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The End of the Day by Claire North

Orbit | 2017 (6 April) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The End of the Day by Claire NorthCharlie hasn’t been in the job long but there is much about it that appeals – the frequent travel all around the world, often to the most unexpected places, the chance to meet a wide variety of people, and good prospects. Because surely the one person guaranteed a long and safe future is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death. But for everyone else there comes an end of the day and there they will meet Death. But, before that, they meet Charlie.

Charlie’s arrival on your doorstep doesn’t necessarily mean an imminent death, as Charlie is at pains to answer whenever he is asked. Sometimes, he says, he is sent as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning, and he always brings a gift. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to deliver it because Death’s office in Milton Keynes can despatch Charlie to some of the most dangerous or remote places on Earth, such as the home of polar bears in the frozen north, the world’s war zones, dangerous city streets. Occasionally, Charlie will glimpse over his shoulder a pale-faced figure, sometimes male, sometimes female, but generally Death leaves Charlie to work alone. And as he carries out his important job, Charlie learns to question his own life by the examples of others that he observes and his views on death, life and the meaning of the end are challenged to their core.

Claire North is a fine writer of astonishing novels. Each time I read one I wonder what on earth she will write next but yet again, with The End of the Day, Claire North proves that there is no limit to her extraordinary imagination and her powers to convey ideas and themes – both grand and intimate – that can stop you in your tracks. As always, at the heart of the novel is a figure very difficult to forget (with the exception, of course, of The Sudden Appearance of Hope) and Charlie is a marvellous creation. He takes his job very seriously indeed, he wants to do a good job, and he welcomes the opportunities it gives him, and his heart is open. Strangely, if there’s one character even more humane that Charlie in this novel it’s Death himself, or herself. When he or she isn’t angry, that is.

There is a relentless bleakness about some of the places Charlie visits, the experiences he must undergo and the suffering he witnesses. Everything that is wrong with the world can be found in these pages, whether referred to in asides or presented explicitly. And while some of it is driven by a fear of death and a need to understand it or bargain with it, much of it is the result of an evil that Charlie struggles to understand.

There are so many clever ideas in The End of the Day, some fascinating recurring themes, characters and references, all adding to the meaning of the book’s title. The end of the day – but for what? for whom? If I had to to look for a fault, for me this would be the inevitability of some of the places that we’re taken to, the conscious topicality of its themes and sins, and, as result, this isn’t my favourite Claire North novel (the competition for that title is intense). But this is a minor point indeed when one considers what a clever and heartfelt portrait of the world Claire North gives us and what a gift we have in the character of Charlie.

Despite the darkness, I was left with such a feeling of warmth and wonderful weirdness from this novel. Its approach to death is compassionate while people are shown to be possible of redemption and the end, when it comes, needn’t be feared. Charlie endures for us all – it’s powerful and very well done. Picking one word to describe Claire North’s novels isn’t easy but if I had to pick one, the word would be ingenious.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch
The Sudden Appearance of Hope

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald (Luna 2)

Gollancz | 2017 (23 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonaldWolf Moon follows directly on the heels of its predecessor New Moon, and is the middle book of what is probably a trilogy. You really need to have read New Moon first. This review assumes that you have and also that you don’t mind hearing a little about the repercussions of the events of the first novel. Because they have been huge.

Five family corporations rule the Moon – five dragons. They are instinctively competitive and suspicious of each other, despite (perhaps even because of) the inter-marrying among these immensely powerful families. The Moon they control is a harsh place, its citizens living underground and undercover, the poorest in the stinking lower levels, and every one must pay for the air they breathe, however poor its quality. Everything about the Moon is hostile to mankind. It does all it can to kill the people who dare to live on, in or under it. But anyone who has lived there for two years or more has no choice but to risk it. Returning to Earth is not an option. The body has been so transformed by living on the Moon that the gravity of the Earth would be agonising and fatal. So people scramble to scratch a living. Except for the five dragon families who have it all. Or so they thought.

One of the five dragons is dead. The Corta Helio family has been destroyed, several of its members killed, its children scattered and its leader, Lucas, lost in space, presumed dead. Eighteen months have passed since the slaughter and the remaining dragons are jostling for supremacy and power, the Mackenzies mercilessly close to winning. But it isn’t that simple, there are divisions within the families, the Corta children are wriggling their way free from control, and it appears Lucas isn’t dead at all. Far from it, and there are things that he and his surviving children and nephews and nieces will do to survive that beggar belief. War is inevitable. It’s already here.

