Monday, 25 March 2013

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu is definitely a fun read with a concept that was not only novel, but also, just frankly, very cool. In addition to that, it is definitely funny. It is extremely rare for a book to literally make me laugh out loud, but The Lives of Tao achieved this not just once or twice, but a myriad of times.

The basis of the book is that an alien space ship crash-landed on our planet way before people existed. Earth’s atmosphere is too harsh for them, so they must survive by inhabiting a host body of one of Earth’s native life forms. They pass from generation to generation of Earth’s creatures transferring from host to host.

As one might expect with an ages old group, these aliens have separated into feuding sects, struggling with issues of power and peace. And our protagonist, Roan Tan, an overweight software engineer, whose largest adventures previously consisted of drudging himself to his thankless job on the weekend and getting fall down drunk by himself while watching other people have fun, is suddenly thrust in the middle of this ancient alien war.

Roan’s character was someone I could relate to as a fellow Software Engineer/Java Programmer. Our introduction to him however, shows he hates his job, and allows his boss to take advantage of his spineless nature. He will do whatever is asked to keep his shitty job. That, once again, he hates. But he is likable, you want him to find a way to come out of his shell and be happy. The humor in this book does wonders for making you relate to and root for the characters.

I cannot say that this story was without its faults. At times I felt the pace slowed down, and I will admit to feeling a little nitpicky about some of the technical details related to his job, but those overall were minor. I also predicted the ending, but since I think it was the best way for it to end, I can’t complain about that too much. When sitting back and thinking over this story after finishing it, I am left with a really entertaining read and a desire to know more about what happens next.

For a first novel, I think The Lives of Tao was very well done and I will definitely keep my eye out for the next one. Between the humor and the originality of the story, I would certainly recommend reading it.

The Lives of Tao will be available April 30, 2013 from Angry Robot Books.


About the Reviewer: Lisa spends her days programming in Java, living the exciting life of a cubicle ridden software engineer. When not at work, she enjoys her time with her husband and two boys. She spends the rest of her free time playing on multiple indoor soccer teams and of course reading, reading, reading. She is ‘new’ to the fantasy genre, having read her first fantasy book in 2010. After reading more and more fantasy, she is now hooked and can often be found around the internet searching for her next book and adding titles to her ever increasing TBR list.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal Catlyn his soul.

From the moment you open the pages of Anne Lyle’s debut, you are immediately submerged in Elizabethan London, as though stepping through a door back in time. It is an interesting era to use for a historical fantasy, as it is one many people have a passing knowledge of, but Anne’s passions for the people and culture of the time really shine through.

The story starts off with Malverny Catlyn, recently of the army, currently out of work, and desperately trying to find some way to pay for the fees to keep his twin, Sandy, in Bedlam Hospital. Luck starts to turn his way when he is given a new commission, but when he learns he is to become the bodyguard of the Skrayling Ambassador, one of the arrivals from the New World, he is determined to get out of it, and calls in a favour from an old school acquaintance who just happens to be son of the Duke of Suffolk.

Meanwhile, Mal decides to learn more about these Skraylings, and through his roommate Ned is introduced to Suffolk’s Men - one of three groups of players to perform for the Ambassador – along with young tireman Coby Hendricks. Coby teaches Mal ‘tradetalk’ - the simplified English the Skryalings use to communicate, but Coby is harbouring a far greater secret.

The characters are one of Anne Lyle’s real strong points; at times you can almost believe you are reading an account of lives of real people, albeit translated to modern English. From Mal’s roguish goodwill, through Coby’s na├»ve urge to please, to Ned’s somewhat lecherous charm, there is something about all of the characters to spark the reader’s interest, even the ones you’re meant to dislike.

As this is a historical fantasy, the world is as well-realised as one would expect; it is very clear that this is an era Lyle takes a vested interest in, and it comes through in the little details she sneaks into the story, as well as the bigger set pieces, such as basing a large part of the story in the Tower of London.  You can almost smell the jakes and hear the curfew bells ringing as you work your way through the book, and this era is made to be an entirely natural setting for the story.

