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Roman historical fiction – a big thank you!

Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth by MC ScottAs the end of the year approaches – and while I continue to hum and haw about my top ten books of the year (at one point this week I managed to get my top 10 down to 58), I thought I’d embark on a series of posts to thank those serial authors whose books I have loved over the years and who, in very large part, are responsible for making me the hungry reader that I am today.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, to put it mildly, and there are some series that I have deep affection for and I look forward to the latest addition every year. The fact that each series must eventually end is not something that makes me happy. And this year I’ve mourned the loss of more than one. Although there is now the excitement of wondering where these beloved authors will take us next!

I’m an archaeologist by trade and my favourite period has always been the Roman era. Roman historical fiction forms the heart of my book love. Other periods of history do come in and cheekily steal my attention but I can never get enough of the Romans. So here are the authors I’d heartily recommend, although I suspect that many of you will be enjoying their books already and you don’t need me to tell you how flippin’ marvellous they are.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonThis year, Douglas Jackson finished his Hero of Rome books with the fantastic Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens is a true hero of Rome, a man we’ve followed through hard times and good as he’s faced some of Rome’s deadliest enemies of the 1st century AD, including Boudicca. He did not emerge from that fight unscathed.

In the new year, Robert Fabbri will finally conclude his chronicle of the rise to power from humble origins, through bloody war, of the Emperor Vespasian. Tribune of Rome began the series and it now ends with Emperor of Rome. Vespasian is not the man he once was – how can he be? He must now learn to become a god.

Another series due to end in the new year is Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series set in the 4th century AD. It began with War at the Edge of the World and will conclude with Triumph in Dust in January and I cannot wait to read it! Aurelius Castus is such a fine character who has risen through the ranks to the very top but there seems no end in sight to the civil war that has divided the empire into pieces.

Anthony Riches is an author it’s an absolute pleasure to rave about. He’s just finished a trilogy on the incredible Batavian Revolt, which followed the death of Nero. The Centurions trilogy began with Betrayal and concluded this year with Retribution. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and so good is it, I am prepared to forgive its disruption of his long running Empire series (begun with Wounds of Honour), which is due to continue shortly. We’ve travelled a long way with Marcus Aquila and his troop of Tungrians and I can’t wait to resume the journey.

Conn Iggulden has turned his attention elsewhere in more recent years but his Emperor series is superb. Covering the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the series ended with the brilliant The Blood of Gods. Conn’s most recent novel takes us to ancient Greece with the fantastic The Falcon of Sparta.

Eagles at War by Ben KaneI’ve been a big fan of Ben Kane for years and he’s given us several series and I love them all. Ben has tackled Hannibal and Spartacus. My favourite series so far by Ben has been his recently completed trilogy on the great defeat of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius and the seizure of Varus’s three eagles – Rome’s most infamous and famous defeat. It began with Eagles at War, which tells the terrifying and bloody tale from the point of view of centurion Tullus. It’s brilliant. Ben’s latest novel, Clash of Empires, tells the story of what happened when Greek culture encountered head on the might of Rome.

Harry Sidebottom is well known for his military series featuring Ballista, the Warrior of Rome (begun with Fire in the East, and Ballista has reappeared recently in this year’s excellent Roman thriller The Last Hour – Ballista has only one day to save the emperor from assassination and the empire from disaster. I can also recommend Harry’s now complete trilogy The Throne of the Caesars, begun with Iron and Rust.

The Earthly Gods by Nick BrownI am a huge fan of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. Cassius Corbulo is a young spy thrown very much into the deep end and sent off on all manner of perilous missions across the empire during the late 3rd century AD. His Christian servant Simo is such a memorable creation as is Cassius’s bodyguard and ex-gladiator Indavara. This series began with The Siege and the most recent and sixth novel was The Earthly Gods. I long for this series to return – I’m keeping everything crossed.

Manda (MC) Scott is one of the finest writers about, whichever period of history she writes about. I adore her Rome series, which began with The Emperor’s Spy and ended with book four The Art of war. The Eagle of the Twelfth, set during the reign of Nero, is one of the very best novels I’ve ever read. Demalion of Macedon is an extraordinary character. This is powerful writing that also never forgets how to tell a good tale.

Britannia by Simon ScarrowWhen talking about Roman military fiction, I can’t leave out Simon Scarrow’s Macro and Cato series which I have loved for years (the latest novel The Blood of Rome was published this year. My favourite is Britannia). You also shouldn’t miss SJA Turney’s Marius Mules’ long running series which covers the military campaigns of Julius Caesar. The series began with The Invasion of Gaul.

I can’t get enough of Roman crime fiction and some series have long legs. David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series is possibly my favourite and I’ve been reading it for more years than I care to mention. This year the nineteenth was published, Family Commitments, and I think it could be one of the best of the entire series. Although arguably Corvinus isn’t the star of the books. That honour begins to his butler Bathyllus and his megalomaniac chef. Other series that I’ve enjoyed are Rosemary Rowe’s long running series featuring the British mosaic maker Libertus (the latest novel is The Price of Freedom) and Steven Saylor’s Sub Rosa series. The Throne of Caesar about the assassination of Julius Caesar was published this year and it is wonderful! I must also recommend Ruth Downie’s crime series which features Roman doctor Ruso. His latest case, Memento Mori, was published this year.

Pandora's Boy by Lindsey DavisLike so many of us I’ve read and loved Lindsey Davis’s books for years. Who doesn’t love Marcus Didius Falco, Vespasian’s spy? His cases kept me entertained for years until it was time for him to retire and settle down in the antique business. Now it’s the turn of his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, who must also contend with Rome’s attitudes towards a female detective (Rome doesn’t like it) plus a new husband who is suffering from being struck by lightning. Flavia’s last case was Pandora’s Boy. She will return for her seventh case, A Capitol Death, in the spring. Fantastic!

I’ll finish with Rome’s emperors. I just can’t get enough of them. I’ve hugely enjoyed Margaret George’s two books on Nero, beginning with The Confessions of Young Nero and concluding this year with The Splendour Before the Dark. Caligula by Simon TurneyOne of the book highlights of this year was Simon Turney’s fantastic novel on Caligula. Simon will next turn his attention to Commodus – this makes me very happy indeed.

And so there we have it! I know I’ll have left wonderful authors and fabulous books out and I’ll be troubled by that. But I think there’s enough here to start with. My plea to publishers is that you never stop publishing Roman historical fiction. I cannot be without it. I need more! And to all of those authors whose novels have, and continue to, thrill, move and entertain me – I’m so grateful. Thank you! I can’t wait to travel back through time with you again next year.

Creating Scarcross Hall – guest post by Katherine Clements, author of The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsThis week Headline Review publishes The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements. This beautifully written novel, set on the moors in the 1670s, is a haunting, atmospheric and deliciously creepy tale that transports the willing reader to another time and place, so vividly created by this marvellous writer. I am delighted to feature on For Winter Nights today a guest post by Katherine Clements in which she discusses the inspiration for The Coffin Path‘s ‘crumbling pile with a dubious history, Scarcross Hall.

My review of The Coffin Path.

Creating Scarcross Hall

‘It’s grander than he’d supposed, with the high chimneys and crenellated gables of an older age, mullioned windows and two jutting wings on either side of a central hall, clearly designed with more than practicality in mind – a statement of wealth and power, one man’s attempt to make his mark in this wild landscape.’

This is Scarcross Hall, the setting of my new novel The Coffin Path, as first encountered by one of the main characters, Ellis Ferreby.

When I began to plan my 17th century ghost story, I knew that the house I created would play a significant part. Set high on the desolate West Yorkshire moors, Scarcross Hall is a crumbling pile with a dubious history. The stuff of gothic cliché perhaps, but as an historical novelist with a respect for the past (and my readers) I wanted to make sure my house was historically plausible.

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935


The Coffin Path takes place in 1674 and, for story purposes, my house needed to be at least 100 years old, preferably with a much longer history. Luckily for me, the West Yorkshire area has a distinct architectural heritage, rooted in the area’s economic past.

The pre-industrial economy was mostly farming and weaving. Sheep were farmed for wool rather than meat and through the 15th and 16th centuries the area became one of the foremost producers of Kersey – a coarse woollen cloth that was made for domestic and international markets. For some it was a hard, hand-to-mouth existence but, then as now, some people got rich. Self-styled ‘Yeomen Clothiers’ built large residencies to reflect their status at the top of local society. Known as ‘Halifax houses’, these vernacular buildings were built of the local millstone grit, with long mullioned windows and often a circular rose window above the doorway. Local gentry also built grand manor houses, ensuring the continuity of their estates by adding to older timber-framed buildings.

I went looking for examples.

Oakwell Hall

Oakwell Hall

Scarcross Hall probably owes most to Oakwell Hall in Birstal near Batley. Built in 1583 by John Batt, this manor house has been beautifully restored with 17th century interiors and was the first place I visited. It delivered inspiration in spades. In The Coffin Path readers might recognise Oakwell’s central hall with large mullioned windows and a huge stone fireplace, circled by an upper gallery that connects the first floor rooms. A bedroom, complete with large Elizabethan bed and painted fire screen, was the model for the creepy old bedchamber in Scarcross Hall.

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

When I found out that Oakwell has its own Civil War history (the Battle of Adwalton Moor was fought nearby in 1643), Brontë connections, (Charlotte Brontë is said to have based Fieldhead, the house in her novel Shirley, on Oakwell), and even its own ghost, I was sold. I had found a great prototype for the interior of Scarcross Hall, but what of the exterior?

Next was East Riddlesden Hall, built in 1642 by wealthy Halifax clothier James Murgatroyd. There has been a house on this spot since the 12th century, owned by various gentry families, but the house that exists today is mostly 17th century. Despite a salubrious history, the hall fell into disrepair and was uninhabitable by the early 20th century. This picture, taken in 1905, certainly has the atmosphere I was looking for.

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

The hall was almost demolished but was saved by locals William and John Brigg, who bought the hall in 1933 and donated it to the National Trust. Inevitably, East Riddlesden has its ghosts too: the Grey Lady, who is said to have been bricked up alive by her cuckolded husband, and the Blue Lady, who met a slightly less dramatic end by drowning in the fish pond!

East Riddlesden Hall was saved by the passion and generosity of two local men, but many other houses were not so lucky.

High Sunderland Hall is widely thought to have been the model for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. This 16th century house, built by the Sunderland family, stood on the outskirts of Halifax, on a site inhabited from the 13th century. Quite unlike the other houses I’d encountered, High Sunderland was incongruously decorated with Latin inscriptions and many grotesque statues of mythical creatures.

Emily Brontë would certainly have been familiar with the building during her time as a teacher at nearby Law Hill School. Here is Emily’s description of the Heights, which seems to match the pictures we have of High Sunderland:

Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 …

High Sunderland Hall

High Sunderland Hall

Imagining High Sunderland as it might have been inspired several elements of my own fictional house: the bleak setting, the crenellations, the strange, atmospheric mixture of the sacred and the superstitious. Sadly, it was demolished in 1951, though judging by the photos of the house in its latter days, it may not have been the most welcoming place. Perhaps it may have looked something like this…

‘There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor. Even now, the dark windows seem to stare back at him, soulless, like the eyes of a destitute.’

The Coffin Path.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Coffin Path blog tour poster

2018 crime fiction and thrillers – looking ahead (January to May)

In the last of my three 2018 preview posts, it’s time for crime fiction and thrillers! Many of these are published each month and so this is a particularly selective post. I’m also not a big reader of psychological thrillers so this post very much reflects my personal taste. The books below are published between January and the end of May. I suspect I shall be adding plenty more to this list over the coming weeks… Historical crime can be found in the historical fiction preview post. You can read my selection of historical fiction books here and science fiction here.

Crime fiction and thrillers

The Gathering Dark by James Oswald (January; Michael Joseph)
How I love the Inspector McLean books and I jumped on this the moment it arrived. It’s a corker and I loved it but blimey is it darker than dark…. ‘A truck driver loses control in central Edinburgh, ploughing into a crowded bus stop and spilling his vehicle’s toxic load. The consequences are devastating. DI Tony McLean witnesses the carnage. Taking control of the investigation, he soon realises there is much that is deeply amiss – and everyone involved seems to have something to hide. But as McLean struggles to uncover who caused the tragedy, a greater crisis develops: the new Chief Superintendent’s son is missing, last seen in the area of the crash…’

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor (January; Michael Joseph)
I finished this very late one night this week – an extraordinary debut. Clever, compelling and surprising, and as much horror as crime. ‘The Chalk Man is coming… None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning. Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own? Was it the terrible accident? Or when they found the first body?’

If I Die Before I Wake by Emily KochIf I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch (January; Harvill Secker)
I’ve recently finished this and so the review is on the way shortly. ‘How do you solve your own murder? Everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen. But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn’t really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger. As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go.’

This is How it Ends by Eva Dolan (January; Raven Books)
‘This is how it begins. With a near-empty building, the inhabitants forced out of their homes by property developers. With two women: idealistic, impassioned blogger Ella and seasoned campaigner, Molly. With a body hidden in a lift shaft. But how will it end?’

Need to Know by Karen ClevelandNeed to Know by Karen Cleveland (January; Bantam Press)
This is an outstanding psychological thriller with a great spy twist! ‘Vivian Miller is a CIA analyst assigned to uncover Russian sleeper cells in the USA. After accessing the computer of a potential Russian spy, she stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents living in her own country. Five seemingly normal people living in plain sight. A few clicks later, everything that matters to Vivian is threatened – her job, her husband, even her four children… Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But now she’s facing impossible choices. Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust? Will her next move be the right one?’

Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes (January; Simon & Schuster)
‘DI Ben Kitto needs a second chance. After ten years working for the murder squad in London, a traumatic event has left him grief-stricken. He’s tried to resign from his job, but his boss has persuaded him to take three months to reconsider. Ben plans to work in his uncle Ray’s boatyard, on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher where he was born, hoping to mend his shattered nerves. His plans go awry when the body of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick is found on the beach at Hell Bay. Her attacker must still be on the island because no ferries have sailed during a two-day storm. Everyone on the island is under suspicion. Dark secrets are about to resurface. And the murderer could strike again at any time.’

The Confession by Jo Spain (January; Quercus)
‘Late one night a man walks into the luxurious home of disgraced banker Harry McNamara and his wife Julie. The man launches an unspeakably brutal attack on Harry as a horror-struck Julie watches, frozen by fear. Just an hour later the attacker, JP Carney, has handed himself in to the police. He confesses to beating Harry to death, but JP claims that the assault was not premeditated and that he didn’t know the identity of his victim. With a man as notorious as Harry McNamara, the detectives cannot help wondering, was this really a random act of violence or is it linked to one of Harry’s many sins: corruption, greed, betrayal? This gripping psychological thriller will have you questioning, who – of Harry, Julie and JP – is really the guilty one? And is Carney’s surrender driven by a guilty conscience or is his confession a calculated move in a deadly game?’

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan (January; Simon & Schuster)
‘A high-profile marriage thrust into the spotlight. A wife, determined to keep her family safe, must face a prosecutor who believes justice has been a long time coming. A scandal that will rock Westminster. And the women caught at the heart of it. Anatomy of a Scandal centres on a high-profile marriage that begins to unravel when the husband is accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is sure her husband, James, is innocent and desperately hopes to protect her precious family from the lies which might ruin them. Kate is the barrister who will prosecute the case – she is equally certain that James is guilty and determined he will pay for his crimes.’

A Darker State by David Young (February; Zaffre)
‘For the Stasi, it’s not just the truth that gets buried… The body of a teenage boy is found weighted down in a lake. Karin Müller, newly appointed Major of the People’s Police, is called to investigate. But her power will only stretch so far, when every move she makes is under the watchful eye of the Stasi. Then, when the son of Müller’s team member goes missing, it quickly becomes clear that there is a terrifying conspiracy at the heart of this case, one that could fast lead Müller and her young family into real danger. Can she navigate this complex political web and find the missing boy, before it’s too late?’

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths (February; Quercus)
A new novel by Elly Griffiths…. perfect. ‘Dr Ruth Galloway is flattered when she receives a letter from Italian archaeologist Dr Angelo Morelli, asking for her help. He’s discovered a group of bones in a tiny hilltop village near Rome but doesn’t know what to make of them. It’s years since Ruth has had a holiday, and even a working holiday to Italy is very welcome! So Ruth travels to Castello degli Angeli, accompanied by her daughter Kate and friend Shona. In the town she finds a baffling Roman mystery and a dark secret involving the war years and the Resistance. To her amazement she also soon finds Harry Nelson, with Cathbad in tow. But there is no time to overcome their mutual shock – the ancient bones spark a modern murder, and Ruth must discover what secrets there are in Castello degli Angeli that someone would kill to protect.’

Gallery of the Dead by Chris Carter (February; Simon & Schuster)
‘‘Thirty-seven years in the force, and if I was allowed to choose just one thing to erase from my mind, what’s inside that room would be it.’ That’s what a LAPD Lieutenant tells Detectives Hunter and Garcia of the Ultra Violent Crimes Unit as they arrive at one of the most shocking crime scenes they have ever attended. In a completely unexpected turn of events, the detectives find themselves joining forces with the FBI to track down a serial killer whose hunting ground sees no borders; a psychopath who loves what he does because to him murder is much more than just killing – it’s an art form. Welcome to The Gallery of the Dead.’

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (February; Raven Books)
I have had the pleasure of reading this already and it is absolutely fantastic! Hugely original, clever and mindblowing. A candidate for book of the year already. ”Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’ It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…’

The Collector by Fiona Cummins (February; Macmillan)
‘Jakey escaped with his life and moved to a new town. His rescue was a miracle but his parents know that the Collector is still out there, watching, waiting… Clara, the girl he left behind, dreams of being found. Her mother is falling apart but she will not give up hope. The Collector has found an apprentice to take over his family’s legacy. But he can’t forget the one who got away and the detective who destroyed his dreams. DS Etta Fitzroy must hunt him down before his obsession destroys them all.’

