Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French. A spoiler review

I try to observe a rule not to read other people's reviews of something that I've read until after I have written my own, lest their opinions should colour mine.  So I am writing this review of The Grey Bastards in some haste so I can freely indulge my curiosity about what other friends and reviewers have thought of this brilliant and fascinating tale.

Of the last twenty books I have read, The Grey Bastards will be the fourth that I have been introduced to via Mark Lawrence's Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off. This is, I think a testament to the competition's success in lifting some very good books above the noise signal and anti-selfpublishing snobbery that has hidden some remarkable talents from a wider audience.

The Grey Bastards came first in the 2016-17 contest and is an extremely well polished book - even if its protagonists are as rough as sandpaper toilet tissue. The story's feet appear planted in the Dungeons and Dragons milieu of my youth - huge birds called rokh and amorphous digesting blobs called black sludges could have sat quite happily between the pages of the Monster Manual. The Grey Bastards are themselves a troop (or rather a hoof) of hog riding half-orc cavalry who we see and bond with through our point of view protagonist - Jackal. Jackal himself, is young, ambitious and - if not exactly handsome - at least less intrinsically ugly than others of his kin.

Make no mistake, this is a brilliant book, that challenges the reviewer only in knowing where to begin tackling the task of describing it, much as one might wonder how to bring down Jackal's brother in arms the mountainous and formidable thrice blood - Oats.

Thrice bloods are one of French's many linguistic, cultural or even biological developments that add a deep and rich additional dimension to what - in other hands - might have been a mere parade through a flat role playing campaign.  The half-orcs are all bastards, beget by orcish rapes - fierce and formidable fighters the various hoofs have become part of the Empire's defense against orcish incursions. Thrice bloods are the most formidable half-orcs, born of a half-orc mother and an orc father. The half orc hoofs - and other re-purposed denizens of familiar myth - each patrol their own parcel (or lot) of the near lawless borderlands between the orcs and the empire. The lots are a barren dangerous place - home only to those who have no other place to turn to - a wild land that makes the wild west look like a kindergarten's playground - where the only safety is in the mutual loyalty and reliance of belonging to a group.

I daren't say too much more of the plot - this is a book to discover for yourselves.

It is perhaps fair to warn you that - from the very outset - the tone and language of our half-orc hero and his friends is beyond bawdy, beyond coarse and yet all the more believable for it. These are the roughest of rough soldiers bound by the close knit camaraderie and carnal preoccupations of many a troop of specialist mercenaries operating under near constant duress. I have seen the like of their crude language previously only in Jeff Salyards' coarse-tongued Syldoon soldiers who rode through the Bloodsounder's arc trilogy.  However, the fluent variety of the Grey Bastard's cursing might raise a blush even in Lieutenant Muldoos.

However, the story is no testosterone driven male monopoly. The female characters - Fetching (the half-orc warrior), Beryl (sometime nursemaid, sometime director of the half-orc orphanage), Delia (the whore who dares) amongst several others are all given agency and screen-time aplenty and you come to love and fear for them as much - if not more so - than for Jackal himself.

French's half-orcs are eloquently, entertainingly, crudely, witty, but his writing is also skillfully evocative in its descriptions. Some of the lines that caught my eye include
"... there was a threat buried in the thick folds of politeness."
"The morning sky was newborn, still jaundiced before a proper sunrise."
"... the wet defeat in her eyes betrayed she did not know how to proceed."

The action scenes are gripping, the technicalities of hog cavalry warfare absorbing, the pacing brilliant. I consumed the last 43% of this book in a single evening - breathlessly borne along through a sequence of ascending climaxes (of the plot variety). The various threads of the story wound round and through each other to an ending that was so beautifully perfectly fitting that I put down the kindle with a sense of utter satisfaction.

This is a tale of the fellowship, of the loyalty that each individual must bear to the greater whole - and in the final analysis due recognition must be and is paid to the one willing to sacrifice everything for the others,    

Nothing is Ever Simple - Corin Hayes book two by G.R.Matthews

This is the second book in G.R.Matthews' series of underwater dystopian sci-fi series.  It sees our hero on a mission to a different underwater city - one that is neither silent nor homely.  The nature of Corin's work, his past, his setting, and his personality - make for a man born and borne by solitude. In consequence we spend a lot of time in Corin's head seeing the world through the grim and slightly distorting lens of his experience.





