Category Archives: Review

Crime catch up: Natural Causes by James Oswald

These days I am dabbling in the dark and murky world of crime – well, crime fiction anyway. This means that at regular intervals I’m investigating a range of authors I’ve not read before and trying to do some catching up before reading their brand new releases. I’ve been wondering whether to review these or not. I like to review whatever I read, whether the book is a review copy or a bought copy, but my reading has got a little out of hand over recent months, leaving me to chase my own tail. So what I thought I’d do would be to steer a middle course and do brief reviews of these books, just to give you an idea of the authors I’m discovering and so I can recommend some titles I’ve enjoyed. These will be my Crime Catch Ups. It’ll actually take me some time to catch up on the catch ups so without further ado here’s the first:

Natural Causes by James OswaldNatural Causes by James Oswald
In Natural Causes, James Oswald introduces us to Tony McLean, a recently promoted Detective Inspector in the Edinburgh police force. Rivalries within the force are intense and when a leading local figure is found in his home brutally gutted with his throat slashed the case is judged too high profile for such a new inspector. But then work at a building site uncovers the remains of a young girl, horrifically and ritually slaughtered. She is mummified, her murder having taken place perhaps sixty years ago or more. McLean becomes obsessed with identifying the victim and tracking down at least one of her killers while they still live. And while McLean digs, more and more men and women die, either in terrible violence or as a victim of their own hand. McLean begins to realise that however illogical and fanciful it might seem the young girl who lay forgotten for all these decades might after all hold a key to some of the mysteries that have shaken the city.

Natural Causes is the first in a series and so it’s vital that Tony McLean hooks us. He does just that. McLean is an interesting character, a single man with a past and some intriguing friends who come and go, often sleeping on his sofa after a night out in Edinburgh’s pubs. McLean’s parents were killed when he was just a child and he was raised by his grandmother who, as Natural Causes begins, is gravely ill in hospital, approaching the end of her long life. McLean doesn’t work on his own. In this book, McLean is building his team, from old colleagues (who now have to call him ‘sir’) and from new. The boss keeps an eye on him, caring and stern. The pathologist Andy Cadwaller is quite a character, which is just as well considering how many bodies he has to work on through Natural Causes. But it’s best to avoid DCI Duguid.

I thoroughly enjoyed the mysteries at the heart of Natural Causes. I did guess whodunnit a little earlier than I’d hoped but this didn’t spoil my fun. Gore and horror are liberally splattered through the book but never too much, even for my delicately squeamish nature. The plot is intricate, deliciously twisty and, to make this a little bit different, there is a hint of the supernatural. This might not be to everyone’s taste – and it wasn’t entirely to mine – but it was kept to a low level and it did fit quite well with the mood of the novel and its investigations. Edinburgh is a great backdrop, both menacing and enticing. The mood of the novel is likewise both dark and humorous, warmed by some of its key characters. I was left wanting much more.

You can tell how much I liked Natural Causes – I bought the other four books in the series that same day.

Buy the book.

Rome’s Lost Son by Robert Fabbri (Vespasian VI)

Publisher: Corvus
Pages: 368
Year: 2015 (5 March)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Rome's Lost Son by Robert FabbriReview
It is AD 51 and Vespasian is more powerful than ever. Now consul of Rome, Vespasian is riding the wave of success that followed his capture of infamous British warrior and rebel Caratacus. It would appear to all that the new consul could rise little higher in the favour of Claudius, emperor and conqueror of Britannia. But this is imperial Rome, a political and moral quagmire, and Vespasian is learning that he may be safer subduing the tribes of Britannia than attempting to understand the machinations of Claudius’s latest wife, Agrippina, or enduring the battle for supremacy between Claudius’s two freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas. Indeed, it’s soon clear that Vespasian’s consulship is little more than an empty gesture while, rather intriguingly, Caratacus’s fortunes in his adopted city soar. Difficult times. It’s just as well, then, when Vespasian gets a little push out of Rome.

