Before Mars by Emma Newman

Gollancz | 2018 (19 April) | 340p | Review copy | Buy the book

Before Mars by Emma NewmanAfter months of solitary travel, Dr Anna Kubrick has arrived at Mars Principia, the base on Mars run by GaborCorps for the purpose of science, entertainment and making money. Anna will be the base’s new geologist but Gabor wants her there primarily for her ‘hobby’ – Anna is an artist and he believes that her Mars paintings will be priceless. She can also help Banks, Gabor’s very own TV presenter, whose series about life on Mars is so hugely popular. But Anna arrives to find that not all of the small crew are glad to see her. She’s particularly wary of the base’s psychiatrist and that suspicion is boosted when Anna finds a notice in her quarters warning her not to trust her – but the note is written in Anna’s own handwriting. Matters become even more strange when Anna realises that her wedding ring isn’t the one she wore when she left Earth. And then there’s that one human footprint left in a crater that has never been visited by mankind…

Before Mars is the third novel by Emma Newman set in her perfectly created Planetfall universe. Each of the novels stands alone but the main characters in each – fascinating women all – are troubled to varying degrees with mental disorders of different kinds. Anna Kubrick has a history of paranoia and she’s well aware that her increasing suspicion about the base could be easily misconstrued. The novel is written in the first person, with Anna’s voice, and so we’re made keenly aware of her self-doubt, her reasoning and her fear, as she argues with herself about what she is experiencing. This is also a world where everything is recorded and can be re-lived as a ‘mersive’. When life is hard, it’s easy to become addicted to these happier memories.

Emma Newman is so brilliant at worldbuilding. Life aboard Mars Principia is vividly described as is the hostile yet beautiful world of Mars outside the habitat’s walls. I also loved the way in which society back on Earth is presented. This is a near future world in which the level of one’s human rights now depends on one’s salary. An almost communist capitalism controls society. Money is God. The state provides but only to the level that you can afford. And, not surprisingly, control is everything and, just as everything is recorded, so too do AI’s watch over everybody’s decisions. The glimpses of life back on Earth that we’re given tantalise – they’re both normal and so far away.

The importance of the Pathfinder, a being that is so crucial to the series as a whole, continues and this adds such a fascinating level of intrigue and speculation about what lies out there, beyond the solar system. There’s a contrast between hope and resignation, everywhere else and Earth. Mars is somewhere caught in the middle. And it’s up to Anna to try and make sense of it.

Planetfall is such a wonderful book by such a fine writer – it’s beautiful, elegant and also so insightful about the human condition. This is strongly continued in Before Mars. I would certainly suggest that you read Planetfall first but otherwise these are stand alone novels (I have yet to read After Atlas although it’s climbing high on my reading mountain), all throwing light on an extraordinary, emotionally powerful and gently dystopian future. Before Mars finishes in such a way that it strongly suggests another book may be on the way. I really, really hope so.

Other review
Planetfall

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Retribution: Centurions III by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (19 April) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Retribution completes Anthony Riches’ superb Centurions trilogy, the dramatic and thrilling portrayal of the Batavi Revolt that followed the death of Nero in AD 68 and ended in AD 70. You couldn’t read Retribution without having read the previous two novels – Betrayal and Onslaught – and so this review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is January AD 70 and the Roman forces under siege by the Batavi at the Old Camp on the Rhine are nearing the end of what they can endure. For months they have held off the Batavi but now, with nothing left to eat, the four thousand men inside have little choice. All eyes are watching how Kivilaz, the Batavi prince and leader, deals with the surrender. Because it’s clear to many now that it’s only a matter of time before the Batavi are defeated, bringing this bloody civil war to an end. Vespasian is now emperor, his legions (which have sworn loyalty to a string of emperors) are behind him and one or two of them have something to prove, especially the famous Twenty-First Rapax which is marching northwards with fiery zeal and determination in every step. But one thing is sure – the Batavi are not going to give up without a fight. More lives will be lost, more blood will be spilled. How can the northern Roman empire survive this?

In Retribution, Anthony Riches continues the story of four centurions – two Roman, two Batavi – although now the action is pared down to several key events as each of our centurions faces a crisis that brings with it the risk of deadly consequences. I’m mentioning no names here because you need to find out for yourselves which of them will live to fight another day but you can be assured that each of them knows what is demanded of them and no quarter will be given.

