Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae | Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff | 2015 | Rock the Boat | 599p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay KristoffKarenza is a remote planet, its colonists happily ignored by the rest of the Galaxy, until the day comes when two rival corporations decide to go to war over its resources and then all hell breaks loose as a bombing barrage threatens to smash the helpless world into oblivion. On reflection, teenage lovers Ezra and Kady would agree that they could have picked a better day on which to split up but, as the two scramble to safety in the small fleet of ships that come to the colonists’ rescue, there is grief in their hearts alongside the pain of watching their world literally fall apart.

But this is just the beginning. As the evacuating ships limp to safety they take danger with them. An enemy ship is in pursuit and, perhaps even worse, the survivors are under attack from a virus working its way through the ships and even the AI in charge of the lead ship, the Alexander, has been affected, becoming untrustworthy, frightening. Kady works to find answers by hacking in to the data streams of the stricken fleet while Ezra is put to another purpose, both of them realising how insignificant their squabbles have been. Everything conspires against their survival, against even seeing each other once more before the end. And that end is surely inevitable and could come from any one of so many horrific directions. Space is cold, vast and merciless.

Illuminae is an extraordinary accomplishment and no review I could write could do justice to the creative genius of its authors. First off, you need to read the print version. It is a marvel to read, to experience even, as the authors play with the shapes of words and prose, the use of colours, or rather black and white, and diagrams to reflect the human and AI turmoil of the Alexander’s flight for life. There are shocks throughout the book but the authors illuminate these moments in creative ways that don’t just surprise but also tear at the heartstrings. When lives are lost we’re made to feel it.

There are themes that might at first seem well-used and lead the reader to expect the familiar, perhaps with a groan – a zombie-like plague, an AI gone mad – but what you find instead is something completely original, largely thanks to the ingenious relationship between what happens and how it is conveyed on the page.

The story itself is told through extracts from reports, diaries, interviews, emails, briefing notes, computer logs, schematics and so many other fascinating sources. In no way does any of this get in the way of the thrilling action of the adventure or block our emotional connection to Kady and Ezra. I became so fond of Kady, willing her on to survive, her indomitable, plucky, brave, wonderful character plain for all to see and enjoy.

Illuminae is a Young Adult science fiction novel but its appeal is ageless. I adored everything about it. It’s the first of a trilogy and I am counting down the days to the second book’s publication in October. It cannot come soon enough. I crave it.

The Lazarus War: Origins by Jamie Sawyer

Origins | Jamie Sawyer | 2016 (25 August) | Orbit | 457p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lazarus War: Origins by Jamie SawyerOrigins concludes Jamie Sawyer’s fast and furious military SF trilogy The Lazarus War and you really do need to have read Artefact and Legion first. By now you’ll care deeply for Lazarus (otherwise known as Colonel Conrad Harris) and his Legion, a team that comprises just a small number of men and women who would follow Lazarus to the end and frequently do just that. This review assumes you’ve read the previous books.

Lazarus and his Legion are Sim Ops, soldiers who fight in ‘skins’, bio-genetically enhanced bodies with strength far superior to that of their real bodies which rest in capsules, waiting for Extraction and the reintegration of mind and body. Times are desperate. Old Earth has been all but destroyed by war between the Alliance and the Directorate, a war that only ended when a far greater menace threatened mankind – the monstrous Krell. But peace between the Alliance and the Directorate is now just a memory. All out war rages across the Galaxy and not even the intensifying mass slaughters wreaked by the Krell can subdue it. And now an even more dangerous alien threat waits to be awoken. Lazarus, the Alliance’s most famous and celebrated soldier, can sense it. He can hear it. But Lazarus no longer wants to understand the alien artefact – he must destroy it once and for all, even if it means he and his Legion must die violent deaths over and over again.