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (February; Little Brown)
‘FIVE WENT OUT. FOUR CAME BACK… Is Alice here? Did she make it? Is she safe? In the chaos, in the night, it was impossible to say which of the four had asked after Alice’s welfare. Later, when everything got worse, each would insist it had been them. Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side. The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with. Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.’

Look for Me by Lisa Gardner (February; Century)
‘Detective DD Warren and Flora Dane are in a race against time to save a young girl’s life – or bring her to justice. A family home has become a crime scene. Five people are involved: four of them have been savagely murdered; one – a sixteen-year-old girl – is missing. Was she lucky to have escaped? Or is her absence evidence of something sinister? Detective D. D. Warren is on the case, as is survivor-turned-avenger Flora Dane. Seeking different types of justice, they must make sense of the clues left behind by a young woman who, as victim or suspect, is silently pleading, Look for me.’

The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard (March; Corvus)
‘Her first love confessed to five murders. But the truth was so much worse. Dublin’s notorious Canal Killer, Will Hurley, is ten years into his life sentence when the body of a young woman is fished out of the Grand Canal. Though detectives suspect they are dealing with a copycat, they turn to Will for help. He claims he has the information the police need, but will only give it to one person – the girl he was dating when he committed his horrific crimes. Alison Smith has spent the last decade abroad, putting her shattered life in Ireland far behind her. But when she gets a request from Dublin imploring her to help prevent another senseless murder, she is pulled back to face the past – and the man – she’s worked so hard to forget.’

Panic Room by Robert Goddard (March; Bantam Press)
‘High on a Cornish cliff sits a vast uninhabited mansion. Uninhabited except for Blake, a young woman of dubious background, secretive and alone, currently acting as housesitter. The house has a panic room. Cunningly concealed, steel lined, impregnable – and apparently closed from within. Even Blake doesn’t know it’s there. She’s too busy being on the run from life, from a story she thinks she’s escaped. But her remote existence is going to be invaded when people come looking the house’s owner, missing rogue pharma entrepreneur, Jack Harkness. Suddenly the whole world wants to know where his money has gone. Soon people are going to come knocking on the door, people with motives and secrets of their own, who will be asking Blake the sort of questions she can’t – or won’t – want to answer. And will the panic room ever give up its secrets?’

Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh (March; Sphere)
‘The police say it was suicide. Anna says it was murder. They’re both wrong. One year ago, Caroline Johnson chose to end her life brutally: a shocking suicide planned to match that of her husband just months before. Their daughter, Anna, has struggled to come to terms with their loss ever since. Now with a young baby of her own, Anna misses her mother more than ever and starts to ask questions about her parents’ deaths. But by digging up the past, is she putting her future in danger? Sometimes it’s safer to let things lie…’.

Come and Find Me by Sarah Hilary (March; Headline)
I always look forward to the new Marnie Rome novel! ‘On the surface, Lara Chorley and Ruth Hull have nothing in common, other than their infatuation with Michael Vokey. Each is writing to a sadistic inmate, sharing her secrets, whispering her worst fears, craving his attention. DI Marnie Rome understands obsession. She’s finding it hard to give up her own addiction to a dangerous man: her foster brother, Stephen Keele. She wasn’t able to save her parents from Stephen. She lives with that guilt every day. As the hunt for Vokey gathers pace, Marnie fears one of the women may have found him – and is about to pay the ultimate price.’

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson (March; Michael Joseph)
‘Before Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik Police is forced into early retirement she is told to investigate a cold case of her choice, and she knows just the one. A young woman found dead on remote seaweed-covered rocks. A woman who was looking for asylum and found only a watery grave. Her death ruled a suicide after a cursory investigation. But Hulda soon realizes that there was something far darker to this case. This was not the only young woman to disappear around that time. And no one is telling the whole story. When her own force tries to put the brakes on the investigation Hulda has just days to discover the truth. Even if it means risking her own life…’.

The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox (March; Doubleday)
This was my Christmas read and it is absolutely superb! Even better than the fantastic Sirens so don’t miss it. ‘‘I usually experienced the presence of a dead body as an absence, but in this case, it felt like a black hole opening up in front of me’. Disconnected from his history and careless of his future, Detective Aidan Waits has resigned himself to the night shift. An endless cycle of meaningless emergency calls and lonely dead ends. Until he and his partner, Detective Inspector Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe, are summoned to The Palace, a vast disused hotel in the centre of a restless, simmering city. There they find the body of a man. He is dead. And he is smiling. The tags have been removed from the man’s clothes. His teeth filed down and replaced. Even his fingertips are not his own. Only a patch sewn into the inside of his trousers gives any indication as to who he was, and to the desperate last act of his life… But even as Waits puts together the pieces of this stranger’s life, someone is sifting through the shards of his own. When the mysterious fires, anonymous phone calls and outright threats escalate, he realises that a ghost from his own past haunts his every move. And to discover the smiling man’s identity, he must finally confront his own.’

The Lost by Mari Hannah (March; Orion)
A new series begins by one of my favourite authors! ”He was her child. The only one she’d ever have. It would kill her to learn that he was missing.’ Alex arrives home from holiday to find that her ten-year-old son Daniel has disappeared. It’s the first case together for Northumbria CID officers David Stone and Frankie Oliver. Stone has returned to his roots with fifteen years’ experience in the Met, whereas Oliver is local, a third generation copper with a lot to prove, and a secret that’s holding her back. But as the investigation unfolds, they realise the family’s betrayal goes deeper than anyone suspected. This isn’t just a missing persons case. Stone and Oliver are hunting a killer.’

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton (March; Wildfire)
‘Juliette loves Nate. She will follow him anywhere. She’s even become a flight attendant for his airline, so she can keep a closer eye on him. They are meant to be. The fact that Nate broke up with her six months ago means nothing. Because Juliette has a plan to win him back. She is the perfect girlfriend. And she’ll make sure no one stops her from getting exactly what she wants. True love hurts, but Juliette knows it’s worth all the pain…’

The Bone Keeper by Luca Veste (ebook release March; Simon & Schuster)
‘What if the figure that haunted your nightmares as child, the myth of the man in the woods, was real? He’ll slice your flesh. Your bones he’ll keep. Twenty years ago, four teenagers went exploring in the local woods, trying to find to the supposed home of The Bone Keeper. Only three returned. Now, a woman is found wandering the streets of Liverpool, horrifically injured, claiming to have fled the Bone Keeper. Investigating officer DC Louise Henderson must convince sceptical colleagues that this urban myth might be flesh and blood. But when a body is unearthed in the woodland the woman has fled from, the case takes on a much darker tone. The disappeared have been found. And their killer is watching every move the police make.’

Turn a Blind Eye by Vicky Newham (April; HQ)
‘A dead girl. A wall of silence. DI Maya Rahman is running out of time. A headmistress is found strangled in her East London school, her death the result of a brutal and ritualistic act of violence. Found at the scene is a single piece of card, written upon which is an ancient Buddhist precept: I shall abstain from taking the ungiven. At first, DI Maya Rahman can’t help but hope this is a tragic but isolated murder. Then, the second body is found. Faced with a community steeped in secrets and prejudice, Maya must untangle the cryptic messages left at the crime scenes to solve the deadly riddle behind the murders – before the killer takes another victim.’

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton (April; Trapeze)
‘Devoted father or merciless killer? His secrets are buried with him. Florence Lovelady’s career was made when she convicted coffin-maker Larry Glassbrook of a series of child murders 30 years ago. Like something from our worst nightmares the victims were buried…ALIVE. Larry confessed to the crimes; it was an open and shut case. But now he’s dead, and events from the past start to repeat themselves. Did she get it wrong all those years ago? Or is there something much darker at play?’

The Killing House by Claire McGowan (April; Headline)
The sixth and final Paula Maguire mystery… ‘When a puzzling missing persons’ case opens up in her hometown, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire can’t help but return once more. Renovations at an abandoned farm have uncovered two bodies: a man known to be an IRA member missing since the nineties, and a young girl whose identity remains a mystery. As Paula attempts to discover who the girl is and why no one is looking for her, an anonymous tip-off claims that her own long-lost mother is also buried on the farm. When another girl is kidnapped, Paula must find the person responsible before more lives are destroyed. But there are explosive secrets still to surface. And even Paula can’t predict that the investigation will strike at the heart of all she holds dear.’

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough (May; HarperCollins)
‘‘Cross my heart and hope to die…’ Promises only last if you trust each other, but what if one of you is hiding something? A secret no one could ever guess. Someone is living a lie. Is it Lisa? Maybe it’s her daughter, Ava. Or could it be her best friend, Marilyn?’

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet (May; Doubleday)
‘No one lives this way unless they want to hide something.’ When Caroline and Francis receive an offer to house swap, they jump at the chance for a week away from home. After the difficulties of the past few years, they’ve worked hard to rebuild their marriage for their son’s sake; now they want to reconnect as a couple. On arrival, they find a house that is stark and sinister in its emptiness – it’s hard to imagine what kind of person lives here. Then, gradually, Caroline begins to uncover some signs of life – signs of her life. The flowers in the bathroom or the music in the CD player might seem innocent to her husband but to her they are anything but. It seems the person they have swapped with is someone she used to know; someone she’s desperate to leave in her past. But that person is now in her home – and they want to make sure she’ll never forget…’.

The Outsider by Stephen King (May; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘When an eleven-year-old boy is found murdered, forensic evidence and reliable eyewitnesses undeniably point to the town’s popular Little League coach. But the jailed suspect, arrested in a public spectacle, has an alibi, and further research convinces Detective Ralph Anderson that the coach was indeed out of town. So how can he have been in two places at the same time?’

Snap by Belinda Baur (May; Bantam Press)
‘Suddenly it wasn’t just a game… Jack’s eleven and he’s in charge. Jack’s in charge, said his mother as she disappeared up the road to get help. I won’t be long. Now Jack and his two sisters wait on the hard shoulder in their stifling, broken-down car, bickering and whining. But their mother doesn’t come back. She never comes back. And after that long, hot summer’s day, nothing will ever be the same again. Three years later, a young woman called Catherine wakes to find a knife beside her bed, and a note that says: I could have killed you. Jack’s fifteen now and still in charge. Of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they’re alone in the house… And – quite suddenly – of finding out who murdered his mother.’

The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham (May; Little, Brown)
‘How do you catch a killer who is yet to kill? We all know the signs. Cruelty, lack of empathy, the killing of animals. Now, pets on suburban London streets are being stalked by a shadow, and it could just be the start. DI Tom Thorne knows the psychological profile of such offenders all too well, so when he is tasked with catching a notorious killer of domestic cats, he sees the chance to stop a series of homicides before they happen. Others are less convinced, so once more, Thorne relies on DI Nicola Tanner to help him solve the case, before the culprit starts hunting people. It’s a journey that brings them face to face with a killer who will tear their lives apart.’

The Moscow Cipher by Scott Mariani (May; Avon)
My favourite thriller hero Ben Hope returns! ‘BEN HOPE is one of the most celebrated action adventure heroes in British fiction and Scott Mariani is the author of numerous bestsellers. Join the ever-growing legion of readers who get breathless with anticipation when the countdown to the new Ben Hope thriller begins…’.

Don’t Make a Sound by David Jackson (May; Zaffre)
‘Meet the Bensons. A pleasant enough couple. They keep themselves to themselves. They wash their car, mow their lawn and pass the time of day with their neighbours. And they have a beautiful little girl called Daisy. There’s just one problem. Daisy doesn’t belong to the Bensons. They stole her. And now they’ve decided that Daisy needs a little brother or sister. D.S. Nathan Cody is about to face his darkest and most terrifying case yet…’.

Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall (May; Century)
‘This is a love story. This is a tragedy. This is a book about a break up so bad that when you put the pieces of the love story back together, what you get is MURDER… Mike knows that most of us travel through the world as one half of a whole, desperately searching for that missing person to make us complete. But he and Verity are different. They have found each other and nothing and no one will tear them apart. It doesn’t matter that Verity is marrying another man. You see, Verity and Mike play a game together, a secret game they call ‘the crave’, the aim being to demonstrate what they both know: that Verity needs Mike, and only Mike. Verity’s upcoming marriage is the biggest game she and Mike have ever played. And it’s for the highest stakes. Except this time in order for Mike and Verity to be together someone has to die…’.

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings (May; HQ)
‘Some friendships are made to be broken. Cornwall, summer of 1986. If only… thinks Tamsyn, fifteen-years-old, with her binoculars trained on the perfect family in their perfect house… If only she lived at the Cliff House, towering above the sea, with its beautiful Art Deco swimming pool. If only Tamsyn’s life was as perfect as the owners’, the Davenports, with their effortless glamour and privilege. If only Tamsyn’s father hadn’t died and left her mother working as a cleaner, tidying up after the Davenport’s outrageous parties. If only Edie Davenport wanted to be her friend… If only Edie hadn’t met her brother, Jago, and liked him more… Amanda Jennings deftly weaves a deadly tale of loss and longing in this gripping and powerful psychological thriller which will haunt readers long after the final page is turned.’

We’re in for quite a year… Can someone send me an extra pair of eyeballs?

Happy New Year!

2018 science fiction – looking ahead (January to May)

Following on from yesterday’s post that pulled together some of the historical fiction goodies of the next five months, it’s now the turn of science fiction. As with the historical fiction, this isn’t a definitive list but these are the ones that have especially caught my eye – so far! They’re published between January and the end of May. I hope you find something here to tempt you. Crime and thrillers to follow!

Science fiction

Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds (January; Gollancz)
A new novel by Alastair Reynolds! This cannot come soon enough. ‘Featuring Inspector Dreyfus – one of Alastair Reynolds most popular characters – this is a fast paced SF crime story, combining a futuristic setting with a gripping tale of technology, revolution and revenge. One citizen died a fortnight ago. Two a week ago. Four died yesterday . . . and unless the cause can be found – and stopped – within the next four months, everyone will be dead. For the Prefects, the hunt for a silent, hidden killer is on… Alastair Reynolds has returned to the world of The Prefect for this stand-alone SF mystery in which no one is safe. The technological implants which connect every citizen to each other have become murder weapons, and no one knows who or what the killer is – or who the next targets will be. But their reach is spreading, and time is not on the Prefects’ side.’

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (January; Headline)
‘Tom and Kate’s daughter turns six tomorrow, and they have to tell her about sleep. If you sleep unwatched, you could be Taken. If you are Taken, then watching won’t save you. Nothing saves you. Your knowledge. Your memories. Your dreams. If all you are is on the Feed, what will you become when the Feed goes down? For Tom and Kate, in the six years since the world collapsed, every day has been a fight for survival. And when their daughter, Bea, goes missing, they will question whether they can even trust each other anymore. The threat is closer than they realise…’

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown (January; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘Darrow was born a slave. He became a weapon. He ended centuries of Gold rule, broke the chains of an empire, and now he’s the hero of a brave new republic. But at terrible cost. At the edge of the solar system, the grandson of the emperor he murdered dreams of revenge. In his hidden fortress in the oceans of Venus, the Ash Lord lies in wait, plotting to crush the newborn democracy. And, at home, a young Red girl who’s lost everything to the Rising questions whether freedom was just another Gold lie. In a fearsome new world where Obsidian pirates roam the Belt, famine and genocide ravage Mars, and crime lords terrorise Luna, it’s time for Darrow and a cast of new characters from across the solar system to face down the chaos that revolution has unleashed.’

Spring Tide by Chris Beckett (January; Corvus)
‘Chris Beckett’s thought-provoking and wide-ranging collection of contemporary short stories is a joy to read, rich in detail and texture. From stories about first love, to a man who discovers a labyrinth beneath his house, to an angel left alone at the end of the universe, Beckett displays both incredible range and extraordinary subtlety as a writer. Every story is a world unto itself – each one beautifully realized and brilliantly imagined.’

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (February; Raven Books)
I have had the pleasure of reading this already and it is absolutely fantastic! Hugely original, clever and mindblowing. A candidate for book of the year already. ”Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’ It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…’

The Memory Chamber by Holly Cave (February; Quercus)
‘True death is a thing of the past. Now you can spend the rest of eternity re-living your happiest memories: that first kiss, falling in love, the birth of your children, enjoyed on loop for ever and ever. Isobel is a Heaven Architect, and she helps dying people create afterlives from these memories. So when she falls for Jarek, one of her terminal – and married – clients, she knows that while she cannot save him, she can create the most beautiful of heavens, just for him. But when Jarek’s wife is found dead, Isobel uncovers a darker side of the world she works within, and she can trust no one with what she finds…’

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch (February; Headline)
I really enjoyed technothriller Tomorrow and Tomorrow and so this is one I’ll be looking out for. ‘1997 – When ex Navy Seal Patrick Mursult’s family are found murdered, he is the number one suspect. But NCIS Special Agent Shannon Moss isn’t convinced, particularly after Patrick apparently commits suicide. 2014 – Years after the brutal killings, while working undercover, Moss stumbles across a witness from the Mursult case who unwittingly tells her far more than she had at the time. Inspired by this retrospective progress, Moss determines to travel through time to a host of potential futures to track down the killer and close this cold case once and for all.’

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
‘The warship Trouble Dog was built and bred for calculating violence, yet following a brutal war, she finds herself disgusted by conflict and her role in a possible war crime. Seeking to atone, she joins the House of Reclamation, an organisation dedicated to rescuing ships in distress. But, stripped of her weaponry and emptied of her officers, she struggles in the new role she’s chosen for herself. When a ship goes missing in a disputed system, Trouble Dog and her new crew of misfits and loners, captained by Sal Konstanz, an ex-captain of a medical frigate who once fought against Trouble Dog, are assigned to investigate and save whoever they can. Meanwhile, light years away, intelligence officer Ashton Childe is tasked with locating and saving the poet, Ona Sudak, who was aboard the missing ship, whatever the cost. In order to do this, he must reach out to the only person he considers a friend, even if he s not sure she can be trusted. What Childe doesn’t know is that Sudak is not the person she appears to be. Quickly, what appears to be a straightforward rescue mission turns into something far more dangerous, as Trouble Dog, Konstanz and Childe, find themselves at the centre of a potential new conflict that could engulf not just mankind but the entire galaxy. If she is to survive and save her crew, Trouble Dog is going to have to remember how to fight.’