This is Roman military fiction at its very best, not least because we have been given the context for this war. These three novels cover just two years. Time has been spent on exploring the origins of the war, the motives of its main proponents, as well as the daily routine of soldiers on the march and in battle, on both sides. Time is given to both Batavi and Romans. There is good and bad, right and wrong on both sides. The Roman leadership is well aware that it is to blame for the revolt in the first place, for sending the imperial Batavi bodyguard home from Rome in disgrace after the death of Nero. But this has almost become irrelevant now that the war has escalated to include other Germanic tribes. Peace will not be won easily.

The action sequences in Retribution are outstanding. There are soldiers here on both sides that we’ve got to know very well and it’s heart in the mouth stuff to watch them all in such peril, fighting for their lives and those of their comrades. We feel the benefit of Anthony Riches’ detailed knowledge of Roman warfare. We’re thrown into the heart of it all. But there’s also a human cost to this that goes beyond falling in battle – what these soldiers witness and endure leaves scars, mental and physical. There are atrocities on both sides which are harrowing to read about. Civilians suffer. Bravery and courage are often rewarded with death. It all makes this war feel very real, bringing the past to life.

The previous books in the trilogy rewarded a close reading due to the large number of characters with similar names in forts scattered along the Rhine. Once more, in Retribution, we’re given a useful list of characters and maps, but Retribution is an easier novel to follow. Events are building to a head, everyone is in their place, and we’re much clearer about who is who. The writing in this trilogy is very good indeed. It’s vigorous, precise, exciting, with the barracks language kept to the minimum to be used when and where it matters most.

The Centurions trilogy is a triumph with Retribution quite possibly my favourite of all of Anthony Riches’ novels – and I’ve read and loved every single one of them. The trilogy presents an informative and fascinating overview of this critical period of Roman history, giving fair time to all sides, while also honing in on certain people and places, showing how this devastating war affected the ordinary soldier as well as the men who commanded them. Roman military historical fiction does not get better than this.

Other reviews and features
Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
Betrayal: The Centurions I
Onslaught: The Centurions II
An interview for The Eagle’s Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

London Rules by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2018 (1 February) | 345p | Bought copy | Buy the book

London Rules by Mick HerronLondon Rules is the fifth book in Mick Herron’s Slough House series of spy novels. This is, though, only the first I’ve read, which definitely puts me at a disadvantage when trying to review it and so, as it is a bought book and not a review copy, I’m just going to attempt a shortish review about why I’ve now gone and bought up the entire backlist.

Slough House in London is a place where spies go when they’re in disgrace and nothing more is expected from them, except for the forlorn hope that they won’t cause any more trouble for Queen and Country. These men and women are the Slow Horses of the secret service and they’re led by the extraordinary Jackson Lamb, a man who is held together by bad habits. The rest are a mix of alcoholics, drug addicts, deranged techies, with even the odd psychopath thrown in. Unfortunately one of them has become involved in the biggest crisis facing M15 and M16 today. A gang of terrorists is working to a plan to throw the country into chaos, beginning with a mass shooting in a small village in Derbyshire. Matters aren’t helped by the uneasy and volatile relationship between the teetering Prime Minister, the rogue MP who launched Brexit and a popular Muslim mayor candidate. The whole situation is about to explode and, unfortunately, Slough House is on the case.

The story is brilliant! I loved the way multiple threads are followed at the same time, some coming together, others not, but the huge appeal of this book, and I presume the others, is its characters. Not just the Slow Horses themselves but everyone who passes through the pages. Some might only pop by but they’re still painted with full colour and personality. The Slow Horses themselves, though, are priceless. The IT expert Roddy’s innate belief and confidence in himself as a man beloved by women is laugh outloud funny. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t even realise when he’s being tortured – he just thinks he’s helping people with their enquiries and is pleased to be so useful. The other Slow Horses are also a joy but with some there is also a touch of pathos. One or two are traumatised. There’s another one who’s just discovered that there’s only one situation in which he feels truly alive – and that isn’t a situation that’s good for anyone.

London Rules is a very funny book. Mick Herron’s writing is truly fantastic and he has such a gift of observation. Even though I’m new to these characters, I immediately felt like I knew them. This book reveals things that have happened in the past. It doesn’t spoil them; it just makes me want to find out what happened – what is it that made some of these people like this? Especially Shirley. I loved Shirley. Mick Herron is so good at combining tragedy and comedy, showing how closely the two can be linked and how this pulls emotions from us. I now have the first four books and I can’t wait for the time to read them. I love spy novels and so it’s great to find a new series, which definitely gives the genre an original twist, to enjoy and follow.

