29 August 2016

A Death in the Family - blogtour

Image from http://orendabooks.co.uk
A Death in the Family (Detective Kubu 5)
Michael Stanley
Orenda Books, 15 August 2016
PB, 312pp
Source: Review copy from the publisher

"There’s no easy way to say this, Kubu. Your father’s dead. I’m afraid he’s been murdered."

Faced with the violent death of his own father, even Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Botswana CID’s keenest mind, is baffled. Who would kill such a frail old man? The picture becomes even murkier with the apparent suicide of a government official. Are Chinese mine-owners involved? And what role does the US Embassy have to play? 

Set amidst the dark beauty of modern Botswana, A Death in the Family is a thrilling insight into a world of riots, corruption and greed, as a complex series of murders present the opera-loving, wine connoisseur detective with his most challenging case yet. When grief-stricken Kubu defies orders and sets out on the killers’ trail, startling and chilling links emerge, spanning the globe and setting a sequence of shocking events in motion.

Will Kubu catch the killers in time … and find justice for his father?

This is actually the fifth book about 'Kubu' (the nickname means 'Hippopotamus' and is a reference to the detective's size - and a possible allusion to his love of good food). However that doesn't show - I hadn't read any of the others, but within a few pages, I was immersed in his Botswana, familiar with his colleagues and family - and mourning for his loss of his father, stabbed in the street.

I don't know whether or not Wilmon featured much in the earlier books: it doesn't really matter, Michael Stanley (the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) still convoys the old man's character - a hard working practitioner of traditional medicines, a loving if strict father and good husband. Kubu's grief drives this book - first as he tries to find ways to get onto the case despite his boss's insistence that he stay away and then, more subtly, as he makes connections between his father's death and other troubling events and learns a bit of family history

It's a deftly written story, presenting the reader with a puzzle - how does everything join up? - that's all the trickier to a Westerner who doesn't know quite what may be possible or indeed expected in modern Botswana. But we are perfectly able to cope with the unfamiliarity of a Scandi winter, and it's exciting learning just what is going on amidst the heat and dust (sorry for the cliche!) of Botswana. (And I would point out Sherlock Holme's remark to the effect that worse crimes are committed in the pleasant countryside than in the worst London alleyways).

In explaining what's going on, the authors give a vivid picture of modern Botswana. There is politics here - domestic and international - as well as a 21st century mineral grab, all played out in a poor country which they show to be a nation which is nevertheless proud of its traditions and achievements (not least in policing).

There are some great, well released characters here, and also some great moments and scenes, most notably Kubu's trip to New York to attend a conference which confronts him both with a degree of cold he never believed existed and with meals large enough to challenge even him. That perhaps makes him sound like a bit like a future of fun but nothing could be further from the truth: Kubu is a shrewd and experienced detective, supported by a skilled team. Collectively, once they get the measure of the threat confronting them, they are more than capable of working out what's happening.

The question is, though, whether the forces that are now moving can be stopped. it isn't just a matter of a single death: the fate of whole communities hangs in the balance...

24 August 2016

The Constant Soldier

The Constant Soldier
Image from www.panmacmillan.com
William Ryan
Mantle, 25 August 2016
HB, 368pp
Source: I'm grateful for an advance copy of this book to review 

It is early 1944. A soldier rides away from battle  through a fairytale landscape of glittering ice, snow-boughed trees and frozen rivers. he is injured and will have to spend many weeks and months recuperating before being discharged home, used, broken and racked with guilt. But the war hasn't finished with him, and even on that journey back from the Front, he passes another train - 'a long line of snow-roofed cattle trucks'. There are no windows, only high, barred slits. 'From some of them - not all - thin, blood streaked hands ingnored the wire to reach out, as if looking for something their owners couldn't see.'

In 1944, on the Eastern front, the Third Reich is entering its final days, reaping the fruits of murder. Brand is coming home to face his past, make what peace he can with it and try to save something. meantime, Polya is also coming, part of the all conquering Red Army, driving her T-34 tank on the long road to Berlin.

In an afterword, Ryan explains how this story was inspired by a real place - an SS rest hut in German-occupied Poland, where murderers and torturers came to forget their work and relax. The book includes two photographs from an album kept by one of the officers looking after the hut during those last days: incongruous pictures of Christmas trees and hunting parties. This contrast between everyday life - if one can use the term - and apocalyptic events taking place over the hills, where the Russians approach, or down the road in the camp, where human beings are butchered, underlies the story, beginning as a mere convenience for the hut's orderlies and guests - the ignoring of inconvenient and evil truths - and growing into a grand collective delusion as the enemy approach and the end comes near - but none dare admit it.

That battle rages in all the characters (except Polya, perhaps) - Brandt, who was forced into the army to escape 'political trouble' and bears a double guilt, for what he did then and for the fact that his lover fell into the hands of the Gestapo due to him; for Neumann, in charge of the hut, who has been excused 'active involvement' in the camp after a trauma which literally haunts him; Jager, the hardened Waffen SS man who has no hope left and sees through everything. Only, perhaps, the more stupid remain comfortable. 

I was in two minds about this pervasive guilt and sense of mis-ease. At one level, it might be reassuring to think that many Germans - and those who joined in the terrible crimes of the Second World War - knew, at some level, that what was happening was utterly wrong. I want to believe in their humanity, that they would be troubled by what was happening, what they were complicit in. That seems like a sign of hope, a small flower in a bleak desert. But no - I think what the book demonstrates is the terrible power of events, of going along with things. Those mental reservations, that unease, doesn't save a single wretch from death. Still less the realisation that it's all going up in flames and time to turn to turn coat and denounce what's been going on. (A couple of soldiers discuss the inevitable future war between the West and Russia and how they will be needed in it).

In this moral cesspit, Brandt, tainted and loathing himself, tries to rescue those he can. His determination to atone plunges us into an action-filled and morally ambiguous story, one that powers along like those Russian tanks sweeping westwards. Against the huge forces in motion it seems as though nothing he does can have any significance, yet he, and some of the others, do what they can. There is the woman he lost all those years ago and her fellow prisoners. There are the boys and old men of the village, press-ganged into Hitler's last ditch Dad's Army, the Volkssturm. There's his sister and the rest of his family. (The village will not be safe when the Russians come: but even before that, it's not safe - partisans prowl the woods and fanatical Nazis like the Mayor prowl the streets. And it hasn't been safe for many for years: "The Glintzmanns have moved away"). The political prisoner, Agneta, knows that the body of her Jewish friend Lena should be washed but only has tears to do it with. The two women who are 'Bible students' refuse to condone the killing even when a single word would free them at any time.  does what he can. 

One can't escape guilt - even Polya suffers guilt as her tank crushes a refugee wagon and kills a mother and her children - and there is no redemption or absolution here but one can try to save something from the wreckage, perhaps, make things a bit less bad. But it's deeds that count not inner guilt, unspoken repugnance nor even - as with a couple of characters - self-destruction (either by suicide or throwing oneself at the approaching Russians). 

