The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly

Orion | 2016 (3 November) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew ReillySeveral years of calm have passed for Jack West and his family on their farm in Australia. Jack is now married to Zoe and their adopted daughter Lily, the magnet for so much deadly adventure in the past, is twenty years old, at college putting her knowledge of ancient languages to good use, and dating. But the peace is about to be shattered.

While Zoe is working abroad, Jack, Lily, Lily’s friend Alby, Monster Spy (Jack’s old friend and pilot), and even Jack’s two dogs, are kidnapped. When Jack comes to, he finds himself in a situation that is all too familiar – he has to fight for his life in some bizarre, ancient Games, alongside and against fifteen other elite warriors. They must compete in a series of challenges. Failure means death. But if the Games themselves fail then the result will be nothing less than catastrophic. The stakes couldn’t be higher and if he is to win – or just survive – Jack West must quickly recover the old form that won him the title of Fifth Greatest Warrior.

The Four Legendary Kingdoms is the fourth Jack West thriller and by now we should have a good idea of what to expect and Matthew Reilly most definitely delivers. In fact, I think that this is my favourite of the series, with the possible exception of the first. It does have its issues, though, and so I’ll get those out of the way.

You expect to have to believe the unbelievable with a thriller like this and I have no problem with that at all. I’m very good at it. But even I had trouble with parts of this. I could go into it more but we’d be getting into spoiler territory so I won’t but I had to make a conscious decision not to let this bother me. And this did work. Secondly, women don’t do well in this novel. All sixteen warriors are men and Lily doesn’t get much of a role while Zoe gets none at all. There are other women here who’ll remain nameless who also were hugely underused. Lastly, there’s a change of attitude towards one of the characters that I simply could not cope with. I can’t say any more about that either!

With all that said and done, I thoroughly enjoyed pretty much every minute of reading The Four Legendary Kingdoms. During the two days that I read it, I couldn’t wait for those moments when I could pick it up again. It provided the perfect tonic to a stressful time at work and I loved it. The action is second to none. It never lets up and the challenges are so ingenious and clever. I also enjoyed the slave race that we encounter here. Again, you’ll have to find out about them for yourself. And there are surprises!

Jack West is the perfect action hero and he is also extremely likeable, with some gentle edges. Not too many warriors would go through an adventure wearing a Homer Simpson ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ t-shirt and he’s the better man for it. You don’t need to have read the other books first – the last one was published a few years ago – and so you could use this novel to get a taste for the others.

It’s so good to see Matthew Reilly returning to what he does best, and to one of his much loved series. I didn’t particularly get on with The Tournament, a historical thriller that took Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) off to Constantinople to take part in a chess tournament, and, for all its fun, The Great Zoo of China was Jurassic Park with dragons. But, with The Four Legendary Kingdoms, Matthew Reilly gives me all that I love about his thrillers and he definitely knows how to do it – he is a master of the genre. Ice Station is still my favourite thriller of all time, with Temple not far behind it. And I adore the Scarecrow series. The Four Legendary Kingdoms reminded me a little of Matthew Reilly’s early thriller Contest (which I really loved), but it reminded me of it in such a good way.

The Four Legendary Kingdoms is such a fun thriller and I was really sorry to finish it. Reading it did me such a lot of good.

Other reviews
Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves
The Tournament
The Great Zoo of China

Waking Hell by Al Robertson

Gollancz | 2016 (27 October) | c.336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Waking Hell by Al RobertsonWaking Hell is the sequel to the marvellous Crashing Heaven, one of the science fiction highlights of 2015, but, despite the continuation of themes, both feature different characters and stand alone very well. Having said that, I definitely recommend that you also read Crashing Heaven not least because it will introduce you to the incorrigible, morally repugnant, filthily appalling and utterly fabulous Hugo Fist! This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

Time has passed since the events of Crashing Heaven and some things have changed aboard Station, the enormous asteroid that has been hollowed out into an inhabitable environment that pursues a distant orbit around an Earth that has been transformed by man into largely lifeless deserts and toxic seas. Station is still controlled by the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporation deities, and reality is still hidden behind the Weave, an enormously elaborate virtual reality overlay, but now its citizens also include Fetches. Fetches exist within the Weave. They are effectively the souls of the dead, reborn into holographic-like figures that now live a near-normal existence. They are Station’s ghosts. But Fetches are not the only transformed humans. There are also Minds, powerful entities that can move between human and alternate worlds, than can be either lifelike or monstrous. The gods continue to keep everything moving along, raising morale, appealing to base instincts, but a new force has arisen to seize control of Station and everyone on it.

