Memento Mori by Ruth Downie

Bloomsbury | 2018 (1 April) | 408p | Review copy | Buy the book

Memento Mori by Ruth DownieRoman citizen and former military doctor Ruso is now living a settled life on the northern fringe of the Roman empire on what is effectively a major building site – Hadrian is building his Wall – alongside his British wife Tilla. Their customs might be different but life is good especially now that they have Mara, their adopted baby daughter to worry about. But life takes a jolt when an old friend Albanus, Ruso’s former clerk, turns up exhausted after the huge effort of rushing up all of the way from Aquae Sulis (now Bath) to bring Ruso some disturbing news. The wife of Ruso’s best friend Valens has been found drowned in the sacred springs and her father has accused Valens of her murder. The governor is due to visit Aquae Sulis in just a few days and Valens will stand trial before him. There’s nothing for it. Ruso, his wife, child, his entire entourage, must head south in a hurry to prove his innocence. Hoping, of course, that he is actually innocent.

Memento Mori is the eighth novel in Ruth Downey’s hugely entertaining and, I think, really rather sophisticated Roman mystery series featuring Ruso and his independently-minded and rather flakey wife Tilla. The author does a fantastic job of bring the Roman empire to life during the 2nd century AD, especially Britannia. After Ruso’s adventures in Rome itself during the last novel Vita Brevis, I enjoyed seeing Ruso’s return to the homeland of his wife and the ancient city of Bath or Aquae Sulis, with all of its strange customs, brought to life.

At the heart of the novel is Aquae Sulis itself, a magnet for some of the strangest people of Roman Britain, straddling as it does beliefs from both ancient Britain and from the Roman Empire. Druids and Roman soldiers live side by side, with wild priestesses even forming romantic liaisons with grouchy old Roman centurions, and any problem is believed solvable with a spell or a curse. This is a great setting for a mystery and Ruth Downie does such a fine job of filling the streets, temples and baths of this well-known archaeological and historical site with living, breathing people.

I did find that the mystery itself took second place to the superb setting and to the novel’s mood. It is clear that so much research has gone into telling this story right but it’s used lightly. This is wonderful prose, laced through with wit and warmth, and it’s a joy to read. Memento Mori is one of those novels that you pick up and before you know it you’re sucked in to it, loving the way in which it’s written. There are also so many details about Roman life in Britain – religion, death, marriage, rituals, daily life, slaves, soldiers, natives and occupiers – there’s something going on in every direction.

I’m such a fan of this series. I love Ruso and I am warming to Tilla (she does have an alarming tendency to just wander off, here with a shovel) and so these are books I always look forward to. And they look so handsome! Ruth Downie writes so brilliantly and I love the Roman world as we see it through her eyes and those of her Roman doctor, Ruso.

Other reviews
Semper Fidelis
Vita Brevis

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Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn

Tor Books | 2018 (1 July) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Drop by Drop by Morgan LlywelynIn the small American town of Sycamore River something strange is happening. When Nell Bennett tries to withdraw money out of the Sycamore and Staunton Mercantile Bank cashpoint, her card isn’t just chewed, it turns to mush. And then the pens in the bank begin to ooze. You could almost laugh it off but reports on the TV suggest that these random occurrences aren’t limited to Sycamore River or indeed to the United States. In the weeks to come people will look back and know that this was the time when the Change began – when plastic around the world, bit by bit, drop by drop, began to melt.

Drop by Drop is a wonderful book and curiously not at all what I was expecting from its description. It does indeed tell the tale of what happens to a small town when plastic disappears from life, as well as hinting at the repercussions of this phenomenon in a wider volatile world, but this is essentially a novel about how the people of Sycamore River face this challenge and do their best to overcome it. The fact that the Change doesn’t happen at once but is instead an evolving situation really adds something very intriguing to the story.

This is a novel driven by a large cast of fabulous characters. We’re given the time to get to know so many of the inhabitants of this small town, especially the people who work in the bank and their families, scientists, vets, retired people, people keeping quiet about what their jobs actually are, newspaper publishers, and then there’s their offspring. So many lives and I became caught up in them all. I love Morgan Llywelyn’s writing, the way that he makes each character, whether male or female, young or old, individual and unique. Some are likeable, others are far from it, but they’re all interesting, and they’re doing all sorts of incredible things during the Change – you either adapt or you don’t. And some do fall by the wayside and occasionally in the most unexpected ways.

This is a science fiction novel, though. It’s set at some point in the near future. People rely on their AllCom’s for communication, cars are self-driving, but generally life is as we know it. In fact there is a general nostalgia for the old days (when cars had less plastic in them and all of your data wasn’t stored on a device that could melt into useless sludge in just a moment). I liked the fact that many of the characters in Drop By Drop are older, not that this makes all of them wiser.

