and, sometimes, as little more than pets.

Traitor is the third novel by David Hingley to feature Mercia Blackwood. At the time of writing this, I have read Birthright, the first, but have yet to read Puritan, the second of the series which moved Mercia from London to America on another mission for the King. The fact that I have yet to read Puritan did nothing to harm my enjoyment of Traitor but it certainly made me want to go back and read it. The fact that I didn’t at the time was because the story had moved from London and King Charles – who is such an appealing element of these books – to the New World. But now I’d like to find out what went on. In this third book we are squarely back in London.

The portrayal of Charles II’s court is full of colour. It also reeks with sin. So soon after the Civil War, with England at war once more, there’s a strong sense of the fragility and vulnerability of Charles II’s reign, especially as his children, though many in number, are all illegitimate. There’s hardly a man at court without a mistress, as well as a wife. It leads to complications. And having to unravel it all is Mercia.

I like Mercia. She’s independent and courageous, doing all she can to get what she needs in what is most definitely a man’s world. Women at court are expected to be mere adornments although one suspects that the women are more influential than their men might suppose. But the emphasis is on Mercia’s mission and drive rather than on her character and so she isn’t especially three-dimensional. But, as I say, I do like her.

I particularly enjoyed the elements of the story that took me out of the oversweet court and into the stench of London’s poorest streets and also onto the ships preparing for battle against the Dutch. The fact that this novel is set in 1665 made me expect the Great Plague and, although it does make a cameo appearance, this is very much about the war with the Dutch. I know very little about this, or about the ships that fought it, and so I found this really interesting. There’s another ogre that raises its head in Traitor and this is slavery. These sections were, for me, the best of the book.

I think it’s quite likely that Charles II isn’t quite done with Mercia Blackwood yet and so I’m intrigued to see what will happen to her next, should David Hingley continue her story. This is one of my very favourite periods in British history to read about so I certainly hope he does.

Other review

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the Blog Tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Traitor blog tour banner

Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz | 2018 (25 January) | c.460p | Review copy | Buy the book

Elysium Fire by Alastair ReynoldsI’m sure I’m not the only Alastair Reynolds fan to be thrilled that Prefect Tom Dreyfus has returned to duty, policing the polling democracy of the Glittering Band colonies that ride the orbit of the planet Yellowstone. Elysium Fire is the second so-called ‘Prefect Dreyfus Emergency’ following on from The Prefect, which was first published in 2007 and recently reissued as Aurora Rising in November 2017. It’s a fair few years since I read The Prefect but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of Elysium Fire. There are hints in this book of what went before, as well as returning characters, but I think Elysium Fire can be enjoyed as a stand alone with no trouble at all.

I’m a huge fan of Alastair Reynolds’ novels that take us into Revelation Space and the Prefect emergencies take us back into the history of the Yellowstone system, before the melding plague turned the Glitter Band into the Rust Belt. The countless democracies of the Glitter Band are controlled by the ability of their citizens, through their brain implants, to vote in limitless polls. Unfortunately, those implants are now causing the brains of some of these citizens to melt and the Prefects have worked out that, at this rate of increase, in a few months or years not a soul will be left alive.

This alarming news coincides with the emergence of Devon Garlin, an evangelical speaker who is touring the Glitter Band, preaching against the Prefects and urging the settlements to break away from their control. It’s working. Dreyfus takes it personally, especially as Garlin seems to keep popping up wherever Dreyfus is, and he’s determined to silence him, even if it interferes with his duties to discover the truth behind the malfunctioning or sabotaged implants. He has two proteges, though – Thalia Ng and the hyper-pig Spaver, both of whom are soon deeply immersed in fighting arguably the greatest threat ever to face the Prefect world. The dangers are immense and the path they are taken on is twisty, surprising and dark.

Elysium Rising is a pleasingly complex novel, with several storylines co-existing and affecting the others. It moves between two tales in particular – one as it affects the Prefects and the other, which involves the upbringing of two extraordinary boys within an isolated geodome. All we know for sure is that the two stories will coincide at some point.

For me, though, there are two highlight of this novel and one is its characters. Dreyfus is a fascinating figure. There’s something rather dark about him. History has not been kind to Dreyfus. But this novel doesn’t, for me, have a ‘space noir’ mood about it, despite the cloud that follows Dreyfus about. And that’s probably because of the other Prefects Ng and Spaver. I loved them both – their heroism and bravery as well as their quirkiness.

The other aspect of the novel I loved is its technology. The Prefects are armed with whiphounds, incredible, almost sinister snake-like robotic truncheons or whips that assist with policing, especially crowd control, even surgery. You would not want to get on the wrong side of one of these, especially if you value your limbs at all. They have a life of their own in this novel and are so vividly described. I was also intrigued by the beta-level simulations of the dead that don’t quite understand what happened to their living bodies. And all of this exists within the Glitter Band. I’d have liked to have seen more of it but this is largely a character- and action-led novel. Having read most of the other Revelation Space novels, I know what is to come for Yellowstone and the Glitter Band. That sense of foreboding adds a certain something…

The list of reviews below suggest what a thrill a new Alastair Reynolds novel is for me and Elysium Fire started my new reading year off in fine form (this was the first novel I read in 2018). I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Dreyfus and his other Prefects again in the future facing another emergency, not least because of the tantalising glimpses we’re given of something else, much larger, that threatens from the shadows.