It's a sobering and at times desperately sad book, a story of love, loss, revenge, guilt and endurance - perhaps above all, of endurance. A magnificent read and a real reminder of the times Europe and its people have been through and the need to be on our guard against their repetition.

23 August 2016

The Girl with all the Gifts

The Girl with all the Gifts
MR Carey
Orbit, 2016 (film tie-in edition)
PB, 461
Source: Paperback copy kindly supplied by the publisher, original ARC from Amazon Vine (2014).

In celebration of this book being released as a film, it's been reissued in paperback in a pretty nice new design - something that you don't often get with film tie-ins, in my opinion! It also has some nice extras - an interview with the author, some book group questions and previews of his next book Fellside and of Resistance is Futile by Jenny Colgan.

I'm therefore dusting off a review I did of Girl for Amazon Vine back in 2014: I blogged less, and never posted the review here.

I haven't made any changes, I think the review speaks for itself.

I hope and believe that this book will be a big success - I found it a gripping read, hard to put down and genuinely engaging.  It is though difficult to review without giving too much away, as as the effect depends on careful pacing and the gradual revelation of what is going on.

We are first introduced to Melanie, the Girl of the title, who may be about 10 years old.  She goes off to lessons every day - but the journey is from her underground cell, along a short corridor, to her classroom.  She travels strapped into a wheelchair, pushed by "Sergeant", unable to move her arms or legs. And once she arrives, her chair is placed so that neither she, nor her classmates, can communicate. The adults around her seem to either fear her, or hate her, or both. Apart from Miss Justineau, her favourite teacher.

Melanie's day to day treatment isn't by any means the cruellest thing that happens to the kids.  We slowly discover that something has gone very wrong with the world.  ("The population of Birmingham is zero!")  Outside the fence around the site where Melanie lives, threats loom - Hungries and Junkers - and paradoxically it's only Sergeant and his men who keep them at bay.  The site exists to find an answer, and Melanie may be the key.

Eventually, the fragile normality Melanie has known is threatened, and she and a small group of companions - including arch-torturer Dr Caldwell - have to band together to survive.

Though all this, Melanie grows and learns. Can she find a way not only to save herself, but the human race?  And if she succeeds, what will the cost be?  Dr Caldwell believes that the pain and suffering she inflicts is justified, given the potential prize.  Can that be right?  What does survival mean - it it more than finding a way to beat off or destroy the Hungries?

This is an action-filled story throughout, with Hungries and Junkers to be fought off, but it's also a story of discovery, at the heart of which is the developing relationship between Melanie and her teacher, Miss Justineau.  I found that sad and beautiful, as what Melanie discovers about herself, her origin and her life affects Justineau - even as the latter risks everything to protect the girl from the threats that surround her.

The book is well written and compelling. The closest comparisons I can think of are some of John Wyndham's post apocalyptic stories such as The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids or perhaps closest, The Chrysalids, where similar dilemmas are explored - but it is better than any of them, not least in the degree to which the characters become real.

Definitely one to look for in 2014. [And wasn't I right?]

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/

22 August 2016

Associates of Sherlock Holmes

Image from titanbooks.com
Associates of Sherlock Holmes
Edited by George Mann
Titan Books, 23 August 2016
PB, 378pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher

In this collection brought together by George Mann, we have stories about, or inspired by, people mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series. I think this is an excellent idea: there are screeds of non-canonical Holmes and Watson stories, so a slightly different angle adds freshness without the need for anything too bizarre.

Inevitably some of these 'associates' (Irene Adler, Lestrade, Mycroft, Col Sebastian Moran) are more memorable than others (Clarence Barker, Billy the Page) so helpfully the authors have written a short introduction to each. That's also useful because some of the stories (not all) riff directly off the canonical ones, and, unless you've lately reread them, the details may be hazy.others. So while it wouldn't do any harm to reread, say,  The Adventure of the Creeping Man or The Adventure of the Three Gables before this book, the intros mean that's not necessary.

Most of the stories, while not narrated by Dr Watson, adopt the same straightforward approach (there is a rational solution which is discovered by logical detective work). There are though a few that bend the rules, for example by flirting with the supernatural (or, in one case, even proposing a supernatural explanation), telling a straight adventure narrative (indeed, almost SFF in one case) or simply acting as a framing device to another story with no great element of detection involved.

Stepping outside the normal Holmes-and-Watson setup also allows some games with the Sherlock universe, such as hints in a couple of stories of things that Watson wouldn't have referred to for reasons of Victorian propriety, or of fallibilities that he (as an unreliable narrator) wouldn't have admitted (one of the stories hints at his gambling addiction).  It as if all those silenced characters - including a number of women - are finally able to dish the dirt on the good Doctor. There is also scope for or fixing continuity errors (Watson's confused marital history) or outright errors (the Speckled Band itself was not, as Holmes admits, a swamp adder).

Inevitably the stories vary rather in theme and tone. I found them all enjoyable but everyone will have their own favourites:

In The River of Silence by Lyndsay Faye, we see Holmes's first meeting with Stanley Hopkins, a young Inspector who turns up in some of the later Conan Doyle stories. Faye convinces with her story told through the voice of Hopkins, and it means she doesn't have to imitate Conan Doyle's style (or, as many have, run the risk of pastiching it). In theme and overall atmosphere, though, the story - opening with a gruesome discovery and proceeding though the fogs of London to a squalid Limehouse -  is very much in keeping with the original tales, right down to the vagueness about illness ("fever") and the mental collapse of one character. It's a nice little origin story for Hopkins, a minor Conan Doyle character, which allows Faye plenty of room to develop his personality and backstory.

Pure Swank by James Lovegrove picks up the story of Clarence Barker, Sherlock Holmes's 'hated rival on the Surrey shore' who appears in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. Who is Barker, why are he and Holmes rivals - and where is Barker from? These questions are answered in ways that gives a slightly different and more cynical view of the Great Detective. In the end, you're left with a choice to which is the more reliable narrator - Watson or Barker.

Heavy Game of the Pacific Northwest isn't a crime story at all. While it features the brilliant, amoral Colonel Sebastian Moran, he's not up to some sort of caper, nor is he trying to kill Holmes - instead he is again the Great Hunter. It's nice to see this character - who only appears a few times in the canonical stories but who is portrayed so well that he seems to dominate even so - finally step out from behind the curtain.

A Dormitory Haunting by Jaine Fenn picks up the later life of Violet Hunter, the governess from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, who's now Head of a girls' school. When a mysterious figure begins to haunt the dormitory by night, she remembers Holmes' example and sets out to find the truth. This is a lovely story featuring a determined and independent woman who's not afraid to flout convention.

