Category Archives: Review

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

The Girl in the Glass Tower | Elizabeth Fremantle | 2016 (2 June) | Michael Joseph | 454p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth FremantleLady Arbella Stuart was the Queen England so nearly had. Cousin to Elizabeth I, a descendent of Henry VII, Tudor blood running hotly through her veins, she was also the granddaughter of the indomitable Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury. And Bess was determined to work the court, influence the mighty Cecil, to ensure that, when the time came for the ageing Elizabeth I to accept that her fate could be no different from that of any other mortal, Elizabeth would pick Arbella as her heir. Their other cousin, James VI of Scotland, son of the vanquished, beheaded Mary Queen of Scots, has his own eyes set on the throne, not least because he has one advantage over Arbella Stuart that she can never take from him – James is a man.

Arbella is a victim of the ambition of those around her. She turns from child to woman as a pawn in their game. The extent of their schemes only becomes apparent bit by bit, as Arbella struggles to hear news from court. The plot of the Earl of Essex has so incensed Elizabeth against any perceived rival to her throne – to any reminder that she will and must die – that she banishes Arbella from court. The court turns on its conspiracies and suspicious thoughts, Catholicism beginning to raise its head over the parapet, nobles shifting in their precarious seats. James is at the centre of much of it, but Arbella increasingly finds herself its victim, as planned marriages come and fade away, and she becomes little more than a prisoner to her grandmother and her Queen.

In The Girl in the Glass Tower, Elizabeth Fremantle once again picks the story of a fascinating, important and yet overlooked Tudor woman to tell. Although each novel is independent, there are echoes of the other novels, particularly in the shadow of the Lady Jane Grey’s equally tragic sister Katherine Grey (Sisters of Treason), whose bed Arbella must sleep in, and the resilient Penelope Devereux, sister of the Earl of Essex (Watch the Lady), who is one of the few to offer genuine friendship to the young woman. Arbella is likewise determined, well-educated, loyal and, given the chance, loving, but in The Girl in the Glass Tower we are shown just how little power this most noble of women had. How little any other woman would have cause to envy her. We follow her life through the years and it is painful and pitiful to watch the ways in which she tries to control her life, by controlling her body, making it undesirable, untouchable and touchless. This is a forceful portrait of a woman who has no choice but to make the best of her lot and the fact that, when she does stir this costs the lives and/or the well being of the few who love her, is not lost on Arbella Stuart.

But Arbella is not the only woman featured here. The novel is divided between Arbella’s story, told in the past tense, and that of another historical figure Aemilia Lanyer (Ami), a writer and poet, told in the present. Ami became a friend of Arbella’s before Ami fell from grace from the court of King James for her woman’s defence of Eve. Ami’s story is very different. She too has a struggle to stay independent but this is much more a matter of financial survival. But her memories and thoughts of Arbella give her both comfort and guilt and they also provide us with a fascinating portrait of James’s court and his Queen, two figures almost completely overshadowed in fiction by their glamorous Tudor predecessors.

The Girl in the Glass Tower is beautifully written, as you’d expect from Elizabeth Fremantle. Also just as you’d expect, it is full of psychological insight and empathy. I really enjoyed the way in which Ami is shown to exert her influence over the people who want to grind her into the dust. Likewise, I admired Arbella’s fortitude. Arbella’s story isn’t a happy one, this is a melancholic novel, but I did find that Arbella always kept her distance from me, keeping me from becoming too emotionally attached to her destiny. When she falls in love, the echoes of Katherine Grey are particularly strong. I found Ami much easier to empathise with, although, at times, harder to understand.

Much of the action of the times takes place on stage while we spend most of the novel in the wings or backstage, or even out of the theatre altogether, with Arbella and Ami. We do enjoy a couple of visits to court but otherwise events pass Arbella by and, like her, we have to rely on the letters and visits of others to her isolation, far from London. This does make for a slower pace at times but it is a colourful, rich one. I enjoyed the literary allusions, to Shakespeare and others, and the spectacular glimpses we see of this fascinating, charismatic, uncertain era. I love how Elizabeth Fremantle throws a whole new light on this age by focusing on some of the lesser known female figures. Lady Arbella Stuart deserves to be remembered.

