Wednesday, June 30, 2010

“Swords & Dark Magic”, Edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders (EOS/Harper Collins)

Reviewed by Emma Newrick & Stefan Fergus

Eagerly anticipated all-star Fantasy anthology of “The clip_image001New Swords and Sorcery”

Some of the most beloved and bestselling fantasy writers working today deliver stunning all-new sword and sorcery stories in an anthology of small stakes but high action, grim humour mixed with gritty violence, fierce monsters and fabulous treasures, and, of course, plenty of swordplay.

In Swords & Dark Magic, we have 17 short stories from a number of top-notch fantasy authors. Some are better known than others (Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, and Gene Wolfe), while others are relatively new names (Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, and James Enge). As Emma and I are interested in different authors, I decided to do something a little different for this review, and it will be split between us. You will also notice that not all the stories are reviewed – this is not because we didn’t like them or were disinterested in giving all the work in this anthology due attention. It is merely because of time considerations and the wish to focus the review a bit more. Unfair? Perhaps, but that’s just the way it goes – it took some finagling to get the book rotated between the two of us as it is. Being the pensive person I am, I also thought I’d start with a couple of comments on fantasy fiction as a whole, largely inspired by Strahan and Anders’ introduction to the anthology. (Reviews are introduced in bold, so feel free to jump ahead.)

I’m someone who only recently became a devotee of fantasy fiction: I’d read everything by Terry Pratchett (who remains my favourite author), a good deal of Black Library fantasy, a couple of Terry Brooks’ Shannara novels read at school, and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but I never became a real fan, ready to dedicate vast swathes of my youth to reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or working my way through established series by David Eddings, Steve Erikson, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, David Gemmell, and so forth.

All this changed after I read Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora three years ago. It pulled away the veil from my eyes regarding what fantasy could be: exceptionally well-written, complex, multi-layered, and so forth. It’s not all elves, dwarves and straining bodices (though, let’s be honest, that can sometimes be nice). I know now that this isn’t what a lot of fantasy fiction is about, but I could never get into Lord of the Rings, but this was the impression and reputation a lot of it had. I’m so glad I am better informed, now.

There’s ‘epic fantasy’, ‘urban fantasy’, and the ‘sword and sorcery’ of this anthology. Without knowing it, I became a considerable fan of this latter genre, preferring it to the epic battles of Tolkien and his successors – perhaps as an outgrowth of my appreciation of computer games like Diablo and Bill King’s adventures of Gotrek & Felix, both of which are basically swords and sorcery. Books that are made up of giant battle set-pieces were, for me, boring. I wanted to know what was going on with the individuals; their motives, agendas, prejudices, and so on. I had an impression of there being a clear-cut divide between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘light’ and ‘dark’. Now I know that there’s a lot more going on in fantasy, and I seem to have got in right at the time when this new appreciation of sword and sorcery was really about to take off.

As editors Strahan and Anders describe it, sword and sorcery is “where fantasy meets the western”, with an emphasis on travelling heroes and their unexpected conflicts and adventures. It is a genre of

“Smaller-scale character pieces, often starring morally compromised protagonists, whose heroism involves little more than trying to save their own skins from a trap they themselves blundered into in search of spoils.”

In other words, it’s perfect for my own preferences. The introduction, amusingly titled “Check Your Dark Lord at the Door”, provides an interesting mini-history of the genre, as well as a number of suggestions of further reading.

From the moment I finished Locke Lamora (and its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies), I’ve not been able to stop, as the reviews on this blog will testify to – my reading habits now veer ever more towards fantasy (interestingly, though, not so much sci-fi, except for Star Wars), and names like Daniel Abraham, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Col Buchanan, Kevin J Anderson, and a growing number of others are now more interesting to me than some others that used to be my preferred reading. I spend more time browsing the Sci-Fi/Fantasy sections of bookstores than I do the Crime/Thriller departments, and get an unseemly amount of satisfaction when I make a new discovery (this now also comes in the form of surprise packages from publishers, which can be doubly-satisfying).

True, I’m still addicted to American political thrillers (again, plenty of the reviews on this site will attest to that), but it’s now about even. Perhaps this is a result of my ‘day job’ (US foreign policy PhD and teaching international relations theory and history), which makes me want to escape the real world all the more. But, most likely, it is the growing appreciation of what fantasy has to offer, the complexities of the characters and the quality of the writing and stories.

There are plenty of great authors I’ve never read; some are included in this anthology (Moorcock, Wolfe, Cook, Steven Erikson, and Robert Silverberg), while other titans of the genre have also, thus far, been ‘ignored’; the aforementioned Martin being the the greatest omission to date (I’ve bought the first volume in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I just simply haven’t had the time).

Therefore, I think this anthology’s greatest strength is that it can serve as an introduction to some of the best authors currently writing in the genre. The stories within come from established authors and new-blood, offering us an entry-level glimpse of their work and writing-styles. You won’t necessarily like everything in here: some you’ll love, some you’ll be indifferent to, and some will probably just not be to your taste. But, if you only like one story, then you’ll have been introduced to a potentially endless wealth of fiction to enjoy. How to approach the book was another issue: do I start at the beginning and work my way through to the end? Or, do I read the ones I really want to read first, and then delve into the unknown authors’ work? As it turned out, it was the latter approach that won out. For authors I am not familiar with, my comments will also look at whether or not the stories make me want to seek out more by the writer.

