The Last Guardians – The Shattered Crown by Richard Ford

ShatteredHerald of the Storm was a one of the most pleasant surprises of 2013. I had few expectations but after a slightly over-long build up, it blossomed into a thrilling heroic fantasy with some of the finest characters I’ve encountered in fantasy fiction. I’m not sure I realised at the time of reading how much I had enjoyed it. When The Shattered Crown dropped through the letterbox, I was inordinately excited to find out what would happen next. I’m pleased to report that Ford has used the solid foundations of book one to support a phenomenal second instalment.

I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I don’t think I’ve found a fantasy book this exciting since discovering David Gemmell 25 years ago. Fantasy has evolved a lot since then and I think with The Shattered Crown, Ford probably eclipses Gemmell. Modern writers have to deliver a more rounded product. I used to joke that Gemmell books were all about ageing warriors, heavily outnumbered, making one last stand against the odds. (Actually this isn’t really a joke, that’s what they were about.)

Ford’s novel has an element of that. A dire force is descending on Steelhaven, and there is a veteran warrior waiting to come out of retirement to fight for the city, but there is so much more. As I said in my review of Herald, the key is in the characterisation. Gemmell’s were as two dimensional as they come. They swung swords and cussed a lot. Ford’s have greater depth. He’s created epic heroes with credible fragility.

The fate of Steelhaven is focused mainly around its new queen and her two new bodyguards. All three of these characters appeared in Herald, and they are a strong triumvirate. Merrick Ryder, a womanising squanderer has found the chance for redemption, but will he take it? The arrival of some new elite knights and a shadow from Merrick’s past threaten to push him over the edge. His internal struggles will decide whether a kingdom stands or falls.  The two women form a bond; The taciturn warrior and the queen whose every decision is scrutinised. Should she marry for the money that is desperately needed to pay her armies, or wait for her doomed lover to return?

Other characters from Herald prove vital too.  Waylian continues his apprenticeship as Ford’s magic system starts to take some shape. His mistress has seen and done things that turn the stomach, but she has Steelhaven’s interests at heart, doesn’t she? Ford leaves the reader guessing as to just what Waylian’s true potential may be and whether he’s right to implicitly trust his mentor.

Nobul Jacks, former soldier, blacksmith and now a policeman is a character that is pure Gemmell. It was the death of Nobul’s son that opened Hearld of the Storm, and he is driven by demons and wanted by powerful men. It’s a potent combination that leads him down dark pathways.

Finally there is Rag. I must confess to not being entirely convinced by her at first. Her flip-flopping between ruthless Guild member and street kid with a heart of gold, felt a bit convenient, but by the end of Shattered Crown I was converted. She’s a girl with nothing, and few prospects more likely than a knife in the back. Rag is an appropriate name as she is tossed on the capricious winds of treachery that blow through the criminal underworld. She is a chameleon, a survivor and the final piece of Steelhaven’s puzzle.

The novel’s strongest asset is its sense of impending doom. A dire army is descending on the city, and all plans and manoeuvres must be completed by the time it arrives. This gives the novel a great sense of urgency, far stronger than if the army had actually arrived. The unseen foe is far more menacing in the reader’s imagination. The sense of fighting a hopeless cause is The Shattered Crown’s strongest similarity with a David Gemmell novel.

The plotting in this book is much tighter than in the first and as a result it is a much slimmer tome. At under 400 pages The Shattered Crown is slight for a fantasy novel, but Ford achieves as much as many authors do with twice this length. Not a word is wasted. This an excellent book with excitement and intrigue in every chapter. There is still little resolution by the end and lots of threads are left untied. When I started reading Gemmell all those years ago, he’d already written half a dozen novels, so I had plenty devour. It’s a little early to be calling Ford the heir to David Gemmell, but I hope he hurries up with volume three so that I can continue the comparison. This is a fine follow up, from an exciting talent.

Many Thanks to Caitlin at Headline for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

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Mining for Gems – The Walton Book Inspiration

jowaltonOn reading Jo Walton’s ‘What Makes this Book so Great‘ I was struck by two things. How many great sounding books are out there that I’ve never heard of, let alone read, and how many books I’d bought because they looked good and never got around to reading. Strictly speaking I know the extent of the second one, I’m just in denial about it. A number of them have an entry in What Makes this Book so Great.