Corin's is an engaging voice - world-weary but still wise-cracking, with some quotes sharp enough to cut.  For example, "We hold onto our past, sometimes with fingers dug so deep into its flesh that we are part of it."

Book 2 carries us in a different direction, both geographically and narratively, from Book 1.  The threads of personal tragedy and deferred vengeance are left dangling as fresh challenges and swift undercurrents sweep Corin into new and deep dangers,

After the distinctive noir-ness of Corin's voice, the next feature of the book to catch the eye is the world building. In a population condemned to living at the bottom of its oceans, there will be many difficulties of economy, nutrition and society to address.

Long ago I watched a horror/sci-fi film about a team of divers investigating a Titanic like sunken liner decades after it foundered. They found against any expectation that there were survivors - that shocked moment when the diver's torch sweeps over a porthole and a live face peers back. They had fashioned some kind of existence within the sunken hull all led by an extremely resourceful purser.  (Oh the joys of the internet - somebody else roused by the same curiosity of imperfect memory asked the same question and got an answer The film was led not by Vincent Price as I had thought but Christopher Lee and is titled Goliath Awaits )

Just as the sunken survivors of the Goliath had to be resourceful and inventive, so too Matthews lavishes care and thought on how some kind of normality might assert and define itself in such submerged circumstances as Corin's world faces. It makes for an engaging and thought provoking read.

The plot is at once simple and complex. There are bad guys who put Corin in danger and he has to work his way out of it. Their motivations and the routes to confound them prove somewhat tortuous. I read the Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep a long time ago and the plot to Nothing is Ever Simple has the same kind of organic style. The story appears to advance by the author throwing a series of curve balls at his protagonist and then following his reactions.  In that sense, the plot feels more like the gym in which Matthews tests and develops his world building and the protagonist's persona, rather than the engine which drives the plot. Nonetheless it rattles along at a good pace.



I will again raise reservations about the freedom with which Corin uses blunt instruments. People are bludgeoned into lengthy periods of unconsciousness with the same abandon that I last saw in a Modesty Blaise book (and before that in early Enid Blyton's).



While my younger self accepted this, decades of watching the TV show Casualty have heightened my knowledge of subdural haematomas - while health and basic safety training taught me to treat any potential concussion with extreme caution.  So my suspension of disbelief skated over some thin ice (in so far as a suspension can skate) when Corin bound up an unconscious villain and blithely waited hours for the fellow to make a natural and total recovery.

Those reservations aside, Corin continues to be an engaging and readable hero in a radically different but eminently sustainable setting.              

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A Study in Whethering - Spoiler free review of "The Heart of Stone" By Ben Galley

I like ARCs  Advanced Reader Copies - there is a delicious thrill in getting an early insight into books not yet available to the general public.  So I was very grateful to receive an electronic ARC for "The Heart of Stone" by Ben Galley.



Galley is an experienced self-publisher, keen to share his experience with others and to address some of the problems and prejudices that self-published works still face compared to traditionally published.  Certainly, as I look over my recent reads there is a growing overlap in quality where the best of self-published works would more than hold their own in comparison with their traditionally published contemporaries - and The Heart of Stone is well within that zone.

The Heart of Stone is a well polished piece with an intriguing central premise.  Fantasy-Faction's short story competition this month has a similar theme - with its "Through the Beast's Eye" month where contributors tell the story from the monster's perspective.

Galley has placed Task - the four hundred year old stone golem - at the heart of his story. The last survivor of one of many near-indestructable monsters created by a long dead warlord, Task has been passed from master to master bound to their service and indeed to his own continued existence by the oldest of old magic. But Task was always a different golem - questioning from the moment of his creation. The story follows Task's growth, coming to terms with those centuries of uncertainty, while he slogs North as one side's secret weapon in a grubby civil war in a distant corner of the world.

We also follow other views than Task's in what is a multiple PoV tale.  There is in effect a triple prologue (or prelude) where we meet not just Task but the two women with whom his fate and development will be totally entwined. The story is an easy read, that I consumed over a period of weeks of bedtime reading. However, having finished it I went back to re-read preludes 2 and 3, seeking to link the women's histories to how their parts played out in the extended denouement.