So, in no particular order, here are a few impressions of the stories contained in Swords & Dark Magic:

“Goats of Glory”, by Steven Erikson

Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series is one of those great fantasy series that seems to demand reading. Thus far, however, I’ve not bought or read a single one. So, I was looking forward to reading Goats of Glory in order to get a taste of his writing. He has a good writing style, and includes smattering of cheeky, dark wit. The story highlights the grim medieval-style life of his world. A horde of ravenous demons in an isolated keep, a trap and complicit villagers… There was an unexpected, interesting, and satisfying twist to the tale, which made my initial disappointment at guessing what would happen less of an issue. The location of the keep lends itself well to pathetic fallacy, but the author avoided that. I enjoyed the story, but I wasn’t blown away, and was only marginally successful at generating my interest in reading more of Erikson’s stuff (although, Waterstone’s have a special offer on omnibus eBooks, so I might end up buying one to try). That being said, it’s one of the better-written stories of the anthology, so I’d recommend reading it.


“Tides Elba”, by Glen Cook

This is a story of Cook’s most successful and established series, detailing the exploits of The Black Company. Yet another series I’ve intended on reading for ages but never got around to, this was a promising and welcome addition to the anthology. Having never read anything else by Cook, however, I felt a little bit like someone arriving late to a party: the characters have a familiar, established feel to them, with plenty of banter, but I feel like I’ve missed something. Croaker (the narrator of the piece) is charged with investigating Tides Elba, a woman of interest to the higher ups. It’s very well written (if a tad slow), and the series has been on my wish-list for a long time, so I probably will check out more in the future, time permitting. I did laugh out loud at one point, which gets Cook points, and the themes involved were classic and the plot well-constructed and executed.


“Bloodsport”, by Gene Wolfe

The first bit of Wolfe’s work I’ve ever read, and it wasn’t nearly as good as he’s made out to be. An old knight recounts his days as a player in ‘The Game’, which appears to be something akin to real-life chess. After his lands are invaded, he also recounts how he and a ‘pawn’ used their skills to help their beleaguered countrymen. Again, it’s an interesting story, but it’s not entirely gripping, and as one of the shortest, can’t be considered more than a fleeting distraction. I didn’t come to care too much about the characters, which was a pity. I think I’ll probably check out his better-known work at some point, though.


“The Singing Spear”, by James Enge

I’ve been hesitating for a while about buying Enge’s debut novel, Blood of Ambrose, so I was interested to see if this story would convince me. The protagonist is Morlock Ambrosius, the anti-hero of Enge’s short and long fiction. Ambrosius is approached by a stranger to help recover a weapon of his creation, which, in the hands of a pirate, is cutting a bloody ruin through the local region.

The story is extremely quick, and the writing is actually excellent, but I’m not sure about the character. Sometimes he’s focussed and brilliant, at other times, little more than a buffoon... I’m not sure what I would make of a novel-length story featuring this character, but I know now that I am willing to give it a try. Enge’s writing is really very good – great use of language and the flow of his prose is exceptional. (I have now ordered a copy of Blood of Ambrose, so I’ll hopefully be able to offer a review of that soon.)


“The Sea Troll’s Daughter”, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Parallels with Beowulf. A stranger comes to an Icelandic world, claiming to have killed the Sea Troll that has plagued the people of a village. The villagers do not believe her, until the sea troll’s body washes up on the shore. The corpse is dragged back and displayed in the village. A witch arrives and condemns the killing, and predicts it will be followed by judgement. “Beware the sea troll’s daughter,” the witch warns.

Laughing off the warning, the stranger ignores the witch. After a devastating event, the stranger and her lover flee from the village and are confronted by the sea troll’s daughter.

The tale is really dark and unsympathetic towards the human characters, offering a different perspective of a traditional monster. The heroine is very much an anti-heroine, and is not admirable: she’s arrogant, a drunk, and ignoble. Sparse prose, but Kiernan achieves the goals of the story – in a short space, she presents a complete, satisfying-yet-disturbing tale.


“A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet”

by Garth Nix

The injured Sir Hereward is convalescing at a religious retreat, while his companion – the Sorcerous Puppet of the title – continues their quest. His seemingly innocent choice of reading material, coupled with his desire to find a suitable present for the Puppet, results in a demonic encounter that will test both the knight and his companion.

I would say that this is not the best introduction to Nix’s writing, as it has a definitely different: it has a much more fantasy feel than his best known work, the Sabriel series, which even though it is set in a fantasy world, deals with its protagonists and plot in a very grounded manner. This leans far more towards classic fantasy – strange names, strange entities, and it’s hard to identify with the characters. I was intrigued, but spent most of the story being suspicious of the Puppet, which was not really the point of the story. The world is well-crafted, and it would be nice to know more about Hereward and the Puppet – perhaps in further short stories.

It’s good, but – and it pains me to say so, given how much I’ve enjoyed all his other work – the story is not up to Nix’s usual standard.


“A Rich Full Week”, by K.J. Parker

This was the story that took me most by surprise. I’ve read a couple of Parker’s novels, and always been impressed by the invention and imagination that goes into them, but disappointed by the author’s pacing (usually, rather slow). So, what would a Parker short story be like? As it turns out, pretty great. The pacing is still slower than it could have been – partly because of Parker’s love for detail – but again I am impressed by the author’s imagination.

The story is about a travelling wizard, sent off to various locales to fix problems – all of which turn out to be connected. The first is great, and amounts to, effectively, a therapy session with a zombie that the wizard is meant to be killing (such an odd situation, but Parker pulls it off brilliantly). What follows is an account of the wizards other job, and some more information about the world in which it is set, and the magic system the author’s created for the piece.

I really enjoyed this story, and I’ve decided to move Parker’s newest novel. The Folding Knife, up the review order. Expect it to be reviewed pretty soon.


