Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

Macmillan | 2018 (6 September) | 532p | Review copy | Buy the book

Salvation by Peter F HamiltonA crashed alien spaceship, emitting a beacon signal, has been located on the distant planet of Nkya, a world with no life. Nkya might be many light years from Earth but the investigative team should need no more than forty-eight hours to reach it, thanks to portal technology which has made travel to and between stars a reality. Humanity is now settled widely across the Galaxy on planets in various stages of terraforming, helped along by the technology of the Olyix, an alien civilisation whose arkship Salvation of Life is now anchored a lightyear from Earth for a lengthy pause on its journey to the end of the universe.

The Nkya investigative team of five specialists is not a happy one. Some knew others from before and can only wonder why they have been placed together – for there is hatred here, suspicion and fear. But there is more for them to dread than they might think. One of their number is believed to be a hostile alien. It is imperative that they are not allowed to discover the secrets of the crashed spaceship. It is only by getting to know each other that the truth might be revealed and so they tell each other stories about their past, revealing their tangled histories.

On another world, far in the future, a small group of young people are being trained in the art of war. Their ultimate mission, their destiny, is to take on the greatest fight. Their task is to defeat the greatest enemy of humanity. But before they can do that they must grow and learn the skills that they will need if they have any hope of triumph at all. The odds could hardly be worse.

A new novel by the science fiction master Peter F. Hamilton is cause indeed for celebration and when a copy of Salvation arrived there could be no doubt that it would go straight to the top of my reading mountain. I love Hamilton’s books. Pandora’s Star is quite possibly my favourite novel, while his Night’s Dawn trilogy is my favourite series. I couldn’t wait to read Salvation – the start of a new trilogy in a whole new world – and it is nigh on perfect and sets up the next book in the series brilliantly.

The structure of Salvation works so well. Our eyes and ears on the unpleasant planet of Nkya is security officer Feriton Kayne. It’s through him that we observe the histories of our specialists, including those of Yuri Alster and Callum Hepburn, two men whose hatred for one another knows no bounds. So how are they supposed to work together now on this crucial mission? We will learn both sides of their extraordinary story. It’s through these narratives that we learn about this future world set about 200 years from now. The ability to divide and settle new planets has divided humanity. New religions and politics have developed. There are utopian societies, there are militaristic governments, there is secrecy and suspicion everywhere. The differences between genders might have been blurred but the age-old problems of being human are as apparent as ever. And the presence of the Olyix hasn’t helped even if these benign aliens have given people the technology to enhance and improve the lives of humans.

The stories we hear are so intriguing and immersive. I did wonder how I would settle to a long novel that shifts its narrative so often and so entirely but such is the power of Peter F. Hamilton’s storytelling that this didn’t become an issue. It reminded me in such a good way of the Night’s Dawn trilogy where we spend extended periods on one world and then must adjust to another. Likewise, in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton showed himself to be the master of the extended anecdote or aside. The universe we are given is huge and inviting, dangerous and exciting, warm and compassionate, hostile and alien. I love where we are taken. There are some absolutely fascinating ideas presented here, especially concerning portals. Imagine a house in which every room can be on a different continent, a different planet, each with extraordinary views.

I was seduced by the chapters set in the far distant future. There is a scene here that took my breath away and left me in tears. These people are so different from us, their bodies altered, their concerns and aspirations changed, and yet they feel the same fears, the same desolation. The descriptions of their planet are so compelling. It all feels so real and yet so extraordinary. And the mood of foreboding and menace is so intense.

It does take a while to become familiar with the main characters because there are quite a few of them and there is a fair bit of moving backwards and forwards in time and across places. But the reader’s attention is rewarded many times over. I liked these people. The changing perspectives means that our feelings can change as we see the bad and the good in the same person. It makes the story so rich but also extremely exciting as we are given murder mysteries, love stories, mythologies, science fiction – how I loved our tour of the Olyix starship – and the main story, which only slowly emerges, is utterly compelling and mysterious. I am desperate to know how it will be continued.

Salvation might be part one of a trilogy but it is an enormous achievement in its own right. I loved every page. As usual with Peter F. Hamilton, his books can never be long enough for me. I read it slowly, savouring all of its many directions and flavours, always finding myself back on course after following one of its many divergent trails. This is science fiction at its best and knowing that there are more Salvation books to come makes me very happy indeed.