Galley's writing - full of deft touches - is one of the book's strengths.  They are particularly good at capturing Task's ambivalent attitude towards humans - or skinbags - as he thinks of them and how that develops over the course of the book. Such as when Task reflects that "Watching men crumble under the weight of his gaze was on of his few indulgences."  or "The less he touched them, the less he knew. Their ugly lives already seeped into his skin like ink through wet paper."

Then there is the rare moment of sympathy evinced for one of the story's main villains, "For once, Huff wished he could shimmy out from under his father's shadow. Dast was forever draping it over him."   There is a pithy economy to Galley's descriptions for example "He was a knife of a man, all angles and crooked lines."  There are other lines I noted, too many to mention here, but a joy awaiting other readers' discovery,

Galley's world building impressively conveys a sense of an alien place filled with flora and fauna very different to our own. There are firns (the beasts of burden) and fawls  (small camp following animals) that hound and service the army's baggage train, but humans are still reassuringly human, and golems are human shaped.  The magic system has nothing quite so prosaic as spells and wizards who cast them - no fireballs burst, no lightning bolts flash over the many battlefields in Tasks' campaign. But magic of a more insidious kind does pervade the story - the magic of minds and of control as Task rails against the chains that bind his will, and others struggle to hide their secrets from those who can surf the thoughts of their fellow men.
 
Task is rightly the most enthralling of Galley's characters, a complex beast struggling to be something more than a monster and maybe also something more than a man. Other characters capture the reader's attention too. I feared for one when an unexplained nosebleed had me thinking the plague that claimed her family must be poised to strike again. Fearing for a character is always a good indicator of the investment an author has generated from his reader.  For other characters, the motivations appear somewhat cruder and simpler.  Galley's minor players are driven by lusts for revenge, for glory or even a lust for lust. These drives consistently direct their actions, but lack some of the nuances that might otherwise flesh out the outright villainy of the likes of Huff - a general it is impossible to like.
  

Galley set out to write a standalone fantasy novel - a rarity in these times of sprawling epics where even the humble trilogy can be looked upon as somewhat under-aspirational. To bring a single geographically localised tale to a satisfying close, Galley draws in the fate of other nations and indeed the rest of the world into the dying gasps of Hartland's self-destructive struggle.  Like ships swirling around a maelstrom the outworkings of a civil war threaten to drag other countries down.  However, that search to place Task's struggle in some wider world threatening context does stretch the plot.  Hartland is gripped by a war between two sides, criss-crossed by factions of the unreliable, the untrustworthy and the frankly unlikeable.

However, Galley's tale is at its best in the moments when we follow the thoughts and words of its remarkable protagonist and whether or not he can throw off the chains of old magic as easily as he can shatter the chains of new iron.



 
   

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Of Myth and Magic My spoiler-free review of Paternus by Dyrk Ashton


I was talking to my second daughter (she's a quaternary scientist you know) about the fact that we are currently 10,000 years into an interglacial - a pause between ice ages - after the last 100,000 year ice age came to an end.

I had heard that apparently the flood story is not unique to judeo-christianity. While not going as far as an idea of Noah and his Ark, other faiths and peoples have similar accounts of a global flooding disaster.  Arguably this common thread came from the melting of arctic ice sheets as far south as Ireland and consequent rises in sea-levels that submerged settlements ranging from Doggerland in the North Sea to the shores of a much reduced Black Sea. It would not then be so surprising that the flood myth passed into oral histories across the world.



In Paternus, Dyrk Ashton draws a similar thread of connectivity and common cause on which he strings the beads of every world myth I have ever heard of and roots them in a common foundation. The wide ranging source material is drawn together from places spread across the entire globe and times delving billions of years into the Earth's past to deliver a crescendo of a story condensed into a bare 24 hours of pretty constant action.

The many threads make for a complex tale. As with Keifer Sutherland's 24 TV show, the reader follows stories playing out in parallel in scattered locations.  Layers of myth and faction unfold in terse action sequences delivered in the present tense through inevitably multiple points of view.  The supreme deity within this diverse pantheon borrows shamelessly from Greek Zeus and Norse Odin's proclivities and weaknesses. Though borrows is perhaps an unfair term - embodies/personifies/unites might all do more justice to the fascinating "melange a beaucoup" that Ashton has created.

At times I thought Ashton must have augmented the well known but well disguised characters from myth with creations of his own invention, all spawned from the same central premise that explains and celebrates the diversity of ancient mythology.  However, every time I tried googling one of Ashton's ancient truenames, the search threw up a genuine mythic anticedent.