“In The Stacks”, by Scott Lynch

If I’m perfectly honest, this story is the reason I bought the anthology in the first place. As mentioned in the intro to this piece, I’m a huge fan of Lynch’s work, so I was eager to read this latest published work by him (it’s been a while since Red Seas…).

Two wizards must get their fifth year progression exam complete. Their task? To return a library book…

The style is recognisably his – a quirky wit, realistic dialogue and fun characters. The setting is interesting, and perhaps tinged with a slight homage to Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University library (a lot about Lynch’s library reminded me of the Discworld’s most famous and dangerous library – but for Lynch, it’s the library itself that has developed a self, a character that isn’t keen on books being removed). There are some interesting and original – not to mention potentially frightening – denizens of the library, which add a level of danger to the students’ exploits. The ending is fine, if a touch anticlimactic.

It’s a really fun story, with great characters, and I would certainly be interested in reading more in this setting. It has moderately slaked my thirst for more of Lynch’s writing, so I remain eager for the delayed release of The Republic of Thieves.


“The Fool Jobs”, by Joe Abercrombie

A band of mercenaries have been hired to retrieve a “thing... about yay long... know it when you see it, type of thing”, from a little “confirmed shithole” village. I do love Abercrombie’s writing - I must get ’round to finishing the First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold (all on my shelf, in their gorgeously-designed print editions). Perhaps after a short string of non-fantasy reviews I’ll devote a few weeks to reading all his books.

“There was a long, ugly pause. Uglier than the child of a man and a sheep, as the hillmen have it.”

Filled with the trademark banter that has come to define the relations between his characters, the less-than-cordial bunch go about their mission with focus and a plan, hoping to just sneak in and out again, without any blood-letting. Naturally, it all goes belly up, falls apart, and the situation gets decidedly sticky.

I felt almost immediately at home with the less-than-pleasant, motley bunch, and laughed out loud a number of times. The writing is crisp and quick, the plot made interesting and satisfying, even though it’s so short.

This was the perfect story to finish the collection. If, after reading it, you don’t feel an urge run out to buy his novels (or, as it’s the 21st Century, order it online), then there’s probably something rather wrong with you. Brilliant.


While all these stories have elements to recommend them (and some more than others), I’m reminded again why I tend not to read too many short stories: the lack of character development and progression. While this isn’t so much a problem for those stories set in established worlds, the stories were often slightly-less-than-satisfying. The stories in here, it could be said, suffer the opposite problem to that of many fantasy series and novels, which can sometimes be overly long and tautologous. That being said, some were good enough to recommend further reading, which is ultimately what I was hoping for. In the case of Glen Cook, for example, I now what to read more about the Black Company, because they had the feel of an interesting and complex bunch, but didn’t have enough space to prove it.

I’m not sure if these reviews can really do the stories justice – it’s a lot harder to review short stories than full-length novels, mainly because the possibility of spoiling the story is so much greater. I really wanted to avoid this, which is why these reviews are in such bite-size nuggets.

If you’re looking for an introduction to the genre, however, I think Swords & Dark Magic would be perfect. Some fun, action-packed stories, some more intrigue-related, but all interesting and worth checking out. If nothing else, you could always read one or two of these stories while deciding on what to read next (which is partly what I did). If I get a chance, I’ll come back to this anthology and review the rest of the stories within.

Recommended reading.

Also Try: Warriors anthology, edited by George R.R. Martin (2010)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

“A Princess of Landover”, by Terry Brooks (Orbit)

Reviewed by Shevaun FergusUntitled-1

Brooks returns to his lighter fantasy series, with mixed results

Princess Mistaya Holiday hasn’t been fitting in too well at Carrington Women’s Preparatory. People don’t seem to appreciate her using her magic to settle matters in the human world. So when she summons a dragon to teach a lesson to the snotty school bully, she finds herself suspended.

But Mistaya couldn’t care less – she wants nothing more than to continue her studies under Questor the court magician, and Abernathy the court scribe. However, her father Ben Holiday, the King of Landover, has rather different plans in mind for her. He thinks he’ll teach her about perseverance and compromise by sending her to renovate Libiris, the long-abandoned royal library. How horribly dull.

But before long, Mistaya will long for the boredom of cataloguing an unfeasible number of derelict books – for deep within the library there lies a secret so dangerous that it threatens the future of Landover itself...

As a big fan of Terry Brooks’ Shannara saga and The Word and the Void, I loved the previous books in the Magic Kingdom series, and have been eagerly looking forward to the next instalment. 

The story joins Mistaya, daughter of former lawyer, and current King of Landover, Ben Holiday and Willow the wood nymph, as she reaches fifteen and is trying to find her own place in both the human world of her father and the magical kingdom of her birth.  Over the course of some very human teenage rebellion she encounters new friends and enemies, and has the support of many familiar faces along the way.

Not as dark as other books by Brooks, this novel is a fun read, and anyone who enjoyed the previous novels should enjoy revisiting the Magic Kingdom of Landover. However, the overall feel was that of a “filler” novel, one that was written to pave the way for a later story the author had in mind, but had to close some gaps first to get there.

It was not a total disappointment, by any means, but it lacked the richness of detail and background we have grown accustomed to, and the ending felt a bit too easy compared to others in the series.

I can only hope that I am right, and that this will be followed by the kind of epic adventure we have come to expect from the very talented Mr. Brooks.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

“Redemption Corps”, by Rob Sanders (Black Library)

Sanders-RedemptionCorpsThe latest in the Imperial Guard series of science fiction action/war novels

Led by the fearsome Major Mortensen, the Redemption Corps is a regiment of ultra-tough storm troopers sent to the deadliest warzones on missions of mercy and destruction. But when Mortensen comes to the attention of the deadly sorority of the Battle Sisters, he not only has an ork invasion to contend with but these fearsome warrior-fanatics too.