There’s a message in here clearly as we’re shown what life can be like when plastic oozes out of our lives. How it can be catastrophic, apocalyptic even. So perhaps it’s time we found alternatives? But there’s nothing preachy about the message. This is a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing read from start to finish. This is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait for the next book, which is set up very well indeed.

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Harvill Secker | 2018 (28 June) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth WareHarriet (Hal) Westaway is at her wits’ end. Since her mother died, Hal has eked out a living reading tarot cards and telling fortunes on the pier at Brighton. But she’s got nothing left and now a loan shark is after her. Then, out of the blue, a letter turns up from a solicitor offering her sympathies for the death of her grandmother and advising her that she is one of Mrs Westaway’s beneficiaries. But Hal’s grandparents died over twenty years ago. This isn’t possible. They’ve got the wrong person. But what if she were to pretend to be the right person?

As Hal makes her way to Trespassen House in western Cornwall for the funeral, her feelings are in turmoil and they only get worse when she meets Mrs Westaway’s sons and their families, not to mention their terrifying housekeeper. It’s so easy to be sucked into this life, to tell one more lie, but there’s something unloved about this decaying once grand house. And in its overgrown gardens and cold rooms, secrets refuse to stay hidden.

The Death of Mrs Westaway is such an atmospheric and moody read. This is largely due to the setting, which is wonderfully visualised by Ruth Ware. Trespassen House is remote, it takes trouble to reach it – and to leave it – and it affects everyone who has ever lived in it. This is a creepy and disturbing tale and it grips from the outset.

What I enjoyed more than anything, though, is the novel’s heroine, Hal. Hal is a fantastic creation. She is believable and is always very likeable. She is facing impossible choices and it’s hard to blame her when life has become such a struggle, through no fault of her own. Despite having very little, she is generous and kind to a fault, and when she does her tarot readings she believes that she must care for her clients, that she’s doing them some kind of service to move their lives along. The members of the Cornish Westaway family are also memorable but more than anything they are curious and I enjoyed getting to know them.

This is a psychological thriller and so we’re given twists and surprises but I actually found the mystery secondary to the setting and the characters. I guessed much of what was to happen but it didn’t matter because I was enjoying Ruth Ware’s writing so much. I’ve liked some of Ruth Ware’s novels more than others but The Death of Mrs Westaway is certainly one of my favourites and a real return to form after The Lying Game. I love atmospheric reads, especially when they’re set in this part of Cornwall that I adore so much, and The Death of Mrs Westaway is an immersive pleasure from start to finish.

Other reviews
The Woman in Cabin 10
The Lying Game

Lancelot by Giles Kristian

Bantam Press | 2018 (31 May) | 498p | Review copy | Buy the book

Lancelot by Giles KristianIt is time for the island’s people to reclaim the land once ruled by Romans. The great stone buildings, the luxurious villas now crumble, but the roads still march armies on to face their foe – the Saxons are the enemy these days. Lancelot as a boy was brought from across the sea to the Mount, off the coast of the land now known as Cornwall, and there he was taught by the lady Nimue to become a guardian, to develop the skills of a knight, to nurture a bird of prey that fought against him every moment of the day, and it was there that he met Guinevere.

The story of Lancelot is a familiar one but it’s difficult to think of any author more gifted to retell his story than Giles Kristian, one of the most lyrical and poetic writers of historical fiction that you can read today. All of the story of Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur – surely the most famous love triangle of myth and literature – can be found in these pages and, even though we know the outcome, it is given new life in Giles Kristian’s Lancelot.

The story is told from Lancelot’s point of view, from his earliest years and through disaster, grief and pain, through to his time on the Mount, where he first learned the meaning of rivalry and vengeance while learning the skills that would make him the greatest, most noble knight of King Arthur’s court. Arthur’s story is also given prominence. His rise to power through competition, war and cunning. The way he drew men to his side. The seeds of disaster that he sewed.

Lancelot is a story of war, the fight to become the king of kings in this newly abandoned land, but it also tells the tale of love, jealousy and desolation. Guinevere is a marvellous character in her own right, a warrior, fiercely independent and yet inevitably a pawn as all young noble girls would be, but also a beacon of inspiration.

Giles Kristian writes so beautifully. He brings these post-Roman years so vividly to life. I love the way in which the recent Roman past haunts this landscape. There is myth here, there is the Druid Merlin, and we’re reminded of many of the famous Arthurian legends, such as Excalibur, but Giles Kristian evokes a time rooted in history and in the land around us even now. I must admit that I’m not a fan of modern retellings of the Arthurian legend (possibly because I studied medieval Arthurian literature for my degree and loved it very much indeed) and so this isn’t a subject I find easy to read. But this is a Giles Kristian novel. I trust him and will always read everything he writes. His writing comes closest to the feeling, mood and beauty of the Old and Middle English verse that I love so much. It also feels much more like historical fiction than fantasy.