There is a romantic core to the story - which is where it opens.  A young couple dancing uncertainly around their strong but unexpressed mutual attraction. At those points the story felt a little bit clunky. But whatever thoughts the two might harbour for each other, they are soon swept aside by the tide of times as powerful opposing forces face off and suit up for the latest instalment in a long running and potentially world-ending conflict.

The action really hots up about a quarter of the way into the book and once it gets started it just doesn't seem to stop, as Ashton's battles rage from location to location like a James Bond movie.

All in all, an enjoyable, rip-roaring tour de force through every pantheon you could imagine.




Thursday, 5 January 2017

Red Sister - this is what is inside it. (My spoiler free review)

As a reviewer, Red Sister set me a challenge I have not had since "The Girl with All the Gifts." The conundrum of capturing how it made me feel and why, but without spoiling the experience for anyone who comes after me. (By the way - as far as The Girl With all the Gifts is concerned, just read it, don't watch the film - don't even watch the trailer - just read the book - and maybe my review here).

As Red Sister's April release date draws closer, there is a growing band of readers who have garnered an ARC by fair means or foul and are now pent up with a stifled desire to discuss, to analyse, to share those "Wow!" moments along with all the "Ooh"s and the "Aah"s and the "Ah ha!"s  longing for the spring deluge of discussion as the rest of the fantasy community get their hands on it.

Several reviewers I have seen have simply described it as Mark Lawrence's best book yet. Given the quality of the preceding six volumes, such a verdict sounded suspiciously like hyperbole. Indeed that was my first thought, but after 552 pages of Nona's often bloody story, describing Red Sister merely as his best work seems too faint a praise. (And now you will suspect me of hyperbole!)

The Writing


Lawrence has always been a gifted writer, a deliverer of liquid prose that flows in sinuous forms from page of book to mind of reader. In some ways great writing is like great wicket-keeping (bear with me here - particularly American readers).

[open obscure analogy] In cricket the wicket-keeper is always on view waiting behind the stumps - potentially in action with every ball that is bowled. The best wicket-keepers are unshowy, unfussy - commentators would say that you don't notice their wicket-keeping until the game demands some moment of brilliance - a stunning catch, a sharp run out, a dazzling stumping and then you would see their class. [/close obscure analogy]

In the same way great writing is economical, unfussy, unobtrusive. It cradles the reader like a comfortable hammock carrying you through the story. (Maybe I am over stretching my analogies or even my garden furniture). As a simple example, Lawrence does not step out of the stories to deliver descriptions - he doesn't pause to paint a portrait in words before we move on. He shows us people, their shape, their form through their actions and reaction.

And then there are the many sparks of brilliance, the quotes that resonate with a truth we always knew but had never recognised.

"I have been too young to know, and I have been too old to care. It's in the oh so narrow slice between that memories are made."

"Truth is an axe. Without judgement it's swung in great circles, wounding everybody."

And - perhaps my favourite, for its fourth wall breaking meta-ness

"A book is as dangerous a journey as any you might make.  The person who closes the back cover may not be the same as the person who opened the front."

And that is the essence of a good story - it changes people both those who read and those they read about.  Nona, her friends and her enemies are changed by the experience of Red Sister, and as a reader I was left buzzing with wonder and with questions.

The Story


Lawrence is a writer driven and inspired by quality writing.  In one of his blogposts here  he talked about types of readers from plotsters to beauticians, but the same kind of categorisation can be applied to writers. He is himself much more of a gardener/beautician than an architect/plotster.  He can be just as surprised as his readers by what happens between the top of the page and the bottom. Swept along by great writing and mesmeric characters we shot together through the turbulent rapids of the Broken Empire.

By book five and The Liar's Key - even Lawrence was swept along so fast and so far by the flow of story that it took him some effort to wrestle that - his longest book to a conclusion. An experience that had him flirt with plotting and planning to make sure the Wheel of Osheim came closer to a normal (non-Rothussian) word budget.


Red Sister has that familiar Lawrencian hallmark of quality writing in abundance. But it has something else too which elevates Red Sister above the Broken Empire and the Red Queen's War.


In Red Sister, there is more evidence of thoughtful world building - of pre-plotting of - planned structure, of an elegant and detailed framework on which to hang the glorious writing. That is not say that Lawrence has suddenly been brain-swapped with Joe Abercrombie or Peter V Brett. For those two writing is only begun after a level of planning and note making that makes devising Operation Overlord look like a planning a trip to the corner shop.