Caught between the xenos and the fury of the Imperium, can the Redemption Corps fulfil their mission as well as survive their own side?

This is the first novel in the Imperial Guard series that I’ve read, and I am rather impressed. My initial, less-than-eloquent thought as I read the introduction was “Damn, this is good”, and that impression remained with me throughout the novel.

The Volscians, the overall regiment Mortensen and new cadet-commissar Krieg are attached to, are a rough bunch: lots of home-world hive-gang loyalties remain, undermining protocol and sometimes peace/unit cohesion on the transport ships. Krieg’s introduction to his unit (and Mortensen’s) adds yet more colour to the portrayal of life and service in the Imperial Army. Krieg is sent to join the regiment to do “The Emperor’s work... slowly”; because of their entrenched loyalties, biases and proclivities, the Volscians are unlikely to accept any thing buts “change, at a pace”. A slow one, much to Krieg’s annoyance. We meet Mortensen, already attached to the Volscians, when he is ordered to put down a bloody mutiny. (If this chapter doesn’t make you respect the Redemption Corps, then nothing will – simply put, they are harder as nails.)

Redemption Corps embodies the aesthetic and atmosphere of the Warhammer 40,000 universe perfectly: grim, dangerous, gritty, and violent; populated by a vast, diverse and colourful cast of characters – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the in-between. None of them is from central casting, all are slightly (or largely) flawed, fallible and three-dimensional (even the emotion-stripped co-pilot of Rosencrantz’s ship feels more realistic than characters I’ve read in more hyped and ‘respectable’ fiction). The dialogue is crisp and clipped, avoiding cliché and always realistic.

Sanders has a gift for making both the macro- and micro-scale of life in this grim future feel intense and gripping. When Mortensen’s looking out over a city at war, or when his storm troopers are fighting through the corridors of a transport ship, or the streets of the city, you get a sense of the atmosphere, the scale of devastation or intimate tension. The action, which comes at you from almost the beginning of the novel, is fast and furious, bloody and in-your-face.

Occasionally succumbing to the temptation of including a textual flourish (sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t), Sanders is a confident writer whose prose  is quick-paced and he’s able to draw the reader along with the story (it was very difficult to put this novel down). His prose is very well crafted, often minimalist, but able to convey a great deal – painting just the picture he wants us to see, without over-describing or adding extraneous wordage and exposition. After dealing with the mutiny aboard the Deliverance, for example, Sanders’ description of the recuperating Major Mortensen is pithy:

“Leaning forward he put his head between his knees, the sickening tang of adrenaline subsiding, and slowly bled.”

Sometimes the description is a little over-done, but mostly the author manages to bring the universe to life on the page. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you can ‘smell the cordite’ and ‘hear the gunshots’ (I’m British, after all, and not overly prone to hyperbole), but he gets pretty close. The Warhammer 40k universe offers near endless, colourful possibilities for imaginative world-building, and Sanders does a great job with each of the worlds his characters visit: Illium, the Mechanicus world, is a hive of industrial sectors and areas devoted to the worship of the Omnissiah (the ‘Machine God’) – vast, choking, awe-inspiring edifices cover the world, every inch developed and put to use by this or that fabricator. Ishtar is the polar opposite - a “deathworld”, where every bit of flora and fauna is deadly (even some geological formations, including “cryogenic swamplands” and flensing glass forests). Both of these worlds, as well as a couple of others mentioned in the novel, are vividly realised, and Sanders is able to really give us a sense of what it would be like to be there. His descriptions of Ishtar and the ordeals of his characters there are particularly vivid.

Sanders includes some interesting and refreshing, classic-40k elements, in a measured-reveal towards the end of the novel (I wasn’t expecting it, so I shall also not spoil it here). It feels like an age since a Black Library novel featured these antagonists – the focus now seems to be mainly the grand, Imperial-Chaos struggle (no bad thing, of course: the Horus Heresy and Gaunt’s Ghosts series remain my favourite Black Library novels).

Highly recommended for fans of military science-fiction, and certainly all fans of Warhammer 40,000 and other Black Library releases. Redemption Corps is a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction war novel.

For fans of: Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghost series, James Swallow’s Faith and Fire (2006), Graham McNeill, Sandy Mitchell, Andy Remic, Simon Spurrier

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Paperback Release: “Abyss”, by Troy Denning (Arrow)


Third in the latest series released in Mass Market Paperback, June 29th

With the paperback release of Troy Denning’s Fate of the Jedi: Abyss, I thought I’d just post a quick link to my earlier review, rather than post the whole thing again. With a slightly darker feel to it, Abyss is a good addition to the Fate of the Jedi series, with the Lost Tribe of the Sith playing a bigger part in the plot and Vestara (an integral character in both Backlash and Allies) starts to feature more. Here’s the synopsis of the novel:

Luke and Ben Skywalker arrive in the mysterious part of space called The Maw in search of more clues as to what caused Jacen Solo’s downfall into the dark side.

They are not, however, the only ones exploring The Maw: a Sith Master and her apprentice arrive there, too, having followed the delinquent ancient Sith ship found by Ben in The Legacy of the Force – and they’re thrilled to find Luke there, because they are determined to kill him.

But there’s another powerful being hiding in The Maw. It's enormously strong, purely evil, and it has its own plans for Luke Skywalker...

