The Eternity War: Pariah by Jamie Sawyer

Orbit | 2017 (28 September) | 439p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Eternity War: Pariah by Jamie SawyerLieutenant Keira Jenkins is an experienced member of the elite SimOps (Simulation Operatives) Programme. She can be sent into the most extreme military operations in a ‘skin’. Her body remains in a tank aboard a starship while her mind is transmitted into an enhanced artificial version of hers – bigger, stronger, glorious. But this body can still feel pain and when it dies, which is the inevitable conclusion to most missions, Jenkins revives in her original skin that still feels the residue pain and trauma of her recent death.

Jenkins used to be a member of the Lazarus Legion, the most famous of all SimOps forces, but now she leads her own troop – the Jenkins Jackals. The men and women she leads are new to all this, they have barely died at all, and so Jenkins is faced with the task of getting them into shape while also dealing with a new and potentially devastating threat to humanity’s recently won peace.

When Jenkins and her Jackals fail to achieve their mission when the Daktar Outpost is attacked, Jenkins is given no choice at all in their future. They are assigned to a vessel that is about to venture into deepest space, to the remote and near lawless North Star Station, which guards a legacy of the Shard, one of the Galaxy’s most enigmatic and feared aliens. The station guards a gate to a wormhole and on the other side, so many light years from home, true danger waits. But not all of the danger is on the other side. Humanity once more hovers on the edge of war.

Pariah begins The Eternity War, a new series by Jamie Sawyer that follows on from the now complete trilogy, The Lazarus War. The conflict between Earth’s different factions still simmers and the peace with the fearful alien Krell is as uneasy as ever. The edges of known space are lawless, control of the wormhole gates and the other artefacts left by the Shard is fiercely contested. And you can always find the SimOps in the middle of the heat.

We have a new SimOps team here, as ever a bunch of misfits but each with a fascinating back history and an attitude that could get them all killed. My favourite of the recruits is Novak, a Russian convict on ‘parole’ whose every moment is watched and monitored by a spy drone. And then there’s Feng whose origins are particularly intriguing and, one feels, with the potential to cause all sorts of trouble as the series goes on. In short, these are people with substance to them and a great deal of promise for the future. If they survive, of course, and seeing what they have ahead of them in Pariah, that’s no certainty at all. They might spend much of their time fighting in their Sims, but their bodies remain very vulnerable indeed.

The two characters I loved the most, though, are Keira Jenkins herself and Pariah. I’m saying nothing at all about Pariah but Keira is such an intriguing woman. We don’t know everything about her – there are more novels to come – but she is intent on doing the right thing, whatever the cost to herself. Here is a leader who would never leave one of her team behind even though she knows so little about them. She learns as much about them in this novel as we do. She’s a military force to be reckoned with but she has her vulnerable spots. She’s undoubtedly been traumatised by her countless mission deaths. They’ve isolated her and she stands alone with her thoughts. There are similarities with Captain Conrad Harris of the Lazarus War books but she does feel that little bit more human and vulnerable – likeable.

I really enjoyed the Lazarus War trilogy and I’m delighted to say that Pariah is every bit as thrilling and fast-paced. You don’t need to have read the first trilogy before but if you have then you’ll be glad to be given more in the same flavour. If you enjoy action-packed, well-written and well-plotted military science fiction, with terrifying aliens, space stations on the edges of the Galaxy, great technology, battles and intrigue, then I think you’ll love this. It provides perfect escapism and is a lot of fun to read. I’m so pleased that Jamie Sawyer is returning us to the dangerous world of the SimOps and the Krell, one of my favourite skin-tinglingly horrible alien species.

Other reviews
The Lazarus War: Legion
The Lazarus War: Origins


Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

Zaffre | 2017 (5 October) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldIt is 1670 and the Blood family is still reeling from the aftereffects of the Restoration of the monarchy 10 years before. Colonel Blood unfortunately fought for the Parliamentarians and, as a result, his Irish estates were given to the Duke of Ormande while Blood and his family were consigned to eking out a living in a cottage in Shoreditch, London. Blood is not a man to let such a thing go unavenged and his drive to destroy Ormande is his consuming passion. This means that Blood sees his family little, and supports them even less.

