Beware of the Gods – The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

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This book was sent to me as part of the Hodderscape Review Project

In recent years I’ve had something of love-hate relationship with fantasy fiction. I grew up exclusively on a diet of fantastic fiction – all the classics, and I loved them all. Then when into adulthood, where I acquired unexpected things like a girlfriend, my fiction tastes changed.  I still picked up and enjoyed the occasional novel, but fantasy was no longer the mainstay.

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I still read fantasy, but too often I’ve found it derivative and frankly a little boring.  I’ve said it a number of times on the blog, the advent of ‘grimdark’ novels and the ubiquitous use of hooded faces on covers has merely introduced a new set of clichés to replace the old.  Worse, there is a tone of violent misogyny creeping in, which I find unsettling.  Tolkien may not have had many women in his books, but at least nothing too unpleasant happened to any of them. The ‘gritty realism’ introduced in the last few years more often than not seems a flimsy excuse for rape and abuse. Yet they still sell by the bucket load. It’s depressing.

Maybe though, I’d been reading the wrong things. A number of fantasy novels I’ve read in recent months have passed over the old cliches whilst at the same time avoided their morally ambiguous character wanting to keep sticking his weapon into unsuspecting victims.

The Copper Promise is one such novel and a highly accomplished début by a fresh new voice. Jen Williams managed to evoke the excitement I found in the best Dungeon and Dragons sessions I played in, whilst delivering a a cast a great characters and a compelling plot.

The book is broken into distinct sections, the first of which is pure dungeon crawl. A legendary citadel, filled with fabled treasure. Three mercenaries want to break in and plunder its depths. Impatience and arrogance split the party (fools!) from the outset and the predictable disaster ensues. Another member joins the adventure – the cantankerous Lord Frith, a crippled noble deposed from his seat and tortured in the process. His bitterness and desire for revenge drive much of the novel’s plot. In seeking the treasure the three unleash an ancient evil and the rest of the novel sees them trying to put it back in the box.

The three central characters are what hold The Copper Promise together. Fallen knight Sebastian and fellow mercenary Wydrin, who has a fast sword and quicker tongue, are a great partnership. Frith, their single-minded and aloof employer makes a great foil for the pair and the triumvirate form a strong nucleus around which Williams constructs her story. The secondary characters are strong too, bolstered by Williams’ strong ear for dialogue (if an ear can be strong). The surrounding plot is packed full of ideas. Demons, magic and hidden gods. Conflicted knights, the walking dead and a wonderfully realised reptilian brood army.prince

The depiction of the serpent brood, the demon ‘Prince of Wounds’ and the subtle way in which these two get under the skin of fallen knight Sebastian are pitch perfect. The internal conflict within Sebastian is a contest more interesting than the plight to save the world. It gives rise to some of the finest character writing I’ve seen in fantasy fiction.

I loved this aspect of the plot so much it almost made the overreaching story arc of the destruction of the world seem superfluous. The ravaging of the landscape by the central villain feels heavy handed; like a sledgehammer compared with what has come before. The last section, where the ultimate bad guy is confronted, reads like a bolt on. Things certainly seem wrapped up in haste. I have to wonder whether it would have been better to do away with the central villain altogether. Apart from some great thrills and spills, I’m not sure it improved the book.

But then, who cares? As a reviewer one can sometimes be guilty of finding fault for the sake of it. This is a fine novel that I enjoyed from first page to last. The characterisation is second to none, and there are some great new innovations and interesting reworkings of old tropes. I particularly liked the way magic works. The novel stands in its own right, which is always good, yet there is plenty of scope for more stories. With her three central characters Jen Williams has created something special. I can envisage reading tale after tale that featured them without ever getting tired. This book may have been based on the promise of copper but it delivers gold.

Many thanks to Anne and the team for sending me a copy of the book.

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He ain’t heavy – This is the Life by Alex Shearer

this is the lifeThis is the Life very much fits into a category of books which these days I am greatly enjoying and identifying with. Usually light in tone but with a serious and emotive core, these contemporary novels peel back the absurdities of modern life to reveal some truth about what it means to be human.

The Humans by Matt Haig, is the most obvious recent example but Alex Woods and Lost and Found fit the bill too. I loved all these novels and This is the Life is a worthy companion for them all. Appreciation of the narrator’s wry cynicism is perhaps something that comes with age. As I enter my fifth decade and watch my children grow older, it may be easier to see what a crappy, absurd place the world can be.

The novel follows two brothers, Louis and the nameless narrator. Louis is dying from a brain tumour and his brother is spending his last few weeks with him. Once close, the brothers have been separated for many years after Louis emigrated to Australia.