As you’d expect after the first two novels in the trilogy, Origins runs from the very first page and it doesn’t stop once. The action is intense, violent, frightening, even though Sim Ops are repeatedly reborn within the tanks where their real bodies lie. The deaths might not be final but that doesn’t mean they’re not agonising and Lazarus, who has endured more deaths than any other soldier, is paying the price. But just as the action is intense, so too is the emotion. Lazarus is closer to discovering the truth about the fate of the woman he loved, a quest that has shaped the trilogy, and it drives him almost to distraction.

Lazarus is easy to care for. As with Legion, in Origins there are flashbacks to past years and events that have played such a crucial part in shaping the man Lazarus has become. Although the other characters in the team are less three-dimensional they are still very likeable and distinct, especially now that they have formed such a cohesive unit. A family, really. The pilot James is now almost a part of the Legion and the little we glimpse of his true self is heartbreaking.

The aliens here are fantastically nasty – although a fair few of the humans aren’t much better either. This is a universe in which we know very well whose side we’re on. The places we visit are well visualised, whether they’re planets, space stations or starships and, it bears repeating, the pace never, never lets up.

While Origins doesn’t quite capture the mystery or wonder of the alien artefacts that was such a feature of the earlier novels, it more than makes up for it with the tension, drama and satisfaction of watching a thoroughly entertaining and thrilling trilogy draw to a worthy close. I’m looking forward to seeing where Jamie Sawyer takes us to next.

Other review
The Lazarus War: Legion

The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

The Secret Wife | Gill Paul | 2016 (25 August) | Avon | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Secret Wife by Gill PaulIn 1914, not long after the start of World War I, cavalry officer Dimitri Malama is injured on the Russian-German front. He is sent to a hospital close to St Petersburg to recover, but this is no ordinary hospital. The rooms of the summer palace of the Tsars, the Catherine Palace, have been converted into wards for officers and one of Dimitri’s nurses is Nurse Romanov Three, otherwise known as Her Imperial Highness, Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Tatiana is no stranger to Dimitri. He is of aristocratic birth and before the war he had been one of the royal family’s imperial guard, keeping a respectful distance. But these new circumstances change everything and Tatiana and Dimtri fall in love.

From that moment on, everything changes for Dimitri. Through war and revolution, Dimitri will do all he can to love and protect Tatiana as her status is reduced radically from princess to prisoner, the threat against the imperial family increasing almost daily as they are moved around this immense nation, the chains tightening little by little.

In the present day, Kitty Fisher escapes a personal crisis in London by fleeing to a remote cabin in the Lake Akanabee, New York State, which had been left to her by a great grandfather she had never known. His only surviving relation, she becomes absorbed by his story, especially after she finds a valuable and tantalising piece of jewellery lost beneath the cabin’s front steps.

The Secret Wife moves between the stories of Dimitri and Kitty, both of which illuminate this great love of Dimitri’s life, a love that haunted his entire existence. It’s not difficult to understand why Kitty should become so consumed by it because this novel absolutely enthralled this reader at least with its emotional and powerful story of love and loss.

The tragic story of the Tsar and his family is well-known but its power to shock, as well as fascinate, continues and Gill Paul makes excellent use of her sources to present the full horror of events, while still reminding us, albeit gently, of the appalling conditions faced by ordinary Russians (and Russian soldiers) under Romanov rule. But the emphasis throughout is on the love affair between Dimitri and Tatiana, mostly focusing on Dimitri as he is forced to make choices that he knows he may live to regret. At times Dimitri is ruthless, knowingly so, in direct contrast to the purity of his love, and there are a few moments that demonstrate that there is nothing he won’t do for Tatiana.

We know Tatiana relatively little but Dimitri is not always an easy man to like. But he doesn’t want to be liked. He wants to save Tatiana and her family. Gill Paul cleverly, without filter, shows the results of this tunnel vision on the lives and feelings of the people around Dimitri.

