Written in Bones by James Oswald

Michael Joseph | 2017 (23 February) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Written in Bones by James OswaldFor a few moments the man in the sky thinks he might be flying. Until he smashes into a tree. And with death comes the realisation that this had been a terrible final fall. It’s no easy matter to get the body disentangled from the tree but once it is, it falls to Inspector Tony McLean to discover his identity and find out who is responsible. Matters are complicated by the young boy who found the body – or, rather heard its impact – when out walking his dog. The child is the son of a notorious criminal, murdered a few weeks before the boy’s birth ten years before. Nobody really wants to talk about that. Perhaps it’s time they did. McLean doesn’t believe in coincidences, especially not the weird ones.

Written in Bones is the seventh novel in James Oswald’s fine Inspector McLean series – one of my favourites – and it goes from strength to strength. McLean doesn’t have the best of relationships with his superiors and this is partly because McLean is particularly adept at uncovering the strange and the unusual. He discounts nothing and is prepared to prove the impossible possible. Sometimes in these novels there’s a hint of something inexplicable, almost other worldly, but it’s always subtly treated, just adding to the undercurrent of criminal evil that flows beneath these streets and houses. McLean, better than anyone, can tap into it. The resulting stories are clever, gripping and extremely atmospheric, set so well in Edinburgh and brilliantly written by James Oswald.

As with most fictional detectives, McLean has a history and homelife that influences his career but it never intrudes. I love his unusual home and his complicated relationship with the cat. And then there’s the car. How McLean loves his car. McLean is a fascinating individual even before he begins a crime case and he’s backed up by some other intriguing characters, such as Grumpy Bob and Call-me-Stevie. The senior police officers are an extraordinary bunch. Even the police station is a little bit odd with one newer building built on top of the basement of another. People like to think it’s haunted even though McLean insists it isn’t. In Written in Bones, there’s another factor affecting its mood – a bleak, frozen Scottish winter. You can feel the chill in your bones. This book might have fewer hints of the supernatural than some of the others but it more than makes up for this with mood.

The story is such a good one and makes use of previously encountered individuals, although no other knowledge of the series is needed to enjoy Written in Bones. As usual, McLean goes his own way in his investigations but he has the full support of his junior officers. Tony McLean is such a likeable man. His bosses might not get on with him but everyone else does. Here, McLean has to break in a new detective constable and I really enjoyed the pages that the two share.

These books are always hard to put down and Written in Bones is no different. James Oswald is such a fine, elegant writer, as brilliant at creating mood as he is characters and plot. Not surprisingly, Written in Bones went straight to the top of my reading pile as soon as it arrived and it rewarded me with such a brilliant, gripping read. If you’ve yet to read these books, you have such a treat in store.

Other reviews
Natural Causes
The Damage Done

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

Trapeze | 2017 (23 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ragdoll by Daniel ColeThere is nothing ordinary about this particular corpse. It comprises the stitched together dismembered remains of six people – male and female, black and white, tall and short. Each of the limbs – and torso and head – have something distinguishing about them. Just enough to give away clues as to their origin and, perhaps more importantly, their connection to each other (other than through the thick, uneven, cruel stitching). It isn’t long before the media award the murderer with a name – the Ragdoll Killer.

Sergeant William Fawkes (aka Wolf) has just returned to the London Met after a long time away. It’s possible that he may never be the same again after the part he played in bringing another infamous serial killer, the Cremation Killer, to court. It certainly destroyed his marriage. But like it or not, he’s back on the job and his first case is the Ragdoll Killer, surely a murderer every bit as evil as the one who almost destroyed his life. With Wolf on the new case is his old partner Detective Emily Baxter. She too has her own problems, while the newbie on the case, Detective Alex Edmunds, has everything to prove. But he has the mind and ability to do it. It’s a small team working on the Ragdoll Killer case and tempers are frayed, especially when the killer sends the press the names of the next ragdoll, the next six people on his death list along with the days on which they will meet their fate. It doesn’t help that the sixth and final person on the list is none other than Wolf himself.

Ragdoll is the debut novel by Daniel Cole and you wouldn’t guess it for an instant. This is such an accomplished, confident and fine piece of writing but, not only that, its plot is absolutely fantastic! We’re left guessing from the very beginning but this almost plays second fiddle to the thunderously dark and menacing mood that hangs over the whole proceedings, as well as the novel’s great characterisation, dialogue, and wit. There are moments here that made my jaw drop almost off my face, the shocks are so horrifically shocking, while there were other moments that made me laugh out loud. This is a novel as witty as it is dark.