As just a taste of what I thought the first time around, here are a couple of paragraphs from the review with my overall impressions of the novel:

“Denning’s prose are fluid and tightly-written, the plotting is very fast-paced (I read this book very quickly indeed), with a healthy balance between action, occasional wit, and ever-more detail of the Star Wars universe and those who inhabit it. I would have preferred if the plot and series as a whole were more focused on Luke and Ben’s journey, as I believe all three writers for this series have managed to create and maintain an interesting dynamic between father and son hitherto unexplored in much detail. It’s clear that Ben is going to be a major (if not the major) character in the future, so it would make sense to develop him further…”

“Sci-fi action in the classic style we’ve come to love and expect from the Star Wars brand, mixed with a greater attention to the political and philosophical (though without becoming pretentious or Trek-y)…”

So, if you’d like to read the rest of the review, you can find it here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

“Sword of Justice”, by Chris Wraight (Black Library)


The First in a new Black Library series, focussing on the Emperor’s Champion

Fresh from the slaughter of the Emperor’s enemies in the north, Ludwig Schwarzhelm, Emperor’s Champion, is sent to Averland to oversee the inauguration of a new elector count.

Beset by orcs, and hampered on all sides by the ambitions of rival magnates, he is soon fighting to keep the fractious province together. But the rot runs deep. Powerful forces in Altdorf seem determined to see him fail, and suspicion falls on even his most trusted allies.

When all is at its bleakest, the mark of Chaos and the full horror of his task is finally revealed. Alone, doubted by those closest to him, this will be Schwarzhelm’s greatest ever challenge, one on which the destiny of the Empire itself depends.

This is the first in the Black Library’s Warhammer Heroes series, which aims to shine a spotlight on key figures in the Warhammer world. The blurb from the back of the book describes the aim of the series best:

These are lands divided by bitter strife and deadly conflict, where nations and races wage countless wars upon each other. In such a world, the balance of power depends upon the acts of individuals – upon the deeds of Heroes.

I must admit that I came to this novel expecting something a little different: I had hoped it would be Schwarzhelm’s story; how he came to be Emperor’s Champion, his rise through the ranks, and so forth. Instead, it seems to be a story about Schwarzhelm. Not at all a problem, as the novel quickly became entertaining, and I forgot my initial, slight disappointment.

The novel opens with a decent battle, if very detailed, and perhaps a tad over-long. At first, it was not entirely apparent to me why it was there, other than to start the novel with an account of grim battle. It does the trick of starting our introductions to three key characters for the rest of the novel: Schwarzhelm himself in a small way; Verstohlen, Schawarzhelm’s personal aide and agent; and Markus Bloch, the new recruit and addition to ‘the family’, the Champion’s retinue. I know what the author was trying to do with this battle, but I think the scenes that followed were much better at conveying the personalities of Schwarzhelm, Bloch and Verstohlen (the last of whom I warmed to almost immediately: enigmatic, mysterious, driven and devious, he came across as a more complex character, with more potential and to offer the reader in the future).

After Schwarzhelm returns to Altdorf, we get a nice description of the Imperial Palace: an "architectural mess" where "ceaseless scheming" takes place. The pomp and ceremony of the victory march (complete with a couple of wry jabs at bureaucracy) is another example of Wraights over-describing. What follows is more important and revealing of Schwarzhelm’s character than the opening battle (which didn’t actually feature Schwarzhelm that much), as the Emperor orders a war-master to get involved in the mud of “high politics”: the election of an Elector Count, specifically in Averland. He’s really not very happy about it, and Wraight does a brilliant job of showing us his frustration and anger at the whole enterprise.

Sword of Justice effectively becomes two novels after Schwarzhelm takes his retinue to Averland: the first focussing on the election, the second focussing on the army’s battles with a horde of rampaging Orcs. The first is certainly closer to my own tastes in fantasy fiction (I’m particularly fond of politics, conspiracy and intrigue), and as a result I found Verstohlen’s investigations in the city engaging and gripping. The other focus, with Bloch as the central character (joined later by Schwarzhelm), was also very good, if just a bit repetitive – unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get excited about repeated set-piece battle scenes. I think the only author who’s managed to balance story with battles well enough to keep me hooked throughout an entire novel (well, an entire, long series to be honest) is Bernard Cornwell. In all fairness, however, Wraight manages to balance the amount of time spent at each location well, so you’re never left wondering for pages when Bloch will stop swinging his halberd or chopping down an orc… Also, when Schwarzhelm joins the fight, there’s a little more inter-battle scenes, as they discuss the events in Averheim and the spiralling violence surrounding the election.

Schwarzhelm’s relationship and competition with Reiksguard Marshal, Kurt Helborg, is an interesting facet to the storyline, and portends good things for the future of the series. The two champions have completely different styles, characters and approaches to life and war, and the result is a strained respect tinged with a healthy amount of animosity – though Schwarzhelm does seem to be the more jealous and suspicious of the two. One of the central questions of Sword of Justice seems to be whether Schwarzhelm is still capable of being the Emperor’s Champion, or if he is too elderly, past victories propping up his reputation and hiding the fact that he might not be capable of such feats again. His short contribution to the campaign against the greenskins seems to suggest otherwise, as does the final set-battle in Averheim.

Speaking of the climax in Averheim; I found it a little muddled. It was fast-paced, mimicking the ferocity and speed of the conflict, but it seemed to be slightly jumbled. Some of it wasn’t clear, explained too late, and in some ways not sufficiently explained.

Overall, this novel exceeded my expectations and was enjoyable, if inconsistent. If I had one criticism, it would be that Wraight sometimes gives in to a little too much detail and description, which slows the pace of the novel – which, on the whole, is very good and engrossing. If he could find the correct balance of description and pacing, then his novels would easily become some of the best published by Black Library.

