Category Archives: Review

Dark Run by Mike Brooks

Dark Run | Mike Brooks | 2015 | Del Rey | 423p | Review and bought copy | Buy the book

Dark Run by Mike BrooksIchabod Drift, captain of the Keiko, is given a mission he cannot refuse. Nicholas Kelsier, an old boss of Drift’s, one he was relieved to escape, orders him to pick up a load and deliver it unopened to Amsterdam on Old Earth at a specific time on a specific date. Failure to make the dark run will result in his crew discovering the truth about their captain before all of them are shot to pieces by the Laughing Man, the Galaxy’s most feared hitman. Drift hates lying to his small crew but he has no choice. The money helps. They do as they are told and when they arrive in the sky above Amsterdam, having accomplished a secretive death-defying orbit-breaking manouevre, all hell breaks loose.

From that moment on, Dark Run is a novel of revenge, the crew united in fury against their captain before joining together in a quest for vengeance that takes them, guns drawn, across Old Earth and beyond the solar system. Each member of the crew has their own skill. Tamara Rourke, Drift’s first and most trusted officer, is the brains. She also, like her captain and the rest of the crew, has a past and it’s in danger of breaking out the closer they get to their goal. Micah is a mercenary, relatively new to the Keiko, who looks after the weapons, Apirana, an enormous Maori, is the muscle but with a soft centre, his rage kept well under control – normally. Twins Jia and Kuai fly and fix the ship, when they’re not tearing each other’s eyes out, and Jenna, the newest and least tested crew member, is the slicer, the one who can break an entry into everything, from doors to a planet’s protective shield. Watching over them all, caring for them, sometimes literally fighting for them, and now and again lying to them, is Ichabod Drift, a man who is not at all what he seems and worries about that an awful lot.

Dark Run is science fiction in the spirit of Firefly, where events, exciting though they may be, are secondary to the interplay between a spaceship crew of loveable pirates. The action gets going from the first page and it definitely holds the reader’s attention to the last but the highlight of the novel is undoubtedly the relationships between Drift and Rourke and between Apirana and Jenna. We meet some other intriguing characters along the way, notably Nana Bastard and her lieutenant Maiha, and we also move among some imaginative environments, especially rocky Carmella II, but the bulk of our interest lies aboard the Keiko and its runabout Jonah.

While the action is fast and thrilling throughout, Dark Run suffers from delving too little into the lives of the Keiko crew, even though this is the heart of the book. I enjoyed what there is but I wanted much more. The novel spends too much time, for me, on the nitty gritty of the mission. It might be exciting but it took up pages that I would have loved to have seen spent on the characters. Likewise, the environments are only partly visualised. I liked what I saw of Old Earth but, again, would have appreciated more. My other issue, and it is a minor and pernickity stylistic one, is that far too many alternatives to ‘said’ are used. We have snorted, snapped, grunted, whistled, barked, shrugged, grimaced, etc. I did get used to it but it took me a while. I enjoyed the humour and I appreciated the author’s vision – I love this kind of science fiction – but I suspect that we have yet to see the best from the author and I look forward to seeing where he takes us next. I’ll definitely be reading.

All in all, Dark Run is an enjoyable and fast read, packed with action, with some intriguing characters that I would be most interested to meet again.

The Protector by S.J. Deas

The Protector | S.J. Deas | 2015 | Headline | 327p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Protector by S.J. DeasIt is 1646 and England is holding its breath. After four long years of slaughter there is every chance that the Civil War may be about to end. All that is needed is for the siege of Oxford to be won and for Charles to agree to terms. Everything hangs in the balance; nothing must be allowed to endanger the delicate negotiations or the fragile dominance of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. But when Anne Agar is stolen from London’s streets, Cromwell has no choice but to believe it a conspiracy against his name. Anne is sister to John Milton, poet and a prolific, highly influential supporter of Cromwell. Cromwell and Milton believe that Anne has been kidnapped – her release to be guaranteed by Milton’s silence or, even worse, transference to the Royalist cause. Anne must be recovered. Cromwell turns to William Falkland for help. Once a Royalist and now occasionally and reluctantly in Cromwell’s payroll (and debt), Falkland is ideally placed to move among both sides of the conflict even though, it’s fair to say, both sides have cause to wish him dead.