Luna: New Moon was one of the science fiction highlights of 2015 and I couldn’t wait to dive into Wolf Moon. It’s been eighteen months but New Moon remains as vivid as ever and Wolf Moon picks it up at full speed. It’s great to see some of these characters again, notably crotchety old Ariel Corta, the food- and sex-loving beauty Lucasinho, the fearless Robson (known for spectacular reasons as the boy who fell to Earth – although it was the surface of the Moon, not the Earth to which Robson fell), and then there’s Wagner, the moon wolf, possibly the most memorable of them all. But to counteract the warmth of some characters, others emanate cold evil, not least the revolting and predatory Bryce Mackenzie.

Amongst all the intrigue and plotting, there are some fantastic set pieces within Luna: Wolf Moon – there is the drama of some major catastrophes, there are nail biting scenes played out on the hostile surface of the Moon, on which life can be measured in seconds, there is Lucas’s almost suicidal determination to endure a journey to Earth that should kill him. And there are moments of great tenderness. In this society, where marriage is often a political or business tool, affection still survives and we see it here at its most kind, as well as as its worst. I did find it difficult to keep up with some of the novel’s more complicated developments, but knowing that another great scene or moment was just around the corner, around every corner, ensured I paid close attention.

There are a couple of things that I had issue with, mostly involving Lucasinho. At one stage he reels off a monologue about cake that seems to go on forever and I could have done without hearing all the explicit details of his sex life. This is a society in which attitudes towards gender, love and sex are fluid and that I found fascinating and sensitively handled, but Lucasinho did test my patience, despite my affection for him. His transformation is a particular strength of the novel. The book closes with a full dramatis personae and I found this very useful indeed, so much so that I copied it out and stuffed it in my kindle case. It is hard keeping track of the family members and their ties to the other families. This list helped with that enormously.

Luna: Wolf Moon is a fabulous, richly-layered vision of life on the Moon in the not too distant future. This is worldbuilding at its finest and the locations, whether in the Moon habitants, or on the surface of the Moon, or travelling to and from Earth, are drawn so well. It’s immersive and very rewarding. Although Wolf Moon is a middle novel, it didn’t really feel like that, possibly thanks to its strong ending, which allows for more storytelling but doesn’t insist on it. But knowing that there is more on the way is a very good thing indeed.

Other review
Luna: New Moon

The Returning Tide by Liz Fenwick

Orion | 2017 (23 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Returning Tide by Liz FenwickIt is the summer of 2015 and a family is gathering in the beautiful Cornish village of Mawnan Smith to celebrate the marriage of young Peta. It will take place at Windward, the home of Peta’s grandmother, Elle. Windward holds many memories for Elle, especially now, because it was here, seventy years before, that another wedding took place and it changed her entire life. There is nothing she can to do to prevent the rush of memories. Ghosts walk everywhere.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Cape Cod, Lara’s great grandfather is reaching the end of his days. As Lara holds his hand through those last moments, he utters one final word: ‘Adele’. Lara has never heard the name before and is surprised that his dying breath should be spent on a woman other than Amelia, his much mourned English wife who had died many years before. He never remarried. Only too happy to run away from problems in her own life, Lara leaves the Cape to spend time with a family friend on the Cornish coast, an area which held special meaning for her great grandfather and Amelia. Lara is determined to discover the identity of Adele and to learn more about those months when her great grandfather was stationed in Cornwall during the Second World War. The past is about to come to life.

I’m the first to admit that The Returning Tide is not my usual type of read but this was one of those occasions on which I read a synopsis of a novel and I knew instantly that I had to read it. The first reason is its movement between two periods of time – World War II and the present day, and the long-term effect of that war on the people we meet in this book. Secondly, it is largely set in my favourite place on the planet – Cornwall, particularly the bit around Helford, which I visit every year and to which, one of these days, I dream of retiring. Thirdly, I love family sagas, especially those which move through the wars of the 20th century. So, I picked up The Returning Tide and hardly put it down again until it was finished the next day. I fell in love with it instantly.

Liz Fenwick writes exquisitely. She poured me into the lives of these people, the generations of families and friends, and made me care deeply for them, even the present-day youngsters. Our main characters, Elle and Lara, are easy to like and Elle in particular is a compelling personality as she undergoes the trauma of reliving painful memories. It’s through Elle that we revisit the past and begin to understand her relationship with her twin sister. There is a real sense of carpe diem amongst these young people during the Second World War. Time is short, quite literally for some of their male friends. Elle is a Wren, deciphering telegraph messages, and she has to listen in to such things that they will colour her life. Elle is altered completely by the war, and so too is her sister.

