Review: The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs (2014)

The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

The quote on the back of The Incorruptibles is  from Patrick Rothfuss and goes likes this:

‘One part ancient Rome, two parts wild west, one part Faust. A pinch of Tolkien, of Lovecraft, of Dante. This is a strange alchemy, a recipe I’ve never seen before. I wish more books were as fresh and brave as this.’

There is no blurb. To be honest I’d buy it just from reading just that. Go on. There isn’t really any need for me to say any more. It does what it says and does it well. Oh, You want more? OK, but I really don’t see why you’re not sold already.

Westerns with (or without) a twist seem to be in the air at the moment. At least  with releases like Nunslinger, Your Brother’s Blood and  The Incorruptibles it feels that an area of the genre that is up for exploration a little more.

Though as you’ve seen Jacob Horner is taking his vision to the extreme. It feels like a ‘what if the Roman Empire had been mixed in with the Wild West but the Empire also powered their guns, and transport by devils and hellfire?’

As a premise it does allow Jacob Horner to play some genre conventions. It is still definitely a western. It has gunfighters, and Sherifs and a frontier.  The opening scene explains that our narrator and his working partner Fisk, are escorting a hellfire steamboat, Conelian, down the river. The boat contains a Senator and his children, two of whom are ghastly and two of them are decent enough considering their status and upbringing. But all of them, in terms of status, are  placed high above our protagonists.

Jacob Horner is having fun with the setting and its confines. He’s also playing with the idea of religion.  And that’s where it goes a little deeper and makes it more than a ‘pulp’ read. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said, it packs in the fun and adventure but at the same time it tries to explore the morality of the situation. No one is really ‘pure’ so all the characters are interesting, even the less savoury ones .

There are some inhuman characters, apart from the demons, which fill in as the ‘enemy’ but even there something doesn’t quite add up. That is something which I hope the next book, Foreign Devils,  will poke at a little more.

To echo Rothfuss: This  fresh, fun and packed with a new mix of old ideas. Definitely read it if you like the sound of a gun-carrying adventure in a crazy world.

Audiobook Review: The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan (2014)


The Dark Defiles is final book of the A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It’s also the longest. The audiobook comes in at an impressive twenty-four hours. That’s a lot of story-time though in pages it comes in at 560, so not a doorstopper of a book, but it does allow Morgan space to explore the consequences of the first two books (The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands). The problem for this reviewer is that I can’t talk about most of it without ruining the efforts that Morgan has gone through to create a series of ‘oo’, ‘ah’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hell yes’ moments.

What I can say is that as an ending to an unconventional tale of heroism Morgan manages to keep control and place the reader in the right place but not until right at the end. Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and kir-Archeth Indamaninarma are definitely back to finish their respective fates.

The narrative is that Archeth has to recover a fallen Helmesman who delivers a warning which sets the trio on a state-sponsored, though mostly privately-financed, mission on the seas far away from home and from there nothing goes quite to plan.

If you’ve read the earlier two books then you’ll know that Ringil and Archeth make unconventional heroes. One is a deviant and outcast and the other is an immortal half-blood abandoned to life amongst the humans. Egar  is the nearest you’ll get to a traditional hero but he more the glue that binds Ringil and Archeth than a hero in his own right. Unlike in The Cold Commands he doesn’t gets his own thread here.

Fate is important as Morgan plays with the idea of perspective. The Grey Places,  where Ringil the Dark-Mage-in-the-making often visits, are timeless and adds a long view perspective which would be missing otherwise, another is (and this is a slight spoiler) that in their absence war is declared, like I said nothing goes to plan. So while we are following a quest of three people they are a nexus to which bigger events are rippling outwards from and reaching towards and spectacularly  colliding.

Morgan is intentionally setting out to take the model of Standard Epic Fantasy© and dismantling it before putting it back together again in his own way. By doing that it feels fresh but won’t alienate people who expect certain things from  Standard Epic Fantasy© like heroes and quests and swords.