William Falkland is a reluctant investigator. Feeling little allegiance to either side in the Civil War he wants nothing more that to pursue his own cause – to discover his own missing family. Falkland’s wife and children are lost, among the many dispossessed of war, no doubt believing that William himself is dead. In return for finding Anne, Cromwell promises Falkland help in his own search. Falkland has little reason to believe in Cromwell – and his evil-smelling agent Warbeck – but he has reached that stage where he has no choice left.

What follows is an absorbing and fascinating pursuit across London and the eastern counties of England on the trail of Anne Agar’s kidnappers. The biggest stumbling block to finding Anne is Milton, her cantankerous and arrogant brother who can’t bear the sight of Falkland, but Falkland is determined, especially when he discovers that he has something in common with Anne. Anne’s husband is another lost soul and she has been searching for him for three long years, refusing to believe that he died at Edgehill like so many other men. Helping Falkland again is Kate Cain (who also featured in The Royalist along with Warbeck). Kate is similarly trying to find a new life for herself now that war has separated her from her past.

The Protector is a thoroughly enjoyable and involving Civil War mystery, at the heart of which is an intriguing mystery protected and pursued by some interesting figures, both historical and fictional. The portrait of John Milton is especially memorable. The hunt for Anne reveals a countryside damaged by war, hiding terrible war crimes, populated by people who have very little left to lose. This is vividly portrayed by S.J. Deas as is the chase itself which is thrilling and pleasingly twisty to the end.

Through it all, though, runs a sympathy and sadness at the great cost of this English Civil War, a cost that extended from the battlefields and into so many homes. The despair, grief and defiant hope of people such as Falkland and Anne is movingly described. While I wish that this book, like its excellent predecessor The Royalist, were longer, allowing a deeper investigation into the interesting themes it raises and figures it presents (I would dearly love to know more about Warbeck), The Protector is a fine novel, well-written and exciting, and it richly evokes this terrible yet dramatic period of English history. It is all the sadder for our privileged knowledge that the war still had several years to run.

The Protector, like The Royalist, is a standalone novel. You don’t need to have read The Royalist first, although I certainly do recommend that you read them both. I look forward to meeting William Falkland again.

Other review
The Royalist

Tenacity by J.S. Law

Tenacity | J.S. Law | 2015 | Headline | 329p | Review copy | Buy the book

Tenacity by J.S. LawJust days after the brutal murder of Cheryl Walker, her husband Stewart ‘Whisky’ Walker hung himself in the engine room of HMS Tenacity, a nuclear submarine on which he served and which had arrived in port just a day or two previously. With all the evidence pointing to suicide, Lieutenant Danielle Lewis of the Navy’s Kill Team (officially known as the Crimes Involving Loss of Life division) is assigned the case. Dan’s mission is to satisfy the division and the company of Tenacity that this was indeed suicide and that there is no need to fear a killer aboard the cramped and close submarine, despite the horrendous violence done to Walker’s wife. Surely, though, a man could have no better reason to take his own life? But why did he choose to die aboard the submarine and not at home? Dan is naturally suspicious and even more so when she sees the crime scene photos from Cheryl’s murder. Dan begins to believe the impossible.

The crew of Tenacity is tight and Dan is viewed with nothing but hostility as she pries into their affairs. They look to the Old Man – the Captain – for signs on how to behave and this larger than life figure is antagonistic towards Dan from the moment she hesitantly boards the submarine. Dan’s efforts to interview each of the crew are thrown into disarray when it is announced that Tenacity must return to sea at once. Instead of sending her male colleague, Dan chooses to head out on the submarine herself. There is no alternative. She must find justice for Cheryl and Whisky Walker and she trusts nobody else to do it. But from the moment that Tenacity descends to a depth of 200 metres, Dan finds herself in an alien world that is intensely claustrophobic, male and increasingly dangerous. Dan is completely out of her depth and at times it’s all she can do to hang on to her reason.

Tenacity is an extraordinarily successful debut from J.S. Law. There are several reasons for its success, not least the fact that this wonderful thriller is extremely well-written, but two big reasons are Dan and the incredibly vivid submarine world into which we are taken.