Vespasian is despatched eastwards to Armenia, to sort out an irritating problem of succession, a situation which has also caught the attention of the Parthians. Rumours circulate that Agrippina is trying to stir up the East, aided by the rise of a troublesome new Jewish cult. Vespasian’s brother Sabinus, Governor of Moesia, Macedonia and Thracia, has mucked up his plan to thwart Parthian ambitions. It’s now up to Vespasian to to fix his family honour, to sort out the East, and satisfy at once all of the political powers of Rome.

Rome’s Lost Son is the sixth novel in Robert Fabbri’s outstanding depiction of the life, career and times of one of Rome’s most successful (depending on how you judge success) emperors. Despite the fact that the novel is a sequel to those that went before, continuing the stories of some of Rome’s most fascinating leading figures, Rome’s Lost Son could be easily read as a stand alone novel. But if you have read them one after another then you will have the added benefit of watching Vespasian’s character develop.

Vespasian is much older now and he has spent a great deal of time in the company of some of Rome’s most corrupt. We’ve encountered Tiberius, Caligula and Messalina in their full and shocking colour in previous novels and in Rome’s Lost Son it becomes clear that Agrippina and her terrifyingly self-aware son Nero may take that corruption to new depths. A man cannot serve this Rome for decades and not be touched by it and there are signs now that Vespasian has been changed. For the first time he is looking ahead. He knows the prophecies surrounding his destiny and he’s begun to believe them. This alters his behaviour and makes Rome’s Lost Son a thoroughly absorbing portrait of the effects of evil on a man who is, or was or could have been fundamentally good.

Hand in hand with this character portrayal goes an action-packed plot that is completely absorbing. We see Vespasian as never before. In the East he must endure experiences that are overwhelmingly powerful and disturbing to read. Vespasian does indeed become lost. There are scenes here that are beautifully written, made all the more so because we have grown to know the man. But it’s not just Vespasian. We learn about the men around him, his relationship to his men and to his slaves. It’s a wonderful mix of grand politics on one hand and simple human relationships on the other.

There are some scenes in Rome’s Lost Son that would be hard to forget, several of them involving the imperial family. There is deep tragedy. It’s a truly terrifying portrait and the colour that it adds to this novel is intense, just as previous novels were lit by their portrayals of earlier mad emperors and their kin.

Robert Fabbri is achieving great things with this series. He manages to surprise me with each novel, always finding an unusual perspective or taking me down a totally unexpected path. The character of Vespasian builds in each book and the fact that we know he will finally become emperor adds to the marvel of how he survived these extraordinary years. This is a wonderful series and Rome’s Lost Son is one of its best with a conclusion that is outstanding. I can’t recommend it enough.

Other Reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome

Blood Infernal by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell (The Order of the Sanguines 3)

Publisher: William Morrow/Orion
Pages: 406
Year: 2015 (Import Hb 10 February; UK release 21 May)
Buy: Hardback (10 February), Kindle (21 May)
Source: Bought US copy

Blood Infernal by James Rollins and Rebecca CantrellReview
With Blood Infernal, the tour de force that is the Order of the Sanguines trilogy comes to a powerful and fitting conclusion. What began with The Blood Gospel and continued with Innocent Blood ends here. If you were to pick up Blood Infernal without having first read the two preceding novels then we would have to have words – not a page of this finale would make sense without having followed The Woman of Learning (Erin), The Warrior of Man (Jordan) and The Knight of Christ (Rhun) through their earlier trials and torments. Spoilers for the first two books are inevitable below.

Blood Infernal follows hot on the heels of Innocent Blood. The stage is set for the return of Lucifer, the way prepared by Legion, a demon that combines within his stolen form the darkness of 666 damned souls. Erin, Jordan and Rhun must chase the clues left by alchemists and kings hundreds of years before to discover the location of Lucifer’s return and defeat him. This journey takes them from the belly of Rome and Venice to the medieval centre of Prague, the forests and mountains of the Pyrenees, and much further. All the time the power of the evil strigoi builds while more and more Sanguinists are destroyed. Very little time is left. Countess Elizabeth, one of the most infamous of all the strigoi and one of the most entertaining characters within these pages, chooses to help our army of three – perhaps because for once in her interminable life she has her eye set on saving the life of an innocent. Not that this makes her much safer to have around. But by this stage of the struggle it is possible that the angels themselves have begun to take notice.