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (March; Michael Joseph)
I cannot wait for this – the third part of the Themis Files trilogy! ‘We always thought the biggest threat to humanity would come from the outside. We were wrong. As the human race picks up the pieces of destruction left behind, a new world order emerges. New alliances are formed. Old divisions are strengthened. And, with a power struggle fuelled by the threat of mutually assured destruction, nothing is certain. At a time when the world’s nations should have been coming together, they have never been more divided. With the human race teetering on the brink of total war, Rose, Vincent and Eva must choose sides. But doing the right thing might mean making the ultimate sacrifice.’

Zero Day by Ezekiel Boone (March; Gollancz)
I have thoroughly enjoyed this skin-crawling series so far and I can’t wait to see how it ends. ‘The world is on the brink of apocalypse. Zero Day has come. The only thing more terrifying than millions of spiders is the realization that those spiders work as one. But among the government, there is dissent: do we try to kill all of the spiders, or do we gamble on Professor Guyer’s theory that we need to kill only the queens? For President Stephanie Pilgrim, it’s an easy answer. She’s gone as far as she can-more than two dozen American cities hit with tactical nukes, the country torn asunder-and the only answer is to believe in Professor Guyer. Unfortunately, Ben Broussard and the military men who follow him don’t agree, and Pilgrim, Guyer, and the loyal members of the government have to flee, leaving the question: what’s more dangerous, the spiders or ourselves?’

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (April; Orbit)
‘After the climate wars, a floating city was constructed in the Arctic Circle. Once a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, it has started to crumble under the weight of its own decay – crime and corruption have set in, a terrible new disease is coursing untreated through the population, and the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside deepest poverty are spawning unrest. Into this turmoil comes a strange new visitor – a woman accompanied by an orca and a chained polar bear. She disappears into the crowds looking for someone she lost thirty years ago, followed by whispers of a vanished people who could bond with animals. Her arrival draws together four people and sparks a chain of events that will lead to unprecedented acts of resistance.’

Before Mars by Emma Newman (April; Gollancz)
‘Hugo Award winner Emma Newman returns to the captivating Planetfall universe with a dark tale of a woman stationed on Mars who starts to have doubts about everything around her. After months of travel, Anna Kubrin finally arrives on Mars for her new job as a geologist and de facto artist in residence–and already she feels she is losing the connection with her husband and baby at home on Earth. In her room on the base, Anna finds a mysterious note, painted in her own hand, warning her not to trust the colony psychiatrist. A note she can’t remember painting. When she finds a footprint in a place that the colony AI claims has never been visited by humans, Anna begins to suspect that she is caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy. Or is she losing her grip on reality? Anna must find the truth, regardless of what horrors she might discover or what they might do to her mind.’

I Still Dream by James Smythe (April; Borough Press)
‘1997. 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first it’s intended to be a sounding-board for her teenage frustrations, a surrogate best friend; but as she grows older, Organon grows with her. As the world becomes a very different place, technology changes the way we live, love and die; massive corporations develop rival intelligences to Laura’s, ones without safety barriers or morals; and Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, she knows, its power could be abused. But what if Organon is the only thing that can stop humanity from hurting itself irreparably? I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.’

Time Was by Ian McDonald (April; Tor Books)
‘Ian McDonald weaves a love story across an endless expanse with his science fiction novella Time Was. A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it. In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found. Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.’

One Way by S.J. Morden (ebook in April; Gollancz)
The paperback is out in August but you might not want to wait… ‘A murder mystery set on the frozen red wastes of Mars. Eight astronauts. One killer. No way home. WE STAND AT THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA – Frank Kitteridge is serving life for murdering his son’s drug dealer. So when he’s offered a deal by Xenosystems Operations – the company that runs the prison – he takes it, even though it means swapping one life sentence for another. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BE ALIVE – He’s been selected to help build the first permanent base on Mars. Unfortunately, his crewmates are just as guilty of their crimes as he is – and he’ll have to learn to trust them if they’re to succeed. THE FUTURE OF SPACE TRAVEL IS IN SAFE HANDS – As the convicts set to work on the frozen wastes of Mars, the accidents multiply. Until Frank begins to suspect they might not be accidents at all… XENOSYTEMS OPERATIONS: MAKING DREAMS A REALITY – There’s a murderer amongst them, and everyone’s a suspect.’

Xeelee: Redemption by Stephen Baxter (May; Gollancz)
Hooray! One of my very favourite authors. ‘Michael Poole finds himself in a very strange landscape… This is the centre of the Galaxy. And in a history without war with the humans, the Xeelee have had time to built an immense structure here. The Xeelee Belt has a radius ten thousand times Earth’s orbital distance. It is a light year in circumference. If it was set in the solar system it would be out in the Oort Cloud, among the comets – but circling the sun. If it was at rest it would have a surface area equivalent to about thirty billion Earths. But it is not at rest: it rotates at near lightspeed. And because of relativistic effects, distances are compressed for inhabitants of the Belt, and time drastically slowed. The purpose of the Belt is to preserve a community of Xeelee into the very far future, when they will be able to tap dark energy, a universe-spanning antigravity field, for their own purposes. But with time the Belt has attracted populations of lesser species, here for the immense surface area, the unending energy flows. Poole, Miriam and their party, having followed the Ghosts, must explore the artefact and survive encounters with its strange inhabitants – before Poole, at last, finds the Xeelee who led the destruction of Earth…’

The Soldier by Neal Asher (May; Macmillan)
‘A hidden corner of space is swarming with lethal alien technology, a danger to all sentient life. It’s guarded by Orlandine, who must keep it contained at any cost – as it has the power to destroy entire civilizations. She schemes from her state-of-the-art weapons station, with only an alien intelligence to share her vigil. But she doesn’t share everything with Dragon… Orlandine is hatching a plan to obliterate this technology, removing its threat forever. For some will do anything to exploit this ancient weaponry, created by a long-dead race called the Jain. This includes activating a Jain super-soldier, which may breach even Orlandine’s defences. Meanwhile, humanity and the alien prador empire keep a careful watch over this sector of space, as neither can allow the other to claim its power. However, things are about to change. The Jain might not be as dead as they seemed – and interstellar war is just a heartbeat away. The Soldier is the first novel in the Rise of the Jain series, by bestselling science fiction author Neal Asher.’

Hunted by G.X. Todd (May; Headline)
‘The birds are flying. The birds are flocking. The birds sense the red skies are coming. One man is driven by an inner voice that isn’t his – this Other is chewing at his sanity like a jackal with a bone and has one purpose. To find the voice hiding in the girl. She has no one to defend her now. But in an inn by the sea, a boy with no tongue and no voice gathers his warriors. Albus must find the girl, Lacey… before the Other does. And finish the work his sister Ruby began. Hunted is the second book in the acclaimed Voices series, where the battle between Good and Evil holds you in its vice-like grip.’

84K by Claire North (May; Orbit)
‘Theo Miller knows the value of human life – to the very last penny. Working in the Criminal Audit Office, he assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full. But when his ex-lover is killed, it’s different. This is one death he can’t let become merely an entry on a balance sheet. Because when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don’t add up.’

Next up is crime fiction and thrillers! You can then have a rest….

2018 historical fiction – looking ahead (January to May)

One of the best things about seeing out an old year is embracing all the book goodies of the new. While I have yet to conquer completely my 2017 book mountain and fully intend to return to it (as well as to older books), it’s fun to see what’s in store. My 2018 book mountain is already high enough to gather snow and I’ve got a few of its titles under my belt. But, before I post my first review of a 2018 book, here is the first of two posts to feature just some of the books that I’m personally looking forward to over the next few months. This post focuses on the historical fiction (published between January and the end of May 2018) that has caught my eye. It is a very strong list indeed.

Historical Fiction

Nucleus by Rory ClementsNucleus by Rory Clements (January; Zaffre)
I have read this and I can confirm that it is every bit as clever and brilliant as Corpus! ‘June 1939. England is partying like there is no tomorrow, gas masks at the ready. In Cambridge the May Balls are played out with a frantic intensity – but the good times won’t last… In Europe, the Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, and in Germany he persecution of the Jews is now so widespread that desperate Jewish parents send their children to safety in Britain aboard the Kindertransport. Closer to home, the IRA’s S-Plan bombing campaign has resulted in more than 100 terrorist outrages around England. But perhaps the most far-reaching event of all goes largely unreported: in Germany, Otto Hahn has produced the first man-made fission and an atomic device is now a very real possibility. The Nazis set up the Uranverein group of physicists: its task is to build a superbomb. The German High Command is aware that British and US scientists are working on similar line. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is where the atom was split in 1932. Might the Cambridge men now win the race for a nuclear bomb? Hitler’s generals need to be sure they know all the Cavendish’s secrets. Only then will it be safe for Germany to wage war. When one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is once more drawn into an intrigue from which there seems no escape. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin and from Washington DC to the west coast of Ireland, he faces deadly forces that threaten the fate of the world.’

Imperial Vengeance by Ian Ross (January; Head of Zeus)
I have also read this and it’s arguably the best of the series. ‘Aurelius Castus is one of the leading military commanders of an empire riven by civil war. As the emperor Constantine grows ever more ruthless in his pursuit of power, Castus fears that the world he knows is slipping away. On the eve of the war’s final campaign, Castus discovers that the emperor’s son Crispus aims to depose his father and restore the old ways of Rome. Castus must choose between honour and survival, and face a final confrontation with the most powerful man in the Roman world, the ruler he has sworn loyally to serve: the emperor Constantine himself.’

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (January; Harvill Secker)
‘One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost. Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess? In this spellbinding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.’

Traitor by David Hingley (January; Allison & Busby)
Another title that I’ve read and enjoyed with a review to follow shortly. ‘February 1665. With winter passing, Mercia Blakewood is at last headed back to England from America, hoping to leave behind the shadow that death and heartache have cast. She expects a welcome from the King considering her earlier, mostly successful, mission at his behalf, but the reception is not exactly warm. Mercia faces more manipulation and must accept a clandestine and uncomfortable role at the heart of the royal court posing as a mistress to find a spy and traitor.’

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston (January, Dome Press)
My current read! I particularly enjoyed the story of an 11th-century flying monk. ‘History is brought alive by the people it affects, rather than those who created it. In Beautiful Star we meet Eilmer, a monk in 1010 with Icarus-like dreams; Charles I, hiding in 1651, and befriended by a small boy; the trial of Jane Wenham, witch of Walkern, seen through the eyes of her grand-daughter. This is a moving and affecting journey through time, bringing a new perspective to the defence of Corfe Castle, the battle of Waterloo, the siege of Toulon and, in the title story, the devastating dangers of the life of the sea in 1875.’

Rome's Sacred Flame by Robert FabbriRome’s Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri (January; Corvus)
I loved this. A fine addition to one of my favourite series. ‘Rome, AD 63. Vespasian has been made Governor of Africa. Nero, Rome’s increasingly unpredictable Emperor, orders him to journey with his most trusted men to a far-flung empire in Africa to free 200 Roman citizens who have been enslaved by a desert kingdom. Vespasian arrives at the city to negotiate their emancipation, hoping to return to Rome a hero and find himself back in favour with Nero. But when Vespasian reaches the city, he discovers a slave population on the edge of revolt. With no army to keep the population in check, it isn’t long before tensions spill over into bloody chaos. Vespasian must escape the city with all 200 Roman citizens and make their way across a barren desert, battling thirst and exhaustion, with a hoard of rebels at their backs. It’s a desperate race for survival, with twists and turns aplenty. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Nero’s extravagance goes unchecked. All of Rome’s elite fear for their lives as Nero’s closest allies run amok. Can anyone stop the Emperor before Rome devours itself? And if Nero is to be toppled, who will be the one to put his head in the lion’s mouth?’

Scourge of Wolves by David Gilman (February; Head of Zeus)
‘Winter, 1361. After two decades of conflict, Edward III has finally agreed a treaty with the captive French King, John II. In return for his freedom, John has ceded vast tracts of territory to the English. But for five long years mercenary bands and belligerent lords have fought over the carcass of his kingdom. They will not give up their hard-won spoils to honour a defeated king’s promises. If the English want their prize, they’ll have to fight for it… Thomas Blackstone will have to fight for it. As he battles to enforce Edward’s claim, Thomas Blackstone will see his name blackened, his men slaughtered, his family hunted. He will be betrayed and, once again, he’ll face the might of the French army on the field. But this time there will be no English army at his back. He’ll face the French alone.’

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsThe Coffin Path by Katherine Clements (February; Headline Review)
I read this thoroughly creepy tale just before Christmas – a review’s on the way. ‘Maybe you’ve heard tales about Scarcross Hall, the house on the old coffin path that winds from village to moor top. They say there’s something up here, something evil. Mercy Booth isn’t afraid. The moors and Scarcross are her home and lifeblood. But, beneath her certainty, small things are beginning to trouble her. Three ancient coins missing from her father’s study, the shadowy figure out by the gatepost, an unshakeable sense that someone is watching. When a stranger appears seeking work, Mercy reluctantly takes him in. As their stories entwine, this man will change everything. She just can’t see it yet.’

Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks (February; Simon & Schuster)
‘France 1096. Crowds gather in a square in Sens to hear the man known as the Hermit speak. He talks of a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem, a pilgrimage filled with promises for Christian soldiers who march with him. In Jerusalem all sinners will be forgiven and the pious rewarded with great riches. Sybille’s husband is a reckless man and easily swayed by the Hermit’s words. Even knowing the jeopardy and risk of the road ahead Sybille has no choice but to follow her husband and join the march. Fulk, a young blacksmith, is hungry for adventure. The pilgrimage is exactly the excitement he’s craving. For his brother Odo the march is far more serious and sparks a dangerous fanaticism even Fulk doesn’t see coming. Jeanne and Guillemette have been treated badly by the men in their life but this is their chance for redemption and a bright future. But life on the road for two unattached women is perilous. On the path to Jerusalem right and wrong, love and hate, sins and virtues become blurred. Who will make it there alive? And will the sacrifice it takes to get there be worth the price they will pay?’

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (February; Hodder & Stoughton)
The Wicked Cometh will take readers on a heart-racing journey through backstreets swathed with fog to richly curtained, brightly lit country houses; from the libraries and colleges of gentlemen, to sawdust-strewn gin palaces where ne’er-do-wells drink and scheme, all told through the eyes of a heroine with nothing to lose. The year is 1831. Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and no one is willing to speak out on behalf of the city’s vulnerable poor as they disappear from the streets.Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible.When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations.Hester and Rebekah find themselves crossing every boundary they’ve ever known in pursuit of truth, redemption and passion. But their trust in each other will be tested as a web of deceit begins to unspool, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking.’

The Prince and the Whitechapel Murders by Saul David (February; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘London 1888: George ‘Zulu’ Hart is the mixed-race illegitimate son of a Dublin actress and (he suspects) the Duke of Cambridge, commander-in-chief of the army. George has fought his way through wars in Africa and Afghanistan, won the VC and married his sweetheart, but he’s also a gambler, short of money and in no position to turn down the job of ‘minder’ to Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the throne. George is to befriend the charming young cavalry officer and keep him out of trouble – no easy task, given that the Prince is a known target for Irish nationalist assassins, while his secret sexual orientation leaves him open to blackmail and scandal. To make matters worse, the Prince is also in the habit of heading out late at night to sample the dubious pleasures of the East End. Both outsiders in their different ways, perhaps the two men have more in common than they know, but when a series of horrible murders begins in Whitechapel, on just the nights the Prince has been there, George is drawn into an investigation which forces him to confront the unthinkable… A brilliant standalone adventure based on detailed research, this is a thrilling novel of suspense and a fascinating new twist on the Jack the Ripper story.’

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick (March; Sphere)
A new Elizabeth Chadwick novel is something to celebrate and here she returns to the Greatest Knight. ‘England, 1219: Lying on his deathbed, William Marshal, England’s greatest knight, sends a trusted servant to bring to him the silk Templar burial shrouds that returned with him from the Holy Land thirty years ago. It is time to fulfil his vow to the Templars and become a monk of their order for eternity. As he waits for the shrouds’ return, he looks back upon his long-ago pilgrimage with his brother Ancel, and the sacred mission entrusted to them – to bear the cloak of their dead young lord to Jerusalem and lay it on Christ’s tomb in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerusalem, 1183: In the holiest of all cities, the brothers become embroiled in the deadly politics, devious scheming and lusts of the powerful men and women who rule the kingdom. Entangled with the dangerous, mercurial Paschia de Riveri, concubine of the highest churchman in the land, William sets on a path so perilous that there seems no way back for him, or for his brother. Both will pay a terrible price and their only chance to see home again will be dependent on the Templar shrouds.’

