The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

The Quality of Silence | Rosamund Lupton | 2015 | Little, Brown | 340p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund LuptonIt is late November and Yasmine and her daughter Ruby have arrived in Alaska to see Matt, Yasmine’s husband, Ruby’s father, a wildlife cameraman who is there to photograph the animals that inhabit the long Alaskan frozen night. But when they arrive at Fairbanks Airport, there is no sign of Matt. Instead, they are met by the worst of news. The Arctic village where Matt is based has been destroyed by fire, every soul dead, plus one extra – the body of a white man has been found not too far from Matt’s wedding ring. But, although the police might be satisfied, Yasmine is sure Matt is alive, he has to be, they have unfinished business that must be resolved. Yasmine is determined to head north to find Matt and she’s not going to let an imminent heavy storm stand in her way. With planes grounded, Yasmine has no choice but to head north by road, her young daughter by her side, travelling for hundreds of miles on the dangerous, infamous Dalton Highway, heading into the night that doesn’t end, where the cold can kill in an unguarded instant.

And so begins an epic, extraordinary journey. The Dalton Highway is as much a character as anyone else in The Quality of Silence. It’s viciously alive, beautiful in some ways, especially when the storm clouds clear to reveal a flawless sky of stars, but in most ways deadly. If the cold doesn’t get you, then the ice on the road could, its steep drops, the other trucks, the infinite dark. It doesn’t help when you can feel eyes in your back, someone is behind them on the road, following them. And then there’s the fear of what might lie ahead – is Matt alive?

The Quality of Silence is an outstanding icy thriller, packed with cold atmosphere and dark foreboding but there is something extra special about this novel and that is Ruby, the 10-year-old daughter of Matt and Yasmine. Northern Alaska is not only dark and cold, for Ruby it is also silent. She is completely deaf and the novel is as much about her perception of the world around her as it is about the hunt for her father. Half of the novel is told in the third person, providing the adult perspective. But the rest is told in Ruby’s voice, in the present tense, and this is so important to Ruby. She doesn’t use her ‘mouth-voice’ but she is driven to express herself, by typing, by blogging, by using Twitter (calling herself ‘Words Without Sounds’), and her voice is absolutely enchanting. Rosamund Lupton has achieved something wonderful with Ruby. She is adorable, funny, clever, vulnerable and so worried about her Dad, but bravely hiding it from her Mum, determined to be as sure as her Mum is that her Dad is out there, still taking photographs of the winter Arctic animals that she loves so much and tells us all about. The family unit of Matt, Yasmine and Ruby is such a powerful force in this novel and its drama is explored fully in a way that is completely absorbing as well as intriguing.

As soon as I started The Quality of Silence I fell in love with it or, more specifically, with Ruby. I cannot get enough of novels set in the Alaskan cold (especially while we undergo a heatwave) but I was completely and unexpectedly overwhelmed by Ruby. Between Ruby and the atmospheric cold wilderness, there was no way I wasn’t going to love this novel. However, I was initially concerned that the book’s central mystery wouldn’t live up to the setting and characterisation. But I needn’t have worried. I was hooked and desperate to see how everything would turn out. The mood of menace is powerful throughout, intensified by Yasmine’s drive to protect her daughter. The ending was totally satisfying and lived up to the absorbing psychological drama that played out alongside it.

The Quality of Silence could not have given me more. Beautiful writing, a wonderful young heroine, a strong mystery, penetrating and sympathetic character insight, and the most evocative chilly setting – the long Alaskan winter night. Without doubt, this is one of the hardest books to put down that I’ve read this year.

This review was written as part of the Blog Tour for The Quality of Silence. I am so proud to be involved. For other stops on the Tour, take a look at the poster below.

Quality of Silence BlogTour

Kingmaker: Broken Faith by Toby Clements

Kingmaker: Broken Faith | Toby Clements | 2015 | Century | 447p | Review copy | Buy the book

Kingmaker: Broken Faith by Toby ClementsBroken Faith is the second novel in Toby Clements’ excellent Wars of the Roses series Kingmaker. Broken Faith continues shortly after Winter Pilgrims left off and, although the action is self-contained in Broken Faith, I really think you need to have read the first in order to enjoy and appreciate fully the second. And so the review below assumes that you’ve also read Winter Pilgrims.