I am no lover of vampire tales, on the contrary, but I am a huge fan of the storytelling genius of thriller master James Rollins. I approached the Order of the Sanguines trilogy with some trepidation only to discover that Rollins, along with his co-writer Rebecca Cantrell, had brought out all of his thriller writing weaponry, putting it to use from the very first page, hooking me instantly. All of the ingredients I love from the Rollins Sigma stories are here – historical twists and mysteries, strong and believable characters, adrenalin-pumping action, fabulous and exotic locations, cataclysmic and even apocalyptic threats, and, holding it all together, superb dramatic writing. With all that in play, I’m prepared to put up with vampires and demons, especially when they prowl beneath such a well-visualised Rome or hide within ancient European forests.

Blood Infernal is the conclusion. By now we are deeply invested in the story of Jordan and Erin as well as Elizabeth and Rhun, not to mention young Tommy who has endured so much. We are caught up in the fate of the brave and strong Sanguinists, plus the connivance and plotting of their papal masters. By this stage, the reader needs it all to end well. And it does. The ending was both touching and powerful, completely satisfactory, if a little emotional. It’s not easy letting these people go.

Arguably, Blood Infernal doesn’t achieve the heights of its predecessors. I think that’s because this is a book about bringing everything to a close, leading characters and plot to a state in which we can leave them. Legion is no match for the presence of Judas in the previous novel and Tommy plays a much more minor role here than before – I missed him. Likewise, Rhun has seen about as much character development as he’s going to, but that didn’t make his world any less fascinating. In fact, in Blood Infernal, we see much more of the Sanguinists in their preferred state and there are some very powerful moments, not least when they sing to disguise the heartbeat of Erin within their most sacred enclave. We also learn more about the nature of the Sanguinist curse – there is more to their existence than the rule of the church. There is hope despite this bleakest of curses.

Blood Infernal is a page-turning ride from start to finish. Exhilarating and thrilling, it achieves all that I expected and wanted. Inevitably, when it finished, I was left sad. This is it – over! But that is a mark of how much I have enjoyed this trilogy, even buying in hardbacks from the US so that I can read them sooner. The writing of Rollins and Cantrell together is seamless – a great achievement – and I hope that this is not the last we see of their collaborative efforts.

Other reviews
The Blood Gospel (The Order of the Sanguines 1)
Innocent Blood (The Order of the Sanguines 2)

Sigma Force thrillers
The Devil Colony
Bloodline
The Eye of God

Giveaway! Signed copies of The Black Stone by Nick Brown

This 26 February is an extraordinary day for book releases. I don’t think I’ve known a day like it. But one new paperback release stands out – The Black Stone by Nick Brown. This fabulous addition to Nick’s Agent of Rome series featured in my top ten historical fiction list for 2014 and I cannot sing its praises enough.

The author has very kindly offered me two signed paperbacks, hot off the presses, to offer as giveaways on For Winter Nights. If you’d like a signed copy (and you live in the UK or Ireland), please send an email to me at forwinternights@gmail.com by the end of next week (Friday 13 March) or tweet @Wetdarkandwild. And here is why you need to read this book.

The Black Stone by Nick BrownReview
It is AD 273 and ‘grain man’ or spy Cassius Quintius Corbulo is stationed in Bostra, the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, growing accustomed to his military rank while bemoaning the absence of his manservant, Simo. Simo might be a slave, and a Christian one at that, but Cassius has never been able to shrug off his affection for the man who can anticipate his every need. A visit to Simo’s father, though, has overrun and Cassius is losing his patience. His ex-gladiator bodyguard Indavara is still by his side but even he, a man of few words, is showing signs of trying to shake off his ties to Cassius. It’s almost just as well, then, when spymaster Abascantius turns up with a new, perilous mission for Cassius and Indavara.