Caligula by Simon Turney (March; Orion)
I read this over Christmas and it is a triumph! Its portrait of Caligula, which is wholly original and unusual, gave me nightmares… ‘Rome 37AD. The emperor is dying. No-one knows how long he has left. The power struggle has begun. When the ailing Tiberius thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order, he will change the fate of the empire and create one of history’s most infamous tyrants, Caligula. But was Caligula really a monster? Forget everything you think you know. Let Livilla, Caligula’s youngest sister and confidante, tell you what really happened. How her quiet, caring brother became the most powerful man on earth. And how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever…’

Kin by Snorri Kristjansson (March; Jo Fletcher Books)
‘He can deny it all he likes, but everyone knows Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson brought home a great chest of gold when he retired from the longboats and settled down with Hildigunnur in a remote valley. Now, in the summer of 970, adopted daughter Helga is awaiting the arrival of her unknown siblings: dark, dangerous Karl, lithe, clever Jorunn, gentle Aslak, henpecked by his shrewish wife, and the giant Bjorn, made bitter by Volund, his idiot son. And they’re coming with darkness in their hearts. The siblings gather, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface as Unnthor’s heirs make their moves on the old man’s treasure – until one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed: kin has been slain. No one confesses, but all the clues point to one person – who cannot possibly be the murderer, at least in Helga’s eyes. But if she’s going to save the innocent from the axe and prevent more bloodshed, she’s got to solve the mystery – fast…’

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor (March; Constable)
I believe that this novel closes the investigations of Gordianus the Finder, something that makes me very sad indeed. I’ve been reading and enjoying this fine series for years. ‘Julius Caesar has been appointed dictator for life by the Roman Senate. Having pardoned his remaining enemies and rewarded his friends, Caesar is now preparing to leave Rome with his army to fight the Parthian Empire. Gordianus the Finder, after decades of investigating crimes and murders involving the powerful, has set aside enough that he’s been raised to the Equestrian rank and has firmly and finally retired. On the morning of March 10th, though, he’s first summoned to meet with Cicero and then with Caesar himself. Both have the same request of Gordianus – keep your ear to the ground, ask around, and find out if there are any conspiracies against Caesar’s life. Caesar, however, has one other important matter to discuss. Gordianus’s adopted son Meto has long been one of Caesar’s closest confidants. To honor Meto, Caesar is going to make his father Gordianus a Senator when he attends the next session on the 15th of March. With only four days left before he’s made a Senator, Gordianus must dust off his old skills and see what conspiracy against Julius Caesar, if any, he can uncover. Because the Ides of March are approaching…’

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom (March; Zaffre)
One of my favourite authors has here created that very rare thing – a Roman thriller. Everything takes place within one 24-hour period. It is brilliant! ‘A lone figure stands silhouetted atop the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Behind him, the sun is setting over the centre of the known world. Far below, the river is in full flood. The City of Rome lies spread out before him on the far bank. Footsteps pound up the stairs. He’s been set up. An enemy is closing in; he is cornered. He jumps. Bruised and battered, he crawls out of the raging river. He is alone and unarmed, without money or friends, trapped in a deadly conspiracy at the heart of the Empire. The City Watch has orders to take him alive; other, more sinister, forces want him dead. As the day dies, he realises he has only 24 hours to expose the conspirators, and save the leader of the world. If the Emperor dies, chaos and violence will ensue. If the Emperor dies, every single person he loves will die. He must run, bluff, hide and fight his way across the Seven Hills. He must reach the Colosseum, and the Emperor. He must make it to The Last Hour.’

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor (April; HarperCollins)
‘The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away. James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…? Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.’

The Blood by ES Thomson (April; Constable)
I knew the smell of death well enough. But here the sweetness of decay was tainted with something else, something new and different. It was a curious, moist smell; a smell that spoke of the ooze and slap of water, of gurgling wet spaces and the sticky, yielding mud of low-tide… Summoned to the riverside by the desperate, scribbled note of an old friend, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain find themselves on board the seamen’s floating hospital, an old hulk known only as The Blood, where prejudice, ambition and murder seethe beneath a veneer of medical respectability. On shore, a young woman, a known prostitute, is found drowned in a derelict boatyard. A man leaps to his death into the Thames, driven mad by poison and fear. The events are linked – but how? Courting danger in the opium dens and brothels of the waterfront, certain that the Blood lies at the heart of the puzzle, Jem and Will embark on a quest to uncover the truth. In a hunt that takes them from the dissecting tables of a private anatomy school to the squalor of the dock-side mortuary, they find themselves involved in a dark and terrible mystery.’

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis (April; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘Private investigator Flavia Albia is always drawn to an intriguing puzzle – even if it is put to her by her new husband’s hostile ex-wife. On the Quirinal Hill, a young girl named Clodia has died, apparently poisoned with a love potion. Only one person could have supplied such a thing: a local witch who goes by the name of Pandora, whose trade in herbal beauty products is hiding something far more sinister. The supposedly sweet air of the Quirinal is masking the stench of loose morality, casual betrayal and even gangland conflict and, when a friend of her own is murdered, Albia determines to expose as much of this local sickness as she can – beginning with the truth about Clodia’s death.’

Retribution by Anthony Riches (April; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘The author of the bestselling Empire series reaches the action-filled climax of his epic story of the uprising of the Batavi in AD 69. Victory is in sight for Kivilaz and his Batavi army. The Roman army clings desperately to its remaining fortresses along the Rhine, its legions riven by dissent and mutiny, and once-loyal allies of Rome are beginning to imagine the unimaginable: freedom from the rulers who have dominated them since the time of Caesar. The four centurions – two Batavi and two Roman, men who were once comrades in arms – must find their destiny in a maze of loyalties and threats, as the blood tide of war ebbs and flows across Germania and Gaul. For Rome does not give up its territory lightly. And a new emperor knows that he cannot tolerate any threat to his undisputed power. It can only be a matter of time before Vespasian sends his legions north to exact the empire’s retribution.’

Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo (April; Doubleday)
‘On the eve of the year 1815, the American sailors of the Eagle finally arrive at Dartmoor prison; bedraggled, exhausted but burning with hope. They’ve only had one thing to sustain them – a snatched whisper overheard along the way. The war is over. Joe Hill thought he’d left the war outside these walls but it’s quickly clear that there’s a different type of fight to be had within. The seven prison blocks surrounding him have been segregated; six white and one black. As his voice rings out across the courtyard, announcing the peace, the redcoat guards bristle and the inmates stir. The powder keg was already fixed to blow and Joe has just lit the fuse. Elizabeth Shortland, wife of the Governor looks down at the swirling crowd from the window of her own personal prison. The peace means the end is near, that she needn’t be here for ever. But suddenly, she cannot bear the thought of leaving. Inspired by a true story, Mad Blood tells of a few frantic months in the suffocating atmosphere of a prison awaiting liberation. It is a story of hope and freedom, of loss and suffering. It is a story about how sometimes, in our darkest hour, it can be the most unlikely of things that see us through.’

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison WeirSix Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir (May; Headline Review)
As soon as this arrived I read it and it is marvellous. This is the novel of the series I’ve been most looking forward to and it did not disappoint. ‘Eleven days after the death of Anne Boleyn, Jane is dressing for her wedding to the King. She has witnessed at first hand how courtly play can quickly turn to danger and knows she must bear a son… or face ruin. This new Queen must therefore step out from the shadows cast by Katherine and Anne – in doing so, can she expose a gentler side to the brutal King? Jane Seymour, the third of Henry’s queens. Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir draws on new research for her captivating novel, which paints a compelling portrait of Jane and casts fresh light on both traditional and modern perceptions of her. Jane was driven by the strength of her faith and a belief that she might do some good in a wicked world. History tells us how she died. This spellbinding novel explores the life she lived.’

Clash of Empires by Ben Kane (May; Orion)
‘It is the turn of the 3rd century BC. Hannibal has just been defeated, and Rome now turns its eyes on Greece. The Roman legion was pitted against the Greek phalanx in the ultimate ancient military showdown as Rome stretched its military muscles into the birthplace of civilisation. In Kane’s trademark style, the novel will follow both soldiers on the ground, as well as the great political figures of the day. In three tumultuous years, Greece, birthplace of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Alexander of Macedon, whose soldiers saw off the invading Persians hordes at Thermopylae, whose phalanxes made the world tremble, fell beneath the inexorable Roman legions’ march. This victory cemented the birth of the mightiest empire that has ever existed.’

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse (May; Mantle)
‘Bringing sixteenth-century Languedoc vividly to life, Kate Mosse’s The Burning Chambers is a gripping story of love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets; of war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties… Carcassonne 1562: Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop. Sealed with a distinctive family crest, it contains just five words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. But before Minou can decipher the mysterious message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever. For Piet has a dangerous mission of his own, and he will need Minou’s help if he is to get out of La Cité alive. Toulouse: As the religious divide deepens in the Midi, and old friends become enemies, Minou and Piet both find themselves trapped in Toulouse, facing new dangers as sectarian tensions ignite across the city, the battle-lines are drawn in blood and the conspiracy darkens further. Meanwhile, as a long-hidden document threatens to resurface, the mistress of Puivert is obsessed with uncovering its secret and strengthening her power…’

The Encircling Sea by Adrian Goldsworthy (May; Head of Zeus)
‘AD 100: Flavius Ferox, Briton and Roman centurion, is finding it hard to keep the peace. Based at Vindolanda – an army fort on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world – he feels the eyes of his enemies on him at all hours. Ambitious leaders sense a chance to carve out empires of their own. While men nearer at hand speak in whispers of war and the destruction of Rome. And out at sea, ships of pirates and deserters restlessly wait for the time to launch their attack on the empire’s land.’

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden (May; Michael Joseph)
‘In the Ancient World, one army was feared above all others. This is their story. When Cyrus, brother to the Great King of Persia, attempts to overthrow his reckless sibling, he employs a Greek mercenary army of 10,000 soldiers. When this army becomes stranded as a result of the unexpected death of Cyrus, and then witnesses the treacherous murder of its entire officer corps, despair overtakes them. One man, Xenophon, rallies the Greeks. As he attempts to lead them to freedom across 1,500 miles of hostile territory seething with adversaries, 10,000 men set off on the long way home.’

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’m looking forward to some surprises but it’s certainly more than enough to keep me very happily reading indeed! I hope you find something here to tempt you.

Next up will be science fiction and crime thrillers…

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins | 1934 (this edn 2017; 19 October) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Below you’ll find first a review from my recent re-reading of Murder on the Orient Express. Beneath it, there’s my report of one of the most extraordinary days I think I’ll ever have…

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieIt is the early 1930s and there are few ways more luxurious to travel from Stamboul to London than on the glorious Orient Express. The train is full and so famous Belgian detective is fortunate to find a berth when a case he’s been working on calls him back to England in a hurry, curtailing a longed for time of rest among the wonders of the Turkish city. It is midwinter and after just a day and a night the train is stopped in its tracks by an impassable snowdrift. There is no choice but for everyone aboard to wait until help can arrive. But this can be of no concern to Mr Ratchett, the wealthy American businessman in the berth next to Poirot’s, for in the night he has been murdered, stabbed multiple times in his chest.

The passengers are trapped. And what a group they are, hailing from all over the world and from all walks of life, from an elderly Russian princess to a young English governess. Poirot has no doubt that amongst them he will find the killer, but which of them is it? And why are there so many clues? Too many clues for Hercule Poirot’s peace of mind.

I grew up on Agatha Christie’s novels and during my teenage years I read every single one of them (my young adult reading was Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and Arthur C. Clarke). Since then, I’ve returned to the Poirot books because these were always my favourites and, while Death on the Nile has always been the one I loved the most, Murder on the Orient Express has never been far behind.

The setting and circumstances of Murder on the Orient Express provide the perfect background for an Agatha Christie novel – the confined space, the exotic location, the limited number of suspects, the clever and seemingly unsolvable crime, the glamour, the passion. And while Agatha Christie demonstrates once more what a genius she was, the murder also gives Hercule Poirot one of his most perplexing cases as well as perhaps the biggest moral conundrum of his career.

I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express three times now and obviously I know who did it. I suspect there aren’t many who don’t – aided by the television and movie dramatisations of the novel over the years, including the most recent version directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed reading it again perhaps even more than I have done before. It didn’t hurt that I was reading such a beautiful celebratory hardback edition, or indeed that I actually carried it on to the Orient Express train itself, but it was a pleasure to read it in search of the clues. Knowing how it ended, I could observe Poirot at work as he interviews the passengers one by won and follows the clues.

There are elements that have aged less well than others, particularly in the regard of some characters for some nations. Snobbery is rife, class is everything, at least to some. But Poirot manages to bridge these cultural and social divides because he is an outsider and also because he’s more elegant and refined than the lot of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with this much loved novel again. I found Agatha Christie’s style refreshing, to the point, curt in places, but more often than not eloquent and elegant. It evokes a bygone world beautifully and so now the novel is as much a historical piece as a supremely successful crime novel. I enjoyed it for both and it inspired me to go back and re-read more. Hercule Poirot is extraordinary and it’s good to be reminded of this by rediscovering him where he was born – on the page.

Premiere report

On 2 November, I had a day unlike any other, all thanks to HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox and Agatha Christie Ltd. I can’t thank them enough because for one day I was treated like a movie star. I think I could get used to red carpets, five star hotels, premieres, and lots and lots of champagne. All the photos below were taken by me.

The day started with something I have always wanted to do – boarding the Orient Express train at St Pancras Station in London. I’ve seen the movie and obviously read the book and now here I was sitting in one of its plush seats in the glamorous bar carriage, listening to James Pritchard discuss the legacy of his great grandmother, Agatha Christie. Across the carriage was Agatha Christie’s portable typewriter. The last time it had been on the Orient Express it had been with her.

Orient Express

It was good to hear that more adaptations may follow Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. But the overriding impression I was left with was how incredible and intrepid Agatha Christie had been – to have travelled across the world on her own in a time before television to places that she could not have fully imagined in advance. I’ve always been interested in the story of Agatha Christie’s expeditions with her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan but she did so much more than that. Agatha Christie and her husband are buried in the beautiful village of Cholsey, not too far from me, and I regularly pay my respects.

James Pritchard

The premiere experience at the Royal Albert Hall was unforgettable. I’ve been to a fair few premieres due to my movie blogging years but this was the first time I’ve been to one as a guest and it was incredible. With my special pass, I was able to access the areas with the stars and so watch them all be interviewed on the red carpet stage by Lorraine Kelly. It seems a long time ago since I used to go and see Kenneth Branagh on stage with his Renaissance theatre company. Now look at him! I was particularly thrilled to see Daisy Ridley and she looked beautiful.

Daisy Ridley
Daisy Ridley
Kenneth Branagh

The film itself was thoroughly entertaining although I was a bit overcome by the atmosphere inside of the Royal Albert Hall (I collected my degree in the Hall in another century and this was my first time back), the occasion, the sound system and by the amount of champagne. I was interested in the ways in which the film veered from the novel but I thought that the addition of the viaduct and the use of the outdoors for one of the most important scenes were inspired. I thought Branagh was fantastic as Poirot – completely different from David Suchet and Albert Finney (certainly from Peter Ustinov). This Poirot is a man of action as well as a genius with his little grey cells. The practicality of the moustaches is another matter entirely.

Johnny Depp
Josh Gad
Kenneth Branagh
Judi Dench
Royal Albert Hall

An extraordinary day and one I’m so thrilled and grateful to have experienced. It means a lot to me that this was all to celebrate Agatha Christie, an author who has played such a significant part in developing me as a reader and lover of books. Many years have passed and it’s so good to think that films such as this may give new generations a nudge to read and love Agatha Christie’s mysteries, just as their parents and grandparents have done.

Agatha Christie's TypewriterPoirot choccies

Thanks again to HarperCollins (Fliss), Twentieth Century Fox (Olivia) and Agatha Christie Ltd (Lydia) x

Happy New Year and Book Review of 2014 part 3 – The Oldies and Completed Trilogies

Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a good year’s reading in 2014 and are now busily erecting your 2015 TBR piles. Mine is already happily teetering. I finished my GoodReads Reading Challenge for 2014 on 156 books and have now set my 2015 target as 116. I don’t want to set it too high, mostly because I don’t want to be frightened by it. I’m easily intimidated. But I do have a few reading resolutions for 2015.

Firstly, I want to read more books that I might not have considered reading a few years ago. I want to expand my reading. Not at the cost of historical fiction and science fiction, which are my own true loves, but in addition to those. I dabbled a bit in fantasy novels in 2014, I even read a couple of psychological thrillers. I discovered that not only did I survive the experience but I also enjoyed it. I’m not saying I’m going to be picking up a book with elves in it anytime soon but I’ve learned not to pigeonhole genres quite as much as I did. There is a lot more to fantasy fiction than elves and dragons and I have also learned that crime fiction is much more varied than I imagined. Not that I know much about what I’m talking about, I’m a newbie in these worlds. I’m not going overboard, though. I want to focus as always on science fiction and historical fiction, with a few thrillers thrown into the mix.

Secondly, I’ll continue to read older books. I enjoy new books enormously but I’m always trying to catch up with the backlists of favourite authors and new writers that I discover. I didn’t manage to review every book I read in 2014 but I will continue trying to review everything, whether it’s a review copy or a bought book. My reading is probably divided half and half between the two and I like that.

Thirdly, I’m going to enforce my 100 page rule. If a book hasn’t grabbed me by page 101 then it’s going to get discarded. I pick up every book with the intention and desire of finishing it, I hate giving up, but some books just aren’t made for me and I don’t want to spend too long finding that out. I’m going to be tough! Hopefully…

Fourthly, I’m considering making some minor changes to the blog as it’s now coming up to four years old. My emphasis is and always will be on reviews but I would like to chat more with you about books, so I’m envisioning some kind of monthly review and preview post, but I’m still thinking this through.

Book Review of 2014 – The Oldies

So before I get on with 2015 reviews – and I already have a big backlog because I don’t like to review books until the year they’re published (which is awkward as most of them are published today) – here’s my final Book Review of 2014. This time I want to highlight some of the fantastic older books I’ve read over the last twelve months as well as the authors I’ve binged on. I’ll also include here a couple of trilogies which were completed in 2014 but which I read in their entirety one after another during the last twelve months.

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. HamiltonPeter F. Hamilton – The Night’s Dawn Trilogy
In the early months of 2014 I read and adored Peter F. Hamilton’s masterpiece, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. Well over 3000 pages in total, this series isn’t just mindboggling, rich and extraordinary in every single way, it’s also large enough to form a piece of furniture. I live in a tiny flat and actually got rid of a lamp table so that I could keep these three books. Brilliant to read and also functional. Without doubt, this is my favourite trilogy and my reading highlight of 2014. The reviews are here: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God. I also got to meet Peter F. Hamilton in 2014! Amazingly, I wasn’t reduced to a blubbering wreck. I even managed to ask him a relatively coherent question.