As a footnote, I must comment on the title. I’ll be very happy when ‘The Girl’ is banished from the titles of books about women. Otherwise, this is a very attractive hardback.

Other reviews
The Queen’s Gambit
Sisters of Treason
Watch the Lady

The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone

The Hatching | Ezekiel Boone | 2016 (5 July) | Gollancz | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Hatching by Ezekiel BooneIf you have a phobia for anything with eight legs then you might want to close your eyes while you read the review below. If you’re perfectly happy around our little eight-legged friends, you soon won’t be…

A rich man’s expedition into the Peruvian jungle has a less than desirable ending when the party is consumed by a writhing, seething black force of nature. A plane crashes in the US, its survivor surviving not very long at all when the worst thing that’s ever happened to him is swiftly followed by an even worse thing. The world is shocked by news that the Chinese government is dropping nuclear weapons – by accident, apparently – on remote areas of its own country. At the same time, India is shaken by tremors. It’s as if the Earth itself is reeling. It can hardly be a coincidence when scientist Melanie Guyer receives a package containing a pulsating, warm mass. Increasingly concerned by what she discovers, Melanie contacts her ex-husband, who has the ear of the American president. Meanwhile, FBI agent Mike Rich is on a trail of discovery and it’s littered with eight-legged flesh-eating spiders – and they are very hungry indeed.

As soon as I heard about The Hatching I was desperate to read it. The author is called Ezekiel Boone and that made me even more desperate to read it. I love disaster movies and stories and this has it all. It’s fast. We jump constantly and hungrily between characters and disaster hotspots around the world (including the Scottish island) in a crescendo of catastrophe. The focus is on Rich and Melanie – one following the action while the other follows the science, both destined to merge – but there are a host of other people to enjoy here. Not that it pays to get too attached.

I particularly enjoyed the Californian survivalists, who aren’t at all what you’d expect from survivalists, even those who live in a town called Desperation. They have the supplies and weapons stored in their bunkers – nothing unusual there – but these are people who realise that surviving the end of the world isn’t really worth it that much if you do it on your own. They are likeable, and one of the survivalist couples is gay. Stereotypes take a bit of an assault here and elsewhere in the book. Although, when it comes down to it, the critters attack and the people scream – the same way that it’s been done forever and it works.

I do like Ezekiel Boone’s writing. The author is clearly having as much fun as the reader but he also knows how to maintain the tension, the panic levels and the drama as everything spirals out of control. And we are not spared the gore and general unpleasantness of being attacked by ravenous carnivorous spiders. There are a few truly revolting moments mixed up in the thrills. It is extremely hard to put down and, to be honest, I didn’t even bother. I read it in one day.

The Hatching follows in the fine tradition of Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Swarm and others and, when done well as this is, I can’t get enough of such books. I was fortunate enough to read a review copy of this with spiders actually hidden within the pages. Whether this made me screech a bit is open to debate but The Hatching is such a thoroughly entertaining, deliciously skin-crawling horror thriller that you’ll like it with or without the spiders falling on your lap as you read it. The ending is fabulous, setting up the next book perfectly and I cannot wait.

Behind Dead Eyes by Howard Linsky

Behind Dead Eyes | Howard Linsky | 2016 | Michael Joseph | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Behind Dead Eyes by Howard LinskyThe body of a young woman has been found, her face and identity cruelly burnt away. Another woman has disappeared, her father, once a well known local politician, is ready to do anything to find her. Detective Ian Bradshaw is tasked with both cases, one more officially than the other. Meanwhile, a man serving life for the brutal murder of his mistress down an infamous lovers’ lane, reaches out to true crime investigator Tom Carney as his last chance to prove his innocence. Journalist Helen Norton likewise has her hands full. She has uncovered a criminal conspiracy, feeding off political corruption, and the more she discovers the greater the threat to herself grows. Recently, Tom, Bradshaw and Helen successfully worked together on a case. They find themselves once again drawn together as their cases slowly show signs of a connection. Above all else, though, there is safety in numbers.