Leila is a Fetch and now her brother Dieter, fatally injured by one of the ancient artefacts that he loves to collect, is about to join her. Suddenly, Leila becomes a very wealthy young woman. She realises that Dieter has agreed to something terrible in order to help his sister. He has sold his soul. Desperate to find Dieter’s Fetch and rescue him, Leila embarks on a quest that will escalate into something extraordinary, and nothing less than the future of Station is at stake.

Waking Hell begins gently with a personal tragedy and grief and, for some time, you might think you were reading one type of book before it suddenly explodes into something else entirely. Having read and loved Crashing Heaven, I should not have been surprised. Both books demonstrate so brilliantly the author’s fantastic imagination and creativity, not to mention his wit and eye for action and thrills. There are elements of horror here to go with the science fiction. I love this when it works and it works really well here. I loved how the story and plot developed. It builds and builds and builds and the intensity and excitement of the second half is so huge and powerful that I couldn’t put it down.

Set against that is the intimate portrait of Leila. Nothing is more important to Fetches than their memories. Memory is fundamental to their existence. Little is worse than to forget and to be forgotten. But this terrible state of affairs has faced Leila in her past and in her present. Watching her hang on, and the people around her try to do the same, is deeply moving.

The world building is marvellous, not just in the way that Station is described but also in the way it is populated. There are so many variations of humanity living in this strange place. The Fetches were such a memorable part of Crashing Heaven but here much more time is taken to explore their existence and their connections to people and Minds. Some of these relationships are extraordinarily intimate although inherently sad.

I felt lost in another time and place when I read Waking Hell. I read it slowly (for me). There is so much to appreciate and such a lot going on. When all is said and done, Waking Hell tells a fantastic story and I loved being in its grip. I don’t know whether Al Robertson will be returning us to Station but, whether he does or not, I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

Other review
Crashing Heaven

The Girls Next Door by Mel Sherratt

Bookouture | 2016 (27 October) | 290p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Girls Next Door by Mel SherrattIf Jess hadn’t have been sick that day then her best friend Katie wouldn’t have met up with her new boyfriend Nathan (not her boyfriend by choice) and his mates and then she would never have seen what she did. But now Deanna, just 16 years old, is dead, stabbed, and nothing can be the same again, not for Deanna’s family, not for any of the teenagers who knew her. And now, six months on, the teenagers of Stockleigh are under attack. Is this revenge for Deanna or for another reason entirely?

Detective Sergeant Eden Berrisford has good reason to be concerned. Her niece Jess has disappeared, her boyfriend beaten up. Eden, who has a daughter of a similar age, is driven to discover the truth, supported by her boss and team. As the hours tick away, Jess’ mother Laura is frantic. Meanwhile, Katie and her family are reaching a critical point in their own lives. It feels as if the eyes of the world are on the town of Stockleigh.

The Girls Next Door is the first in a new series by Mel Sherratt to feature DS Eden Berrisford and it certainly rockets along, partly driven by the structure which moves back and forth between the characters – whether teenagers, parents or the police. Likewise, the novel has more than one focus, with Katie’s story and Jess’s story dividing the pages. I enjoyed both and was intrigued to find out how each would develop and I’m pleased to say that both managed very well without gimmicks and twists for the sake of it.