There is not much more that can be said without spoiling the story. As can be expected in a fantasy novel, not everything is as it seems on the surface, yet there are plot twists here that go even deeper than first thought.

My only complaint about this novel is that it was over too quickly. My first read was in one sitting over about 6 hours. It is addictive, the characters make you care, and the setting is beautiful. What more can you ask for from a novel?

The Alchemist of Souls is available from Angry Robot Books. Its sequel, The Merchant of Dreams is also available, with the final part in the trilogy coming late in 2013.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Herald of the Storm by Richard Ford





During times of crisis, you don’t get to choose your heroes.

Herald of the Storm is the first book in Richard Ford’s new trilogy: Steelhaven. Set in the city of the same name, Herald of the Storm focuses on a group of characters who live in the city – some from the ruling classes, some that work at the outer shades of society and some that live on the streets. At the heart of the story is Janessa, daughter to King Cael the Uniter who, as the story opens, is out fighting a war and holding off a host of barbaric hordes. Janessa is left to deal with minor matters of state, leaving most of the bigger issues to her father’s counsellors. But as the book opens, a foreigner makes his way into Steelhaven, spreading tidings and prophecies, brokering deals and agreements from within the city’s criminal underworld. He is the voice of the Elharim warlord, Amon Tugha – the voice of doom and bloody war; the Herald of the Storm.

In Herald of the Storm we follow the lives of seven main POV characters, interlinking their stories in major and minor ways as the book progresses. Through a series of different sub-plots, each character is always only a few connections away from any of the others at any given time. They cross paths in ways that are at times hilarious, shocking and vital to the development of each of their separate sub-plots. Ford’s characters are all in some way cut from the same cloth as other major POV characters we’ve seen in epic fantasy in the last decade or so. There is the grumpy teenage princess, the confused assassin, the loveable swindler and lots more. But this is absolutely deliberate on the part of Ford. It is the interactions between these characters that he excels at. He’s taken some familiar character types and thrown them all into one big playground together – and sparks most certainly fly. Each one feels well developed and their personalities are unwavering. They all have a fundamental system at their cores which Ford never compromises, meaning the characters are always what drives the story.

At the centre of the novel sits the city of Steelhaven. In this, Ford has taken elements of other great fantasy cities and created his own teeming hive of life and death. There’s nothing particularly original about Steelhaven itself, but as the entire novel is set in its depths, Ford has managed to breathe life into something which could have become tiresome quickly. Each of the characters are connected to Steelhaven in ways that go deeper than simply living there. By setting the entirety of the book in one city, Ford manages to tie the reader to its fate. We constantly hear of problems that Steelhaven could face with the war and through the characters we see why this is so important to the people of Steelhaven at every class level. It’s an interesting way of setting an epic fantasy because normally we’re introduced to multiple locales – but in Herald of the Storm, we’re left in just one city. It allows Ford to establish the importance of Steelhaven before presumably showing us some more of his world in the next book.

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with Herald of the Storm was its lack of a cohesive central plot. I’ve mentioned previously that the novel is made up of an interconnecting series of sub-plots, but there isn’t really anything which ties them together. Instead it often feels like a series of vignettes that only have the city of Steelhaven itself in common. The main “plot” of the series seems to be that of the war between the hordes of Amon Tugha and the Free States, but in Herald of the Storm this all takes place “off-screen”. Part of me thinks this may have been deliberate on the part of Ford – it’s a little like the main plot is always going on “over there” and his novel is instead showing us what happens on the sidelines of epic fantasy. It’s also evident by the end that the next book will explore more of the world outside Steelhaven, so hopefully the main series’ plot comes into clearer focus.