The Terror by Dan SimmonsDan Simmons
After reading The Abominable in 2013, I realised that I needed to read much more Dan Simmons. As a writer, he intrigues me. He has produced enormously atmospheric and chilly books about the world’s most inhospitable environments and he has also written powerful and imaginative – and still chilly – science fiction. In 2014, I dabbled with both. Firstly, I read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t manage to review these. I think I felt a little not up to the challenge. But these stories of spacefaring pilgrims and the absolutely terrifying shrike that each must encounter were mesmerising. Each of the tales in Hyperion were memorable and shocking, packed with twists and ideas that took my breath away. The story of Rachel Weintraub is not one I’ll ever forget. Later in the year I read The Terror, another classic novel, bringing to life the awful and harrowing Franklin Expedition into the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century. A substantial book, it is as moving and exciting as it is long. It is also more than a little frightening as the men seek to keep ahead of whatever it is that stalks them on the ice. The review is here.

Absolution Gap by Alastair ReynoldsAlastair Reynolds
Since reading Blue Remembered Earth and its sequel On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds has become one of my very favourite authors. In 2013, I read and loved Pushing Ice, one of my top science fiction books, and in 2014 I returned to the Revelation Space trilogy, finishing it with Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. As it happened, Absolution Gap turned into one of my top reads of 2014. Full of enormous ideas, gorgeous views over strange worlds and fascinating characters, it was an immensely rewarding read, quite often tragic and even humorous in unusual ways. I also read House of Suns in 2014. I have yet to review this but it was an outstanding SF read, containing one scene in particular (and if you’ve read it I think you’ll know which one) which I can never forget. I have more Reynolds’ novels in the TBR pile and in 2015, I look forward to reading more by this wonderful author whose imagination is irresistible.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. WintersThe Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters
I discovered this series in the GoodReads top reads of 2014 poll. I couldn’t believe that I’d missed it – an apocalyptic trilogy that is extraordinarily rich in character, featuring the deeply sympathetic figure of police detective Hank Palace. Hank isn’t your typical hero – he is obsessive, quirky, pernickity but he is immensely likeable, loyal and determined. With the world collapsing around him in the face of an increasingly imminent asteroid strike Hank cannot let justice die. He is indeed The Last Policeman. The three novels become more and more intense as things shift towards the end. The books are packed with action and emotion, hopes and fears. It all felt frighteningly real and I was so desperate to learn what would happen to Hank and his friends and family that I read all three books one after another. A huge reading highlight of 2014. The reviews are here: The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble.

The City's Son by Tom PollockThe Skyscraper Throne trilogy by Tom Pollock
Another trilogy that I read back to back in 2014 was the urban fantasy Skyscraper Throne set of books by Tom Pollock. This was probably my first foray into urban fantasy and I discovered that I really enjoyed the mix of the recognisably real and the fantastic that is concealed beneath, whether it’s in an underground tunnel, in a streetlight, in a statue, or in the reflections of a mirror. Tom Pollock made me look at London, a city I lived in for years, in a completely different way and I loved what I found. It’s frightening, it really is, but it is also beautiful and rich. I was captivated instantly by The City’s Son, the novel that introduces us to graffiti artist Beth. Aboard a train that is no train at all, Beth inadvertently saves the life of Filius Viae, the prince of London, son of its mother goddess, a boy with cement-coloured skin who can call any part of the city home. Both Fil and Beth are, to all intents and purposes, parentless and each finds him or herself drawn to the other. It’s just as well – Reach, an ancient enemy who lives in the cranes that surround St Paul’s, is awake for the first time in centuries. And then that fabulous story is rivaled, if not even surpassed, by the story of Pen in The Glass Republic. The trilogy concluded during 2014 with the tumultuous and completely satisfying Our Lady of the Streets. This trilogy was one which I would never have thought before that I would enjoy but how wrong I was. Tom Pollock is one of those authors who’s given me a welcome nudge to look outside the expected for my reads.

The Golem and the Djinni by Helen WeckerThe Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
Another book destined to expand my reading was one of the very first novels I read in 2014 and it stood out throughout the rest of the year – The Golem and the Djinni. It is 1899 and immigration to New York City is at its height. Not all newcomers, though, are as they seem. Chava is a golem. A creature made from clay, life breathed in to her through spells, binding her to the man who wakes her. But upon being woken aboard the ship sailing from the old world her husband dies, leaving her as alone as one ever could be in a foreign world. On docking, she jumps into the sea and walks to the city underneath the water, dragging seaweed wrapped round her boots. She finds refuge of a sort with a kindly, elderly rabbi and she becomes part of the New York Jewish community, endlessly working, baking and sewing, never needing to sleep or eat, quietly searching for a purpose. Across the city, Ahmad awakes. He is a creature of fire, a djinni born in the Syrian desert hundreds and hundreds of years before, able to take many forms, but trapped in a brass flask by a wizard of immense evil powers. Ahmad is freed from the flask by a metalworker but an iron band around his wrist enslaves him in human form. He works for the metalworker, heating the metal with his bare hands, becoming a part of the Christian community of New York. Ahmad also never sleeps, instead he explores by night this magical city, protecting himself with an umbrella from the rain that would quench his spirit. The Golem and the Djinni is a remarkable novel, haunting and mesmerising with the most beautiful prose and alive with perfectly drawn characters, including the character of New York City itself. What a place it would have seemed to the immigrants of the earliest 20th century, and its strangeness and wonder is intensified as we witness it through the eyes and experiences of two beings from another world entirely.

The Lion and the Lamb by John Henry ClayThe Lion and the Lamb by John Henry Clay
The Lion and the Lamb is one of my favourite historical fiction reads of 2014 and I was very annoyed that I left it so long. I think the main reason for the delay is that it’s set in late Roman Britain, a time which didn’t particularly interest me. I was so wrong. After reading this novel, this period of transformation has now become one of my favourites. This is a fabulous book, not least because it features strong female characters alongside the men and takes a fascinating look at the development of the early Christian church in Britain and its relationship to the other religions beloved by the Romans. I also loved how it brought familiar Roman sites in Britain, such as Chedworth, to life. The novel tours the country, from Hadrian’s Wall and beyond to the south and this adds so much to its depiction of this time and place.

Gaius Cironius Agnus Paulus is a prince of the Dobunni, son of a senator of Rome, a man truly privileged in these declining decades of Roman rule in Britain. But in AD 362 Paul is trapped in a stream, naked with a sword at his throat, ready to accept his fate as punishment for what he has become – a banished son and brother, a sinner, whose life is forfeit. But when Paul is saved by a peasant, Victor, the two are given a fresh start, discovering new lives in the most desperate and unlikely of circumstances. They are pressganged into the Roman army and are sent north to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. The depleted and ill-provisioned forces are expecting trouble and they get it. The Picts and the other northern tribes are joining together, ready to take on Rome. The threat, though, doesn’t come from the north alone. The longer Paul fights on the edge of empire, the more he learns about the other dangers facing Roman Britain. There comes a point when Paul must weigh up the fear of returning home to the southern hills against his need to save his family. This alone would make The Lion and the Lamb a potentially gripping novel but there is so much more to it than that.

Doomsday Book by Connie WillisDoomsday Book by Connie Willis
Last but not least, I wanted to include Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a novel that managed to both infuriate and captivate me. Written at a time when it was easier to foresee time travel than mobile phones, it combines the most memerising account of a young woman’s journey back to plague-stricken Oxfordshire in the mid 14th century with the frustrating account of the struggle of those she left behind in a near-future Oxford to bring her back. But those frustrations count as nothing once you reach the incredible and spellbinding final third of the novel. What Kivrin, the woman from the future, experiences is almost beyond imagining. The dialogue and prose is wonderful and real. The people Kivrin meets have such power and authenticity. The priest Roche is an outstanding character and the way we learn about him through Kivrin’s experiences is crafted beautifully. The young child Agnes is a delight. I can’t think of another child in a modern novel I’ve loved as much. She’s so real. And over time Kivrin herself is transformed in the most remarkable way. As she says at one point, despite it all she never would have wished not to have come. An extraordinary read that wiped me out emotionally for quite some time. I love books that can do that.

So there we have it – the final Book Review of 2014 post, which means that now I can look ahead to some of the wonderful books 2015 holds in store, many of which I don’t yet know about – exciting! There are lots of books published today, 1 January, that I can recommend but haven’t reviewed yet. These include Empire (The Chronicles of the Invaders 2) by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard, another late Roman Britain novel War at the Edge of the World by Ian Ross and the follow up to Red Rising, Golden Son by Pierce Brown. If Golden Son doesn’t feature as one of my ten best reads of 2015, I’ll be very surprised. 2015 is starting very well on the bookreading front – long may it continue! Happy New Year!

Book Review of 2014 – Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

Hot on the heels of the previous Book Review post which focused on Historical Fiction and Thrillers, it’s now time to turn my attention to the other half of my reading brain – the bit that adores Science Fiction. My top ten SF books are presented below. But this year my reading habits have become a little more flexible than they have been in the past. I am now less afraid of dabbling in Fantasy and Horror. So while I will never stop loving spaceships and aliens first and foremost, in 2014 some of my favourite reads came from less familiar worlds. As with the Historical Fiction, there are a couple of books here that I read right at the end of 2013 but reviewed in 2014.

I read plenty of science fiction from previous years during 2014 and those will feature in another post. Alastair Reynolds didn’t publish a novel this year but I spent a considerable part of 2014 immersed in his books. I also read several trilogies in their entirety and they’ll feature in that post, too.

The books below are presented in no particular order except for the final Science Fiction choice which was my favourite. It is also my joint favourite novel of the year alongside its Historical Fiction counterpart. I should mention that this was not an easy choice at all – there were a bunch of SF novels in contention for top choice. Click on the titles for the full reviews.

Science Fiction

Ultima by Stephen BaxterUltima by Stephan Baxter, Gollancz
Proxima was my favourite novel of 2013. The wait for Ultima was long and impatient. I will be very cagey here because you do need to have read Ultima first and I certainly don’t want to spoil it so here are just a few thoughts on what Ultima meant to me.

In science fiction such as this I want to be awestruck with wonder and Stephen Baxter supplies this by the page once we’ve moved on from the first third. We are taken to new extraordinary habits, beautifully painted – I don’t want to say anything about these, you must experience it all yourself. Characters we knew little now come into their own and rival those we already cared for. The backstories these characters are given are strangely powerful as we encounter new ways of life based on twisted traditions. Time has moved on substantially since the days of Proxima but I loved where it takes us. There are so many little adventures, so big for those taking part, all forming a crucial part of a huge bigger picture that encompasses the meaning and future of the entire universe. These are big ideas, wonderfully wrought. A fabulous mix of large and small, universes and individual lives. The final third in particular is as superb as anything in Proxima.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel FaberThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Canongate
Pastor Peter Leigh has been selected to visit Oasis, a planet trillions of miles from Earth that is home to an alien species that hungers for the word of God and especially the love of Jesus. This is a fantastic opportunity for Peter, to become a missionary on a new frontier. But the cost is high. USIC, the mysterious company that has bought Cape Canaveral and finances space exploration to Oasis, has a stringent selection policy and there is a place for just Peter, not for his beloved wife Bea. Peter must cope with life on a new, very different world, with little more than his own faith to sustain him, learning to relate to his strange unearthly flock, while separated from his wife and soulmate. Left on Earth, Bea has more than enough trials to test her own faith. Earth is in decline, catastrophes increase. Bea’s letters grow more and more desolate. The separation between husband and wife becomes much more than physical as both Peter and Bea learn about the true nature of faith, communication, love and need.

Oasis is a breathtaking planet, not necessarily because it’s beautiful (although I think it is) but because of the way that Michel Faber describes it. Rarely has an author transported me to another world that is as fully realised as this one or populated by an alien species as sympathetic as this one. The descriptions of the rain, the mud, the insects, the sun and light and darkness, the Jesus Loving aliens, their homes and church – it is all created with such care and wonder. Earth is, as Peter reflects, more stunning with so much more to marvel at but Oasis is gorgeously different. It is alien and the wonder of that is evoked superbly through the beauty of Michel Faber’s prose.

The Book of Strange New Things may well be the novel that I’ve thought about most this year before I actually got round to reading it. Friends whose opinions I value didn’t like it at all while there were others who adored it. A marmite book by the sound of things. I had some concerns going in – I have a low tolerance for anything that feels ‘preachy’ or religious and I don’t get on too well with books about marriage break-ups. But there was a stronger voice in my head saying I must read it – the cover is stunning, my favourite of the year, tactile and gorgeous, and it’s about life on a colony on an alien world while the Earth that’s been left behind approaches its apocalypse. As far as I was concerned, this is irresistible. What I actually got from The Book of Strange New Things is much more than that. This book made me dream of it. Compelling, hypnotic, really rather extraordinary and, for me, unputdownable. The Book of Strange New Things is a highlight of the year for me and will stay with me for a long time. A serious contender for my book of the year.

Lock in by John ScalziLock In by John Scalzi, Gollancz
Haden’s Syndrome is a super flu, a new Spanish Flu in its virulence, that struck much of the world’s population, leaving millions dead and the rest relieved to recover. That was before stage two hit. This second attack gave a proportion of the survivors a form of meningitis that left some dead and others mentally different. A smaller number, 1% of the population, is left in a waking coma, unable to move and communicate and yet aware – the condition is named Lock In while the disease itself is called Haden’s Syndrome after Lock In’s most famous victim, the First Lady. A generation after the outbreak, society has been transformed by the legacy of Haden’s Syndrome. The Locked In, or Haden, have been given new life, thanks to quickly developed futuristic technology which allows sufferers to move their consciousness into fully mobile and interactive robots called Threeps (named in honour of C3PO – a pleasant touch). Hadens can also transfer themselves into an online digital society called Agora in which each can have his or her own haven. But this enormous dedication of resources as well as legislation supporting the equality of Hadens, has finally run into a brick wall and, as the novel begins, a new law is about to come into effect which would drastically impact the lives of ordinary Haden, of whom there are more and more each year as the disease continues to find new victims.

Not all of those stricken with the Haden meningitis are Locked In. A few, barely a few thousand per country, have had their minds altered in such a way that they have the potential to become Integrators – they can actually carry, for a fee, the consciousness of the Locked In, pushing their own personalities into the shadows of their minds. All well and good as long as the Haden plays by the rules and doesn’t use his or her borrowed body for anything more harmful than a Supersized fast food feast.

Set in the near and recognisable future, Lock In is a complex, clever and thoroughly entertaining novel that is both murder mystery and science fiction. Its worldbuilding is superb. Our hero and mouthpiece, Shane, is am interesting character. He’s both a Haden in a Threep and an FBI agent, brand new on the job (in fact it’s his first week), whose team investigates crimes involving Haden. Shane, with a famous sportsman and now potential politician for a father, has grown up as the the poster boy for Haden, His famous (metal) face supported by a millionaire’s wallet. Despite this background, Shane manages to be both immensely likeable and capable, as indeed is his father. Being perceived as not quite human is something that Shane has to deal with every day, while his human body lies in a cradle in his parents’ home, cared for day and night, his thoughts and pains and dreams alive in this superhuman robotic body. All the time, the commentary comes from Shane. We see this world through Locked In eyes and it’s all the more powerful and effective and human for it.

Cibola Burn by James S.A. CoreyCibola Burn by James S.A. Corey, Orbit
Cibola Burn is the fourth novel in the Expanse series. It is also, in my view, a contender for best in what has become one of my favourite of all series, irrespective of genre. I’ll give the minimum away here.

The floodgates have opened. The mysterious alien gate to the stars has been subdued, heralding a race to colonise the most promising of the planets, many light months from Earth but just days away thanks to this artefact. Ilus is a most attractive target – rich in metals and welcoming in climate. Royal Charter Energy (RCE) is quick off the mark, sending a mission of scientists to explore the planet and its habitats, to determine the best and safest way to extract its bounty. Unfortunately, when their vessel the Edward Israel arrives, it is to find a planet already settled and already named, New Terra. Trying to make a life on the planet are refugees from past attacks by the protomolecule which filled the pages of the previous novels, especially the assault on Ganymede. These are people with little to lose except the new ground beneath their feet and so they fight to keep it.

This is a thoroughly exciting adventure and mystery, mixing a complex, thrilling, pageturning plot with fascinating character development. Without doubt, this is the novel I wanted next from the Expanse and it promises so much for what is to come.

Defenders by Will McIntoshDefenders by Will McIntosh, Orbit
It is 2029 and first contact has arrived in the form of the Luyten. These large, star-shaped aliens drop from their vessels at a sprint, unleashing hell, driving people into the cities, always more than one step ahead of their human enemy because, it is discovered, they are telepathic. One careless strategic thought will race like wildfire, costing lives, many millions it is believed, spreading despair. When all hope seems lost, scientist Dominique Wiewell manufactures the Defenders – organic yet machine-like warriors, three legged for speed, giant in size, unable to procreate, stunted in imagination, always hungry, deadly. Humans watch in gratitude and joy as the Defenders tear the Luyten apart. One might have expected that this would be the end of the crisis. Far from it.

The depiction of the relationship between humans and their created Defenders is fascinating but for me the highlight is the relationship between humans and Luytens. I think this is extraordinary. The difficulties of communicating can only make matters worse but when Luytens do try and talk to humans how far can they be believed? How far can humans be believed? The opening third of the novel makes it plain how aggressive these aliens are. Billions of humans are slaughtered. Can this harm be forgiven? Should it? Who is to blame is a major question of Defenders and our answer to it may shift and crumble repeatedly though these marvellous pages.

It is impossible for me to do justice to Defenders. Packed into its 500 pages is an explosion of drama, emotion, action, pain, thrills and questions – questions about who we are as people and our prejudices or acts of cruelty against the unfamiliar (expressed here in a Defender’s matter of fact explanation of why humans made Defenders with three legs not two). Last year I was captivated by Will’s Love Minus Eighty, an emotional mix of clever science fiction with social satire, and as a result Defenders was a priority read for me. It is a stunning book and, without doubt, it is my favourite first contact novel. It is not only thrilling and exhilarating, it’s painful and moving, extremely clever and rewarding, full of ideas and populated by characters you can’t help caring for and feeling for, even those you feel you shouldn’t. What a writer! More, please!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador
It all begins during Act 4 of King Lear. The play is performed at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, on a stage covered in artificial snow, mirroring the snow that has fallen on the streets of the true city under the skies. An actor collapses. Within days, a few weeks at most, almost everyone in the audience, on stage, backstage and in the streets, bars and shops is dead, claimed by the Georgia Flu. It is estimated that 99% of the world’s population is killed by the disease. The world as we know it ends. Twenty years later, a troop of actors, the Travelling Symphony, walks the potholed, grass-cracked roads, performing A Midsummer’s Night Dream and other plays to enthusiastic acclaim from communities they happen upon during the vast stretches of very little. The troop of actors, writers and musicians has a slogan, ‘Survival is Insufficient’. In this post-apocalyptic vision it is not enough just to survive. It is more important to live.