Nona Grey's story still has the delightful verve of creativity - the sudden challenge to the reader's expectations. Those moments like watching a Michelin starred chef who suddenly throws in ingredients that surely cannot go with what is in the pan and yet they do, giving a taste sensation that is unexpectedly divine.


But I found more steel of structure running through Nona's story - in a way which heightened the tension and my attachment to the characters always promising an arc that stretched further back and further forward than the moment in which Nona lives.

The Resonances


The more I read (and I do not read as much as I would like) the more I find connections between the book infront of me and other books and films. Maybe I am glimpsing flashes of what inspired the author, or maybe it is an empty echo in the soundbox of my own imagination.

The Convent of Sweet Mercy - where Nona lives and trains for most of the book - put me in mind of the Debora Kerr film Black Narcissus and in particular the bell tolling scene at 2 minutes 11 seconds in the trailer here  While Kerr's nuns were hardly assassins, they were certainly a little crazy cooped up on a remote and inaccessible convent where as David Farrar's character asserts, "There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated."

(image from theblacknarcissus.com)


Celyn, Lawrence's youngest daughter, has a fondness for listening to audio books of Malory Towers; Red Sister inevitably has elements of a school story wound round its convent setting - albeit a school story of completely different context, quality and timbre to any I have read before.

There are classes and dormitories and petty jealousies seasoned with a spice of special powers. I have read other works that had a similar story spine - Rowling's Harry Potter, Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, and Canavan's The Magician's Guild.

There are children who are students and adults (nuns) who are teachers, each specialists in their own field. Red Sister even has The Poisoner - a mistress of potions, viewed with the same fearful suspicion in a similar subterranean den as a much lamented Professor Snape. At the more esoteric end of the spectrum, Mistress Path waxes cryptically lyrical in a way that would make Kvothe's Elodin seem a model of icy clarity.

But for all the siren call of those familiar elements, Red Sister strikes out in its own individual direction stalking through the reader's mind with captivating menace and fresh challenges.

Three of my daughters and my niece have all struggled through different ordeals of the Duke of Edinburgh experience - closely shadowed by the DoE leaders, as they

  • argued over who's stupid idea it was to try and cook pizza in a trangia and, 
  • pitched tents at night in the desperate exhaustion of the totally lost only for the morning to reveal that they were in the field next to their target campsite.  
and in one extreme night hike 
  • found they had accidentally strayed into a notorious dogging area and had to quickly turn their head lamps off, and be very careful to keep them off - and definitely not to flash them on and off - as they struggled through the area. 

However, those challenges and horrors pale into insignificance when compared to the ordeal of Red Sister's "ranging" where a party of twelve years olds have to scavenge their way across hostile territory in dire weather, past a plethora of enemies with murderous (rather than merely sordid) night time intentions.  The ranging draws the story threads together and weaves a magical climax which is somehow still totally topped by the book's final pages.

In those final pages, another connection flashed up in my mind - sort of reinforced by the US cover of Red Sister - that is to say a faint, almost wispy, but very particular parallel between Nona and JM Barrie's Peter Pan. But with that, as with all the other reverberating echoes of other stories, Lawrence's work mixes and moulds them and adds something all together darker, yet more inspiring to the mix.

The Inspiration and the World Building

The setting for Lawrence's Broken Empire arose from a single leap of imagination (aided by an internet mapping tool) - raise the world's sea levels by a few hundred metres and hey ho - instant campaign map. It makes the world interesting but comprehensible and one fan has even gone to the extent of mapping our world onto the Broken Empire and discovering - horror of horrors - Jorg is not just a Frenchman, but a Parisian,

The world of Abeth is a totally different concept, imagined in more detail. As G.R.Matthews would doubtless remind me, geography drives history. The flow of rivers and of trade, the barriers of sea and mountains have shaped not just countries but their people. In the same way, well thought out geography drives stories. The unique world of Red Sister, the origins of its people and the perils they face add great depth (if slightly less width!) to the story. The setting had me discussing glaciation with my second daughter (a quaternary scientist, you know) and sketching lunar orbits in my head as another slew of questions and connections went off like a sequence of firecrackers. I will not spoil it for the readers, but suffice to say, even the convent's plumbing system acquires a central role in the story.    