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn 2)
The Naked God (Night’s Dawn 3)
The Dreaming Void (Void Trilogy 1)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers 1)
Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers 2)

I couldn’t be more delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour, and on publication day, too! For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Salvation blog tour

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The Angel’s Mark by S.W. Perry

Corvus | 2018 (6 September) | 418p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Angel's Mark by SW PerryIt is 1590 and Elizabeth I’s rule is under threat. The Spanish Armada is only recently defeated but the threat continues, perhaps in an even more sinister way. The danger has gone underground in the form of hidden priests who preach sedition to the Catholic subjects of this excommunicated Queen. But, of course, not all Catholics are traitors and Elizabeth is content for many to pay their fines and live their lives in peace, as long as no priest is hidden within their walls. It’s the job of Robert Burleigh, son to Elizabeth’s most powerful minister, to seek them out and he’ll use any means in his power.

Physician Nicholas Shelby has fallen on the worst of times but he finds his salvation in the most unlikely of ways. A young boy has been pulled out of the river, murdered, a strange symbol carved into his leg. This little child couldn’t walk. He was especially vulnerable and Nicholas grieves for him. With the help of Southwark innkeeper Bianca, Nicholas will find justice for him. And then another body is found and it won’t be the last.

The Angel’s Mark is S.W. Perry’s debut novel and it’s a corker. It certainly helps that he’s picked such a fascinating period in English history in which to place a very strong mystery and he does it justice. Elizabethan London, especially that part of the city that lay to the south of the river, where the inns, theatres, bear-baiting pits and brothels could be found, is brought to life so vividly. And Nicholas, as a physician who chooses to treat the poor, is perfectly placed to show it to us in all of its colour and foulness. But it’s among the rich and powerful that the true danger lies.

The mystery is such a good one and this sad story is told beautifully. We get to know a fair few people very well indeed and there are some that really stand out, such as Bianca, John Lumley and his wife Lizzy. The Lumley home is nothing less than Henry VIII’s grand Nonsuch Palace and I loved the descriptions of it. What a place to live in! Our glimpses into the terrors of the Tower of London are equally memorable but for other reasons. But it’s the character of Nicholas Shelby who dominates this novel and he is such a likeable if troubled hero.

There are good themes here – the nature of Tudor medicine and surgery, the role of women in business, the place of Catholicism in Elizabethan society. It’s all done very well indeed.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Bantam Press | 2018 (6 September) | 462p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonHammer of Rome is the ninth and (sighs) final novel in Douglas Jackson’s magnificent series featuring Gaius Valerius Verrens, our one-armed Hero of Rome who has taken part in many of the Roman Empire’s greatest campaigns during the second half of the 1st century AD, most memorably in newly-conquered Britannia, in Judea, in the deserts of the East, in Spain, and in Rome itself. I’d urge you to read the other books before Hammer of Rome – if you have you’ll be fully invested in watching Verrens’ journey come to an end after all these years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is AD 80 and Valerius is in Britannia doing what he does best – leading a legion. Back at the head of the Ninth Legion, Valerius is ready to go wherever governor Agricola sends him and it looks as if the long overdue invasion of the north is about to get underway at last, building on Valerius’ previous success against the Brigantes. Rome wants to remove at least one legion from Britannia but, before that can happen, the quarrelsome Caledonian tribes must be defeated. But it looks as if a new potential leader has arisen to unite the tribes together against the Roman threat from the south – King Cathal, known to the Romans as Calcagus – and he wants nothing more than to wipe out Rome’s legions and steal their eagles and their honour.

If only all Valerius had to deal with was Calcagus…. The emperor Vespasian has died, succeeded by his son and Valerius’s great friend, Titus. At last, Valerius and his family can make plans for the future. They can even see a future. But waiting in the wings is Ttitus’s younger brother Domitian and Domitian hates few men more than he hates Valerius. That future is about to be snatched away.

I read Hammer of Rome with excitement (I started it on the day it arrived) and sadness. I have no desire to see this series end. I’ve read it for almost ten years. I can’t tell you how much I’ll miss it. But I couldn’t wait to see how the story of Valerius will end. I’m certainly not going to reveal what happens but I will say that the ending is thoroughly fitting, an enormous achievement in its own right.