The Black Stone, an object believed to conduit divine powers, has been stolen from Roman hands, which is unfortunate because emperor Aurelian is determined he needs it to sanctify his rule. Cassius is tasked with gathering a troop of Roman soldiers to go undercover as a merchant and his guards to trace the stone into the desert. The quest will begin in the city of Petra where, it is believed, an agent may have some clues for them (if the local gangs haven’t killed him first for his gambling debts). All the time, though, they hear stories of a new chief in the hills, supported by a tall blond giant and an old woman, who is gathering the local tribes to him. It doesn’t take an imperial agent to work out that Rome has a new enemy.

The Black Stone is the fourth in Nick Brown’s wonderful Agent of Rome series and this one is a little different to its predecessors. At almost 500 pages, it is by far the longest and this means that extra time is given to the action adventure element of the story and the increasingly involved relationships between Cassius, Indavara and, once he returns, Simo. For me, this is a particularly strong feature of the novel and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more about Simo and – especially – Cassius and Indavara.

The action part of the novel is extremely exciting and well-plotted, which is what you’d expect from Nick Brown after three other excellent Roman adventures, but while I did enjoy the mystery and enigma of Ilaha and Gutha, I was enthralled by the developing drama between Cassius, Indavara and Simo. During the later stages of the novel, this grows to great heights and there were tears – a fair few of which were mine. Both Cassius and Indavara are very young men dealing with events completely out of the ordinary. Simo is the man who could keep them sane but, as his allegiance turns increasingly to Christ, Cassius has to deal with this and he doesn’t like it. All sorts of questions about slavery are raised here.

Honour and bravery also play their part as many of the characters, those with both large and small roles to play, are placed in positions where they have to question their loyalty to their leader, their families, their emperor or chief and their gods – as well as to their own memory. All of this contributes to a tale that is both exciting and poignant in places.

Religion as a theme gets considerable attention in The Black Stone, not just the Christianity of Simo but also the cultism of Ilaha and the more formal Roman religion of Cassius and his men. Indavara continues to be confused by other men’s relationships to their gods but here, in his own worship, another side of Cassius is glimpsed. These large themes are lightly placed into the novel and it raises the adventure into something very memorable. Its ending leaves the reader crying out for more and I have no doubt that this wonderful series will continue to grow from strength to strength.

Buy The Black Stone

Other reviews and features
Agent of Rome I: The Siege
Agent of Rome II: The Imperial Banner
Agent of Rome III: The Far Shore
An interview – The Far Shore

Good luck!

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 375
Year: 2015 (26 February)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate HamerReview
All it takes is just a moment for every parent’s worst nightmare to come true. Beth, a single mother, takes her eight-year-old daughter Carmel to a local children’s festival – a magical place where children are entertained by storytellers, their imaginations encouraged to soar. Beth only takes her eye off Carmel for an instant, her daughter wriggling her hand free to assert her independence, but that’s enough. Carmel is taken. While Beth runs around the festival in a desperate search, trying to comfort herself that at any moment she’ll see her girl in the bright red coat, Carmel is in a car being driven through many dark miles through the night by a man who claims to be her grandfather. Her mother is badly injured, he tells her, her father is too wrapped up in his new family to care, Carmel is better off with him and his wife, somewhere far, far away, leaving her mother to recover in peace.

The Girl in the Red Coat is an emotional and at times desperately sad tale of a child’s disappearance, told in the first person by both the mother and the child. We watch the agony and displacement of both as the days tick by, never forgetting the other, while having to cope with an unwantable future.

Any concerns that this might venture into the grim territory of sexual predation, somewhere I wouldn’t want to follow, is soon dissipated. Although The Girl in the Red Coat is indeed grim in places – how could it not be with a child as its victim – this is a very different kind of story. At its heart is the strong, clever, brave Carmel. This little girl is lovely to spend time with. Her predicament and her courage are heartbreaking to read. She describes everything she endures in her own words, as well as her trust in this ‘grandfather’, but reading her own words of having to sleep in the dark, with no electricity, no comfort, tears the heart. At the same time we have the mystery of the grandfather and his wife – what do they want with Carmel? What does she mean to them?