Oh the swords, and another mild spoiler, there is another sword which isn’t the Ravensfriend. I like magical swords ever since I read about Elric and his soul-stealing sword the Stormbringer. Morgan definitely gives a nod to that concept on more than one occasion here

But it’s not completely without an injection of technology, as the Kiriath, Archeth’s people who abandoned her, it and the Helmsman to a fate without them. What the technology is ultimately useful for remains unclear but it does have its uses. For example, it resurrects one of the minor characters, making them creeping and disturbing from then on.

Thinking about it The Dark Defiles is an unsettling read. It has lots of disturbing moments, which aren’t in themselves shocking considering the grim nature of the world and the characters, but they culminate, and gain resonance – as mentioned the ripples go out as well as in and they colide at interesting times in interesting ways.

I’m going to restrain from a spoiler to illustrate the point but I was reading another story where one of the characters had said they’d never pick up a gun but at the end circumstances force them to hold and to fire such a weapon. But lets just say that circumstances (or fate) can lead you places you’d never willingly travel.

And that is the heart of A Land Fit For Heroes. You don’t know what you’ll do or where you’ll go until you’re forced into a corner and you have to make a choice. It is also about doing the unexpected when those choices are presented, about defying expectations and about being ‘human’.

I do have a few niggles, mostly with the use of time and how realistic that it is as a timeline for some events mentioned in recent history and the likelyhood for them to be actually  be ‘real’ given the timescales of other things but I can forgive that element of doubt as it’s a story about stories and the myths we create for ourselves. And I guess I’m using that as an excuse to brush those observations out of mind and out of sight.

The other things to mention are the pace and scale. In terms of pace as it is longer Morgan has given us an epic world-crossing tale and we follow characters across a map and even though it’s not a criticism it might help manage your expectations. The other is that it doesn’t build in scale. There are armies but there aren’t two armies on battefields screaming at each other. It’s much quieter than that, which is what I meant about leaving the reveal of the outcome until the very end. It’s frustratingly teasing, surprising and right.

Finally,  as I listened to the audiobook, I’d be remiss not to mention the acting skills of Simon Vance who again did a marvellous job of keeping all the characters sounding different, creepy, and alive.

The Dark Defiles is a masterful end to a rebuilding of the  Standard Epic Fantasy© Model during A Land Fit For Heroes though I’d give anything for an epilogue, even a little one.

Review: Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris (2014)

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.

Review: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris (2014)

gospel-of-loki.jpgJoanne Harris, of Chocolate fame (which you knew already, right?), has written her first adult fantasy novel, which introduces us to the life of the world’s most infamous trickster, Loki.

I know what you’re thinking and it starts with H cough Hiddleston cough and as great as the on-screen version of Loki is Harrison recounts of life with the Gods of Asgard as if you were having a drink with him in a pub, which is something you’d never get from Hollywood.

And what a tale it is. Odin calls forth Loki and is bound to him as a brother (yes BROTHER) and takes him to Asgard though Loki never quite fits in. But the Father of Lies isn’t EVIL as such he’s just misunderstood plus it’s in his nature to be disruptive.

Harris sets the tone at the start with Loki’s slightly snarky though charming introduction of the cast of characters we’re going to encounter before interrupting the recounting of the ‘authorised’ version of events of told by ‘The Prophecy of the Oracle’ (her (very loose) verse translation of Voluspá) before moving on to the main event and telling us all the lessons he’s learnt from his life as the Bringer of Light.

It’s a big task for Harris to introduce readers to a whole pantheon of characters who may be unfamiliar when compared to the likes of Loki, Thor and Odin but she manages it with ease. And then manages to recount Asgard’s entire history without it feeling like a stale history lesson. Quite to opposite.

Loki is a silver-tongued storyteller as each mini-tale (or lesson as he frames them) builds and builds revealing more and more of the Loki’s nature and his motivations but also sets out the tests and trials that Odin has him endure for the good of Asgard.

He does bring a fair bit of it on himself but you are left wondering how much of what happens is the gods’ own self-fulling prophecy and how different it would have been if they’d just built him a hall of his own treated him as one their own instead of a constant scapegoat?