I haven’t yet read No Name Lane, the first in the series, but I didn’t find that this mattered at all, except for making me want to read it. Behind Dead Eyes is set in the north east of England during the 1990s and this time and location provides a great setting for the novel. Few people have mobiles, nobody’s walking around attached to tablets and smart phones, and the majority of investigative work is done on foot and not in front of a computer. But this is also a time with more than its fair share of sexism, corruption, with many a blind eye turned away. It works really well indeed and I also enjoyed the nostalgia element.

By focusing on three main characters, each with a different way of doing things, Howard Linsky is able to examine the cases from a broad range of perspectives, with the detective, investigator and journalist each following their own noses. Tom, Bradshaw and Helen certainly complement one another and, although there’s a touch of frisson between both men and Helen, this doesn’t get in the way of the developing relationships between all three. There are arguments but each has the others’ back and all three are going to need it. I think I particularly fell for Tom.

Behind Dead Eyes is a slow moving but involving novel, with each of its mysteries unwinding little by little, our three taking the time to mull over each of the clues in turn. Each of the cases takes its toll on Tom, Bradshaw and Helen. There are repercussions and watching how our three deal with it all forms a large part of the book’s appeal. Howard Linsky is such a good storyteller, with a fine eye for character and for motive. I think that the story of the convicted murderer is especially well done but I also really admired the way in which the missing girls’ story was unwound.

Howard Linsky has created an authentic, grimly fascinating and real world in which loose ends are a part of life and not everything can be neatly tied off. I have a new series to follow – and catch up on – I look forward to meeting our three again.

Second Lives by Scott K. Andrews

Second Lives | Scott K. Andrews | 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Second Lives by Scott K AndrewsSecond Lives continues the excellent time travel adventure begun with TimeBomb. You wouldn’t want to read one without reading the other and so this review assumes that you’ve read TimeBomb.

Jana, Dora and Kaz are back. These three young time travellers from our future, past and present continue to find themselves pulled back by some force in time to the laboratories under Sweetclover Hall in Cornwall. A quantum bubble draws them in like a magnet but it also keeps time out, giving them a temporary respite. They have escaped the mysterious, malign Quil but she continues to pursue them as they must also continue to pursue her. Each holds the other responsible for catastrophes in the future, on colonised Mars and on Earth. The time bomb is ticking. One would have thought that time is something that our young heroes have plenty of but they are discovering that it is running out. They can’t stay in the bubble forever, they have to go out there, throw themselves into the frontline, and try and change time.

I thoroughly enjoyed TimeBomb but Second Lives definitely takes a step up as we follow Jana, Dora and Kaz into the recent past (Beirut in 2010) and off planet in the future to Mars in 2158. In both cases there is an event to prevent, one of which is deeply personal to one of our three, and the team is about to learn just what happens when you try to meddle with time. There are more time paradoxes here than you can shake a cat at and, while it certainly becomes extremely complicated in places, it’s all done with a touch of humour. The solution is just to go where we’re taken and not to worry about what’s going on as strands of the story become increasingly entangled and characters meet themselves time after time, leaving enigmatic clues.

There’s a lot going on here that isn’t explained. We know more about Jana and Dora but there’s still much that’s being hidden for the next book. Likewise, Quil is more intriguing that ever and responsible for some of my favourite sections of the novel.

There are more shocks and emotional upset here than I was expecting and I liked that. There are a couple of moments when I had to ask myself if I really had just read that. Our three heroes are young people but they’re fast learning the consequences of deadly force and the potential tragedy of life. But despite some gloomy realism, Second Lives is such a fun novel to read. There’s plenty of humour, interesting character development (particularly between Jana and Kaz) and an abundance of puzzles – just enough to make your head spin.

This is such an entertaining series, utterly confusing (in a good way) and full of fun and teenage troubles. The series might be intended for a younger readership but I definitely think there is so much here for all ages to enjoy, especially if you like a good old flux in the space time continuum.