Other reviews
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children 1)
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)
Poseidon’s Wake (Poseidon’s Children 3)
Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap
Pushing Ice
Slow Bullets
With Stephen Baxter – The Medusa Chronicles
Beyond the Aquila Rift

Imperial Vengeance by Ian Ross

Head of Zeus | Ebook: 1 December 2016; Hb: 11 January 2018 | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Imperial Vengeance by Ian RossImperial Vengeance is the fifth novel in Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series. We have followed Aurelius Castus through many years of service to Constantine, as a centurion in Britain and now as something far grander. While you can read Imperial Vengeance as a stand alone novel, this review assumes that you’ve read the other books in the series and have kept up with the political machinations of Constantine and his wife Fausta.

It is AD 323 and the Roman empire is divided. While Constantine controls Rome itself and the west, Licinius is ruler of Egypt and the East. But Constantine wants it all. Helping Constantine to win his glory is his son Crispus, who rules Gaul as Caesar and has won significant victories over the Germanic tribes across the Rhine. Constantine now calls on Crispus to join him in his expedition to the East, to challenge Licinius in battle on sea and land, and to take from him that jewel of the eastern empire – Byzantium. And how could Constantine fail? Now fully committed to Christianity, Constantine marches with Christ at his side.

Aurelius Castus is Crispus’s supreme military commander. This lofty rank means that he must leave his family once more to do all he can to keep his young master alive and safe. Castus is no longer a young man, he wears the scars of battle, but once more he must lead from the front. But Crispus is not making life easy for him – as Constantine nears his twentieth year of rule, Crispus looks to the example of Diocletian who abdicated his throne for his son on such an occasion. Castus couldn’t be more aware of the potential danger of Crispus’s ambition and the terrible decision that he himself would have to take if son turned against father.

Time has moved on for Castus, now that we’ve reached the fifth novel in the Twilight of Empire series. His children are growing, his stepdaughters marrying, his son eager to follow in his steps, but once more Castus must leave them behind as he strides into the Civil War of the AD 320s. This might be a relatively overlooked period by Roman historical fiction but it more than merits this series of novels. Constantine and his mother Helena are remembered with rather a saintly glow, indeed both were canonised, but Ian Ross paints them warts and all and they are fascinating! I particularly enjoyed the way in which Ian Ross deals with the aged and domineering Helena – she is fearsome indeed – while Constantine, with his jutting jaw, is as capricious and cruel as you’d expect from an emperor who puts nothing, absolutely nothing, above his ambition. By contrast, Crispus is a delight, so charming and handsome, militarily gifted and brave, a young god indeed. And with Fausta thrown into the mix, this is an extraordinary family and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about them in this series. In Imperial Vengeance, Constantine outdoes himself.

Castus has a loyal circle of servants and warriors around him and we’ve followed them all through the novels. While I don’t think that Castus has the colour of his imperial masters, he is perfectly placed to guide us through the conflicts and battles of the day. He is older, as are the men who follow him, and each of them has to make a choice about who they serve. Constantine’s Christian zeal is not easy for these old soldiers to understand. It’s going to be a difficult journey.

At the heart of Imperial Vengeance is its battles and here we find them on land and at sea. This is utterly thrilling (especially the sea battles), packed with historical and military details. I’m no expert on warfare during this period but it all certainly feels real and authentic, while the gore, although there is some, is secondary.

My favourite element of Imperial Vengeance, though, is its depiction of the imperial family. All of these figures are absolutely fascinating, while the dynamic between them is both enthralling and lethal. Ian Ross has secured Constantine a firm place in Roman military historical fiction. He makes me want to learn more about him (I was looking things up as I read along) and that is just what I want from a novel that takes me back into the past.

Other reviews
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Simon & Schuster | 2018 (11 January) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah VaughanKate is a successful barrister, a QC who prosecutes those who need to be locked away. But she’s just lost a case and it’s hit her hard. But as she sits at her desk in the Inns of Court, London, her clerk brings her the file for a new case and it immediately catches Kate’s interest. It concerns James Whitehouse, a junior Home Office Minister and confidant of the Prime Minister, a friend of his from his Eton and Oxford University days. Whitehouse has been accused of the rape of Olivia Lytton, one of his researchers, with whom Whitehouse had had an affair. It’s hard to imagine a more high profile case. It could give Kate’s career the push it deserves.

