Category Archives: Review

Treason’s Spring by Robert Wilton

Corvus | 2017 (7 September) | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

Treason's Spring by Robert WiltonIt is 1792 and the age of the mob has brought violence and chaos to the streets of Paris, in particular the Place de la Révolution where Madame Guillotine holds centre stage. All of Europe reels from it, especially England which is still enduring the aftermath of the recent American Revolution. These are the early days of The Terror, the King and Queen of France are only recently imprisoned and the National Convention, the revolutionary ruling body of France, doesn’t quite know what to do with them. The Ministers, several of whom held position under King Louis, are anxious. A wrong word uttered, a whiff of sentimental nostalgia, the slightest slip is enough to consign even the most powerful to a public, humiliating death.

As the Ministers juggle for power and safety, their wives play the society game – politics now plays out almost as much in the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the fashionable as in the governmental hall of the Tuileries Palace. Intrigue competes with flirtation, and spies hide in plain sight. And behind the glamour and wit, there lurks the dirty reality of revolution – the torturer, the murderer, the joy of the hunt.

Joseph Fouché is a member of the National Convention and its master spy. He suspects everyone but more than anything he wants to find the lost correspondence of King Louis. These letters are believed to contain the names and details of the Revolution’s enemies, all ripe for the blade. But this is a bigger game than Fouché might have first suspected. The imprisonment of the king, the turmoil of France, is an international concern and there are other spies at work in Paris, from England, Prussia and elsewhere. A cat and mouse hunt is underway but which is the cat?

Treason’s Spring is the first novel in a new trilogy from Robert Wilton but it continues a theme that has filled all of his novels and made them unique and extraordinarily clever and rewarding. This, and the other novels, are presented as the archives of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey – in other words, the secret records of the English government’s chief spy. Past novels have taken us to Napoleonic France, the English Civil War and the outbreak of World War 1. Each stands alone but the structure and appeal is the same. The archives themselves, such as letters and interviews are combined with a dramatised narrative of what was learned at the time and since. This is an omnipotent author, writing with the benefit of hindsight, but his interjections are few and far between. Instead, the spies, their lovers, their masters and their victims are allowed to speak for themselves. And they tell fascinating tales, providing an irresistible perspective on some of the most tumultuous events in recent centuries.

The cast of Treason’s Spring is large and complex and the narrative moves between them all, sometimes in past tense, occasionally in present tense. One man in particular is believed to hold the secret of what has happened to Louis’ letters and also to his stolen jewels, a British man called Henry Greene. And everyone is in pursuit of Greene. He moves like a shadow across the novel, barely seen, but the subject of whisper and rumour. And so too are the men and women who seek him. Their lives regularly cross. They speak the language of lies and deceit.

Nobody is quite what they seem. Identities are easy to borrow, lives just as easy to lose. You’d have thought from this that it would be hard for the reader to grow attached to any of the people of this novel, but this is far from true. Robert Wilton is a masterly writer. These are all well-rounded personalities and I was attached to many of the characters – in fact, I was concerned for all of them. With the exception of Fouché and his torturing thug. I was going to list the characters I enjoyed the most when I realised that this is almost everyone on the list of dramatis personae that can be found at the start of the book. But I must point out that the women are as important as the men in this novel and the role they play is vital and every bit as dangerous, perhaps more so because they have so much more to lose.

Treason’s Spring is an enormous achievement. It is immensely clever, controlled and ambitious and it succeeds in all of its aims. I was engrossed. I admired its intellectual brilliance while also being moved to tears by the horror and sadness of events. Personal tragedies were played out time and time again during The Terror and this novel captures so well the fear and uncertainty of these bloody, chaotic months. Revolutionary Paris is itself brought to life. This opening novel suggests that we are embarking on a trilogy of significance and I will drop everything to read the succeeding novel, Treason’s Flood, which we’re told will take us to the field of Waterloo. I cannot wait!