It’s two years since the Battle of Towton and everything has changed for Katherine and Thomas. They have been separated by civil war – Thomas was dreadfully injured in the battle. The head wound left him without voice and memory, Katherine forgotten. The only place he could remember was a home he left years before but, in ignorance of all that has happened, he returns to his brothers farm, mute and disliked. Katherine continues her life in disguise, the wife of a blinded husband who thinks she is someone else but loves her with all his heart. But her old surgeon skills are her downfall – Katherine helps a servant’s wife to give birth and is left with no choice but to kill the mother to spare the child. There is no choice. To avoid the noose, Katherine must return to obscurity, that’s if she can survive the prison she’s placed in, taking her right back to where she began in Winter Pilgrims.

Broken Faith continues the mystery of the ledger, the book that Katherine and Thomas feel compelled to carry with them without knowing what it hides. But as the novel continues, and once the two are reunited, they finally crack the code and the secret spurs them on into the midst of the conflict that is tearing England apart. This takes them to England’s north and Alnwick and Bamburgh Castles. As people from all levels of society turn their backs on their former lords, switching allegiances, Katherine and Thomas find themselves in the camp of their former enemy Henry VI, the dethroned king. The novel vividly evokes a country that is devastated by a war that is fuelled by aristocratic grievances and fought by those who have no choice in the matter. Disguised again as Kit, Katherine has to use all her surgeon’s skill to save lives, even the lives of people she wants to kill. For the past has caught up with Katherine and Thomas. The reason for the Wars of the Roses means next to nothing to our two heroes. They have their own personal war to fight and their enemy is closer – and more dangerous – than ever.

Toby Clements brings the Wars of the Roses to life in all its visceral horror, terror and bloodshed. His description of the Battle of Towton in Winter Pilgrims was simply tremendous, the finest depiction of medieval warfare I’ve read. While we don’t have a battle of the same scale in Broken Faith, two battles are included and they are superbly done. The gore and squeamish nastiness of medieval medicine and surgery is even more prominent in this second novel – Toby Clements spares us none of it. You might not want to eat first before reading parts of this book.

Broken Faith has the mood of an inbetween novel in some ways. The events of Winter Pilgrims are difficult to follow and history doesn’t give us set pieces of the same magnitude during the period covered here. Also, much of the novel feels like a journey, marred by misunderstandings, mistaken identities and treachery. I was pleased when the two main characters were finally reunited – this series succeeds most of all when Katherine and Thomas are together. The mystery of the ledger is almost incidental and increasingly unimportant, especially as Henry VI is such an uninspiring figurehead and the leaders of the other side receive little attention. The political secrets of the Wars of the Roses seem to matter very little when set against the suffering of the common people, and our heroes, which dominate our sympathies during this novel.

This is a wonderful series – violent, bloody, squirm-inducing and bleak. What saves it from sinking us into the despair of the times is Thomas and Katherine, both of whom are very easy to care for. Many of the other characters we meet along the way also stand out, often for their nastiness but sometimes for their kindness. Sir John, in particular, despite all the tragedy that plagues his family, is such a good companion. History and fiction mix so well in this series, bringing to life a period that I am so happy to read about very relieved I don’t have to live through. I look forward to book three very much indeed!

Other review
Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims

Way Down Dark by J.P. Smythe

Way Down Dark | J.P. Smythe | 2015 | Hodder & Stoughton | 288p | Review copy | Buy the book

Way Down Dark by JP SmytheAustralia is an enormous starship, packed full of decks and quarters, an arboretum lodged down the centre, which is carrying the descendants of Earth’s survivors deep into unknown space. Chan, a 17-year-old girl, is now alone. Her mother is dead, killed in a way that Chan will live with for always, a great leader in need of dying a great death. Now, with only her mother’s friend Agatha to watch over her from a distance, Chan must lie alone in her tiny cabin, separated from the next by just a curtain, and listen to the night sounds of Australia. And they are fearsome sounds. The Lows have left their area of the ship, so close to the Pit, and are taking over Australia bit by bit. No lives are safe from their knives, their tattooed and scarred grasp, their sharpened teeth. But Chan is her mother’s daughter, a warrior in the making, and, as the Lows come closer, Chan looks to see who she can save, clambering the length and width of Australia, rescuing the vulnerable, listening to the wisdom of Agatha as she goes, learning the history of this astonishing vessel that carries them ever deeper into space.