The story is brilliant. It’s ridiculously inventive and clever. It might be gruesome and macabre in places but I was filled with admiration for the imaginative flair of the killer (and author). The pace is urgent throughout because we know the killer’s timetable of murder from the very beginning. Our expectations are mirrored by that of the media and public who are pinned to the news as the death clock in the corner of the TV news studio counts down the hours and minutes to the next day of slaughter. The fact that the journalist with the most prominent profile is personally close to Wolf certainly helps to stir up the passions. But, more than anything else, this is an ingenious murder mystery. I didn’t guess any of it and I didn’t even try. I was glued to every page.

Wolf is a fantastic central creation but my favourite, I think even more than Wolf and the violently vulnerable Baxter, is Edmunds. I love the ways in which he tries to ingratiate himself with Baxter, never succeeding, and yet growing ever closer, more by accident than design. I can’t think of many other police partnerships I’ve enjoyed as much as this. There is barely a detective here without some kind of crippling back history – and Wolf’s own past experiences would be impossible to beat – but I really enjoyed the effect of this on their personalities. There is a frisson of insanity running through the incident room. It’s as close to the edge as it can get. It’s as if somebody has lit a fuse and at any moment the whole business could be blown into smithereens.

There are a few elements here that seem familiar, notably the killer communicating directly with the female news reporter, and at times there seems something rather American about the phrasing and tone, but regardless of all that, Ragdoll is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining crime thrillers I’ve read. It is a joy to read, fuelled in part by the author’s pleasing sense of humour, and I didn’t want to put it down at all. I was shocked in the best of ways by some of the twists that are revealed along the way. Ragdoll is full of treats from start to finish. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Weight of the World by Tom Toner

Gollancz | 2017 (16 February) | 478p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Weight of the World by Tom TonerThe Weight of the World continues the extraordinary Amaranthine Spectrum series that began in such spectacular, wondrous style with The Promise of the Child. Don’t even think about reading The Weight of the World without having read The Promise of the Child first. This is not a series to dip in and out of. This is a series to lose yourself in, to become enchanted, to fall lost in wonder through its myriad of worlds, marvelling at its wealth of species, both grotesque and beautiful. This review assumes you’ve read The Promise of the Child first. If you haven’t, don’t deny yourself the pleasure any longer.

It is the 147th century. Mankind as we know it has evolved into a range of forms we would barely recognise, some even a hybrid of man and animal. But humans were not the only hominids to originate on Earth that evolved and settled across the Galaxy, living within hollowed out planets and moons – there were others and their legacy is astonishing, terrifying and utterly fascinating. A few humans, though, have survived the millennia as the Amaranthine, immortals with great power, with memories of a distant human past. But immortal they might be in theory, in practice all too often they end their lives in madness and despair, crushed and altered by the weight of time. Once the Amaranthine were revered across the worlds. But now their innate cruelty is revealed, their domains shrinking as war divides the Galaxy and other species compete for glory. Some believe that the longest lived of them all might be the one to save the Amaranthine. Others are more wise.

The Weight of the World continues where The Promise of the Child left off, throwing us back into the heart of the fight for supremacy and knowledge. Lycaste, a beautiful giant, an inhabitant of the Old World or Earth, continues on his mission to discover himself and put right a wrong he believes he has committed. Having left the home planet behind, he journeys with the Amaranthine Maneker (and a rather cantankerous Vulgar), not quite sure where he is being led. Back on the Old World, Lycaste’s old friends, the sisters Eranthis and Pentas, are on an extraordinary journey of their own in the company of another Amaranthine, Jatropha. They carry with them the hope for the future in the shape of Pentas’ baby. But the destiny of the child is far from clear and its burden is immense. This will be a dangerous journey. They will be hunted.

These are the two main narratives of The Weight of the World but there are several more, some of which take up rich swathes of the novel, providing other perspectives of the war and giving us insight into the great mystery at the heart of the Amaranthine Firmament. Each of these strands takes us to different planets and starships. The variety is immense and they each come alive due to the sheer quality of Tom Toner’s imagination and writing prowess. World building doesn’t come better than this. I really believe that. The things we see and experience! Some of it is utterly horrible, even gruesome; some of it is frightening (the scratch of claws in the dark); some is light and bewitching – there may be evil but with it comes love, not to mention humour and wit. Creatures who have lived for millennia have seen it all. There are also moments here that filled me with awe and wonder.

There is no doubt at all that this is proving a complicated, multi-layered story. I needed the glossary of names and places, that’s for sure (plus the catch up summary at the beginning). And the size of that glossary hints at just how much variety and breadth there is in these pages. But while it took me about a third of The Promise of the Child to grasp its wonder, there was no such delay with The Weight of the World. I was hooked from the very beginning. We haven’t yet reached the stage of the series in which we can find resolutions and there are as many questions as answers but I love the ways in which it’s heading as well as its pace which allows us the time to explore.