The action sequences are as meticulously researched and as exhilarating as ever. Valerius is not the man he used to be when it comes to warfare. He’s much older, he’s more irreplaceable, and he can be more cruel, but he is also far wiser. Nevertheless, he still has moments of extreme recklessness. Only now he is prepared to accept that this cannot continue. One of the elements that I really liked about Hammer of Rome is that Cathal isn’t particularly presented as an enemy – instead he is shown to be a worthy opponent. We spend time with him. We like him, as does Valerius and his fantastic scout, Gaius Rufus – surely one of the best characters in the entire series. The Romans aren’t presented as civilised any more than the tribes are presented as barbaric (although one of the last remaining Druids, and one of the most revolting characters of the series, might have something to say about that). This is a story of conquest after all, a cruel and violent act. Valerius is a man of his time but he is aware of his responsibilities to be as fair as possible.

Hammer of Rome is such a wonderful novel – Valerius is mature, middle-aged, a family man and a man well worth knowing. The battle scenes are as thrilling as ever but so too are all the other scenes, including the chapters scattered throughout that take us back into the heart of a Rome that is becoming very dangerous indeed. There are new characters to enjoy here but we also meet some familiar names while there are quiet moments to remember those who are now gone.

Douglas Jackson is one of the finest writers about today, irrespective of genre. This series is a glorious achievement and so too is the book that completes it, Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens will be missed, although it does mean that readers can now enjoy the full story in its entirety though each of the nine books.

I read the first book, Hero of Rome, before I began reviewing and so for the sake of completeness – and because I really wanted to! – I’m re-reading it. Its depiction of Boudicca’s Revolt and the storming of the great Temple of Claudius is peerless in Roman historical fiction, in my opinion (only rivalled by the siege of Jerusalem in Douglas Jackson’s Scourge of Rome, the sixth book in the series). I cannot wait to read those scenes again. A review will follow shortly. And so if you haven’t read any of this series yet, the timing couldn’t be more perfect, with all nine marvellous books laid before you.

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

Thrillers written as James Douglas
The Doomsday Testament
The Isis Covenant
The Excalibur Codex
The Samurai Inheritance

Head On by John Scalzi

Tor | 2018 (19 April) | 335p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Head On by John ScalziSome years have passed now since the supervirus that left a small percentage of the population in a waking coma, unable to move and communicate but still aware. These people are known as the Haden, named after the virus’s most famous victim, the First Lady of the United States. With so many people suffering from ‘Lock In’, ways were developed to give them expression. The Agora is a virtual reality society in which Hadens can create their own safe place. An alternative is to transfer their consciousness into a sophisticated robot, a threep (name after C3PO), which can take a place in the physical world.

One of the most famous threeps in the world belongs to FBI agent Chris Shane, who at one time had been a poster boy for Hadens, a source of hope, the son of very wealthy parents who nevertheless prefers to work for a living, investigating crimes against, and committed by, fellow Hadens. Partnering Shane is Leslie Vann, a formidable character with her own Lock In experience. And they have quite a case on their hands. Hilketa is a game taking North America by storm, so much so that the rest of the world is taking an interest. Teams of Hadens take each other on with hammers and swords, their goal is to cut off an opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. Violent, gory even, yet with no risk of death. The audience is transfixed. Until the day when a headless Haden falls, killing its Locked In operator in his bed. This is impossible. It certainly can’t be an accident. Big money is at risk. The stakes are high. More will die.

John Scalzi is such a wonderful writer of science fiction. His books are guaranteed to lift the mood as he finds extraordinary, human stories in such fabulous circumstances and settings. Lock In was a top read from 2014 and I’m so pleased to have Head On as its follow up. You don’t need to have read Lock In first but I really recommend that you do. It’s a fine novel and it sets the Haden stage perfectly for what happens here.

The plot is such a good one. On one level this is a sophisticated, intricately plotted and pacey crime novel. It’s an enjoyable mystery in its own right but in almost every single way it stands out. Firstly, for its fantastic start on the Hilketa playing field with a sports report on the match which cost one of the players his life. This is edge of your seat stuff. But the main difference is because of Chris Shane, a unique individual whose body lies in a cradle in his parents’ home, lovingly cared for, while his mind spends its days in a threep working as an FBI agent. It’s all so brilliantly depicted and real. We get all of the fascinating details about how it all works, how Haden can move from threep to threep, how they live and interact with friends and family, how they are discriminated against by the state now that new laws have come in that have removed the state’s obligation to care for them. The fact that our narrator is Shane himself really adds to our understanding of his condition. It’s all deeply involved and compelling. As is the case that Shane and Vann must work to solve.

There are some big and serious themes but Head On is also a book full of lightness, humanity and fun. John Scalzi is such a witty writer and he’s filled Shane and Vann with personality, as he has Shane’s threep housemates. They’re such a funny bunch and that’s even before Donut the cat makes his presence felt. You need to read this book for Donut the cat. We don’t spend too much time in the virtual Agora world but the time that we do is so well spent. I loved these sections.

I loved Lock In so much and Head On is every bit as good. Shane and Bank are such an unusual yet brilliant pair of FBI agents, like none others you’ll meet, and the near future in which they operate is perfectly realised. And it’s all so much fun!

Other reviews
Lock In
The Collapsing Empire

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter

HarperCollins | 2018 (6 August) | 470p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Pieces of Her by Karin SlaughterIt is August 2018 and it’s time for 31-year-old Andrea (that’s Andy to you and me, but not to her mother) to make some decisions about her future. It’s time for her to leave the family home once again and stand on her own two feet. At least that’s what her mother Laura thinks. And it’s right in the middle of their discussion about this in a shopping mall restaurant (surely not the right time or place for this debate, Andy thinks), when a young man walks in and shoots dead another mother and daughter standing nearby. The gun is then trained on Laura and Andy. With barely time for hesitation, Laura kills the boy with his own knife. Andy cannot believe her eyes. She looks at her mother and no longer knows who she is.

And this is just the beginning. As events escalate, Andy has no choice but to go undercover, to run for her life while chasing the truth about Laura. In so doing, Andy will not only learn who her mother is, she’ll also learn lessons about herself. If she can stay alive, that is…

Pieces of Her is the latest stand alone thriller by Karin Slaughter. I absolutely loved The Good Daughter and so I have been really keen to read this, snapping up the rather lovely hardback to supplement my review ebook copy. Once more we have a novel that puts a family under scrutiny – the crime or mystery at the heart of the book secondary to its portrayal of a family divided by secrets and shocked into action by sudden violence and trauma. The premise of Pieces of Her is compelling.

The narrative is divided between the present day adventure of Andy’s cat and mouse chase across much of the United States and another story set in 1986. I’m not going to say anything about that but it is in these sections that the truth can be found. I’m not sure that there are any surprises here in what happens but it’s certainly compelling and the pages fly through the fingers. I love books divided in this way.

I really enjoy Karin Slaughter’s writing. Her depictions of these small towns in America, the great distances between them, and the people met along the way, are all done so well. My one issue with the novel was with the character of Andy. I know that she’s trying to find her own voice, to establish her independence, essentially to grow up, but you can see why she annoys one character in particular. She certainly irritated me with her unfinished sentences, her laboured thinking – sometimes it’s as if she has lightbulbs pinging above her head – and her fumbling around. Andy feels very young for her 31 years. I realise that this is all purposefully done, Andy is supposed to be like this, but it does make her a pain to be around. Laura is a much more interesting person to spend time with. She too has her agonising moments of indecision but there’s a good reason for it in her case. I did enjoy the psychology behind Laura’s personality, as opposed to Andy who was just irritating. I also had some issues with a male character who keeps popping up in Andy’s storyline.

Pieces of Her is a substantial novel at over 450 pages but it is such a fast and furious read. I found it very difficult to put down and read huge chunks in one go. I think Karin Slaughter is a fascinating writer. I love her portrayals of (most) people and places, her understanding of both. It all seems very real and it’s engrossing.

Other review
The Good Daughter

Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 | c.80p | Bought copy | Buy the ebook

Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey DavisYears ago, Larius, nephew of Marcus Didius Falco, the most famous of Rome’s private investigators, ran off to set up shop as a fresco painter in Pompeii, located in the Bay of Neapolis where many of Rome’s rich and powerful have their holiday homes, all with walls in need of painting, especially since that dreadful earthquake a double of decades ago. There’s more than enough work to keep Larius busy. And to keep his mind off his troubled marriage. His wife now lives with their children in Herculaneum, although he’s so pleased that his daughter is currently keeping him company in Pompeii. Women aren’t supposed to have careers but she is a dab hand with a paintbrush. Larius shares his room with Nonius whose mind is on far murkier subjects than art – unless it’s a work of art he can steal and sell. Nonius is the type of rogue who thrives on disaster – he’s in the right place then.

In Vesuvius by Night, a novella (of about 80 pages), Lindsey Davis lets us know what happened to Larius after he left Rome. As the year is AD 79 and the setting is Pompeii and Herculaneum, it’s no spoiler to reveal that a volcanic eruption of catastrophic proportions might be involved. And so we’re given one interpretation of events as experienced by Larius and his family and by Nonius.

The story isn’t really long enough to immerse us fully in events and also we’re kept detached from characters by the third-person narrative. Nevertheless, this is a gripping account of a truly terrifying disaster. And what makes it particularly painful to read at times is that Lindsey Davis draws on the evidence of archaeological remains – much of which is actually human – to put flesh on the bones of people whose final positions are known from their plaster casts and skeletons. People are included here who actually lived and who died during these awful moments of hell on earth. I found it impossible not to be moved.

These people that we meet are for me the more significant aspects of Vesuvius by Night and outdo the stories of Larius and Nonius. Maybe that’s because fiction can’t compete with the reality of what actually happened when the evidence of it is now so familiar and evocative. There’s also something about the story of Nonius, that I can’t mention as it would be a spoiler, that caused me pain.

Lindsey Davis knows her history and archaeology – this novella is packed full of the kind of details of which I can’t get enough and she uses them to great effect. Therefore, if you focus on the setting, the building of the tension, the power of our hindsight, the devastation of the eruptions, then you will be drawn right back to this terrifying time, so vividly described by one of our finest writers of historical fiction.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero
Pandora’s Boy

Kiss of Death by Paul Finch

Avon | 2018 (9 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Kiss of Death by Paul FinchThe Serial Crimes Unit is under threat. There’s every chance that it will be disbanded and it’s unlikely that any traditional police force would welcome a maverick risk-taking detective like DS Heckenburg (that’s ‘Heck’ to you and me). Cold Crimes are feeling the heat as well and so a plan is forged to combine their efforts in such a way that will ensure their survival. For Operation Sledgehammer they are going to catch some of the country’s most high profile and feared multiple offenders, the murderers and rapists who have committed crimes so heinous that not even other criminals will have anything to do with them.

Heck and his boss (and ex-girlfriend) Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper are given one of the nastiest men to catch – armed robber Eddie Creeley. The problem is nobody seems to know where he is, even his sister is worried about him, and it would seem that he’s not the only one on the Operation Sledgehammer list of nasties to have disappeared. It’s almost as if somebody is trying to beat the police to it…

Kiss of Death is the seventh novel in Paul Finch’s excellent DS Heckenburg series. I’ve loved all of these books, including this one, and yet there’s something a little extra special about Kiss of Death. Heck has been doing some thinking about his future and what he wants. Perhaps it’s time for a change. If you’ve read the other books that you’ll appreciate the long and troubled history between Heck and Gemma. If you haven’t, then you’ll have no problem catching up. The book works well on its own. But if you’re invested in these characters, then you won’t want to miss Kiss of Death.

Kiss of Death has a great premise and it fully delivers on it, gradually revealing the true magnitude of what Heck and his colleagues are up against. It also means that Heck and the others are given something unusual to think about – the welfare of villains who have wasted no pity on their victims. How far will Heck go to protect a killer? It adds a depth to novel that is also full of interconnecting threads and lives. It’s all held together so well by Paul Finch who, as always, knows how to deliver a great plot. He also knows how to frighten – there are some disturbing, even scary, scenes here and moments of violence. But none of it’s gratuitous. We need to understand the evil that Heck and the others face.

There are shocks to be found in these pages and we know that they will have repercussions for the future. I can only wonder where Paul Finch will take Heck, and us, next. I can’t wait.

Other reviews
Hunted (Heck)
Ashes to Ashes (Heck)
Strangers (Lucy Clayburn)
Shadows (Lucy Clayburn)
‘What seven things you should know if you want to write crime fiction’ – Guest post

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Kiss of Death blog tour poster