I went to a book event at Waterstones in Oxford last week in which Andrew Taylor (another favourite author of mine) was interviewed by Mick Herron. It was a wonderful event and it was such a pleasure to meet Mick (on the right below) and tell him how hard I’d fallen for his brilliant books and characters.

Andrew Taylor and Mick Herron

The Killing House by Claire McGowan

Headline | 2018 (5 April) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Killing House by Claire McGowanThe Killing House is the sixth and, I believe, final novel in Claire McGowan’s series about forensic psychologist Paula Maguire. Everything that has happened in previous novels comes to a head here and, although you could read it as a standalone, I think you really do need to have read at least some of the other books first. Because this is when the great mystery in Paula’s own life is brought to a close. Paula’s job is to help police find people, including the Disappeared who vanished during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Paula’s mother Margaret was among the Disappeared. For years Paula has searched for the truth. Now she just might find it. If you’ve read any of the earlier books you’ll know how this search has dominated not just Paula’s life but also those of so many people around her.

Two bodies have been found in an abandoned farmhouse – one is a well-known member of the IRA who disappeared in 1993 and the other is a young girl. Both have been murdered but, whereas the man was thrown in his grave, the girl was carefully placed. 1993 is a key year for Paul Maguire. This is the year in which her mother vanished and the clues – as well as rumour – suggest that the Wallace family who used to own the farmhouse may have had something to do with Margaret’s disappearance. Paula is now based in London but she is back in her old hometown in Northern Ireland for a wedding. The timing is perfect. She’s soon on the case and there isn’t one person who doesn’t know how personal this is for Paula, her father, the man she loves, her child, for all of them.

I’ve now read and enjoyed four of the six books in this series and I have no hesitation in proclaiming The Killing House my favourite. There are several reasons for this, not least of which is my need to know what happened to Paula’s mother. This has been a shadow hanging over the books from the beginning and I’d reached the point where I think we had to find out the truth. In the previous books there have been other cases as Paula carries out her job but this time there is a focus and intensity which I found entirely gripping.

This novel is extremely tense and, at times, quite harrowing. It presents a plain speaking and insightful depiction of the Troubles and their legacy, a timely reminder of what the situation used to be like as well as how delicately poised the peace is. Deaths still happen. People still disappear. Claire McGowan’s discussion of how policy has affect Northern Ireland’s policing is especially fascinating and it is made all the more real and shocking because of our invested interest in Paula’s happiness – and safety.

The last novel, Blood Tide, was a bleak novel in many ways for Paula and in The Killing House we see elements of this intensified. There is such a strong feeling of everything reaching a climax in The Killing House and this mood is created and sustained brilliantly by Claire McGowan.

Claire McGowan is such a fine and thoughtful writer. She blends together an accessible picture of the repercussions and issues of Northern Ireland’s recent history while focusing on a few individuals that we’ve grown to care about very much. It’s almost painful watching them go through this. There is hope, as represented by Paula’s little girl, but so much stands in the way of it. The conclusion, I’m so relieved to say, is a perfect one in lots of different ways, evoking conflicting emotions. This series has never been an especially easy read for me but it has always been rewarding as well as compelling. I’ve consistently felt drawn to it. The Killing House is a wonderful conclusion and is also, in my opinion, the finest of them all.

Other reviews
The Silent Dead
A Savage Hunger
Blood Tide

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

Titan Books | 2018 (9 January) | 335p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna RaybournIt is 1888 and Egyptology has rarely been more popular. But where there’s a mummy there’s usually a curse and the latest person to fall foul of one is John de Morgan who has disappeared off the face of the earth, shortly after helping to discover the tomb of ancient Egyptian princess. Unfortunately, her priceless diadem disappeared at the same time and society isn’t being slow to put two and two together. This is not a mystery that adventuress Veronica Speedwell can ignore because de Morgan used to be the expedition partner of her close colleague, the curiously enigmatic Stoker. There is scandal in Stoker’s past and de Morgan was at its heart. It’s perhaps not surprising that Stoker might be suspected of foul play. And then there are the rumours – the figure of Anubis, that most frightening of Egyptian gods, has been spotted stalking the streets of London.