There is power here, deep expression and enormous feeling. I cried and cried as the story ended in the only way it could. If you haven’t read any of Giles Kristian’s novels before, do read this and then make sure that you read his stunning Viking series, Raven.

Other reviews
God of Vengeance (Rise of Sigurd 1)
Winter’s Fire (Rise of Sigurd 2)
Wings of the Storm (Rise of Sigurd 3)
Raven: Blood Eye; Raven: Sons of Thunder; Raven: Odin’s Wolves
The Terror: a short story
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury
With Wilbur Smith – Golden Lion

Gate Crashers by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Tor | 2018 (1 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Gate Crashers by Patrick S TomlinsonThe Magellan or ‘Maggie’ is Earth’s first vessel to travel deep out of our solar system. It’s taken decades for them to reach this far, every year out another sacrifice for its captain and crew who will not see their families alive again. The only real time constant they have is a method of communication with Earth that is so advanced, it’s almost beyond their understanding. But otherwise Captain Allison Ridgeway and her crew are on their own. And then they discover the artefact fixed in space. It’s clearly non-human. It has unintelligible inscriptions on it. It’s just what the crew of Maggie has been after – the answer to that question asked by the people of Earth since time began: Are we alone in space? No, we’re not. Oh dear.

The technology of the artefact is extraordinary and, when Earth hears about it, the powers that be want to understand it, to recreate it, to make it their own. And so another vessel joins Maggie, this time using alien technology to reach the Maggie almost at once. As new and old spacefaring technology collide and they all finally realise the significance of this enigmatic, powerful artefact, survival becomes paramount. It appears that Earth has rather annoyed the creators of the artefact, it’s trodden on some toes and kicked off a rumpus that could have catastrophic consequences. The people of Earth might mean well but perhaps the rest of the universe can’t be bothered.

The premise of Gate Crashers is so fantastic, I couldn’t wait to read it. It fully delivers. I love a space romp with mysterious artefacts, even more so when they bring about that first contact with enigmatic aliens. But what makes Gate Crashers unusual and particularly successful is that here we have a science fiction novel that is full of humour and actually makes me laugh. This is really unusual! I’m a huge fan of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels and any attempt at humour in space since then has fallen flat for me. Gate Crashers clearly has the feel of a homage to Hitchhiker’s, while also going for the fans of the genial and wonderfully easy going spacefaring novels by Becky Chambers, but it also works in its own right. There are plenty of jokes here aimed at those who’ve read a lot of science fiction but, more than that, Gate Crashers is such an entertaining and warm space adventure with moments in it that made me roar with laughter.

The characters are fantastic, whether they’re human or not. Gung-ho Maximus Tiberius isn’t somebody you’d forget in a hurry, however much you might try, while the efforts of ‘Maggie’ to fit in with her crew are poignantly entertaining. It’s just as well that the aliens are in two or three or four minds over what to do with these humans. I really enjoyed the first contact element of the novel, especially when we realise what a bad job the humans are making of it. But the aliens we encounter here are an entertaining mix of species, all with their own issues and concerns, and some downright horrible and frightening. Suddenly the universe feels very big indeed.

There might be humour here but there’s also action and drama and the moments after the artefact is brought inside the Magellan are particularly tense. This is hugely exciting and it becomes even more so when we discover the meaning of the artefact. I think my jaw may have dropped.

Gate Crashers is a hugely entertaining space romp! It’s undoubtedly well-written and witty with some laugh out loud moments to treasure. Humans might be flawed but they’re not the only ones and so the result is a warm, humorous and thrilling look at what might lie in store for mankind once it breaks free of the solar system. I can’t wait!

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. You can find other stops on the tour here:

Monday, June 25 Sci Fi Chick
Tuesday, June 26 Books, Bones & Buffy
Tuesday, June 26 Espresso Coco
Wednesday, June 27 Civilian Reader
Thursday, June 28 Bibliosanctum
Friday, June 29 For Winter Nights
Saturday, June 30 Just a World Away

Pandemic by A.G. Riddle

Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 June) | 720p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pandemic by A.G. RiddleAn ebola-like virus has hit Kenya, its virulence both surprising and shocking. At the same time many, many thousands of people across the globe are coming down with flu. Dr Peyton Shaw, the leading epidemiologist and first-responder of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is about to be woken up with the call she lives to dread – news of a pandemic. As Peyton flies to Kenya, Desmond Hughes is waking up in a hotel room in Berlin with his memory gone. He has no idea who he is or what he’s doing there but with him is a dead man. There is only one clue and it leads him to Peyton Shaw. But with each clue he discovers, a memory is unlocked, and something truly terrifying is slowly revealed. And time is ticking away.