Dan is a fascinating figure. She has a past to confront but this is dealt with in a highly original manner and it is truly shocking. We learn the reasons why Dan acts as she does but she is also enormously strong and nobody’s fool. She has worked in a largely male world for years. As she mentions in the novel – she is used to sexism and misogyny, she knows what that looks like. As a result she can tell when hostility is built on other reasons. Dan has a terrible time in the submarine, sometimes because of her gender, but mostly because she is in danger. This mix of naval politics with crime plot is handled so well by J.S. Laws. Dan is a flawed human being. We are constantly reminded of this. She makes mistakes, bad errors of judgement. But we are watching Dan going through a process and it is thoroughly absorbing and often worrying. I cared very much for her. Her relationship with her work partner John is particularly interesting.

J.S. Laws clearly knows one end of a submarine from the other as well as an awful lot about what lies in the middle. This is an environment that I knew nothing about. I do fear it, however, and this book did nothing to make me think it a good idea to spend several months of every year submerged in the ocean depths, crammed into a small vessel with a lot of other people. The lack of sleep, the excessive light and heat, the noise, the stink and the exacting military discipline and daily routine – all of these take their toll on Dan and this is quite apart from the stresses of the investigation into Whisky Walker’s death and the fate of his wife. The submarine is manned by several dominant personalities, most of whom we judge by their behaviour towards Dan. It is an extraordinary environment in which to place a thriller and it works brilliantly.

There is nothing I didn’t like about Tenacity. The submarine setting and Dan’s character are complimented by a plot worthy of them. I had some idea of what was going on but I found the conclusion entirely satisfying. The tension and menace are keenly felt and they are paid off. It is clear that Lieutenant Danielle Lewis is a detective with a literary future and I would jump at the chance to read another. Fingers crossed!

Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground | S.L. Grey | 2015 | Macmillan | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Under Ground by S.L. GreyThe end of the world is coming. How the world will end is not yet known but just the threat of it is enough for a small number of wealthy – or desperate – families to buy into the Sanctum. The Sanctum is a silo buried into the ground below Maine in the US. The glossy brochure celebrates its eight floors, filled with luxury apartments, a gym, recreation room, medical room, swimming pool and a garden in which life-saving vegetables can be grown, complementing the enormous supplies of tinned and fresh food. All mod cons will allow the lucky to live out the apocalypse in comfort and safety.

But that is the brochure. When a virus breaks out in Asia and spreads quickly to threaten the US, five families race to the Sanctum – the Parks, the Guthries, the Gills (with au pair Cait), the Maddoxes and the Dannhausers. They discover that there is only one thing worse than the apocalypse and that’s trying to survive the apocalypse in the Sanctum. It is incomplete, inadequately stocked, its medical room not yet built, and the man in charge – Greg Fuller (living on floor 2) – is clearly a man to cut the corners that matter most. When the Sanctum is sealed with no way to reopen its vault doors, the residents discover that they have entered a hell that rivals the outside panic that is beamed into their televisions. One of their number is found dead, murdered, and it’s not long before others follow, along with power, internet and then more basic needs. And as the numbers decline, the Sanctum grows darker, dirtier and takes up a stench that cannot be overcome.

Under Ground is a fast, tense and extremely claustrophobic horror thriller in which the Sanctum almost takes on a life of its own, doing all it can to rot the lives of the men, women and children captured inside it. Events outside are most definitely secondary to this more private and intimate apocalypse. The horror of the Sanctum and the awful fate of its inhabitants is rivalled in unpleasantness by the nature of those inhabitants. With extremely few exceptions, these are not likeable people and as the narrative moves between them it becomes easier and easier to wonder (or hope) which of them will be picked off next.

There is a classic feel to the mystery – a whodunnit within a confined setting, the murderer living among his or her victims, an increasing sense of terror and self-preservation experienced by those left standing, for now. Under Ground has an added atmosphere of horror, thanks to the scenario, the entrapment and the almost Shining feel that the Sanctum is turning people mad.

The novel is successful in evoking mood and atmosphere but its characters work less well. There are stereotypes galore here – the redneck family that treads on its women, rapes for fun and wants to shoot foreigners; the Asian brainy kid; the mysterious spy; the fat woman who does good but could easily die making the effort; the glamorous younger wife with her annoying little dog; and the grief stricken father who can’t deal with his daughter. And others. This did make me consider abandoning the novel at one point, especially when the threat of rape becomes a prominent theme. However, the second part of the novel – once the numbers of the unpleasant have been reduced – is much more absorbing and it does become intriguing. The mystery grows and the conclusion is gripping.