Other reviews
TimeBomb

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

The Sudden Appearance of Hope | Claire North | 2016 (19 May) | Orbit | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire NorthWho is Hope Arden? That’s impossible to answer. You could share a laugh with her, a meal, spend a day, even a night with her and then if you turned your head away for just a minute you would still remember the time but you would remember it as time spent alone – Hope cannot be remembered. As a child, Hope was remembered by her parents, friends and teachers but, slowly, as time went by in her teenage years, they began to forget until finally Hope’s beloved mother, a remarkable woman who once crossed a desert on foot, became the last to forget Hope Arden.

Only existing in the moment presents all kinds of difficulties for a young person, for a person of any age – how do you get a reference? How can a surgeon operate on you when just a toilet break would mean that they would never return to the table? Finding somewhere to live, making friends, falling in love – these things all become impossible, yet longed for. Every day is filled with constant saddening reminders of one’s failure to be remembered. You can leave a trail of notes and photos, clues to your existence, but starting from scratch again and again is no way to live. Unless you become a thief, of course. A forgettable face can commit the perfect crime.

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North once again creates an unusual, original leading character, someone who exists in the familiar world but perceives it entirely differently through their remarkable gift or curse. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August depicted a character who time and time again relived his life, while in Touch we had someone who could transfer their life into the body of another with just a brush of skin against skin. And now we have Hope who, thanks to being infinitely forgotten, can suddenly appear and reappear in somebody’s life for the very first time.

There is another element to the novel, though. It’s not just about a thief who cannot be remembered, it is also about Perfection, an app that can take over a life, given access to every area of that life, including bank accounts, and awards points for every decision, behaviour and purchase that moves that person closer towards Perfection. Becoming Perfect – beautiful, wealthy, calm – opens up whole new areas of privilege, but at what cost? When someone that Hope cared for as a friend kills herself for not being able to achieve perfection, Hope discovers a direction and purpose for her criminal acts. She might not say as much (Hope is not one to tell us too much about her crimes) but, as the novel proceeds, we become well tuned to reading between the lines with Hope Arden.

We experience most of the novel through Hope’s eyes. She’s used to hiding much of what she thinks – the hurt at being forgotten by her parents isn’t easy to recover from. And we experience her coping mechanisms – the drive to define everything, to count everything. For most of the novel this works very well but I did find this becoming a little much during the final quarter as everything reaches its climax. It’s almost a stream of consciousness in some places and for the first time I found the book overlong. Nevertheless, for the most part, this narrative technique works well as we are utterly absorbed within the pain and challenge of being Hope Arden.

We’re given little time to get to know other characters in the novel but there are one or two that Hope becomes fascinated by, almost teasing to get some kind of lasting reaction, wanting to be remembered. There are other characters who are even as enigmatic as Hope herself. There is a strong mystery element to The Sudden Appearance of Hope and for much of the time Hope is as much in the dark as we are.

My favourite element of the book, though, is the world associated with Perfection. This ultimate app exerts an enormous power with such a force for corruption and I thought its depiction by Claire North to be every bit as original and fascinating as the creation of Hope. It could easily have been the subject of a novel on its own.

Hope is not an easy character to warm to. It’s hardly surprising. This is a woman who doesn’t experience the world as we do and yet how it makes her suffer. This is a deeply intriguing, clever novel, as I’ve come to expect from such an intriguing and clever author. When I hear of a new novel by Claire North I instantly want to read it. I know that I’ll be given something unusual, original, thought-provoking and memorable. I’ll remember Hope.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch

Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors by Conn Iggulden

Ravenspur | Conn Iggulden | 2016 (19 May) | Michael Joseph | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ravenspur by Conn IgguldenThe Wars of the Roses reach their conclusion in Ravenspur, the fourth novel in Conn Iggulden’s magnificent chronicle of late medieval England. History records the path to Bosworth Field and Richard III’s defeat by Henry Tudor and so you could read this final stage on its own but here is a series that demands to be read in sequence. By doing so you will follow the careers of Warwick and Edward from the very beginning, two young nobles, driven by thoughts of vengeance and destiny, who inherited their determination from their slaughtered fathers. Ravenspur tells us how finally it all came to an end.