Other reviews
Traitor’s Field
The Spider of Sarajevo

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2017 (24 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerThe small town of Grace in Alabama is in trouble. Isolated in many ways from the surrounding world, it is now even separated by its weather. A wall of cloud and looming storm hangs around and over this town. Several of its inhabitants drive out each day beyond the wall, just so that they can feel the warmth and brightness of sun on their skin and faces, and be reminded what normal is like.

Summer and Raine Ryan are sisters and their names reveal how different these teenage girls are from one another. Summer, though, the one who is easy to know and like, is missing and the disappearance reminds the town and its sheriff, Chief Black, of the case of the missing Briar girls. Presumed murdered, these girls continue to haunt the town. They are its curse and surely the worst thing that could happen to Grace is that the murderer has returned to continue his work. Everyone wants Summer found alive, especially her sister Raine and Raine’s friends Noah and Purv.

Beyond this, I’ll say no more about the plot because All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind.

The central mystery is brilliantly told from a range of perspectives, including Summer’s own, and it moves back and forth through the weeks leading up to Summer’s disappearance. We hear from several of the people who influenced Summer’s life and were so deeply affected by this wonderful girl. We’re soon aware that not everything is as it seems but how we learn this, and what we learn, is beautifully told.

Chris Whitaker writes superbly. As with Tall Oaks, I marvel at how this British author captures the mood and sound of an American small town. It’s not overdone. It feels completely natural and each of these characters has his or her own distinctive voice.

But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but in All the Wicked Girls we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Their individual personalities and their friendship come alive in an astonishing way, and this is as due to Chris Whitaker’s stunning and often understated use of language as it is his empathy for young people. This is clever writing. We hear a phrase and it’s only later that we learn the full significance of its meaning and it hits us like a fist. I loved Summer and Raine too (how could I not?) but Purv and Noah made me laugh and cry time after time. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep.

This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

Other review
Tall Oaks

Kingmaker: Kingdom Come by Toby Clements

Century | 2017 (24 August) | 441p | Review copy | Buy the book

Kingdom Come by Toby ClementsKingdom Come is the fourth and final novel in Toby Clements’ superb chronicle of the Wars of the Roses. The series, Kingmaker, focuses on the years between 1460 and 1471, from the Battle of Towton to the Battle of Tewkesbury, years that transformed England while tearing it apart. Kingdom Come completes the story of Thomas and Katherine and so you’d be well advised to read the series as intended, from the beginning starting with Winter Pilgrims. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure and that you don’t mind hearing about things that have happened before on Thomas and Katherine’s journey.

The year is 1470 and all is going well for Thomas and Katherine Everingham. Their son Rufus thrives and another is on the way. Their manor, Marton Hall in Lincolnshire, prospers, expanding even, providing a home, not only for Thomas and his family but also for the men and women who have endured with them through years of war and restlessness. There are so few left. With Edward IV on the throne and the old King Henry VI in the Tower, the country seems to be at peace at last. But, of course, it isn’t. It just seems like that on the surface. The Earl of Warwick, once such a close ally of Edward IV, is plotting against him, attracting to him men that Edward believes he can trust. They’re waiting for the perfect moment to set the trap and, unfortunately for Thomas, it’s he who discovers the plot and it’s Thomas who has to brave Edward’s wrath by revealing it.

But that’s not all. The manuscript that has been both the curse and blessing of Thomas and Katherine’s life for so long continues to threaten their very lives. Thomas’s secrets are about to be revealed. There is only one thing they can do. They must run. But the time will come when the call to arms will be heard once more and Thomas and Katherine won’t be found lacking as the armies gather for an almighty battle on the outskirts of Tewkesbury.