The Case of the Previous Tenant by Ian Edginton is a rather fantastical concoction focussed in Inspector Barnes who appears only once (in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge) but seems to be Holmes's equal. That said I wasn't sure he was really allowed to shine in this rather fantastical tale which seems closer in theme to MR James than Conan Doyle.

Nor Hell a Fury by Cavan Scott is definitely my favourite story but then it features The Woman, Irene Adler, so how could it not be?

The Case of the Haphazard Marksman by Andrew Lane features Lansdale Pike, a gossip columnist(!) who originally appeared in The Adventure of the Three Gables. This story was another favourite of mine, I think it nicely captures something of the atmosphere of the originals, with an ingenious mystery that fully stretches both Holmes and Pike, standing in for Watson.

The Presbury Papers by Jonathan Barnes is one of those stories where the introduction helps by going over the salient points of its inspiration, The Adventure of the Creeping Man, but which goes beyond that original in implied depravity and danger. It also brings in Mycroft (as does A Family Resemblance by Simon Bucher-Jones).

William Meikle's A Flash in the Pan revives another one-off Conan Doyle character, the bruiser Shinwell Johnson. It's a slightly sulphurous tale set amongst the cheap places of evening entertainment - and shows Holmes accepting methods that he doesn't want Watson to know too much about.

The Vanishing Snake by Jeffrey Thomas continues the story of Helen Stonor from The Speckled Band, taking the chance to correct a couple of glitches with that and also advancing a new theory about what was really going on in the original. It was a rather different Holmes story and great fun.

Page Turners by Kara Dennison is a nice little story - the one featuring Billy the Page, in a thrilling adventure which comes across as just another tricky day for that resourceful lad.

Finally, Peeler by Nick Kyme features my favourite of Scotland Yard's also-rans, Inspector Lestrade himself (Lestrade also plays a supporting role in The River of Silence). The is a properly grisly story to end the book on, perhaps a little more so than feels natural a Sherlock Holmes story but it's definitely an ingenious mystery.

20 August 2016

A Little Knowledge

Image from www.enewman.co.uk
A Little Knowledge
Emma Newman
Diversion Books, August 2016
PB, 359pp
Source: Bought

This is the fourth book in the Split Worlds series from Emma Newman, coming after a gap of nearly three years. If you haven't read the other books, this isn't a good place to start: not because it's inaccessible - she makes sure, without info dumping, to remind the reader what's been going on - it's more that this inevitably, reveals things which happened in the earlier books. You will want to spend more time in the Split Worlds so it's much better to go back and read the others (Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name and All is Fair) in order.  (Links are to my old Amazon reviews of the books, which I've tidied up and resposted here). I've written this review on the assumption that you have done that, so there are spoilers here for them, and I'm not going to explain who the Fae are, or the Elemental Court or the Arbiters.

The publication gap was unfortunate for several reasons. First, this is a cracking series and it was frustrating to have to wait for more. Also, the action in this book picks up only a few days after All is Fair ended, so the flow especially broken. Also, rereading online reviews, it seems to have led some readers - fantasy trilogies being so common - to believe that the first three books were a self-contained trilogy and so to complain that things were left unresolved. While I'd defend the right of any author to leave things unresolved if they want, that's unfair. The three strands in these books - Cathy and her forced marriage to horrible rapist husband Will, Sam (Lord Iron's) exploration of his inheritance and newly gained powers, and the adventures of Arbiter Max - have been running in parallel through all the books and only gradually coming together, but that did accelerate in All is Fair giving a degree of closure, but making it clear that there was much more to come.

A Little Knowledge takes this forward but with an even stronger unifying theme.

Cathy has stuck with Will, it becomes clear, not only because of the Charm he used on her (without her knowing) but because she thinks she can use his new role as Duke of Londinium to bring about social progress and especially to improve the position of women in the strange world of the Fae-touched. There is a great deal of impassioned, even angry feminism in this book (which is a GOOD thing) showing how the claustrophobic, archaic world of the Fae-touched, with its brokered marriages, male power and stultifying conventions, bears down on women. In point of fact, everyone here - not just the women - is a puppet, with the so-called patroons, the male heads of the various families, answering in turn to the Fae. No-one has much say over their own lives. But the men at least have the illusion of some control - and they have the women to bully and sneer at - so they're resistant to change. (It could be mistaken for a very deft and biting social commentary, except that, thankfully, our world isn't like that at all is it?)

However, no progress is being made. In reality, change never comes from above and both Cathy and even Will are powerless to actually do anything from within the system that controls them.

Cathy is magnificently angry, frustrated and sweary.

And Will? What can you say about Will? Basically he's an appealing slimeball with a few feeble good intentions.

As the books have progressed, Newman's handling of her characters has developed in subtlety and power and Will is its culmination. He is, I think, at bottom a weak man. In the earlier books there was a moment when it looked as though he might act to help Cathy escape from the political designs of her father, and he was certainly appalled that her father was violent to her. However in the Split Worlds there are no white knights. Will eventually used the magical equivalent of Rohypnol - a Charm spell - on Cathy, and he has even worse in store for her in this book, while all the time telling himself that he's "protecting" her. So he could be a hateful, despicable figure and on one level he is" but instead - the way that Newman writes him - he remains complex and human, almost a tragic hero.  (almost). If only he'd learn to cut the puppet strings and stop dancing to another's tune!

At the same time, Sam - now Lord Iron, inheritor of a vast mining empire and also gifted with his own magic, strong against the Fae - is learning the same lesson as Cathy. The other members of the Elemental Court are not going to listen to him, reform, and begin respecting the environment and their workers. Power will not reform itself just because you have good intentions.

Whatever is to be done - both in the Elemental Court and in the Nether, the world of the Fae - isn't going to come till those puppet strings are cut.

I felt this was easily the best book in the series so far, not simply because the pace has picked up - though it has - but because of the confidence of the writing, and the way the central dilemma is faced up to rather than being fudged. Fantasy is often thought of as an inherently conservative genre: all you have to do to put things right is follow the Prophecy, restore the True King or find the Chosen One (who is often the True King disguise) and accompany him (usually him) on his quest. The Split Worlds emphatically turns all that upside down - nobody really knows what's going on, not in the mess of Nether politics, not in the spreadsheet fuelled Elemental Court, not in Aqua Sulis where Max the Arbiter tries to rein in the Fae touched. There is no quest, no sense of destiny, and it doesn't offer any easy answers to how things might be made better.

The books deal in big themes and Newman's writing is well matched to them.

Frankly I've no idea what's going to happen and I await the fifth and final book with impatience!

19 August 2016

All is Fair

Image from http://fantasy-faction.com/
All is Fair
Emma Newman
Diversion Publishing, 2 August 2016
PB, 350pp
Source: Bought

This is an updated version of my review of the first publication of this book, posted on Amazon in 2013. I have revised it and am posting to the blog for the first time to celebrate the republication in 2016 and the publication of the fourth book in the series, A Little Knowledge.  

