Category Archives: Review

Weird Space: The Star of the Sea by Una McCormack

Solaris | 2016 (3 November) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Star of the Sea by Una McCormackIn The Star of the Sea, Una McCormack returns us to Weird Space, that most terrifying, mysterious and inexplicable of places in which, at any moment, a portal can open and the clawed and fanged Weird will tear through it to rip their human prey to shreds. This is the fourth Weird Space novel but, although you needn’t have read all three of the earlier novels, you certainly should have read the last – The Baba Yaga. In The Baba Yaga, Una McCormack took the storytelling baton from Eric Brown and now, in The Star of the Sea, she continues her tale. I don’t think that much of this novel would make sense if you hadn’t have read The Baby Yaga. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

Stella Maris is ‘the Star of the Sea’, an Eden of a planet, remote from the political warfare of the Expansion, which is obsessed by the Weird. It’s not surprising that the Expansion planets fear the Weird. They not only slaughter humans in their thousands, they also spread infection and, once that portal has opened, the Expansion is left with no choice but to remove that world from existence. But Stella Maris exists outside this. It has a portal and through it the Weird has presented a benevolent influence, giving life to an otherwise hostile planet. And on this plant, humans live alongside the Vetch, an alien and very different intelligent species that was for many years the enemy of mankind until the threat of the Weird resulted in an uneasy alliance. All, though, is well on Stella Maris. Until the Expansion arrives, determined to discover the secret of this extraordinary portal.

The Star of the Sea continues the stories of Maria and Falit, the young Vetch child who steals every page on which he appears. I adore him. How could anyone not? Just a short time ago, a heavily pregnant woman entered the portal on Stella Maris and now a teenage girl, Cassandra, has emerged from it, claiming, surely impossibly, to be that child. Yale, a woman with an almost equally mysterious past, must remove Cassandra from the planet before the Expansion finds her. Cassandra somehow knows what she must do, where she must go. And meanwhile, the Expansion wreaks its havoc on a world that doesn’t deserve it.

The Star of the Sea follows straight on from The Baba Yaga but they are two quite different novels. While The Baba Yaga was mostly action-based, following Maria’s determined struggle to survive, to carry her story of a great evil done to her family and planet to anyone who will listen, The Star of the Sea is driven by character. There is still plenty of action but now the emphasis is on the people who shape it, particularly Yale, Falit and Maria, as well as a young Expansion scientist now stationed on Stella Maris and an agent located in the city of Ventna on the Expansion homeworld. The battle between good and evil is now drawn along far less clear lines as we move between the different sides, every one of them suspicious. The Weird, though, can never be known.

Much of our time is spent on Stella Maris but we also visit other places as the Baba Yaga starship makes another voyage. I love how these places, whether ship, space station or city, are brought to life. This isn’t worldbuilding for the sake of it, it fits so well with the story and the pursuit of the mystery at its core.

The characters are so good to be around and it was only on looking back that I realised how the majority of the memorable figures are female. An issue is never made of this. It’s just how things are. And I loved being around them – except when Yale is grumpy, which is, admittedly, most of the time. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the Fetch child Falit is my favourite, with his lovely hairy tentacled face, and every minute we spend with him is wonderful. The Vetch are a brilliant creation. I want more of them.

Weird Space is utterly fascinating, from its politics and conspiracies to its aliens both charming and revolting, and I love what Una McCormack is doing with it, a worthy successor to the most excellent Eric Brown. The Star of the Sea feels like a conclusion to this two-part segment of Weird Space. This means that I can’t wait to find out what comes next because in this universe anything can happen and you can rely on it being frightening, mysterious and dangerous.

Other reviews
The Baba Yaga

The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly

Orion | 2016 (3 November) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew ReillySeveral years of calm have passed for Jack West and his family on their farm in Australia. Jack is now married to Zoe and their adopted daughter Lily, the magnet for so much deadly adventure in the past, is twenty years old, at college putting her knowledge of ancient languages to good use, and dating. But the peace is about to be shattered.

While Zoe is working abroad, Jack, Lily, Lily’s friend Alby, Monster Spy (Jack’s old friend and pilot), and even Jack’s two dogs, are kidnapped. When Jack comes to, he finds himself in a situation that is all too familiar – he has to fight for his life in some bizarre, ancient Games, alongside and against fifteen other elite warriors. They must compete in a series of challenges. Failure means death. But if the Games themselves fail then the result will be nothing less than catastrophic. The stakes couldn’t be higher and if he is to win – or just survive – Jack West must quickly recover the old form that won him the title of Fifth Greatest Warrior.

The Four Legendary Kingdoms is the fourth Jack West thriller and by now we should have a good idea of what to expect and Matthew Reilly most definitely delivers. In fact, I think that this is my favourite of the series, with the possible exception of the first. It does have its issues, though, and so I’ll get those out of the way.

You expect to have to believe the unbelievable with a thriller like this and I have no problem with that at all. I’m very good at it. But even I had trouble with parts of this. I could go into it more but we’d be getting into spoiler territory so I won’t but I had to make a conscious decision not to let this bother me. And this did work. Secondly, women don’t do well in this novel. All sixteen warriors are men and Lily doesn’t get much of a role while Zoe gets none at all. There are other women here who’ll remain nameless who also were hugely underused. Lastly, there’s a change of attitude towards one of the characters that I simply could not cope with. I can’t say any more about that either!

With all that said and done, I thoroughly enjoyed pretty much every minute of reading The Four Legendary Kingdoms. During the two days that I read it, I couldn’t wait for those moments when I could pick it up again. It provided the perfect tonic to a stressful time at work and I loved it. The action is second to none. It never lets up and the challenges are so ingenious and clever. I also enjoyed the slave race that we encounter here. Again, you’ll have to find out about them for yourself. And there are surprises!

Jack West is the perfect action hero and he is also extremely likeable, with some gentle edges. Not too many warriors would go through an adventure wearing a Homer Simpson ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ t-shirt and he’s the better man for it. You don’t need to have read the other books first – the last one was published a few years ago – and so you could use this novel to get a taste for the others.

It’s so good to see Matthew Reilly returning to what he does best, and to one of his much loved series. I didn’t particularly get on with The Tournament, a historical thriller that took Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) off to Constantinople to take part in a chess tournament, and, for all its fun, The Great Zoo of China was Jurassic Park with dragons. But, with The Four Legendary Kingdoms, Matthew Reilly gives me all that I love about his thrillers and he definitely knows how to do it – he is a master of the genre. Ice Station is still my favourite thriller of all time, with Temple not far behind it. And I adore the Scarecrow series. The Four Legendary Kingdoms reminded me a little of Matthew Reilly’s early thriller Contest (which I really loved), but it reminded me of it in such a good way.

The Four Legendary Kingdoms is such a fun thriller and I was really sorry to finish it. Reading it did me such a lot of good.

Other reviews
Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves
The Tournament
The Great Zoo of China

Waking Hell by Al Robertson

Gollancz | 2016 (27 October) | c.336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Waking Hell by Al RobertsonWaking Hell is the sequel to the marvellous Crashing Heaven, one of the science fiction highlights of 2015, but, despite the continuation of themes, both feature different characters and stand alone very well. Having said that, I definitely recommend that you also read Crashing Heaven not least because it will introduce you to the incorrigible, morally repugnant, filthily appalling and utterly fabulous Hugo Fist! This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

Time has passed since the events of Crashing Heaven and some things have changed aboard Station, the enormous asteroid that has been hollowed out into an inhabitable environment that pursues a distant orbit around an Earth that has been transformed by man into largely lifeless deserts and toxic seas. Station is still controlled by the Pantheon, a group of sentient corporation deities, and reality is still hidden behind the Weave, an enormously elaborate virtual reality overlay, but now its citizens also include Fetches. Fetches exist within the Weave. They are effectively the souls of the dead, reborn into holographic-like figures that now live a near-normal existence. They are Station’s ghosts. But Fetches are not the only transformed humans. There are also Minds, powerful entities that can move between human and alternate worlds, than can be either lifelike or monstrous. The gods continue to keep everything moving along, raising morale, appealing to base instincts, but a new force has arisen to seize control of Station and everyone on it.

Leila is a Fetch and now her brother Dieter, fatally injured by one of the ancient artefacts that he loves to collect, is about to join her. Suddenly, Leila becomes a very wealthy young woman. She realises that Dieter has agreed to something terrible in order to help his sister. He has sold his soul. Desperate to find Dieter’s Fetch and rescue him, Leila embarks on a quest that will escalate into something extraordinary, and nothing less than the future of Station is at stake.

Waking Hell begins gently with a personal tragedy and grief and, for some time, you might think you were reading one type of book before it suddenly explodes into something else entirely. Having read and loved Crashing Heaven, I should not have been surprised. Both books demonstrate so brilliantly the author’s fantastic imagination and creativity, not to mention his wit and eye for action and thrills. There are elements of horror here to go with the science fiction. I love this when it works and it works really well here. I loved how the story and plot developed. It builds and builds and builds and the intensity and excitement of the second half is so huge and powerful that I couldn’t put it down.

Set against that is the intimate portrait of Leila. Nothing is more important to Fetches than their memories. Memory is fundamental to their existence. Little is worse than to forget and to be forgotten. But this terrible state of affairs has faced Leila in her past and in her present. Watching her hang on, and the people around her try to do the same, is deeply moving.

The world building is marvellous, not just in the way that Station is described but also in the way it is populated. There are so many variations of humanity living in this strange place. The Fetches were such a memorable part of Crashing Heaven but here much more time is taken to explore their existence and their connections to people and Minds. Some of these relationships are extraordinarily intimate although inherently sad.

I felt lost in another time and place when I read Waking Hell. I read it slowly (for me). There is so much to appreciate and such a lot going on. When all is said and done, Waking Hell tells a fantastic story and I loved being in its grip. I don’t know whether Al Robertson will be returning us to Station but, whether he does or not, I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

Other review
Crashing Heaven

The Girls Next Door by Mel Sherratt

Bookouture | 2016 (27 October) | 290p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Girls Next Door by Mel SherrattIf Jess hadn’t have been sick that day then her best friend Katie wouldn’t have met up with her new boyfriend Nathan (not her boyfriend by choice) and his mates and then she would never have seen what she did. But now Deanna, just 16 years old, is dead, stabbed, and nothing can be the same again, not for Deanna’s family, not for any of the teenagers who knew her. And now, six months on, the teenagers of Stockleigh are under attack. Is this revenge for Deanna or for another reason entirely?

Detective Sergeant Eden Berrisford has good reason to be concerned. Her niece Jess has disappeared, her boyfriend beaten up. Eden, who has a daughter of a similar age, is driven to discover the truth, supported by her boss and team. As the hours tick away, Jess’ mother Laura is frantic. Meanwhile, Katie and her family are reaching a critical point in their own lives. It feels as if the eyes of the world are on the town of Stockleigh.

The Girls Next Door is the first in a new series by Mel Sherratt to feature DS Eden Berrisford and it certainly rockets along, partly driven by the structure which moves back and forth between the characters – whether teenagers, parents or the police. Likewise, the novel has more than one focus, with Katie’s story and Jess’s story dividing the pages. I enjoyed both and was intrigued to find out how each would develop and I’m pleased to say that both managed very well without gimmicks and twists for the sake of it.

I didn’t entirely get along with the novel for a couple of reasons. I found the group of teenagers to be extremely unlikeable and I had little sympathy with any of them, especially Jess, whom I really took against. But I also didn’t care for the character of her mother, Laura. Bearing in mind the seriousness of what has happened, I had the feeling that Laura would have been just as upset if she’d lost her car keys. I suspect that this is all part of my biggest issue with The Girls Next Door – that it shows little intensity or grit. Katie’s letters, scattered through the pages, similarly seem rather mundane. I enjoyed the character of Eden and so I would have liked other figures in the book to have shared her depth, particularly Laura, Katie’s mother and Deanna’s mother. There is a Young Adult feel to some of the language and relationships but of course, having said that, teenagers play a vital role in the book.

As I’ve mentioned, I enjoyed the story and I did like the character of Eden (and the other police officers) very much and so, despite my reservations with this first book, I’m looking forward to seeing how the series develops.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit | Becky Chambers | 2016 (20 October) | Hodder & Stoughton | 365p | Bought copy | Buy the book

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky ChambersBecky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was and is a science fiction sensation, totally deserving of all of the love that has been heaped upon it. That fabulous novel became the first of the Wayfarers series, named for those who explored worlds and wonders aboard the Wayfarer. A Closed and Common Orbit continues the story but from a completely different angle – two of the characters from the previous novel have now been removed from the Wayfarer and we follow their story in another place entirely. So, although this second novel overlaps the ending of the first, both stand alone perfectly. Having said all that, why deny yourself the genuine and memorable pleasure of Small Angry Planet?