With the two Broken Empire set trilogies, there were clear literary inspirations for the anti-hero characters of Jorg (Alex from Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange") and Jalan (Flashman as re-imagined by George MacDonald Fraser).




Nona's inspiration was a picture by Tomasz Jedruszek and a suggestion from Lawrence's editor Jane Johnson that had his first book been "Princess of Thorns" rather than "Prince of Thorns", this picture might have been its cover.



His reply "I'm quite tempted to write that book now!" as he explored the concept here was somewhat prescient. From the seed of that picture and comment grew this book and its enthralling heroine. The multi-faceted Nona is at times as dark an adversary as Jorg and at others as unreliable a narrator as Jalan. In combat she can be as terrifying as Jalan in his berseker fury, or as cold as Jorg in his calculations.

Nona is also undeniably a girl. However, Lawrence has often said that he sets out to write people not genders.  Having written Red Sister about nuns in a convent teaching girls to fight, he asked a beta reader would the story have worked equally well if it had been about monks in a monastery teaching boys. And the answer came back yes - the genders were interchangeable. In a way I can see that too having read the story. However, part of that androgyneity maybe that at the age of ten or twelve - unswayed by adolescence - girls and boys are perhaps most nearly alike. But even then, there is one way in which I think Red Sister has - perhaps unwittingly - captured something more overtly female.

That is because, Red Sister is above all else a book about friendship. It begins and ends with friendships strained and sundered; shared and spared. And, though doubtless as much as half the population will call me wrong - there is a particular quality of steel and fire to female friendships that Red Sister portrays perfectly.

And as the dust settled on the final scene, I ran to message my reading partner across the water, to share our how? and why? and what next? questions. With one story closing, its protagonist stood in the shadow of a greater story still to come. My only remaining question is how the hell do I get my hands on an ARC of Grey Sister,


Monday, 15 August 2016

A roaring debut - "Valley of Embers" by Steven Kelliher


I love an Advanced Reader Copy - and so  tore into this early release of Steven Kelliher's debut work - "Valley of Embers"


Kole Reyna is an Ember, he has realised the same latent ability that his mother had – the power to endure, control and wield fire. It makes him a formidable foe, a creature of aggression and attack.  He is not the only Ember, there are others like him (a few handfuls) in his town and through the Valley where his people the Emberfolk live. To them the Embers are the knights in shining armour (or at least armour incandescent with their own heat) who protect them from the Dark Kind.

Kole has many friends and allies who stick with him or for him through thick and (sometimes) decidedly thin. Kelliher captures the relationships well such as when two of Kole’s supporters end a discussion that in some way disappointed them both. “They parted in the soft gravel of the fishing village, sharing nothing else but the bowed heads that come from long understanding and slow regret.”

One impediment to the reader getting a grip on characters are the occasions where Kelliher introduces a large number of characters in fairly quick order – there are two or three council style meetings where that happens, including the opening scene. In such a forum it is difficult for the author to give each character a distinctive voice and that was a little off putting at the start.  Having finished the book – I did go back and re-read the opening scene again and was naturally enough able to invest far more understanding of place and person into what had been brief initial glimpses of some of the key players in the story.  I say some, for Kelliher directs a diverse cast list, men and women taking up arms in whatever means they can.

The action scenes are frequent and vibrantly described – including one extended siege to rival that of the Hornburg or Minas Tirith.  Of many minor and major characters in orbit around Kole Reyna, Captain Talmir was one I found particularly engaging.  This may be partly for his determination to be leader and protector of his people despite not having the gift of being an Ember, but partly it was because seeing his town of Hearth always through his eyes gave that element of the story a continuity of perspective and coherence that was easier to read through.

The fights are a mix of conventional and fantastic, as magic and steel seek to cut down creatures of mundane and infernal natures.  Some enemies prove as irritatingly resilient as the serial-killers from teen slasher movies (Michael Myers in Halloween for example) which lends a tension to keep the reader always on the edge of their seat.    

Kelliher has crafted an imaginative magic system and – in Kole - an intriguing hero, driven as much by a desire to focus the blurred recollections of what happened to his mother as by the need to protect his people.  The Valley of Embers and the land beyond it is a complex world, with a history that twists and turns even as the reader (and the protagonists) try to chase down what is going on. 

