image001Kenstibec is the main character in “Barricade”. He is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans optimised for soldiering, engineering and other crucial roles. Their war on humanity has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials gather in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors.

Kenstibec earns his keep driving an armoured taxi from city to city. Here is his guide to each Barricaded city, written for new taxi drivers: a set of handy tips for any cabbie with a long haul trip ahead.

1. Edinburgh

Population: Largest in what’s left of Britain. Almost four hundred Ficials of various optimisation. Includes Sixteen Soldier Models, who spend most of their time skinning and scalping people – not the best company. Rick, a Mechanic Model, runs the finest garage around from a large bunker under Leith Walk. Edinburgh also has the largest concentration of Pleasure Models.

Barricade: Built under battle conditions, Edinburgh’s fortifications are a patchy mess of welded car wrecks, debris mounds, staggered entrenchments and mined bogs. A large human army lays siege, armed to the teeth and very bad tempered, which makes entry and egress troublesome. Still, with all the Soldier Models the barricade is efficiently defended and has never suffered a significant breach.

Things to see: The city was left largely untouched by the nuclear strike and suffered little fallout, but the local tribes have shelled it back to the stone age. James Craig’s elegant New Town is now nothing but a pockmarked, moon-like surface. Little to see but sandstone rubble and the curiously intact National Monument.

Accommodation: Generally poor. Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock have been partly excavated, but power and communications are intermittent, it’s damp, and works remain incomplete. Most stay in Leith flak towers. Views over the Barricade if you have the right goggles.

2. Leeds

Population: Around one hundred, nearly all engineer and mechanic models. They were originally there to complete some poorly conceived High Speed rail link, then fortified the city after the bomb dropped.

Barricade: Effectively one large rampart cutting through Headlingley and then tracing the line of the old ring road. If you ask me it’s flawed. Has been breached a number of times by raiding parties. Populace are insufficiently vigilant – they just sit in the station and play with their trains.

Things to see: There are still some surface buildings left intact, the local tribes apparently discerning about what they destroy. Bridgwater Place has been shot to pieces but the Corn Exchange and Town Hall are largely intact.

Accommodation: Lodgings available in the single large bunker, but I’d recommend staying over ground in the Great Hall of Leeds University, surrounded by Burmantofts glazed terracotta – from the days when people did something useful with their time.

3. Liverpool

Population: Barely fifty permanent residents: all crew and mechanics from the rig maintenance station Control built there. Sprinkling of Soldier Models.

Barricade: The smallest besides Brixton, but formidable: a five-storey construct of debris packed in reinforced concrete, wound tight around The Pier Head. Frustratingly there’s a weak point: the Leeds-Liverpool canal, which some models swim to commute between the barricades: a needless and dangerous chink in the armour.

Things to see: The local people are curiously divided: two tribes live apart, each based in a  rotting stadium. They frequently attack each others’ camp. Fights can be worth a watch from the Liver Building roof.

Accommodation: Good – beds are cheap in Cunard Building, which is very rarely hit by local attacks. Palatial Italian living in the North of England.

4. York

Population: Around 200, the most mixed group around.

Barricade: Best built by far, as there were no people around to interfere during construction. A solid, twenty-storey ring around the city based on A64 and A1237 roads. Easily the quietest barricade and a good place to go for a rest and refuel, especially if your cab is a mess.

Things to see: The great Humber Floodplain lies to the south, offering views of the island that was once Lincolnshire. Scuttling around York barricade you’ll find some creatures the size of horses, but I wouldn’t try riding them.

Accommodation: Excellent, with easily the best food around. Plentiful supply has allowed chemist models to diversify into cooking. They’ve gotten pretty good at it.

5. Brixton

Population: Unknown. Control is supposed to be in there somewhere, but I have my doubts. Those Models I have seen refuse to interact with visitors. The birthplace of our race, yet hardly a model of Ficial solidarity.

Barricade: Well built, but sits at heart of fallout zone on the stinking Thames floodplain. Vast, well-armed and vicious tribes surround it, making approach even harder.

Things to see: Plenty, but you’re not allowed into the factory, training or bunker spaces. Brixton itself remains virtually intact on the surface, and I guess you could pass some time picking through the ruins – if traipsing around a freezing, irradiated time capsule is your thing.

Accommodation: Unavailable. Locals don’t let you stay, or at least they didn’t the last time I was there. Have a campsite in the Home Counties planned.  I hear Surrey is nice at this time of year.

Barricade by Jon Wallace is published on the 19th June by Gollancz. You can download your e-book copy of Barricade for £1.99 until the 26th June 2014!