A Treacherous Curse is the third novel in Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series but it’s the first I’ve read. This is a matter shortly to be resolved because I now have the first two books to enjoy – A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking. Not having read the earlier two books didn’t affect my pleasure in A Treacherous Curse in the least but it certainly made me keen to find out what had gone on before between Veronica and Stoker. This is a couple I want to know much more about and I had so much fun reading this book.

A Treacherous Curse is a fantastic mix of giving me what I was expecting – a comforting, fun Victorian Egyptian adventure with a well-heeled heroine who gets herself into all sorts of scrapes while having multiple misunderstandings with men – with the unexpected. Veronica Speedwell challenges all of our preconceptions as much as she does those of the male dominated society of her day. She might have enormously dodgy aristocratic origins (I loved this element of her story so much – I need to much more about this!), but she is fiercely independent, foul-mouthed when the situation calls for it, and nobody knows how on earth to handle her. Except with caution. She is clever and wise and absolutely hysterical. Some of the things she says… Was she really marooned on a raft in the middle of an ocean? How I love Veronica Speedwell.

Stoker is described beautifully and is presented as the archetypal Victorian heartthrob explorer. He’s aristocrat but he has a touch of the exotic about him, enough to draw eyes to him, in a slightly disapproving yet interested manner, in stuffy drawing rooms and parlours.

The mystery is great! I slightly regretted that Veronica and Stoker didn’t actually have to go to Egypt themselves, but the mystery of Egypt is present throughout in the most unlikely of places as an exhibition of the artefacts found within the princess’s tombs gets underway. There is a host of possible suspects and they are brought to life with such colour. I loved all of the scandal – the affairs, the illegitimate offspring, the neglected wives, the unruly children, the intrigue. And I also lapped up the descriptions of Victorian London and its houses and the curious collectors who live within them.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Treacherous Curse. It is such a funny book. The humour doesn’t get in the way of the mystery but it certainly adds a spark to proceedings and helped me to fall deeply for Veronica and Stoker. Just the idea of Stoker scraping out the insides of a stuffed rhinoceros…. I am now a committed fan of this excellent series and will be making a point of seeking out their next adventure while catching up with their previous escapades.

One Way by S.J. Morden

Gollancz | 2018 (10 April) | c.380p | Review copy | Buy the book

One Way by S.J. MordenFrank Kittridge is not a man with a future. Serving a life sentence for murder, he is suddenly given an opportunity that won’t see him walking the streets as a free man but it would give him something else – a purpose, hope. Xenosystems Operations has won the contract to build the first permanent habitat on Mars but there’s a catch. Its tender said that it would construct the habitat with robotic technology, a technology that doesn’t exist. Instead, everything must be built by hand and as cheaply as possible, using a workforce that is expendable. XO intends to send eight convicts from its own private prison to do a job that comes with no guarantees of success – and with no ticket home. This will be a one way trip.

These eight astronauts are thrown together with nothing in common but a shared goal to stay alive and out of a dreaded prison called the Hole. But, working together and learning each other’s roles in order to provide back up if needed, they do discover a camaraderie, albeit one that cannot be trusted or relied upon. These are dangerous individuals after all. And that’s not even counting their single guard who seems even worse than they are. This trip will be no holiday.

One Way follows our convict astronauts through their training on Earth and then their first days and weeks on Mars, when they must use all of their ingenuity and skills to pull this habitat together in the face of almost insurmountable odds. And the fact that one of their number dies just hours after their arrival only increases their stress, nervousness and suspicions. When this death is followed by another, it becomes clear that the Martian environment isn’t the only danger they face.

I love novels set on Mars and this one has the added bonus of also being a murder mystery. A small group of individuals in a confined space, with no chance of escape, and a murderer among their number, is a tried and tested format and it works here very well. But, for me, it’s the descriptions of Mars itself and the heroic endeavour to build a life set within this lethal beauty that appeals the most.

There are elements that remind me of The Martian – there’s a lot of nitty gritty detail about building vehicles, transporting objects, putting them together, giving them power and so on. I must admit that there were bits of this that did float over my head. I’m no scientist and I’m not an engineer, electrician or plumber either, so I wouldn’t have been much help myself, but it’s the human effort that I enjoyed.