I dare you not to fall for his charms and feel sorry for him by the time this tale is done. Though you may not agree with what he ends up doing especially when you how lovely his wife.

There are some amazing set pieces, which I’ve been very tempted to research and compare but you know I’m just going to enjoy the ‘reality’ The Gospel of Loki for a little bit longer.

It’s hard to convey in this review how enjoyable Loki is but hopefully a bit of his ‘wisdom’ via his lessons will give you an idea:

Love is boring. People in love even more so …


Friendship is overrated. Who needs friendship when you can have the certitudes of hostility. You know where you stand with an enemy. You know he won’t betray you. It’s the ones who claim to be your friends that you to beware of.

&, finally

Never Trust a wise man to do the work of a felon.

And on that note I’ll wrap up. Harris’ Loki has redeemed what has started off as a bit of a shaky reading year with an epic tale of Gods, demons, and the end of the world. I couldn’t be happier or more enthralled by The Gospel of Loki and his bringing of Ragnarök to the gods of Asgard.

Reading Round-up: Broken Homes, Wolfound Century, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Artful

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (audiobook), Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie and Artful by Ali Smith.

Broken HomesSeven days in to the new year and I’ve finished listening to Broken Homes, polished off Wolfhound Century and read Artful and Haroun and the Sea of Stories for the Hear…Read This! podcast. I’m not planning on keeping this pace for year but I thought that seeing as I had a batch of books to talk about I’d experiment with a group review using a more conversional reviewing style. We’ll see how it goes, eh?

Audiobooks are funny beasts as some people don’t classify listening to the book the same as reading one and I guess they are right, mostly because the choice of narrator can enhance or spoil the book’s flavour. I don’t think I’d be able to actually read a Peter Grant novel. I’ve experienced all four books in the series so far through Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s portrayal of the London PC and apprentice magician. The trouble with me and audiobooks is that I take ages to listen to them, which explains the stock-pile I’ve got of audible credits I’ve amassed – I’m currently listening to Mitch Benn read his novel Terra, and loving his alien pronunciations – another case where audiobooks can beat straight novels.

Anyway back to strange things happening in London, after Whispers Under Ground listening to Broken Homes feels like a less complex affair and it feels better for that as it somehow it had room to breath.

It’s obvious though that this isn’t going to be an introduction to the world of the Folly, the Faceless man, and the more magical side of Aaronovitch’s London. A murder and a separate break-in point to an architecturally curious high-rise estate called Skygarden, which Peter and Lesley move into to have a snoop around, but not before they guard a very interesting gathering by the river Thames.

What I love is all the threads and layers that are slowly weaving around or pealing back (depending on what Aaronovitch is doing at the time) from earlier books are forming something special . He’s created a humorous distraction in the character of Zach Palmer, who in Whispers Under Ground acted as go-between, and you can see the whispering fruits of his labours here but there is also something a little darker and that brings me around to the ending.

Some authors sneak things up on you and you shout, ‘no!’ or ‘how could you’  well this has one of those moments.

For fans of the series Ben Aarnovitch is going from strength to strength and I’m curious where Foxglove Summer is going take us next because we are left is somewhere quite surprisingly uncertain.

Wolfhound CenturySpeaking of uncertain things, Wolfhound Century is one of those books that sounds strange: an Inspector Lom is summoned to another city, Murgorod, to a catch a terrorist. Lom has been chosen because he’s an outsider from a city several days travel a way. He’s also an unintentional trouble maker as he’s no corruptible. What he show us as readers is a world of trolls, fallen angels from a war that raged above the earth, ancient forests with their own agendas and that’s just that start.

Higgens is exploring something that feels very Russian, at least to my ear, as Murgorod slowly unfolds to be a police state with records being kept on everyone and people encouraged to report on their friends and neighbours. The technology is early twentieth century with horse and carts and telephones and lots of manual record keeping.

Higgens has a brutal storytelling style as he tells his tale in short chapters (83 over 336 pages) and shows little mercy to his characters, which mixes in with the sense of place that he’s very good at. It’s refreshing to see powerful fantasy transported away from Medieval Europe into something more contemporary and interesting.