I didn’t entirely get along with the novel for a couple of reasons. I found the group of teenagers to be extremely unlikeable and I had little sympathy with any of them, especially Jess, whom I really took against. But I also didn’t care for the character of her mother, Laura. Bearing in mind the seriousness of what has happened, I had the feeling that Laura would have been just as upset if she’d lost her car keys. I suspect that this is all part of my biggest issue with The Girls Next Door – that it shows little intensity or grit. Katie’s letters, scattered through the pages, similarly seem rather mundane. I enjoyed the character of Eden and so I would have liked other figures in the book to have shared her depth, particularly Laura, Katie’s mother and Deanna’s mother. There is a Young Adult feel to some of the language and relationships but of course, having said that, teenagers play a vital role in the book.

As I’ve mentioned, I enjoyed the story and I did like the character of Eden (and the other police officers) very much and so, despite my reservations with this first book, I’m looking forward to seeing how the series develops.

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Rock the Boat | 2016 (20 October) | 672p | Review copy | Buy the book

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay KristoffThis week sees the publication by Rock the Boat of Gemina, the follow up to the spectacular YA science fiction triumph Illuminae. I cannot overstate how fabulous Illuminae is. In fact it’s quite possibly the best YA SF novel I’ve read, although I’d ignore that YA label as this is a book for all ages, both young and less young, to relish. I was so thrilled to be invited to post my review of Gemina as part of the blog tour celebrating its publication on 20 October.

Gemina follows hot on the heels of Illuminae and, although it revolves around a different set of characters in another place, I can’t recommend enough that you read Illuminae first. Everything that happened in Illuminae is revealed in Gemina but, even more than that, don’t deny yourself the treat of reading such a magnificent and original novel. The review below assumes that you’ve already read Illuminae.

Hannah Donnelly is the rather spoilt teenage daughter of the commander of the Jump Station Heimall. Heimall, poised on the edge of a wormhole, is, at least as far as Hannah is concerned, the most boring and remote space station in the universe. It’s fair to say that a number of the adult inhabitants would agree with her. Hannah passes the time being pampered and buying drugs from one of the station’s bad boys, Nik, much to the disapproval of her perfectly manicured boyfriend. At the moment, Hannah is most interested in the outfit she’s bought (that her father bought) to celebrate Terra Day, a big bash that is due to take place in just a few days.

Unfortunately, the most boring space station in the universe is about to become the most lethal as a bunch of baddies choose the day of the festivities to launch a bloody attack. The starship Hypatia is on a desperate run to Heimall and it brings survivors from the invasion of Kerenza. The perpetrators are adamant that nobody on the ship or the space station will live to pass on the sorry tale. Hannah Donnelly and Nik are thrown together to defend Heimall, and not just against the baddies either. If there’s one thing worse than gun-toting mercenaries, it’s aliens.

I was so excited to read Gemina, not least because it provides more of the same of Illuminae‘s fantastic style and structure. Both novels tell their stories through extracts from emails, computer communications, witness accounts, schematics and diagrams. Some of these are used particularly brilliantly, conveying tension, drama or death. Parts are astoundingly clever as well as really witty. You never quite know what you’re going to get when you turn the next page. In one section, two versions of the same story are told on facing pages. So clever! It makes demands on the reader and we are rewarded for the effort with added involvement in this extraordinary adventure and these wonderful characters.

I loved Helen and Nik. I wondered if I could possibly love them as much as I did Kady and Ezra in Illuminae, but I did. There are moments of excitement and tension and there are others of pure horror and disgust. We’re thrown into the thick of it.

I don’t think that Geminae is quite as perfect as Illuminae – to be honest, I think this is impossible, Illuminae is unique in several ways – but it is a fine follow up and I loved every single page, thoroughly enjoying the experience of reading it and being so grateful that we’ve been given a book 2. And the good news is, there will also be a book 3 to look forward to.

Please do yourself the favour of reading these books. Marvel at the skill of the authors, enjoy the company of these fantastic characters, and immerse yourself in the adventure, all set within a remote and, as it turns out, not at all boring region of space.

Other review

I’m so pleased to be part of this tour! For other stops along the journey, please click on the poster below.