This is the third part of Newman's Split Worlds sequence, after Between Two Thorns and Any Other Name. Newman has a flair for world-building and has created a wonderful setting in which the ordinary world ('Mundanus') coexists with a 'Nether', a ghostly world where nobody ages, inhabited by a pack of immortal toffs and spongers, the "Fae-touched". They are maintained in some opulence by the mercurial Fae, which inhabit a third world, Exilium. This place is really their prison: under an ancient treaty they are forbidden form meddling with the 'innocents' of Mundanus, but allowed their way with the folk of the Nether. All this is overseen by a kind of supernatural police, the Arbiters.

Over the course of the three books, this system has begun to collapse. It still isn't clear at the end precisely why, but we do learn who has been killing off the Arbiters - and why those in London are so corrupt. It has also been challenged from within by our heroine, Cathy, who is a modern woman trapped in a Jane Austenesque world. Newman uses Cathy's position to dramatise, very starkly, the unequal position of women through most of history, and the urgency of change. She does this at the same time as telling a convincing and involving story, and portraying characters that one (well, I) really cared about. (Don't bother with Will, Cathy! He's not good enough for you!)

If by any chance you're reading this review and you haven't read the first two books, go and read them NOW. I'm about to inflict a few spoilers on you, and you've had fair warning.

Still here?

OK. In "All is Fair" we do learn some answers, and Cathy becomes again the active heroine she was through much of the first book, and who I missed in the second where she was rather firmly kept in her place. The different threads - Max, the Arbiter, Sam and his strange friend Lord Iron and the shenanigans in London Society - come together in a deftly woven plot which finally - finally! - brings what we might think of as the "goodies" into one faction. (But Will is among them. Boo!) There is also rather less of the irritating sorcerer, Ekstrand, whose place is taken by a rather different magician.

So there's lots to love in this and, as I said above, it left me wanting to know more: About Sophie. About what Lord Iris is really up to. About Iron's true significance, and that of the "Elemental Court" (remember right back at the start where Sam had a pin put in his leg and saw that as having been "contaminated"? We still don't know exactly what that means). And lastly, but most importantly, how Cathy and her reformers will address the knotty question of making social progress in a bitterly hierarchical system supported by the quixotic (at best, malignant at worst) Fae...

Any Other Name

Image from http://fantasy-faction.com/
Any Other Name
Emma Newman
Diversion Publishing, 2 August 2016
PB, 344pp
Source: Bought

This is an updated version of my review of the first publication of this book, posted on Amazon in 2013. I have revised it and am posting to the blog for the first time to celebrate the republication in 2016 and the publication of the fourth book in the series, A Little Knowledge.

This is the second volume of Emma Newman's Split Worlds series (if you haven't read Between Two Thorns yet, go and do so - this isn't a series to pick up mid way). It improves on the first, which was already promising, building the tension up nicely. The book picks up from right where the first left off - this is one story not separate books - with Cathy Rhoeas-Papaver dragged back into the Nether by her tyrannical father, about to be married to a boy she doesn't know.

The Nether is a parallel world whose inhabitants seem to think they're living in the pages of Jane Austen (without the good bits). They are encouraged/ motivated by links to the Fae, supernatural beings who live (or are imprisoned?) in a third world, Exilium. The Fae act out their quarrels and plans through the families of the Nether, named after flowers associated with the Fae. This setup is policed by Arbiters, spell-wielding policemen, and Sorcerers.

The meat of this novel consists of Cathy struggling against the marriage her family wish on her, and William, the boy she is to marry, on the one hand, and Max, the Arbiter, on the other, dealing with some fairly tricky loose ends from Between Two Thorns. We also learn more of Sam, who featured in the first book, but whose relevance to the rest was a bit of a puzzle. Cathy is - necessarily - more constrained here, which could have made the book sag, but Newman avoids that by using her plight rather shrewdly to illustrate the position of women in a patriarchal society (yes, I know that sounds dull and worthy, but please believe me, it's not). William is also a focus both as he comes to terms with Cathy - and this isn't all nice by any means - and joins in Londinium politics, seeking to become "Duke" (on his patron, Lord Iris's, orders). It is a society of morning gowns, ball gowns, duels, etiquette, and hidden drudgery and oppression - one Cathy sought to avoid - all buttressed by the devious Fae. And there is another faction - the shady Elemental Court - which also seems to be manipulating the "puppets".

An excellent read, with the main characters becoming more distinct and three dimensional and in places rather contradictory (even those we're meant to boo are allowed partially redeeming details, such as Cathy's abusive father, whose life is shown to have been constrained by the Fae - if not as much as his daughter's).

The only slight defect (perhaps) is that in the first few pages a fair amount of information is repeated from the earlier book through helpful exposition by passing characters, and it seems a bit forced. It's not that the information isn't helpful - it is, because even in a few months one tends to forget the detail - but I wondered if this might have been done through a short synopsis. But that's a minor criticism. In this book Newman seems more confident with her characters and her invented world and she really spins the story along.

Between Two Thorns

Between Two Thorns
Emma Newman
Diversion Publishing, 2 August 2016
PB, 334pp
Source: Bought

This is an updated version of my review of the first publication of this book, posted on Amazon in 2013. I have revised it and am posting to the blog for the first time to celebrate the republication in 2016 and the publication of the fourth book in the series, A Little Knowledge.

The first volume of Emma Newman's Split Worlds series gets the series off to a flying start.

Image from http://fantasy-faction.com/
Cathy Rhoeas-Papaver is a runaway, a girl trying to live a normal life away from her domineering parents. If they catch her she'll be forced back into a restricted, subservient role and probably married off, like it or not. Happy with her similarly SF-obsessed boyfriend, she understandably wants to avoid this.

The twist is, Cathy doesn't just come from some traditionally minded family - they are residents of the Nether, a weird parallel world whose inhabitants seem to think they're living in the pages of Jane Austen (without the good bits). The Nether is supported or sustained by the Fae, supernatural beings who live in a third world, Exilium. The Fae act out their quarrels through the inhabitants of the Nether (the Fae-touched), but are themselves unable to leave Exilium because of the zealous Arbiters, spell-wielding policemen. Which brings me to the other main character, Max, the grim Arbiter. Max has a quest of his own - I can't say any more for fear of spoilers - which he must put aside when the Master of Ceremonies disappears. The Master is an important figure in Society - and Society seem to be the the most important part of life for the dim and snobby inhabitants of Aqua Sulis, the Nether version of Bath, so his loss is a disaster.

So, a strong setting, albeit one where the exact workings are kept tantalisingly vague. There are lots of allusions to how this world works and how it became like it is, but little detail.