Sword of Justice’s mix of intrigue, conspiracy, and frequent gritty battle scenes offers something for all fans of fantasy fiction, and should certainly appeal to fans of other Warhammer fiction. It might also convert some new readers to other novels in the same setting. A solid start to the Warhammer Heroes series. Recommended.

Also try: Black Library’s Time of Legends series; Dan Abnett, Hammers of Ulric

Thursday, June 17, 2010

“Allies”, by Christie Golden (Century)


The Fate of the Jedi continues, with a most peculiar alliance…

What began as a quest for truth has become a struggle for survival for Luke Skywalker and his son, Ben. They have used the secrets of the Mindwalkers to transcend their own bodies and speak with the spirits of the fallen, risking their very lives in the process. They have faced a team of Sith assassins and destroyed them, but the sole survivor, apprentice Vestara Khai, has summoned a fleet of Sith frigates to engage the embattled Skywalkers. An unprecedented proposition brings Jedi and Sith together in an alliance against an evil even more ancient and alien.

While the Skywalkers and their Sith allies set off on their joint mission into the treacherous Maw region, Han and Leia Solo risk arrest and worse to aid the Jedi imprisoned back on Coruscant. Chief of State Natasi Daala has issued orders that will open a permanent schism between her government and the Jedi Order — a schism that could turn all Jedi into renegades and wanted criminals.

In the depths of the Maw the future of the galaxy will be decided. There, the Skywalkers and their Sith allies will come face-to-face with a staggering truth.

After Aaron Allston’s brilliant Backlash, there was a lot riding on Allies to maintain the quality and momentum of a series that was finally hitting its stride. I should say, right off the bat, that thus-far Golden’s contributions to the Star Wars series have not been my favourites. She has a style and approach that feels very different to that of Allston or Troy Denning. It’s not that she’s a bad writer – far from it: I have devoured all of her novels in the series just as I have other authors’. My main concern has been her propensity for schmaltz and a slightly higher tolerance for cheesy scenes (though, in fairness, Denning is not entirely immune to these, either). Nonetheless, Allies was an enjoyable read, with only a couple of things I thought I’d pick up on.

Luke Skywalker had a different feel in this novel. Where before he is highly analytical and cautious (occasionally to his detriment), he comes across as extremely hostile and cold in Allies. True, as the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, he’s not exactly going to be bosom-buddies with a flotilla comprised of an ancient Sith Tribe. Despite this, however, he lacks the caution and even-handedness that characterised his approach to pretty much everything in most, if not all, Star Wars novels that have come before Allies. In some ways, in fact, he acts like a Sith towards his less-than-ideal allies, at one points stating “Compassion is for those who deserve it”, after the accidental death of a handful of Sith. He does, however, voice his overall concerns succinctly and logically:

“We don’t know these Sith. We don’t know what motivates them, or what their game is, or why they’ve really chosen to ally with me. I know what they’ve said, but that shouldn’t be regarded as anything even in the vicinity of the truth.”

[The series of e-novellas by John Jackson Miller are a way for the reader to get to know the Lost Tribe of the Sith. All are available free from various sources, including and the Sony eBook store]

Since taking a more philosophical look at the Force over recent sequences, I must say the Jedi on Coruscant are starting to come across as rather feckless and effectively useless. They sit there as Daala tightens her noose, impotently discussing what to do, while the world outside moves forward without them. Daala is without doubt starting to repeat the mistakes of her predecessors, over-reacting on a rather weak premise (something I mentioned in previous reviews), and I was very frustrated with Kenth Hamner – the Master chosen to replace Luke while he was exiled. I remember him being a quiet, but forceful presence in the novels, and not the dithering incompetent he’s portrayed as here. Bureaucracy, apparently, is the scourge of Jedi just as it is of mere mortals…

It’s perfectly possible that I’m reading too much into it, but these are two things that really jumped out at me.

Ben Skywalker, on the other hand, seems to be getting rounded out even more as a character – his attraction to Vestara is interesting and adds some internal conflict that he’s not entirely capable of controlling all the time. I would not be surprised if he starts to be a more central character in future novels, as Luke (maybe) is slowly retired?

One new thread to the series is the issue of slavery in the Star Wars galaxy. At first it seems a non sequitur, not particularly relevant to the main thread of the story. Two-thirds of the way in, Lando and Jaina are thrown into a situation that might prove pivotal, but I was disappointed by the rather clunky approach, and it felt a little forced into the plot. It’s not a bad few chapters, by any means, it just didn’t quite fit in as well as other events of the series. Whether or not this will translate into something more important and/or profound in future volumes… well, we’ll just have to wait and see, but it does look like events on Blaudu Sextus will become important.

One thing that cannot be denied is the quality and pace of Golden’s prose – you can easily burn through pages and chapters of any Star Wars novels (with very few exceptions), and the author has done a good job of keeping the pace throughout. With Allies, Golden has stepped up her game, and the main series thread (surrounding Luke and Ben) has really kicked off, with a number of possibilities for the future – all of which promise good things.

While this review might give you the impression that I leaned towards not liking the novel, this is certainly not the case. The issues I describe above are there, and the reason I focussed on them was because I’ve written a number of Star Wars reviews now that don’t really mention short-comings of the novels (I’m usually too busy being swept up in the story to really notice anything I didn’t like as much). One truth about the vast majority of Star Wars novels is that they are fun and fast-paced adventures; the worlds and characters are familiar through the movies, the action frequent and not over-done, and the plotting is well thought out and gripping. I like that space dogfights are less prominent, now, as the New Jedi Order series was over-stuffed with them (there are only a couple of ways to write them, if we’re honest) – this allows for more options for action, intrigue and plotting.