The detail of these historical sections is marvellous. I’ve always been interested in the history of Cornwall during World War II, you can see the evidence of it everywhere, from wartime structures to gravestones that speak of great personal tragedy. The Returning Tide brings the past vividly to the fore but does it in such an evocative and moving way. Through tales of love and loss.

The novel is divided between the past and the present and, while the sections in the past were my favourite, I was also engrossed by the modern chapters, largely due to the forceful personality of Elle. Elle unites the novel in wonderful ways. She made me cry and smile.

There is great sadness in The Returning Tide, but it’s inviting. I wanted to read it with chocolate and red wine. It was hugely comforting despite the tears. Because it’s also a story about love and it is very tender, especially in its treatment of Elle’s grandson Jack.

The Returning Tide is a beautiful novel in so many ways, from its gorgeous locations and its characters, to its prose and its spirit. Liz Fenwick is a wonderful storyteller. For a few hours she transported me away to somewhere else entirely. I could almost feel the Cornish sea air brushing against my face.

Eagles in the Storm by Ben Kane

Preface | 2017 (23 March) | 343p | Review copy | Buy the book

Eagles in the Storm by Ben KaneIt’s been six years since Rome suffered its most infamous defeat in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. Three legions were destroyed and their eagles stolen by German tribes united under the leadership of Arminius, a man who once served Rome. The loss of the eagles and the betrayal by Arminius continue to grieve Rome, so much so that the few survivors of the defeat are no longer allowed within the walls of Rome. Senior Centurion Lucius Cominius Tullus didn’t just survive the battle, he saved more Roman lives than anyone else, and now he is doing what he can to atone for the shame he continues to bear. Tullus has re-entered the forest, he has taken the fight back to the tribes, he helped to restore one of the lost eagles. But it wasn’t his. Although Tullus is now an important member of the Fifth legion, promoted higher and higher, and worships its eagle, it’s the eagle of the Eighteenth that Tullus is determined to kneel before once again.

Eagles in the Storm completes Ben Kane’s magnificent trilogy on the the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and its bloody aftermath. You are well advised to begin this story at its beginning – this review assumes you have done so – with the superb Eagles at War. I’ve been fascinated by this battle for longer than I can remember and Eagles at War is now, for me, the definitive fictional account of this devastating and truly terrifying ambush and battle. In Hunting the Eagles, the second novel, the aftermath of the battle is explored, including its contribution to mutiny within Rome’s northern legions and their subsequent attempts to win back the eagles, led by the general Germanicus, nephew to the emperor Tiberius, and his centurion, Tullus. As Eagles in the Storm begins, Tullus once more prepares to take on Arminius.

Eagles in the Storm is divided between Tullus, the small band of legionaries who have followed Tullus since the beginning, and the other side – Arminius and his efforts to bring together once again tribes that appear to hate him almost as much as they hate the Romans. The fight is more personal than ever for Arminius now. Everyone has lost loved ones in Rome’s avenging raids and Arminius is no different.

Ben Kane, as always, has an extraordinary talent of making us feel that we are there with these soldiers, not only in the heat of the battle but also on the march, in camp, and off duty. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of a legionary camp. After three novels, we know these men well, especially legionary Piso and his fellow tentmen, who always seem to find some way to entertain themselves (i.e., get into trouble) during the monotony of life on the march. But there is a serious side to these soldiers as well, particularly in their devotion to their new eagle and their desire to set eyes again on their old. The meaning and significance of the eagle plays a crucial role in this final novel.

Tullus is a fantastic character. He is revered across the legion for his bravery. Even Germanicus listens to him and in this novel Germanicus has yet more reason to be grateful to him. Tullus is intimidating but he loves his men. They know it and they love him back. It’s not sentimentalised. It’s just the way it is. There is a real contrast between Tullus and Arminius. Arminius isn’t presented as a villain. He was fighting for a cause he believed in, for the freedom of his people against an invading oppressor. But Arminius has to look over his shoulder constantly – Tullus doesn’t.

The battle sequences are so thrilling and they set the pace for the novel, although I enjoyed the other sections of Eagles in the Storm every bit as much. This is brilliant storytelling from an author who is steeped in the history of the Romans, and he fills it with all the details, military and otherwise, you need to make it feel real.