Gemina blog tour

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit | Becky Chambers | 2016 (20 October) | Hodder & Stoughton | 365p | Bought copy | Buy the book

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky ChambersBecky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was and is a science fiction sensation, totally deserving of all of the love that has been heaped upon it. That fabulous novel became the first of the Wayfarers series, named for those who explored worlds and wonders aboard the Wayfarer. A Closed and Common Orbit continues the story but from a completely different angle – two of the characters from the previous novel have now been removed from the Wayfarer and we follow their story in another place entirely. So, although this second novel overlaps the ending of the first, both stand alone perfectly. Having said all that, why deny yourself the genuine and memorable pleasure of Small Angry Planet?

Lovelace was once the AI of a starship, her scope almost unlimited, her senses keeping watch in every corner of the ship’s interior and looking out beyond the hull into space itself. But now Lovelace is contracted, her mind confined within a ‘kit’, a synthetic body, into which she was placed by Pepper, an engineer and friend. There was no alternative to this physical confinement. But Lovelace is now Sidra, her memories wiped clean, and the body she inhabits is illegal. They travel to Pepper’s home world in the hope that Sidra can create a new life for herself but in order for that to succeed Sidra must learn to be human in a world inhabited by so many different alien species and cultures.

Sidra is not the only lost soul of this novel. We also follow the incredible story of Jane 23, a clone, who is also forced out into a world that feels alien and frightening. Jane 23 and Sidra share a common struggle, to become human, to fit in.

Just as with Small Angry Planet, as soon as I began Common Orbit I was immersed, not only in its marvellous, imaginative worlds but also in its characters’ stories. Becky Chambers is a master storyteller, of this there can be no doubt, and yet again she astounds with the warmth and compassion of her characters, whether they’re Human, Aandrisks, Aeluons, AIs or any of the other species that come out to meet us along the way. Plot is almost secondary here, but nevertheless it is a fascinating one, filled with adventures, moving back and forth between characters, and I couldn’t wait to see how it developed. Yet, most of all, this novel is the literary equivalent of a giant scrummy bear hug.

There is evil in this universe. We can be sure of that and nobody knows it better than Jane 23. But Becky Chambers shows us it can be overcome. Species live together, genders aren’t fixed, religion doesn’t dictate, a hard day at work can be followed by a party. It isn’t easy for our main characters to find themselves, but the journey will be enlightening, albeit potentially dangerous, and it will be an absolute pleasure for the reader.

If I had to come up with one word to described Common Orbit, it would be lovely. There are moments in it that made me cry for its loveliness. It is beautifully written, lovingly created, even the titles of these books are perfect. Science fiction is the ideal medium for this vision – anything can happen, there are wonders to be explored and discovered, possibilities are vast. Becky Chambers is an author who goes straight to the top of my TBR mountain. She is to be cherished and encouraged and I cannot wait for Wayfarers 3 and beyond.

Other review
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

The Devil’s Feast by M.J. Carter

The Devil’s Feast | M.J. Carter | 2016 (27 October) | Fig Tree | 362p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Devil's Feast by M.J. CarterIt is 1842 and London has a new and very grand gentleman’s club – The Reform Club on Pall Mall. Established to provide a home from home for Radicals and Whigs, in direct opposition to the neighbouring Tory Carlton Club, the Reform Club has become famous, rightly so, for its food, all created under the loving eye of London’s first celebrity chef, Monsieur Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’.

Captain William Avery has left his wife and newborn son at home in Devon while he rushes to London to seek out the whereabouts of his good friend and investigative partner Jeremiah Blake, who appears to have vanished in thin air. Avery is pleased to be distracted from the anxiety of worry by an invitation from another friend to dine at the Reform Club as a guest of M. Soyer and, despite Avery’s devout Toryism, this is not an invitation to decline. All goes well – the dinner is superb, M. Soyer is a charming host – until one of the guests leaves the table never to return. He is poisoned! The Club is about to host a high profile and important diplomatic dinner, with none other than Lord Palmerston and the Prince of Egypt in attendance and peace in the Middle East as their goal. The significance of the poisoning cannot be underestimated, and not just for the reputation of the Club and Soyer. Even worse, was this a practice run? The Club’s Board immediately implores Avery to investigate the murder. If only Blake were around to lend a hand.

