Category Archives: Review

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2017 (4 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dunstan by Conn IgguldenIn 937, King Æthelstan must fight once more against the Vikings to preserve and protect the one English nation founded by his grandfather, King Alfred the Great. Fighting by his side is Dunstan, a young man from Glastonbury, who is himself on the verge of deciding what to do with his life. For much of his youth, Dunstan, with his younger brother Wulfric, was raised by the monks of Glastonbury but, whereas Wulfric chose the secular path of marriage, parenthood and business, it is not such a straightforward choice for Dunstan. Dunstan aspires. A gifted mason and engineer, Dunstan wants to build to the glory of God the greatest abbey church in the land. But almost as powerful as the pull of God is the appeal of a king’s patronage.

Dunstan is no ordinary man. More than a mason and architect with dreams of rebuilding Glastonbury Abbey, Dunstan is an ambitious and witty statesman. He is called from Glastonbury repeatedly to the royal court of Winchester where he serves an extraordinary dynasty of kings – brothers, nephews and grandsons. Under some Dunstan will flourish but others will drive him from the court, even from the country. Perhaps they can see deeper into his soul than Dunstan would like, because Dunstan is not entirely what he seems. Beneath the robes lies more than ambition – Dunstan is a man carried aloft by pride, ruthlessness, and worse.

Conn Iggulden is undoubtedly one of the finest writers of historical fiction – of any fiction – and I can’t sing his praises enough. In fact, it’s testament to my fondness for this author’s books and my trust in him that I didn’t hesitate to read Dunstan, a novel that is set in one of my least favourite periods of history. I studied Anglo-Saxon history and literature as part of my degree and it did an excellent job of killing any interest I might have had in reading historical fiction set during those years. But I knew that if anyone could bring the 10th century alive for me it would be Conn Iggulden. And I was right. Dunstan is an astonishing achievement, even for Conn Iggulden. Here is a period which has left relatively little evidence – documentary or archaeological – and yet it comes alive in these pages.

This is a novel driven by character. It’s not an action novel. There is an occasional battle but we don’t spend the book on the march with warriors or armies. Instead we spend time with one of the most fascinating historical figures of the age – Dunstan. A man who is presented here as both secular and religious, as an advisor to kings but also as a visionary. Beneath it all lies corruption and it is in discovering just how far Dunstan is prepared to descend that gives much of this glorious novel its tension and intrigue. Dunstan did not live a quiet life. He moved across the country, a country in recovery from years of war and under threat of more, where earls must live as nobles and not as rival kings, where the personality of the king is everything. Conn Iggulden presents us with a line of kings, some good, some evil, but they are all depicted as real people caught in a conflict. They have to protect England at all costs and yet they are only human. They love and hurt like everybody else. Dunstan is a witness to it all and he is closer than almost anyone to some of these kings. At one of these times of closeness, I wept. How Conn Iggulden can write!

The novel contrasts Dunstan and his brother Wulfric throughout and it is a deeply interesting and complex relationship. Dunstan undoubtedly has a vision of himself but a more realistic portrait might be the one perceived by Wulfric and other members of their family. Dunstan’s behaviour is at times shocking and disturbing. The novel is presented as Dunstan’s own chronicle, told in his own words, and so he doesn’t tell us everything. But there are gaps and those gaps shout out. We can be under no illusion about the lengths to which this man will go to achieve his glory on earth and in heaven. Our own complicated response to Dunstan is part of this novel’s pleasure.

Conn Iggulden wears his research lightly. It’s clear it’s there and a great deal of it but he uses it well, integrating the historical details thoroughly into the story. Glastonbury, Winchester, London, Rome and many other places are colourfully painted. There are sounds, smells and flavours of the past here. We experience life as a child in a monastery, as men and women of business in London, as a politician in Winchester, as a treasurer in the mints and mines of England. It is so completely engrossing. One aspect that I especially enjoyed is the use the Saxons made of the remains around them of the ancient Roman past. We see signs of that heritage everywhere.