Herald of the Storm takes the fundamental parts of gritty, epic fantasy and puts the focus on character first. It’s filled with big personalities that each have their own stake in keeping the city of Steelhaven safe from the constant threat of war. The lack of any cohesive plot throughout the novel may be an issue for some, but this is the story of one city in a vast fantasy world. It’s testament to Ford’s world building skills that although we never leave the city of Steelhaven, we do get the sense that outside its walls is a whole world, just ready for exploring. If you love the works of Joe Abercrombie or even George R.R. Martin you will probably find something to enjoy in Steelhaven – it’s violent, vicious and darkly funny. Book Two can’t come fast enough - bring it on.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Horns by Joe Hill

Horns is a story about aftermath; the fallout from a massive tragedy that shakes the small New Hampshire town of Gideon. About a year before the main narrative of the novel begins, a young woman, Merrin Williams, is found brutally raped and murdered in the woods near Gideon. There’s no direct evidence as to who killed her, but the prime suspect, as far as the town are concerned (regardless of evidence), is Ignatius Perrish – her long-time boyfriend.

The book opens from the point of view of Ig as he wakes up after a night of drunken antics on the anniversary of Merrin’s death, with a hell of a hangover. Ig doesn’t remember anything about the night before – which is a problem, as when he looks in the mirror he sees something he wasn’t really expecting: a pair of Horns – coming straight out of his forehead. It doesn’t take long for Ig to discover that these horns are more than just a physical part of him – when people see the horns, they tell Ig their deepest, darkest secrets. Ig didn’t murder Merrin – but now he has a way to find out who did.

Horns is a twisted beast of a novel – it’s disturbing and uncompromising. Joe Hill has created a character study about base desire and turned it into a dark horror-thriller. The story of Ig and Merrin’s tragedy is played out in a series of flashbacks, each one layering clues as to what really happened. It’s a consistently shocking story – really unlike anything else I’ve read. Hill’s plot twists and turns in ways which I really didn’t see coming – it doesn’t really follow any kind of typical thriller structure. The usual reveals in a murder-thriller are all in there, but they occur out of the standard order. We learn early on who murdered Merrin – but Hill doesn’t give us all the details. Instead, he teases them out as Ig uses his newfound powers to find revenge.

The characters in Horns are really quite incredible. Ig feels entirely realistic from the first page. He’s a normal guy who’s been through hell, and now he’s got the Horns to show for it. The way we see him transform (out of order) from the all-out good guy to the anti-hero with a chip on his shoulder is astonishing. Likewise the other characters in the book feel equally as well realised. I really don’t want to delve any further into any of the other characters for fear of possible spoilers, but they’re all fully formed individuals that power the narrative forward.

Horns takes the narrative drive of a thriller and chops it up, throws the pieces up in the air and re-arranges them in a fresh and entirely inventive way. It’s a twisted tale that really is not for the faint-hearted, but if you can stomach the dark subject matter it’s more than worth the read. I really haven’t read anything quite like Horns and it’s lingered with me since finishing. I’ll be eagerly awaiting Joe Hill’s new novel and can’t really recommend this one highly enough.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill

(This review was originally posted on Fantasy Faction in February 2013.)

Think you know fairy tales?

Think again.

Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill is initially the story of Jared and Tiffany Thatcher and their life together, from high school sweethearts to newlyweds to loving parents. They have a baby son, Ewan, and are for all intents and purposes, the perfect family.

That is until something terrifying and monstrous skitters through Ewan’s bedroom window one night and replaces him with an evil changeling, taking the young child for itself and spiriting him away to the world of the Limestone King – the world of faeries.

Dreams and Shadows is an absolute masterpiece of sheer imagination and lyrical storytelling. Although every one of the fantastical creatures and concepts Cargill has included in the novel have their roots in real folklore, the way in which he has brought each idea into a modern novel and fashioned his own version of a fairy tale out of them is incredible.