Lovelace was once the AI of a starship, her scope almost unlimited, her senses keeping watch in every corner of the ship’s interior and looking out beyond the hull into space itself. But now Lovelace is contracted, her mind confined within a ‘kit’, a synthetic body, into which she was placed by Pepper, an engineer and friend. There was no alternative to this physical confinement. But Lovelace is now Sidra, her memories wiped clean, and the body she inhabits is illegal. They travel to Pepper’s home world in the hope that Sidra can create a new life for herself but in order for that to succeed Sidra must learn to be human in a world inhabited by so many different alien species and cultures.

Sidra is not the only lost soul of this novel. We also follow the incredible story of Jane 23, a clone, who is also forced out into a world that feels alien and frightening. Jane 23 and Sidra share a common struggle, to become human, to fit in.

Just as with Small Angry Planet, as soon as I began Common Orbit I was immersed, not only in its marvellous, imaginative worlds but also in its characters’ stories. Becky Chambers is a master storyteller, of this there can be no doubt, and yet again she astounds with the warmth and compassion of her characters, whether they’re Human, Aandrisks, Aeluons, AIs or any of the other species that come out to meet us along the way. Plot is almost secondary here, but nevertheless it is a fascinating one, filled with adventures, moving back and forth between characters, and I couldn’t wait to see how it developed. Yet, most of all, this novel is the literary equivalent of a giant scrummy bear hug.

There is evil in this universe. We can be sure of that and nobody knows it better than Jane 23. But Becky Chambers shows us it can be overcome. Species live together, genders aren’t fixed, religion doesn’t dictate, a hard day at work can be followed by a party. It isn’t easy for our main characters to find themselves, but the journey will be enlightening, albeit potentially dangerous, and it will be an absolute pleasure for the reader.

If I had to come up with one word to described Common Orbit, it would be lovely. There are moments in it that made me cry for its loveliness. It is beautifully written, lovingly created, even the titles of these books are perfect. Science fiction is the ideal medium for this vision – anything can happen, there are wonders to be explored and discovered, possibilities are vast. Becky Chambers is an author who goes straight to the top of my TBR mountain. She is to be cherished and encouraged and I cannot wait for Wayfarers 3 and beyond.

Other review
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

The Devil’s Feast by M.J. Carter

The Devil’s Feast | M.J. Carter | 2016 (27 October) | Fig Tree | 362p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Devil's Feast by M.J. CarterIt is 1842 and London has a new and very grand gentleman’s club – The Reform Club on Pall Mall. Established to provide a home from home for Radicals and Whigs, in direct opposition to the neighbouring Tory Carlton Club, the Reform Club has become famous, rightly so, for its food, all created under the loving eye of London’s first celebrity chef, Monsieur Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’.

Captain William Avery has left his wife and newborn son at home in Devon while he rushes to London to seek out the whereabouts of his good friend and investigative partner Jeremiah Blake, who appears to have vanished in thin air. Avery is pleased to be distracted from the anxiety of worry by an invitation from another friend to dine at the Reform Club as a guest of M. Soyer and, despite Avery’s devout Toryism, this is not an invitation to decline. All goes well – the dinner is superb, M. Soyer is a charming host – until one of the guests leaves the table never to return. He is poisoned! The Club is about to host a high profile and important diplomatic dinner, with none other than Lord Palmerston and the Prince of Egypt in attendance and peace in the Middle East as their goal. The significance of the poisoning cannot be underestimated, and not just for the reputation of the Club and Soyer. Even worse, was this a practice run? The Club’s Board immediately implores Avery to investigate the murder. If only Blake were around to lend a hand.

The Devil’s Feast is the third novel in M.J. Carter’s excellent Victorian mystery series to feature Avery and Blake and I was delighted to return to their company. I’m a big fan of historical murder mysteries and this series has become a firm favourite of mine – for the brilliant characters of Avery and Blake but also for the novels’ evocative and atmospheric historical setting. Each of these novels stands alone very well although, as usual, there are benefits to be had by reading them in order. While the first novel The Strangler Vine captured perfectly the exotic appeal and danger of India, the second novel, The Printer’s Coffin (originally The Infidel Stain), placed us in the workhouses, pubs and prisons of 1840s’ London, with all of the injustice and sadness that this entailed. This powerful sense of Victorian hypocrisy and cruelty continues, I’m pleased to say, in The Devil’s Feast.