Tom Toner paints his characters and worlds beautifully, even when they’re at their ugliest. This is a clever, ambitious, inventive, wondrous series, brilliantly executed, that leaves me wanting more and soon. It might be only February but this is the science fiction novel to beat this year and it most certainly won’t be easy.

Other review
The Promise of the Child

Stasi Wolf by David Young

Zaffre | 2017 (9 February) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Wolf by David YoungStasi Wolf is the second novel to feature East German police detective Oberleutenant Karin Müller, taking place a few months after the events of Stasi Child. Both novels stand alone very well but, as Stasi Wolf begins, life has changed for Karin Müller. And so this review assumes you’ve read Stasi Child.

It is 1975 in East Berlin and the career of police officer Oberleutenant Karin Müller has taken quite a knock since the conclusion of her last case. It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of the Stasi. But someone it seems wants to give her a second chance. To the south west of Berlin lies Halle-Neustadt, a brand new model town of apartment blocks, all built to the most modern specifications to house worthy citizens. But not all is perfect in this communist paradise. Newborn twins have been stolen from the town’s hospital and one has been found dead. The Stasi are determined that the crime should be solved with the utmost tact and secrecy – nothing must be allowed to tarnish the reputation of Halle-Neustadt. Karin Müller is given the case and, with little choice in the matter, packs up her life and heads south.

Halle-Neustadt is no ordinary town. Its streets have no names, it buildings are just numbered and many of them are empty and silent, the perfect place to hide a crime. Prevented from making public searches or appeals for information, Müller is well aware of the difficulty she faces as the clock ticks away and the surviving twin remains lost. And it is only a matter of time before more children will need to be found.

Stasi Child was such a fine debut novel from David Young, introducing one of the most fascinating and original detectives in contemporary crime fiction. Incredible as it seems, Stasi Wolf is even better, taking us back into the dangerous, chilly setting of the DDR, where spies hide among neighbours and Stasi eyes keep watch. But what makes Karin Müller particularly fascinating is her relationship to the state. She believes in communism and, despite her conflict and unease with the Stasi, she still believes this society can work. Even though she has seen it at its worst.

In this new case, removed from East Berlin, we learn more of the ways in which the Stasi affect so many aspects of society but driving this excellent novel on is the mystery itself. Ultimately, this is a novel about child snatching and that is something that goes beyond politics. But while there are themes here that affect people wherever they are from, in whatever period, East Germany in the mid 1970s is not a place that can be disentangled from its government, just as it cannot forget its past and the legacy of war and defeat.

Stasi Wolf is utterly steeped in atmosphere. Even when its weather is hot, the story still chills, the menace remains sinister. David Young immerses us in its time and place but the characterisation is equally successful. Karin Müller stands out but there are others, too, that you won’t forget. Müller’s personal life is an important feature of this novel and it winds through the story, adding further mystery. Pieces of narrative move between the past and present, hinting at other troubled lives. It is totally gripping. This is not a novel that’s easy to put down, and its conclusion will have you on the edge of your seat.

Stasi Wolf is a hugely accomplished novel, scoring high as both historical fiction and crime fiction. I love both genres and so I couldn’t have been more entertained by it. This is a series with legs and we’re very lucky to have it.

You can read another review at Novel Heights.

Incendium by A.D. Swanston

Bantam Press | 2017 (23 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Incendium by A.D. SwanstonIt is 1572 and Elizabethan England is threatened as never before. Mary Queen of Scots might be locked away in Sheffield Castle but she remains the focus for Catholic plotters, their fire fuelled by the Pope’s support and by bloody violence done to Protestant Huguenots in Paris and across France. Spanish and French ships are poised to invade, to steal the crown from the heretic queen. Assassins hide in London’s crowded streets. As the summer heat intensifies and the fear of plague stirs, London, England and Elizabeth herself look ready to ignite and explode. And there is competition to be the one to win the eternal glory of lighting that fuse.

Dr Christopher Radcliff is a lawyer in the service of Elizabeth’s longterm favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester more than anyone wants to protect Elizabeth, and Radcliff, a man with agents hidden across the city, is just the person to help him. There are rumours of a new plot, codenamed ‘Incendium’, and its roots are believed to lie in Paris. But people in London are already starting to disappear and be killed, Radcliff’s own agents among them. It’s soon clear that this is no ordinary plot, its conspirators cunning and powerful, their ambition limitless. And they are one step ahead of Radcliff, at least.