Blood’s young son Holcroft has few options. With no pleasure to be had at home he welcomes the opportunity to become a page of the Duke of Buckingham, Ormande’s great enemy. Holcroft might be little more than a bargaining chip in his father’s games but Holcroft accidentally discovers something he excels at – decoding ciphers. Promoted to confidential clerk, Holcroft finds himself in a position to observe the court of Charles II. And what a place it is. Ruled by sin and greed, here is a place for a young man to succeed, regardless of his past. His father the Colonel, however, has plans of his own and they could get them all killed.

Blood’s Game is the first in a new series by Angus Donald, whose Robin Hood and Alan Dale books have held me enthralled for years. With that series now complete, I’ve been waiting for what would come next. And it takes us to an entirely different period of history – the 17th century of the Restoration. But, as before, the line between wickedness and goodness is blurred and finding a path between the two is no easy thing to do. As with the Robin Hood books we here follow a character who could have been left to exist happily in the sidelines – in that case it was Alan Dale and here it is Colonel Blood’s young son Holcroft.

Holcroft is a fascinating character and not at all typical. As the afterword tells us, Holcroft has Asperger’s syndrome and this makes him stand out from those around him, including those he really should be trying to impress in order to get on in life. His attention to detail, his incredible recall and his inability to jest or to lie gets him into all kinds of trouble while also giving him opportunities to shine in the service of the thoroughly unappealing Duke of Buckingham. Unfortunately for Holcroft, he finds himself in a court ruled by sin, fierce rivalries and corruption. Watching Holcroft cope with that while also learning to play its game is a big part of the novel’s enjoyment.

The title is intentionally misleading. Colonel Blood’s plotting and his most infamous sting – his famous and historically true stealing of the crown jewels – do play an important role in the book but the games that give the novel its added edge and intrigue are those played out by Holcroft Blood.

Blood’s Game is a thoroughly entertaining historical romp, packed full of some brilliantly colourful characters. And chief among them is Charles II himself – I loved Charles in this novel! This is a man intent on enjoying himself but his run ins with his famous mistress Barbara Villiers are scene stealers. Wigged scoundrels abound in this novel – the Earl of Rochester doesn’t come out of this very well – but I particularly liked its women – Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and also the playwright Aphra Behn. The fact that these extraordinary men and women existed in real life make it all the more wonderful to read about them here. No quarter is given. We get them warts and all. Especially with warts.

The only downside of the novel for me is Colonel Blood. I really disliked him and did not like spending the time with him, or the whole crown jewels escapade. But I do understand that this was an important part of setting up Holcroft for Blood’s Game and future books to come in the series. I hope we’ve seen the last of him. I could also have done without some of the swearing but I know that this is a thing of mine, that I’m particularly squeamish with certain words.

Angus Donald is a favourite novelist of mine (you only have to look at my list of reviews below!). I love the way that he fills history with colour, character and adventure. He writes so well and he creates people I want to read about and spend time with. Following the Alan Dale books was never going to be easy – how could it be? They’re spectacularly good – but I think he’s done a fine job with Blood’s Game, which has all the signs of developing into a future favourite series. Holcroft Blood is such a strong character and his future is an exciting one and I can’t wait to follow it as he takes us away from the court of Charles II and onto the battlefield.

Other reviews
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin
The Death of Robin Hood

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (26 September) | 715p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen KingIn the near and very real future, a virus is sweeping the world. When women fall asleep they do not wake. Their bodies produce a threadlike substance that wraps them up like mummies in cocoons of their own making. If their frightened menfolk disturb the wrapping, they don’t usually live long enough to regret it. Inevitably the virus reaches the small town of Dooling in West Virginia. Dooling is dominated by its women’s prison. Its inmates are stricken one by one but there is one woman, a recent arrival suspected of a terrible crime, who can both sleep and wake up. As the men of the town try and fail to cope without their wives, mothers and daughters, they turn to the prison and this mysterious woman who surely holds the answer and can make life normal again. A few women are doing all they can to stay awake, especially Lila, Dooling’s sheriff, but sooner or later all women must sleep and when they do the men can only wonder where they have gone.

A new Stephen King novel is always a big event but Sleeping Beauties is a book that I was determined to read the day it was published. There’s something about this story that really appealed to me and it reminded me of classic King – the American small town stricken down by something otherworldly and horrifying. And also the impact of such extraordinary events on the ordinary. Often the most terrifying elements of such a novel aren’t the supernatural, ghostly or monstrous, but the men and women whose base characteristics thrive when normality breaks down. This is what we get here and I loved it.