I have followed the Kingmaker series since it began and, without doubt, it is one of the finest historical series around. It’s successful for so many reasons, not least of which is the private and constant story of Thomas and Katherine Everingham. They have endured so much and deserve even more but it’s never easy and in this final book they must suffer again. This might be a series about war but Katherine is no less important than her soldier husband. War affects them both equally and her perspective matters just as much. This is refreshing, to say the least, in a novel about medieval warfare. There are scenes in Kingdom Come which are so painful to read. Life is far from easy and death, betrayal, illness and hunger come all too frequently. We care deeply for these two and, by the time of this fourth book, we cannot wait to see what happens to them in the end. But we know this is no fairytale. Happing endings are not guaranteed.

Katherine’s character is particularly fascinating, not least for her medical skills. Toby Clements always makes sure that each novel has at least one scene in which Katherine is up to her eyeballs (or at least her elbows) in blood, gore and disinfecting urine. Once read these scenes cannot be forgotten. You might even want to read them with your eyes shut – they’re most certainly gruesome and…. thorough. Kingdom Come is no different. I must admit that I anticipate these scenes and rather enjoy them but perhaps I shouldn’t admit to that!

The surrounding characters are so wonderful and it’s good to keep returning to old friends, although they are now much reduced in number – and even in body. John Stumps is an extraordinary personality and Toby Clements portrays him beautifully. But we still miss some of the figures from the earlier novels. Kingdom Come contains an intriguing look at Edward IV while in exile. There is so much more to Edward in these days of trial and punishment. The quality of the author’s writing and historical insight and imagination means that it really does feel like we’re there. Toby Clements also excels with his use of present tense. I’m not always a fan of present tense, especially in historical fiction, but it really works here.

As always with this series, Kingdom Come is such an exciting and dramatic novel that grips the reader tightly. I must admit to having grown wearisome of the manuscript, which has haunted these books from the beginning. I sensed that the author may have been feeling the same way. It was good to see the back of that. This series has moved so far ahead of conventional devices, such as secret manuscripts and lost memories that occasionally popped up in the earlier books.

Kingdom Come is powerful and vigorous historical fiction, combining the horror and brutal energy of the battlefield with the more intimate drama of a family on the run and surviving as best that they can. All set within the vividly realised setting of the 15th century, a place where no one in their right mind would wish to be but how glorious it is to read about it. I don’t know where Toby Clements will take us next now that Kingmaker is done but I do know I’ll be there every step of the way.

Other reviews
Winter Pilgrims
Broken Faith
Divided Souls

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon

Angry Robot | 2017 (3 August) | 384p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

A Man of Shadows by Jeff NoonWithin the world lies a very strange city indeed, concealed by a dome. Almost half of it is called Dayzone, where endless bright lamps reproduce hot sunlight for every hour of the day. Connected to it by train is its opposite – the endless night of Nocturna. But, to travel between the two, the train must pass through an area of fog and permanent gloom called Dusk and therein lives the unexplained and the terrifying. As if all of this weren’t strange enough, the whole city has turned its back on the linear time of the outside world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of timelines co-exist, many available to be bought, and they mean that the inhabitants of Dayzone and Nocturna move from timeline to timeline, often obsessed with their watches and clocks. Never has the question ‘what’s the time?’ seemed so vital and yet also such a waste of time.

Moving between the timelines is a feared killer called Quicksilver, managing to commit murder in broad faked daylight, sometimes in front of an unsuspecting audience. Private detective John Nyquist has taken on the case of a runaway wealthy young woman Eleanor but he’s soon sure that there are links with Quicksilver. His pursuit of Eleanor takes him not only across Dayzone and Nocturna but also into the place he dreads the most, Dusk, and even to the very edges of his sanity. And all the time, all of the times, he has that feeling that he’s being watched and judged.

A Man of Shadows is a quite extraordinary novel. Its world building is absolutely fantastic – intricate, complex, moody and disturbingly real. The movement between timelines means that John Nyquist rarely sleeps and you can strongly sense his extreme fatigue as the hours pass. People who become too time-obsessed almost literally lose their minds and you know that Nyquist is well on the way to this state. It gives his task an extra urgency and desperation.