Ben Kane is an author whose books will always go to the top of my reading mountain, without fail. This has been a wonderful trilogy – one of the very best that I’ve read. Although I’m sorry it’s finished I can’t be sorry about the way in which it’s been finished – it concludes perfectly. And I know that I’ll be hanging on to every word as we embark on Ben Kane’s next project, whatever that might be.

Other reviews
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles

Spartacus
Spartacus: Rebellion

Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War

A Day of Fire: A novel of Pompeii (with others)

Blood Tide by Claire McGowan

Headline | 2017 (23 March) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood Tide by Claire McGowanForensic psychologist Paula Maguire has been despatched to a small island off the coast of Ireland, ominously named Bone Island. A couple has gone missing – the island’s doctor Fiona and her partner, naturalist Matt. They lived in the lighthouse but it stands empty, curiously locked on the inside, and there are traces of blood. Foul play is considered likely. The island’s small community is struggling to survive. It’s friendly enough but suspicious of outsiders, especially those asking questions, and Paula finds herself becoming increasingly anxious. And then the storm comes in, the ferries are cancelled, and Paula is trapped.

Paula has every reason to remember Bone Island. It was one of the last places she holidayed as a child when her family was complete. That wasn’t long before Paula’s mother Margaret disappeared, one of the many who vanished during the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Paula will never stop searching for her, piecing together what little evidence she can uncover. But there are more immediate crises facing Paula at home these days. This is not a good time to be trapped on this island, away from her little daughter, and that’s even before she learns the true danger of the island that holds her.

Blood Tide is the fifth novel in Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series. Paula has some significant issues in her life, some of which hark back to Ireland’s recent violent past but by no means all, and these thread their way through the novels. But if Blood Tide is the first you’ve read, you’ll soon catch up – these stories develop very slowly. The Bone Island mystery is completely stand alone.

I’ve read all but two of this series and I always look forward to them. I like Paula. Undoubtedly a magnet for intrigue and suffering, she has so much to contend with. Because of her missing mother, Paula is particularly suited to missing persons’ police work. She is driven to find people. She knows better than anyone how such a case can affect loved ones. Other people might be content to dismiss Fiona and Matt as people lost at sea, but that’s not good enough for Paula. She has to know one way or the other but she needs to see for herself in order to believe it. She never gives up.

There are occasions in Blood Tide when Paula is painfully reminded that she isn’t infallible, that she can’t always help, and she finds that hard to live with. I found these moments uncomfortable to read – in a good way. There are elements of this novel that remind me of so-called cosy crime (with the small claustrophobic island, the tiny community hiding a killer in its midst, the storm battering its cliffs and lighthouse), but there are other aspects to it that most certainly aren’t cosy. The sea and the island it batters are not safe and some of the crimes committed here, or incidents that have happened, are appalling.

I enjoyed the Bone Island mystery. It’s atmospheric, moody and sinister. I must admit, though, that it was rather guessable, while the disappearance of Paula’s mother, as well as Paula’s complicated (to say the least) private life, are developing painfully slowly. They’re also throwing up some coincidences that aren’t easily believable, not least the presence of a certain Guy Brooking on the island. But Blood Tide almost has the air of horror about it and I revelled in that aspect of it. We meet some interesting characters on this island, ranging from the deeply menacing to the frightened. And scattered throughout, we have the memories, now shadowed by menace and foreboding, of our lost Fiona as she tells us about her time settling into island life and her relationship with Matt, whom she first met when he saved her life at sea. These are people we want to be found. Nobody will try harder than Paula.

Other reviews
The Silent Dead
A Savage Hunger

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Tor | 2017 (23 March) | 333p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collapsing Empire by John ScalziMankind has spread out from Earth, dispersed by the Flow, extra-dimensional pathways that move between planets, connecting worlds. The settlers have no say in which planets will be connected. They are randomly ‘selected’ and at great distances from one another. They are also largely uninhabitable, with humans having to live in sealed habitats underground, relying on other planets along the Flow for resources. As a result, the Interdependency has developed. The Interdependency controls trade between the Flow, the movement of power and wealth, and is ruled by the Emperox, who works in tandem with the other institutions of the empire’s establishment – the Church, the politicians, the guilds and the military. But Earth itself is barely even a memory. The Flow might seem stable and constant but it isn’t. Long ago Earth was lost when the Flow shifted. And now the signs indicate that the Flow might be about to undergo an even more drastic change, a change that could throw each colony along its course into an isolation that would mean its death.