Before reading this novel, I would not have imagined Dunstan as the obvious subject for a historical novel, especially one of this length. But that was before Conn Iggulden revealed him before my eyes and showed him to be the perfect subject for a novel on late Anglo-Saxon England. Dunstan is a novel rich in intrigue and drama, bringing to life the royal court as well as the country’s monasteries, cities and fields. And through it all we hear Dunstan’s voice, back from the dead, alive once more with a great story to tell, thanks to Conn Iggulden.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)

Dead Souls by Angela Marsons

Bookouture | 2017 (25 April – ebook: 28 April) | 387p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dead Souls by Angela MarsonsA routine training excavation for forensic archaeologists comes to an abrupt halt when shovels uncover the disarticulated remains of two, possibly three skeletons. Back in the lab, the bones reveal evidence of terrible deaths – bullet wounds, hunting traps and something perhaps even worse. DI Kim Stone is given the case but it’s going to become very complicated. The farm where the excavation took place straddles the border with the West Mercian police and Stone is forced to co-lead the investigation with her counterpart, DI Tom Travis. These two have a history and it is not a pleasant one. Working together will not be easy.

To make matters worse, Kim has to work with Travis’s team while her own continues to work on a series of hate crimes as well as a teenage suicide. The latter affects DC Stacey Wood greatly and it will lead her to make decisions she may live to regret. Kim Stone feels responsible for her team, frustrated that she is working apart from them, but her own case, finding justice for the dead souls roughly buried, has Kim, as well as Travis, caught in its grip – and me on the edge of my seat.

Dead Souls is the sixth novel by Angela Marsons to feature DI Kim Stone and, for reasons I am unable to fathom, it is my first. I don’t know how I’ve missed this series but it’s certainly been a mistake. Angela Marsons is clearly a storyteller of the highest order, driving on this brilliantly plotted crime novel with the most fascinating, well-drawn characters supported by pace, unrelenting tension and a compelling mystery that makes the pages fly by. It’s probably true that if I’d read the earlier novels first I’d have had a better understanding of some of the relationships, especially between Stone and her sergeants Bryant and Dawson, as well as Kim Stone’s back history. But, to be honest, I felt caught up in the personalities and relationships instantly and I didn’t feel like I was missing out. But one thing is for sure: I’ll be buying up the previous five novels just as soon as I can.

I loved Kim Stone. It’s hard to imagine anyone caring more than this woman. But she also has a warmth to her, a real kindness. As does Bryant, whose sense of justice displays itself in the most generous of ways. Bryant and Dawson spar without her leadership but both are able to use the opportunity to prove themselves. Stacey Wood’s history plays an important role in Dead Souls and contributes to the novel’s themes of hatred and bigotry. These are undoubtedly painful themes but the author deals with them effectively and powerfully. One standout character for me is Tom Travis. It could have been so straightforward to present him as a baddie. But there is nothing straightforward about him and I really enjoyed his scenes with Stone.

The plot of Dead Souls is absolutely fantastic and left me in awe of it. I had to know what was happening. I was constantly surprised by the ways in which the novel developed and its conclusion was brilliant. We care for the characters deeply and so we worry. I certainly did. Kim Stones’ bravery made me worry even more. There is so much going on, so many people to watch, that I gobbled Dead Souls up. I am so pleased that I picked this one up and I’m very glad that I didn’t let myself be put off by it being the sixth in a series and not the first. I have discovered another author and another series to catch up on, follow and love – excellent!

The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey

Orbit | 2017 (4 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Boy on the Bridge by MR CareyBritain is no more. The Breakdown destroyed it. The land now belongs to the Hungries – altered, infected and no longer human, these lost souls live only to feed. A few enclaves of uninfected humans survive, but not many and they’re under constant threat. Only two outcomes are possible. Either the Hungries will devour the last of the uninfected or an antidote will be found. The first is far more likely than the second. But hope persists.

The Rosalind Frankie, or Rosie, is an armoured vehicle that has embarked on an epic, perilous journey from the south of England to the Highlands. Aboard is a group of soldiers and scientists, existing side by side in the most limited of space. Their mission is to recover biological samples placed across the country. Whether they will live to return with them is another matter entirely. But their responsibility is immense. Time has run out. They know they have to succeed. Six soldiers and six scientists live and work aboard Rosie and each has their own personal tale of survival and hope. Each has something to live for and they all have everything to fear. The pressure on them is so immense that it’s only a matter of time before the cracks appear and then each must look deep within themselves for the strength to cope.

Among the scientists is Stephen Greaves, an autistic boy, and Dr Samrina Kahn, who has more reason than most to fear for her future. These two find themselves drawn together while everyone else wonders what on earth Stephen is doing there. But Stephen is very special indeed. When he looks outside he can recognise something else that hides out there among the Hungries and he can look it in the eyes.