I did not find too many of the feared info-dumps (the kind that often masquerade as bardic retellings of past history) and that is a good thing.  However, in a story that twists sinuously and doubles back on itself as much as the passage of the river F’Rust in its subterranean caverns, it took a little while for me to become familiar with some fundamentals of the world Kelliher was describing.

An author knows their own world - all its heroes and its denizens - in such intimate detail that sometimes they can forget that each reader comes to it completely afresh knowing only as much as is presented on the page. Morsels of information that the author strews in the reader’s path may each gleam in their own perspective as brightly as the Arkenstone in a seam of coal, yet – to the untuned eye of the reader – the information is subtle or overshadowed by other events. All this is by way of saying that the story confused me a little at times. I let myself be swept along, buffeted by fragments of an epic backstory, swirling past outcrops of world building, and trying to keep hold as the story rode the raging torrent of Kole’s quest for answers and for a kind of resolution.

About a quarter of the way in, the main story lines had settled enough for me to get my bearings and to follow the entwined threads of the story within which Kole fought to evade entanglement. Like a student in an advanced maths class I was content to soak it all up – the transparent and the cryptic – in the expectation that in time all would make sense.  And on the whole it did, though I must admit there is the point in the book where one character asks “Who was that, and what was he on about?” and my kindle note simply says amen to that question.

I suppose, in part to prove I was paying attention, I feel obliged to share the understandings I have (hopefully correctly) gleaned about the world of the Valley, the rest of the world and the World Apart.  In so doing, ironically, I may find myself writing exactly the kind of info-dump that Kelliher has studiously avoided.

The Emberfolk - with their gifted Embers as principal guardians - did not always live in the Valley. They were led there from their desert home in a great diaspora after their Ember King fell before one of the six sages in the world. It is a past they have not forgotten, as one character remarks, “My father used to say that we never knew how full the desert was until we left it.”

The sages appear to have been wizards of almost godlike power and incessant warfare. Amongst them the Eastern Dark was the enemy of the emberfolk while his brother sage the White Crest was their friend and saviour who brought them into the protection of this remote valley at the southern edge of the world. 

However, the Valley was already inhabited and the assimilation of the refugee Emberfolk was not a bloodless affair.   Nonetheless, the different peoples in the valley (Rivermen, Emberfolk, Rockbled and Faey) have settled into relatively easy co-existence and intermingling with the Emberfolk in their major towns of Hearth and the Lake.  One factor in this rapprochement may have been the rising of the Dark Kind, creatures of evil, bleeding into the world of the Emberfolk from the World Apart. The World Apart is a place of demons and darkness whose boundaries with the world of the Valley weaken in the dark months allowing threats to seep in that need an Ember’s flames to destroy them (or failing that a sharp sword and a few true arrows).  

The sage known as the Eastern Dark was known to court the Dark Kind – those creatures of the World Apart – and as the story opens, concerns about a feared increase in the attacks of the Dark Kind has brought Kole and others to a council of the great and the good of the town of Lake.

There are other wielders of different kinds of magic.  The Faey appear to be a kind of rarely glimpsed elven race within the Valley who bestow through training a power of healing on the Faeykin. There are Seers, and Faeymothers, and the Rockbled.  I cannot say that I totally got the interrelationships between the different peoples and the intricacies of the magic system.  Even though the book is the first in the Landkist series I never was quite sure what it meant to be Landkist.  I guessed it might mean that one of the gifts of the land (perhaps an Ember nature) had been awakened in the person.  And that, I guess, is the for me the book’s slight weakness. A cryptic nature to its magic, its peoples and their history that did not readily unfold for me in the character action and interaction.  
Nonetheless, the story rollicks along at a good pace and it is of course, the best tradition of epic fantasy, that nothing is entirely as it seems and answers are hard to come

Monday, 25 July 2016

An Eviscerating Anthology - my spoiler free review of "Gutted" edited by Doug Murano & D. Alexander Ward

Sixteen masters and mistresses of horror writing regale us with a selection of "beautiful horror stories." That may at first seem like an oxymoron. Horror is traditionally scary, bloodcurdling, tense, shocking, in some way or other beyond the norm.  I have read various pan horror collections in my youth, none that made much of a lasting impression on me, besides the frisson of fear reading dark tales under the bedclothes. Beautiful is not the adjective of first resort when describing Horror.