We’re dropped right in to the action with first two alternating chapters showing us Lom and Kantor, the man he’s sent to catch, but we’re not overwhelmed.  The world-building is done in passing as we focus on Lom and Kantor and their associates as they go on their separate and inter twinning missions.

One of the strengths here is that Lom seems impervious to the dangers around him but the reader is made aware of the bigger picture and the real trouble that he could, and does eventually, end up finding himself in.

As the opening to a sequence it has a very curt ending, which shuts one door and invites another to open, rather than leave on a cliff hanger. Not that Higgins needed to leave the characters in a precocious position as there is lots of dangers and trouble for Lom to get himself straight back into into especially with Kantor (and his angel patron) having an agenda they are fair from completing and the issue  bleeding of one world into the potential of another.

Oh, didn’t I mention the bleeding of realities? I didn’t mention the scary stone angels enough, or the use of angel skin. I didn’t mention that the water seems alive and the forest is interfering too.

Wolfhound Century left me feeling that I’d read a special combination of an inspired writer with a skilled imagination.

Haroun and the Sea of StoriesSpeaking of skilled imaginations I read my first Salman Rushdie thanks to the Hear…Read This!’s January Book Club Choices. The first of which is Haroun and the Sea of Stories and it reminded be very much of The Girl Who Circumvented Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, so much so in fact that I wonder if Catherine Valante had read it a some point? I don’t mean the story but in the way that a child from ‘now’ interacts with a hidden fantasy world.

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this one, though I wasn’t keen on starting Artful either, as I didn’t know how Rushdie would handle telling a children’s story and I was totally surprised how wonderful it was. Haroun’s father is the greatest of all storytellers but one day something goes wrong and all his stories dry up, something that Haroun feels is his fault but he gets the chance to visit the Sea of Stories and to restore his father’s story tap.

And it’s as bizarre as that, unlike Valente which resists the modern, Rushdie includes machines and mechanisms that ground his imaginative world.  Rather than being a lone child’s adventure Haroun has an unexpected family member around him. And that gives it a very different feel. Rushdie’s quirky characters mix with the sense of India (though one of initials and valleys) to create something completely removed from reality to form a place of pure storytelling pleasure. It’s not a dark tale, though are elements of ‘danger’ but nothing that’s going to scar small children. It has some nice, but not laboured, moral messages, especially about girls/women having to hide who they really are to get on in a man’s world and another about the power of stories to change the world.

If you have any imagination and you love a fairytale then Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one for you.

artful-by-ali-smithThe odd one out in this list is the very literary Ali Smith’s Artful, well you may think that, but you’d be wrong. It’s very much in No Cloak’s Allowed territory as it starts with a ghost story, a story that weaves its way around four linked lectures. Smith is playing with form and function here and at the beginning I couldn’t understand the switching from the narrator telling us their story and then switching to the lectures on time, on form, on edge and on offer and on reflection but there was a point where I stopped being annoyed by the lecturing tone and relaxed into taking on board what was being said, even if the messages were being mixed together.

You see the narrator is reading you the unfinished lectures from her partner and ghostly visitor, which makes it quite moving the more you read.

I was left thinking that people haunt themselves with the idea of the dead but if the dead actually did haunt them they’d react and cope completely differently – a lesson our narrator leans quite harshly in the end.

And that’s what I’ve been reading. Now to finish ‘Crouch End’ by Stephen King and to write that next short story review.

TMMC Review: Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock


Here are the first tales of the albino sorcerer-prince Elric: lord of the Dreaming City, last Emperor of Melniboné, traitor, kinslayer. Doomed to wander the multiverse, battered by the whims of Law and Chaos, in thrall to his soul-eating sword, Stormbringer, Elric lies at the heart of Michael Moorcock’s extraordinary mythology of the Eternal Champion

I’d better start with a confession. The only work of Moorcock I’ve read, Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles, I didn’t love. I just didn’t see it as a Who story as it contained too much Moorcock mythology that I didn’t connect with but  this new project I may change my mind and I’m tempted to read it again after I’ve understood him better and read the 1033 page The Cornelius Quartet, which contains the same (or similar) character of  Captain Cornelius.