It is 1470 and the tides have turned once again in the Wars of the Roses, a conflict that has caused harm to more than one generation. Warwick the Kingmaker is in supremacy, ready to open the door of Henry VI’s prison. Edward IV, grown indolent and fat through soft living, feasting and obliging maids, is put to flight. Edward barely escapes with his life. He flees with his brother Richard of Gloucester to the continent, leaving his pregnant wife Elizabeth to claim sanctuary from the monks of Westminster Abbey, in the heart of the lion’s den.

But, while this is a moment of triumph for Warwick, a man who feels he has been unfairly forced to turn traitor to Edward, his old friend and brother in arms, there is little he can do with Henry VI, a half-mad gentle man who can barely keep hold of his senses, let alone his crown. Henry’s ambitious and determined Queen Margaret hastens from her own exile in France to help her husband govern, prepared to unite with Warwick, an enemy of years’ standing. But she must move quickly. Edward and Richard are already stirring, regaining their prowess, becoming re-inspired. And when Edward and his men land at Ravenspur near Hull, Warwick must fight once again to turn back the tide. Meanwhile, in the wings, Henry Tudor, the last surviving Lancastrian heir, watches and waits.

Conn Iggulden is arguably peerless in his ability to understand and portray the motivations and inspirations of men and women who lived centuries ago. We are presented with the battles and the military to and fro of an even-handed conflict that took many years to complete but this series gives us much more than a dramatic and thrilling account of war, it takes us inside the heads and hearts of the people who fought it and endured it. It is often an intimate story, with the great stage of the battlefield mirrored by heated arguments in state rooms between combatants who knew each other far too well. It has become all too personal. We know well what Warwick and Edward have shared, the grief they still feel. While Warwick and Margaret are natural enemies, there is something tragic in the transformation of Warwick and Edward’s brotherhood into hatred.

There are other relationships explored here and they are fascinating – the one that stands out the most for me is the relationship between Edward and his younger brother Richard of Gloucester. Richard is a relative newcomer to this series due to his youth but in Ravenspur he comes into his own. Conn Iggulden’s interpretation of Richard’s character is a masterstroke, engrossing and full of surprises. I say surprises but there are moments here, especially one moment in particular, when I sat up in my seat shocked. It’s not often that a well-known historical figure surprises me in a novel, Conn Iggulden manages it more than anyone and here most memorably of all. The portrait of the young Henry Tudor, the founder of a new age, is also well worth remarking on. We’re used to seeing Henry VII portrayed as a penny-pinching dour and ageing king. It’s good to be given the chance to consider the younger man he once was, his unusual and malign childhood, a soldier who won his crown on a battlefield.

Ravenspur contains some of the most critical battles of the Wars of the Roses, notably the battles of Tewkesbury and Bosworth. We are carried into the heart of the battle, witnessing the effort, wounds and mortal suffering of both sides. Lancastrians and Yorkists are intricately linked by this stage of the war. There are so few members of these noble houses left. The battles are brilliantly drawn, violent, exhausting, desperate, unlucky or favoured. But in between the battles, the movement of forces from one war-torn part of the tired country to another, Ravenspur presents the story of a few individuals as they finally reach their destiny after such a long, painful fight.

Ravenspur, and the entire Wars of the Roses series, is historical fiction at its very best, taking the reader for a few glorious hours out of the present and into the past, informing, entertaining and inspiring by turn. It is a significant series. My view of Richard III has been altered forever by Ravenspur. That in itself is quite an achievement and there are plenty more to be found in this wonderful novel.

Other reviews
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)

The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

The Medusa Chronicles | Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds | 2016 (19 May) | Gollancz | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair ReynoldsCaptain Howard Falcon should never have survived when his dirigible, Queen Elizabeth IV, crashed to Earth in the 2080s. Something of an experiment, Falcon was saved by cyborg surgery that turned him into something other than a man, something other than a robot. It also turned him into a curiosity, a position that was compounded when, in the 2090s, Falcon sailed into the upper gaseous clouds of Jupiter on the Kon-Tiki, a balloon craft, where he observed swimming great leviathans, the ‘medusae’, preyed upon by ‘mantas’. Falcon was able to communicate with these enormous beasts and proclaimed them peaceful.