The authors (Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) do a wonderful job of conveying the fear, misery and disgust of the Sanctum’s inhabitants. The stench is palpable. Under Ground is an undemanding and entertaining read that builds to an exhilarating and surprising end. I do, though, think it could have delivered much more.

Other reviews of novels by Sarah Lotz
The Three
Day Four

The Hunt by T.J. Lebbon

The Hunt | T.J. Lebbon | 2015 | Avon | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hunt by T.J. LebbonChris Sheen is in many ways a most ordinary yet fortunate man – a successful architect, happily married to Rose with two daughters, teenager Gemma and the younger Megs. A few years ago he transformed his life. He got rid of his middle-aged spread and began to run. Now he has marathons, triathlons, even an Ironman extreme race under his belt. Chris comes alive when he runs. Until the day comes when Chris must run, not only to save his own life but that of his family. Chris has been selected by the Trail, a wealthy organisation that plays an elaborate game – the rich pay to hunt a human being, to kill him or her and slice a trophy from the corpse.

When Chris returns home from an early morning run, he finds his family gone and a stranger in his kitchen, drinking his coffee. Chris is told that his wife and daughters are being held hostage. Chris must run. If he doesn’t, or if he escapes the hunt, then his family will be murdered. He is left with one hour to prepare. And that’s when Rose turns up. Rose, too, has tracked Chris down. She was once the prey of the Trail and her family paid the ultimate cost for her escape. Rose is not the same woman she was then. She is now ruthless, ready to kill, and Chris Sheen’s crisis presents her with the perfect opportunity to win the vengeance that has haunted her sleepless nights for three long years.

From the opening chapter, The Hunt takes off at a pace that has the reader gasping for oxygen. The hunt for Chris across the wilderness of Snowdonia is mixed with Rose’s story – her tragedy, its effect on her and her transformation from victim to ruthless killer. These glimpses into Rose’s past give us a rest from the fast fury of Chris’s race across hills, rivers and moors and his terror of expecting oblivion at any moment from a sniper’s headshot. The tension is stretched tight throughout the novel and the setting is wonderful.

I would argue, though, that the highlight of The Hunt is Rose. She has by far the strongest character of the novel, her story is the most fully explored and contains the most significant developments and surprises. There is a ferocity to Rose, a strength that has grown from vulnerability and extreme despair and, although she can never be described as likeable, no one could doubt her motives. Her relationship with Holt, the man who turns this woman into the killer she has become, is extremely intriguing.

Chris Sheen’s story never, for me, achieves the success of Rose’s story. While this is partly because we’re not given the same insight into Chris’s life and instead we focus on his minute-by-minute efforts to survive, his character is overshadowed by his obsession with running which is repetitively stressed. Without doubt, this is Chris’s favourite subject and there seems little else to him. His family have their own fight for life to contend with and we do have chapters which show us what they’re going through, mainly focusing on the teenage Gemma. But these sections are too infrequent and light to add much and I would have preferred the novel without them. The baddies are better served introduced on the hillside chasing Chris or in Rose’s story and narrative.

However, The Hunt is a fun, entertaining and fast read that contains several standout scenes and moments, exhibiting fine writing. The Hunt is Tim Lebbon’s first thriller and it bodes very well for the future.

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot | Benjamin Johncock | 2015 | Myriad Editions | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Pilot by Benjamin HancockJim Harrison is about to achieve his goal. After years of test piloting, pushing machine and human body to its absolute limits, the moon is in sight. Jim is one of the ‘New Nine’, the elite who will travel into orbit and beyond to the Moon with the Mercury and Apollo missions. Like most of his colleagues, Jim is not alone. His wife Grace plays a crucial role supporting her husband, playing her part in the daily rituals that challenge the fact that Jim could die on any day of the week, like so many of his fellow pilots. This is a community in which wives own two black dresses – there are too many funerals for one. Quite apart from all the risks, life isn’t perfect for Jim and Grace. They long to have a child, a feat that would appear to equal Jim’s efforts to break the sound barrier, the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, to reach the Moon. When Grace falls pregnant, against all odds, the family’s joy is unbounded but with it comes new, even harder challenges.