I’m not a big fan of book challenges. I know a lot of bloggers run them, but I don’t like to add constraints as to where I go next. Still Jo’s list is fairly wide ranging, so it barely constitutes a constraint and I do own several of the books already, so I thought it would be a fun idea to read and review them in context of Jo’s reviews. These are all online, so should be easy enough to link to them and run a compare and contrast.

It is undoubtedly going to be a long and drawn-out read-through. I’m already part of the Hodderscape Review Project and have belong to a book group, so that’s two books a month I’m committed to reading, combined with my burgeoning blogging commitments (so many great books, so little time!) there is rarely time to squeeze in a novel from whatever the reader equivalent of a slush pile is.

But I’ll give it a go…

I’ll start with the books I own and first up will be Octavia Butler’s Kindred. This has just been reissued by Headline, and I am fortunate enough to have been given a review copy, so that seems like a good place to start.

books

A few of the unread books in my house that are also in Jo Walton’s book. Yes I have a problem.

After that, I own the following:
Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack (a book I rushed out and bought on the strength of Walton’s review).
The Dragon Waiting by John M Ford.
Red Shift by Alan Garner.
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson.
Growing up Weightless by John M Ford. Another book I ordered on Walton’s say-so.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. (I’ve had this for years but have been too scared to read it.)

Then are those that I don’t own yet but will probably by at some point.

Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. (I bought the second volume today in the charity shop. Volume 1 is very high on my wish list.)
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
China Mountain Zhang – Maureen McHugh
Some Samuel R Delany because Walton loves him, and I’ve never read any.
Jasmine nights by SP Somtow
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Some Steven Brust and maybe just maybe some Lois McMaster Bujold.
Orbital Resonance by John Barnes (I loved Luther Blisset’s Q, so what not this? (that’s an 80’s Football joke))
Corrupting Doctor Nice – John Kessel
The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson

So there we have it. It’s a bloody big list, and I could have chosen several more, if the wind has been blowing in a different direction. I have no idea how long this journey will take, but I know I’ll read some interesting stuff along the way.  I do hope you’ll pop in every now again and see how I’m getting on. If you’re lucky I’ll be in a Little Chef eating a Jubilee Pancake!

What makes this book so great?

whatmakes

‘…I imagine he knows magic, if he’s reading books. The book itself doesn’t matter. It’s that he found another world in it.’ Rene Denfeld – The Enchanted

Ok, so this quote is written about a violent psychopath, but if you’re reading this review, and even thinking about reading this book, you’ll understand what Rene Denfeld means. I certainly imagine Jo Walton fully comprehends.

I first encountered Walton’s work reading Among Others, a book unlike anything I might usually consume. It beguiled from start to finish and was my stand out book of 2012. The girl in Among Others, Mor, is a prodigious reader, as is Jo herself. Somewhere in ‘What makes…?’ Walton explains how she can read up to and beyond a book a day. I thought I read quite fast, but this is reading as a superpower.

As a result of her rapid consumption, rereading books has become a necessity for Jo and this book is a chronicle of her adventures reading novels she has repeatedly enjoyed through the years. The books are almost exclusively science fiction/fantasy.

On the face of it this is a curious book to publish, especially in hardback. A cover price of £25 does seem a little steep, especially when you consider the essays were first available (and remain so) on Tor.com. With many publishers (well one major fantasy one anyway) trimming their hardback lists, Corsair’s decision seems bold bordering on reckless. That’s not to say the book is not a fine beast, because it is. It looks great and Walton’s relaxed but incisive writing style make it perfect for dipping in and out of.

The book could be read in more or less any order, though is presented chronologically. I read them in order over a number of weeks. Reading a couple of entries when I had a spare ten minutes. Most of them are specific to individual books whilst some (of the better ones) focus on reading style and habits.

Whilst I don’t think this is a perfect book, I really enjoyed reading it. It introduced me to some books I’d never heard of that sound wonderful, waxed lyrical about some books I love, and perhaps best of all, reminded me of some books I bought many years ago but haven’t got around to reading. Walton has a magical ability to make every book she’s enjoyed sound like the best book in the world. My to-be-read pile has swelled considerably since reading ‘What Makes this Book so Great ‘.