And, in Catherine, a likeable central character in a horrible fix. The story is genuinely interesting and certainly keeps the pages turning, as a sense builds up of how ghastly life is for those who want to live in the real world rather than the Nether. I did have a slight problem remembering all the main characters and families, especially Cathy's siblings and those of William (won't say who he is, spoilers!) There are a number of annoying, spiteful sisters and pompous brothers who make life difficult for the central characters and at times I forgot which was which. (I'm a hoot at family gatherings as you can imagine...)

This is the first volume in a sequence of five books. It's really a single continuous story rather than separate books), so there are a number of loose ends which become clear in later volumes - for example the story of Sam which doesn't seem to have much to do this the rest of the book does join up in time!

I wrote in 2013 that 'I believe and hope that Emma Newman will do great things with this series...' That hope was fully justified in later books, and indeed greater things are still being revealed.

14 August 2016


Hanna Winter
Manila, 2016
e-book, bought from Amazon.

Sacrifice introduced me to Lena Peters, a psychological profiler on attachment to the Berlin murder squad. It is a fairly short book which goes at at a driving pace and would be easy I think to finish off in one sitting (I read it in a day, alongside travelling to London for a minibreak).

He must kill her. Hunt her down. Destroy her . . .

In her very first case, criminal psychologist Lena Peters is confronted with a killer on a murderous vendetta. And though she is unaware, Lena will play a prominent role in his deadly mission. Lena knows what makes killers tick and all about obsession, for she has been close to the edge herself. But soon she will become the hunted…

Peters joins Volker Drescher's murder squad as it struggles to hunt down a serial killer, a killer who steals something - feet, hands, lips - from each woman he kills. But something is wrong. Her predecessor disappeared, leaving empty files behind, and Drescher is strangely reluctant to speak about her. He's ambivalent about Peters, and she herself has some dark secrets.

I was impressed by how Winter establishes Peters from the start as a no-nonsense character, who'll stand up for herself. She's plunged into a horrific series of crimes - this isn't a book for the fainthearted - and is running to catch up, as she comes into an established team midway through the series of murders. Winter doesn't bother too much with the minutiae of clues and evidence - this is very much a psychological murder mystery, rather than a procedural, and Lena, not the team, is in the foreground for most of the book. That runs a risk that she too easily and quickly assumes the role of loner/ outsider and therefore becomes something of a crime fiction cliche (though where would we be without our Morses and Rebuses?) This risk is avoided, mainly by Winters deftly introducing another figure - dishevelled ex cop Belling - who has the requisite failed family life, bad diet and stubborn streak. It's as if Lena has her own small team (she also enlists a hacker to help her out).

Once Peters in in place, moving into her new Berlin apartment with her cat and sister troubles, things get moving very quickly indeed with deaths to investigate, nasty rivalries in the squad and unpleasant personal resonances to the case. It's difficult to convey just how fast moving and gripping the story is, a bare knuckle ride from killing to threat to team meltdown, interspersed by brief episodes featuring the killer - enough to ratchet up the tension without giving great deal away.

I'd say that Winter is a master of the form here, although the language does sometimes let this book down as it can come over a little flat (" 'Marietta - wow, you're the last person I expected to see after my embarrassing appearance the other day!' blurted out Belling".) It may be this is a translation issue (and I apologise for not crediting the translator above - I couldn't find their name anywhere) and not in the German. I also felt that the story had slightly too many coincidences and personal revelations.

However - and here it is again - the relentless pace and extreme tension of this story more than offset these issues in the reading, making it the ultimate page turner (device swiper?)

Winter also delivers a sting in the tale, setting up the next in what I think will be a long and successful series of books featuring Lena Peters.

10 August 2016

The Countenance Divine

Image from www.hodder.co.uk
The Countenance Divine
Michael Hughes
John Murray, 11 August 2016
HB, 304pp

In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the millennium bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.

In 1888 five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master.

In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns.

And in 1666 poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later.

But where does the feeling come from that the world is about to end?

This is a complex and many layered first novel from Michael Hughes. It made me think of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Peter Ackroyd's occult London novels such as The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor - but with an extra depth of human sympathy.

The story takes place in and between four different times. In 1666, John Milton is living uneasily under the Restoration, already blind, and trying to complete his visionary Paradise Lost. He enlists the help of Thomas Allgood as his secretary. Allgood narrates what happens next - as well his earlier personal history - via a set of notebooks which turn up in various places throughout the other narratives. To my (non expert!) eye, Hughes has captured the cadences of 17th century English very well - as well as the outlook of a man born Roman Catholic, part of a minority living precariously in a hostile environment, who later converts to a Protestant. The tension in Allgood's spirituality underlies much of what happens and his conversations and debates with Milton - also, of course, out of favour by 1666 - drew me into the narrative: don't be put off by the old fashioned cast to this part of the story, the issues explored are current and the characters touchingly and convincingly portrayed.

The second time period is the 18th century, where in 1777 William Blake (best known now for "Jerusalem" but a poet, artist and visionary with a much greater breadth of achievement) had a spiritual experience. This is renewed in 1790. (Hughes plays a little bit with his timings here in a book which is supposed to be based on recurrences every 111 years but I think he can be forgiven that.)

Blake was for me the most interesting of the protagonists. While Allgood is desperate and acting for pay and Milton resigned from influencing anything and simply wanting to complete his poem (and be remembered) Blake is truly driven. As his part of the story intersects the others we are reminded of the truly radical (and weird) inspiration behind what is now seen a very tame and Hovis-tinged English past. Blake is brought vividly to life and speaks to us, and for that Hughes deserves high praise.

The third of the book's timezones (they're not separate neat sections, they overlap and are nested within each other) is less ecstatic, much nastier: the (semi literate) writings of a nameless individual in 1888 who, we quickly learn, is Jack the Ripper. There are some vivid descriptions of the Ripper murders - be warned this is very strong material indeed, and again Hughes convincingly inhabits the voice of his character, which only adds to the reader's unease. (Hughes is aware of the general fascination with the Ripper murders and the focus on the killer, not on the women he killed - it's mentioned a number of times in the story - and one thing he does do is name Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly and portray them as real people not just victims).

This thread in the book, which is the briefest (for which I was thankful - it's strong stuff!) is I think the real key to what's going on, the hinge between the "old" and the "new" sections and it also to embody an idea - which is where the similarity with Ackroyd arises - of affecting both the past and the future through sacrifice.

In contrast,  the final time period (1999, where a team of programmers are working to address the Millennium Bug) which actually opens the book is easier to engage with, beginning as a more conventional story, focused on Chris and Lucy, both of whom are misfits. The story is told in 100 numbered parts, labelled 01, 02, 03... all the way up to 99 and then reverting to 00, in tribute to the Bug itself. Hughes adopts a very flat style for this part and emphasises Chris social awkwardness: I wasn't sure whether there was meant to be an implication that Chris might be Asperger's or somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but regardless of that it's a bit of a forlorn love story between him and chain smoking goth Lucy. That results in a bit of will-they, won't-they and makes the two characters much more approachable and sympathetic than anyone else in the book.