The Last Pilot covers the crucial, thrilling years of the space race, beginning in the aftermath of World War II when the latest jet technology sent pilots faster and higher than ever before, with far too many of those pilots falling and crashing to their deaths. Life is fast and it could be very short. With much of the novel set within the confines of the Edwards airbase in California, we grow close to these men and their wives, watching them unwind in Pancho’s Bar, share their triumphs and marvel at their nonchalance as they dismiss narrowing avoiding death in the air as almost routine. It is utterly fascinating and absorbing as well as intensely exciting.

But the fight to be selected as one of America’s first astronauts is only one part of The Last Pilot, brilliantly done though it is. It’s complemented by the much more down to earth struggle of Jim and Grace to have a child and become a family. Grace’s unhappiness and personal story could have been overshadowed by the far more glamorous career of her husband but it isn’t at all. Ultimately, The Last Pilot depicts the private life of a couple living in the public eye. It is intensely emotional, beautifully told, and peppered by moments of sheer joy and pain. When Jim and Grace’s daughter Florence is brought into the world she brings such a light with her. This is a wonderful portrait of a young family, albeit one that lives in an unusual place, the stars above constantly beckoning.

The Last Pilot is Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel. It is simply wonderful – an extraordinary achievement. Its portrait of this little (and extremely unusual) part of America from the late 1940s until the 1960s feels completely authentic and real – quite a feat for a debut British author. Its prose is beautiful, capturing the excitement of the space race every bit as much as the constrained emotions of Jim and Grace, blending history and fiction seamlessly. Its treatment of dialogue is intriguing. I thought that I’d find the lack of speechmarks distracting but it worked extremely well. It adds an intimacy to the narrative which is quite unusual and very effective.

This is a truly fascinating period in recent American history and Benjamin Johncock dramatises so well the cost of the great human endeavour that culminated in 1969’s Moon landing, a cost that extended beyond the famous and terrible accidents of the space race into the private lives of the daredevil pilot astronauts and their brave, resilient wives. I loved every page of this marvellous book, becoming hooked instantly. I won’t forget Jim, Grace and Florence.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Little Black Lies | Sharon Bolton | 2015 | Bantam Press | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Little Black Lies by Sharon BoltonAlmost three years ago, marine biologist Catrin lost her two young sons when they fell to their deaths over a cliff in her best friend Rachel’s car. Rachel had not been in the car and she had taken her eyes off it. The result of her moment’s negligence is devastating for everyone. But Catrin is stricken by more than grief. During these months and years of loss she has been fuelled by thoughts of vengeance and now she is ready to act.

Set in the Falkland Islands during a few momentous days in 1994, Little Black Lies is a captivating thriller, presenting a portrait of both people and islands damaged – by the war a decade before that nobody can forget and by the loss of children. For Catrin’s two boys are not the only children to have been lost. In recent years two small boys have disappeared and now another is missing. The islands are full of places in which a small child might lose himself, the cold sea even more dangerous than the land, inhabited by hungry animal mouths that might claim a child. But three lost boys are harder to explain away. The hunt for the little boy is desperate.

Little Black Lies is an atmospheric and gripping psychological drama from the outset. It is powered by the narratives, one after another, of three distinct individuals – Catrin, Callum (a soldier suffering from his experiences in the Falklands War, islands he’s never been able to leave) and Rachel. It is up to the reader to assess the reliability of each narrator because it is clear that none of the three is thinking with a clear – or innocent – mind.

Each of the three characters is intriguingly drawn and the story, which is strong in its own right, benefits from the three perspectives as we revisit the same events, seeing them with different eyes.

Arguably the strongest character in the novel is actually its setting – the Falkland Islands are described in fascinating detail, capturing the wildness of their nature and the isolation of their inhabitants. With such a small population, it is inevitable that many (if not all) of them are connected. But into the mix you can throw the tourists that float into the islands on cruise ships during the short summer months, including the days in which the novel is set. The islanders may be far from Britain but their affairs are conducted in the public gaze – especially when a child is missing and especially when Catrin does something which draws the scrutiny of the world’s media to her remote home.

Although the location threatens to overshadow the thriller element of Little Black Lies, it doesn’t. The setting and the plot perfectly complement each other. There are twists and they are very well done, led by character and personality, and there is constant mystery and tension – not to mention menace. This is an extremely well-written novel, depicting with such insight and empathy the impact of psychological trauma on lives.

Psychological thrillers featuring alternating unreliable narrators as well as missing children are a popular trend. I would argue that Little Black Lies shows you exactly how it should be done.