The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

Head of Zeus | 2019 (20 August) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Cruel Stars by John BirminghamFive centuries ago, the Sturm, having lost the Great War, retreated into the far reaches of space. But they have never been forgotten, humanity (such as it has become) still lives in dread of its nemesis. And now the Sturm has returned, determined to rid human space of those who have adapted to life beyond Earth’s limits with implants and gene therapy, keeping alive through multiple lifetimes by rebirthing or by passing on their consciousness, their spirit, into other bodies. But the Sturm, pure in body and ruthless in their fanaticism, are also after vengeance, particularly against the man who led the war against them, Admiral Frazer McLennan, who is now seeing out another of his long lives as an archaeologist digging up a crashed Sturm spaceship, a site sacred to the Sturm. McLennan really knows how to rub salt in the wound.

The coming of the Sturm will take human space to the brink of annihilation. Few stand in their way – Lucinda Hardy, commander of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship; Booker3, a soldier about to be executed for treason; Princess Alessia whose whole family has been slaughtered; Sephina L’trel, a pirate caught up in it all who fights for the Resistance. And then there’s McLennan himself, as well as his grumpy AI Hero who likes nothing better than to throw anything it doesn’t like into the nearest sun. They’re a motley crew but together they are determined and brave. They’re also desperate and when you’re that desperate you’ll risk everything. And there is everything to lose.

The Cruel Stars opens a new space opera trilogy by John Birmingham and it opens it in very fine form indeed. The worldbuilding is superb. This may be the future but everyone is still recognisable as human (even those with animal enhancements or those who are managing to live forever by a variety of curious means). This is an enhanced world but it certainly has its faults. There are factions and feuds, superstitions and strange religions, fascinating artificial intelligences, revered almost as gods. There is so much depth and variety to this universe, so many ideas. There is more than enough here to sustain a trilogy. I can’t wait to learn more about it.

The novel is packed with action, drama and battles. But it is character-driven as chapters alternate between people we really want to know. I love this sort of structure, which is, of course, reminiscent of the Expanse novels. When done well this really works, as it does here in The Cruel Stars.

I loved all of the characters and each has their own fascinating storyline, but my favourite is McLennan. What a man he is! He seems to spend much of his time recklessly naked, which is rather unpleasant for everyone else, but he’s too old and ugly to care what anyone thinks. And through him we learn more about the conflict 500 years before.

This is a war between good and evil. The bad guys have no redeeming features. As a result, the battles are bloody, gory and full of dismembered limbs flying around. But there is fun to be had. Booker3’s situation is brilliant and very funny. There is also horror – space zombies are rarely pleasant. There are some great ideas, some paying homage to the science fiction world – starships are larger on the inside than on the outside.

The Cruel Stars is such an entertaining space opera, which achieves the perfect mix of action and character. Each enhances and drives the other. This might be the start of a trilogy but the novel stands alone perfectly well and is complete in itself, something I always appreciate. I can’t wait to discover what happens next. I love these characters and I look forward to spending much more time with them. It will be tense, it will be bloody but there will also be something to chuckle about. Excellent!


The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2019 (12 September) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

It is 1152 when the wife of Diarmait, King of Leinster in Ireland, gives birth to Aiofe. Beautiful and clever, Aiofe will not only be much loved by her father, she will be prized by him as he uses her to help cling on to power in this most tempestuous of places in which to hold a kingdom. He has rivals on every side and his sons have become little more than bargaining pieces, held hostage to guarantee Diarmait’s oaths of loyalty, oaths he will never keep. There is a new powerful king across the water in England, Henry II, and he wants to spread that power westwards.

Henry also wants to control Richard de Clare, the Earl of Striguil (now Chepstow) and once the Earl of Pembroke. Richard had been on the side of the loser in the civil war that preceded Henry’s rise to the throne. Richard’s paying for it now but his influence is still strong. And it gets stronger still when Diarmit marries his young daughter to Richard, creating an alliance that will change the balance of power in this region. But Aiofe is no mere pawn. She owns titles and lands in her own right. She is a formidable woman, with three powerful men in her thrall – father, husband and King Henry. Aiofe is also deeply in love with this remarkable man, Richard, to whom she is so happily wed.