Kate Hamer does a wonderful job of putting us into the shoes of this lost, frightened little girl, not just at the beginning but also as time goes by and Carmel has to re-evaluate everything about herself. She is an extraordinary young girl but it’s only as the days pass that we learn in how many ways she is different. There’s another side to the story, though. That is the dark place occupied by Carmel’s mother, Beth. Beth becomes a searcher, a woman whose eyes never stop watching for traces of red coat. The world is closed around her as she withdraws into her pain. But, again, Kate Hamer skilfully shows us, through Beth’s own thoughts, that space expanding as the days drag by. Other people are drawn into Beth’s world, just as others join Carmel.

Reading The Girl in the Red Coat is very sad at times but it’s not without its moments of lightness. Carmel is a fantastic observer of people and situations and she finds the humour, as well as the absurd, in both. There is also always hope.

The Girl in the Red Coat is an immersive novel to read. It’s extremely atmospheric and very hard to put down once picked up. I would argue that it’s best read in one or two sittings. It’s as its best with the outside world kept at bay. In that way Carmel can work her magic.

Those Above by Daniel Polansky

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 400
Year: 2015 (26 February)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Those Above by Daniel PolanskyReview
Superhuman, beautiful and near immortal beings – the Others or Those Above – conquered mankind three thousand years ago. Humanity now lives dispersed among several kingdoms or republics, a brittle peace maintained between them thanks to the scrutiny of these four-fingered, vain and pampered Others. Many humans, though, live within the Roost, an enormous mountain of life divided into a pyramid of five rungs. Within the Fifth Rung, the Barrow, live the poorest of the poor among sweatshops, slums, bars and prostitutes, all controlled by gangs, where a dreary short life is lived to the slurping sound of the pipes and pumps that shift the water from the neighbouring sea and lakes into the canals that flow upwards to the higher reaches of the Roost. At the top, within the First Rung, are the beautiful castles, gardens, aviaries and canals of the Others. There they live a glorious life, perched high above the rest of the world, as if they were the most gorgeous of birds. Around them live their human slaves, many of whom can no longer see beyond the paradise that surrounds them. And yet to the Others, humans are less than nothing. They are insects and their lives are insignificant, their deaths even more so.

It is time to stir it up. It is thirty years since the last great battle between humans and the Others. At that time a human soldier, Bas, fought and killed with his own hands one of Those Above, an extraordinary feat, still remembered. At the same battle, the husband of Eudokia, now the chief priestess and venerated mother of the nation of Aelerians, lost his life. The years since have been long but now Eudokia is in a position powerful enough to seek vengeance. Nobody else has the power or ability to tempt down Those Above from their perch. Bas, her General, might be just the man to help. Meanwhile, in the First Rung, high above this human plotting, Calla lives a privileged if subservient life as Seneschal to the Aubade, the Lord of the Red Keep. Through Calla, the mysteries and foibles of Those Above are revealed, at least a little. In the Fifth Rung, there is Thistle, a young boy making a name for himself in the only way possible in the Barrow – spying, thieving, even killing for one of the gang leaders. But even down here in the depths of society, something is stirring. A movement is spreading, the movement of the five fingered against the four, and someone like Thistle is more than ready to listen.

Those Above is an extraordinary novel. It opens a new epic fantasy series in spectacular fashion, gripping the reader from the very beginning through its brilliant worldbuilding, setting the stage for what is to come in the most satisfying and yet tantalising manner. These four individuals are our guides to this strange and yet oddly familiar world – Thistle, Calla, Bas and Eudokia. Each of these four has a unique voice, their experiences are enormously different but each is full. The novel divides itself equally between the four, moving from one to another after almost every chapter. It’s difficult to choose a favourite but I think I was most intrigued by Eudokia and Calla. Eudokia’s plotting is first-rate while Calla provides a viewpoint into the world of the Aubade and I was captivated by it. All of the narratives introduce a whole range of characters and while this is slightly overwhelming at the beginning it soon becomes one of the novel’s richest rewards.

The novel itself is beautifully written. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the paradise world at the top of the Roost, but I also liked the clever use of bird imagery that runs through the novel. The book is punchy in pace, the dialogue is excellent (especially Eudokia’s) and the characters are fabulously varied. I’m not a big reader of epic fantasy but there was something about the idea of this book that appealed from the first time I heard of it – it feels like a future Earth, ruled over by alien beings in a society that seems ancient in origins. The birdlike imagery is matched by the classical and medieval ideas – the armour, costumes, the rulers and their slaves, the court politics, the almost Roman or medieval squalour of the Barrow, the duels and the full-blown battles. It all seems fantastic but also strangely real and appealing.

Throughout Those Above I wanted to know more about this world, its past and what is to come. It’s an opening novel in a series and so there is a lot of preparation and worldbuilding but, perhaps because of the novel’s fluid movement across all areas of the world, it is done in a wonderfully effective way, providing more and more – both beautiful and ugly – to marvel at. Those Above succeeds enormously in its aim to get the reader hooked on the series. It is a fabulously realised and satisfactory novel in its own right but its climax points us like an arrow to the second novel and I cannot wait to read it.

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 405
Year: 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Wolf Winter by Cecilia EkbackReview
It is 1717 and Maija, Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea journey from Finland to make a new life for themselves as farmers and shepherds on the slopes of Blackåsen mountain in the remote Swedish Lapland. Few families live on the mountain, their few houses lying scattered and distant. The nearest town is deserted for most of the year, with only the priest and the last priest’s widow to keep an eye on its empty buildings. In the winter, though, this place changes into something unrecognisable as the snow and ice seal it within a deadly iron grip. Most of the settlers move into the town for a few short weeks while the indigenous Lapps come down from the highest reaches of the mountain to camp at its base.

Towards the end of summer Frederika and Dorotea come across the body of a dead man on the mountain side, his torso split from end to end. While some see in this the work of a wolf or bear, Maija recognises it for what it is – murder by human hand. She’s not alone. The priest, too, another outsider, suspects the worst. Maija and the priest are strangers on Blackåsen mountain, unaware of the complicated relationships that exist among the scattered settlers on the mountain. Maija and the priest begin to dig, egged on by the local bishop. But life on the mountain is precarious. The weather turns and early frosts destroy the harvest. The mountain has secrets as does almost everyone else who lives on its slopes but this worst of dark winters – a wolf winter – will seek them out.

Wolf Winter is a chilly tale, bleak in its coldness, the characters adrift in the snow, enduring winter starvation, isolation, suspicion and now deadly violence. With so few people on the mountain, relationships can be too close, but it is only when strangers arrive that the true nature of all that is wrong fights to the surface. The narrative moves among the settlers, spending time in turn with Maija, the priest and Frederika. Through each of them we are introduced to other characters, most memorably the murdered man’s widow, the Lapps and the noble couple that has chosen to live the remotest of exiles. Frederika’s perspective is especially powerful due to the added isolation caused by her youth.

It’s not just the mountain that’s dangerous. The outside world threatens with its calls to war. There is a strong sense that nowhere is safe and no future is certain.

The mystery is almost secondary to the wilderness and its inhabitants. Cecilia Ekbäck has created a harshly beautiful vision of an environment that is cold enough to chill the pages as much as the bones. The language is gorgeous. The characters are exquisitely drawn, especially the children Frederika and Dorotea. There is a particularly dramatic incident that has a grave impact on Dorotea and her family and this is brilliantly, painfully described. The enormous effort that is required just to survive is immense and Cecilia Ekbäck makes us feel every bit of it. But in this environment anything can happen and we are surrounded by its threat. The drama of survival goes hand in hand with the murder mystery, while in the shadows we have the spectre of war, the scar of which has traumatised more than one soul on the mountain. This is a bleak world. The secrets almost compete in their effort to shock. As the novel proceeds, they tumble after each other, one after another.

Wolf Winter takes a little while to pull the reader in – this is a strangely unfamiliar world – but once the winter falls, its haunting power and beauty mesmerises.