The entire novel is set in Australia and much of its humour is derived from the differences in attitude between Brits and Aussies. The ubiquitous exhortation of ‘No worries’ takes on a different meaning when a loved one is terminally ill.

Louis’s decline is delicately handled. The timeline jumps back and forth, but the novel heads inexorably towards the final moments of Louis life. Shearer manages to evoke great emotion without ever becoming maudlin. Louis and his brother are like chalk and cheese. Louis has drifted through life doing as he felt right at the time; floating from one project to the next. His brother has always done what was expected; solid job, bricks and mortar. He’s remained sensible.

Shearer poses an interesting question as to which brother has led the most fulfilled life. Does following your dreams necessarily make you a happier person? Much of the novel decries the futility of existence, why also asking why we spend so much energy wishing death would stay at bay: Everything dies or as Louis might put it, ‘We’re screwed’.

If prayer cures people why does everybody die?

What I loved most about the book (and here it most reminded me of The Humans) was the odd paragraph that in simple clear words dissected a truth of life. Shearer expresses views I hold in manner far more apposite than I could ever have managed. Whether it be about faith, fortune or family, Shearer’s narrator cuts to the bone. I have five or six paragraphs marked in my copy, and the book is worth the cover price for those alone.

This is the Life is a melancholy book, how could it not be? But it is also curiously life-affirming. Louis is right, we are all screwed, but there is much good in between birth and death, not least of all the love of a sibling. Alex Shearer captures much of what makes life worth living, whilst accepting that much of it doesn’t make sense. Wry and happy-sad, this book is a keeper.

Many thanks to Amy at Blue Door Books for sending me a copy of this book

Nothing Clings Like the Past – Burn by Julianna Baggott

burnI approached Burn in some trepidation. It’s the final book of the ‘Pure’ trilogy. I found Book 1, Pure, to be a dark, brooding dystopia with strong themes, and more meat than your average YA post-apocalypse dinner. Book 2, Fuse, however, I found less satisfactory.  The characterisation was strong, but the story was more generic, less interesting. So which way would Burn take things, downwards, or upwards towards greatness? If you haven’t read the first two books, it goes without saying you should stop reading at the end of this sentence, but do look Pure up; Burn elevates the series to heady heights.

Whilst Burn picks up right where Fuse leaves off, there is an almost immediate change in tone. We’re mostly inside the dome now and there is an urgency about the plot. The first two books were essentially quest stories. This is more like a ticking bomb with time running out. The burning question in the book is – How can Partridge move out of the shadow of his father? I said in my review of Fuse, that the portrayal of Ellery Willux was heavy handed. He was almost too perfect a villain, too calculating and accurate in his assessments to be fully credible. Killing him made the man.

Alive, Willux Snr left no room for doubt. He was a maniac with absolute control and this diminished the story. There was never a sense that, actually, he might have a point (contrast this with Patrick Ness and Mayor Prentice, a man the reader is programmed to hate, and then suddenly, there are countless shades of grey and we’re not sure what to believe). Once he’s dead, and with further revleations about the world after the detonations, fresh doubts are sown. 

Partridge is now leader of the Dome, in name at least. He is terrified of becoming his father, but much of what Ellery did kept the Dome safe. How can he differentiate the tyrant from the protector? This dichotomy is at the heart of the novel. It’s cleverly played out, especially with the introduction of Forsteed, the disgruntled number two whom Partridge has leapfrogged over. Partridge wants to help his friends on the outside but he comes to realise this will come with a terrible price for those inside. Is he prepared to pay that price, and even if he is, should he?

There is also the world beyond the dome, and it wants in. Pressia, El Capitan and Bradwell, all with varying degrees of rancour, want to see the dome brought low, but do they trust Partridge to do it? Much mileage is gained from it being impossible to find out what’s happening inside the dome. When Partridge’s plans go awry, not everybody is prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, with potentially disastrous consequences. Baggott manipulates her readers well. We’re omniscient, so can see where the misconceptions occur, and only groan when well-intentioned actions send events spiralling towards disaster.

In her opening two novels Baggott has collected herself some fine cards, and in Burn she plays them more or less to perfection.  The novel boils to whether there will be a supreme victor, inside or outside, or whether perhaps the two can live in harmony. Not many people think so. There is a fascinating examination of whether it is possible to live without your past. If you could erase the worst parts of your life, would you still be you? Baggott’s answer plays a pivotal role in the denouement of her novel.

Which brings me to the ending. I can see why this end will infuriate many readers, possibly, dare I say it, the younger end of the audience. There is no neat resolution here; with massive conflict and divide, how could there be? So the story sort of peters out. Some characters check out, some find what they want, some very much don’t, but most are left still to search. There is certainly scope for another novel, but I sort of hope there never is. We are left with a world in upheaval, the status quo altered, but how things will change is yet to be decided. Wherever you are, life goes on elsewhere, and so it is with Baggott’s world. Her characters are wonderfully human creations, they go on living beyond the story, and that’s just fine. They don’t need us anyhow…

Many Thanks to the team at Headline for sending me the final book in this trilogy. 