The Boy on the Bridge is the follow up novel to the enormously successful (and now filmed) The Girl With All of the Gifts. It’s been a while coming but it is most certainly worth the wait. It isn’t a straightforward sequel. It doesn’t pick up on Melanie’s story but in her place is another fine set of characters to enjoy as they develop through the pages, continuing the tension between the military and scientists, and also within these groups. There is good and bad in both. So you could read The Boy on the Bridge without having read The Girl with All the Gifts first without any trouble at all, but I do think you’d be missing out on the development of this shattered world, as well as the emotional power of a couple of key scenes.

The writing is as brilliant as ever, loaded with personality and opinion, sharp and incisive. There is horror, so much of it, and you can’t look away from it, it’s so gripping and thrilling, but there are moments of peace and calm as well. Rosie really feels like a refuge despite its claustrophobic spaces. Outside, by contrast, is such a scary place. You wouldn’t want to go outside. But Stephen does.

I’m no fan of zombies, whether in novels or movies, but there’s something about the Hungries that fascinates me, especially those that we meet in The Boy on the Bridge. We’re asked to re-examine what they are and, although this means confronting deep fears, it is so compelling, as well as tragic, sad and gory. There are moments in this novel when I shed a tear, that’s how much I cared for these characters (especially Kahn) and for how well this story (and world) has been developed through both novels.

M.R. Carey is a great storyteller with a fantastic imagination, bringing apocalypse and hope together in the best of ways. I loved this portrait of a devastated Britain, with the mix of the familiar and the irrevocably altered. The descriptions are wonderful. At its heart, though, are its people, non-Hungry or otherwise, and they power this unusual horror novel on. Will there be more? I really hope so.

Other reviews
The Girl With All of the Gifts

Skitter by Ezekiel Boone

Gollancz (Atria in the US) | 2007 (UK: 27 April; US: 2 May) | 329p | Review copy| Buy the book: UK; US

Skitter by Ezekiel BooneSkitter is the follow up novel to The Hatching so please make no attempt to read Skitter until you’ve read The Hatching first! This review assumes you’ve done just that and you are ready to have your skin creep and crawl in the most deliciously terrifying way once more. As one of the characters puts it, welcome back to the Spiderpocalypse!

The first wave of spider attacks has ended in the withdrawal and deaths of billions of spiders. Unfortunately, they took with them the lives of many millions of people from around the globe. China is a nuclear wasteland and many of the world’s greatest cities lie in ruins. But any hopes that the desperate might have that the attack is over, that the world can rebuild and repopulate, are soon dashed. Scientist Melanie Gruyer’s continued work at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland has revealed a terrible fact. The first wave of spiders was simply paving the way for the second – feeding it, preparing the ground. And this second wave could take mankind to the very brink of extinction. The US President Stephanie Pilgrim is prepared to do the unthinkable to safeguard the nation’s future. But is it too late? Around the world, something unbelievably terrible is beginning to stir.

To say that I adored The Hatching is a ridiculous understatement. I love apocalyptic thrillers and I especially enjoy these novels when they focus on weather disasters (have you read The Tsunami Countdown by Boyd Morrison yet? Why not?) or beasts, particularly the creepy crawly kind (such as Invasive by Chuck Wendig). If ever there was an animal that lends itself brilliantly to wholescale mass panic and annihilation, it’s the spider. Personally, I don’t mind spiders at all. But as for these spiders…. these spiders scare me to death.

Skitter continues the fabulous formula of The Hatching. The novel’s focus is on the US, and most (but not all) of the principal characters are based there, but it also includes many stories from across the planet, including France, Germany, India and, especially, Scotland. We move between a cast of many characters, some of whom we meet just once (for obvious reasons) but there are others that we return to time after time as they either fight to survive or to overcome. We met a fair few of these in The Hatching and it is a joy to return to them, not to mention a relief that some have survived this far. I don’t want to mention who, just in case you’re reading this with the intention of going back to The Hatching.

Skitter might be the middle novel of a trilogy but it is a fantastic disaster thriller in its own right. The novel copes with the aftermath of The Hatching while preparing us for the showdown of the finale, setting it up absolutely perfectly. But Skitter oozes tension, horror, panic, dread, disgusting deaths, hideous spiders, shocking pain and stunned outrage – not only aimed at the spiders but also at the lengths governments will go to for the longterm survival of the human race. All well and good in theory but a lot less noble when you’re running for your life.