The Devil’s Feast is the third novel in M.J. Carter’s excellent Victorian mystery series to feature Avery and Blake and I was delighted to return to their company. I’m a big fan of historical murder mysteries and this series has become a firm favourite of mine – for the brilliant characters of Avery and Blake but also for the novels’ evocative and atmospheric historical setting. Each of these novels stands alone very well although, as usual, there are benefits to be had by reading them in order. While the first novel The Strangler Vine captured perfectly the exotic appeal and danger of India, the second novel, The Printer’s Coffin (originally The Infidel Stain), placed us in the workhouses, pubs and prisons of 1840s’ London, with all of the injustice and sadness that this entailed. This powerful sense of Victorian hypocrisy and cruelty continues, I’m pleased to say, in The Devil’s Feast.

The Radicals in the Reform Club might debate change but it’s people like Soyer who actually try to bring it about – offering the chance of employment to London’s poorest, organising soup kitchens in London’s most deprived areas. The club is concerned to facilitate this diplomatic dinner but their eyes have shifted from the causes closer at hand. M.J. Carter doesn’t labour the point, she’s far too gifted a novelist for that, but she makes the reader care about what is going on outside the walls of the Club every bit as much as inside it. Our time in the novel is spent divided between upstairs in the dining rooms and downstairs in the kitchens and the most fascinating characters are arguably to be found below.

There are some wonderful characters in The Devil’s Feast and chief among them is the extraordinary Alexis Soyer, a true historical figure who changed so many things about the ways in which kitchens worked and were run. His life was full of adventure, some of which you couldn’t make up, and M.J. Carter brings him to life.

The relationship between Avery and Blake is always enjoyable and it is again here. Blake in particular is a scene stealer and here there’s something of Sherlock Holmes about him in lots of different ways. Avery is once more our narrator and for much of the time he has a struggle on his hands to work out exactly what is going on.

While I found the actual mystery in The Devil’s Feast to be less involving than those in the previous novels, this didn’t affect my enjoyment. I love how M.J. Carter writes and how she immerses me in the historical setting, both in time and place. The people are so well drawn and many of them evoke lost worlds that continue to fascinate – Victorian politics and injustice, Radicalism, fashionable cuisine and inventions, service and poverty, prison and punishment. This is a series that rewards the reader in abundance.

Other posts
A review: The Printer’s Coffin (published in Hb as The Infidel Stain)
Guest post: Who were the Infidels?

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton – ‘Of Babies and Bellies’

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth NortonThe Tudor period continues to fascinate – a period dominated by so many larger-than-life, charismatic, powerful, fearful, proud and dangerous personalities, male and female. But what was life like for a Tudor woman away from the public eye, in those major life-changing moments, such as marriage, giving birth, widowhood, but also in her daily life? In The Lives of Tudor Women, Elizabeth Norton presents the seven ages of the Tudor woman from childhood to old age, from the first years of the Tudor period to its end in 1603, through the examples of a number of very different women, ranging from the royal to the merchant’s wife to the peasant and servant. Their stories highlight many aspects of the Tudor age, including the intimate and homely as well as the religious and the unconventional.

To celebrate the publication of The Lives of Tudor Women this month by Head of Zeus, I’m delighted to host a special post. Below you’ll find an extract from Chapter 1 – of Babies and Bellies – in which Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, faces the anxiety of pregnancy and childbirth.

The Lives of Tudor Women – Book Extract from Chapter 1: Of Babies and Bellies

Towards the end of January or early February 1492, Queen Elizabeth of York, felt a familiar fluttering in her womb – a fluttering that provided proof that she had conceived for the fourth time.

