Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

Orbit | 2019 (28 March) | 534p | Review copy | Buy the book

Tiamat's Wrath by James SA CoreyTiamat’s Wrath is the eighth novel in the Expanse series and surely there can be no science fiction series being written today that I love half as much as I do this one. I love it so much I don’t watch the TV series. I may do one day, when the books are done, but for now I have my own idea of what Holden, Naomi, Alex, Amos and Bobbie look like and behave and I’m leaving that picture untouched. Because I love them all. James S.A. Corey, two authors writing as one, has created a universe among the stars that is thrilling, intense and vast, but is also emotional and warm, driven by sacrifice and courage, and that’s largely due to the crew of the Rocinante. Clearly, Tiamat’s Wrath shouldn’t be read out of sequence and so this review assumes that you’ve been on board from the beginning. Consider yourself warned!

I’m going to keep the details about what happens here to the bare minimum because one of the many things that I’ve always loved about this series is that each book is different from those that went before. The last novel, Persepolis Rising, was set thirty years after the events of the book before (Babylon’s Ashes), adding a whole new dynamic to the series and now we have another jump in time.

Laconia is now the dominating force in the Galaxy, ruled by High Consul Duarte. The Laconians control the alien gates which give access to hundreds of solar systems. Alien technology has given the Laconians the most fearful spaceships humanity has ever developed. Will Holden is a captive on Laconia while his crew is dispersed. They fight for the underground now. Each is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to free the colonies, including Sol, the original inhabited solar system and home of Earth. But something alien is now tired of being a mere observer. It is about to fight back and humanity will have much more than the Laconians and their fearful manipulation of the protomolecule to dread.

Tiamat’s Wrath is such a thrilling novel and it wastes no time in throwing the reader into the midst of it. We’re used to having to find our feet again at the start of these novels – everything has shifts as it usually does – but it’s not long before we’re up to speed. And it’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. There are lots of questions to be answered, mostly about what has happened to the Roci crew, but the pieces come together as chapters move between the perspective of each crew member in turn, with one exception, and soon we’re in no doubt about the task at hand as humankind once more faces war, against each other and against something far more dreadful.

There are one or two new voices here, too, as there always is in these books, and they are wonderful, giving us more background on Laconia, a place that you sense could so easily have become a paradise. It’s now thoroughly infected.

There are moments of such intense feeling. You only have to read the very first sentence of the novel to see the direction in which events are heading. I’m not going to repeat it but it’s quite likely it’ll give you the same jolt it gave me. And that’s not the only shock you’ll get.

All of this is set against such a brilliant backdrop of planets, spaceships, moons, gates and space stations. It’s rich and vibrant and fascinating. But that’s as nothing compared to the people here. We love them. We are deeply invested in their story – not to mention their survival. Tiamat’s Wrath is one of the very best of the series. It’s engrossing, disturbing and troubling, full of heart and sacrifice, packed with action, and with an alien threat that is as thoroughly terrifying as it is mysterious. Bravo! I wish this series would never end but I suspect that the end is approaching.

Other reviews
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse 1)
Caliban’s War (Expanse 2)
Cibola Burn (Expanse 4)
Nemesis Games (Expanse 5)
Babylon’s Ashes (Expanse 6)
Persepolis Rising (Expanse 7)

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The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison and Busby | 2019 (26 March) | 365p | Review copy | Buy the book

The American Agent by Jacqueline WinspearIt is September 1940 and London, as well as towns and cities across the UK, are under attack. The Blitz keeps people from their beds, cramming them into shelters and cellars for sleepless, frightening nights, while others work in the night as ambulance drivers, fire wardens, medics and so on to save lives while houses and streets burn. In the daytime, a kind of normality takes over despite the bomb damage and the grief. Men and women continue with their daily jobs, certainly very tired but determined to carry on with their lives before the ‘murder’ of bombers return. Maisie Dobbs, like so many others, knows about loss and worry as well as personal injury, but her life is full, driving a London ambulance at night alongside her closest friend, while working as a psychologist and investigator by day. Her mind, though, is very much on the people she loves at her home in Kent.