We’re thrown into the action from the outset and it never lets up until the very last page when we’re left longing for the concluding novel. Skitter is such a fast read and it is so well written, each page contributing to the overall story. It’s not the sort of thriller you want to put down unread and its pace is pushed along even faster by its brilliant structure that moves us from one state of tension to another and then back again, time after time.

Prepare to get the shivers, prepare to never look at a spider in quite the same way again. Remember what Jaws did for sharks – this time the sharks are tiny, have legs and there are billions of them. Fantastic!

Other review
The Hatching

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Doubleday | 2017 (2 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Into the Water by Paula HawkinsWhen Nel Abbott is found drowned, her fifteen-year-old daughter Lena is left almost entirely alone. Her best friend Katie drowned in the same stretch of river just a few months before. Lena can hardly fathom that her mother has shared the same fate. But this bit of river in the village of Beckford is known as the Drowning Pool – women have drowned here for years, sometimes by suicide, but also by the hand of others.

Nel’s sister Jules comes to Beckford to look after her niece, and at first neither are happy about it. Jules and Nel had been estranged for many years for reasons that one sister kept quiet while the other could never understand why. The small community of Beckford is grievously troubled by yet another death in the Drowning Pool. For many it stirs up the past, bringing back painful memories of their own losses in the water. As Jules and Lena are thrown into the heart of the village’s trauma, they come to understand how far the hurt has spread and that the significance – and pull – of the Drowning Pool is as dangerous and powerful as ever.

I don’t think there are too many people now who haven’t read Paula Hawkins’ previous novel The Girl on the Train and, while I was one of those with mixed feelings about that book (review), I was so looking forward to reading Into the Water. I’m glad I did. I think that Into the Water is a cleverer thriller than The Girl on the Train, its mystery more satisfying and complex, and its characters better developed. Its structure is also ambitious and very effective.

The story of Into the Water is told from a number of different perspectives. We hear from a whole range of different people and the narrative includes first, second and third person. While I initially found it difficult to keep track of the many different voices, by the middle third of the novel I was completely caught up in the lives of its people. This movement of narrative allows us to venture deeply into these characters’ motivations, feelings and fears. There are a range of agendas at work here and so the struggle to find the truth about why so many troubled women have had their lives ended in the Drowning Pool is never straightforward. As a result we have twists and red herrings galore.

We meet lots of different people but a fair few who stand out, notably Nel’s daughter Lena, the police officer Erin, and Katie’s distraught mother Louise. But all have interesting stories to tell and it’s easy to get caught up in them. Some, though, are darker than others and there are a few which are very dark indeed. Beckford is a place with many, many secrets. The reasons why it’s women who end up in the Drowning Pool and not men are deeply troubling.

Into the Water is a very well-written and intriguing mystery. It is undoubtedly dark and troubling, overshadowed by grief, loss and cruelty. There is little relief from its mood. But it is also extremely thought-provoking and compelling. No single character dominates. Instead, it is the women who lost their lives in the Drowning Pool who haunt these pages, demanding our attention as justice and vengeance are sought.

Other review
The Girl on the Train

From Darkest Skies by Sam Peters

Gollancz | 2017 (20 April) | 328p | Review copy | Buy the book

From Darkest Skies by Sam PetersIt is five years now since the death of Alysha, the wife of agent Keona Rause. Also an agent, Alysha was blown up on a night train as it made its way across their home world of Magenta. Rause doesn’t understand why Alysha was on that train. It wasn’t for passengers. She and a small group of other people had smuggled themselves aboard and they were blown up by a bomber, later caught. He can only assume that Alysha was following leads to a case. But whatever it was, the knowledge died with her and, besides, Rause was forcibly removed from investigations into the bombing, sent to Earth on a secondment for five years. That ended in disgrace when the alien artefact he had been guarding was stolen almost from under his nose. Rause is now back in Magenta, suffering from the terrible increase in gravity, getting used to the endless pummelling of Magenta’s rain, and investigating the death of one of the planet’s very few golden socialites. But Rause has an itch he has to scratch – why was his wife on that train?