J.P. (aka James) Smythe is an author that, quite frankly, I cannot get enough of. I can’t think of another who plays such expert games with the genres that I love, testing and teasing them, creating the most imaginative scenarios and characters, bringing the most thoughtful, big ideas to life. Sometimes he makes me work, he often takes me into black sadness, but the rewards are great. He always makes me wonder, showing what may happen when strong individuals are placed in the most extreme of circumstances, emotional and physical. Dark space – for the body and mind. Way Down Dark, the opener of a trilogy, is James’s first Young Adult novel and when I heard about it I was intrigued and – as always – desperate to read it. I wondered how the bleakness of Smythian Science Fiction would carry into the Young Adult sphere. But I knew it would be good and it is even better than that.

There are lots of reasons why Way Down Dark is as good as it is. First off, there is Chan. I loved her. I’m not a big reader of YA these days – I know what I was like as a teenager and I prefer to steer clear – but Chan is someone I would like to spend a lot of time with. She is a disturbed teen but as the novel goes on she puts it to good use. She has a cause to fight for. I don’t like to compare books but she really does appeal to me in the same way that Katniss Everdeen does. There’s no romance here – life is too short. What we do have is a character growing into herself, learning about the environment around her and taking us with her, through every last bit of this ship.

The ship itself is a wonder, an arena where evil meets goodness and there’s everything to play for. There is an organic feel to it, its life force being sucked away by the monstrous Lows. It is almost biblical – religious figures haunt the roof levels of Australia while the condemned prowl through its depths. The middle ground – the arboretum, the sustainer of life – is vulnerable. The Pit, at the bottom, is foul indeed.

The writing is fantastic. All of James’s books are well-written and the standard here is as high as anything he’s written before. There are little moments in the novel that make you sit up with a jolt. One of those for me was the description of the child dropping dolls over the stairwell, letting them go, mimicking the sound of the screams people make as they fall into the Pit. Nobody stirs. It’s a sound that’s all too familiar. There are some shocking twists, it is such a fun book to read as you wonder what you might discover next. My sole complaint is that I wish it were longer. I’d read much, much more of this. Violent, bleak, dark as pitch and downright exhilarating, I didn’t want it to end.

Way Down Dark is clearly the first part of a trilogy and it fulfils that role. But it is also a well-contained story in its own right, right up until the point when everything is thrown in the air and you find yourself desperate for part two. There is so much that James Smythe can do with this world, environment, characters that he’s created and I know full well that I will love where he takes us. My favourite novel by James Smythe has been, for quite some time, The Testimony – this is in fact one of my favourite novels – but I have a feeling that the completed Australia trilogy will take it on and I’m not taking bets on the winner. Way Down Dark might be labelled a Young Adult novel but I felt that it was just as effectively targeted to me (a Youngish Adult) and I’d encourage all enjoyers of science fiction to dive in.

Other reviews
The Testimony
The Machine
The Explorer (The Anomaly Quartet 1)
The Echo (The Anomaly Quartet 2)
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man

Swords Around the Throne by Ian Ross

Swords Around the The Throne | Ian Ross | 2015 | Head of Zeus | 415p | Review copy | Buy the book

Swords Around the Throne by Ian RossWhen Centurion Aurelius Castus saved the life of emperor Constantine in battle he changed his own life for good. Castus becomes one of the swords around the throne, one of the Protectores, the imperial bodyguard. Constantine is not a man to avoid personal danger and so Castus has his hands full trying to protect the emperor from restless Germanic tribes along the Rhine, an uneasy border that Constantine is determined to bring under Roman control once and for all. But angry Germanic warriors almost pale into insignificance against the threat posed by other Romans. Rome has been seized by Maxentius, the son of former emperor Maximian who has himself come out of retirement to rule by the side of his son. But Roman politics are rarely that simple, especially during the first years of the 4th century AD.