Dayzone and Nocturna are brilliantly visualised and would have been sufficiently impressive on their own but the skill of Jeff Noon astounds even further with his treatment of time. I found myself wondering why anybody would chose to live such an existence, what its appeal might be. Many of the inhabitants of this city have almost a euphoria about them as they defy the restrictions of a conventional life but others are clearly damaged by it. This is a book that makes you think as you read it. It is extremely clever.

We never see the world beyond the city, although occasionally characters are nostalgic for a sight of the real sun or the real stars. The city itself has a 1950s’ feel to it, just as the mystery element of the novel is detective noir. Now and again we’re given extracts from guidebooks which tell us a little of the background to Dayzone, Nocturna and Dusk, but generally we experience it all through the increasingly fraught mind of John Nyquist. This can be claustrophobic at times and there is also chaos and confusion. It is certainly atmospheric.

In the final third of the novel, the mystery inevitably takes us into Dusk, and what a frightening place this is. I must admit that I did become a little lost during this section as it becomes increasingly surreal and fantastical. Throw in some mind bending drugs and you get an idea of the state of Nyquist’s mind during this phase of his hunt. It’s hugely disturbing. Personally, and this is probably because I’m more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, I enjoyed more the majority of the novel which portrays so brilliantly life in a world of endless day or endless night, in which time is a force to be controlled, manipulated and even sold. And all the time, outside the city lies the ‘real’ world, out of reach in so many ways to a man such as John Nyquist.

I was completely absorbed by A Man of Shadows and deeply impressed by the skill and imagination of this author. This is the first novel I’ve read by Jeff Noon and I’m not sure why that is – there are such big ideas here that provide an unusual and quirky perspective on our own lives. I love a book that makes me think while also entertaining me and A Man of Shadows does just that.

I love the cover – it really contributes to the mood of 1940s’ and 1950s’ detective noir in an extraordinary environment.

The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison

Tor | 2017 (11 July) | c.100p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and JS HerbisonSaga is an explorer of abandoned starships and asteroids, regaling her fans with video of her discoveries. Conveniently, Saga is marriage to Michel, a renowned hacker, just the sort of person who can get Saga inside these ships. But the couple are finally ready to take a break and at last have the children that they long for. And then Wei shows up. Wei offers Saga and Michel (and their pilot, Gregor) a huge amount of money to do one last job. The Martian Queen is a luxurious spacefairing cruise liner that used to carry tourists between Mars and Earth. Twenty years ago she was mothballed but she continues to cruise between the two planets, bookmarking a lucrative tourist route and so, according to the law of space, preventing anyone else from taking it over.

It isn’t clear exactly what Wei wants with the ship but she has some strict rules for her team and the chief one is never, ever to remove their protective suits while on board The Martian Queen. But when Saga, Michel and Gregor roam the beautiful corridors and cabins of this enormous and eerily empty ship, it all feels completely harmless and the air is breathable. What harm can it do to take their helmets off? And yet there are moments when Saga could swear that somebody or something is watching her…

I love spooky tales of ghost ships, whether they’re floating on the seas or soaring through space, and so I was instantly drawn to The Ghost Line. It’s a novella, of about 100 pages, and so it’s a quick read but I soon found it to be immersive and pleasingly creepy. Links are made to the Titanic and in fact The Martian Queen seems modelled on that doomed vessel – only missing the funnels and an anchor. The ship has an elegance to it and an evocative nostalgia. It reminds me just as much of the empty grand hotel in The Shining. You just know that somewhere horror is waiting.

Saga and Michel are great characters, particularly Saga from whose perspective we see much of what happens. The short length of the story did leave me wanting. I would have liked many more pages filling out the characters of Saga, Michel and Wei. They’re such interesting and intriguing people – they deserve a full length novel. That way I might have understood a little more the reasons for the ways in which Saga acts. On one level, I can see why she acts as she does but I’d have liked more about what it meant to her and to her relationship with Michel. I definitely wanted to know more about Wei – there’s a story there very ready for telling.