The main narrative of the novel follows the story of two children – Ewan Thatcher and his early life in faerie, and Colby Stephens, a boy who meets a Djinn (Genie) in the woods near his home and makes an ill-advised wish that sees his life change forever. 

But Dreams and Shadows goes further than a simple narrative. Cargill intersperses the novel with excerpts from a fictional book which serves to explain the nature of each different fairy. The story of the Djinn in particular is a real highlight, reading like Cargill does Arabian Nights.

It is a dark and severely twisted tale – and is never what you expect. The first third of the novel is mostly set-up (and what a bizarre and entrancing set-up it is) but the tension ramps up to excruciating depth once we’re introduced to a new batch of characters. A group who decide to go on a romantic camping trip, deep in the dark of the forest.

The characters in Dreams and Shadows are a delightfully twisted bunch of faeries, humans and creatures from the netherworld. Every one of them is more intriguing than the last – and each is fighting for something. The world of humans and faeries are always a hair’s breadth away from each other, and at the centre of it are two boys – Ewan and Colby. Both serve as the readers lens into the world of the Limestone King, switching roles at different points in the book.

The world that Cargill has cobbled together from different elements of folklore is one of monster, magic, love and horror. It is a world of dark nights by cool forest glades, midsummer fairy council meetings and bloody death in every form.

Dreams and Shadows has elements of Gaiman, Rothfuss and the Brothers Grimm themselves. But make no mistakes, this is Cargill’s novel – a majestic tale of love in the shadows and death in bloody dreams. It’s an astounding novel, and hard to believe this is Cargill’s debut. If he ever decides to return to the world of the Limestone King, I’ll be there.

Thanks to Gollancz for supplying me with an advance review copy of this book.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

“Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth.”

With this first line, China Mieville begins our journey into the heart of his vast fantasy metropolis, New Crobuzon. It’s a heaving, vicious and chaotic beast; filled with a host of bizarre sentient species and a sprawling network of train lines, culminating in the heart of the city: Perdido Street Station.

Perdido Street Station is the story of Isaac der Grimnebulin, fringe scientist and research extraordinaire. When Isaac is hired by a Garuda (a sentient bird-like species) named Yagharek to restore his powers of flight, Isaac sees the potential to apply some of his more bizarre theories to something tangible, and proceeds to examine a host of different flying species, to see just what it would take to get Yagharek off the ground again. But through a series of unfortunate events (Yup) Isaac finds himself in possession of something far more dangerous than he realises. And when that thing is unleashed on the city of New Crobuzon, it will take all of Isaac’s considerable genius to stop everyone from coming to a horrifying end.

This is China Mieville’s second novel, and it is truly enormous, both in scope and narrative. Normally, 300 pages of Mieville is enough to get my brain spinning with ideas for months on end. Suffice to say, I won’t be forgetting Perdido Street Station any time soon. It is jam-packed to bursting with elements of the fantastic which are always completely and utterly original. Every page has something new to absorb; be it a weird creation, a bizarre monster, an ingenious idea, or just Mieville’s ever-striking prose. I’ve read Mieville before and so had a small idea of what to expect, but with this book I just wanted to absorb every sentence – every word.

The characters that Mieville has created in Perdido Street Station are all fully rounded individuals – nobody, except perhaps the villainous Mr. Motley, is black or white. No-one that simple. Isaac is the novel’s central protagonist, but there are plenty of moments, particularly towards the end of the novel, where he makes decisions which are questionable at best. Mieville also manages to give the non-human characters personalities of their own, all affected by their cultural backgrounds and life in New Crobuzon, and the rest of the outside world (aka Bas-Lag).

But the real main character of this novel is New Crobuzon itself. It comes alive in ways I haven’t seen in any other single novel. The only other fantasy city I can think of which has this level of depth and realism is Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork, and that has developed over many years and many books. New Crobuzon is alive from the first page – as Yagharek, an outsider, much like the reader, is introduced to every physical element of the city as it slowly envelopes him, the further in he travels. It’s a real masterwork of fantasy creation, and I can see why it is always placed so highly when discussions of fantasy settings take place – despite Bas-Lag only featuring in three novels to date.