Henry VII’s queen was, by then, close to the midway point of her pregnancy. But in the first months of pregnancy, the condition was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Could her symptoms merely be ‘her natural sickness or store of water’? Alternatively, could her increase in girth be due to ‘some windy matter’ rather than an expected baby? There were signs, of course, which could indicate pregnancy; but few physicians were prepared to confirm their diagnosis until the child actually began to stir in the womb. A mistake could be highly embarrassing for all concerned, and so for months women were left on tenterhooks.

The first gentle movements, when they came, were testament to the fact that a new life had begun. For as far as most Tudors were concerned, life did not begin at conception. The man’s seed entered ‘the woman’s privitie’ as one physician coyly called the neck of the womb, there to be met by a matching seed, released by the woman. To contemporaries, these were the raw materials for a child.

Even before conception, most Tudor parents had a preference for boys. They were then anxious for some hint that their wish had been gratified. It was theoretically possible, asserted some physicians, to tell the sex, since boys occupied a right chamber to a sub-divided womb and girls the left. This segregation was, of course, a myth (‘but dreams and fond fantasies’), as others rightly realized. Life itself was deemed to begin when the soul entered the fully formed foetus, which occurred at 46 days for a boy and 90 days for a girl. A Tudor girl was thus nearly three months in the womb before her contemporaries considered her to be a living person.

The question of gender still gnawed at the minds of many Tudor parents as the mother’s sickness subsided and her stomach began to swell; and most Tudor mothers wanted a son. The wealthier sort of parents could interrogate their physicians on the sex, their questioning filling the doctors with despair. ‘It is very hard to know at the first whether the woman be with child or no,’ complained the French royal physician, Dr Guillimeau, towards the end of the sixteenth century, and ‘so by great reason must it needs be far more difficult to discern and distinguish the difference of the sex, and to determine whether it will be a boy or a wench’. They were not miracle workers. But even Dr Guillimeau believed there were certain signs a mother could look for. Everyone knew that men were hotter than women, which gave them strength, intelligence and vigour. It stood to reason then that younger women, who became hotter than their seniors, would bear boys.

There were, it was thought, some helpful things prospective parents could do to better their chances of conceiving the right gender. Those most anxious for a boy should refrain from sexual intercourse when the wind blew southwards, since this was almost sure to result in a girl. The pregnant woman could also scrutinize her reflection – was her complexion clear? If so, it could be a boy. Carrying a girl was harder work, and so the mother would have ‘a pale, heavy, and swarth countenance, a melancholic eye’. Boys reputedly lay higher in the wombs than girls – again due to their heat – while a girl would lie ‘at the bottom of the belly, because of her coldness and weight’. Carrying a girl was even believed to affect a mother’s health more adversely than carrying a boy.

In early 1492, at least Queen Elizabeth of York could content herself that she had already fulfilled her dynastic duty, with the births of two fine sons – even though death could strike down seemingly healthy children at any moment.

Once pregnancy was established, it behoved a mother to ensure the health of both herself and her child. Spending her time in ‘good tempered air’ was particularly important, as was a good diet. Pregnant women also had to think about clothing, since few women owned an extensive wardrobe. Even queens adapted their existing clothes, with extra panels added to their dresses. They could supplement them with more-specific maternity wear, such as ‘self grow’ waistcoats, kirtles and gowns, which could be let out as the wearer’s pregnancy advanced. To begin with, gowns could first be unlaced to make them roomier, before more drastic changes were required. Women would also think about clothes for the birth itself. It was common for Tudor women to wear a hood with a shoulder cape in which to give birth.

Elizabeth of York may initially have had concerns over her fourth pregnancy, because she had conceived only three months after the birth of her second son, Henry, on 28 June 1491. Her husband, heir to the House of Lancaster, had won his crown on the field at Bosworth in August 1485 – inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. His marriage to Elizabeth, who was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV, had helped cement his position by unifying the houses that had fought for decades. To the royal couple, who were frequently surrounded by proud demonstrations of the new dynasty, each of their ‘issue lawfully born’ helped to symbolize their union and their hold on the throne. Nonetheless, such a rapid new pregnancy in 1492 – almost certainly an accident – was a cause for concern, given the very real dangers that threatened women in pregnancy and childbirth.