In the end however, the modernity of this part is very much on the surface with the same preoccupations as the other sections - who or what (God or Devil) governs the world, whether they can be known or trusted, millenarianism, how far our destiny is given (that Bug!) and how far we can shape it or even make it (Chris tells Lucy how he used to believe he was Jesus and the book points out several times that even Jesus didn't know at first that he was Jesus). And the antics of Milton, Allgood, the young Ripper and of Blake prove intimately bound with the lives of Chris and Lucy.

In all this is an exhilarating, compelling novel. It does require a bit of commitment. The different styles are very different and you need to pay close attention, but the book is never less than compulsive. My only criticism - and it is a slight one - is that a great deal is actually explained in the final few pages that might have been left unsaid. But to counterbalance that some mysteries remain, and you can't - in my view - rely on what you're told anyway: prophesy is, in the end, not a science.

This is an excellent first novel, and I'm really looking forward to reading more of Hughes's work.

Blogtour! Sacrifice by Hanna Winter

Hanna Winter
Today I'm joining the blogtour for Sacrifice, the new book by Hanna Winter (I'll be reviewing in a few days).

He must kill her. Hunt her down. Destroy her . . .

In her very first case, criminal psychologist Lena Peters is confronted with a killer on a murderous vendetta. And though she is unaware, Lena will play a prominent role in his deadly mission. Lena knows what makes killers tick and all about obsession, for she has been close to the edge herself. But soon she will become the hunted…

Hanna has kindly written a little about that tricky subject, the boundary between author and characters...

Key characters

One thing an author will always be asked, is how much of him or her is reflected in their characters, how much of your book is actually “you”.

When someone asked me that question just after I had started to write Sacrifice, my answer was: not much. I really didn’t think I had anything at all in common with either the young profiler Lena Peters or her partner Wulf Belling. Curiously enough, I was soon told the exact opposite, as my editor, my biggest – and most cherished – critic let me know in almost every chapter (usually with a small comment or a smiley face in the margin of my manuscript), that Lena Peters in particular had “adopted” my tone and my attitude, and that we shared far more similarities than I had realized.

What those are exactly, I’d rather keep to myself. But I will say that, just as when Lena moves from a small town into the capital, I too had to first assert myself in a new and different environment when I left my home in Frankfurt and moved to Berlin – even if Frankfurt can’t really be considered “small”.

And I guess I also had always wanted someone like Wulf Belling in my own life, Wulf, who, despite his darker side, grows into something almost like a big brother for Lena during the course of the book. Their characters couldn’t be more different, but they complement each other well, and, initial trust issues notwithstanding, grow into an unbeatable team by the book’s end, able and willing to blindly rely on each other.

Writing Lena’s character was particularly intriguing for me. I was dealing with a very special kind of protagonist, a highly intelligent profiler on the rise, with intricate knowledge of the “subject matter”, her psychological understanding of the pathology of a sociopath allowing her to dive into the killer’s psyche far deeper than usual and skillfully confront even the darkest corners of the human mind. As to the story of “Sacrifice” itself, those same dark corners, the abysses of the human soul, had always fascinated me, and, just like Lena, I decided to dive into the shadows and see what I might find.

Sacrifice is out now as an e-book from Manilla, Bonnier's new imprint for translated fiction,and will be appearing as a paperback on 17 November. The next stop on the tour is tomorrow at the Northern Crime blog.

7 August 2016

Snow White - the Interview

Salla Simukka
Snow White week - part 4

Over the past few days I've reviewed the three books in Salla Simukka's Snow White trilogy - As Red as Blood, As White as Snow and As Black as Ebony.

Overall, in my view, they build into an assured and compulsively entertaining story with a fascinating and complex central character, Lumikki Andersson.

I'm very honoured now to be able to welcome the author herself to Blue Book balloon to answer a few questions about herself and her books.

Q. Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for the blog. To start with one you probably always get asked - Did you always want to be an author?

A. I was about nine years old when I decided that I want to be a writer. I had always enjoyed books and reading and also telling stories of my own. So it has been my dream since childhood.

 Q. How did you get started writing?

A I went to a hobby group of young writers when I was 13 and also studied creative writing at my school when I was 16-18. I wrote the first version of my first published book at the age of 18 and sent it to a competition for YA novels. I didn't win but the publisher thought that my novel was promising and after three years and a lot of rewriting and editing my first book saw the daylight when I was 21.

Q. So what is life like as an international author?

A. You know, it's a bit weird. Here I am, living in Finland, living my normal life, doing my normal things, writing my novels  and at the same time my books travel all around the world making new friends! Of course I also get to travel quite a bit and answer interviews in different languages, but somehow I still feel that my books have a "bigger" life than I do. And I like that. That's how it should be, because I love my little, ordinary life and wouldn't change it for anything.

Q. Where did Lumikki Anderson come from?

A. Actually the interesting thing is that I feel like I didn't "shape" Lumikki that much. She just came to me as a whole person. As I would have met her on the street and instantly knew who she was and what she has gone through. Lumikki is in many ways very different from the girl I was when I was seventeen. I was very social, had a lot of close friends, my family relationships were warm. I was much safer and happier than Lumikki but also more shy to speak up for myself.

But of course there are things that me and Lumikki have in common. We both enjoy our solitude from time to time and I can relate to all the feelings she is going through, even if I don't (luckily) have the same experiences. And I always think that it is best if the reader doesn't know too much about the similarities between the authors and the characters...

Q. Did she come to you before the plot or did the plot come to you first?

A The very first thing about the books were the titles (As Red as Blood, As White as Snow and As Black as Ebony). After that I had a few images in my head: blood on snow, blood-stained money, a dark forest... But I still didn't have the actual plot to connect all these images. I think that when Lumikki came, the plot also started to develop.

Q. How much control do you have over the characters? Did the books ever take completely unexpected turns?

A. When I started writing the first novel of the trilogy, I had some clear thoughts about the second and the third one. So in a way I had control. But of course writing a book always surprises the writer. It can be the characters or the plot or the structure or the language that take you by surprise. For example I didn't think that Blaze would play such a big part of As White as Snow. But these things happen. You just have to go with the flow and see where the book takes you.

Q. I think teenage me would have jumped at the chance to live in my own flat away from the parents while attending high school. That's unlikely in the UK though - it is something that might reasonably happen in Finland?

A. The high school described in the books is a real school in Tampere that I also went to. Because it's a special kind of art school (and there are not that many of those in Finland), about 30% of the students come from other cities. Many of them have no other choice than to live by themselves because their hometown is too far away. So yes, it really happens in Finland.