I was completely engrossed in The Secret Wife, as a thoroughly entertaining historical novel and for its love story. There are so many emotions on display here and it’s hard not to be moved as history overtakes love. The book skilfully combines fact with fiction. I didn’t fall for Kitty Fisher’s story particularly but it played a relatively minor part in the novel’s structure and worked well as a device to bring the story up to the present day. It was the story of Tatiana and Dimitri that captivated me and ensured that I finished the novel in one glorious day’s reading.

Other post
Guest post – Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’

The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Autumn Throne | Elizabeth Chadwick | 2016 (1 September) | Sphere | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth ChadwickThe Autumn Throne completes Elizabeth Chadwick’s superb and, I would argue, definitive trilogy on the life of one of the most (if not THE most) astonishing female figures in medieval history – Eleanor of Aquitaine, given here her original name of Alienor. Although The Autumn Throne can be read as a stand alone novel, I would most certainly recommend that you read The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown first because only then will you appreciate the full wonder of Elizabeth Chadwick’s achievement. Alienor and her times come alive on the page along with some of the most charismatic and infamous figures of the late 12th century – Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John, and a personal favourite (as he will be to many fans of Elizabeth Chadwick’s work), the greatest knight, William Marshal. This review assumes you’ve read the previous two novels.

The year is 1176 and Queen Alienor has been held prisoner by her husband Henry II for two long years in the palace at Sarum in Wiltshire. It’s a forbidding place, its stones heated hot in the summer while retaining no heat through the winter. Alienor is in her fifties, her children all now adult, except for John her youngest and even he is growing too fast. Occasionally, Henry allows Alienor her freedom to spend Christmas and Easter with her family (as well as an ever growing brood of illegitimate children) but his motives are a double-edged sword. There is always something he wants and, after all these years, and knowing each other far too well, Alienor will always fight back with the words she knows will hurt him the most.

As the years pass, Alienor once more finds herself caught up in the highest levels of politics as England and Normandy continue to clash with France and Germany. With Europe’s royal families all entangled and almost all related to Alienor, from her present life as Queen of England as well as her past as Queen of France, she is central to their plotting and it is up to her to try and protect her sons and daughters from a succession of crises, often of their own making, while also arranging suitable alliances. On occasion this means that Alienor herself is put in a position of great danger.

Alienor’s family is the comfort of her life and also her heartbreak and in The Autumn Throne it is her relationship with her children and grandchildren that forms its heart. There are moments of great tragedy and waste and I cried and cried while reading this wonderful book. Nobody makes me care for historical figures as Elizabeth Chadwick does. She keeps her characters in their own time – it’s us, her readers, she carries through time. It doesn’t matter how well you know the history of these events, and I think I know them pretty well, but Chadwick makes us care deeply and when the inevitable comes it hurts all the more because we know it’s coming and we know how it will devastate this extraordinary woman, Alienor. If you’re not familiar with events then this trilogy is a fantastic introduction and guide to them.

The Autumn Throne takes us across western Europe, demonstrating the extent of the throne’s power at this time, the great journeys that were regularly demanded of its rulers. And by this time Alienor is not a young woman. Her fortitude, determination and wisdom are brilliantly drawn, even as her physical body begins to let her down.

The novel is full of characters, each of whom is so famous to history in his or her own right, and they are all drawn beautifully. The dialogue is naturally written and the prose is so wonderfully light and perceptive. I’ve always said that reading an Elizabeth Chadwick novel is not like reading history at all, it’s experiencing it. The colours, smells, foods, drinks, the clothes, love, death, the locations and everything else that builds up the layers of this late 12th-century world are perfectly laid out before our eyes. I loved the little details about fashion, I also loved the interaction of little children with the main characters. These people are all seen as rounded individuals living their own lives beyond their political business. Children regularly died in infancy but this doesn’t mean that children were less well loved for being so precariously held on to. These close relationships are such an integral part of this novel.