Sleeping Beauties is a tale of two worlds – the sleeping world of the women and the waking world of the men and it is the society of men that breaks down almost completely. That doesn’t mean that all of the men are to be hated. Most are just frightened and lonely. Others are doing the best they can in awful circumstances, like Clint Norcross, the prison psychiatrist who has no choice but to take over the running of the prison. But there are a few who are truly evil. Predators in every sense. And they run wild. Interestingly there are a couple of other men, one in particular, whose morality one feels can still be saved. His acts are motivated by love. He just doesn’t know how how to control the situation. Nor does he know his own strength.

Dooling is so wonderfully described. It feels very real and it is richly populated by many memorable characters who come and go throughout the novel – there’s a handy list at the beginning. It feels as cut off as any other place in a Stephen King novel. There’s that same claustrophobic sense of confinement – quite literally in the prison. But that spreads into the women’s situation. They have been given the chance to escape it. What they see is marvellous, different and beautifully described by the authors. This you must discover for yourselves.

Sleeping Beauties is a father and son production. I’m not familiar with Owen King’s work but I found this novel’s writing and prose seamless and the fact that it was a collaboration did nothing to dispel my initial feeling that this is classic King. This novel felt both disturbing and comforting – a strange combination. I haven’t really got on with Stephen King’s novels since the utterly superb 11.22.63, one of my favourite novels of all time, and so it felt wonderful to immerse myself in a book that reminded me of everything that I have loved about Stephen King. It’s a long book, as all his best books are, and yet I hung on to every page, taking my time, and appreciating where I was being carried.

Sleeping Beauties is rich in people’s lives. There are so many strands to follow. Some end in tragedy while others are almost comical and grotesque. But at its heart is the devastating impact of a world of sleeping women. This affects people in different ways but it strikes at the core of them all, whether they are male or female. And that is just one of the many reasons why Sleeping Beauties feels like a significant book – Stephen and Owen King make us take a good look at the human condition. Whether we like what we see is another matter entirely. But the horror these women feel – their determination to do anything to stay awake for hours and hours and hours. That’s something we can all empathise with and fear.

This is a truly beautiful hardback. Underneath each slipcase hides a drawing of one of the strange creatures that we encounter through Sleeping Beauties. There are several to choose from but all are gorgeous.

Other review

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2017 (5 October) | 364p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1865 and Elsie Bainbridge carries the cares of the world on her shoulders. Married just months before, her husband Robert has died and she has little choice but to head to his crumbling country estate, The Bridge, where she will give birth to their child. The villagers are hostile and the servants are suspicious and unfriendly. Fortunately, Elsie has her husband’s cousin Sarah for company. They will come to rely on each other very much in the lonely months ahead. But perhaps they are not as alone as they might think.

When Elsie sets about getting to know her new home, she and Sarah come across a locked garret. Inside they find a diary dating from the 1630s and a wooden figure that looks disturbingly familiar. It is, she learns, a Silent Companion. Soon Elsie’s nights are disturbed by strange sounds. The servants insist there’s a nest of rats hiding in the walls. Elsie isn’t so sure – it sounds like wood being worked, being moved.

Interspersed throughout this wonderfully creepy, superbly Gothic novel are extracts from the diary which take us back in time to 1635 when Anne Bainbridge was mistress of the house. At that time everyone was hugely excited because King Charles I and his Queen were intending to spend a night at The Bridge. Everything was going so well…

I love haunted house stories and The Silent Companions was a book I couldn’t wait to read. I’d been told that it was genuinely frightening and so I settled down to read it late one evening. In fact, I only read this book at night. This isn’t a book for commutes and lunchtime reads – it deserves to be read by lamplight, when every sound seems louder in the quiet night. It’s a hugely atmospheric read. The Bridge is a fine example of a rickety, old and unloved Gothic mansion. It creeks. Its wood feels alive. And in its midst are Elsie and Sarah. We fear for them.

The sections from the 1630s are every bit as engrossing as the Victorian chapters. And the characters are just as intriguing, if not more so. Told in Anne’s own words, during these sections we are immersed in the past and it’s a dangerous and fearful place indeed.

I had two very late nights with The Silent Companions. I didn’t want to put it down and I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It certainly gave me the heebie jeebies and made my spine shiver. I love that feeling! It’s dark, tragic and, at times, deliciously scary, but it never goes overboard. The emphasis here is on Elsie and Anne and what this house, so claustrophobic and dark, does to them, two centuries apart. It’s quite a tale, full of Gothic wonders. I must also say that the hardback is gorgeous inside and out.

The World of Supersaurs: Raptors of Paradise by Jay Jay Burridge

Supersaurs, Bonnier Zaffre | 2017 (21 September) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Supersaurs: Raptors of Paradise by Jay Jay BurridgeIn this world the real stars of the nature world are dinosaurs. They never died out. Instead they have evolved into countless different types, of all colours, sizes – and moods. Some make attractive and cute pets, some (especially the large and ungainly) are excellent beasts of burden, others are just too mean to be anything but scary dinosaurs. But in special parts of the world, particularly the Indonesian island of Aru, they are fabulous. These are the raptors of paradise, with their beautiful feathers and elaborate courtship rituals. They tempted Bea’s explorer parents to the island. Unfortunately, that was the last that was heard of them. And now Bea has come to the island along with her redoubtable grandmother in search of…. Bea isn’t quite sure what but it’s soon very clear that they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Raptors of Paradise is the first of six novels aimed at young readers [it specifies ages 9-12] – although doing everything right to pull in this slightly less young reader. I adore dinosaurs (who doesn’t?) and I certainly feel that, just like dinosaur jumpers, hoodies, slippers and plushies, they’re just as appealing to the young at heart as they are to the young in body. And this book immediately entices, not least for its stunning black and white illustrations (by Chris West and Jay Jay Burridge) which fill these pages and bring Bea and the dinos to roaring life. The illustrations (and the rest of the book) are also interactive if you go to the app. This wasn’t yet available when I read the book but you can find out about it here:

The story itself takes us back to the glory days of exploration and reminds me of Indiana Jones as well as some of those early David Attenborough programmes. Even David Attenborough would have his hands full with these critters (although I think he would have done them proud, obviously). The adventure is very exciting, punctuated by a full host of dinosaurs as well as baddies, and then there’s the island terrain and weather… Not to mention the odd human inhabitants. They’re the ones you have to watch.

I really enjoyed this. The illustrations make it, they really do. There’s so much to look at. But I also enjoyed the adventure, the courageous and determined Bea, her slightly intimidating grandmother Bunty and her very handy friend Theodore Logan. And I certainly enjoyed the dinosaurs – which are all listed and described at the back of the book. All in all, it’s a long way away from the Oxfordshire countryside that Bea is used to. I think young readers will absolutely love this!

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Orbit | 2017 (28 September) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Provenance by Ann LeckieIngray Aughksold has something to prove. Her mother Natano, an important politician on the planet of Hwae, adopted Ingray years ago, also adopting Danach. But only one of them can inherit Natano’s name and influence. Danach, a man who can charm as well as he can sulk, is easier to like and so Ingray is convinced that he will be the chosen one. Unless she can do something spectacular. And so Ingray steals someone, Pahlad Budrakim, from Compassionate Removal, a truly dreadful prison for those destined to become the unliving and the forgotten. Pahlad is suspected of stealing vestiges, Hwae’s most prized and symbolic historic relics from the early years of its settlement. Handing him over along with instructions on how to recover these treasures will lift Ingray in her mother’s estimations and do rather the opposite for Danach – no bad thing at all.

Unfortunately Pahlad, when she gets him aboard the starship (owned by the most unusual captain) bound for home, insists that he is not Pahlad at all! And to complicate matters a major conference is just about to take place that holds the future of humanity – and a fair few other species – in its hands. As ambassadors make their way to the conference, mostly via Hwae, the authorities, including Natano, are getting twitchy. Ingray has picked the wrong time to draw all this attention to herself.

Provenance is a standalone novel that takes place in the same Radch universe, although at a later date, as Ann Leckie’s award-winning Ancillary Justice series. Some elements of the novel will be familiarly unfamiliar – the nemans, the other gender, who use e and eir and em for their pronouns. There is also the pleasing disregard for sexual and gender stereotypes. But otherwise I found Provenance quite different in its style and tone.

Provenance is a lighter tale. As well as being less dark, it’s also arguably more accessible and comfortable. The risk to humanity that hovers around the edges is real and menacing but it doesn’t form the main subject of the novel. The story instead hovers around the loss of the vestiges and the murder of a representative from the planet of Omkem. But with the interference of other species, especially the brilliantly unusual Geck, there’s a strong sense that civilisation is barely holding itself together.