Q. What other writing has inspired you?

A When I was writing The Snow White Trilogy, I was inspired by fairy tales. Not just Snow White but fairy tales in general, the structure, the atmosphere, the underlying psychology of old stories. Many fairy tales are actually the YA literature of their time. They tell stories about growing up, finding your path, about love and sorrow and death. When it comes to the thriller elements of the books, I confess happily that I had the Norwegian Jo Nesbo in my mind. I enjoy his way of writing
very thrilling scenes.

Q. What's next - will there be more about Lumikki, or something else?

A. It's going to be something completely different. It's a middle-grade fantasy novel called Sisterland and it's about everlasting winter and everlasting friendship.

Here is a little more info:


Q: Finally, a question that isn't about the book. You're trapped on a lonely island and the rescue party will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food, and you can have one book with you. Which would it be?

A. That's a tough one! Well, let's say collected works of Shakespeare, so that I wouldn't run out of reading too soon...

I'm very grateful to Salla for answering these questions - just a reminder that the books are on sale now from the usual places (see links in reviews!) and to look out for Sisterland when it appears.

6 August 2016

As Black as Ebony

Image from www.hotkeybooks.com
As Black as Ebony
Salla Simukka (trans Owen F Witesman)
Hot Key Books, 6 August 2015
PB, 166pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by Hot Key

Snow White Week, part 3

I'm reviewing the three books in Salla Simukka's Snow White trilogy. My review of As Red as Blood is here and my review of As White as Snow, here.

 Now we come to the third and final book, As Black as Ebony.

Once upon a time there was a secret girl.
Once upon a time there was a girl who wasn't.

Like the earlier books, the story focusses on Lumikki Andersson, surely destined to be one of the greatest (and coolest) Scandi noir characters.

We're back in Tampere now. It's nearing Christmas and Lumikki's at school again, preparing for the Christmas play, a version of Snow White (of course). But weird stuff begins to happen. Unlike before, where Lumikki got into trouble by breaking her own rule of not getting involved in others' business, here it's focussed on her from the start. She begins to get anonymous messages, obsessive, increasingly unhinged messages.

Whoever is sending them knows a great deal about her - perhaps more than she does herself.

Because over the course of her previous adventures, Lumikki began to suspect that her parents were keeping something from her - something about her early life. Now, she begins to fear that this knowledge is what's driving her pursuer: to save herself she may have to go to places her family has walled off from her.

This is a tense and taut story, shorter than the other books, and spends much of its time in Lumikki's thoughts (although we also get glimpses - disturbing glimpses - inside someone else's mind). The knowledge we've built up, in the earlier books, of her character and history adds to the atmosphere here.  Indeed this book is the culmination of those earlier stories: looking back over the trilogy, each book focusses more closely on Lumikki herself and the bad fairytale that her life turns out to have been

As if having an all-knowing stalker wasn't enough, She also has to deal with the two boys in her life - the enigmatic and sensual Blaze returns (about whom Lumikki fantasises and who she is clearly still in love with) but she's started a relationship with Sampsa, a more homely and gentle type. Blaze has, she feels hurt her and she can't be with him, even though him who comes into her head when she's in bed with Sampsa. But can she trust either of them when those oh-so-accurate messages about her past begin to arrive?

This was a compelling read, wrapped up even more than the previous books in the retelling of a fairy story: at times it's as though Lumikki was written by the Brothers Grimm but she has none of the conventionality of a Snow White or a Sleeping Beauty - she's not waiting for a prince and not prepared to fall under anybody's enchantment. In the end she has the determination to act - she's not going to have her story written for her.

In bringing this haunting trilogy to a marvellous conclusion, Simukka has completed a memorable and truly original story with a truly enchanting and capable hero who deserves - I hope - further books.

For more about the books, see here. To buy As Black as Ebony, go to your local bookshop, or here, here or here.

I'll be hosting an interview with Salla Simukka about the books here tomorrow - watch this space!

5 August 2016

As White as Snow

Image from www.hotkeybooks.com
Salla Simukka (trans Owen F Witesman)
Hot Key Books, 5 March 2015
PB, 214pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by Hot Key

Snow White Week, part 2

I reviewed the first part of Salla Simukka's Snow White trilogy, As Red as Blood, here yesterday.

Now for part 2, As White as Snow 

Once upon a time, there was a woman with a secret...

Like As Red as Blood, this book features the sparky but haunted Lumikki Andersson. In the previous book Lumikki was drawn into a conflict over drug money, which put her life in danger. Now she's sworn to stay out of anyone else's business and decamped to Prague for a bit of me-time (though using the money she kept back from the stash in her previous escapade).

Sometimes, though, trouble follows you where you least expect it.

Approached by another young woman who believes they are sisters, Lumikki is forced to confront some issues her family never discusses - as well as new dangers.

This is another cracking story by Salla Simuka. Like the earlier book, there is something of a fairytale setting, with allusions to Snow White, a sinister shadow puppet show and, of course, the architecture of Prague itself. More fundamentally, there are questions of identity, of sisterhood and of self reflection (a couple of key scenes involve the two women and mirrors). The mystery which was hinted at in As Red as Blood returns here - there is definitely something off about the Andersson family, and Limukka is beginning to remember things but nothing makes any sense. Has her father been lying to her all these years? Does her mother know? We also learn about Lumikki's own more recent history, her passionate liaison with the enigmatic Blaze, for whom she still yearns.

The atmosphere of the books continues to intrigue me - I'm not sure whether it's despite their relative shortness or because of it that Simukka is able to convey so many overtones, but alongside the fairytale trappings I began to see something of the noir abut Lumikki - a woman with strained and broken relationships walking, like it or no, on the dark side of the street but herself a person with a moral centre, incorruptible, taking fearful risks for an innocent(?) who has asked for help. It's easy to fall for Lumikki!

She certainly needs all her moral centre here, as she becomes embroiled in a plot which involves not only the mysterious Lenka but also a sinister religious cult and a journalist on the make. It's a slightly less complicated plot than in As Red as Blood allowing more time to reflect on Lumikki's own circumstances but the peril is as real and the lessons she has learned from fighting back after years of being bullied are as useful here as in her earlier adventure.

My admiration for Simukka only grew after reading this book. She has added new layers of complicity to Lumikki while producing a taut, gripping thriller that grabbed me right to the end and left me wanting more. There's no Happy Ever After yet, so I want to know how the fairytale ends and I'll be moving straight onto As Black as Ebony - which I'll review tomorrow.

For more about the books, see here. To buy As White as Snow, go to your local bookshop, or herehere or here.

4 August 2016

As Red as Blood

Image from www.hotkeybooks.com
As Red as Blood
Salla Simukka (trans Owen F Witesman)
Hot Key Books, 7 August 2014
PB, 236pp
Source: Advance copy from Hot Key Books

Snow White Week, part 1

Snow White Week begins here! 