Station Eleven is an extraordinary novel. The marketing campaign from Picador has been second to none but Emily St. John Mandel has created a wonderful thing – a novel that is every bit as good as the buzz and excitement proclaim. It is not a long novel but it is rich beyond its length and it is one of the most rewarding novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s an exciting read, full of adventure and puzzles, but it is also such a moving novel. Here are characters enduring the very worst and emerging on the other side – clearly not everyone will survive, the odds are dead set against that, but the narrative ties us to their stories with the utmost skill. The worldbuilding is perfect but it is exceptionally lightly done, built on memories, hopes and dread. I would recommend Station Eleven to anyone, whether you’re a fan of apocalyptic fiction or not.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire NorthThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North Orbit
As 1918 turns into 1919, Harry August is born in the ladies washroom of a railway station in England’s northeast; a birth that the mother does not survive. This, though, is not the first time. Harry August is one of the Kalachakra, or the ouroborans, people who are born time after time, reliving the same years but with the ability to make changes within their lives. This is because they are able to remember past lives. It also qualifies them to become members of the secret but widely spread Cronus Club, an organisation that exists to help those who are born this way but also there to ensure that certain rules are obeyed. When Harry is on his deathbed for the eleventh time, a young girl gives him a message handed down from the future into the past warning him of the end of the world. It is up to Harry, and men and women like him, to save the future.

The understanding that one will never permanently die, that one will always have to go through yet another childhood but with the experiences of an adult making one different from everyone else, has to twist and mark the character in so many ways. Along with the knowledge that past mistakes can be avoided comes the increasing awareness that it’s not possible to save everyone else. Harry August lives a succession of alternate lives, exploring different roles and relationships with wives and family, and trying to determine what the point is of it all. When Harry is given the apocalyptic message from the future he is given the chance to explore that point, bringing him into contact with other ouroborans, all of whom are dealing with the same problem of purpose in different ways.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a marvellous novel, rolling up several genres into one, including thriller and science fiction. It is clever and full of grand themes but it is also witty and alive with fascinating characters, many of whom have their own ideas about how to take on this world that won’t let them die. As the novel goes on, Harry August becomes an unputdownable race of a thriller. Its plot is brilliantly structured and paced. It twists the brain in all kinds of directions but never stops being thoroughly entertaining.

A Darkling Sea by James L. CambiasA Darkling Sea by James Cambias, Tor
Deep within the oceans of watery, ice-covered planet Ilmatar lies a deep-sea laboratory built by humans and full of scientists. Their mission is to study and absolutely not interfere with the native species of Ilmatarans, a sentient blind lobster-like race that lives on the ocean floor, farming algae and fish and harvesting the mineral-rich vents. This peaceful co-existence (founded on ignorance on one side and curiosity on the other) is strictly monitored by a third species, the offworld Sholen. If the Sholen were to learn that humans had made their presence known to the Ilmatarans then they would force them off the planet, or worse. It’s unfortunate, then, that Henri Kerlerec, an adventurer scientist and media favourite, should choose to test the invisibility of his new diving suit on a bunch of Ilmatarans. It’s even more unfortunate that these particular Ilmatarans should be an expedition of scientists who cannot believe their good fortune in discovering such an oddity swimming in their environment. So curious are they, and so odd is it, that they have no choice but to rush it back to one of their labs and dissect it, bit by bit. Henri’s suit camera films it all. It’s not long before the Sholens are in orbit. And from then on things can only get worse. There will be war.

A Darkling Sea is a captivating first contact novel. It mixes perfectly the horrific and the fantastic by skillfully mixing the perspectives of these three species as they get to know each other kilometres below the surface of the ice-bound planet. We focus on a few representative individuals from each race – the humans Rob and Alicia, the Ilmataran Broadtail and the Sholen Tizhos and Gishora. The narrative tense alters, turning present, when depicting Broadtail’s experiences, reflecting his different perspective, one built on touch not sight, and giving it an immediacy and a difference from the human perspective. A Darkling Sea is one of the most enjoyable and memorable science fiction novels I’ve read. It has curiosities in every section. It makes the jaw drop and it makes me laugh – as well as cover my eyes. These are proper aliens. It’s hard to imagine how on earth (or not on earth) these different species could even attempt to understand each other but James Cambias does a superb job of doing just that.

The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian by Andy Weir, Del Rey/Crown
Mark Watney is one of the first human beings to walk on Mars. The chances are he’s going to set a whole load of other records because, six days after landing, an accident results in his team taking off for Earth in a panic, little realising that the crew member they’re leaving behind and grieving for is not a corpse at all. Far from it. And so Mark’s journal begins.

In a series of log entries, Mark records the Sol days and nights that follow his marooning, a Space Age Robinson Crusoe. But while he could be forgiven for falling into a pool of self pity, watching his oxygen, food and water drip away in a countdown to certain death, Mark Watney does no such thing. From the very first log, Mark Watney grabs his situation with both hands, demonstrating why astronauts are no ordinary mortals, and sets about finding a solution to each of his problems, bit by bit, day by day, setback after setback, success after success. Remember the scene in Apollo 13 where a life saving bit of kit has to be created from a sock and the cover of the flight plan manual? In The Martian, you have the panic and the glory and the worry of this on almost every single page.

This is a novel to mesmerise and entertain readers whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not. It is a tale of extraordinary courage and resolve and such humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. Anything can happen and it often does. It is a wonderful book, written with such deftness and skill, full of tension and drama but also rich in humour. I loved the central character, our marooned Martian, and hung onto his every word.

Now for my favourite SF novel for the year – it’s actually not an easy choice. The Martian, The Book of Strange Things and Station Eleven were hot on its heels, with Defenders and A Darkling Sea barely a step behind. But it’s Peter F. Hamilton… What can I say? This ties with my Historical Fiction top choice for book of the year.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. HamiltonThe Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton, Macmillan
It is 3326 and Nigel Sheldon, a legend in the Commonwealth that he helped to create so long ago in his interminable existence, takes the next step in his extraordinary life. The Raiel, self-appointed guardians of the mysterious and inexplicable Void construct at the centre of the Galaxy, invite Nigel to enter the Void to look for clues to the survival or otherwise of a number of colony vessels that years ago entered the Void and were lost. The Void has become a place of enchantment to those outside it thanks to the dreams of its Waterwalker which somehow, through the medium of Inigo the Dreamer, have been transmitted to eager listeners throughout the Galaxy, drawing them in to the Void. Nigel needs little encouragement. He makes the journey and the Void seals itself behind him.

At the heart of the novel and Nigel’s experience lies Bienvenido, a planet populated by the descendants of starship crews. But thanks to the distortions of time in the Void, decades become centuries. Bienvenido has been settled for 3,000 years. And its not just time that differs. Humans within the Void are changed. They have innate abilities to control their thoughts and even those of animals. They read the minds of others and they live long lives. These lives, for many, are mystical and the masters of their religion are the skylords who claim their souls at death and carry them into the essence of the Void. But this is a world terrorised by the Fallers, an alien species that lives in the orbit of the planet and drops its eggs onto the surface of Bienvenido, where they seek life to kill and replace. Many humans spend their time seeking out the eggs of the Fallers, among them our hero Slvasta and it is his wonderful heroic story that fills much of The Abyss Beyond Dreams, captivating this reader at least from the moment we meet him.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a large book of approximately 700 pages, not quite the brickbook I’m used to with Peter F. Hamilton but it is immensely satisfying and captivating. It mixes its genres and is packed with surprises. I came to care very much about the planet and people of Bienvenido just as I was terrified by the Fallers and mystified and stunned by the skylords. Nigel Sheldon is a great companion through the Void. He is so old he is almost ageless and the wisdom and humour that he has learned along the way stands him in good stead here. Paula Myo makes a welcome cameo but she has some stiff competition in this novel.I love science fiction that makes my jaw drop and my mind soar and time after time Peter F. Hamilton fulfills and expands my hopes. I am so pleased that he has returned to the Commonwealth and given us a novel that I want to shout about. The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a fabulous novel that I can’t even attempt to do justice to. I want to give as little as possible away. My only regret is that it isn’t twice the size. I must be patient and count the days until Night Without Stars.

Honourable mentions
One of my very favourite series finished in 2014 – TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow. The Infinity Cage was a fitting conclusion.
Time and Time Again by Ben Elton
Journal of the Plague Year (anthology)
The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe
Extinction Game by Gary Gibson

Fantasy

Gleam by Tom FletcherGleam by Tom Fletcher, Jo Fletcher Books
Alan lives in the centre of the Pyramid, a great black structure in the factory landscape of Gleam, its point distorted by telescopes and observational instruments. Every week its Arbitrators bleed him, and all other working adults, two pints of his precious blood. But Alan is different from the other Pyramid factory workers. He remembers living outside the structure, in a town destroyed by the Pyramidders, its inhabitants slaughtered, the town returned to the ruinous state of everywhere else in the Discard, and only the child Alan saved to be nurtured, of a sort, in the Pyramid. Alan is known as Wild Alan. He cannot stop remembering life outside the Pyramid. He cannot help himself spreading the word. As a result, his wife Marion and child Billy are placed in danger. There is nothing for it. Marion throws him out into the Discard.

The Discard is a place of wonder, disgust, ugliness, music, violence and freedom. Its edges are infiltrated by the swamp, its depths oozing with slime, traversed by enormous snails, some captured and used by traders, but others eaten. Currency is shiny bugs, the most expensive commodity the rarest mushrooms. Trade in mushrooms is governed by a few monstrous beings, their henchmen even more monstrous – giants that howl and giggle like babies. A few years after leaving the Pyramid, having lived from hand to mouth by entertaining bars with Snapper his guitar, Alan is given a choice that is no choice – in order to save his son he must supply the Arbitrators with the finest and most scarce mushrooms. To do this, Alan must venture into the depths of Discard, pursued by his rivals, escorted by the strangest of travelling companions, into a slimy world that contains Gleam’s deepest secrets and mysteries.

Gleam is an astonishing novel. Its worldbuilding is not only spectacular, I can think of almost none to rival it. The richness of this world, its creatures, its enormous structures, with endless staircases into the slime, its bars and houses of refuge and its mysterious vast expanses of unknown swamp, crisscrossed by ageless structures, littered with objects with no known function, traversed by traders and killers, is staggering. Likewise, Alan is a fascinating, unusual hero. Gleam is the first in a trilogy. It stands well on its own but its ending is as surprising and shocking as the rest of this fine, wonderfully written novel and it makes the time until book two seem long indeed

Son of the Morning by Mark AlderSon of the Morning by Mark Alder, Gollancz
The fear of God and damnation fuelled medieval life. Its fire was fed by the estates of Church and King, the poor predated on by both. But while kings might call on angels for support against the holy forces of their enemy, and while rich and poor alike might entreat saints (or indulgences) to intercede in the daily struggle of a hard life and its inevitable end, it might not hurt to hedge one’s bets – to pester demons and devils for their support. If God won’t listen, maybe Lucifer will. In these times, angels, demons and devils were not fantasy, they were a part of the shadows and lights that watched the daily lives and thoughts of every soul. It is into this medieval world that we are immersed in Son of the Morning – we are dipped into a century where the statues of saints chatter in churches while capricious angels play in the coloured light of Europe’s most royal chapels. Where demons and devils wait for the gates of hell to open just enough, and where the richest in the land consort with monsters. And where the poor are trodden into the mud of the battlefield or discarded in the sewage on the streets. But what if there are demons that will listen just to them? What if a saviour should emerge – not from heaven but a son of Lucifer?

Son of the Morning, written beautifully and powerfully and fantastically from the very first page, finishes perfectly, ending the story for some and hinting at a host of new characters – human, divine and unholy – to come. This is the first in a trilogy. The next cannot come quickly enough, especially with the hints of what lies ins store, including that most diabolic of pestilences, the Black Death. Without doubt, this is one of the most imaginative and vivid novels I have read in years and I will remember for a long time the pleasure it has given me.

Age of Iron by Angus WatsonAge of Iron by Angus Watson, Orbit
If you take a look at the banner above this post, you’ll find Maiden Castle looking down at you out of a frosty chilled sky. Always one of my favourite places, I jumped at the chance to read a novel about it, back in its Iron Age glory, populated by fierce warriors, terrifying druids and the finest craftsmen and women of the age. Age of Iron by Angus Watson delivered all that I asked for by the chariot load. Fiction it certainly is, there are no firsthand accounts of Iron Age Britain other than those written by Julius Caesar, the conqueror who couldn’t pull it off, and so Age of Iron is perhaps more fantasy than (pre)historical fiction. But how real it feels! The novel is set in the years immediately before Caesar’s much anticipated arrival and, as the preface states, ‘The following is what really happened’. And, after reading this bloody, thrilling and exhilarating tour de force of an adventure, who am I to argue?

The year is 61 BC and the southern tribes of Britain are dominated by King Zadar, whose power spirals out from Maidun Castle (as it’s called here) to enclose all of the neighbouring tribes and hillforts. While many pay him an annual tribute of slaves, metal and crops, others are stamped out by his fierce army of male and female warriors, archers and charioteers. As the novel begins, Zadar has reached Barton. The inhabitants trust that he will march on by but Dug Sealskinner, a mercenary who was on his way to enlist in Zadar’s army but somehow got stuck instead with the responsibility of knocking Barton’s ‘army’ into shape, knows differently. And as Zadar’s fearsome elite female archers strike the first blows, Sealskinner knows there is nothing to do but run. Slaughter ensues.

This is the world into which Angus Watson throws us. It is violent and life is short but he gives us three people who each have the power to make a difference. Age of Iron is one of the most exciting novels I have read in a long time. From start to finish there is never a pause in the action. Dug, Lowa and Spring take us on a journey across Iron Age southern Britain as they travel in pursuit of Zadar, honing their skills, getting to know each other, fighting their way from fort to fort, town to town. Their trip is marked by numerous memorable adventures, many of which it’s a miracle anyone can survive, and the people they meet prove time and time again that Dug is right in his philosophy of life – never trust anyone and never help anyone – that he can never keep.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie TidharA Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Hodder & Stoughton
Herr Wolf is an immigrant in 1939 London, one of many Germans driven out from the Fatherland after the fall of fascism in the 1933 German elections. Wolf was once the leader of German fascism but, with his own country caught in the vice of a communist revolution, Wolf, as he now calls himself, makes ends meet as a private detective, living in London’s underworld, amongst its gangsters, thugs and prostitutes. Wolf would never choose to work for Jews unless desperate but desperate he is when Isabella Rubinstein walks into his office. Her sister Judith is missing, one of many immigrants smuggled out of Germany and now lost. Isabella knows exactly which buttons to press. Wolf is soon entangled and descends even deeper into the rot in London’s poorest streets and its racket clubs, so many of which are run by the men who once, years before, clicked their heels at Wolf.

But none of this is real. Shomer lies dreaming in the hell that the Nazis have created. He is in Auschwitz, his family slashed in two, his wife and children gassed, his own survival unlikely. Before the Holocaust, Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. Now he survives one day at a time by dreaming an alternate history, one in which Hitler never rose to power but instead has to hide himself in a foreign city under a different name, working for the very people he despises, pitied and repudiated by Britain’s own rising fascist faction, and reduced to something less than human by the the lust and hatred that has twisted his soul.

In A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar has created an extraordinary vision of a shifted, dark and rotted world. At its heart Shomer lies dreaming and throughout we are given brief and painfully graphic glimpses into his night and day. A Man Lies Dreaming might be dark and powerful and at times painfully graphic (sex and violence – especially the sex) but I found the novel fascinating and extremely difficult to put down, reading it in a couple of sittings. It’s hugely clever, aimed at (and hitting) both the reader’s heart and mind, witty and completely absorbing.

Half a King by Joe AbercrombieHalf a King by Joe Abercrombie, Harper Voyager
When King Uthrik and his heir are taken through the Last Door on the edge of a murderer’s sword, Prince Yarvi ascends the Black Chair, wearing the King’s Circle on his brow. This was not the destiny Yarvi had hoped for. His wish had been to complete his spiritual training and to become a minister as plain Brother Yarvi, no longer a prince. To his father and brother, Yarvi had seemed half a man, one of his hands deformed beyond use. Restrained by unkind words and deeds, Yarvi is unprepared for kingship. It seems like cruel destiny, then, when he is cast from the throne through the greatest of treacheries, thrown into the sea, from which he is reborn as a slave, an oarsman and, finally, a warrior and one of a band of brothers and sister, each with their own vengeance to wreak, especially Yarvi who has a throne to claim.

Half a King is a fantasy adventure but for me it is fresh with the sea air of a Viking saga. It has a suitably traditional, ageless theme – the young prince overthrown who must prove himself as a warrior and leader before he can become king – but Yarvi’s character, and so many others aboard this novel, is so distinct and original that there are surprises throughout and our expectations as to the outcome of such a saga are wonderfully challenged. The ending is superb. I’m not a great reader of fantasy, usually preferring stories bound by history or science, but there is so much in Half a King that I could relate to, reminding me of Old English and Norse poems, and an ancient sea-tied society that had to make sense of its icy, harsh, feudal surroundings. There is no magic here, just a mythology, and no supernatural beings, just hints of a distant, forgotten elfish past. This is, I understand, Joe Abercrombie’s first Young Adult novel. Reading it, though, I would never have assumed it was for readers of any specific age – it has timeless appeal. There is also, thank heavens, much more to come.