This was a military age, also an age of crusade, and although these events are described only rarely in the book, with one notable exception, they are constantly in the background, driving on events. No character bridges the domestic and the military like William Marshal and he is such a glorious presence in the novel, lighting up the pages when he appears just as he lights up Alienor’s eyes. Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels about William – The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion – remain among my most very favourite novels of all time. Other character portraits I particularly enjoyed here were John – always a scene stealer – and also Alienor’s grandson Richard. Alienor’s other grandson Arthur also receives original treatment and his role a fresh interpretation. But, really, I enjoyed everyone in this novel. How could I not? It’s all so richly done.

My one question about the trilogy is with the order of the titles – The Summer Queen, the Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne. I’ve wondered for a long time why the seasons are ordered here as they are. Not that it matters.

This trilogy has been an absolute delight and I have savoured it. Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of my favourite figures from history. Over the years I’ve read everything about her that I can but it’s only now, with Elizabeth Chadwick’s utterly fabulous trilogy, that I feel that I’ve been allowed into Eleanor’s thoughts and given a chance to see and know her as I imagine she may well have been. Eleanor was a truly remarkable woman, her story is the stuff of legend, and Elizabeth Chadwick has done her justice.

Other reviews
The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown

Saviour of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Saviour of Rome | Douglas Jackson | 2016 (25 August) | Bantam Press | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Saviour of Rome by Douglas JacksonSaviour of Rome is the seventh novel in Douglas Jackson’s wonderful series featuring Roman officer and honoured Hero of Rome Gaius Valerius Verrens. This novel closely follows on from the harrowing events portrayed in Scourge of Rome and so I would certainly suggest you read that first at least. Even better to have read the entire series because Saviour of Rome will have its repercussions and you’ll appreciate this all the more fully if you’ve grown as attached to the characters of Valerius and his former slave and bodyguard Serpentius as I have. The review below assumes you’ve read the series.

The empire is settling down after the Year of the Four Emperors and the civil war that accompanied it. Vespasian is now on the throne, supported by his son Titus (a good friend of Valerius), hindered by his other son Domitian (a bad enemy of Valerius), and determined to put the money back into Rome’s coffers, not least so he can build his fancy new amphitheatre. Vespasian has become aware that certain mines in Spain are not sending as much gold back to Rome as they should. Suspecting a conspiracy, he sends Valerius off to investigate the shady, dirty and perilously dangerous world of Roman gold mining, a hell on earth for those cursed with the job of hacking the gold out of the rock.

Valerius has more on his hands than he might have thought. There are rumours that the local tribes in Spain have a new hero, a bandit that haunts the hills, known to many as the Ghost and to others as the Snake.

Valerius Verrens is a reluctant agent of Rome and now, more than ever, he has reasons to stay in the city, but his sense of duty and purpose have always rivalled and compromised his quest for happiness. Through these novels, Serpentius has been his constant companion, his right hand man – quite literally, because Valerius is a hero without a hand thanks to his service in Britain. But now Valerius must manage without him and it leaves him vulnerable, which is a pity because he has enemies around every corner.

Saviour of Rome removes Valerius from history and places him in the entirely fictional context of a rebellious Spanish gold mine. This is in direct contrast to the previous novel which put Valerius right at the heart of Rome’s infamous subjugation of Jerusalem. While this means that the events of Saviour of Rome have less resonance and appear potentially less significant, it also means that it is Valerius himself who has become central to the story and it is Valerius – and Serpentius – who moves this story along. The glimpses we have of Serpentius in his new setting matter a great deal and are such a highlight of the novel.

As usual, Valerius is adept at finding trouble and he finds more than his fair share here as we discover the plight of the men and women who are made to suffer in the name of gold mining and the corruption of those who exploit them. We see the effects of civil war on this place so distant from Rome and yet Rome’s influence is also demonstrated to be as watchful as ever. Valerius is such an interesting character, straddling the good and bad of Roman imperial rule. Although a great soldier, he knows how vulnerable his missing hand has left him but he also knows that, because of it, others can make the deadly mistake of underestimating him. Past events have changed Valerius and they are still changing him now.

