Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey (Expanse 6)

Orbit | 2016 (8 December) | 538p | Review copy | Buy the book

Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. CoreyFor the last few years it has been my absolute pleasure to lose myself at regular intervals within the Expanse. There are few novels I look forward to quite as much as these and the Expanse is now well-established as my favourite running science fiction series. Babylon’s Ashes is the sixth in the series and, while you could enjoy it as a standalone book, I really advise against it. Each of the books is very different but each complements the others and broadens even further this brilliantly imagined future world and solar system. As a whole, they form the story of Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Whatever goes on around the crew, however extraordinary it might be, the heart of the series lives aboard the Rocinante. It is an utter delight to follow their adventures as they do their utmost to save humanity from itself – and from something else. Do read the books in order. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

The war in the solar system continues with Earth, the mother world of mankind, now all but destroyed by the militant forces of the Free Navy, an organisation that claims to act on behalf of the Belters, the inhabitants and miners of the industrial outer planets and the asteroid belt. Many humans have sought escape on the planets beyond the strange gate complex but these new fragile colonies rely on supply ships from the solar system for survival – these ships have become the target for Marco Inaros, the leader of the Free Navy. Mars and Earth have formed an uneasy alliance in the effort to fight back and who better to lead their enterprise than the infamous Captain Jim Holden, regarded as hero by many and traitor by others? The battle lines are drawn aound the Medina Station at the entrance to the gate network, a place so alien it may never be understood, never be tamed.

As anyone who’s read the Expanse series knows, these are no ordinary military SF novels. Each of these books is strongly character-driven and Babylon’s Ashes is no different. Jim Holden is a wonderful figure who has evolved over the course of the novels as the responsibilities have weighed ever heavier on his shoulders. He always has a smile for his crew. He inspires them. But they know him well and can see the cares that lie below. There’s something so touching about the way that he gathers video and audio clips of people living ordinary lives to try and prove to a solar system at war that every one within it is a human being. It’s great to see some of our much-loved characters again, including my favourites Bobbie and Avasarala. And there’s another figure from the past, too – Captain Michio Pa, whom we first met in Abaddon’s Gate. And she is fantastic.

The novels might depict dark and frightening events but ultimately the message is one of hope, compassion and humanity. And this is achieved by making us care so deeply for the crews of the ships that we travel aboard. The crews of the Rocinante and the Connaught view themselves as families – the Connaught crew actually is a family with members forming one marriage. There are other dysfunctional examples of family aboard the principal Free Navy vessel for contrast but the overriding message is that a harmonious family, however unconventional its composition, can prop up society. But what a battering it’s going to take.

As usual in the Expanse series the chapters flit between the different characters, allowing us to move around the conflict and see what life has become on planets, on ships, on space stations, and in the presence of the awe-inspiring gates. The action sequences are deadly and thoroughly exciting but the thrill of Babylon’s Ashes extends beyond the combat because of the intensity of the crisis facing this poor solar system. This is a series with big vision!

Each of the books is different but in them all we can’t forget the protomolecule and the threatening alien shadow. Anything is possible in the future for Holden, his ship and crew, and the people of Earth, the inner planets, the Belt and the colonies so far away. This is a spectacular series and I can’t wait to see where James S.A. Corey and the Rocinante take us next.

Other reviews
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse 1)
Caliban’s War (Expanse 2)
Cibola Burn (Expanse 4)
Nemesis Games (Expanse 5)

Wings of the Storm by Giles Kristian

Bantam Press | 2016 (1 December) | 309p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wings of the Storm by Giles KristianWings of the Storm concludes, in a magnificent hardback, Giles Kristian’s mighty Viking Saga that chronicles Sigurd Haraldarson’s rise to glory in the later years of the 8th century. Before you step any further, do be aware that you need to have read God of Vengeance and Winter’s Fire first. This review, which, I’m honoured to say, opens the Wings of the Storm blog tour on publication day, assumes that you have so please tread carefully.