Rause is not entirely alone. After his wife’s death, he had her memories and digital presence uploaded into a physical walking, talking ‘shell’. Its intelligence is also incorporated into his ‘Servant’, the AI that everyone carries around inside their brain, easing their way through life. But Liss, as he calls it/her, is completely illegal. And whether Liss is a help or hindrance is another matter entirely as Rause works through his feelings for a wife he mourns and her reconstructed digital presence which he struggles to understand.

The premise of From Darkest Skies is an extremely compelling one, combining some of the familiar ideas of crime fiction with the wonder of its science fiction setting on Magenta, complemented by some intriguing technology. Magenta is an extraordinary planet, named for the violet hue its land and water derives from its ‘organic rock-eating purple alien dust’. It is both beautiful and hostile, as too is its appalling weather which batters the plant with killer winds and painful, stabbing rain for days on end. But the story of how humans reached Magenta is one of the most fascinating things of all about From Darkest Skies. The novel is overshadowed by the enigmatic Masters, the alien race that altered Earth in terrible ways from which it can never recover before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. Their intent seemed to be to move humans across the Galaxy, giving them the technology to move freely, while leaving others hopelessly stranded. But why?

From Darkest Skies raises lots of questions, about the Masters, about Alysha, about the murdered socialite and about life as a whole on this unfriendly yet striking planet of Magenta. Sam Peters makes the reader want to know the answers every bit as much as Rause who is barely holding on. I liked Rause very much indeed. I felt for his plight. And I also cared for his fellow agents, some of whom he’d known before and others he hadn’t. They are a colourful bunch, likeable yet crotchety. But who wouldn’t be crotchety on this strange planet?

Sam Peters blends crime and science fiction well. The plotting is excellent and so too is the use of technology. It’s not overplayed but it is intriguing. This is a future society, one shaped by the Masters, apocalypse, the media (social and otherwise) and by a powerful sense of distance from Earth, a distance that is brought home every minute of the day by the unrelenting force of gravity. We’re familiar with walking, talking AIs but I did find Liss pleasingly unusual and unknowable. I really felt for Rause. My only issue would be the difficulty I had remembering some of the unusual names.

From Darkest Skies is a debut novel and it is a fine one. I would definitely welcome another novel set in this enigmatic world of Magenta and the Masters – there is so much more I want to know about both – but I’ll be very happy to go wherever Sam Peters takes us next.

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

Bantam Press | 2017 (20 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon BoltonBella is about to turn 40 and her younger sister Jessica has the perfect present for her – a balloon ride above the beautiful countryside of Northumberland. They’ve been looking forward to it for ages. But they drift above something they shouldn’t, a crime scene. And when Jessica looks straight into the eyes of a killer, she knows full well he’s looking right back at her. The pursuit is on. He chases them from the ground, firing shots, creating panic, and it isn’t long before that balloon and everyone riding in its basket tumbles to the ground. There is only one survivor and she must run for her life.

And that is all I’m going to say because Dead Woman Walking is an extraordinary novel, exquisitely plotted, and I don’t want to give away a thing, not even the seemingly insignificant details. It all mounts up and where it takes us is somewhere I’m not going to forget in a hurry. I expected shocks and surprises but I was not prepared for this. As I said at the time, just when I’d finished it: ‘You think you know where you’re heading and then BOOM!!!’ That still sums it up for me. I thought I’d been clever, that I’d worked it all out. Ha!

Sharon Bolton is one of the most original writers of jaw dropping crime fiction about today and I could not wait to read Dead Woman Walking, especially after devouring Daisy in Chains. It did not disappoint. I’ve mentioned how good the plot is, but so too is its mood. This book has menace and dread written all over it. It is extremely tense, the action moving across the miles, the pursuit closer and closer. And the characters are fascinating – those doing the chasing, those being chased and the police. There is also a timelessness about it, contributed to by the stunning yet challenging countryside and the presence of, yes, nuns.

The relationship between Jessica and Bella is especially significant, moving backwards and forwards in time through the novel. There is such tenderness and I fell for them both completely.

I realise that this review is short and (hopefully!) sweet. I just want you to discover Dead Woman Walking for yourself, ideally knowing as little as possible. If you’ve read Sharon Bolton’s novels before then be assured that you’ll get more of what you love here and, if you’ve never had the pleasure, then do dive in with Dead Woman Walking. Although you may get hooked.

Other review
Little Black Lies
Daisy in Chains

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Dead Woman Walking Blog Tour