Saviour of Rome is such a fine addition to the series. It’s different to the others in many ways and allows us to see these characters in a new light now that history has left them alone for a short while. Douglas Jackson writes beautifully and this is on full show here. He also never spares us the ugliness and barbarity of certain aspects of this world and they are also revealed. People have a great deal to lose. They are determined not to lose it. The tension is high as Valerius becomes more and more frustrated by his mission, the setting within (and under) the mountains is brilliantly painted in all its grandeur and claustrophobic horror, the cast of characters varied and enigmatic, the fighting bloody.

This is one of my very favourite series of novels, regardless of genre, and it is fascinating to watch it develop and evolve. I cannot wait to find out what the fates, and Douglas Jackson, have next in mind for Valerius Verrens.

Other reviews and interview
Caligula
Claudius
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
An interview

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson

A Death at Fountains Abbey | Antonia Hodgson | 2016 (25 August) | Hodder & Stoughton | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia HodgsonTom Hawkins wants nothing more than to take a well-earned continental break with his ‘wife’ Kitty, leaving the pitfalls of London and their pornographic book business behind. George II’s Queen Caroline, though, has other plans for Tom and there’s not much he can do about it, considering that she knows more than enough about him and Kitty to see them hang at the end of a noose – again. Queen Caroline has received letters from ex-Treasurer Mr John Aislabie stating that his life is in danger and he is in need of protection. This is hardly surprising news. As the man responsible for the financial cataclysm that was the South Sea Bubble, half of England wants John Aislabie dead. The fact that the Queen sends Tom off to Aislabie’s estate in Yorkshire is a fair enough indication of how highly she values Aislabie’s life. At least it’s a break from London.

Tom and Kitty find a household in disorder. Aislabie’s past has come back from the dead to haunt him and there’s no way to know if this is connected to the death threats. It’s all an unwelcome diversion from Aislabie’s main passion (except for horses), which is to transform his estate in the latest style (for the late 1720s) and take over the next door property which has a rather pleasing ruin in its grounds – Fountains Abbey.

A Death at Fountains Abbey is the third adventure for Tom Hawkins and, like the others, it can be read as a stand alone, apart from a few light references to events from the previous novel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Tom is attempting to turn over a new leaf a he makes a life with the irresistible and slightly dangerous Kitty and he’s probably pleased to leave his gambling and drinking haunts safely behind in London. But he can’t leave it all behind. Sam, the son of one of London’s chief gang captains, comes along as Tom’s ears and eyes. I can’t imagine one of these novels without Sam. I was so pleased he came along, although I don’t think he cared for the Yorkshire countryside very much.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is set against the grand background of a country estate that is in the process of reshaping itself according to the local fashion. Much of it is more or less a building site but there are still plenty of outdoor pursuits to enjoy (so long as not all the deer are slaughtered as gruesome warnings to Aislabie). London seems a long way away – reflecting Aislabie’s desires to leave his sins and disgrace behind. Tom finds himself in a world that is still feudal despite the spread of fashionable ideas and, although he is now far removed from the prisons of London, the penal system continues as a theme in A Death at Fountains Abbey.

Antonia Hodgson works her sources wonderfully (I loved the notes at the end of the book) and, as usual, sprinkles the story with real historical figures while creating a mystery that does them credit. Indeed, most of the characters here are historical, including Aislabie, right down to his cook, the builders and his troublesome tenants. Antonia Hodgson takes a few mentions of such figures from contemporary accounts and breathes life into them, making them every bit as three-dimensional as Tom, Kitty and Sam, who, as always, are fabulous companions – always entertaining, most definitely not entirely or even a little respectable, brave, persistent and attractive (bar the odd scar). Tom and Kitty’s relationship is not typical in the slightest but it’s a lot of fun to observe. As events here take place in a country estate there is an attempt at least to maintain a veneer of manners, particularly at the regular formal dinner, but this is clearly not even skin deep. Putting your foot in it every time you open your mouth is a trait that many of the characters in this novel have perfected.