Before entering The Michael Moorcock Collection (so called as Gollancz is trying to bring a vast amount of his work to print over a short space of time)  I needed to ask where to start? I tend to start at the beginning if it’s a series and if it isn’t a series well It’s not so hard with a debut author, or an author that has a couple of books as your options as limited, when you get to an author with a larger back catalogue, say Margaret Attwood, it’s trickier, but when you’re talking Michael Moorcock, now, that’s a different thing entirely. There are lots of entry points. Gollancz even wrote a ‘Reading List’ post after a little gentle persuasion. I could have started with Corum, I have The Cornelius Quartet, but Elric ‘the eternal champion’ was the character I most wanted to break:

Elric: An obvious one, this – Moorcock’s most famous creation, the albino prince with a melancholy air and a soul-sucking sword is one of the cornerstones of modern fantasy. Every anti-hero, every complicated loner, is built on Elric. Our new editions tell Elric’s story in the order in which it occurred (in fiction, not in publication), so the best place to start is probably Elric of Melniboné and other stories. There’s an argument for starting with Elric: Stormbringer! which contains perhaps the most famous of the Elric novels, but that isn’t out until March 2014.

So, I’m reading Elric in story order and this collection contains; Return of the Thin White Duke by Alan Moore, Putting a Tag on It, Master of Chaos, Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, And so the Emperor Received His Education…: Elric of Melniboné, Aspects of Fantasy (I), Eric of Melniboné: Introduction to the 1986 Graphic Adaptation, El Cid and Elric: Under the Influence.

I could go thorough the stories one by one but that’s unfair to the flavour of this volume as it acts of an introduction to Elric, describes his beginnings and delves into the history of Melniboné and it makes me wonder if it was the right choice?

It wasn’t a bad choice but is a little disjointed if you’re looking for a pure escapist experience. Partly it’s because of the comic book script. It shows Moorcock has spent a lot of effort giving Elric a solid foundation. They tell the story of how Elric became King winning the throne from his cousin through as series of challenges in the dream realms but you’re not sure how dreamlike those experience are as they have connections to the present.

What does come across is that Moorcock wants to explore further than, say, the setting of middle-earth, which is on one plane of existence. Here we know that there are other dimensions and there are beings of Chaos and an eternal battle for balance being waged. Another this is that Chaos isn’t presented as something black. It isn’t exactly good but it’s not ‘evil’. So things have the potential be to get vert interesting.

To be honest I’m just not sure yet what to make of him as a hero or what ‘real’ adventures are going to be but I’m hoping that will change as Elric: The Fortress of the Pearl is a 224 page continuous adventure for the Pearl at the Heart of the World. And from the glimpses in Elric of Melniboné it has the potential to be quite an adventure.

SFM Review: Blood Music by Greg Bear

Blood Music

Should we read older SF? Gollancz seems to think so. Their SF Masterworks line has, for the last 14 years, highlighted SF classics and kept them in print. This series of posts is here to try to do two things. One to expand this authors’ knowledge of classical SF, especially eighties SF, and secondly to ask the question are classics worth reading?

Blood Music is the story of Virgil Ulman, who works at a genetics research lab. As his colleagues work away on a biological chip Virgil has been recoding cells to do something quite different. His abandonment of research ethics leads to trouble from his employer resulting in the suspension of his research but not before he injects himself with the results of his experiment. Virgil is the catalyst but his invention gets centre stage.

‘I will never understand men, as long as I live and breathe,’ his mother said, pouring another cup of thick black coffee. ‘Always tinkering, always getting into trouble.’ p43

Let’s start with the power of genetics. The first 100 pages deals with Virgil’s transformation. He’s the host of his experiment but Greg Bear looks at the effect of his transformation of those around him as well as the effect on himself. It doesn’t seem sensible to inject yourself with genetically altered material without an idea of the outcome though this is exactly what Virgil does. In the present we have several genetic modified crops, gene therapy so it’s not by any means implausible to alter genes but we’ve not quite caused the alterations that occur in Blood Music. To be fair to Virgil he just thinks he’s storing them for later retrieval. It shows how naive he is.

For the first section it appears that Virgil is both Dr Frankenstein and his monster. But he’s not a monster as such. His body and health vastly improve and you’d be forgiven that he’s created a new form of superhuman. You’d also be wrong as in the second half everything changes.

While the focus is on Virgil we get to see him gain a girlfriend. And it’s that relationship which is a bit unhealthy, if not creepy. Actually all his interpersonal relationships are a little odd. I’m not sure if Bear meant to give us a warning about scientists working alone in a lab with obsessions focused only on their work but he has.

A tension between Virgil and his friend, a doctor, shows another side to our scientist, but reinforces that he is difficult and demanding. And through Edward we get one of the most dramatic moments of the book. The trouble is that if feels like Bear is treading water up until that moment because he wants to explore the implications of the experiment being out in the wild but he can’t do that until a big reveal. It’s his girlfriend I felt most sorry for, which shows that Bear can create some interest in characters but it’s not his strength. Or at least it didn’t feel like he’d created rounded ones that would have lasted too far outside this story.

After Virgil’s experiment is released things become less plausible but fascinating and it also gives a strong indication of the atmosphere in the eighties between Russia and America and perhaps Bears views on that. We move away from Virgil’s point of view and it’s replaced by those of another scientist but one we’ve already met, a girl who is all alone and Virgil’s mother who gains some twin companions. These three give different interactions with the experiment’s growing reach.

Bear is asking what if we altered our biology via genes? What if we made something intelligent? What would they do when they interact with us?

We’re now tipping into spoiler territory but the experiment has two effects; billions more observations taking place over a finite area and America’s plight causes hysteria around the globe. The implication, at least at first, is that without America the world would turn into chaos. I’m not sure that’s strictly true. But then we have the question of observation and how observing the universe can cause it to stiffen as observed things aren’t as free to change.

Blood Music is a novel of ideas and for that it is well worth reading. The science may feel a little old and dated though it still raises some valid and interesting questions. The structure is a little bit more problematic. It’s a novella expanded to a short novel and it doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not that it’s padded but it spends time in odd ways while before it feels its time to move on. For example the thread with the mother could have been told in one page but there needed to be a journey. But that then took focus away from the scientist and the girl.

Greg Bear makes you wonder how easily the world can change through the power of science and imagination. So does that make it a classic and should it be kept in print? It is a novel of its time and is standing up quite well. It’s a concept that still feels plausible though the worldwide consequences could be a little different now.

The next novel in the SF Masterworks Project is Grass by Sheri S. Tepper  and will be posted towards the end of August.

Review: The City of Silk and Steel by Mike, Linda & Louise Carey (Gollancz)


The City of Silk and Steel by Mike, Linda & Louise Carey


Once, in a city called Bessa, there was a sultan who was over throne by religious zealots, lead by Hakkim Mehdad, who didn’t like the way the sultan and his people enjoyed themselves. The sultan’s wives and children were slaughtered and his 365 concubines were banished and sent to a neighbouring caliph as a tribute. But something threatened the banished concubines and everything changed.


Imagine you are in the desert and a group of you are sat around a fire and someone starts telling a story about a City of Women. You may think from the way the narrator tells the story of exiled concubines that it is just a tale that has no basis in reality and to be fair it does start as just as story. But our narrator, the librarian Rem, tells us how a city of women came to be and what they did afterwards.

The City of Silk and Steel is this story but it’s built from asides and reflections and futures of those involved and as it grows you end up seeing the full picture.

Even though you could think of it as an Arabian Nights style tale due to its setting and the classical feel it captures. The Careys have managed to take what may have been a safe linear tale and push themselves  into holding a reader’s attention as they pause, re-tell, give backstories, and make you as interested in the events of the characters lives have lead them here as to where they find themselves now.