The plot itself is perhaps the books weakest attribute. Mieville spends much of the early stages of the novel setting the scene and introducing us to New Crobuzon, that the plot barely moves forward in the first 150 pages. Although I personally didn’t have a problem with this (as the setting was an absolute joy to read) – I did notice that it began to get a bit much in the later stages of the book, when the plot catches up with Mieville and he has to race to tie everything towards a climax. Ultimately, it’s a bug hunt – but this is China Mieville we’re talking about – so those bugs are far from simple. Once Mieville sets up his players, the endgame is fast, frantic and dripping with tension. The ending is quite shocking and, thematically, the perfect closure for a book which puts the city at the heart of everything.

 I really enjoyed Perdido Street Station. It took me about 10 days to read, but it really was a joy to soak up Mieville’s world, despite how dirty it made me feel at times. Its plot is perhaps underwritten – despite the fact I would not suggest lengthening the book any further. Ultimately, though, Perdido Street Station is about New Crobuzon. It introduces a world which is so well developed, I’m dying to dive into the next Bas-Lag novel, The Scar, as soon as possible. As someone else has suggested to me, Perdido Street Station is the work of a master craftsman at the top of his game. All I have to say is, if this isn’t the top of his game – I’m extremely excited to see what is. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . . 

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day. 

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

The first thing that grabbed me about this book was how quickly and firmly Brennan finds Lady Isabella Trent's voice. Straight from the off I was confident that the narrative would be smooth and consistent. Set in an early Victorian style era Lady Trent takes us back to her childhood in her parents estate, and we're exposed to her first dragon encounter (even if it is the dragonfly sized Sparkling). We're left in no doubt that this is a memoir, with glorious little asides to the reader who is of course aware of the full legend of Lady Trent.

Throughout the book Isabella's natural curiosity is hindered by her gender, it simply isn't seemly for a young lady to be intellectual or aspirational. Though initially resistant to this a nasty incident turns her, at least on the outside, quite docile.

We then follow Isabella through a brief courtship and to her marriage (to my favourite character in the book thanks to his loving nature). Isabella is given some reign by her husband and our budding natural historian is set free. The bulk of the story takes part in a country very reminiscent of eastern Europe where out heroine faces challenges of both a personal and professional nature.

I would best describe this book as 'Fantasy-lite'. Brennan takes the most iconic, fantastical creature in the genre and strips it of mystiscm, literally peeling back the layers to study the flesh and bones beneath. The dragons become a fascinating case study and you actually believe they could have existed in our world. There are hints and teases about deeper secrets of the beautiful creatures, but I'm left wondering if they could have been a little more in the way of revelation in this portion of the memoirs.

Isabella becomes a wonderfully well realised character, and she is very engaging and easy to read. Brennan does a commendable job of making the memoir very scientific in nature to compliment her star, but keeping the action moving and not alienating the less academic reader. You can sense her stifling frustration and extreme eagerness with the remote possibility of dragons. You feel her regret and guilt over some of her actions and her growing love of her husband, Jacob.

I really think this book could appeal to fans of character drama, not just fans of fantasy. I was a little disappointed by the lack of the unknown and mysterious, but Brennan's writing style more than made up for this and I found I was eager to read more.

About the reviewer:
Alex can be found in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, splitting his time unevenly between fighting crime and raising two little boys (which is surprisingly similar). When he does find a spare moment he crams it full of fantasy or basketball, and due to rapidly ageing knees it's mostly fantasy these days. He's trying to learn the writing craft through sheer bloody mindedness and dreams of the day he has to do nothing else. If you're so inclined you can watch him stalk writers on Twitter - @shep5377