With Castus looking on, the ground shifting beneath his feet, Constantine marries Maximian’s daughter and the old emperor joins Constantine to fight against his son in Rome. Maximian works his influence on Constantine’s household, he has his eye on Castus. It’s not long before Maximian’s true intent is revealed and Castus is caught in the storm – battles, sieges, bloody plots ensue. Nobody can be trusted, the women in the household are no more reliable than the spies and eunuch servants who move silently around the corridors. Castus wants so hard to be able to trust one woman in particular. It might be unwise.

Swords Around the Throne continues the story of Aurelius Castus from War at the Edge of the World but everything starts afresh. I’d recommend you read the enjoyable At the Edge of the World first but it certainly isn’t necessary. In the previous novel Castus had a bloody battle on his hands against the terrifying tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall. The focus was very much on Britain despite the presence of the rising family of Constantine. In Swords Against the Throne Castus is taken out of that environment and put in the heart of Constantine’s court and clashes head on with historical events. The action moves down the Rhine from Colonia Agrippina and Treveris to Lugdunum, Arelate and Massilia, modern day Marseille, where the novel reaches an utterly thrilling and adrenalin-pumping climax. Every step of the novel is marked by action, allowing Castus plenty of opportunities to put to effective use his famous military prowess.

Life has become complicated for Castus. His battle experience is unquestionable but now he has to learn about Roman politics, which is all the harder because he is caught right in the centre of it. As a result there are some intriguing and fascinating characters in Swords Around the Throne and refreshingly not all of them are men. Constantine’s wife and her women contribute enormously to the novel, highlighting all too well the machinations of the men who control them. Maximian is an enjoyable villain, backed up by a cast of unpleasant and dangerous sneaks. It’s not surprising that Castus feels out of his depth. Castus is much more satisfying and rounded a character than in War at the Edge of the World and Swords Around the Throne benefits from that – he is now far less of the ‘Knucklehead’ (his old nickname) although I still think he can be developed further.

The action scenes are especially well done and the final third of Swords Around the Throne is thoroughly exhilarating and utterly thrilling. Massilia provides a fantastic backdrop to the Civil War and Castus plays a significant role in events there, and not just because of brute force. Ian Ross shows considerable skill in bringing the war to life, there is a strong authenticity to the extensive action sequences – horror, terror and sadness play their part in the battle every much as bloodlust and anger. I cared deeply for a fair few of the characters and there’s a strong sense that not all of them are going to make it. This is a fascinating period in Roman history. It’s also complicated with faction pitted against faction. Ian Ross dramatises it very well indeed, not least because of the enormously likeable tour de force caught slap bang in the middle of it – Aurelius Castus.

I must add that, just like its predecessor, Swords Around the Throne is a very handsome hardback – with a ribbon!

Other review
War at the Edge of the World

Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

Crash | Al Robertson | 2015 | Gollancz | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Crashing Heaven by Al RobertsonWhat’s left of humanity lives aboard Station, an enormous asteroid transformed into a collection of habitats, including Docklands, the Homelands and Heaven, linked by the Spine. Station is controlled by the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporation divinities, each known for a certain type of business – or pleasure – who act as patrons for the human inhabitants, furthering their careers, directing their lives. War broke out between the Pantheon and rebel AIs – the Totality – but finally, after years of dirty fighting in the reaches of the solar system, the conflict is over, won by the Totality, and the defeated soldiers are finally returning to Station and disgrace. Among them is Jack Forster, a soldier viewed with great hostility by Station authorities. They suspect he is a traitor, guilty perhaps of some of the terrorist outrages that have plagued Station in recent years. He certainly would have the power. Forster is a Puppeteer, forced to commit horrendous acts of war by a combat AI installed inside him, Hugo Fist. One thing’s for sure, nobody has ever met the like of Hugo Fist before.

Fist spends much of his time as a voice inside Forster’s head, yelling insults, leering, cracking foul jokes, urging Forster on to evil deeds, but he can also embody himself as a ventriloquist dummy, deceptively innocent in appearance, who would as soon as kick you in the shin as look at you (before blowing your head off). But Fist has a vested interested in keeping Forster in one piece. In just a few weeks Fist’s software licence runs out and when it does he will take over Forster’s body and Jack’s mind will be wiped clean, dead. But Forster has business to do first. He has returned to Station to find the person closest to him murdered. He is driven to find out why and the case takes him on a perilous journey across Station, deep into its secrets, watched always by the Gods and abused always by Hugo Fist.

Crashing Heaven is a joy from start to finish – Al Robertson has an original voice and a vivid imagination and he uses them to create an astonishing vision of humanity’s last enclave, under attack from within and without, corrupted and yet resilient. Station is wonderfully visualised, from its slums and bars to its heavenly cathedrals. And just as memorable are the people and AIs who inhabit it, including the mysterious Gods who walk among men and women, picking their favourites. And then there’s Jack Forster who has so much to come to terms with while always accompanied by Hugo Fist, at times a monster, at times almost a child, but always a millstone around Jack’s neck. The bleakness of the novel’s setting is offset by the amount of times Hugo Fist made me laugh out loud. He is incorrigible and, when you can forget his mass-murderer personality, he becomes almost likeable. Just the thought would make Fist shiver and throw knives.

For me, though, the most memorable and extraordinary element of Crashing Heaven are the Fetches, especially the Fetch children. A Fetch is made up of the memories of a dead person. Inside their home they wear the face of their living self but outdoors their faces are white skulls, a chilling reminder of their true nature. And when Assistant Commissioner Lestak wraps her arms around the child Issie, she is embracing the skull-faced memory of her young dead daughter, killed by terrorists, like so many other children. The interaction between this child who isn’t a child anymore and Hugo Fist is fascinating.

The plot of Crashing Heaven has a momentum that builds throughout the novel and the final third of the book in particular becomes a breathless, feisty race with Forster caught in the middle of a storm of sweary violence, conspiracies and vividly changing landscapes. The relationship between Jack and Hugo becomes increasingly complex and emotional as it becomes clear how much there is to lose. Crashing Heaven is an incredible novel. It’s original, quirky, clever, witty and disturbing, packed full of ideas and extraordinary characters and personalities. Crashing Heaven is unbelievably Al Robertson’s debut novel – what a fantastic achievement it is and what a new voice we have to listen out for.

Dominus by Tom Fox

Dominus | Tom Fox | 2015 | 400p | Headline | Review copy | Buy the book

Dominus by Tom FoxFirst off, before I begin the review, disclosure! I read a very early manuscript of this novel and I happily learn from the acknowledgements that the book’s Chianti reference is just for me – thank you, Tom, I do like my Italian wine. The review that follows, as normal, is completely impartial. It was very pleasing, though, to see the book in its finished form, ready to fly free into the world! The ebook was published on 18 June; the paperback will be available in October, I believe.

Over the course of a few days, the world turns upside down. A stranger walks into St Peter’s in Rome and before the eyes of the congregation and the Swiss Guard, all of whom kneel before him, he heals the Pope, a man who has been in a wheelchair for most of his days. The Pope not only stands up, he stands tall and straight. As if this miracle isn’t enough, it coincides with others, each more incredible than the one before. The Vatican goes into lockdown, the doors are sealed, while the Pope’s staff and advisors work to gain control of a situation that is beginning to consume the world’s media. Helicopters flying above the Vatican grounds capture images of the Pope sitting in the gardens, talking quietly with the gentle stranger, kissing his hand. The Catholic Church will not be the same again.

Alexander Trecchio, nephew to one of the Pope’s closest friends and cardinals, was once a Vatican priest. His faith was robbed from him. Now he is a religious columnist on one of Rome’s newspapers. Suddenly he has the story of a lifetime. But each expert he approaches for an opinion is found tortured and murdered. It’s not long before he’s on the run, accompanied by Gabriella Fierro, a police officer whose faith, unlike Alexander’s, is as strong as ever. Gabriella has another reason to investigate the stranger – a corpse washed up in the Tiber that is his spitting image. And all the time, watching everything, are agencies of a different kind – the Vatican is steeped in a tradition that forces within will do everything to protect, while outside there are others who will do all they can to bring down this new popular Pope whom, it would appear, is blessed by the favour of God.

Dominus is an intriguing thriller, combining as it does the fascinating spiritual mystery of the miracle bringer with the excitement of the hunt as Alexander and Gabriella seek out the truth while, for much of the time, running for their lives. Evil, it would seem, lurks everywhere and we see it here hiding around each corner. The baddies are every bit as bad as one would hope. But all the time the questions surrounding the identity and powers of the stranger remain. He has such an attractive appeal and, although I wished he had a larger presence in the novel, his charisma shines.

There are some powerful personalities in Dominus and I enjoyed the vast majority of them, although I would have liked to have learned more about the stranger and the Pope. Gabriella and Alexander have a history and this, confused by their very different religious feelings, makes their relationship especially intriguing. There is also a very strong and satisfying sense of place, focused on Rome and the Vatican.

I had a few very minor issues. A couple of the baddies were a little two-dimensional – I think I may have read enough now about secret Vatican societies – and the coincidence of both Gabriella and Alexander working for hostile bosses was a bit tiring. But the thrill of the plot, the fascinating stranger, the fabulous premise and the sympathetic character of the leading figures ensured that I was swept along by the novel and its mystery all the way to the shocking and harrowing conclusion. If you’re after a fun, well-written thriller for the summer holidays then I think Dominus would suit very well indeed.

River of Souls by Kate Rhodes

River of Souls | Kate Rhodes | 2015 | 324p | Mulholland Books | Review copy | Buy the book

River of Souls by Kate RhodesJude Shelley, the daughter of a cabinet minister, was left for dead in the Thames some months ago, her face sliced off, her hold on life almost entirely ripped from her grasp. The police investigation reached a dead end, tangled up by a mix of red herrings and lost leads, but now it is alive again. The killer is back – an old priest has been murdered, his face cut away and, like Jude, an old artefact reclaimed from the river attached to his drowned body. He won’t be the last. Jude’s family, a powerful family, are determined to discover the truth and they ask psychologist Alice Quentin to work with the police to find Jude’s attacker, soon, they dread, to be her murderer. This means that Alice will have to work once again with DCI Burns – Alice and Burns have a past. It won’t be easy to work together but both trust the other to stop at nothing to uncover the truth. Just as well, the body count is rising.

River of Souls is an extremely atmospheric and chilling read. For most of the novel we’re inside Alice’s head, experiencing her thoughts and emotions through the first person narrative. But every so often the murderer emerges and for those brief moments we’re in a much more terrifying place – watching the killer pick his victims or, as he believes, waiting for the river to select its dead. The murderer is obsessed by the Thames, the bodies are found in it, located at places resonant with history, such as old execution grounds or places of ancient sacrifice. The Thames holds the whole story together and it makes for an effective backdrop, even more so if you know London yourself, as I do. It’s such a powerful setting – you can smell the river, feel its mud underfoot, sense its history.

I haven’t read any of the other books in the series but it didn’t matter at all. Alice and Burns are intriguing figures, quite complex and unconventional. Their relationship – or their failed relationship – isn’t laboured, it doesn’t interfere with the plot, but it does introduce an interesting story thread into the novel. I hadn’t met either character before but I cared for them both very quickly while also becoming rather irritated by some of the choices that Alice makes through the book. I did enjoy the relationship that Alice has with her mother and brother. There is a lot going on here and it enriches the novel, rather than distract from it.

I had a couple of issues with the book, one of which I’ve already hinted at. Alice can’t seem to have an interaction with any man without it developing into something she might regret later on. The other problem was the archaeological detail – we’re given one-thousand-year-old prehistoric ‘sharpened’ flint, 6th-century Roman glass (neither of which are possible) and an archaeological survey on the Thames shore that seemed much more like beachcombing and treasure hunting. My archaeologist background probably meant that this jarred far more for me than it would for many but it did throw me out of the novel on a few occasions. But fortunately the story and the characters proved more than strong enough for me to keep turning the pages.

The most powerful and memorable part of River of Souls for me is the character of Jude. Jude’s story cannot fail to tear the heart, even more so because she is hurt by every one of the other attacks that the killer makes. Alice and Burns have to find the culprit, for Jude, if for no other reason. I did guess the killer quite early on but this didn’t matter at all because I could never be quite sure.

River of Souls blog tour posterRiver of Souls is a tense and pacey murder mystery which succeeds especially well in its strong sense of atmosphere and in its characters, especially Jude, Alice and Burns. Because we care for them the pages turn all the faster. I loved the London setting and the sense of place. I’ll certainly be looking out for Alice Quentin – and Kate Rhodes – in the future.

This review is part of the blog tour to mark the release of River of Souls on 18 June. For other stops on the tour, please do take a peek at the poster.