An example of this is the titles of some the tales. Some are more ambiguous than others for example ‘Tales Whose Application is Mostly Tactical: Bethi’ versus ‘Giver of Gifts’. One of my favourites stories is ‘The Cook’s Story’ as it includes recipes but they are used to make a point. They show the contrast between the old Sultan and Hakkim and how the ascetic movement has effected the kitchens and the merchant’s who supply it. This technique adds a quality that is rare in most stories though to be fair most stories wouldn’t sustain this type of narration.

It works here as there is no main character as such, unless you’d define it as the city of Bessa, instead you have characters who are important to the tale. There are those that make decisions like Zuleika who changed the entire direction of the women’s lives,  Gursoon who makes sure they survive Zuleika’s actons, Rem not only narrates but gives commentary on events as she was there affecting them not in small part due to her sight of the past, present and future. Then there is Anwar Das who grows to be much more than a camel thief. There are other characters and other stories including the act of kindness that the women will come to regret in the end.

But it does show rightly that you can have all sorts of strong female characters and what women can achieve. When the tale starts most, but not all, of the women have no other recognisable skills than those needed to survive their role as concubines, which involve not only looking after the sultan’s physical needs but ensuring, along with his wives, that they diplomatically cool his fires when he could make rash decisions.

But as they need to survive outside the city their underused (and unacknowledged) skills have to be used and honed in order to trade as well as fight when needed. And this the heart of The City of Silk and Steel and the source of its title. The silk is the women and their soothing nature and the steel is the fight inside them and both are needed. Though it may not be enough but not for the reasons that you may think. A city run by women is a very successful one but compassion is sometimes a weakness.

The ease with which regime change occurs may be have some readers pausing to wonder why it wasn’t harder but then again it’s a story that plays out over several years and its focus is on the characters not particularly on capturing a true ‘reality’. The narrator freely admits that is a story not a historical record though it is both.

It is the record of Bessa but also a story about Bessa.


I was truly enchanted by The City of Silk and Steel. The narrative style is refreshing. The way in which the story passes back and forth. The changes in focus. The way it builds. And the devastating way it ends. You may think that it’s bound to be a happy tale. It is in lots of ways as the women are practical but even that isn’t enough.

The Carey’s sometimes gloss and lubricate in some places where more grit and resistance would make the journey feel tougher but when it matters they don’t hold back. You want the women to beat the odds. You know the dangers of what they are doing and all you can do is read and wait.

If you like classical feeling fantasy tales with modern complexities, which is enchanting, captivating and enjoyable then The City silk and Steel should be top of your list.

Reading and Listening Roundup: Absorption, Or The Bull Kills You and The Steel Remains

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Absorption by John Meaney (Gollancz)

Across the ages there are characters three things in common: they glimpse shards of darkness moving at the edge of their vision; they hear echoes of a dark, disturbing musical chord; and they will dream of joining a group called the Ragnarok Council.

There are some books that I read that make me wonder ‘Why didn’t someone convince me to read this earlier?’ Absorption is one of those books. But luckily I read a great review of the sequel, Transmission, and decided that if the second one sounded that good I really should give it a go.

I have to say what kind of put me off in the first place was the same thing that intrigued me: I wasn’t sure how John Meaney would mix of viking myth and space opera elements together. And I should have had a little faith as he twists them around each other very tightly. I don’t know yet what shape he’s making but Absorption definitely sets the stage.

As will all multipoint stories there are some views that are more appealing to follow that others.

Luckily John doesn’t force it by lingering with characters that at that point don’t move the story forward though their lack of stage time in latter chapters is oddly noticeable when you are waiting for them to reappear during scene changes and as will all multipoint stories there are some views that are more appealing to follow that others.

He’s chosen a diverse crew to build up his story. My favourite is probably Roger, a young man that has all manner of talents including being able to travel between dimensions. Meaney also invokes Germany between the world wars – a time and place that I’m starting to feel is a lazy shorthand but not in this case – Meaney looks at the point where physics was on the turn with a greater understanding of the underlying patterns in the universe, which is a good introduction to the scientific complexities (and perhaps impossibilities that he invokes).

It’s nicely compressed something is happening constantly. It doesn’t feel drawn out maybe in a couple of places oddly directed but who knowns where those threads are heading? I’m looking forward to reading Transmission to find out where this SF Norse myth mix is going next.