As soon as Pandemic arrived, I couldn’t wait to read it. I love disaster novels and movies and this book ticks all of the right boxes. It’s also a substantial book of about 700 pages but there’s more than enough drama, action, peril and adrenaline packed into this novel to make it unputdownable and a very fast read. Also, much of its complex story feels potentially real and believable. I really enjoyed A.G. Riddle’s earlier book The Atlantis Gene but was unconvinced by its followups, which stretched my powers to believe. But there is none of that with Pandemic. We’re rooted in the real world, albeit one that thrills, and the result is a novel as terrifying as it is exhilarating.

We move between quite a lot of characters, each of whom plays a crucial role in the way that this pandemic develops or is fought, and we’re taken across the world. It can be a little confusing keeping up at the beginning but things soon settle down as the plot takes off and the countdown of the dead grows and grows and grows. I love how we’re given so many stories to follow. It’s a cinematic approach and it works really well. We meet doctors, patients, scientists, many of whom are heroic and some who are the opposite, as well as ordinary men, women and children trying to survive and save those they love.

The picture we’re given of what happens when a pandemic and an international emergency take a grip is utterly compelling. It’s so frightening, particularly in the chapters that take place in Atlanta as the city tries to take hold of an impossible situation. These scenes contrast with the more usual thriller themes of goodies versus baddies and they worked well as a contrast. I enjoyed both aspects. Those pages, they kept on turning, as fast as I could make them.

One element of Pandemic that I especially enjoyed were the sections in which Desmond remembered and looked back on his life. This is fine storytelling and Desmond really shines as a character as a result, more than anyone else in the book. My only serious issue with the novel is that there are too many coincidences.

I was worried that because this is the first book in The Extinction Files series (of two books?), it might end with a cliffhanger, not something I enjoy at the end of a 700-page book. But it did not! This novel is self-contained while presenting the origins of another mystery to be explored in the next novel, Genome. I’m so glad that we only have to wait until October for this as I cannot wait!

Other review
The Atlantis Gene

Awakened by James S. Murray with Darren Wearmouth

Harper Voyager | 2018 (28 June) | 286p | Review copy | Buy the book

Awakened by James S Murray with Darren WearmouthIt should have been a glorious day – the opening of a new subway line for New York City, with none other than the President of the United States in attendance, as well as the Mayor, various Governors and a big bunch of media. But as the VIPs wait for the first of the trains to arrive at the Pavilion station, deep below the Hudson River, they soon learn that the world is about to turn upside down. The train is late to arrive, initially a mere embarrassment, and then it turns up and there is nobody aboard alive. Instead, the windows are smashed and its walls are coated in a flood of blood and gore. But that’s not the end of it. Whatever committed this atrocity enjoyed it. It’s coming back for more.

Awakened is one of those disaster horror novels that I cannot get enough off. The premise of this is absolutely fantastic and I started reading it the day it arrived. Its opening fully lives up to the premise and then we’re thrown headfirst into a gory bloodfest of action, thrills and monsters, all within the claustrophobic confines of the subway system. The surface is so tantalisingly near and yet so horrifyingly far and everybody, whether they’re a President, a train driver or a police officer, is going to have to fight for their lives. And, if they’re a decent human being, for the lives of others around them. Of course, not everybody is a decent human being.

The action doesn’t let up from start to finish. The story pushes along with several strands of plot as we follow more than one group of people through these tunnels of death. Although this does make the novel rather disjointed and jumpy at times, this is thrilling stuff and the book drives on with the power and pace of one of the subway’s devastated trains.

Awakened is one of those horror disaster novels when you have to hold on for dear life. Unfortunately, not all of the characters can do the same and so you never quite know who is going to survive a chapter. The Presidential element adds something extra and I enjoyed that. He and the Mayor are perhaps the two better developed characters of the novel (there are some wooden baddies on display). I’m glad to say that there are plenty of women here who also fight like demons to survive.

The monsters are revolting as you’d expect, although the most horrible thing about them isn’t their appearance but the way that they kill. This is a gory book. It runs with blood and is lumpy with severed limbs. But it never disturbs – this is horror fantasy and anything can happen. The claustrophobic setting is particularly successful, as is the fact that the action takes place over such a short period of time. The atmosphere and pace build from the start.

Awakened ends well but I’m delighted to read that there will be more. I’ll be more than ready to be scared again because I suspect that people are going to be slow to learn their lesson.