I absolutely loved all the wordbuilding and details – the spaceships, the food, the intriguing ruinous glass on which Hwae is built, and the clothing. I wanted much, much more of this. Ingray clearly dresses elaborately and her hair is held back in unruly braids with hairpins that she constantly loses. I wanted to know more about the background to this. The culture and society are elaborate and we get hints of that, especially in the ways that adoption and becoming an adult work but I wanted more. And the history of the vestiges. What is all that about? This is such a rich universe and there is room in Provenance to mine it much more deeply. I also wanted to take a trip to the Geck planet. How amazing that place must be. And then there’s the mechs. I expected this strand of the story to develop much more than it did. And I really wanted to know more about the conference and the horrible alien threat.

Provenance promises so much and its ideas are spellbinding. But its emphasis throughout is on discussion. Everything is talked to death and this holds up the action and also risks the fascinating becoming dull. The last third picks up when events come to a head but, again, there is endless talk.

Luckily, though, we have the character of Ingray who is marvellous and it’s for her – and the rather strange captain – that I persevered until the end of the book. Ann Leckie has such vision and I loved the novel’s tantalising glimpses of it but on the whole I found Provenance equally frustrating and intriguing.

Other review
Ancillary Justice

The Zealot’s Bones by D.M. Mark

Mulholland Books | 2017 (21 September) | 247p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Zealot's Bones by DM MarkIt is 1849 and Canadian Diligence Matheson has arrived in Hull to search for the bones of the apostle Simon the Zealot, believed to have been buried somewhere in Lincolnshire following his execution by the Romans in their fort at Caistor. With Matheson as bodyguard and companion is Meshach Stone, a former soldier who is tortured by his experiences of war in Afghanistan. Both men find themselves in another hell on Earth. The city of Hull is gripped by an outbreak of cholera that is wiping out almost whole families and streets, leaving behind the wails and torment of the bereft. Stone has hopes of finding redemption in Hull but instead he finds dead the woman he so wanted to love. There are so many dead but this woman’s death was not through cholera – she was murdered. And she is not the only one. Driven almost mad by his need for vengeance, Stone must hunt down the murderer in a city where Death roams freely and hell awaits around every dark corner.

David Mark is familiar to many as the author of the McAvoy contemporary police detective series but in The Zealot’s Bones he picks up the reins of a historical murder mystery for the first time – and I am so glad he did. The Zealot’s Bones is nothing short of brilliant and is one of the finest historical novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.

The writing is superb. This is a dark, gruesome and twisted tale and through it walk the damned and the afflicted. And David Mark brings both the locations and characters to life with the most gorgeously vivid prose. The dialogue is wonderful and often extremely witty as we know well that what a character says need not be at all what he or she means. This is an age of manners and etiquette and sometimes not even murder is allowed to interfere with that. When one memorably odious character meets Matheson and Stone, he utters ‘I… extend the hand of welcome, even if I would rather chew it off’ and this sums up the hypocrisy of this impoverished, plague-ridden and cruel Victorian world. It also made me chuckle.

Stone is a fabulous creation. In many ways he believes that he is as evil as the monster he hunts and his body is as scarred as he believes his soul must also be. We’re taken deep into his troubled mind and it isn’t always a gentle place to be but there is a kindness about Stone, a willingness to change his life, that makes his experiences here all the more painful and meaningful to read about. His relationship with the rather lovely and charming Diligence Matheson is tender and enjoyable. I loved Diligence’s quest for the Zealot’s bones. He’s so easily distracted but he too has something to prove.

There are some fantastic characters in The Zealot’s Bones, whether they’re good or evil. The ratcatcher is quite a scene stealer and there are other intriguing men and women who make brief but colourful cameos. The murders are horrendous, their victims utterly pitiful and the murderer an abomination. This is gruesome stuff and I found it impossible to tear my eyes away. And all is set against the most perfectly described backdrops of a city devastated by death and mourning and a wonderfully creepy country house, likewise caught in the grip of something dreadful and disturbing. Increasing the mood are Stone’s haunted memories and dreams of his experiences in Afghanistan. It’s all mesmerising and every line of fine prose does its job to hook the reader in and keep them there.

I hope so much that Meshach Stone returns. If he does, that book will go straight to the top of my reading pile with no shadow of doubt.

Other reviews
Dead Pretty