To explain - I'm celebrating Salla Simukka's Snow White trilogy (As Red as Blood/ As White as Snow/ As Black as Ebony), published in the UK by Hot Key. I'm a sucker for twisted fairytales (for example, Sarah Pinborough's retellings in Tales from the Kingdoms) and I've loved these stories of Lumikki Anderson.

They're YA crime/ thriller/ undefinable and just generally terrific. There are three relatively short books - perfect for a summer binge read.

I'll be posting reviews of the three books over the next few days, followed by an interview with the author herself.

So here goes - As Red as Blood.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had no fear...

Reading As Red as Blood taught me two things. First, that labels aren't always helpful. Secondly, that I can be a teensy bit prejudiced.

What do I mean? Well, it was only after reading this wonderful, gripping, suspenseful crime caper story that I bumped into someone who told me it was a YA book. Well, yes, I can see that now but it certainly didn't occur to me when I read it. And it might even have put me off if I'd known before. I have my biases (no YA in my young day, etc etc). Clearly I need to be more flexible.

Whatever. I want to persuade you to read this, and I'll tell you whatever it takes - call it a YA drama, a twisted fairytale, a crime thriller, or just a stonking good story. (It is all of those things).

Lumikki Anderson is a Finnish high school student living in the city of Tampere. Finland is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Lumikki is living 70 miles from home, in her own little flat, while she finishes school. It sounds a nice life, yet her days are haunted by regret and the memory of some dark events. Regret, for the lover she knew in the summer and has lost. (This book is set in the deepest, darkest winter). Memory of - well, that might be a spoiler. It's enough to say she learned some tough lessons in survival, the first of which is, don't get involved.

That's an easy enough rule to follow in the cauldron of school, just avoid the cliques, the popular kids, find a place of your own in the pecking order, don't join in. Simukka is good at conveying the subtle nuances of teenage life, the positioning between groups:

She was the puzzle piece that didn't have its own place but could suddenly fill in almost any hole you needed it to.
She wasn't like the others.
She was exactly like the others.

This, Lumikka can cope with. It's not so easy though when you walk into the middle of something nastier...

At the start of the book we witness a death. Then some kids seem to be involved in a crime. Then Lumikki (named after Snow White) comes on the scene. Her self-sufficient life is about to be split right open by the consequences of the murder, of the crime when on February 29th, Leap Day, Lumikki wanders into the school darkroom and find money hanging up to dry.

Blood stained money...

From that moment the story never lets up. The general setup is clear - shady drug bosses keeping their underlings in line - but exactly how the pieces fit together is kept mysterious till well on in the story. The tension, and peril, crackles like a high voltage power line. Just what kind of a mess is Limukki getting into? Can she rely on her three classmates - Elisa, Tuuka and Kasper - or will they lead her into worse trouble?  It's a tautly written, driven narrative, very well served, I think, by Witesman's translation, in which Simukka adroitly balances the everyday (survival in the cold of a Finnish winter when if you go out without a warm hat you may die), the comings and goings from the school and coffee shop, the clothes, the rivalries between the teenagers - and the darkness that lurks just out of sight. 

The immediate darkness is the criminal gang, which seems to have tentacles everywhere, but there's also Lumikki's history - just what has happened to her, and how has it made her so good at escaping attention? Maybe she can use those skills to solve the crime, but then she'll become involved in a world of drug dealing, pimps and murder. (Never get involved).

Woven together with these are fragments of fairytale:

Once upon a time, there was a girl who learned to fear...

It's an exciting read, and only the first part of a trilogy. 

Tomorrow, I'll be reviewing As White as Snow, and we'll see what Lumikki gets up to next...

For more about the books, see here. To buy As Red as Blood, go to your local bookshop, or herehere or here.

3 August 2016

Behind the Throne

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
Behind the Throne
KB Wagers
Orbit, 4 August 2016
PB, 410pp
Source: Advance copy kindly supplied by Orbit

KB Wagers has written an enthralling, old school military SF novel - with some new school twists.

Cressen Stone is a notorious gun runner. She worked for the Po Sin organisation. Her adventures are told across the Galaxy. She's wanted by the Solaria Conglomerate on seventy eight counts of arms trafficking, by the Galactic Security Board on forty three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and by sundry other law enforcement agencies on another hundred and six counts (and there may be more because the list was cut off at that point in the book).

Cressen is also wanted by the Empress of the Indranen Empire. Twenty years ago Princess Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol (Hail or Haili to her few friends) disappeared.

Cressen knows why and where she went.

Because Cressen is Haili.

Now, in a time of crisis and rising tension, Haili's Empress-mother wants her home to do her duty. There's little maternal affection here: it's a matter of bloodline, dynasty and the survival of Empire.

Thus begins a rollercoaster of intrigue, assassination, awesome violence and general chicanery. There is treachery, family rivalry and bitter, bitter guilt over the mistakes of the past.

All this takes place in a galactic Empire familiar(ish) from the pages of SF but also distinctive. I loved how Wagers did this, skilfully blending the conventional (a semi-feudal and very hierarchical social structure) and the different (the Indranen Empire is matriarchal, for reasons which are explained and which make perfect sense, and its culture and religion are loosely Hindu rather than Western overall - which makes for a refreshing change from Roman Empire- or Medieval Europe- In-Space). The politics Haili's embroiled in is relatively familiar (a number of parallels come to mind, most obviously Dune) as is the idea of an heir who lives a dissolute life but then has to sober up, go back home and take on royal duty (Henry IV Part I perhaps?) However by taking the whole thing out of the normal male and Western centric setting, Wagers makes her story fresh without it ever becoming worthy. (Indrana is not a model society by any means - something Haili is well aware of and which will I think have to be faced in future volumes of this series).

Haili herself is a terrific central character. I have a bit of a weakness for women armed to the teeth who take no nonsense from anyone (in stories!) and she's that to the nth degree. You'd want her on your side in a fight, no question. Oddly, the life of a gunrunner proves a good preparation for being a Crown Princess...

And there are also some excellent supporting characters - most notably Haili's BodyGuard Emmory, but also the Empress herself. Indeed Wagers's characters all very much appear as real, three dimensional people who are directing the story and not simply archetypes. For example Haili has a strained relationship with her mother but isn't simply a spoiled and petulant Princess: there is history here and it makes sense of what they both do. But most of all she's able to see what's going on, as we all do, and try to mend things - allowing for that burden of guilt I mentioned - in the little time left.

So - I greatly enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to what happens next. The book breaks off at a moment of great crisis and there are certainly thrills and spills to come. More fundamenetally, as I said above, the Indranen Empire is, well, a feudal Empire and Haili knows that a great deal is wrong with that. Might it be that a reluctant Empress can improve things? I can see the followup - and I'm sure there will be a followup - turning into something like I, Claudius.

With lasers!