Incendium is the first in a new historical series by A.D. Swanston, the author of the marvellous Thomas Hill trilogy set during the Civil War and Restoration (review of The King’s Return). Incendium is every bit as good if not better. The early 1570s were a fascinating time in English history – the persecutions and executions of Bloody Mary were still within recent memory while the overt threat of the Armada was still some time off. While Elizabeth wished to be tolerant of her subjects’ private religious beliefs, in contrast to her sister Mary, this moderation was now severely tested. She only had to look across the channel to the horrors committed in France in 1572 – events which are portrayed here – to know that she and her kingdom were in real personal danger. Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham is away in Paris so Leicester tries to do what he can but he is out of his depth and it shows.

Radcliff is a wonderful character, resourceful and intelligent and he needs to be. He’s also no fool and is well aware that Leicester could get him killed. He’s also been changed by what he’s seen overseas. It haunts him. But Radcliff is aided by some hugely likeable individuals, such as his mistress Katherine Allington, and Ell, a whore who spies for Radcliff but can also make him laugh. Then there’s Rose, Radcliff’s elderly housekeeper, who does what she can to keep her master fed and watered, even when her own roof is rained down in a storm. And there are many more who come and go through these pages.

This is a novel full of character and life and I loved its portrait of Elizabethan London, in the heat and later in the snow. We’re taken into all sorts of places, ranging from palaces to prisons, and all are vividly painted.

Incendium faces head on the ugliness of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying – it could result in brutal murder on one side and the atrocious horror of legal torture and execution on the other. Neither Radcliff and Leicester care for torture but Leicester is unhappily aware that, while he could not carry it out himself, he must ask others to do it for him. Elizabeth’s protection is all that matters. Swanston also doesn’t shy away from the Catholic slaughter of the Huguenots in Paris. I’ve always been fascinated by these appalling events and Incendium is built around them.

Incendium perfectly combines history and fiction, historical figures and those that aren’t, and together they paint such a colourful and compelling picture of Elizabethan London at a crucial time for its Queen and her servants. As a historical thriller it worked perfectly. I loved every page. I can’t wait to meet Christopher Radcliff again.

Other posts
The King’s Return
Spies and spying in the Civil War – a guest post by Andrew Swanston

Purged by Peter Laws

Allison & Busby | 2017 (16 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Purged by Peter LawsMatt Hunter was once a minister but since losing his faith Matt has become a professor of the sociology of religion and is currently writing a book about the invention of gods in human image. To be honest, he’s not getting along that well with it and so he takes refuge instead in the odd job helping the police to solve religiously-motivated crimes.

Wren, Matt’s wife, is an architect and in real danger of redundancy after two of her firm’s three owning partners had fatal heart attacks. But there is a chance for redemption. A church in a beautiful village in Oxfordshire is about to be remodelled and its governing body has picked Wren personally to be one of the candidates for the job. This not only throws Wren a lifeline but also gives Matt and Wren, along with their daughters Lucy and Amelia, a golden opportunity to escape their hellhole of a London street and spend a month in a lovely village on what will be effectively an extended interview. And so the family heads off to Hobbs Hill, the home, incidentally, of Britain’s loudest natural waterfall but, more disturbingly, a place named after the devil.

Hobbs Hill is a town caught in a religious fervour, many of its buildings adorned with crosses, their imagination caught by their charismatic minister who preaches a Christianity based on purging and baptism. Matt is determined to bite his lip and keep quiet in the cause of his wife’s project but when women start to go missing he can’t keep still and attaches himself to the local police force. But the killer seems to be playing his own game with Matt and the hunt becomes increasingly personal and desperate. And then there’s that charismatic minister…

As soon as I heard about Purged I couldn’t wait to read it. I live in Oxfordshire and so its location really appealed. I love snooping around all of the stunning villages and churches around here and I’m always wondering if perhaps there’s something just too good to be true about such beauty. This novel tells me that perhaps I’m right! Purged also has such a catchy premise and its mood is sinister and deliciously creepy – and yet believable and real. There’s a line between religion and superstition that is crossed here and it makes for a mystery in which you sense that anything can happen. Matt and Wren might live in a horrible area of London but they soon learn that there is danger in paradise.

Matt is a great creation. He thinks too much, to be sure, but he is haunted by his past and, as he digs into the lives of others, he finds similar nightmares. Perhaps, this is a world in need of a god, but whether it’s the god of Hobbs Hill is another matter entirely. As you’d expect from the nature of the mystery – and also the fact that the author is a minister himself – there are some interesting conversations going on here about the nature of faith, need, salvation – good and evil. Matt is torn as he watches his daughters become caught up in the village’s passion – should he object or, as he’s always believed, is it up to them to make up their own minds?

There is a dark humour as well as the macabre in Purged. What a pleasure to read this book is! And extremely hard to put down and why would you want to? I didn’t. Incredible as it is to believe, Purged is Peter Laws’ first novel and it’s a brilliant achievement. This is a novel in which one should be thoroughly immersed. It contains a gripping mystery, terrifying evil and also goodness. I am so pleased to learn that this is just the first in a new series. The next one will go straight to the top of my reading pile and that’s not something I say about many series. Purged is an absolute corker!

Viper’s Blood by David Gilman (Master of War 4)

Head of Zeus | 2017 (9 February) | 494p | Review copy | Buy the book

Viper's Blood by David GilmanViper’s Blood is the fourth novel in David Gilman’s powerful and uncompromising chronicle of the Hundred Years War. If you haven’t read the others in the series, beginning with Master of War, then tread no further with this review. Much has happened to our hero Thomas Blackmore in the years since the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and so spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable.

It is 1360 and although Sir Thomas Blackmore and his men remain in the military service of Florence they are currently fighting alongside Edward the Prince of Wales, and Black Prince, and his father, the mighty Edward III, in France, a country that has good cause to fear the knights and long bow men of its greatest enemy. France’s king has been caught and is held to ransom in England. The dauphin, weak and uncertain, relies on his counsellor Simon Bucy for advice, as the English threaten the very walls of Paris itself. But Bucy has more on his mind than the Wars – he is intent on the destruction of one man, Thomas Blackmore, the nemesis of France, and he will stop at nothing in his desire to see him dead. And then one day Bucy sees a way. A peace treaty between France and England gives him the chance to throw Blackmore into the lap of the Englishman’s greatest enemies, a nest of vipers if ever there was one.

Thomas is not the man he once was. Grief has done that to him. But with his son Henry by his side, Thomas is intent on wreaking vengeance on the men who almost destroyed his life and that of his son. He has loyal men around him, many have been with Thomas since Crécy, and their support is absolute. Just as well because they have quite a time in front of them as they follow their king’s orders on a journey of battles and hardship that will take them across northern France to Paris and then to the Alps and northern Italy. And everywhere they go they will find conflict, division, distrust, murder and bloody violence. For this is the age of war and plague. Chivalry has died.

Viper’s Blood is a compelling and dark chronicle of war, lightened only briefly by the camaraderie and affection between soldiers. But this is now not really a war of pitched battles. Those are in the past and still to come. Instead, there are skirmishes, the seizure of towns, the slaughter of communities, the scramble for land and roads. And when Thomas and his mean leave France for Italy they find no peace. The cities there are constantly at war with one another, the situation merely aggravated by the neighbouring Hundred Years War.

Thomas and his men are little different from the other routiers who terrorise Europe at this time, despite his rules forbidding rape and needless slaughter. But be under no illusion – Thomas is as violent as any and we see his ruthlessness on more than one occasion. And we might warm to his men but there are sudden, shocking reminders – one in particular – that they are no different violence, particularly towards women, lies only just under the surface.

This is the man’s world of war but women suffer in it perhaps more than most and I must admit to struggling with the novel’s representation of women. They don’t come out of it well – whores, witches, rape victims, greedy thieves or innocent princesses seems to sum them up. I’m fully aware that this is a historical novel about medieval warfare and, as such, I don’t expect women to play much of a part, but I wish I had a pound for every reference to a woman’s breasts, clearly her most notable feature. I really felt the loss of Blackstone’s wife in this novel – she’s missed.

Viper’s Blood tells the story of a journey from fight to fight, covering much of France and northern Italy, following Thomas Blackstone’s quest for vengeance. There are moments of extreme action and violence, offset by times of hardship on the road. I really enjoyed the depictions of Paris and Milan – 14th-century Europe is described so well, with its walled towns hiding from mercenaries and roaming armies, vulnerable to disease and greed. I also liked the camaraderie between Thomas and his men, especially Killbere. I did feel a great deal for Thomas’s son Henry whose life seems terribly harsh and yet he never complains. Thomas can be a hard man to like, particularly in his behaviour towards Henry. Even his memories of his wife seem chilled. But Thomas is a damaged man, albeit a remarkable warrior.

Viper’s Blood is an exciting, bloody and well-written tale of Europe at a time of terrible crisis. Surely, there can have been few worse times in history in which to live than the mid 14th century? It’s harrowing at times, chilly in others, and, perhaps, is a little too long, but it is certainly a fine addition to a series that continues to bring these cruel years to life in such rich and meticulous detail.

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death
Gate of War and interview