If you solely know me from this blog you might not think I’m doing a lot of reading at the moment. I am but I’ve also been away on my travels.

One was a trip to London on the train and I did a bit of reading.

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I love my Kindle. It is my traveling companion of choice when it comes to reading but I’ll come back to that.

When I was in London I got to see the new Star Trek movie (the first one) at the Royal Albert Hall with its soundtrack played by a live orchestra with choir.

It took the music to a completely  different level. Definitely something I want to do again.
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That was the afternoon and rather than booking into the hotel there was a mad dash to see Angela Lansbury play Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s Blythe Spirit. I was fan of the film growing up but had forgotten the ending, which made it a nicer surprise. Lansbury was the person that everyone had come to see but the entire cast did a memorable turn especially Charles Edwards playing Charles, who gets trapped between his current and former wives.

I bought the text of the play on my way out, the only book I had chance to buy in London.

On Sunday the day included a visit to Royal Observatory Greenwich and their Longitude Punk’d exhibition.

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One of the highlights for me is art from Robert Rankin. If you get chance I really recommend you visit.

I’ve also been to Paris for the first time, the weather was mostly kind though the queues were huge. So not everything on the list was ticked off. But I’m looking forward to going back some day.

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Back to the Kindle. For Paris I took a paperback, Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell, but it remained unopened. I wanted to take The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan but it’s out in trade (also in hardback) and I couldn’t really justify the weight to carry it.

I ended up reading short stories from The Weird Anthology, which is such an impressive achievement, though according to my Kindle I’m only 20% into it with another 45 hours or so reading left (I’m on page 233 of 1111). And as I was reading them one after the other rather than leaving gaps the stories had a strange addictive quality.

Before I went I read Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror’, finally, I’ve been putting it off as I’ve failed on more than one occasion to read ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ but instead of being slow and boring I can see why it’s such an influential tale.  And well worth reading if you haven’t.

I read four – The Book by Margaret Irwin, ‘The Mainz Psalter’ & ‘The Shadow Street’ both by Jean Ray and ‘Genius Loci’ by Clark Ashton Smith – they do start playing on the back of your mind after a while. I like ‘weird’ stories a lot.

I also had time to digest chunks  Speculative Fiction 2013 (which brings together some of the best of last year’s genre blogging)  – highlights for me this time were Rethinking Prometheus and I hate Strong Female Characters. Both give lots of food for thought.

Every month I join Savidge Reads and Adventures with Words on Hear…ReadThis! a podcast book club. This month it was my choice of new book and Kate’s choice for an older work. I chose Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill and Kate chose A Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski (which was a bit of mammoth task to find) but unfortunately for an adult me rather disappointing.  Dreams and Shadows on the other hand I loved. It’s dark fairytale fairytale. Rob wasn’t keen on the format, which has extracts and mini-tales that build towards the ending.

You can listen to the show in full here.

Oh, and I made a special guest appearance on The Readers Podcast for their 100th episode. It was fun being back.

And finally, a new arrival, I’ve been posting them on Instagram but this one had me making a special trip into Cardiff to pick it up thanks to @Waterstones_Edi:

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It’s a reissue from 1971 so I’m greatly looking forward it.

And speaking of reissues, I treated myself to another new  Fantasy Masterwork:

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And I think that’s enough for now – I’ll try to not leave it so long next time.

What bookish stuff have you been up to?

 

 

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In Commissaire Adamsberg Fred Vargas has created one of my favourite detectives. There is something about his unorthodox methods and his obsessions which makes him endearing. It helps that Vargas has injected his squad with plenty of their own idiosyncrasies such as having an unending stock of food hidden away, being an unstoppable impossible force (you’ll have to read to find out what this means) and a detective who often speaks in verse. You also get to see the bonds strengthen with his newly discovered teenage son – who has changed a lot since we first met him.

But it’s Adamsberg who everything centres around which makes it a wonderful, if sometimes confusing, read.

This time his reputation attracts a mother from Normandy, well away from his jurisdiction, whose child has seen a vision of the ghost riders and since the middle ages their appearance has signalled a grisly end to murderers, rapists and those with serious crimes on their conscious. The mother is worried that people will die and impresses how much she needs the help that only  Adamsberg can provide.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec marks Adamsberg’s seventh appearance and there is no sign that Vargas is tiring. She gives three cases for her detective to solve; the affect of the rider’s  appearance; a lad who may have falsely accused of torching a car with the driver still inside; and  the cruelty to a pigeon. Through these cases you see Adamsberg’s methods and his team in different lights. Most strongly felt is the camaraderie and loyalty he brings out in all those involved.