The mood and the atmosphere is excellent and the setting of The Martian Queen is wonderful. For a short novel, the authors do a fine job of evoking its bygone splendour as well as the chilling isolation and loneliness of space. It’s not a bad thing to be left wanting more and The Ghost Line certainly achieved that. I read it as a late night read – the best time for spooky tales – and it was perfect for that.

The Night Stalker by Clare Donoghue

Pan | 2017 (10 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Night Stalker by Clare DonoghueA young woman, Pippa, is driven off the road, meeting a grim death near the site of Dead Woman’s Ditch, the scene of a murder in the 18th century for which a man was hung. This is the Quantock Hills in Somerset, an eerie place surrounded by superstition and dread. Nobody wants to be out alone after dark and on this particular cold December night, Pippa’s murder shows these fears are justified. Somerset is a long way from London and the usual beat of DI Mike Lockyer and DS Jane Bennett but the powers that be aren’t satisfied with the DI in charge of the case. Pippa lived in London, providing the perfect excuse for Lockyer and Bennett’s intervention. But the local police are’t happy, to put it mildly.

Relocating to Somerset isn’t perfect for Jane Bennett either because where she goes so too does her young autistic son, Peter. This creates challenges all of its own. And all the time the fears build for whatever it is that haunts the Quantock Hills by night. One young woman in particular is terrified to drive over the hills in the dark. With good reason.

The Night Stalker is the fourth novel in Clare Donoghue’s Lockyer and Bennett series and with no doubt at all it’s my favourite. This is no mean feat as this is a fantastic series – Mike Lockyear and Jane Bennett are really easy to like, especially Mike, and the pair of them together are fabulous. They have a lot of history behind them, which you’ll know if you’ve read the earlier books but, if you don’t know their past, I think you’d still really enjoy watching the two of them together in The Night Stalker. They complement each other perfectly, perhaps here better than ever. They’ve been through the mill for sure but there is humour, too, sometimes at the expense of Jane’s extraordinary mother. But I don’t think Mike Lockyer could stop being loveable however much he tried.

What really makes The Night Stalker stand out in my opinion is its atmosphere. The whole book is steeped in it and the scenes on the Quantock Hills are frightening. Bits of this are as scary as any horror novel. I’m not easy to scare but this book managed it.The menace that hangs over the entire novel is delicious and Clare Donoghue manages the tension brilliantly. Quite a few of these chapters end on a knife’s edge. I love moody atmospheric books!

The story is such a good one. It’s complex, emotional, tense and dangerous. I enjoyed the location outside London and I loved the use of the 18th-century murder which overshadows the hills and the villagers. This is one of those places where you walk in a pub and all goes silent, where families stick together (not necessarily because they like one another) and where everyone knows everybody else. Lockyer and Bennett are isolated, not knowing who they can trust, and the more they learn about the case the worse it becomes. The fact that it’s the winter really helps to set the mood. I savoured every page of this mystery. It sets a very high bar indeed.

Other reviews
No Place to Die
Trust No One

Glory of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Bantam Press | 2017 (10 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Glory of Rome by Douglas JacksonIt is 77 AD and life is going well for Hero of Rome, Gaius Valerius Verrens. Valerius is a prosperous landowner, living with his much loved wife and son in their villa a few miles from Rome’s city walls. But while Valerius is confident of the friendship and patronage of the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, Valerius has a dangerous enemy in Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son. When Domitian goes after Valerius’ little son, Valerius knows he must remove his family from Rome. The opportunity comes from Vespasian who orders Valerius to the province of Britannia where he will serve as the emperor’s legate, a position second only in importance to Britannia’s new governor, Julius Agricola.