The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel PriceThe Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price, Blue Rider Press
One night all the power of the Earth turns off for a full nine minutes, stopping clocks dead, turning off lights and smashing down to the ground every last plane in the skies. The next day, the power goes off again but this time not to return. This time a white light brings the heavens down on Earth, literally squeezing the ground to the sky, ending life on the planet, ending the planet itself. Except for just a few souls. In the last moments before the end, six individuals are visited by strangers who slap silver bracelets on their wrists, encasing them in a protective bubble or egg, safe to experience the death of the world. These are the Silvers, people who find themselves on a different Earth – similar in some ways and yet so alien in others. On this Earth taxis can fly, food can be rejuvenated, the ghosts of the past can be brought back to life. A group of scientists brings together our six Silvers: insecure teenager Mia, golden boy David, alcoholic Theo, zany cartoonist Zack and two sisters, the Givens, Amanda the nurse and Hannah the actress. They have other names, though – orphan, widow – because that is what they all are. All are bereaved, frightened, shocked and, not surprisingly, together they form a new family, united against this strange novel world while discovering that they themselves are among the weirdest things on it. Each of them has a power, some of which, wrongly used, can kill. As a result, others want to kill or capture them. And when the time comes there is no alternative, they must run, searching for the one man who might bring sense to this chaos and even save them.

The Flight of the Silvers is a fabulous piece of speculative fiction. Its opening chapter is completely captivating, introducing Amanda and Hannah in a way that is unforgettable. The great news is that the rest of the novel lives up to its beginning, through all of its 600 glorious pages. Nothing can be relied upon in this strange new Earth, most especially time, and so anything can happen and it does. There are surprises by the chapter and they’re not small ones either. There is no doubt that in places it is bonkers. There are as many paradoxes at play here as there are in the juiciest episodes of SciFi TV and there were moments that made me laugh and marvel at the sheer audacity of the twists and turns. Every answer raises at least two more questions.

Horror

The Three by Sarah LotzThe Three by Sarah Lotz, Hodder & Stoughton
Black Thursday is a day that history will remember with dread. Simultaneously, on different continents, four commuter planes crashed to earth, their passengers and crew all dead except for three children, one from each of three of the planes, who walked unharmed from the devastation. One other passenger was to survive for a brief time, Pamela May Donald, who left a message on her home answer machine which was to provide less of a clue as to what may have happened, than a warning of what the world may be about to face: ‘They’re here… The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many… They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Bye Joanie I love the bag bye Joanie, Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to…’. As relatives come forward to claim the three children, a media frenzy takes hold of the world, fuelled by the emerging strangeness of the children and by the fervour of the evangelical cult, the Pamelists, which, under the instruction of Pastor Len, has no doubt at all that The Three herald the Apocalypse and that the Rapture is nigh. Panic spreads, especially when rumours emerge of a possible fourth child who walked unharmed from the crash site in Africa.

The Three presents these phenomenal events through the device of investigative journalist Elspeth Martin’s Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. It comprises a series of journal extracts, emails, expert reports and interviews with those most closely related to the surviving children as well as with the others – the people with their own ideas and conspiracy theories. The Three is a stunning novel, truly astonishing in its complexity, vision and power, combining thriller and horror with the utmost success. Sarah Lotz pulls the many strands together into an intricate beautiful web that both horrifies and sparkles. It is full of life, just as it resonates with death, and there is humour to go with the dread. There is a great mystery here but it was the telling of that mystery that I loved even more than its revelation. I loved every page, from its dark enigmatic cover to its final tense message.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. CareyThe Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey, Orbit
Melanie is a smart, inquisitive and affectionate ten year old. She would much prefer to be called Pandora rather than Melanie but she knows that she must do whatever she is told and understands that there must be a good reason why she is kept locked in a cell, why she is chained to a wheelchair when it’s time for lessons, why she and her friends are pushed into the classroom one by one, the fingers of one hand freed so that she can make notes. Miss Justineau is Melanie’s favourite teacher. She teaches them about myth and legend, history and the world outside, the world that Melanie is not allowed to see. Until the day comes when Melanie’s cell door is opened for the last time.

The Girl With All the Gifts proved to be a shock to me. It challenged all my expectations and preconceptions about horror and delivered a story and young heroine that are both captivating and unforgettable. It was pretty obvious to me from the outset what this book would be about – just the wonderful cover and the premise were enough. M.R. Carey is such a good writer, as his work as author and film writer under other guises has shown, and he has mixed together the human and unhuman into an extraordinary pageturner that is as moving as it is horrifying and thrilling. Our sympathies are taken to places you wouldn’t normally expect them to go. Nobody or nothing is immune from our care and, as a result, this reader at least wasn’t able to tear herself away from Melanie’s side. If you don’t like horror, especially ‘this’ type of horror, The Girl With All the Gifts may still be the book for you. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t in my top ten for 2014.

Bird Box by Josh MalermanBird Box by Josh Malerman, Harper Voyager
Malorie discovers she is pregnant at the same time as the first reports appear on the news. The violent stories are easy to disbelieve – people in random locations across the world are suddenly and uncharacteristically driven to harm others before killing themselves. As the reports increase in number, worry grows, as does disconnection between places, friends and families, until Malorie and her sister Shannon are left to hide in their house behind windows shielded with mattresses. It is rumoured that it is the sight of something that drives people to murder and self-murder. The internet and television die and, finally, when she looks out of the window, Shannon dies. Malorie has no choice but to seek help blindly, driving with eyes closed towards a nearby house she’d found advertised as a safe haven in a paper’s adverts. When Tom and his companions, blindfolded, open the door to Malorie a new phase in her life begins. Nothing will ever be the same again. Daylight and fresh air are one’s enemies, safety can be found only in dark, stale rooms, filled with fear.

Bird Box is a relatively short novel and it is quite likely that you’ll read it, like me, in a day. Told in the present tense, this is horror at its most immediate and chilling – what could be more instinctive than to open one’s eyes to see the threat, recognise the danger and then be able to fight it? Not in this world. The atmosphere of Bird Box is thick with suggestion, horror and dread. This becomes mixed in with suspicion and distrust as the enforced darkness and claustrophobia of such a life closes in. There is a process of dehumanisation underway, although there are efforts to hang on to some kind of twisted normality in this post-apocalyptic world. Not knowing what’s out there and not seeing it makes whatever it is all the worse. The mind begins to compensate for what it’s not allowed to see. Bird Box both mesmerised and frightened me. Without doubt, it is one of the best and (perversely) enjoyable horror stories I’ve read for a long time. A great debut.

Book Review of 2014 – Historical Fiction and Thrillers

In 2014 I read more books than I think I’ve ever read before in just one year – 155. It’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time with my nose stuck in a book than I have doing just about anything else (except for that painful 9 to 5 activity which pays for many of the books). On the whole the standard of books has been high, although not, arguably, as high as in 2013, but that may be me being ridiculously picky having read so much. Whittling so many books down to a manageable ‘Best of’ list is nigh on impossible – most good books mean a lot to me as I read them. But I got the chainsaw out and managed to hack the pile down into two more practical lists divided between my two main reading genres – Historical Fiction and Thrillers, and Science Fiction. These include a couple of books which I read at the end of 2013 but reviewed at the beginning of 2014. Not wanting to miss out some of the older books that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2014, there’ll be another post for them.

I must take this opportunity to thank so much all of the wonderful publishers who have been so generous and supportive to this blog this year and over the years. I must also thank everyone who has taken the time to read my reviews and to the bloggers and readers of Twitter whose book tips have made me spend far too much money.

So with no more waffle and in no particular order (except for listing my favourite historical novel last), here are my top ten Historical Fiction novels of 2014, written in the full and frustrated knowledge that I’ve not been able to read all of the historical novels this year that I wanted to. Click on the titles for the full reviews.

Historical Fiction of 2014

Plague Land by S.D. SykesPlague Land by S.D. Sykes, Hodder & Stoughton.
When the Black Death had finally eaten its full in 1350, the communities that had survived were left in turmoil, the strings holding society together on the verge of snapping. Oswald de Lacy had been destined for a monastic life, having been sent to the monastery at a tender age, but after his father and two elder brothers were despatched in short measure by the plague, Oswald was recalled by his mother and sister and he assumed, while not yet twenty, the title of lord of Somerhill Manor. The Kent village of Somerhill is a shadow of its former self, many of its occupants, all valuable workers on the Somerhill farm, are dead and several of the survivors have succumbed to superstition and fear. When the body of a young girl is found, her throat torn, the villagers believe the local priest Cornwall when he tells them that she was murdered by no mortal hand but by devil’s beasts, humans with the heads of dogs.

The mystery at the heart of Plague Land is fabulous. I worked out some of it but certainly not all of it and it kept me on tenterhooks to the last page. I really wanted to know. In fact, I found everything about Plague Land unputdownable as it immersed me so fully in the mid 14th century, carried along as I was by these excellent characters as well as by S.D. Sykes’ wonderful writing. There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fully engaging – S.D. Sykes is to be congratulated.

The King and the Slave by Tim LeachThe King and the Slave by Tim Leach, Atlantic Books
When I opened The Last King of Lydia last year, a debut novel set during a period of history I knew very little about, I had no idea that this fabulous book was set to become one of my favourite novels of all. It was complete in itself but it now has a follow up, The King and the Slave, which isn’t so much a sequel as a depiction of another phase in the life of Croesus, once the King of Lydia, the richest king of them all and now reduced to slavery in the household of Cyrus, the King of the Persians. Croesus is a man transformed. His progress to wisdom, begun on a funeral pyre, continues but Croesus the slave has become much more than the King of Lydia ever was, a king who used blinded slaves to count his piles of gold. Croesus might now be more aware, more content in the companionship of his two closest friends, fellow slaves and once slaves of his own Isocrates and his wife Maia, but he will never be less than an object of curiosity for Cyrus. But Croesus’ relatively content existence is thrown into chaos on the death of Cyrus. The new king, Cyrus’ son, is Cambyses who is the epitome of the corruption of power. No-one is safe from his madness, especially after the king is slighted by the Egyptian Pharaoh and his mind is set on fury and vengeance. The King and the Slave presents the incredible story of this insane king, his cruelty and sadism, all the time watched by the one man who wants to save him, his slave Croesus, who is kept little more than one step away from death.

Tim Leach writes and imagines beautifully. Every page is rich in the colour of history and although the time in which the novels are set is remote (6th century BC) Leach brings it into the present thanks to the remarkable portraits he paints. The themes are large and important to the people of this novel – life, the pursuit of happiness, friendship, good kingship, moral responsibility, a good death. I am so delighted, but not surprised, that The King and the Slave is every bit as wonderful as The Last King of Lydia. Hugely moving, the events take place on a mix of grand and small stages but, above all, it is always believable and makes us at home in this ancient distant setting. Fabulous.

Lamentation by C.J. SansomLamentation by C.J. Sansom, Mantle
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and sergeant, might be forgiven for thinking he has been permitted, finally, the gift of a peaceful retirement from the intrigues of court, allowed instead to nurture his legal practice, to care for his dependents. But all such hopes die in flames, alongside the tortured body of Anne Askew, whose terrible death Shardlake is forced to witness as some sort of punishment. While some may debate secretly whether Anne died a heretic or martyr, others have even more dangerous thoughts. The court is once more divided between reformers and traditionalists, the troubled mind of the diseased, obese, dying King Henry VIII wavering between the two. The traditionalists are determined to find a link between Anne Askew and other deniers of transubstantiation and Henry’s reformer Queen, Catherine Parr. Henry loves his nurse Queen but she may be about to prove herself her own worst enemy. Catherine’s uncle and adviser Lord William Parr calls on Shardlake to once more put himself at the service of Catherine, a woman he holds truly dear even though such service has already almost cost him his life.

It’s been a considerable time since I read a Matthew Shardlake novel. Lamentation is the sixth in the series but the gap between the books is rarely a short one. I also hadn’t read the previous novel, Heartstone, having stalled over Revelation. I was in two minds whether to return to the series but I read the opening chapter in the bookshop and it was magnificent. I was captivated, bought the book and read it straight away, barely drawing breath. Lamentation is the best of the series that I’ve read but it is also one of the finest Tudor novels that I’ve ever read, and I’m including the Hilary Mantel novels in that.

The Iron Castle by Angus DonaldThe Iron Castle by Angus Donald, Sphere
The year is 1203 and the Earl of Locksley has a new master. With Richard the Lionheart long dead, his youngest brother John is now King of England and Duke of Normandy, neither of which title is safe. Philip of France is driving John from his Normandy lands while stirring up John’s nephew Arthur to threaten his English throne. Infamous rebel, Robin of Locksley is given the chance by John to win back his titles and land. They will be his reward for three years’ service to a king that no-one can trust. Sir Alan Dale’s sword follows his master’s and, against all better judgement, both men soon find themselves leading their mercenaries, the Wolves, into combat in France. But with one crisis over, another one begins and much of the novel presents the siege of Château Gaillard, Richard I’s greatest fortress, now threatened by Philip of France’s army and the power of his mighty siege engines. Robin and Alan, with their Wolves, are among the defenders on the inside, who have to battle not only Philip but also the overwhelming numbers of townspeople who have taken refuge behind these strong walls, draining the castle of its food and resources. Every arrow counts when there are none to replace them.

I read most of The Iron Castle in one sitting. It’s such an exciting, thrilling adventure but it is also full of life and lives, pulled from history and given breath on the page. With no doubt at all, this is my favourite of Donald’s Outlaw series.

The Black Stone by Nick BrownThe Black Stone by Nick Brown, Hodder & Stoughton
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. 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 fantastic series will continue to grow from strength to strength.

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby ClementsKingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements, Century
It is 1460. A young nun, Katherine, is attacked while outside her convent’s walls by bandits led by the lawless son of Sir Giles Riven. She is saved by a monk, Brother Thomas, whose natural talent for fighting is borne out by the loss of Riven’s eye. There can be no safety for Katherine and Thomas now. The vengeful rage of Sir Giles is matched only by the brutality of the prioress. There is no alternative but for the two to flee, Katherine disguised as the boy Kit, into a world of which they have no experience. Thomas believes that they may find forgiveness in the holy city of Canterbury but their plans are waylaid before they are almost begun. They are taken under the wing of ex-Pardoner and, for very different reasons, outcast Robert Daud who has treasures of some sort or another in his bag. Events take an upper hand and the small group find themselves ensnared by the warring factions of the day, the deadly duel of York and Warwick against the king and his stronger foreign queen. Thomas, an archer in the making, and Kit, gifted with healing hands, become trapped in loyalties, patronised by Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard, caught on a course that will take them to Calais, to south west Wales and to sites of slaughter in the Wars of the Roses, most notably and horrifically the Battle of Towton. Without doubt this is the most harrowing and vivid battle scene that I have ever read.

What a book! This superb novel, alive with fire, blood and mud, has brought me as close to the Wars of the Roses as I could ever want to get. Historical fiction at its best, not least because it reveals the heart and human tragedy that suffered in a civil war that was fought around towns and landscapes that we know so well today and yet they now show so few scars from this violence and division. Normal people, not just nobles and knights, suffered horrendously in this war, as in any war, and yet, as Kingmaker shows, away from the battlefield, in the convents, houses and towns of 15th-century Europe, life could be almost as dreadful. But this isn’t a depressing tale, it’s simply mesmerising.

God of Vengeance by Giles KristianGod of Vengeance by Giles Kristian, Bantam
Norway in the late 8th century AD. The land and sea are divided and ruled by kings and jarls, united in alliances sealed by oathsworn bonds of fealty. To break this oath is to lose all honour and vengeance will be pursued with a godlike fury. King Gorm’s betrayal of Jarl Harald is complete – the jarl is defeated in sea battle, tricked in parley, his people slain in their village or enslaved. Harald’s youngest son Sigurd, who so recently, for the first time, staggered Harald’s men with his innate warrior prowess, survives with his father’s brother in arms, Olaf, the fearful Asgot the godi and Sigurd’s boyhood friend, Svein. Their mission is simple, to rescue Sigurd’s sister, bound for the slave market or a hatefilled marriage, and to wreak vengeance on King Gorm and his henchman Jarl Randver. Sigurd must prove himself, as a wearer of rings let alone a giver of them. He must find his small band a ship worthy of their quest. He must prove godly favour through ritual and magic and he must win new followers to join his men. So begins a quest that will hold the reader spellbound.

This is a glorious novel, unapologetically violent, fabulously celebratory of all things Viking. Sigurd’s quest for vengeance is exciting, brutal, bloody and driven. Without doubt, God of Vengeance is one of the finest historical novels of the year. The whole book is such a brilliant read and I am thrilled that Giles Kristian has returned to a world that he has made his own.

Enemy of Rome by Douglas JacksonEnemy of Rome by Douglas Jackson, Bantam
It is AD 69 and civil war is threatening to tear the foundations of Rome apart. In this Year of the Four Emperors, nowhere is safe as faction upon faction puts its legions into the field. Gaius Valerius Verrens is in a particularly tight spot – friend to one emperor (Vitellius) but fighting for another (Otho), Valerius has reached the end, bare foot, awaiting a traitor’s death on the bitterly contested soil of Pannonia. But Valerius is a man with powerful friends and it is one of them, Titus, who saves him, putting him to work to support the campaign of his father Vespasian, a general watched closely by destiny. Valerius’s orders are to join commander Marcus Antonius Primus and eradicate Vitellius’s forces which stand between Vespasian and Rome. It’s unfortunate to say the least that Primus would much rather enjoy the sight of Valerius’s corpse than the thought of having the man among his staff. Valerius is driven, though, not just by his reprieve but also by the thought of Domitia, daughter of the great general Corbulo, and now living under the protection of Vespasian’s brother Sabinus in Rome, not to mention the beady lecherous eye of the other son, Domitianus.