The Fate of the Jedi series has been very good at meeting and even exceeding expectations – particularly in the paths it takes. There have been many surprises along the way, and they’ve all been interesting and engaging sci-fi action adventures.

Recommended, this is top-notch science-fiction.

Series Chronology: Outcast, Omen, Abyss, Backlash, Allies, Vortex, Conviction, Ascension, [Book 9 Title TBC]

Monday, June 14, 2010

“Enforcer”, by Matthew Farrer (Black Library)


The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus

The Adeptus Arbites are responsible for enforcing Imperial Law across the Imperium. Enforcer Shira Calpurnia is a newly assigned officer to the Hydraphur division, charged with maintaining a tough line on law and order in the system. Home to Imperial warfleets which dock, rearm and repair in a neverending cycle of conflict, in this violent and corrupt sector of space. Calpurnia's duty is to protect the innocent and punish the guilty… With extreme prejudice.

Crossfire: Calpurnia is a newly-appointed Arbites officer. But she soon finds herself investigating a series of assassination attempts at the dockyards. With so much at stake, she must unravel a mystery that goes to the heart of Hydraphur’s elite.

Legacy: Calpurnia is appointed to protect an ancient trading charter; a document highly-prized by a number of potential heirs willing to go to any lengths to obtain it. Calpurnia and her fellow Arbites must don their armour and fight, to ensure the charter ends up in its rightful place.

Blind: When a telepath is killed, Calpurnia faces suspicion and mistrust from his disturbed fellows, as her investigation takes her deep into a deadly conspiracy. In a hostile environment, and dogged by her new ‘minder’, can she solve her most difficult case yet and ensure Imperial law is restored?

Collecting Farrer’s three Calpurnia novels, along with a new introduction and ‘dossiers’ for each novel, Enforcer is a excellently-priced omnibus. I read these three novels when they first came out, so it was nice to re-visit the series.

Different from Black Library’s usual output, the novels are more crime investigations in a gothic sci-fi setting than proper tales of war and fierce battles. Some might find the pacing a little slow (even I did at times), or the premise not what they were expecting or to their taste, but I really welcomed the different approach to the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Shira Calpurnia is an interesting, strong (if short) lead character, and one you will grow closer to as the novels unfold – we only really get to know her slowly, as Farrer reveals her background at a leisurely pace. With the Adeptus Arbites (the police force of the Imperium) as the central focus of the novels, we are taken away from the front lines of battle, and brought into the cities of the Imperium and all the intrigue, politicking and plotting that typifies life within them. It made a nice change, one that Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn and Ravenor series also provided. The added information about how the Imperium works was, for me, a big draw.

The greatest strength of the novels, however, is that they were the first to really delve into how the Imperium actually worked, rather than just how it made war. Crossfire is particularly strong; more about human nature and its failings than inter-species, intergalactic war, well suited to introducing us to the Imperium and how day-to-day society works within it. Legacy is also good, giving us more information and background on the Rogue Traders and how their strata of society works – some have complained that Calpurnia didn’t feature enough in this novel, which is a fair complaint, but ultimately there was enough intrigue and dynastic politics to keep it interesting. Blind is a little different, adding to our understanding of the lives and operations of the blind psykers, the astropaths, with a more interesting antagonist and premise – to add to her problems, Calpurnia is also awaiting trial for a misstep, postponed so she can help solve the murder of a psyker.

Farrer’s prose are well-crafted, and the plots unravel at a good pace, always giving us just enough to draw us along, and he is adept at bringing the worlds and Imperial citizens (loyal or otherwise) to life, as well as describing the lives of the multiple strata of Imperial society.

Even though I enjoyed these novels, I must admit that if I had to choose something in the 40k setting, I would probably still opt for anything by Abnett, Graham McNeill or something in the Horus Heresy series. It’s not that Enforcer isn’t worth reading, it’s just not what many people will want from a 40k novel. The dossiers included for each novel are a pretty nifty inclusion, offering something more to enhance the novel you’ve just read. The most recent novels from the Black Library that have the most similar feel to these are Sandy Mitchell’s Inquisitor novels, Scourge the Heretic and Innocence Proves Nothing.

Enforcer is recommended to anyone who loves the setting, but wants something a little different while still identifiable as Warhammer 40k. That being said, Farrer writes some good sci-fi here, so even if you’re not familiar with the universe, or haven’t read anything from Black Library, then this could be an interesting introduction.

(As with all Black Library omnibuses, Enforcer is also priced very well – three novels, with bonus content, for just £11? Bargain.)


“Star Wars: Legacy” Vol.1-5 (Dark Horse)

The Saga of the Skywalkers continues, and once again the future of the Galaxy hangs in the balance…SW-Legacy-1-3

Broken: The Jedi Temple is attacked, and a hero falls; an Emperor is betrayed, but perseveres; and the Sith are born anew, in greater number and deadlier…

Shards: Cade Skywalker returns to the place of his father's last stand against the Sith and finds far more than ghosts… The story of how the Empire joined forces with the Sith to defeat the Galactic Alliance, only to have Darth Krayt and his legion of followers usurp ultimate power for themselves. Follow the fate of an Empire divided, with battles pitting stormtrooper against stormtrooper, and Sith assassins bent on taking the life of deposed Emperor Roan Fel.