It’s difficult to warm to characters who were mostly convicts for life for very good reason. Some of the crimes are left vague, just so we don’t hate them too much, but with Frank his crime of murder is given a reason and, as it’s clear he would have no reason to ever do such a thing again, we can warm to him. We follow Frank through much of the novel, listening in to his worries and fears. His need to see his family again is intense and it drives him on. His doubts and anxieties feel very believable. Other characters stayed in the shadows for me but Frank has such a strong presence and identity.

I really enjoyed the claustrophobic feel to One Way as well as the stark beauty of its descriptions of Mars. As soon as I heard about One Way I knew I had to read it and it did not disappoint. And how I love that cover!

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Bantam Press | 2018 (5 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hunger by Alma KatsuIt is the summer of 1846 and a wagon train of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, has left it late to cross the Sierra mountains on their way to the promised lands of California. After weeks of crossing hot and dusty prairie, they must make a decision but may well be perilous. They can either take a well-documented and trusted path or they can take the Hastings Cutoff, a route believed to be shorter. Donner makes the decision and it is one that will have devastating consequences for this wagon train of men, women and children – lots of children. The winter of 1846 and 1847 brings hell on earth to the Donner Party.

As the weather closes in and the terrain gets too tough for these heavily laden wagons, tempers fray but that’s the least of their problems. There isn’t enough food to get them through the winter, there are frightening rumours about fierce Indians stalking them from the hills, and then members of the group begin to disappear. Now and again they find what’s left of them. People have different ideas about the best way to survive. It’s clear not all of them will make it. And some of them can hear things from the forest. They know they are being watched.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a fine meld of historical fiction and horror. It’s based on a true story that lends itself so well to both (see also my review of October Skies by Alex Scarrow). The Donner Party did indeed get trapped by the weather and mountains and many of them died in circumstances that horrified society – how far did these poor souls go to survive? Alma Katsu delves deeper and she presents a tale as gripping as it is utterly horrifying. This is a novel that made me want to sleep with the lights on.

What makes this novel stand out for me, though, isn’t the horror (although it is delicious), it’s the depiction of the wide range of people that made up this wagon train. Probably close to a hundred in number, we’re made familiar with a fair few of them and for some we’re given tasters of their previous history – we’re given flashbacks of a time when life was normal and this trip to California seemed so exciting and worthwhile. I particularly loved the portraits of the women, most of whom had no say in the decision to travel west and some of them barely knew their husbands. Some women, or girls I should say, married along the way, regardless of their own desires. The wives and daughters are chattels, every bit as much as the cattle they drive across the plains. If any women do make a stand then they are viewed with suspicion as having loose morals, perhaps even witches. Tamsen Donner is presented as one such woman. But there are other girls and women here who also grab our attention – there are so many. I loved reading about them.

It’s the men who have destiny in their hands – or so they believe – and so we also meet some of them. Stanton is arguably our main character, a young man yet to marry due to tragic circumstances. He’s not alone in being haunted by the past. Stanton is torn between fighting to survive by going off alone or staying with the group to protect the women and children. I did like the character of James Reeve especially and some of the finest writing is preserved for his fate. If I have any complaint at all it is perhaps that there are too many characters here to follow. I don’t have the best of memories and so I had to keep flicking through the pages to remember who was who. But this is such a minor point because each of the characters is drawn so well. And then there are the monsters…. You must discover those for yourself.

The Hunger is a beautifully written novel. It conjures up the plains, mountains and forest of this seemingly endless and perilous journey. We experience the heat and then the cold, the effort to remain clean, the hunger and thirst, the dust, the chill. It’s all described so well, and so too are the reactions of the pioneers to their surroundings. They fear it. Everything is an obstacle to where they want to be. And I loved hearing about all of the different reasons for this tremendous journey.

This is, I’m pleased to say as this is a horror novel after all, a frightening story and it’s told so well. It’s rich in historical detail and vivid in its horror. I found The Hunger extremely hard to put down. It’s one of those books where you think that you’ll read just one more chapter but end up reading half the book. The shifting between characters and the movement from the present to the past and back again in flashbacks, as well as the insertion of letters, is done very effectively. This is an accomplished, confident and memorable novel. I read most of it very late at night by low lamplight. I can recommend that.

Other feature
‘History and The Hunger’ – guest post by Alma Katsu, author of The Hunger