The Interdependency has a new Emperox. Based on the capital planet of Hub, the Emperox is finding her new role difficult, relying on the memories of her ancestors to help her along. Rival noble families are becoming dangerously powerful. One planet, the most dismal of them all, and appropriately named End (it is the furthest planet along the Flow from Hub), is under attack from rebels and is threatened by all-out war. Terrorists, pirates and traitors are everywhere. The Emperox has no idea who to trust. But all of these problems fade away when she learns of the greatest threat facing the Interdependency. She becomes driven by her one goal – to save mankind.

I loved the sound of The Collapsing Empire and was keen to read it as soon as I heard about it but I had no idea just what kind of world I was about to enter. This is one of those rare treats of a book that I fell in love with on the very first page and my love didn’t fade from that page on. The story is absolutely fantastic and fully lives up to its glorious premise. Wormholes, conspiracies, colony planets, angry nobles, battles, pirates, impending apocalypse, sin and rage – all of these are promised and many more and each is delivered. I couldn’t lap it up fast enough.

Quite apart from the story which, as I say, is brilliant and never lets up from first to last page, John Scalzi gives us the best of characters. And I say ‘best’ but actually some of these people are the worst. But their bad behaviour is so well developed, I found I loved to hate them. Most of the baddies have a saving grace or two, even if it’s just how audacious their plotting is, or how extraordinarily deluded they are. But the characters I enjoyed the most are the Emperox and, supremely, the outrageous, foul-mouthed Kiva, the daughter of one of the largest and most powerful families and an absolute joy to accompany through this adventure. While the Emperox has the most to worry about, Kiva undoubtedly gets the best lines.

I love John Scalzi’s writing as much as I love his imagination – the prose is so easy to get along with, so descriptive and perceptive, but, above all, it is so witty! There are some great lines in these pages and they are delivered by some enormous personalities. And so the superb worldbuilding meets its match in the quality of the dialogue. All of this makes me realise that I mustn’t neglect Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series any longer.

The Collapsing Empire is hugely thrilling and very fast. It’s undoubtedly a pageturner. It does have a great ending (matching the superb beginning) but I was so relieved to see ‘Book 1’ written on the novel’s spine (I only spotted this as I finished it). This can only mean there will be a Book 2 and I was crying out for it as this first book came to its exhilarating end. Do not miss this!

Other review
Lock In

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

HQ | 2017 (23 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sometimes I Lie by Alice FeeneyAmber Reynolds wakes in a hospital bed on Boxing Day but the world around her would never know it. Amber is locked in a coma – her eyes are closed and she can’t move even the smallest muscle but her mind is awake, inhabiting the present while also turning over in her mind memories, both recent and much older. Visitors come and go, especially her husband Paul and sister Claire. They hold her hand, read to her, try and call her back. But, although Amber is yet to remember the full details of the accident that put her in this state, she knows that her husband doesn’t love her any more. Amber also knows that sometimes she lies. But about what?

And so begins one of the most twisty and twisted psychological thrillers that I’ve read. It’s true that I find this a genre hard to warm to and each time I read one I demand a great deal from it in order to keep my attention. But Sometimes I Lie gave me just what I wanted and, as a result, I think it’s one of the most successful psychological thrillers that I’ve read. I don’t want to give you any more plot detail because nothing – nothing – is as you expect it to be.

Sometimes I Lie works for lots of reasons but chiefly because it is extraordinarily clever. There are a few little moments when I thought it might be being a little too clever for its own good but generally I was pleasantly surprised by how good this plotting is. I had more jaw dropping moments with this than in any other psychological thriller I can remember, and they don’t all come at the end either. There are shocks and surprises all the way through. And I didn’t guess them all. Fabulous!

Another big reason for this book’s success is Amber Reynolds herself. She is the epitome of the Unreliable Narrator. It’s no secret. She seems rather proud of it. But it does mean that the reader has to keep their wits about them. I did re-read bits as the novel went on, just to keep track of the games playing out around me, the poor, innocent reader! I didn’t particularly like Amber but I don’t think we’re supposed to. I was absolutely fascinated by her though. She had my attention from the opening page.

I love the style and structure of the novel. It mixes present, near-past and much longer ago, and includes journal extracts, memories, dreams and thoughts. It’s extremely catchy. Sometimes I Lie is next to impossible to put down. It demands that you hang on to Amber’s every word. You have to know! And what you learn shocks.