The Radicals in the Reform Club might debate change but it’s people like Soyer who actually try to bring it about – offering the chance of employment to London’s poorest, organising soup kitchens in London’s most deprived areas. The club is concerned to facilitate this diplomatic dinner but their eyes have shifted from the causes closer at hand. M.J. Carter doesn’t labour the point, she’s far too gifted a novelist for that, but she makes the reader care about what is going on outside the walls of the Club every bit as much as inside it. Our time in the novel is spent divided between upstairs in the dining rooms and downstairs in the kitchens and the most fascinating characters are arguably to be found below.

There are some wonderful characters in The Devil’s Feast and chief among them is the extraordinary Alexis Soyer, a true historical figure who changed so many things about the ways in which kitchens worked and were run. His life was full of adventure, some of which you couldn’t make up, and M.J. Carter brings him to life.

The relationship between Avery and Blake is always enjoyable and it is again here. Blake in particular is a scene stealer and here there’s something of Sherlock Holmes about him in lots of different ways. Avery is once more our narrator and for much of the time he has a struggle on his hands to work out exactly what is going on.

While I found the actual mystery in The Devil’s Feast to be less involving than those in the previous novels, this didn’t affect my enjoyment. I love how M.J. Carter writes and how she immerses me in the historical setting, both in time and place. The people are so well drawn and many of them evoke lost worlds that continue to fascinate – Victorian politics and injustice, Radicalism, fashionable cuisine and inventions, service and poverty, prison and punishment. This is a series that rewards the reader in abundance.

Other posts
A review: The Printer’s Coffin (published in Hb as The Infidel Stain)
Guest post: Who were the Infidels?

The Plague Road by L.C. Tyler

The Plague Road | L.C. Tyler | 2016 | Constable | 310p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Plague Road by L.C. TylerIt is 1665 and London is at the mercy of the Plague. Swathes of the city have become no go areas, many of the houses sealed with a cross on the door, a warden keeping watch for any who dare risk an escape from a house that has been damned by disease. But, despite the increasing death toll, life is still not regarded as completely cheap and when it is noticed that one of the corpses thrown into a plague pit has a knife sticking out of his back justice must be seen to be done. It is possible that this enthusiasm might have been encouraged by the fact that the man was known to have been carrying a secret letter, now missing, from the Duke of York (the King’s brother) to the French Ambassador. Nonetheless, John Grey, lawyer and sometime agent for Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State, is given the case to solve. What did the letter say? Who has it now? What on earth was the Duke of York up to? No doubt the dead man matters to someone, somewhere, but never mind that, where is the letter?!

Several years have passed since the events depicted in A Masterpiece of Corruption. Back then, Cromwell was in power and Grey was forced into the unenviable role of double agent. Life is simpler now after the Restoration even if political or religious beliefs must continue to stay secret. Republicans, such as Grey, have been re-accommodated into public life. But it is early days. People still fear another outbreak of civil war and the Duke of York’s behaviour isn’t helping matters. Neither, for that matter, is the Plague.

The Plague Road might be the next novel in the John Grey series by L.C. Tyler but it stands very well alone. It continues the unconventional relationship between Grey and the royalist Lady Aminta Pole but otherwise, in many ways, this novel begins things afresh. And it is populated by some fascinating characters, especially Samuel Pepys, the glamorous Lady Castlemaine and the rather extraordinary Father Horncastle who does more than anyone to stir up trouble during these pages.

In my opinion, The Plague Road is a big step up from its predecessor. I found A Masterpiece of Corruption over complicated and a little dry in places. I had no such issues with The Plague Road. This novel is wonderfully plotted and structured, the pace maintained throughout, and it is deliciously witty. It’s a dark story at times, which is all to the good, but it is enlightened by John Grey’s fabulous turn of phrase, particularly when he has to deal with people who bore him. I chortled regularly while reading The Plague Road, not something I expected to say about a book immersed in Plague, murder and conspiracies.

I couldn’t read The Plague Road fast enough, it is such an engrossing novel, immersed in its period. Its descriptions of the Plague and its pitiable victims are grim but I couldn’t look away, and just as horrifying are the scenes which demonstrate the impact of the Plague on communities around London and in the countryside. During the novel Grey must travel to Salisbury, a journey that in these times is almost impossibly difficult and dangerous to complete. And yet the fear is totally understandable, if ugly, and it’s captured so well here.

I felt that I got to know John Grey and Aminta Pole much better in The Plague Road and I grew to like them very much indeed. This series has come into its own and I’m most definitely looking forward to more as L.C. Tyler escorts us through these most troublesome and fascinating years in England’s history.

Other review
A Masterpiece of Corruption