We’ll always have Paris – Babayaga by Toby Barlow

babayagaIf I had to pigeon-hole Babyaga, it would be in the one at the end; the dusty one with all the stuff I’m not sure what to do with. There’s also a copy of Ned Beauman’s Teleportation Accident  in there, which I suppose means the pigeon hole title might be ‘crazy novels set in Paris that contain peculiar protagonists and the CIA’. The two novels are similar in tone but I much preferred Babayaga. It has less pretension and lots more fun.

The premise of the novel is that centuries old witches are alive and running about post-war France. There’s not many left, but their magic is extremely potent. Strong enough to turn policemen into fleas or persuade somebody to gouge out their own eyeballs. It’s almost pointless to try and explain what happens in the book, I could never do it justice. There are several Americans all of whom have some connection to the CIA, several French policemen, one of them now a flea and a couple of witches; one crone, one seductress. They interact in ways only a fevered mind could invent. The book may have been created by Toby Barlow exploding an imagination bomb in a bucket of ideas and catching the spatter.

Such is the chaotic swirl of the book; multiple viewpoints, witchy shenanigans and Byzantine espionage networks –  it took me a while to feel my way into Babayaga. Each page was undoubtedly impressive, Barlow’s prose I found eminently readable, but I struggled to understand the point of it all. As I read on, I found myself riveted. Underneath all the brouhaha, is a delicate and touching meditation on love, whether it be marital, familial, physical, or the love of one’s country and heritage. Many of the interactions had a profound affect on me, and some of them even made me question whether I might be looking at my own relationships from the wrong angle.  The depth of emotion the book provoked took me completely by surprise, such is the irreverent nature of much of the story.

Whilst I can certainly see reasons why you might not like Babayaga, I can see countless more why you should. It won’t suit all tastes, but if you like a dollop of  humour, a slice witchcraft and smackeral of psychotropic drugs with your spy capers then this book is going to tick lots of boxes. It provides plenty of thought as to whether it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Babayaga is a madcap tale filled with passion and heart, and is certain to be one the least pigeonholeable novels of 2014.

Many Thanks to the team at Corvus for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

Ghost of Tom Joad – This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

darkroadIf Bruce Springsteen wrote fiction, it might come out something like This Dark Road to Mercy. A tale of small town America and a family riven by tragedy. Easter and Ruby Quillby live in a children’s home. Their mother died of an overdose, and their father, Wade, signed away his right to care for them. Now Wade has returned. He claims he was misled, tricked into signing and now he wants his children back.

Easter can remember nothing good having come from her father, so why does he want them now?  Is it because he’s heard they may move to Alaska to their maternal grandparents, or is there some other, more sinister, reason? Wade comes for them in the night. What are his intentions? Why is a local gangster trying to find him, and who is the bouncer who bears enough of grudge to offer to kill him?

The Dark Road to Mercy is a slender novel, and for much of the time it threatens to be underpowered. It is in essence a road-trip novel. Wade takes his girls across America, searching for something; nothing tangible, just peace of mind. He is followed by a man with a grudge and another man who is Easter and Ruby’s legal guardian.  These two men are yin and yang, holding the best and worst interests of the girls. Easter and the two men are the three narrators of the story, and so we never hear directly from the story’s main focus, Wade.

Wade is a great character of the type that pops up in great American literature and Springsteen songs. A blue collar American; a man who had a dream, but could never quite fulfil it. Waster or victim of circumstance? Hero or villain?  Cast between the light and dark of the two men chasing him, Wade feels real and well-rounded. The essence of the novel is, perhaps, bad things happen to everybody, and it’s how you deal with them that define you. They can make or break you. As the novel opens Wade could go either way.

I said the novel felt underpowered, and this is true for quite a lot of the story. There is little driving force behind the narrative, and I was often found myself wondering what the point of it was going to be. It turns out the lightness of story is one of the book’s strongest points. As the book ambles towards its fitting, and not particularly thrilling or shocking conclusion, there is a little twist, that brings everything into focus.

This Dark Road to Mercy, is not about what it’s like to be a plucky kid with hapless parents. Instead it’s a novel about being a dad. The emotional hold your children have over you, even when you appear to hold all the cards. The delicate about face took my breath away.  The Dark Road to Mercy is a melancholy tale and one the packs more of an emotional punch than I ever expected. It’s a story most people will enjoy, but I think most of all it’s a novel for fathers everywhere.

Many thanks to the team at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book for review.