It’s seventeen years since Britannia was burnt and torn in the Boudiccan Revolt but enough time has past for some of the tribes to grumble and for the power of the druids to re-emerge, focused upon the island of Mona. Inspired by Gwylm, his chief druid, the High King of the Ordovices, Owain, is gathering the warriors of northern Wales for an attack on Agricola’s legions. The bait was easy to set. The tribal army wiped out a Roman fort in the north Welsh hills, its chief officer cruelly killed and displayed as a message to Agricola. The governor responds and prepares his army to march. But he needs help. The commander of the Ninth Legion has been murdered. None is better placed to assume his post than Valerius Verrens, one of only two men to survive Boudicca’s infamous assault on the Temple of Claudius in Camulodunon all those years ago. Valerius’ reputation proceeds him but the danger ahead is as deadly as any he has faced in the past.

If you have any liking at all for Roman historical fiction, or indeed any historical fiction, then there’s a very good chance that you’re already a devoted fan of Douglas Jackson’s Hero of Rome series. What a fantastic writer Douglas Jackson is! But his fine words are backed up by two other strengths: the innate ability to tell a marvellous story; and meticulous and thorough historical and military research and insight. Glory of Rome is the eighth novel in the Hero of Rome series and it proves yet again how much life is left in the story of Gaius Valerius Verrens. There have been highpoints in this series over the years – the siege of the Temple of Claudius, told in the very first book Hero of Rome, and the battle for Jerusalem, the subject of Scourge of Rome – but Glory of Rome fights with both of these for my favourite book of them all.

If you haven’t read any of the books then I think you could read Glory of Rome as a stand alone. Life has moved on for our hero since the previous novel Saviour of Rome and, in some ways, Glory of Rome represents a new beginning for Valerius. Valerius has new companions-in-arms and it’s fascinating to watch their role and loyalty develop through the book. There is a big gap in Valerius’ life to be filled and this novel goes a long way to do just that. I would definitely recommend that you read the earlier books first – they cover seventeen years of Valerius’ life – but if you start with this one then it may well make you want to return to the start. Valerius is famous among Rome’s armies for the loss of his arm. You really need to go back to Hero of Rome to see the circumstances of that. And it has repercussions for the events of Glory of Rome as Valerius, now much older and with wife and child, returns to Britannia.

The story told in Glory of Rome is fantastic and it has a brilliant start as we’re thrown into a tense and volatile situation in northern Wales. We’re also given a glimpse of a Londinium that has been rebuilt since the Boudiccan Revolt and I love how this is depicted, but the focus is on Wales. Valerius has more than one problem on his hands – he must bring together his new bodyguard of misfits, he must discover what happened to Fronto, the legate he’s replaced, and must take the Ninth Legion to war against thousands of tribal warriors. Then there’s the other matter of spies. Somewhere in Agricola’s company of officers is a spy reporting back to Domitian in Rome. But who is it?

Glory of Rome is a thrilling novel from the outset and culminates in a brilliant battle sequence that had me on the edge of my seat. Valerius is determined not to repeat the shame of Varus who lost his legions’ eagles in the forests of Germania. He will die protecting it and he is fully prepared to do that. Valerius is older and wiser than in the earlier books. He is responsible for his family as well as his men. He will not let them down. Valerius is not the man he once was and he is prepared to be cruel. It’s a fascinating portrait of a man we’ve grown close to over the years and I was riveted to it. I also loved the references to Douglas Jackson’s first novels about Rome and Roman Britain, Caligula and Claudius.

Glory of Rome is not a book I read quickly. I savoured every line, every page. It is written so well and there is so much in it and with so much promise for future novels (Roman Britain needs Valerius). It is astonishing what Douglas Jackson is achieving with this series. We’re lucky to have it. Long may it continue.

Other reviews and features
Caligula
Claudius
Defender of Rome
Avenger of Rome
Sword of Rome
Enemy of Rome
Scourge of Rome
Saviour of Rome
An interview