The novel is divided in two with much of the book dealing with war and all its complications and blood. Valerius and his servant (although he’s far more friend than servant), Serpentius, are frequently to be found in the midst of battle or leading small numbers in lethal raids. The battle and skirmish scenes are second to none – vividly presented in terrifying detail with, poignantly, several personal stories brought to a close under a blade’s edge or a horse’s hooves. Finally, though, the war must reach the streets of Rome itself and the result is a conclusion that cannot be put down unfinished. Douglas Jackson is a fine writer whose recreation of past lives and places is enriched with a thorough historical and military knowledge and impressive insight. He knows all about pace and action but he is also one of those authors who makes the reader feel that they are witnessing history – and what a period of history this is to be brought alive.

The Tudor Bride by Joanna HicksonThe Tudor Bride by Joanna Hickson, Harper
The Tudor Bride picks up Catherine’s story just where we left it at the end of The Agincourt Bride. The young woman and bride arrives in England, carried ashore on the shoulders of her new courtiers, ready to take her place as queen of a foreign land beside the almost godlike figure of England’s lion, Henry V. But for Catherine the difficulty doesn’t come from learning a new language or getting to know new customs, or even a new husband, it comes from the gentleman and ladies of her court. Young women like Eleanor Cobham compete for position in her household and Catherine soon learns that a slight, however unintentional, may become a wound never to be forgotten. Likewise, trouble brews between Henry’s brothers. The Duke of Gloucester in particular is a man to be watched by this young woman, fulfilling her duty, trying so hard to produce heirs for a country that hates her home. All, though, might have been bearable if Henry V had lived. But he didn’t.

In this deeply evocative and consuming novel, Joanna Hickson presents a living, breathing portrait of Catherine during the best and worst of times. As a widow and mother to a small boy king, her position is precarious at best. Aside from the political and social difficulties Catherine faces, she is a very young woman, beautiful and kind, who has to fight against people who would willingly destroy her rather than allow her any future happiness. For others, her hand in marriage is a great temptation. Kept from her son, spied upon by his regents and tormented by those who once served her, Catherine’s lot is laid out before us in a novel that I couldn’t let out of my sight. This is historical fiction at its very finest and every bit as wonderful and mesmerising as its predecessor The Agincourt Bride. Characters both historic and fictional shine in this novel, each leaving their own mark, led by Catherine de Valois, Henry V’s queen and widow, and her faithful servant and companion Mette. I cannot praise this superb novel enough, I only wish I hadn’t finished it.

And finally, my favourite historical fiction novel of the year and joint favourite novel of the year (the other favourite will be revealed in the Science Fiction post).

The Winter Crown by Elizabeth ChadwickThe Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick, Sphere
It is December 1154 and Eleanor of Aquitaine is crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey alongside her younger husband, the charismatic and ever restless King Henry II. Now Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy and Anjou, once Queen of France and always, in her own right, Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor is now in the realms of making history, becoming arguably the most famous and powerful woman of the Middle Ages. But the legend of Eleanor, the beautiful Duchess, muse of the troubadors, Crusader, Queen and mother to surely one of the most dysfunctional broods in royal history, is one well worth retelling and in no writer’s hands is she safer than in the care of Elizabeth Chadwick. The Winter Crown is the second in a trilogy which will, I have no doubt, become the definitive fictional account of this remarkable woman, who is brought to life on these pages as Alienor. The Winter Crown focuses on Alienor’s prime years, the years in which she gave Henry child after child, becoming almost the brood mare she least wanted to be, years in which she lost children and the years that killed the one-time great love between Henry and Alienor.

I’ve read a fair few fictional depictions of Henry II over the years and I must say that his portrait in The Winter Crown has the most authentic feel of them all. Refusing to wear a crown or the trappings of rank, this is a power engine of a man. There is little or no sentimentality in him. Everyone has their use and everyone has a price. His battles with Thomas Becket, a man that Henry made into what he became, forms much of the first half of the book. The remainder raises the curse that was to afflict Henry through the rest of his life – his sons. Elizabeth Chadwick is such a fine writer. She brings history to life so vividly it is as if we are witnessing it ourselves and not simply reading it on the page. The prose, including the dialogue, has a lightness to it, nothing is forced, it feels natural and real. The events took place centuries ago but Elizabeth Chadwick makes travelling back through the years seem effortless. The Summer Queen is such a fine novel but I think The Winter Crown even exceeds it which is an enormous achievement and fills me with excitement and anticipation for The Autumn Throne.

Honourable mentions
The only way I could create a list of ten was to first create a list of 22. I love each of these books and heartily recommend them:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii (anthology)
Trinity by Conn Iggulden
Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd
Masters of Rome by Robert Fabbri
The Storms of War by Kate Williams
Warlord’s Gold by Michael Arnold
The Spider of Sarajevo by Robert Wilton
A King’s Ransom by Sharon Penman
The Emperor’s Knives by Anthony Riches
Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

I must mention that the historical series of Michael Arnold, Douglas Jackson, Robert Fabbri, Angus Donald, Nick Brown, Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Anthony Riches and Conn Iggulden provide me with enormous pleasure every single year – many thanks to them! Another favourite author of mine, Manda/M.C. Scott, hasn’t published a novel in 2014 and so I am particularly excited for The Girl Who Walked into Fire (about Joan of Arc), to be published in May 2015.

Thrillers

Good mystery thrillers have been few and far between in 2014 but much was made up for by Andy McDermott producing not one but two thrillers this year! One of my final reads of 2014, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh, took me into unfamiliar territory – the pyschological thriller – and it was outstanding. Here are my favourite thrillers of the year.

The Valhalla Prophecy by Andy McDermottThe Valhalla Prophecy by Andy McDermott, Headline
Andy McDermott’s Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase thrillers are among my very favourite novels. When one of these books comes out, it goes right to the top of the reading pile and, as with The Valhalla Prophecy, I’ll be there at midnight, downloading it to my kindle in its first seconds of existence in the big wide world. The Valhalla Prophecy is the ninth novel in the series and it’s been two years since the last. How I’ve missed them! But it was well worth the wait. This is thriller writing at its very best. This might be a series but it doesn’t matter too much if you read this before reading the others or read any of them out of order.

The Valhalla Prophecy has a dual narrative for much of its length. When Nina and Eddie are persuaded to visit Sweden on the trail of a deadly black toxin, the stuff of Viking legend which, if discovered, could mean the world’s demise through cancerous plague, it awakens memories in Eddie of a mission he undertook to Vietnam eight years before during his divorce from the unparalleled Sophia. The same people are involved again and, because of his previous experiences, Eddie knows better than anyone how this Viking mystery should remain unsolved and forgotten. Unfortunately, Nina has other ideas. Andy McDermott is a master of humorous dialogue between Nina and Eddie and other characters. But McDermott does not shy away from evils in the world. Eddie falls back on juvenile jokes as an escape from what he has seen and in this novel we get a glimpse of it ourselves. It’s nasty and we can see why it continues to haunt Eddie and why he has made the promise he has to reveal its secrets to no-one.

The adventure is a blast from start to finish! There are gun battles, fights in planes, streets and jungles, in icey canyons and Russian military compounds (to name just a few). The story itself contains the right mix of history, archaeology and 21st-century threat. It’s a more intense novel than previous books in the series. It’s still funny but it is less light-hearted and it is disturbing. The Viking element is less important than it might have been in an earlier novel but The Valhalla Prophecy is an ambitious and lengthy thriller. It has well over 500 pages and each of those pages is overflowing. This book is an investment of your time. How brilliant then that it rewards you so fully.

I Let You Go by Clare MackintoshI Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh, Sphere
I Let You Go begins with the death of a child, a five-year-old boy, run over crossing the street in front of his warmly-lit, welcoming house not long before Christmas. The mother let go of Jacob’s hand for an instant, just to push hair behind her ears. It was enough. A driver hit her boy and then drove away, leaving them in the road. And now she must deal with loss compounded by guilt for that instant, a moment she relives time after time after time. That instant in time changed the life of Jenna Gray forever. Unable to cope, she walks away, moving to a quiet holiday cottage on the Welsh coast, a place untouched by tourism during the winter months. She makes no effort to rebuild her life, merely learning how to exist one day at a time, but soon the lives of others begin to touch her own, allowing her a glimpse of a future. But the past will not let Jenna Gray go.

The story is divided into first person and third person narratives. We experience Jenna’s story through her own eyes but the police investigation is told by our knowledgeable narrator. This means that we are given a wider view of the case but it doesn’t stop us getting close to Ray, the DI, and Kate, his detective who is new to the job. But it’s not just these two we get to know – we spend time with the whole department as well as moving into Ray’s home, witnessing first hand the impact that investigating such a traumatic case as this, the death of a child, can have on police families. I Let You Go contains a twist that beats most that I’ve encountered in the past and, rather unusually, I didn’t guess it. But I soon realised that I Let You Go is much, much more than a psychological thriller with a twist. It’s hard to believe that it is a debut novel – Clare Mackinstosh is a supremely confident writer, sparing in her words, making the best use of each. It’s not often I read a novel in one day but I did just that with I Let You Go.

Zodiac Station by Tom HarperZodiac Station by Tom Harper, Hodder & Stoughton
Captain Franklin of the Terra Nova, a US Coast Guard ice breaker, sits down to tell us the beginning of our tale, how his crew out on the Arctic ice spotted a bear coming towards them. A few shots fired above its head failed to stop it. One last frantic shot saw it fall but when they approached it, it turned out to be not a bear at all but a man in a red jacket bearing the insignia of Zodiac Station, a scientific research base. Safely aboard the vessel, Tom Anderson awakes and slowly recounts, to the captain and to us, the story of the disaster that devastated Zodiac Station, leaving himself as its sole survivor. As the story continues, the reader enters the frozen world of Zodiac Station, the narrative shifting from the perspective of one to another of its scientists, focusing on Anderson, the medical doctor Kennedy and scientist Eastman, with the enigmatic figure of Greta shadowing them all. While Franklin’s contribution remains in the third person, the others are immediate and in the first person, including journal extracts. All recall the disintegration of Zodiac Station deep within the Arctic, an environment that is watched over from the distance by polar bears and the faded industrial remains of people who lived and worked here long ago. Something sinister is at work and it threatens the life of everyone in the Station.

As one would expect from a Tom Harper thriller, the plot is deliciously clever and is as twisty as you could wish for. When all we have to go on are the words of the last inhabitants of Zodiac Station, we’re advised to keep our wits alive. There are some great moments, too, not least in the Station’s dedicated Thing night – original version, obviously – which, disaster or no disaster, has to go on, no matter what. This sense of absurdity, madness even, is perfectly in tune with this extraordinary environment which is threatened from without and from within. You can never forget the bears. There’s not much separating man from beast in this world, nor reality from horror.

Last Judgement by John CarterLast Judgement by John Carter, Penguin
Paris, 1314; the Grand Master of the Knights of the Temple is burned at the stake. He faces Notre Dame Cathedral, his hands bound as if in prayer. But it’s not a prayer that moves his lips but a curse against all those who have destroyed his Order, damning its knights to death or flight. One such knight, Arnaud de Faulke, bears witness and leaves Paris to fulfil his last duty to his Master. Faulke’s task and the journey it takes him on takes many years and along the way he is careful to leave clues so that when the time should come that the Order is reborn future knights will be able to follow in his footsteps and continue their age-old mission for vengeance. In the present day, Jack, Angela and Sean – soldier, scholar and obsessive, each with a driving interest in determining the truth about this most infamous of medieval Orders – are given the opportunity to follow the last Templars, to search out their clues, to recover the treasure in whatever form it should take. Our three heroes, though, are unaware that the clock is ticking, that knights of the New Order are one step ahead. They have a deadline to catch.

I am a huge fan of mystery thrillers but good ones are a bit of a rare beast. I have to be able to control my incredulity, to believe the fantastical, to accept this alternate perilous world in which I’m placed where anything can happen and does, to not want to put the story down for a minute longer than I have to. I’m delighted to report that Last Judgement made me do all of this, stealing my weekend in that most pleasant of ways. Between the atmospheric opening page and the excitement and tension of the last, Last Judgement presents a thrilling race across old and new worlds, covering thousands of miles and several cultures. Well-written throughout, the thriller is also intelligently done, packed with the kind of historical details that make me want to research places and people.

Pyramid by David GibbinsPyramid by David Gibbins, Headline
Marine archaeologist and adventurer Jack Howard, together with his friend and diving partner Costas, makes an extraordinary discovery in the depths of the Red Sea – a find that puts under the brightest spotlight one of the key events of the Old Testament. But this is not a good time to be in Egypt. Religious extremists are on the verge of taking over the country, throwing it back into another Dark Ages, taking its people and archaeological treasures to the brink of suppression, death and extermination. It was these dangerous conditions that caused Jack and Costas to flee Egypt in the previous novel, Pharaoh, but their discoveries then were more than enough to bring them back and now, in the Red Sea and in the sands below the pyramids of Giza, there are wonders even more spectacular waiting to be found. That’s if Jack and Costas survive, of course, and the chances of that lessen with every passing hour.

Pyramid is a fast moving archaeological adventure although as with David Gibbins’ other novels and especially Pharaoh, I would hesitate to use the word ‘thriller’ to describe them. There are none of the baddies you’d expect in a conventional mystery thriller. Instead the excitement and danger here come from the dives themselves, from the unknown and from the very real and imminent threat of political and military coup. A worthy successor to last year’s Pharaoh.

Finally, my favourite thriller on the year:

Biblical by Christopher GaltBiblical by Christopher Galt, Quercus
John Macbeth is a psychiatrist involved in one of several projects around the globe which seek to take consciousness one step further by investing artificial intelligence with self-awareness. Science leads the way, religions fade, humanism is key. But that was before ‘the staring’ began. People began to stop dead in the street, staring over other people’s shoulders or through their bodies, intent on something that nobody else could see. When this happens to car drivers, pilots of planes, leading political or industrial figures, it’s time to take notice. Macbeth is better placed than most to try and understand this strange behaviour, because he is also subject to it. He too feels the deja vu, the chill in the air, the presence of ghosts. Staring is followed by suicides, committed by people completely out of character, sometimes in large numbers. Then there are the visions, followed by larger events, ones shared by whole cities. But these large scale phenomena are accompanied by countless numbers of personal experiences by men, women and children, each of whom sees something different, is taken out of their time and finds themselves lost, terrified, hunted, something else. And it is these stories, along with those mass events, which fill the pages of Biblical, spellbinding the reader who has no idea what could possibly happen in the next chapter.

It would be difficult to imagine a world less certain than the one portrayed in Biblical. As a result, anything can and does happen to leading characters. The book has more twists than a corkscrew. But what is also contains are grand themes, most notably religion versus science, in all levels of life, society and government. There is a philosophical element, too, concerning the nature of existence and its relation to time. Everything becomes questionable. Whatever is happening affects people on a profound level. Biblical is such a clever thriller, with science fiction and apocalyptic colours, but it is also hugely entertaining and well-written. One of my most memorable reads of the year.

Next time, Science Fiction…

Agent of Rome IV: The Black Stone by Nick Brown – a review and a Q&A with the author

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 475
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

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.

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

I am a huge fan of this series and I was delighted to post quite recently an interview with Nick Brown to celebrate the publication of The Imperial Banner, the previous novel, in paperback format. To mark the publication of The Black Stone here is another interview with an author who is increasingly one of my very favourites.

An interview with Nick Brown

Congratulations on The Black Stone. The Far Shore was quite an act to follow but you more than succeeded! The Black Stone is the fourth novel in the Agent of Rome series. Is the series developing as you thought it would when you set out?

The Siege by Nick BrownThanks. I suppose I didn’t really know how it would develop when I was working on ‘The Siege’. The second book was the key – establishing the Cassius/Indavara/Simo team and seeing them thrown into the first of their assignments. From there we follow the ongoing development of their relationships but also the specific stories of each book. The Black Stone represents another change because it’s not really a mystery but more of a military mission and a real adventure as they journey into the Arabian desert.

The Black Stone is the longest of the series at nearly 500 pages. I really enjoyed this, as a fan of longer novels that I can spend good time with, but did this present new challenges for you as a writer?

Definitely. For the first time since The Siege I decided to follow one of the antagonists because I wanted the reader to get ‘up close and personal’ with the warrior-priest Ilaha and his rebel allies. This always takes a lot of planning in terms of how much to reveal. It was also difficult initially to get a handle on the relationship between Rome and Arabia but this provided some really interesting material; Cassius finds himself in the middle of powerful political, religious and economic forces.

This is a high adventure as you’d expect from this series but towards the end of The Black Stone the thrills are mixed with some powerful emotional scenes that really moved me. They also reminded me how young Cassius and Indavara are. How important is ait that your readers care for these characters?

Very important. It’s certainly something I always look for as a reader. Over time I’ve tried to add depth and detail to their characters, backgrounds and their relationships with each other. They are very young as you say and – like most in the ancient world – have had to grow up quickly. The three of them are so different that, once established, all I really have to do is throw them together and see what happens! That usually generates a few arguments, a few laughs, and – as in the conclusion of this book – some dramatic and emotional scenes.

Simo’s Christianity is starting to cause some real friction in his relationship with Cassius and has added a fascinating dimension to the books. There is also some frightening cultism on show here, as well as superstitions and more traditional Roman religions. Can you talk a little here about your interest in the beliefs held by the novel’s characters?

Antioch was a centre of Christianity in the Roman East so when I was developing Simo it seemed realistic as well as compelling. As a writer you are always looking for conflict and drama and this was a factor that would create long running issues between servant and master. It has also allowed me to explore the beliefs and attitudes of the time and I have tried to present a balanced, realistic account. All three principal characters have their own relationship with ‘the divine’, something which requires quite a leap of imagination for modern readers – and writers.

Where next for Cassius, Indavara and Simo?

Without giving too much away, I can say that the trio will be returning to a province they’ve already seen but facing a threat unlike any they’ve faced.

Cassius is due to finish his term of service in a couple more years. Can you reassure me that this won’t mean the end of the Agent of Rome?!

A lot will be packed into his remaining years as a ‘grain man’ and then we’ll see!

What book are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading R.S. Downie’s first Ruso mystery – very much enjoying it so far.