When an American war correspondent, Catherine Saxon, is found with her throat cut, it becomes the business not only of the police but also of the American Embassy. An agent there has history with Maisie and it’s her help with the case that he wants. It won’t be an easy working relationship. How can she trust anything he says? But Maisie cares deeply about this murdered young woman who once did a shift in Maisie’s ambulance as a witness to the horror that Londoners endure every single night. Churchill is desperate to get America into the war but there are many in America who want to keep her out of it, who hate the American journalists and pilots who have come to Britain to help with the war effort. While the bombs fall, Maisie realises that this could prove a most significant case and she must do everything she can to solve it.

The American Agent is the fifteenth novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s series to feature the truly wonderful Maisie Dobbs. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first I’ve read. This is a series that has passed me by and I’m so sorry about that because I fell instantly for Maisie. The fact that I haven’t read any of the earlier books did mean that I was unfamiliar with some of the scrapes that are alluded to here, such as in wartorn Spain and in Nazi Germany, as well as some of the people who have influenced her life, one of whom plays a significant role here. But, despite that, I had no trouble immersing myself in Maisie’s world, with her close circle of family and friends, and it didn’t spoil past events for me. It made me want to go back and read them. But The American Agent stands alone very well indeed.

The Blitz setting is superbly drawn. We’re spared the blood and gore but none of the drama and the relentless fear. War has come to London. Nobody is safe. There’s a strong feeling in the novel that loved ones should be held close and protected. But how can you protect them against bombs? Some choose to send their children away to strangers in distant countries. What kind of answer is that? People are having to make difficult decisions all of the time but alongside all of that and the danger, they also have to deal with the discomfort. People have to try and sleep wherever they end up when the siren sounds. As Maisie continues her investigations, she ends up sleeping in all sorts of places, and that’s when she’s not driving her ambulance. The memory of the Great War isn’t far away and soldiers are returning from the front missing limbs, horribly scarred, just as they did in that first war. All of this is evoked with such skill and feeling by Jacqueline Winspear. There is, though, an appealing lightness to the novel, even a whimsical playfulness on occasion, but there is a darkness and sadness too and these moods complement each other perfectly.

The mystery is such an enjoyable one and I love the way in which the investigation develops. It’s all carried out politely, without great drama (the drama comes from the setting), and is revealed through Maisie’s skill at getting people to talk. We meet such fascinating people, each with their stories to tell, as the murdered woman is brought alive through their memories. I loved it. And there were tears.

The American Agent may be the first Maisie Dobbs novel I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. It gives us such a moving, evocative portrayal of London and Kent under attack from the Blitz in the last weeks of 1940, combined with a fascinating mystery investigated by a woman I adored. I can’t sing its praises enough.

Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald (Luna 3)

Gollancz | 2019 (21 March) | 437p | Review copy | Buy the book

Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonaldMoon Rising completes Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy and you certainly wouldn’t want to read it without having first read New Moon and Wolf Moon. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

About a hundred years from now, the Moon is the home of several massive industries which help fuel Earth, giving the diminished homeworld a reprieve. Until recently that industry, and the Moon itself, was controlled by five families, each headed by a Dragon, with the Eagle, drawn from one of these families, the nominal head of them all. But civil war has changed all of that. For this is a society that has separated itself from Earth’s laws. Despite its veneer of civilisation and legal niceties, on Luna a legal conflict can be decided by combat. This is a place in which the workers must pay for every breath of air they take, for every drop of water they drink. If they cannot pay, then these ‘benefits’ are taken away at a mortal cost. Some on Luna have become like wolves, living in a pack and, whenever the Earth is full in the sky, they run naked and howl into the darkness. War between the Dragons has had catastrophic repercussions.

Lucas Corte is now the Eagle of the Moon, having survived against all expectations. But the remaining Dragons want vengeance. Any member of the Corte family is now a potential and valuable hostage. Some are more vulnerable than others – the young Lucashino is particularly tempting. The families want control of the Moon’s future. There is nothing more lucrative and nothing will stand in their way. Or so they believe.

The Luna trilogy is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. Ian McDonald has created an incredibly developed, complex and astonishingly plausible future for the Moon. The scramble for the Moon’s priceless resources has resulted in a society that is almost a blend of the Wild West and 1930s’ gangsters, with technology thrown in as well as the most staggering descriptions of the Moon itself. What a setting for this tale of feuding families, greedy industrialists, clever lawyers and innocent children!

The story in Moon Rising picks up where Wolf Moon left off and I am grateful for the brief synopsis that begins this third novel. Despite the useful summary and the dramatis personae at the end, I do think that Moon Rising ideally should be read very soon after Wolf Moon. This is a complicated story, with a cast of many, and I did have some difficulties remembering what’s what. There were some elements of the story that were so easy to pick up, especially those involving Lucasinho, Luna, Ariel and Marina (my favourites), but there were other strands that did lose me a little. This, though, is entirely my fault as I have a dreadful memory.

What stands out, though, are its threads of gorgeous storytelling. I loved Alexia and her efforts to help the poorest of the Moon by ‘stealing’ rain for them. I love Wagner Corta, the moon-wolf, and the boy he protects, Robson. Luncasinho has enchanted since the beginning and he continues to do that here. No matter what happens to him, he will never lose his love for cake! And his relationship with Luna is very special. I also enjoyed the chapters spent with Marina back on Earth. She looks up and can see a Moon shining with lights. Half glad to be away from it, half wishing she’d never left.

While I did prefer the two earlier books – their story of war and conflict was more immediately accessible with some truly wonderful scenes as well as intense thrills – as a whole, this is an extraordinary trilogy. Ian McDonald always writes beautifully. I love what he has to say. I’ll always remember his vision of the Moon, which at times is horrifying and violent and yet at others is so heartwarming and wondrous.

Other reviews
Luna: New Moon
Luna: Wolf Moon
Time Was

Surgeons’ Hall by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2019 (21 March) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

Surgeon's Hall by ES ThomsonIt is 1851 and the Great Exhibition is underway in London. There has rarely been such interest in science and innovation. Apothecary Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain are there to look at the wax anatomical models made by the famous and reclusive Dr Silas Strangeway. But there is a gruesome curiosity among the exhibits – a perfectly dissected hand of flesh and blood. There are medical students in the exhibition and Jem suspects a prank so he takes the hand along to Corvus Hall. This private anatomy school, next to Jem’s own apothecary, is run by Dr Crowe, who recently relocated from Edinburgh, transforming this once grand house into a macabre mix of mortuary, school and museum.

Corvus Hall is not a place to be after dark and not just because of the recently dead corpses or the dissected remains pickled in jars. Dr Crowe’s daughters, the eldest Lilith and twins Sorrow and Silence (one blind and one deaf), move around the ‘dead house’ by night and the students are frightened of them. And then there is a death in the Hall and it’s clear to Jem that this is a place of deadly secrets.

Surgeons’ Hall is the fourth novel in E.S. Thomson’s fantastic series featuring one of the most unusual and fascinating main characters in Victorian crime fiction, Jem Lockhart. Jem lives a life based on a lie. A few people detect the secret, that Jem is a woman living as a man, but generally Jem succeeds, helped by the large birthmark that covers her face, ensuring that most people don’t take a second look. It’s a lonely life but Jem has Will Quartermain for company. This young architect is Jem’s family, along with the servants in their home. But when Will gets a job as an illustrator in Corvus Hall, Jem realises how easy it would be to lose him. All of this adds such depth and feeling to the novels, as well as a sadness. Jem is the perfect observer, she is our narrator, and she watches the women around her who are so constrained and limited by the rules laid down by fathers, husbands, brothers as well as by Victorian society in general. Medicine, especially, is a man’s world.

Medical training in the mid 19th century is the stuff of nightmares and it feels as if every floor, every room of Corvus Hall reeks of death, blood and gore. E.S. Thomson lays this all before us with such vivid and rich prose. She writes beautifully, capturing the atmosphere perfectly. This is a gruesome and macabre place. To catch a killer, Jem and Will must creep around its rooms by night. The house itself is decaying. You can almost smell its stench and feel the horrible wet squishy disgusting mess of a sample trodden underfoot.

E.S. Thomson has such a good time bringing the male world of anatomy, medical training and dissection to life but she has plenty of time for the women of the novel, not all of whom are still alive. Many women are victims, some are silenced in more ways than one, while others have to make a living in the best way that they can and we see all types here. Some are gloriously hideous, pocked with disease, while others are subdued and others still are prey. These are fantastic portraits and some are very moving to read. Jem and Lileth, though, have no doubt that women should have a bigger role in society. There are signs here that medicine is making breakthroughs – anaesthetic is now in use – but some attitudes remain in the dark ages.

But it’s not just the women who come to life in Surgeons’ Hall. There are fantastic descriptions of the men who lurk in the corners of Corvus Hall as well as the raucous students who eat pie and drink ale in the nearby inns. It’s a wonderful depiction of Victorian society as witnessed by these young men, with no vocation, whose eyes are on the money of a career in medicine.