Paperback jacket

Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster (Vintage)

Either you kill the bull, or the bull kills you – traditional proverb. Chief Inspector Max Cámara hates bullfighting but one hot afternoon in Valencia he has to replace his boss, judging a festival corrida that stars Spain’s most famous young matador. That night, he is summoned back to the bullring where the young matador’s dead body now lies, naked and mutilated.

It has to be hard to bring something new to the crime genre. But crime happens everywhere and this time we’re off to sunny Spain. I initially thought this was going to be a crime in translation but like Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police series Cámara is written by a non-native that’s made the place a home, and like Walker brings out an accessible view of the culture and the place. Or at least that’s what comes across in Or The Bull Kills You.

Setting it at the time of the festival of Fallas is very immersive not only do you get to a Valencia in the raw it tightens the tension as Cámara of investigating the death of such a high profile figure. Though I wouldn’t say that makes him a worse detective. He’s very shambling. He likes an early drink and a not entirely legal recreational smoke. He is however endearing. And a good policeman even if he’s not that methodical he does have a policeman’s nose.

Webster keeps everything flowing nicely and you get a not exactly subtle but not force fed either lesson in bullfighting.


The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

Ringil, the hero of the bloody slaughter at Gallows Gap is a legend to all who don’t know him and a twisted degenerate to those that do. A veteran of the wars against the lizards he makes a living from telling credulous travellers of his exploits. Until one day he is pulled away from his life and into the depths of the Empire’s slave trade. Where he will discover a secret infinitely more frightening than the trade in lives.

Now The Steel Remains I confess took me three goes over three different formats to get into. The first two were a review copy, and I bought the ebook to try out the format on my new Sony Reader, but I didn’t get very far. There was something in the opening that didn’t quite gel. So I wrote it off as not for me.

When I was choosing my next audio book a while ago I thought I’d give the sample a go and I’m glad I did (I immediately bought The Cold Commands so that’s a giveaway really). Simon Vance is an amazing narrator so that eased me back into the story.

Morgan challenges expectations from the off. His lead hero is gay and excellently portrayed as a hero who is gay rather than a gay hero. A distinction that is important. Morgan has aliens which haven’t elevated the level of technology to higher or a lasting degree apart from in strengthening swords. But by respecting as at the same time subverting lots of fantasy troupes to me it feels fresh and something I enjoyed listening to.


Mini Audiobook Review: Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz)

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Kobna Holdbrook-Smith again reads the words of Ben Aaronovitch as we return to apprentice magician and wizard Peter Grant, who again takes us to the London that we all know is there under the surface. You know the one with jazz vampires, which is fortuitous considering Peter’s dad is a jazz loving trumpet player with a title in jazz scene.

Book two in the series (Rivers of London was the first) finds Aaronovitch more relaxed and leisurely, which is a blessing and a curse in some ways. It’s a blessing as the we get to see a different side of Grant as he isn’t as action hero as Rivers of London but we also get to see less of the colourful characters that littered the first one. Though we do get a few nice cameos.

We also get less knocking on doors, so less of the police investigation, and more relationship building, but you know I like it for that. It shows that Aaronovitch isn’t repeating a formula. Instead he’s investigating his characters and their history more. We get to see more about the history of ‘The Folly’ and where all the wizards may, or may not, have gone.

I did realise one of the major twists earlier than I would have liked and I think that twisting in one more smaller thread into the story might have delayed that. But that’s only a minor distraction as I really enjoyed the voice of Grant. Both Holdbrook-Smith and Aaronovitch versions. Especially Peter having a practical edge to everything and not getting too airy faery about the mystical world he finds himself in. And I’m definitely not going to look at one of those carnival fortune telling heads the same way again.

What was really touching was following the effect on Lesley of the events of River of London and how she and Peter deal with it. And what really hit it home was Kobna doing Lesley’s voice and remembering it from Rivers of London before her life changed. Thankfully she’s strong on the inside.

One of the best urban fantasy series in years. One that is a must read if you love London (ror the idea of London) and want to see what could be happening just below the mystical surface