Claws of the Dragon: Cade Skywalker is captured by the Sith. Emperor Darth Krayt unveils his true identity, and a secret chapter in the life of Obi-Wan Kenobi is revealed. When Cade attempts to rescue the Jedi he turned over to the Sith during his days as a bounty hunter, the last Skywalker soon finds himself in the clutches of Krayt. There, Cade must confront his past and decide once and for all: will he remain the Emperor’s prisoner or become his thrall? Learn whether the Skywalker line lives up to the triumph of Luke or returns to the tragedy of Anakin…

Story: John Ostrander & Jan Duursema

Artwork: Jan Duursema, Adam DeKraker, Travel Foreman, Colin Wilson

Ink/Colours: Dan Parsons, Brad Anderson, Ronda Pattison,

Letters: Michael David Thomas, Michael Heisler

I’ve been tempted by this series of graphic novels for quite some time. When I finally managed to get hold of the first book, Broken, I read it pretty fast. Ostander’s writing is good, the plot rattles along at a fair clip, and for the most part, the artwork is pretty great (there are the occasional bits where the style is not my preferred, but it still does the trick). Brilliantly bringing to life the future of the Star Wars Universe, Legacy adds some more layers to the Skywalker clan mythos. There are plenty of references to events of the films and novels, and plenty of homages in the form of snippets of dialogue that could have been transposed straight from the movies.

Cade Skywalker, the last in the line, is very different from what one might expect. Closer to Han Solo than Luke, he is brash, roguish and a scoundrel. Darth Krayt, the antagonist of the series, is a good foil for Cade and the other ‘good-guys’ of the piece. As the three books progress, we get more information and back-story about Krayt, further developing the history of the universe. Being far more familiar with the novels than comic series, I can’t help thinking that I’m missing something, on occasion, when a reference passes me by completely or a seemingly popular or recurring character appears for the first time (for me). The inclusion of the Yuuzhan Vong is good, as we get more story about how they were integrated into the galaxy after the events of the New Jedi Order series.

*     *     *


Alliance: Seven years ago, Admiral Gar Stazi and his Galactic Alliance fleet barely escaped an Imperial trap. Now he has a chance to turn the tables on the Darth Krayt and his Empire. But the stakes are high. Not only must Stazi risk every ship of his battle-worn fleet, but he must depend upon his more powerful enemy to remain blind to his true objective.

The Hidden Temple: Cade Skywalker has escaped the clutches of Darth Krayt and imprisonment in the Sith Temple. He has faced the teachings of the Dark Side and returned to his friends with new knowledge and a few secrets as well. Cade says he desires only what it is he truly values, and what he must do to maintain it. This reluctant heir to the Skywalker legacy could end up a hero whether he likes it or not.

Story: John Ostrander & Jan Duursema

Art: Omar Francia & Alan Robinson

Ink/Colours: Brad Anderson

Letters: Michael Heisler

Alliance starts without a word of Cade Skywalker and his band of merry henchmen. This, for me, was somewhat disappointing, as Claws of the Dragon was very focussed on his experiences in the custody of Darth Krayt. To abandon this storyline wholesale for an entire volume was not the best move in my mind, although I will concede that the back-story for General Stazi added another layer to the overall background of Legacy. An ok storyline, but not the most gripping, and I started to worry that maybe the series was already starting to peter out, to lose focus. The final part of the book is set after the events of volume five, which was a bit of a peculiar move, but as it added more to Darth Wyyrlok’s story, I thought it was a welcome addition to this otherwise sub-par volume (there’s some interesting development of the Dark Side and Sith history, too).

The Hidden Temple, thankfully, returned attention to Cade and his merry band of bounty hunters and vagabonds. We learn a little more of Cade’s extended family, as well as the increasingly complex loyalties that are developing between the Sith and those they recruit to hunt Cade. Some background is added to Sia’s distinct dislike for Jedi, and the Imperial Knights return for a little more arrogance and meddling. The book finishes a little suddenly, without really having achieved anything, though Cade’s proposal at the end (to assassinate Darth Krayt) could have been made more of – completely new approach for the Jedi.

Overall, though, I enjoyed these five books. The artwork wasn’t consistently great, and at times the story was a little flat (the reliance on reproducing dialogue from the movies – while no doubt intended as an homage – comes across a bit lazy, rather than fanboy).

If you’re a fan of the Star Wars movies and/or novels, and want something a little lighter and quicker, then the Legacy series of comics is perfect. If you’re familiar with the novels, as I am, you might not find this as fulfilling – by its very nature, character development is not as good as can be achieved in a 300+ page novel. (This might explain why I’m now reading Christie Golden’s Allies, which is proving better than expected.)

Reading these graphic novels has been an entertaining and interesting detour from my usual preference for novels, and I will be finishing off the series (slowly) as time goes on. I’m still not convinced I’m going about the reviews in the right way, so I might have to do a little more research before I post too many more like this.

The next volume is the final book of the era-spanning Vector series (which I already own), which I’ll try to get reviewed later this week.

Friday, June 11, 2010

“The Map of All Things”, by Kevin J. Anderson (Orbit)


The second instalment in Anderson’s awesome Terra Incognita series

After terrible atrocities by both sides, the religious war between Tierra and Uraba has spread and intensified – the series of skirmishes erupting into a full-blown crusade.

Now that the Uraban leader Soldan-Shah Omra has captured the ruined city of Ishalem, his construction teams discover a priceless ancient map in an underground vault – a map that can guide brave explorers to the mysterious Key to Creation. Omra dispatches his adopted son Saan to sail east across the uncharted Middlesea on a quest to find it.

In Tierra, Captain Criston Vora has built a grand new vessel, and sets out to explore the great unknown and find the fabled land of Terravitae. But Criston cannot forget his previous voyage that ended in shipwreck and disaster... and the loss of his beloved wife Adrea – who is now the wife of the soldan-shah in far-off Uraba, fighting to survive against palace intrigues and constant threats against her life.

The first part of this series, The Edge of the World was probably my favourite book of last year, so I could barely contain myself when this arrived in the post. Epic in scope, yet crisply and brilliantly written, