Heart of Granite by James Barclay

Heart of Granite | James Barclay | 2016 | Gollancz | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Heart of Granite by James BarclayMax Halloran is a fighter pilot based aboard Heart of Granite, which traverses a future Earth that is devastated by a war that will not end. But Max is no ordinary pilot because the plane he pilots is a drake, or dragon, called Martha and Heart of Granite is a Behometh, a massive beast that houses thousands of men and women, structures and technology within her body. To Martha, Heart of Granite is Mother and to Max and his fellow fighter pilots, as well as their support crew, she is home. The drakes and the behomeths, as well as many other types of creature, are the product of an extraordinary biotechnological feat, the fusion of alien and reptile DNA. Max doesn’t just pilot Martha, he flies within her, sealed within a pouch, their minds and bodies in tune, although not completely. But that day will come. Drake pilots live brief, glamorous, violent lives until the day that they Fall. And there is no doubt. All will Fall.

As far as Max is concerned, he is living the dream. He’s a bit of a maverick but he’s the best pilot there is, rising through the ranks, showing his worth in the never ending war for land that is destroying the planet bit by bit. He knows he only has a few years before the Fall – and he’s seen its impact on his wingman – but he’s determined to live every day like it’s his last. But then Max and his squadron, the Infernos, learn something they shouldn’t. The powers that be have decided to raise the stakes of war and the Infernos will pay the price. It’s up to Max and Martha to stop them and get to the heart of the conspiracy.

Heart of Granite wastes no time in throwing the reader into the middle of war, swooping through the sky in dogfight after dogfight alongside the Infernos, marvelling at the daredevilry of Max, sympathising with the enraged radio calls of the commanders within Heart of Granite as, yet again, Max grasps death by the neck, wrings it and hurls it down to smash on the ground. Max is a young man, aware he’s sacrificed long life (or even a medium-lengthened life) for the thrill of the hunt, and his charismatic personality bellows out from the page. But all too soon events mean that Max must change and it’s while we watch this change that we fall completely for this brave, vulnerable, loyal, frightened hero. The Infernos are such a tight unit, a family, led by Valera (not an easy job), and Valera in particular is the character I felt most strongly for. And then there are the baddies, a couple of whom are especially enjoyable.

The action is fast and furious, the characterisation is loud and glorious, reminding me of a troop in a Second World War movie, but the true reason for the novel’s success is its extraordinary premise and worldbuilding. The war that everyone is obsessed by is not important here. It barely gets a mention beyond the fights to the death that it inspires. What counts here are the drakes, the behomeths and the astonishing connection between the beasts and the men and women who live and fight in them. The descriptions of Max’s journeys deep into the stinking, oozing, fleshy walled, claustrophobic tunnels of the deepest body parts of Heart of Granite are fantastic. I marvelled at James Barclay’s powers of imagination to make this all so real and so utterly horrible while still seeming acceptable. I would have liked to have learned something about the origins of the alien DNA but none of that matters either. Heart of Granite is entirely focused on the here and now of the catastrophe facing Max, the Infernos and the creatures they share their lives and hearts with.

Quite apart from the action, this is also a surprisingly emotional read as Max undergoes his transformation in character. The short lives of the pilots before the Fall is so reminiscent of the brief expectation of life given to pilots during World War One. Their banter hides feelings that run very deep and there is nothing that they won’t do for each other, and that love and care is extended to their drakes.

The second half of the novel is particularly successful as action and heart combine and the book moves away from dogfights and strutting pilots towards its main focus.

I’m no reader of epic fantasy and I steer clear of novels about dragons and so I must admit to some doubt on this score when Heart of Granite arrived. But, for me, the novel most definitely felt like science fiction, and reminded me a little of some of the wonders in the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter – the enormous creatures that roam the planet with human passengers inside their bodies. Having said that, I can see that fans of epic fantasy will also enjoy the novel. It crosses genre while giving each of us what we want. Heart of Granite is an extremely clever, ingenious read that is also very moving and a huge amount of fun.

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

Out of Bounds | Val McDermid | 2016 | Little, Vrown | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Out of Bounds by Val McDermidWhen a teenage joyrider crashes the car he’s stolen, killing his three friends who’d come along for the ride and putting himself in a coma, it opens long closed doors for DCI Karen Pirie, head of Police Scotland’s Historic Crimes Unit. DNA hints of a possible solution to the unsolved murder, 22 years before, of a young woman who’d been raped and strangled in Glasgow city centre. But even though the crime took place so many years ago, tensions are still high and the DNA brings with it more questions than it does answers.

But Karen also has her eye on another case. A man has been found dead on a park bench, a gun in his hand and a bullet in his head. While debate rages over whether this is murder or suicide, Karen is intrigued to learn that the man’s mother was murdered years ago in an unclaimed terrorist attack. Does murder run in families? One thing’s for certain – DCI Karen Pirie has never believed in coincidences.

Out of Bounds is the fourth novel to feature DCI Karen Pirie and the fact that I haven’t read the others didn’t matter at all. Karen carries her past with her and the reasons for that are obvious from the opening pages. I felt instantly involved with her, warming to her fragile resilience, her toughness and sharp intelligence. Karen has a battle on her hands with her superiors – we’re left in no doubt about how much they resent her, even envy her – but she handles them beautifully. Her sparring is a joy to watch. But I particularly liked Karen for her care of her assistant, DC Jason ‘the Mint’ Murray. This young man has more flaws than is good for him but his heart is most definitely in the right place and, although he worships Karen like a puppy loves its master, Karen genuinely looks after him. Karen’s caring side is evident in other ways, too, and she makes sure she acts on it, practically, even though it is often difficult.

Out of Bounds is a meticulously detailed depiction of two difficult police investigations. Karen and Jason don’t spend their time in hot pursuit, instead they show us the dogged determination that is so necessary in their job. No stone is too small to be left unturned. The pieces of the puzzle come together only slowly and we are shown every step of the process. It is fascinating and certainly feels authentic. There is tension and drama – Karen is prodding a hornet’s nest – but the focus throughout is on strong storytelling and wonderfully drawn characters. Some characters we meet only fleetingly but each is rewarded with a personality that hints at much more waiting to be uncovered.

At the heart of this cleverly plotted and expertly written novel is Karen Pirie and we spend time with her both on and off duty, getting to know her well. But in the background lies Val McDermid’s rich and involved portrait of Scotland. Out of Bounds might be the first Val McDermid novel I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last.

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
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
An interview