Vargas is one of those writers you need to trust and as mentioned in my review of An Uncertain Place I went through the same feelings with that one as I did with this.  Vargas is very skilled at placing obscure and seemingly unrelated details down in the first section of her novels though this does make it feel very foggy and slippery. The problem with this technique is that if it wasn’t for Adamsberg (or from reading her previous work) you might not feel you have a guide you can trust.

But then suddenly the fog clears and you can see the path and know that Vargas has been you leading you quite a merry dance. That’s not to say that you’re being tricked because Adamsberg is as much in the dark as you are as a reader and it feels that you are both finding out together. Though Adamsberg’s clockwork is hidden so you don’t known everything he does but you can still hear the explanatory ticks.

Siân Reynolds deserves a special mention for doing the translation work and making the whole thing flow. I always used to worry that that a translation would mean clunky and second-rate prose but Reynolds (as have other translators of other works) has made it feel seamless.

In conclusion, unlike many other detectives, Adamsberg’s compassion for those involved makes this serious alone a good read but when you see how clever Vargas is of putting unseen information in plain sight it becomes compelling. I’m yet to come away from her novels without feeling I’ve ‘won’ something. I  really hope you we get another.

Skin Game

If you thought The Dresden Files was starting to lose its way then reading Skin Game will prove you wrong.  Harry Dresden’s  latest case is a tough one: he has to break into the highest security vault in town under orders from his new boss, The Winter Queen, and to do so he has to work with a previous villain who’s previously tried to kill.

It’s the fifteenth book in this series so if you’re never heard of Harry Dresden or read one of his cases this is not a good place to start and if you’ve not read Changes, Ghost Story or Cold Days go catch up first as those are fundamental to seeing how Jim Butcher has altered the game which is being played out as part of the bigger picture.

It has been a bit of a rough transition as Dresden and Butcher work best when solving a case, which is exactly what Skin Game is all about, but the last few books have been dealing with a climax of a story arc and its aftermath and in doing so lost that familiar feeling. Luckily, here the bigger picture takes a back seat.

Since Changes there has been a void in Chicago, a Dresden-shaped one, and rather than protecting those close to him his absence has confused and hurt them. And Butcher addresses some of those relationship issues as a fundamental part of the plot, which shows that Butcher has grabbed hold of Harry and given him a good shake.

It was definitely needed as Harry isn’t good on his own. And so much is put to right’s here. It feels like ‘classic’ Harry is back. The heist formula adds focus and allows Butcher to play games with the reader leading to a clever and satisfying climax.

Everything that makes Dresden is here. The tricks of fairies, the Christian themes, the problems, the damsels, the manipulation and the ‘big bang’ ending.  If you love Harry you’ll love this. Though if you don’t like the ‘Dresden’ view of the world this won’t change anything.

Let’s go back to the damsels. A criticism of this series is the view that Harry Dresden has of women, especially his male gaze. That is still here and in some way it’s enhanced by the new power has from Winter. He is what he is. That isn’t to say that all the female characters are sexualised but there is a strong testosterone smell in the air.

Is that damaging? As I said at the start over fourteen books have established the characters, their personalities and their dynamics. It would be impossible to drastically alter this without making those changes feel false. And, this isn’t excusing anything but Harry has always been portrayed as a night with a weakness for wanting to save damsels in distress.

There is a glimmer of hope of fatherhood and  family with  its  inherent responsibilities, which I hope will give another aspect of Harry for Butcher to explore.

I guess the representation is ‘traditional’. It’s not progressive. I’m not sure it’s derogatory (your milage may vary). But I’d like to see less objectification certainly.

As I was reading I couldn’t put it down. The heist has a tight window and that adds tension to the whole thing. It’s a constraint that works perfectly. Butcher, as I’ve said, still manages character development by having Harry’s ego humbled with conversions with old friends, especially welcome is seeing Michael make a much needed return.

Harry Dresden’s place as the leading Urban Fantasy Detective remains. Butcher has a plan. Harry is back on form. And for a Dresden book this is practically perfect. I can’t wait to read what happens next year.

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As you can see from the graphic Random Penguin (we all know that’s what they should have called themselves) have teamed up with Hive, who already support independent bookshops, to  allow readers to create their own twelve-book mini online bookshop but the brilliant bit is that every sale will generate a little bit of income for the independent bookshop they’ve chosen to link too.

They’ve called it My Independent Bookshop.