The fame of Sigurd is growing. Warriors, both male and female, have been drawn to his flame, attracted by the promise of arm rings, wealth and a noble hero’s death, iron weapon in hand. But Sigurd’s relentless mission, to confront the oath-breaker King Gorm, the betrayer of his people, killer of his family, has stalled. Sigurd and his warriors have become too useful to Alrik who needs them to defend his stolen hillfort from his great enemy, the jarl Guthrum. The rewards of success are high – boxes of iron and silver, even pieces of gold – but the price of failure is one Sigurd is not used to paying. But Guthrum is powerful, no easy man to beat, nor are his men, and Sigurd finds himself a captive, intended to be sacrificed to the gods in the sacred temple at Ubsala. But, as Sigurd regularly reminds Guthrum, Sigurd is Odin-favoured and the fate of us all lies within the gift of the gods.

Giles Kristian has Viking blood flowing through his veins and every page of this novel, and the trilogy, is enriched by the author’s inherent empathy for and understanding of the period that he so vividly and colourfully evokes. This is a saga set during a time and place that fascinate but can also seem remote and unknowable. Giles Kristian throws all of the shadows to one side and rewards us with an epic vision of heroism, war, vengeance, blood, warships, snowy mountains and thick forest, gods and feasting, that seems both real and a glorious dream. The characters are larger than life, literally at times, and yet, despite their objectives and their methods of attaining them, they are still recognisable human beings who have flaws, can suffer, can inflict great pain, and can die, every one of them. Sigurd’s trust and confidence in his gods seems unwavering but even Sigurd has his moments of doubt, particularly when a sword or axe is held at his throat.

Other much loved characters return with Sigurd, notably Floki, Olaf and Valgerd, but there are more added to their number and not all of them are who we’d expect. As Sigurd’s fame spreads so too does his appeal as leader. Sigurd might not yet be a jarl but he is close. The parallel story of Sigurd’s sister, Runa, also continues in Wings of the Storm, adding a tantalising glimpse of another part of this world, an island-bound community of warrior women.

Sigurd’s destiny shapes this novel and it is so satisfying to see the trilogy draw to its magnificent and breathtaking close. War, battle, blood pulses through the last exhilarating and traumatic third of the book and to call it intense is an understatement. There’s plenty of gore and violence but there’s also high emotion and these Vikings brought me to the edge of my seat.

The end of such a wonderful trilogy can be saddening as well as satisfying but Giles Kristian has given us a silver lining – the sensational Raven trilogy, which continues the saga of Sigurd, the favourite of the gods.

Other reviews
The Terror: a short story
God of Vengeance (Rise of Sigurd 1)
Winter’s Fire (Rise of Sigurd 2)
Raven: Blood Eye; Raven: Sons of Thunder; Raven: Odin’s Wolves
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury
With Wilbur Smith – Golden Lion

Find Giles Kristian online
Twitter: @gileskristian
Facebook: GilesKristian

I am so proud and chuffed to open the blog tour with this review. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.


The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

Bantam Press | 2016 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Beautiful Dead by Belinda BauerEve Singer is the face of crime on TV’s iWitness News. Working closely with her cameraman Joe, Eve’s job is to chase crime, to capture it on film before any other news stations, to speak to the camera, to find the human story of pain, and bring the horror of crimes and accidents into homes. And all this while desperately trying not to throw up in the corner with the awfulness of what she has to see and report on to keep her job. Her boss has another reporter in the wings, a younger, blonder model ready to step in front of the camera and steal Eve’s job. Eve needs bigger and bigger stories. Luckily for her, there’s a serial killer stalking the streets of London who’d like very much to give Eve that story. She’s caught his eye.

The killer craves an audience. He needs to spread death. He has to claim lives and he feels nothing but gratitude to the corpses he leaves behind for their last, bloody gift. He wants his deadly talent to be appreciated. Eve, he’s sure, will do that. He just needs to impress her first.

The first chapter of The Beautiful Dead is one of the most bloodcurdling and utterly gripping opening chapters that I’ve ever read in crime fiction. I couldn’t have put it down after those few pages if I’d wanted to and that was the last thing on my mind. This is a book I read late into the night, finishing it the next day. If you’re after a compelling, urgent pageturner then this is it.

That opening chapter also captures the style and skill of Belinda Bauer. Something absolutely horrendous is being described but the tone is pitilessly sharp, witty and self-aware. It goes straight to the heart of the matter, turning the world of murder and serial killers into a reality. And the shocks follow, one after another, as people meet their destiny at the merciless hands of this murderer. This does mean that you’ll find blood and gore within these pages but, even though I’m such a squeamish reader, I didn’t have to look away. I was too gripped.