Another role in Surgeons’ Hall worthy of a mention is of course the human body and there are plenty of them here. These people are now worth nothing more than the value of their bones and organs as they’re taken apart bit by bit. What a way to end up. It’s horrifying and they haunt this novel.

The mystery is excellent and it is revealed in such a brilliant way. It’s a compulsive read. I was completely immersed in it. This is such fine writing, steeped in historical and scientific detail. This series is now well established as one of the very best in historical fiction being written today and Surgeons’ Hall is superb and I loved every page of it.

Other reviews
Beloved Poison
Dark Asylum
The Blood

Sleep by C.L. Taylor

Avon | 2019 (21 March) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sleep by C.L. TaylorAnna has been tormented by insomnia ever since surviving a terrible road accident. She finds her life difficult to cope with in the aftermath and, to make things even worse, she can’t help thinking that she is being followed. Or is this just guilt pursuing her every wakeful thought? Anna is determined to escape and so she heads about as far away as she can. She takes a job as a receptionist in the small Bay View Hotel on the remote Scottish island of Rum. Her job will be to assist the manager David with the guests who arrive to take part in hikes across the island’s glorious peaks. But, along with the first group of seven tourists, arrives a storm that will soon cut the hotel off from the rest of the island, while phone and internet signals will also fail.

Trapped within the hotel, it’s not long before the personalities emerge of each of the guests and Anna realises that she is surrounded by secrets. She wasn’t the only one who fled to the island to escape a past. But, just when she thinks it couldn’t get any worse, it really does and Anna must face the terrible truth that her stalker has followed her to Rum.

Sleep has a fantastic premise and, after starting it late one evening, I was pulled right in and only emerged with 60% of it read in one sitting. It undoubtedly tells a compelling story as it moves between our heroine Anna and the perspectives of others in her life, notably her ex-partner, and in her story. This sort of structure usually moves a story along and it does a good job of doing that here.

I was definitely enticed by the setting on the island. I’m very partial to mysteries set on islands, as my reading this year attests. This does, though, mean that this is a rather popular setting for novels and I’m not sure that Sleep treats the stormy landscape as well as others that I’ve read. And unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the second half of the novel as much as the first. I’ve been thinking about why that is and I think it’s mostly because the story is, for me, overladen with red herrings and twists. It’s almost like it’s working too hard and that it’s also playing with us. I know that most people have really loved this book and so I think this may be something to do with me and my attitude towards psychological novels. I’ve just read too many of them and I’m suspicious of their games. I won’t give anything away but I also really didn’t like the final page.

Nevertheless, C.L. Taylor writes well and I think that Sleep will be a popular read, especially for those who have read fewer psychological thrillers! It’s certainly gripping and extremely hard to put down.

Other review
The Missing

The Scandal by Mari Hannah

Orion | 2019 (7 March) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Scandal by Mari HannahIt’s just before Christmas when the body of a young man is found stabbed to death in a Newcastle street. DCI David Stone suspects a robbery gone wrong but, when DS Frankie Oliver arrives on scene, she gets a terrible shock. The dead man is Chris Adams a court reporter with the Herald. Frankie’s known Chris since they were children together. They were the best of friends. David and Frankie soon learn that Chris believed he was working on a case that would make his career. He suddenly left a group of friends in the pub. He was never seen alive again. Who was he meeting, what was the story he was investigating and who would kill to cover it up?

The Scandal is the third novel by Mari Hannah to feature Newcastle detectives Stone and Oliver. I’ve enjoyed all three – to be fair, I’ve enjoyed everything Mari Hannah has ever written! – but I do think that The Scandal might be my favourite of this series. As with all of the author’s novels, they stand out for their detectives. Kate Daniels remains one of my absolute favourites, but she has rivals in the shape of Matthew Ryan and now David Stone and Frankie Oliver.

Stone has now settled into his job back at home in the north east after years away working for the Met in London. Awful events drove him away from London but his mind is more focused now on the job in hand and on bringing his team together. He’s doing a good job and he has the full support of his DS, Frankie Oliver, who is the third generation to police this region. It isn’t easy for her to follow in their footsteps, especially as her father continues to demand the respect of everyone in the force and still has his ear close to the ground. But she’s managed it. Working from the bottom up, Frankie has made her role her own, although she’s the first to admit that her indomitable father does come in handy at time. She too has tragedy in her history, but she’s laid some ghosts to rest. Regrettably for Frankie, she’s about to get a new ghost to deal with – her childhood best friend Chris Adams.