Sophie is a woman whose life has been turned upside down. She is married to James Whitehouse, the doting father of their children, whose political career is on the up, and they live in a beautiful house, enjoying such a wonderful lifestyle. Learning that James has had an affair with researcher Olivia Lytton is appalling for Sophie but she knows that she will stand by him. But then, as the reporters camp outside her door, it all gets much, much worse. Sophie loves her husband, he must be innocent. She must hold her family together.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a timely and tense psychological thriller. It presents men of privilege, men who believe that they’re above the law and may have evaded it for decades, but those days are changing. It all sounds very familiar, especially when you throw in Eton schooldays and a decadent and exclusive dining club at Oxford University. Kate and Sophie approach this story from different angles – one is actively trying to challenge the status quo while the other wishes things stayed as they were. It’s hard not to sympathise with both positions. Sophie is part of the establishment, it’s understandable that she wants to keep her perfect life as it was, but this is the type of crime that, if proven, could collapse the world around her.

The novel is presented from several perspectives but mostly from the point of view of Kate and Sophie and also in the present tense. This raises the tension, the clash in perspectives, and also contrasts the legal and personal elements of the story and case. James Whitehouse is a different man to different people and so we’re left to make up our own opinions. This is especially true during the court scenes and the extended inquisition of Olivia in the witness box. So we have the perspective of a third woman and these scenes are perhaps the most powerful of all.

With no doubt at all, Anatomy of a Scandal is a fast and compelling read. Its structure, moving between the main characters and also between the past and present, contributes to the pace. It is also very well-written with fascinating insight into the legal process and also into the psychological state of the novel’s characters. But I did have some issues with it, mostly due to its big twist which I did not care for at all and hoped wasn’t coming. I know psychological thrillers are expected to have these twists but these days it rather puts me off. I’d rather have a story that stays true to its characters and doesn’t bend them to fit the twist. My other main issue was with its similarity to the reported student days of Cameron and Johnson etc in Oxford. It’s all so odious it automatically puts me off every character concerned. As a result, there were a fair few characters here I had no time for and unfortunately that also included Sophie.

Nevertheless, although I had a bit of trouble with some of the plot devices, Anatomy of a Scandal was a book I’d been looking forward to reading and it certainly did keep my attention. Sarah Vaughan writes very well and I’m very interested to see what she does next while hoping that the skill of her writing is allowed to triumph over the ubiquitous twist.

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston

The Dome Press | 2018 (11 January) | 253p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beautiful Star by Andrew SwanstonEach of these seven stories has at its heart a real historical character, bringing to life a historical event that affected the lives of everyone who remembered it. Real people, as well as fictional characters, inhabit these tales of extraordinary circumstances and the result is moving and powerful. The collection is also most elegantly written, as you’d expect from Andrew Swanston, and at times the emotion is almost understated as people have to deal with what has happened. No drama is made of it. Life must continue.

The seven stories are mostly drawn from the 17th-19th centuries with the notable exception of ‘The Flying Monk’, which competes for the title of my favourite of the collection. Set in the early years of the 11th century we meet the young monk Eilmer who is determined to prove that a human can fly, once he is able to build his wings. Everyone who meets Eilmer and watches his experiments is inspired by him.

Two other stories take us to sea. In ‘Beautiful Star’, the longest story in the anthology, we find ourselves on the coast of Scotland in 1875. A community is stricken by a devastating storm that catches its fishing fleet at sea. But, as with the other stories, Andrew Swanston doesn’t just show us the impact of the main event, he leads up to it by building up the layers of ordinary but remarkable lives. As a result, their destiny is felt to be even more real and devastating. I carry in my head the image of the wives and daughters carrying their husbands and brothers on their backs to the boats. Superstition forbade men from getting their feet wet ahead of their voyage.

In ‘HMS Association’ we meet Daniel Jones, a man pressed into the navy in 1708 and who must endure war against France as they besiege the town of Toulon. This story might be short but it’s certainly sweet. I would have liked much, much more of this.

Other stories also carry us to war, including ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ which goes back to the battle of Waterloo and tells the tale from the perspective of both English and French sides. ‘The Castle’ goes back to an earlier war, the English Civil War, and presents the astonishing story of Lady Mary Bankes, a mother of twelve children, who led the Royalist defence of Corfe Castle in 1645 after the death of her husband. This is incredible and makes me want to revisit Corfe as soon as possible.

In ‘The Tree’ we have another story from the period of the English Civil War, or just after it, as the victorious Parliamentarian forces hunt for the vanquished King Charles II across the land in 1651 following his defeat in Wales. Charles famously hid in an oak tree and that’s the story we’re presented with here and I loved it. This is another of those short but sweet tales.

In ‘A Witch and A Bitch’ we have something a little different. It presents the story of Jane Wenham who was famously tried for witchcraft in 1712. Known as the Witch of Walkern, the troubles of her life are here laid bare, as well as the maliciousness of her accusers, and the kindness of her granddaughter. It’s a moving story and tells us much about attitudes to witchcraft among ordinary men and women, as well as courts and officials, at a time that recoiled from the witch trials of the 17th century.

I loved this collection. It is elegant and full of heart. If I had to have a least favourite it would be ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ but that is simply because it draws on a historical period that does little for me, so the fault is mine entirely. But I adored the other six stories and took something from each of them. They also inspired me to find out more about the events that they portray. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories in the past but I do read and appreciate them much more now. And it’s all because of collections like these.

Other reviews and features

The King’s Return

Guest post by Andrew Swanton: Spies and spying in the Civil War