Hand in hand with the crime side of things is the agonising story of Eve’s relationship with her much loved father, now stricken with dementia. We spend much of the novel inside Eve’s head and, like most of us, it is full of conflicting and difficult anxieties and cares. And now, to add to the guilt and the worry, there comes a new emotion for Eve to deal with – fear.

A great deal of praise has surrounded The Beautiful Dead since its publication earlier this month. Not a word of it is undeserved. With no doubt at all it will be among my top crime thrillers of 2016. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first novel by Belinda Bauer I’ve read. It will be the first of many.

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit | 2016 (1 December) | 308p | Review copy | Buy the book

Insurgence by Ken MacLeodInsurgence is the second novel in Ken MacLeod’s science fiction trilogy The Corporation Wars and it follows hot on the heels of Dissidence. You need to have read Dissidence before Insurgence and this review assumes you’ve done just that.

Many light years from Earth and a thousand years in the future, corporations fight for contol of a planet and its orbiting moons. Rich in resources, these moons are covered in busy robots which work for rival organisatons that patrol the solar system in space stations or modules and represent different interests on Earth. And all went well until some of the robots were asked to do harm to others of their kind. This resulted in a number of the robots achieving a level of self-consciousness and awareness that has continued to spread. To the Corporations this was a declaration of war and when their lawyers – beamed across to the robots as holograms in suits – failed to calm the newly militant and independent robots, the soldiers were sent in.

But these are no ordinary soldiers. So far from Earth, these fighters have no bodies of their own. They simply comprise the consciousness of long dead warriors, rebooted into mechanoid form. But when theyre not fighting, or if they’re ‘killed’ in action, they are returned to the modules where they live a virtual existence, in human form, on a planet-like world, where time itself ticks at a different pace. The most famous of these soldiers is known as Carlos the Terrorist, a name given to him for the outrages he allegedly committed in the 21st century. But we all know now that the past cannot be trusted. So far away from Earth and human time, nothing exists except the fight between corporations, and between corporations and sentient robots. Reality itself is not to be relied upon.

Insurgence takes us to a very strange place where very little is as it seems, except perhaps for the robots themselves, who have learned that if anyone or anything has rights to this solar system it’s them. The robots face a steep learning curve as they are confronted by the politics of corporations that are separated from an origin that they continue to emulate. Their mission is to make the planet habitable for humanity but everything here questions the nature of what humanity is.

Carlos and other virtual human fighters like him are themselves divided – remnant ideology from ancient wars continues to pit one module against another. And yet each of these individuals represents a life and, despite their extraordinary circumstances, they still have feelings for one another – they go to the pub, they make love, they walk along the beach. They still live in a place that gives them the comfort of home, something to fight for. But is this ultimately what they really want?

Ken MacLeod is such a fine writer, a master of clever science fiction. There is so much here to make the reader think but there are also moments that are wondrous. There’s a scene early on when one of the fighters wakes up only to find himself in an environment without colour. He has become a line drawing, nothing more. The concept of time is brilliantly treated. The characters are difficult to warm to, with the exception of Carlos, but that’s hardly susprising. Rather oddly, though, I was drawn to the robot Baser. He, or it, more than anyone or anything, undergoes change, physical and mental, and I loved watching it. In the so-called human world he is frightening but in his own world, the real world, he is inspiring and brave. One senses, though, that his need to trust someone could be his undoing.

I think it would be a benefit to read Insurgence as soon after Dissidence as possible. Insurgence allows the reader little time to catch up. It’s been a few months since I read Dissidence and so I did feel a little lost at the beginning. There are a lot of characters to follow and also some complicated politics but this did straighten out after a few chapters and I stopped worrying about being confused and focused on the larger picture.

Insurgence is a strong middle novel and points to an intriguing conclusion in next year’s Emergence. Both robots and human mechanisms have outgrown their original confines and the future looks fascinating, albeit as dangerous and conflicted as ever. I’m particularly looking forward to discovering what lies ahead on that superhabitable planet, which, in reality, seems to be anything but habitable.

I must mention that Insurgence is a stunning small hardback – the most beautiful looking book I’ve read this year.