The relationship between Stone and Oliver is so well presented and is just as important to the novel as the fate of Chris Adams. Mari Hannah is such a fine observer of human behaviour and interaction. Friendships and families, the young and the elderly, play a significant role and it’s especially sad to see how one family in particular has to deal with loss.

I love the meticulous investigating that forms the backbone of The Scandal. This is such a good police procedural. The case is built, step upon step, and we watch it form, becoming distracted at times by red herrings, but marvelling at how it all comes together. This isn’t, I’m pleased to say, a mystery dependent upon twists. This is an investigation built upon solid police work and intricate plotting. It’s a clever novel told very well indeed that builds carefully, resulting in a rewarding and immersive read.

Other reviews
Gallows Drop
The Silent Room (Ryan 1)
The Death Messenger (Ryan 2)
The Lost (Stone and Oliver 1)
The Insider (Stone and Oliver 2)

I’m delighted to post this review for the Blog Tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Scandal Blog Tour poster

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell

Titan Books | 2019 (19 February) | 405p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fleet of Knives by Gareth L PowellFleet of Knives follows on from the excellent Embers of War but it stands alone very well indeed. This is such a great series, developing into something very special, that I still recommend that you read both books. This review assumes that you don’t mind knowing a little of what happened before.

Trouble Dog was a warship. It took part in an act that many see as a war crime. It’s trying to atone, working now for an agency that seeks to help those who are lost or in danger, to bring them back safely within the fold. Some memories, though, cannot be forgotten. Part machine, part human, part dog Trouble Dog is unable to escape its impulse for loyalty, to protect its crew. This is about to get tested. The ship has detected a distress signal from Lucy’s Ghost, a spaceship that took a pounding, its crew seeking shelter on an enormous abandoned alien spaceship. Trouble Dog, captained by Sal Konstanz, rushes to their aid, even though it knows that things have got very tricky indeed. The Marble Amarda, a formidable alien fleet of knives, has a mission and it is merciless – it must destroy any vessel capable of war. It sees only the bigger picture. And that means Trouble Dog must be annihilated. But, considering what the ship discovers aboard the alien vessel, this might be the least of Trouble Dog‘s problems.

I loved Embers of War! Such a tense, action-packed thriller of a space opera, brilliantly executed, with thoroughly entertaining and varied characters. Fleet of Knives picks up the action and is, if anything, even better than its predecessor. This is fantastic science fiction! One element that stands out from it instantly is its spaceships. Rarely since reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have I enjoyed spaceships as much as these. Some of the ships are piloted by AIs, others have more disturbing links to humans or other species. They can all think, feel fear, feel guilt. Trouble Dog knows all about guilt. It has lost its pack. It must find another in the family of its crew. The ships play such a crucial role here. Their personalities are made solid and there is one in particular who becomes especially real. It’s all rather poignant. The ships are every bit as important as their crew.

Not all of the crew members are human. I love how this universe is presented, how species work together. There’s almost a Star Trek vibe to this cooperation and optimism, although we are regularly reminded that this is a universe in turmoil, with dangerous aliens. Each ship carries an engineer from the Druff species – Nod, the Druff engineer aboard Trouble Dog is quite possibly my favourite character, not least because of the rather unexpected repercussions of its recent shore leave (do read the extract here) – but these kind and amiable, if odd, aliens are no match for the other terrifying aliens, monsters even, that we encounter in the novel. Some might explain their actions with reason but there are others for whom reason doesn’t exist at all. There are aliens here that will make your skin crawl. Excellent!

Fleet of Knives has a wonderful, thrilling plot and every bit as good as that is Gareth L. Powell’s writing. We have complex characters, stunning set sequences in the vacuum of space, horrible aliens, enormous mysterious spaceships, enigmatic and menacing aliens, great characters, the dread of human extinction, fantastic descriptions of space, ships and aliens, moments of extreme tension. I couldn’t read this fast enough. I hung on to every word and I can’t wait for more.

Other reviews and features
Embers of War
The recent boom in space opera – guest post by Gareth L. Powell
An extract from Fleet of Knives