This is in Falcon’s past. Now the centuries are passing by. Falcon is continually changing, being ‘upgraded’ as his systems, organic and otherwise, degenerate. Other humans are able to defy the passing of time through genetic surgery, giving Falcon the chance to achieve friendships that last for many, many years, but for Falcon it is very different. He is transformed. And he now has a new role.

Falcon more than anyone has observed and encouraged the development of sentient AIs and many years later he is regarded as a mentor of the first self-aware robot, the aptly named Adam. Adam and others like him labour deep in space for their human masters but, when something goes wrong and Adam is forced by his programming to sacrifice many of his kind for the sake of human industry, Adam is unable to reconcile himself with the cost of his decision. He instructs other robots to down tools, the cost to humanity is crippling. Falcon is sent to negotiate, to develop this relationship between two not-quite humans on the surface of an alien world. But Adam’s journey to fulfilment and independence for himself and his kind will have such an impact on the whole of the human race that it is unlikely it will be able to survive. No longer trusting Falcon, more machine than man, as the centuries pass, humans need him more than ever – there is nowhere he can hide.

If I had to name one book that I was looking forward to more than any other in 2016, it would be The Medusa Chronicles. My appreciation of its two authors, Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, knows no bounds and just the idea of the two of them working together on a novel was enough to make me jump about. The fact that the book also develops a short story by Arthur C. Clarke was the icing on the cake – and what a cake it turned out to be.

With no hesitation at all, I can declare The Medusa Chronicles my favourite novel of 2016 so far. If I were to compile a checklist of everything I wanted from a work of science fiction, then this would tick every box and add some I hadn’t thought of. I firmly believe that you need to read this wonderful novel yourself to discover all of its many wonders and surprises but here are a few reasons why I love it so much and urge you to read it.

Falcon is a tremendous character. Not quite human but more than a human. He changes increasingly over the novel, becoming ever more adapted to life in space and less suited to Earth. At times a robot in appearance, at other times almost a giant metallic insect, but always the character and personality of Falcon remains. He keeps his love of the simple pleasures. He creates gardens, a place to remember people now dead, he can spend decades watching a plant grow. He flies in balloons and dirigibles (reminding me so wonderfully of the airships in Baxter’s other collaboration The Long Earth). He can relate to alien beasts, discovered so fantastically in our own solar system in Jupiter’s heavens. His explorations there are magical moments, very painful at times, beautifully described.

Falcon’s relationship with Adam is utterly fascinating. Adam becomes increasingly complicated, moving towards and then away from the term ‘father’. Learning guile, deception, ruthless in his schemes and yet still retaining affection for the race that created him and used him. The plans of the robots are mind boggling in their scale and ambition and effect.

There are wonders to be found here. We are taken on many diversions, spending time away on other worlds, sometimes on Earth, even under the seas. The authors’ love for nature shines through here, not least in Jupiter. I defy you to read these scenes and not have them stay with you. There are so many memorable moments.

The Medusa Chronicles is mesmerising, engrossing and beautifully written, its characters and dialogue imbued with wit and humanity, even after a great deal of time has passed and humans aren’t what they were. Even then, Falcon is a reminder of the past and many of them do listen.

I couldn’t tell you which author wrote which bits and that’s all to the good. It’s seamless but it certainly contains all that I love in the writing and imagination and vision of both Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds. Full justice has been done to Clarke and his original short story and I can only hope for more. My only greedy complaint is that I wish the book were longer. What there is, though, is wondrous and perfect.

Other reviews
Stephen Baxter
Proxima
Ultima
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett
The Long Earth
The Long War
The Long Mars
The Long Utopia
Alastair Reynolds
Blue Remembered Earth (Poseidon’s Children 1)
On the Steel Breeze (Poseidon’s Children 2)
Poseidon’s Wake (Poseidon’s Children 3)
Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap
Pushing Ice
Slow Bullets