Other reviews
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

Harper | 2016 (1 December) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

First of the Tudors by Joanna HicksonIt is 1451 and Henry VI, a troubled and unhappy man, more monk than king, realises that he is in need of family. He has been unable to give his queen, Marguerite of Anjou, the child they need to secure their royal line, and the royal dukes are becoming increasingly watchful and belligerent. Henry summons his half-brothers to court, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the sons of a secret and illegal marriage between Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois and the Welsh poet Owen Tudor who stole her heart. Soon they are the confidants of Henry and his queen, given titles and lands, precedence, and the prospect of a rich and noble marriage. Lucky for them, then, that there is another new person at court – Margaret Beaufort, the charismatic, painfully young and tiny heiress, the richest in the land and in the gift of the king.

Edmund and Jasper endeavour to find their way at court in their different ways, with Edmund being the one to win Margaret Beaufort. Jasper deals with his disappointment in the best way he can, serving Henry as his most loyal and trusted servant, providing advice and support to Henry and then to Marguerite as Henry slips into illness and the country descends into civil war. Jasper has other cares. The fates have dealt their hand and Jasper is now custodian of Edmund and Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor. And it is in raising Henry, looking after his grand estates in Wales and growing close to Jane, young Henry’s governess, that Jasper finds comfort. But the call to arms isn’t far off as the Duke of York declares war on the king. The future has never been so uncertain for Henry VI, Jasper, Margaret Beaufort and the young Henry Tudor.

First of the Tudors picks up the thread of the story begun with The Agincourt Bride and continued with The Tudor Bride. These magnificent, enchanting novels told the tale of Catherine of Valois’ transformation into Henry V’s Queen of England and then, pulling happiness from grief, wife of Owen Tudor. And now, Joanna Hickson returns to the story of Catherine’s family, focusing on her second Tudor son, Jasper, and his closeness with her royal son, Henry VI. There’s no need at all to have read these two books before – First of the Tudors begins afresh – but I can never resist the opportunity to urge people to read The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride. I adore these two books and how good it is to find that First of the Tudors is every bit as wonderful.

As is regularly the case with Joanna Hickson’s novels, the narrative is split between two characters. This time Jasper’s perspective is alternated with that of Jane, the woman he loves and looks after his household and his ward Henry Tudor. This structure works brilliantly well because it gives the reader the best of both worlds – the court and the progress of war and the more domestic story of the childhood of Henry Tudor, with all of the instability brought about by the Wars of the Roses. I loved the characters of Jasper and Jane and their story is every bit as involving as the grander one played out by Henry VI, Marguerite, the Duke of York and Warwick the Kingmaker. But all these characters and more are also brought to life.

A standout figure for me is Margaret Beaufort. Joanna Hickson captures something enthralling about her. There is a power and strength to her that contrasts so well with her vulnerability and, for the earlier part of the novel at least, her innocence. Watching that innocence be destroyed is one of the most affecting and compelling parts of the novel. I’ve read many portraits of Margaret Beaufort in fiction over the years and this is without doubt my favourite.

Despite the focus on Jasper, Margaret, Jane, Henry VI and Queen Marguerite, there is another figure here who carries the weight of destiny on his young shoulders – Henry Tudor. First of the Tudors is the first, I trust, in a new series that will chart Henry’s path to the throne and I am so excited at the prospect. Henry VII is one of the most fascinating figures in English royal history but has, perhaps not surprisingly, always been overshadowed in fiction, and perhaps in history, by his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I. But it’s with Henry Tudor that it all began and it’s an astonishing story and his uncle Jasper has such an important part to play in it.

There is romance in First of the Tudors but it isn’t a romantic novel, nor is it focused on the battles of the Wars of the Roses. Instead, this is a marvellous character-driven portrait of a family, albeit an extraordinary family with no normal cares and worries, leading unusual lives. And the setting is equally evocative. This is a tale that moves between castles. Coincidentally, I visited a fair few of the castles mentioned here in September and now I am desperate to go back. Joanna Hickson has brought those stone walls back to life and filled them with the voices of the people who called them home. With no doubt at all, this is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year and it’s the perfect novel to curl up with on a long winter’s evening.

