Monday, March 24, 2008

"The Malice Box", by Martin Langfield (Penguin)

Satisfying supernatural-tinged thriller from promising new author

Martin Langfield's The Malice Box was not what I was expecting. The supernatural/spiritual elements of the story took me a little by surprise, as I was expecting something more akin to a Indiana Jones-like romp. Instead, there's a lot to do with our psychic identities and some people's psychic powers, and whatnot.

This novel centres around three friends and their "entanglement" from their days back at Cambridge University together. These are Robert Reckliss, British journalist based in New York; Adam Hale, his eccentric friend; and Katherine, Robert's wife and once-girlfriend of Adam (no thriller is complete without a love-triangle of some sort). The characters are all believable (psychic-natures excepting, for some readers), and you do end up caring about them. Some times it can feel like not enough development went into creating all of them, though, and some elements might appear standard or cliched for the thriller genre.

Througout the novel, Langfield uses flash-backs a lot! This actually, is probably the only downside to this book; the author's addiction to changing timeline can sometimes be a little infuriating. I'm all for tantalising cliff-hanger endings, but sometimes it gets a little annoying, here.

But, if you're fine with these jumps back and forth through time, then The Malice Box is a very satisfying read. Set in two of my favourite places in the world, New York City and Cambridge, it had the added appeal to me because it read a little like a quide book - especially for the former. Some might be put off by this, but Langfield manages to describe each location in the city (of which Robert visits many) in a welcome, interesting way. Anecdotes about landmarks add local colour to the novel, while not detracting from the overall scavenger-hunt theme of the story. If you've been to New York before, then you will probably get more out of this novel than someone who either hasn't, or someone who has no intention of ever going. Langfield clearly loves this city, and it comes across very well in his writing.

To describe much of the story would ruin it for anyone not yet familiar with the novel. Needless to say, this is a very well written thriller, with decent pace, original ideas, likeable characters, and fluid prose. If you're looking for something light, but not trashy, then you should pick up The Malice Box. While there are better thriller writers out there (John Sandford, Kyle Mills and Vince Flynn come to mind), for a first novel, The Malice Box shows a natural skill for story-telling that bodes well for Langfield's future output. (Think a better-written, less schmaltzy James Patterson, or his earlier Alex Cross novels, if you need a reference.)
I've been unable to find any information on Mr Langfield's next novel, but I assume he will be writing one, and I am greatly looking forward to it.
A great mass-market appeal thriller. Recommended.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Revelation", by Karen Traviss (Arrow Books)

The Penultimate Volume of The Legacy Of The Force Series picks things up nicely

So, with only one book to go, we see Jacen Solo tumbling further (some would say completely) into the Dark Side, powers growing as he gives himself over to his new role as Sith Lord (there are a couple of impressive Force-displays); and Luke and the other "good-guys" presented with the choice of either supporting the Galactic Alliance (which is exhibiting more and more Empire-like tendencies and traits), or do they join, once again, the side of rebellion. Ok, so the choice is obvious, but they manage to remain irritatingly unbias, favouring neither side (especially Han and Leia, as they are wanted criminals - again).

The most important part of "Revelation" is that Ben Skywalker discovers the truth behind his mother's death, thereby cementing his place firmly in opposition to Jacen, his former teacher and most trusted friend. Though, as this is dealt with relatively quickly, Ben doesn't play much of a part in the chaotic third act of the novel. Han and Leia don't really play much of a part either - each only appearing shortly at the beginning and end of the novel. It's clear that the series is meant as a transitionary period in which we'll see the new generation of Skywalkers and Solos taking centre stage. A passing of the torch/lightsaber.

Revelation manages to avoid the slight drop off of previous volumes in the series. Since the opening two volumes, the series has suffered because each instalment can only do so much and, inevitably, some feel like fillers. With this penultimate volume, Karen Traviss has managed to avoid this very well. Her writing is (as always) tight and pulls you along with the story, focussing mainly on two different groups: Jaina Solo and Boba Fett (who continues to be the most interesting character in the series), and also Jacen Solo/Darth Caedus and his co-Chief Of State Niathal. Fett's return and also the time spent developing the Mandalorians is a welcome addition to the story, as are the revelations of his early, post-Revenge Of The Sith life.

There is one thing, though: referencing Naboo a lot will not make its importance in Episodes I-III more plausible (four times in first 30 pages).

As mentioned, the third act of the novel is chaotic - but in a good way. Jacen shows even more how brutal he can be, and also reveals his "true" identity to everyone. Let's hope "Invincible", the final instalment, by Troy Denning manages to surpass everyone's hopes, and keep this level of quality (I actually forgot to take notes while reviewing this, I was enjoying it so much).

Longer than the previous three instalments, Revelation feels like a novel in itself, rather than just number eight-of-nine. Bodes very well for the finale.

Monday, March 03, 2008

"The Race", by Richard North Patterson (MacMillan)

One of the best Political Thrillers ever written.

Just a very, very quick review, here - buy this book if you are even slightly interested in the 2008 US presidential election.

Superb plotting, deft characterisation and taut plotting. Once again, Richard North Patterson has written a near-flawless political/legal thriller, following the Republican candidate for President from the start of his campaign all the way up to the end of the primaries. Touching on contemporary political issues and debates (not to mention perhaps the most sensible explanations of conservative hot-button topics), such as abortion and inter-racial couples.

We shall have to wait and see how prescient this is - the main character is clearly modelled in part on Senator John McCain (which the author readily admits).

Truly excellent, and a welcome return to the political arena for Patterson. Buy this book!

"The Armour Of Contempt", by Dan Abnett (Black Library)

Gaunt's Tenth Outing, Still Going Very Strong
If only all of the Black Library's authors were this good... Returning in their 10th novel, Gaunt's Ghosts are dispatched back to Gereon, the blighted and occupied planet that formed the backdrop for previous novel, "Traitor General" (2005). Unlike last time, when only a select group of Ghosts were sent to the planet, this time the whole regiment is deployed, in a whole-hearted attempt to liberate the world, wiping the stain of Chaos from the region.
To begin with, however, we get a look at life on the troopships of the Imperium. Dan Abnett is one of the best authors for providing background and story that doesn't involve mayhem and carnage (though it must be said that he is also writes the most realistic battle scenes). From the perspective of all levels of Ghost. Dalin Criid (who first appeared as an orphan child in "Necropolis"), who has just come of age and is hoping to join the Ghosts as a full Imperial Guardsman, only to be deployed as a reserve, on the other side of the planet to his adopted parents Caffran and Tona Criid, which is consumed by brutal assaults; Ibram Gaunt and the other Commissars, Hark and Ludd, as they help prepare the troops and keep order both on the battlefield and during transit, and direct the Ghosts' special mission.

Usually series start to flag a little before their tenth installment, but it is a testiment to Abnett's skills as an author that he has been able to keep this series one of the best selling in the Science Fiction genre.* Couple this with his prolific work on other series as well as his work outside of the Black Library (Dr Who and Torchwood novel-tie-ins, comics, and so much more), Abnett is clearly one of the UKs leading Science Fiction and Fantasy author of this decade.

Tight prose, well-placed humour, believable action, and characters you care about, "The Armour Of Contempt" would be an excellent addition to any collection, and will happily entertain you for a few hours.

Perhaps the only negative I could think of is the ever-growing dramatis personae - there are so many names to keep on top of, sometimes, that things can get a little confusing, as you try to remember if a character's new or appeared previously.
* Because of some obscure labelling/criteria rule, all Warhammer and 40k novels are not counted in British book sales rankings, which is unfortunate, as Abnett would otherwise populate the Top 10