I must confess that I did miss the London setting of the previous two novels. London was such a prominent character, as were the prisons. The stench and cruelty of the prisons and rookeries of London added a darkness and grim realism to the previous novels which is missing in A Death At Fountains Abbey. Fountains Abbey, despite the murder and mayhem, is a lighter story and the setting calmer. But Tom and Kitty deserve their respite after all that they’ve endured and, even though they manage to place themselves in as much peril as ever, there’s a strong sense that they’re enjoying the roles they’ve chosen to play. I love Antonia Hodgson’s slightly wicked sense of humour and it’s put to good use here and her clear affection for Tom and Kitty and Sam, as well as her enthusiasm for the period, is infectious. This is such a strong series and I hope it goes on and on.

Other review
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds

Beyond the Aquila Rift | Alastair Reynolds | 2016 | Gollancz | 784p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair ReynoldsThe imagination and creative genius of Alastair Reynolds is extraordinary and arguably nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Beyond the Aquila Rift, a substantial anthology of seventeen short stories, some of which have featured in other collections and some which have not. The stories vary in length from just twenty-odd pages to over one hundred and are drawn from a range of science fiction universes, including Revelation Space and there is not one story among them that didn’t make me stop and draw breath. I originally treated myself to one story an evening but about halfway through I gave up on this and gobbled the rest up, not letting the size of this big hardback put me off carrying it wherever I went, always looking forward to my next dip, confidently assured that I would be amazed by it.

I couldn’t stop raving about this book as I read it and I think that’s because it’s been a significant read for me. Firstly, I’ve never been a fan of short stories or novellas. I usually like a story to be long enough that I can be consumed by it for several days and it can take me a while to be fully immersed in a new science fiction world. But none of that mattered here. I found myself being completely fascinated by the premise, setting and characters of these stories almost instantly. I couldn’t believe that this would continue for the whole collection but it did! The other reason why this book feels significant for me is that it has made me realise that Alastair Reynolds at his best is the very best.

I’m not going to give away much about these stories because discovering them for the first time is part of their enormous pleasure but I do want to stress how varied they are. Some are set in a far distant future in which mankind has been altered almost beyond recognition although still hanging on to that something that makes it human; there are robots, some more human than others; there are wars; there is a future Ice-Age Newcastle as well as other depictions of Earth in a damaged near-future; there are enigmatic alien artefacts; there are artists, including one in search of the perfect blue. There are also plenty of clever twists and surprises and a range of moods – nobody does horror in space like Alastair Reynolds and here there are fine examples of situations and sights that will make your blood run cold. There is also tenderness, notably between an old man on Mars and a young girl who has stowed away on a space ship. There are a couple of young adult stories. There is a touch of the bizarre – most notably in the final story which introduces us to Derek the T-Rex – extraordinary and so funny! Throughout these stories, we meet so many intriguing, memorable characters in such a remarkable array of situations and locations.

If I had to pick a favourite story, I just couldn’t, but potential choices include Diamond Dogs, Minla’s Flowers, the Last Log of the Lachrimosa, The Old Man and the Martian Sea, and the story which gives the collection its name. And all the others.

The collections closes with notes on each of the stories, which provides such fascinating background to their origin, development and inspiration as well as their influence on Alastair Reynolds’ novels.

Above all else, Beyond the Aquila Rift is full of wonders. You can find them in every story, reminding me why I love Alastair Reynolds’ novels so much. The Medusa Chronicles is already one of my stand out novels of 2016. I am gobsmacked at the breadth and scope of imagination and writing genius on display here. I am so pleased I have more novels and short stories to read, including Revenger, the next novel, which is published this September and will be reviewed here shortly.

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