Other reviews
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride
Red Rose, White Rose
An interview

Ocean of Storms by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown

Ocean of Storms | Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown | 2016 (1 December) | 47North | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ocean of Storms by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K BrownIn the near future, a single moment changes everything. A catastrophic and mysterious event splits the surface of the Moon, opening a massive torn vent. The force of the explosion hits the Earth in the form of an enormous electromagnetic pulse that stops everything in its tracks – no power, no communication, nothing. Planes fall from the sky, people are isolated and frightened, everybody expects the worst. A cold war between America and China is about to reach the point of no return, with warships ready to strike, missiles armed, their targets selected. For a moment, as the lights turn back on, hostilities take a back seat as both nations try to find out the cause of the catastrophe but, when a signal from the moon suggests that forces neither natural nor human were behind it, a new space race is initiated as both countries compete to land on the Moon first.

In these uncertain days, nothing goes quite as planned, and it is soon clear that an uneasy, united mission is the answer to the problem of how to reach the Moon quickly and in one piece. But the crew comprises more than astronauts, there are archaeologists, too. Understanding what it is that has torn the Moon open will take all their skills. And all the time, an Earth on the brink of war watches and waits.

The moment I heard about Ocean of Storms I was so excited to read it. It sounded just like the kind of science fiction novel that I love, combining first contact, a mission into space and the hint of something apocalyptic on the horizon. And there’s a good chunk of Ocean of Storms that fulfils its promise. The beginning is thrilling and the momentum is maintained as America works to put together its mission to the Moon. I really enjoyed the detail of this. It felt believable as well as tense. The sections on the Moon are also excellent and intriguing as well as exciting.

However, this is a novel of two halves and, for me, the second half didn’t live up to the first as the science fiction fell away and we are left with a rather plodding and implausible conspiracy thriller, mostly based very firmly on Earth. This did feel a bit of an anti climax. The care that had been spent during the first half to make us empathise and understand the characters also falls away and the baddie, as this second half demands one, isn’t as interesting as the mystery of what lay on the Moon. As this is a novel with two authors, it makes me wonder how this affected the structure of the book. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a sizeable chunk of Ocean of Storms and parts of it are irresistible.

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson

Headline | 2016 | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn BensonIt is London 1898 and Eleonora (Ellie) Mallory was born at the wrong time. She might have a degree from the University of London but it counts for almost nothing in this man’s world. What she really wants to be doing is fulfilling her ambitious archaeological dreams, just like her cousin Neil who is currently digging up Egyptian ruins, but she’s had to settle for an archivist job in London and even that looks like it’s about to come to an end thanks to her recent arrest – Ellie is a proud suffragette. But as Ellie sits in her boss’s office waiting to be sacked she notices an old psalter amongst the mess of papers scattered around his desk and in it is an unusual medallion and what appears to be a map to a lost ‘white’ city hidden away in the jungles of central America. Ellie cannot resist it, nor its lure of adventure.

But Ellie is not the only one after the map and when it brings trouble to her home she does something extraordinary. In disguise, Ellie runs into the night and boards a ship bound for central America, for excitement, adventure, riches, independence, jungles, snakes, evil traps, villains and murderers, a potentially agonising death, and handsome maverick archaeologist Adam Bates.

The Smoke Hunter is a lot of fun. A relatively long novel, its pages are packed to the gills with the promise of adventure and freedom for this young woman who fights against the rules of the age and gender. The prologue sets the scene perfectly, evoking the mysterious lost civilisation that Ellie is so intent on rediscovering. The novel is reminiscent of gloriously fun archaeology movies set in the golden days of exploration, such as Indiana Jones and the Mummy films. Ellie is described so well, her thoughts and dreams as well as her frustration and inner rage, that she is easy to picture.

I think that for me, though, there are too many occasions when Ellie pretends that she isn’t swooning over Adam’s strong biceps or his handsome face. They seem to surprise each other in various states of undress on a regular basis and Ellie’s underclothes have a habit of clinging to her when they’re wet. Adam himself seems a rather familiar character type and I also found their continual misunderstandings rather waring and predictable. The main issue for me on reflection is that Ellie seems out of time. She doesn’t ring true as a young woman of 1898 and neither does her friend Constance.

All of this is probably me taking a light historical adventure far too seriously. The Smoke Hunter is undoubtedly entertaining and, as Ellie and Adam try to stay one step ahead of the baddies while solving the enigmatic mystery of the smoking mirror (not to mention a bunch of death traps), it offers hours of escapist pleasure – no bad thing in these grim times and that was a big reason why I was drawn to it. It certainly cheered me up and I looked forward to picking it up each day, never quite sure what would happen next in the dangerously enticing jungle.