I cannot overstate my love of Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing and her novels. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who can immerse the reader so deeply in the medieval period, bringing to such vivid and colourful life kings and queens but also those other people whose names are known to history but so little else. Elizabeth Chadwick’s great writing love is William Marshal, The Greatest Knight, and here she turns her attention to his mother-in-law Aiofe, a beautiful Irish princess who was so much more than that. I knew nothing about Aiofe before reading The Irish Princess but now I am fascinated by her and feel that I’ve been given a glimpse into her extraordinary life in 12th-century Ireland and England.

It’s an incredible story and it begins in Ireland, a place of war, violence and passion. This is stunning stuff, with battles, feasting, love and hatred, as well as great emotion and trauma. I couldn’t have been more engrossed. And then the novel moves to England as Aiofe marries the love of her life. Life becomes a struggle as her husband Richard de Clare is pitted against Henry II, although between the three of them there is a kind of friendship that absolutely fascinates.

Elizabeth Chadwick knows this period inside out and we reap the rewards of this knowledge with a novel built upon incredible historical details and insight. Objects, clothing, rooms, buildings, places are all described with such richness. You really feel as if you’re in the room with these people, listening to them speak, watching them move. It all feels so real even though this novel is set such a long time ago and these are lives so different from our own. And because it feels so real we care deeply for these people, especially Aiofe and Richard. Expect strong emotion. I cried ugly tears more than once. I was so involved in Aiofe’s story.

This marvellous novel is a fierce contender for my novel of the year. It completely immerses the reader in these lives lived so long ago. It’s an incredible story, extremely well-researched and very, very moving. Elizabeth Chadwick is a master at putting us in the room with people from the past – Diarmait is not a man to forget in a hurry. There is so much vivid colour but it all feels natural and real. I’ve loved so many of Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and The Irish Princess is right there among the very best, equalling The Greatest Knight, which, considering how breathtakingly good that novel is, is high praise indeed.

Other reviews
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne
Templar Silks

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2019 (5 September) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Second Sleep by Robert HarrisIt is 1468 and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hunting his way through Exmoor to find the remote village of Addicott St George. He has been sent there to bury the village’s priest Father Lacey who, when out in the nearby countryside, fell to his death from a great height. It’s hard to conduct a eulogy for a man one doesn’t know and so Fairfax sets out to discover all he can about this man who served his parish for 32 years.

It is while Fairfax is searching Father Lacey’s office that he comes across documents that Lacey shouldn’t have had. These heretical texts record past lives, those of the ungodly, who once walked and worked this land. As Fairfax digs deeper, his investigations leads him to nearby Durston Court and its enigmatic, unusual Lady of the manor, and secrets that she keeps hidden. Suddenly, Father Lacey’s death seems less of an accident and the truth of it will be as staggering as it is lethal.

Robert Harris is easily one of my very favourite authors, if not my favourite, not least because everything he writes is so different, original, ingenious and surprising. And with The Second Sleep Robert Harris has achieved, in my opinion, the greatest surprise of them all. Something happens early on – watch for the clues – and, it might be a cliche to say it, but I could feel my jaw actually dropping.

It is for this reason that I’m going to say nothing further at all about this book! I came to it knowing nothing except that I knew it would be wonderful – which it certainly is – and so I had the considerable joy of discovering all of its secrets for myself. And so I’d urge you not to read any reviews (except this one, of course).

All I’ll say to tempt you to read it, is that The Second Sleep is beautifully written and structured. Its characters feel real, their fears and loves tangible. The Exmoor setting is perfect – it’s comforting but also claustrophobic and remote. Spend time with Christopher Fairfax and Lady Durston. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll be thrilled, mesmerised and shocked.

Most of all, read this book putting all your expectations and assumptions to one side. Neither belong here. The rewards will be great. The Second Sleep is most certainly a masterpiece and a contender for my book of the year.

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy

The Long Call by Anne Cleeves

Macmillan | 2019 (5 September) | 375p | Review copy | Bought copy

The Long Call by Ann CleevesOn the outskirts of Barnstable in north Devon, Detective Inspector Matthew Venn stands outside the church where his father’s funeral is taking place. When Matthew turned his back on the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, he lost his parents. And now, as far as his father is concerned, it is too late to rebuild bridges burnt down so long ago. But then Matthew receives a call. A man has been found stabbed to death on the beach near Matthew’s home, which he shares with his husband, Jonathan. Matthew soon learns that the man had links with the care centre for people with learning disabilities that Jonathan runs. It’s all too close to Matthew and it’s set to become closer still as the investigation takes him back into the community he believed he had left for good.

The Long Call is the first in a new series by Ann Cleeves – set in a different part of Britain (a long way from Shetland and Northumberland) and with a new detective at its heart. And it is magnificent. The mood and sense of place is presented perfectly from the very first chapter in which we meet Matthew Venn for the first time. Ann Cleeves is a genius in laying bare character so carefully, sympathetically and lightly – and quickly. Almost immediately I could believe that Matthew is a real person, in convincing relationships with his partner, colleagues and parents, newly part of this rural community in north Devon where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge. It’s a beautiful part of the world, yet also tucked away. When crime happens here it really does shock.

And Matthew has more than one case to deal with and it is all thoroughly engrossing and involving, especially the parts involving the young women who spend their days at Jonathan’s care centre. These vulnerable women are so beautifully portrayed, as are their relationships with their families.

There are plenty of characters here to interest and intrigue the reader, including Matthew’s team, Jen (his sergeant) and Ross (the constable and the favourite of the Chief Inspector). Each is given their own story, which I can’t wait to see develop through future novels, and the three as a team are thoroughly convincing and realistic – I enjoyed the give and take, the way in which Matthew tries to be a boss while still being equal, their irritations with one another, their loyalty. I also liked the way in which they all cope, or not, with the long hours demanded by a murder investigation. Jen in particular has much to juggle, but so, too, does Matthew. I loved the portrayal of the relationship between Matthew and Jonathan. Jonathan is an intriguing character in his own right.

Matthew is the star here, though, for sure. He is lovingly drawn. He stands alone but also is a keen observer. He’s gentle but at times surprisingly fierce. He feels unloveable but we know he isn’t. I loved getting to know Matthew.

I am a huge fan of Ann Cleeve’s Vera Stanhope series but Vera has undoubtedly met her match in Matthew Venn. I am in awe of the author’s power to create yet another convincing series with characters it’s impossible not to feel drawn to. It’s a remarkable achievement. Matthew Venn is a fantastic, fully realised and immensely likeable detective and this mystery is beautifully told, populated by fascinating characters and set in such a lovely, yet remote location. It moves slowly and it’s all the better for it. The Long Call is character driven and what characters they are. It is most certainly one of the finest crime novels I’ve read in a very long time.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan | 2005 | 432p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Having recently read and adored Big Sky by Kate Atkinson, the fifth in her Jackson Brodie series, I knew I had to read the others. And so, while on holiday recently, I spent my time with the first, Case Histories, and it is wonderful.

It presents three cold case histories, each seemingly disconnected and each fascinating in their own right – a missing child who all these years later still leaves an immense hole in her troubled sisters’ lives; a young woman is brutally killed while working as a temp in the office of her father, a man who can never come to terms with his loss and her absence; a young mother who loses her temper and kills her husband with an axe. Uniting them all is Jackson Brodie, an ex-detective turned investigator who helps people, sometimes for free, should he discover a truth that nobody deserves to learn.

Jackson Brodie is a magnificent character. I fell for him in Big Sky but in Case Histories I got to know him much better as we learn about his past, which continues to haunt him in the future novels, as well as his present, including his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter.

The writing is as witty and insightful as you’d expect from Kate Atkinson, surely one of the finest authors writing today. There are themes and chapters here that are heartbreaking and often truly disturbing but Jackson Brodie still finds the humanity of it all and so there is wit and there are laughs. But it can also be grim as we find ourselves so thoroughly immersed in the lives of these missing people and their suffering families. But there is one storyline going through the novel, that of the axe-murderer, that adds something else, a macabre humour and drama that works so well.

Having read two in this series, the first and the last, and fallen completely for Jackson Brodie, who’s such a force for good and light in a world so often scarily dark, I can’t wait to read the others. One Good Turn will be next.