A great book begets great books. My fist Walton inspired purchase.

A great book begets great books. My fist Walton inspired purchase.

The book is a curious beast. I can’t decide whether it’s best to have read the books Walton talks about or not. On the one hand, if you’ve read the book, you’ll have a shared reading experience and a point of reference. Alternatively, this could be seen as a handbook of undiscovered gems, ready to set readers on fantastic journeys of discovery.

Many of the authors appear, are ones Mor loved so much in Among Others, and give further insight into the qualities of some of the genre’s seminal texts. There are a couple of authors who feature a little too heavily. Lois McMaster Bujold and Steve Brust are clearly Walton favourites. Whilst I can see their merits as authors, there are at least a dozen posts focusing on each of the pair’s books, which if you were somebody who is unlikely to read a book by either author, possibly wouldn’t switch you on to them. Walton is quite good about spoilers (there aren’t many and they are well telegraphed), but even so it’s hard to wax lyrical about a 10+ book cycle without losing some readers along the way. I skim read many of the Brust/Bujold entries. It feels like there are so many books available to start would be futile, though I know Walton would completely disagree with this sentiment.

Unlike Among Others, I think you have to have a predilection for fantastic fiction if you are going to enjoy What Makes this Book so Great. This is more about the nuts and bolts of the novels and is essentially a conversation between one sci-fi lover and another. Walton’s writing is effortless to read, and inspiring time and again. A valuable addition to any SFF reader’s burgeoning bookshelves.

Many thanks to Grace at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book. 

In Bloom by Matthew Crow – Extract

in bloomI recently posted this review of Matthew Crow’s excellent YA novel In Bloom. It is an examination of the devastating effects of teenage cancer. Poignant yet never maudlin, the narrator of In Bloom, Francis Wootton, is a current day Adrian Mole. Francis is funny, often when he’s not meaning to be, and above all he is eminently likeable.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the novel is the relationship between Francis and his brother, Chris. As a dad of three boys, it is one of my sincerest hopes that they all get along once they are grown up. If they loved each other as much as Francis and Chris do then I will have done my job well. The extract I have chosen exemplifies their bond as Chris tries to ease the pain of one of the side effects of Francis’ chemotherapy.

I pressed it first to the front of his head and began slowly pulling it back from his fringe. The razor made a different sound as it sliced through the first few strands of hair, and became harder to pull. Chris’s shoulders tensed as I dragged the blades back towards the crown of his head.

Then I stopped and remembered everything I had meant to say before.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, holding the razor tightly in place. ‘I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.’ I didn’t say what for. Didn’t say that I was sorry I was ill. That I was sorry he and Mum had to be there all the time, and had to worry all the time. Didn’t say that I was sorry that everything had changed because of me, and that Chris’s hair was being ruined just because mine was. I just said sorry, and hoped that he’d be able to work out the rest for himself.

Everyone went quiet except for the razor, which kept buzzing like a bee trapped in a jam-jar.

Amber looked at me worriedly and at Chris, who tensed and then flinched.

‘It’s OK,’ he said, holding up his hand and taking the razor from me.

He stood up, still holding the razor against his head, so that I could lie back down.

Bloody hell, Francis, it’s stuck,’ he said, yanking hard at the blades. ‘Jesus, it really is! I’m serious . . .’

Amber put her hand over her mouth to stop herself from laughing. Chris yanked at the razor and swore at the top of his voice as it ripped some hair from his head. A smooth runway of pink flesh led from his forehead to the crown of his head. He grabbed a mirror, looking panicked, and swore again as he observed the damage.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said between giggles once Chris began to smirk even though I could tell he was gutted. ‘I’m really sorry.’

‘What’s going on?’ Mum said, coming back with a coffee. She had put on more make-up since she’d been gone and looked better for it.

‘Sweeney Todd here developed a conscience halfway across my skull, that’s what,’ Chris said, slumping down on my bed as he teased his fingers over the bald patch, and grimaced.

Mum put down her coffee cup and stepped back to look at him. Amber had her head in her hands and her shoulders were jigging up and down like she was being electrocuted. Every so often she’d be still and take in a deep breath before carrying on with her hysterics. At first Mum just held her hand to her mouth. I thought she was going to cry again, which would have killed the mood, but instead she smiled, and then let out one sly giggle.

‘Sorry,’ she said, and then laughed again. ‘Oh, you stupid sod,’ she said, and burst out laughing, laughing like she hardly ever did, laughing like no one was watching. She laughed so hard she had tears in her eyes, and her nose began to run. Even though she could hardly breathe for laughing she kissed Chris on the head where his hair used to be, then did the same to my head. When she did I could feel her lipstick smear across my skin like a slug’s trail.

‘My bonny lads,’ she said, sitting down on the bed next to me as she tried to get her breath back, ‘what am I going to do with you, eh?’

Many Thanks to Grace at Much in Little for asking me to be on the blog tour.

Intolerable Cruelty – The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

enchantedThe Enchanted is only the second book I’ve read that fits into a very specific category. That being ‘Books that are so well written everyone should read them, but are so harrowing they’re difficult to recommend’. The other book that I can put in this group is The Road, and most people would agree that’s a pretty fine book. The Enchanted left me similarly wrung out.

Denfeld’s book is set in a real world dystopia, the American penal system. Specifically Death Row. There are several points of view, but the two main ones are from an unnamed murderer, and a woman (known only as The Lady) whose job it is to try to find cause for those waiting on Death Row to have their sentence commuted.

For the first few pages I was unconvinced, or rather convinced I wasn’t going to like it. The idea that death row can be an ‘enchanted place’ is somewhat preposterous. Just because the prose was excessively poetic, I wasn’t going to be convinced. Was I?

Well, yes I was. I’m not sure whether Denfeld’s purple prose settled down, or whether I acclimatised to it, but I found myself transfixed. Each sentence pulled me deeper into this horrible world of violence and murder, forgiveness and retribution. So the prison is indeed enchanting, but not in a Disney castle way, but in the manner of Grimm and ‘bring me back my daughter’s heart’.

This is a brutal novel. Almost none of the characters are untainted by tragedy or violence. Perhaps a little too much so.  There are few chinks of light, to give the reader relief, and its hard to credit that quite so many people have been subjected to that level of horror. Nevertheless this is a novel of immense power.

Behind the glorious prose (and despite my initial misgivings, this is a beautifully written novel, not a word feels out of place), this is a meditation on the futility of the death penalty as it is currently used in the US. It is generally anti death penalty, but above all, it dissects the absurdity of leaving men for years with their executions hanging over them. It is about as destructive a thing you could inflict upon another human being. Some might consider it justified, but Denfeld portrays it as cruel and inhuman. The prison system itself comes under fire. A corrupt system, where a handful of bad people control the fate of countless criminals. It highlights the petty thieves and first offenders that are dragged under by a system stacked against them.

The juxtaposition of the stories of a crazed murderer and a woman who tries to commute killer’s sentences is an interesting one. What is evil? Are we all products of our upbringing, and if so, to what degree should this knowledge be allowed to mitigate our actions? One of the side stories describes a crime to which we have been privy to the build up. It would be a hard-hearted reader who did not think this crime was not justified. Against the backdrop of other killers going to the gallows Denfeld makes an interesting point about the mutability of justice.

The Enchanted is a slender novel, with comparatively few words to a page. It’s a quick read, but it’s impact will linger on long after finishing. This is a beautiful harrowing read, that I hesitate to recommend, but find I have to. It’s one of the finest books you’ll read this year.

Many Thanks to Jessica at W&N for sending me a copy of this book

Blooming Marvellous – In Bloom by Matthew Crow

in bloom‘Here’s a test.

Leukaemia

Look at the word quickly then look away. Now, close your eyes and try to spell it. 

Bet you couldn’t.

Neither could I.’

For a novel set on teenage cancer ward, In Bloom is a remarkably uplifting novel. As a dad of boys, I was wary about reading a book chronicling a child’s battle with leukaemia. I’d be lying if I said this book isn’t sad, because it is, but it’s also funny and life affirming.