But, in the selection of stories and in the writing of them, this volume shows a haunting quality, a mesmerising style.  The beauty lies not so much in the eye of the beholder as in the ear of the reader as elegant sentences and paragraphs wrap themselves around horrific cores.  A juxtaposition reflected in the stylish cover of flowers sprouting from a skeleton.

Time prevents me from reviewing all the stories and, to be fair, some worked for me better than others. But below I have written more about my five top picks.  Other readers may find different favourites, such is the nature of anthologies - and indeed of readers!

Water My Bones by Mercedes M Yardley

Those used to Miss Murder's writing will be familiar with the challenge she offers to conventions of victim and villain.  This story is again about two people, in some ways it reminds me of her piece Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu.  Again two damaged people meet, drawn into each other's gravity like a binary star system, swirling closer the one feeding off the other, the other more or less willingly giving. Nikilie is a woman much abused by those around her and - in turn - she abuses herself, fresh wounds in her flesh to match each cut the world makes in her psyche.  But then she meets Michael and everything changes.  He sees an inner beauty she did not know she had.  "That night she took a razorblade to her inner thigh, but the cuts were heartless and shallow."


Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave by Brian Kirk


It is every parent's nightmare to lose a child to abduction, but what if the child is returned years later and the restoration of what was lost is a still greater nightmare.  Kirk paints a vivid picture of a father reunited with a daughter abducted and abused long ago. It has echoes of all the real life abduction stories we have seen in the news, in some ways it reminds me of the Fritzl story in Austria. How can those freed return to a normal life, more importantly how can they find happiness after an experience that has changed and damaged them. The father in Brian Kirk's story will make many sacrifices to restore his daughter's happiness but the reader may ask - could they do as much?

On The Other Side of the Door Everything Changes by Damien Angelica Walters


Is it an accident that parenthood and horror are so akin? That having a child opens up a whole new vista of ways in which to fear the dangers of the world?  Or is it that, being a parent myself, this story and others like it strike a resonant note more so than others.  I also work in education, where everyday we have to confront another exploitation of new technology in old evils. Cyber bullying, the risks children are exposed to in the privacy of their own bedrooms, a world away from my own childhood. I've also relatively recently moved house and job dragging children in the vulnerable teenage years from their embryonic circle of friends.  For my children it has worked out well, but those experiences and anxieties made this story sing for me.  A two handed tale of child and mother, the one displaced, sullen, angry brooding with a horror she dare not share. The other, anxious - like all parents of teenage children finding that every word is the wrong word and so they stay on opposite sides of the same door trapped in a failure of communication. Beautifully written, horrifically real.

Coming to Grief by Clive Barker


As a child when I walked home from school (a school I shared with Nigel Farage - but that's an entirely different horror story) there was a lane I had to walk up Low Cross Wood Lane, it had a kink in it - a sort of chicane - which made the top half invisible from the bottom.  As a small school boy I always had a fear of what might lie unseen around that corner.  Would it be kids from the other local school waiting to beat me up - in truth I was only hit once there - but I try to remember the vulnerability of that fear when imagining what it is like to be a woman in today's world, a vulnerability that grown men cannot so easily empathise with.

There is much more in cleverness in the writing of Barker's tale than the ingeniously punning title. Miriam has returned home to tidy up the affairs of her estranged and recently deceased mother.  The antagonist in this story is the Bogey-Walk a curving lane along the edge of an old quarry that haunted her youth and still has the power to terrorise the older successful woman that the child has begun.  Besides the obvious resonance with that not-forgotten Dulwich lane - this story appealed because of the exquisite writing as Miriam picks through the bones of her relationship with her mother, rekindles an old friendship, and all the while orbits the old fears of the Bogey-walk in ever decreasing circles.

A Haunted House is a Wheel upon Which some are Broken by Paul Tremblay


Skilful evocative writing abounds throughout the anthology along with some innovative takes on the horror genre. Most innovative perhaps is Paul Tremblay's Haunted House story which took me back to a childhood of Steve Jackson scripted adventure books (anybody remember the Wizard of Firetop Mountain?) where after each page the reader had a choice to make and - depending on that choice - would turn to a different page to advance the story in a different direction. The miracle of embedded links in ebooks makes that all so much easier and the reader gets to choose how far and which route they take through a Tremblay's tale of a woman revisiting a house that scarred her childhood and still plagues her dreams