Other reviews
Life After Life
A God in Ruins
Big Sky

Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay

HQ | 2019 (5 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Elevator Pitch by Linwood BarclayOne Monday morning, four people get into a lift in Manhattan, New York. Everything seems normal until the lift stops. And then everything goes very wrong indeed. It seems to be a terrible accident but then, a week later, another lift kills. The city is in shock. How can a skyscraper city manage without its elevators? The authorities don’t know how to deal with it. Blame flies between them, with many pointing a finger at the Mayor who, in turn, has his eye on others. Two detectives and a journalist race against time to stop the panic, to catch the killer. And meanwhile people die, not just in the lifts but also on the stairs as people are faced with climbs of over a hundred flights of stairs. The city is being held to ransom. But why?

I’m embarrassed to say that Elevator Pitch is the first novel by Linwood Barclay that I’ve read but what an introduction to his books this is! The premise is very enticing and the thriller fully delivers on it. Elevator Pitch is thoroughly exiting, tense and exhilarating – there were moments when I just could not look. I also read this book when I was staying eight floors up in a hotel. It made that lift ride to breakfast each morning a little sweaty. But it was the perfect holiday read.

The story is fantastic but so too are the characters as we spend time with a range of people, as we get to know a little about how this city is run. Battle lines have been drawn between the journalist, Barbara, and the Mayor and it’s now got very personal indeed. It’s worth pointing out, though, that this is not a simple case of the evil city Mayor. Richard Headley is much more complicated than that. Meanwhile two detectives, one near the start of his career, the other nearing the end, bring their very different skills together to try and solve this case. And there’s a countdown. A very special public event will take place shortly. The world will be watching and elevators will be needed.

There’s a social message as well. This is a city divided between rich and poor, with the rich enjoying living and working in the roof of the city in its skyscrapers. Radical groups are gaining media attention, terrorist acts are taking place across the northeastern United States. Time is ripe for the elevator killer to cause maximum terror. This is thrilling stuff! This is the type of thriller, with a political element thrown in, that I find irresistible and I gobbled it up, even though it made me eye that hotel lift with more than a little unease. There were also some unexpected moments of emotional shock. Excellent!

The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

Lake Union | 2019 (1 August) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rabbit Girls by Anna ElloryIt is 1989 and, as the Berlin Wall falls, Miriam Winter cares for her dying father Henryk. She knows so little about him. They’ve been apart for years but now she begins to learn of his past. He cries out for someone called Frieda, while Miriam discovers an Auschwitz number tattooed on his wrist, hidden by his watch strap. While searching for further clues, Miriam finds an inmate uniform from Ravensbrück concentration camp and, sewn into its seams, are letters to Henryk written by Frieda. The letters reveal something of Frieda’s past with Henryk but they also record the truth about the ‘Rabbit Girls’, women who were mercilessly experimented upon in the camp. Miriam’s own life has stalled. She needs to escape from her own past and it is Frieda, speaking though so many years, who inspires Miriam to strive to be free.

The Rabbit Girls is largely told in Miriam’s own words and it’s her we grow to know the most. Despite the momentous events happening outside the house – the fall of the Wall – Miriam is withdrawn and consumed by her past while fearful for her father. She barely knows him but she cannot let him go. She hangs on to him, barely leaving the house. Miriam is a tormented soul and the prose reflects this. At times lyrical, at other times disjointed, it epitomises Miriam’s damaged spirit.

I think that the reader’s response to the novel will depend on his or her reaction to Miriam and her voice. To me, at times, it felt rather too ‘floaty’ and self-absorbed, and I didn’t especially warm to her. However, I did warm to Frieda, whose letters are scattered throughout the novel. Her voice is distinct, focused, coping with the most terrible cruelty, holding other people’s lives together, sometimes literally holding them up. I am relieved that the Ravensbrück scenes are confined to the letters because what happens to the Rabbit Girls is too much to deal with. It’s very upsetting as indeed it should be. But through the darkness there is a light about Frieda that inspires.

Henryk’s voice is also heard through his patchy reminiscences from his sick bed. I wasn’t totally convinced by his relationships with Frieda (or with his wife). His own experiences in Auschwitz are briefly dealt with. Again, the focus of our attention and feeling is on Frieda.

The Rabbit Girls is a moving, emotional read in some ways, especially when we come across each of Frieda’s letters. I didn’t engage as much with Miriam or Henryk, and the novel’s present day seems strangely more vague than the past it recalls, despite the events taking place in Berlin in 1989. But Frieda is not a character to forget in a hurry and her story, and that of the Rabbit Girls, serves as a vital reminder of what must never be forgotten.