Somewhere in the cover quotes there is a comparison to Adrian Mole, and Francis Wootton is just like him. Intelligent, awkward and not terribly popular, Francis has a singular view of the world, yet one that remains typical of all boys his age. Crow captures the aura of self-possession mixed with insecurity that comes with that age and the selfish naivety that comes from thinking that a) the world is against you and b) you know everything about everything.

Francis tells the story of his battle with leukaemia and his life-changing relationship with Amber, a fellow sufferer. It’s a tale of hope, despair and true-love.

Characterisation is sound throughout. Amber and Francis are beautifully rendered. Solid and believable. The supporting cast are the same high quality. The other patients on the ward add great colour whilst Francis and Amber’s families flesh out the story brilliantly. I loved the relationships of both children with their mothers, and the wary friendship between the two women is wonderfully realised.

For me though, as a father of boys, it’s the relationship between Francis and his brother Chris that both made the book and broke my heart. The love and camaraderie they share is something I hope to see from my own children. The shared experiences and familiar jokes they play on one another give the novel an added dimension and their bond is deeply touching.

In Bloom is a funny book with a narrator that reminded me of my 2013 favourite Alex Woods. Francis’s self-absorbed geeky world view is used for some long laughs, much as Alex’s was. Yet though there is comedy a plenty, there is a darker side of the book too. Cancer is a bastard and in children it’s almost too cruel for comment. Crow opens up a dialogue in this thoughtful, heartfelt book. Highly recommended.

Many Thanks to Grace at Much in Little for sending me a copy of this book.

Airships and Nanotech – Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald

enemy By coincidence I read two novels concurrently that contained reference/homage to Hugh Everett and his many worlds theory (to be fair I knew one of them did, as it’s a sequel, but the other was a complete surprise.) One was literary fiction, slow, nuanced and dull. The other, YA science fiction, was bold, brash and bloody brilliant. Be My Enemy is a direct follow on from Planesrunner, and is book 2 in the Everness series. If you haven’t read book 1, then look away now.

The plot picks up immediately from where Planesrunner ended. Everett Singh and the crew of the Everness have just jumped away from the evil Charlotte Villiers and are hoping to make their escape. Everett’s father is still missing, jettisoned into the multiverse; victim of Villiers’ machinations in book 1.

Before the crew of the Everness can even draw breath the army of the Panoply are on to them. Jumping between planes leaves a signal that can be traced. It’s a bit like your internet history. This is one of those convenient Sci-Fi devices, that I’m not really sure how it works (quantum entanglement?), but it keeps the the book moving along, so I don’t worry too much. Its purpose is to ensure the antagonists can keep chasing the heroes.

Backed into a corner, Everett does what he’s best at. Thinking the unthinkable and realising the impossible. In this case it’s jumping the Everness to the quarantined and fabled disaster zone E1. It’s the deep dark woods of Everett’s universe(s) and you enter at your peril.

It’s here that the novel really takes off. A lot second novels are inferior to the opening volume because the best ideas have been used up. Once the central premise has been set, the story continues within its parameters. With Be Me Enemy McDonald not only picks up his central idea and runs with it, he uses it to make balloon animals, a water park and a Scooby Doo sandwich.

Earth 1 is a terrible place. To say much more would spoil the surprise, but it’s a nightmare vision of science over-extending itself. This is another tightly plotted adventure story, exciting and innovative from start to finish. Be My Enemy sees the crew of the Everness grow, both as a band of brothers and individuals. The novels denouement has one of the most innovative uses of invented technology I can remember reading. It’s one of McDonald’s best traits as a writer, his confections are not just original, they are employed in ways you can never see coming. (It’s like Chekov’s gun only where you thought the gun was something else altogether).

What struck me about these books as I read them, is that since there are three novels currently published (Empress of the Sun is currently burning a hole in my bookshelf), I had sort of assumed this would be a trilogy. Perhaps it is, but with 1080 Earths at his disposal, McDonald can make literally anything happen (book 3 has highly evolved dinosaurs by the looks of things). Whilst the overreaching story arc is tracking down Everett’s father, McDonald has essentially created himself a Quantum Leap scenario.  As long as he can think of settings and stories, Everett can keep on searching for the way home. On the strength of the first two books this is a series I would happily see run and run.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of the book.