 

Author Terry Pratchett, who has connected his online bookshop to the tiny Hayling Island Bookshop in Hampshire, said: “Independent bookshops supported this jobbing genre author long before the geeks were let out of their wardrobes, being able to support these talented retail wizards through ‘My Independent Bookshop’ is a very, very good thing. The personal aspect of sharing recommendations in your own online shop gives readers the ability to discover surprising new worlds in an interesting way. Go on, have a virtual rummage around – you’ll never know what you might find.”

I’ve created one though keep fiddling with the books; choosing only twelve is hard. Good fun though.

Here’s mine:

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If you create one or have created one please leave a link in the comments :)

 

 

I’m very pleased to be the MIDNIGHT stop on Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossing Blog Tour:

Why do you think the clock ticking midnight is such a magical event?

That’s not my fantasy. I think the crossroads itself is magical. Crossroads have so many traditions; criminals were executed at crossroads, suicides were buried there, shrines erected there. So many layers of experience and emotion.

Has the world of Midnight, the town, been brewing for a while or did it come to you in a flash?

It started with the crossroad, and then came the pawnshop, and then the other elements of the world started forming, and the people came then.

If you had the chance to visit Midnight where would you visit?

Oh, I’d go to the pawnshop and spend a long time there looking at all the spooky stuff! I’d eat at t he diner, and then go see Fiji’s new age emporium and talk to her. Maybe I’d get my nails done by Chuy Villegas!

Thanks Charlaine for popping over and you can read my review of the pleasurable and enjoyable Midnight Crossroads here

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Midnight Crossroad

There is something comforting about Charlaine Harris’s writing style and that bleeds through into her characters. My first exposure to Harris was her Sookie Stackhouse short stories from A Touch of Dead  and then the first two Aurora Teagarden novels. The reason I mention this is that Midnight Crossroad mixes Harris-the-mystery-writer and Harris-the-urban-fantasy-writer.

Reading the Aurora Teagarden books you wouldn’t think that there are any supernatural elements in the world and reading Sookie Stackhouse you’d think their presence was quite normal so I wasn’t sure which way Midnight Crossroads was going to go.

You don’t have to get more the than the preliminarily pages to know that this one is going to have a strong supernatural thread as Harris gives a mini-introduction into four of her main characters: Manfred an internet psychic (also minor character from her Harper Connelly Series), Fiji an owner of a magic shop with powers of her own, Bobo a pawn shop owner and Olivia who catches a lot of flights.

Told in the third-person we get to spend time with several of cast and get to know all the major and minor characters enough to feel their lives are real though, because the people in Midnight all tend to have their secrets, a lot of who they were before moving to Midnight remains a bit of a mystery. However, that doesn’t stop Harris feeding us with tidbits of what may come later.

And knowing that Harris has chosen to bring characters from her other series into Midnight (I spotted a Lily Bard namecheck (does that mean Bobo is a Lily Bard character?)) compelled me order all her other series (Stookie Stackhouse, Lily Bard and Harper Connelly) in an very bad moment of bookish OCD because I love authors who explore their worlds in different ways (it’s one reason I love Asher’s Polity). It’s another reason I need to crack on and read the second book of the Kings’s Dark Tower but I digress.

Unlike other reviews I’ve read I don’t want to say whose body is found but that moment turns this into a mystery and it doesn’t happen until we’ve established our feet under the table with a most of Midnight’s residents. From that moment on Harris picks up the pace though still remaining calming in her style does some quite brutal things which means I can’t label it as a ‘cosy crime’ story.

I admit to getting a little uncomfortable with the nature of the ‘big bad’ here and I think that it’s going to to appear again as the series progresses but Harris handles a real world-concern well and it is needed to shatter the cosy bubble Midnight could become without it.

Harris makes the sense of community a priority and having Manfred with the outsider eyes and outside questions makes a good conduit for the reader. He’s likeable, in fact everyone is likeable in some way even the scary characters (both those in the community and the ‘big bad’). It does take a little while to settle (fifty pages or so) as we get to know some of the characters but we have a scene at the local restaurant, this brings most of the main characters together, and sets up most of the dynamics, which Harris then cements quite rapidly.

Overall, Harris succeeds in bringing her comforting style, her love of the supernatural together with her skills as a mystery writer to make a Midnight Crossroad into a pleasurable and enjoyable read. You have characters you’d like to spend time with and care about but you are also dying to know what other secrets they are hiding. I can’t honestly wait for my my next visit to Midnight.

The Cold Commands

It’s worth pointing out that an audio book gives a different feel to book, so really I’m reviewing Richard Morgan’s writing and Simon Vance’s performance of it, and it is a performance, Vance gives each ‘voice’ a different inflection to bring them to life. And I’m praying that he’ll be asked to read The Dark Defiles  as I’m really not sure what I’d do if he didn’t [luckily he is]. From that you must know that I’m invested in the lives Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and Archeth Indamaninarmal and their fate.

And fate there is as by the end The Cold Commands sets our characters in places they wouldn’t have expected to be in at the beginning, which made the last quarter or so quite a surprise, and had me scrambling to find two hours listening over 24hrs to finish it.

At the the start it’s not clear where you are going. This does require an act of faith to push through as it feels like Morgan knows you already know and love these characters and will follow them regardless of where they end up but he doesn’t really give a sense of direction.

To be fair the characters aren’t sure what they should be doing either and each of them is eventually pushed or pulled into some sort of action – Ringil is freeing slaves, Egar is bored and does a bit of breaking and entering which gets him into more trouble that he could possibly imagine and Archeth is sent to retrieve a helmsmen, who brings with him promise of her again meeting her people.

The Cold Commands does several things that make it ‘different’ or at least outside the ‘norm’ and reading Brit Mandelo’s tor.com review reminds me that a few of them really should be highlighted.

The sequence is called ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ but who are our heroes? Ringil is probably the most surprising being not only gay but also a gay man whose intimate relationships with two minor characters are supportive rather than destructive,which is unlike The Steel Remains where the close relationship is destructive for him and the wider world and it comes back to haunt events here.  Archeth is struggling with restraint over her own desires and whether a slave girl is an expectable release. And finally, Egar’s own intimate relationship causes danger to all three though it is also a linchpin in strengthening the relationships between them.

I love The Cold Commands for that alone as there is no neon signposting. The sexuality and the problems that brings feels like an extension of the characters and I’m glad that Ringil’s relationships especially don’t ‘punish’ him.

Not that this novel a romance, it has another side shown in some dark and brutal moments. There is a rape scene, which is  rightly disturbing, and its inclusion shows a lot about the world in which everything takes place and is also telling about the characters involved and how they react.

There are a lot of soul searching moments, especially Ringil’s as he transverses the Grey Places, but each of the trio gets focus and attention, and for a middle book in a trilogy it goes deeper and further than just  treading water until the next book’s third act big finale.

Morgan likes to linger on the fights and the sexual scenes, often giving a blow-by-blow account, which I guess makes this ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’ and not for squeamish or prudish. Though I do think it’s important  that it never feels gratuitous; the fights especially have consequences. And often war ‘heroes’ are glorified by others, which are quickly earthed by Egar’s and Ringil’s putdowns.

There is also a turning of the tide here. We see the struggles that the ruler Jhiral Khimran II has in keeping power and how he keeps blocking the damn against the religious furore of the Citadel. I quite like him as character because of who he is and why he does what he does. He has a charm that comes from his scenes with Archeth and even though she’s a lot older than him he often feels much wiser. Though he s brutal and unflinching as well (and here Vance’s performance plays a strong role).

Speaking of Archeth, even she isn’t safe from Morgan’s callus hands. Outside influences extend to even her. But I’ll leave it as that to avoid unneeded signposting or spoiler inducing.

As I said at the beginning, it’s not clear at the start what to expect and I don’t want to flag those moments too much as their revelation makes you rethink a lot of earlier moments and makes a reread or re-listen in my gave something to look forward to.  But I will say that by the end Morgan has prepared the ground for something big. And the point where you hear ‘the cold commands’ will make a shiver run down your spine.

The Cold Commands uses traditional fantasy tropes and stretches those conventions to cover places they normally don’t reach. The main characters should be hard to like but they have plenty to hook your sympathies and understanding especially as their hearts are in the right place as storms gather around them. Honestly The Dark Defiles can’t come fast enough, though at last report it’s 50% bigger than this one and pays of debt due, but I’m nervous about how much Morgan is going to tear into the hearts of our characters.

Vance, as always, does a startling performance, and it always makes me chuckle that the dwenda sound welsh. His portrayal of Jihral especially sets the right tone and the helmsmen sound alien and disturbing. I could honestly listen to him read the phone book. Though with The Dark Defiles being half as long again I hope his voice holds out.

And the winner is:

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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Lizzie Barrett on No Cloaks Allowed described it thus: 

Ancillary Justice is one of the rarest of things: a debut novel that assuredly challenges its readers while continuing the familiar tradition of space opera. It at once makes you feel comfortable – if you have read any Iain M Banks or Ursula Le Guin, or seen Battlestar Galactica – but also makes you confront your own biases of gender and identity. Ultimately, it forces the reader to wonder what constitutes a human. It’s utterly sublime.

Hearty congratulations to Ann and don’t forget to check out the rest of this year’s shortlist: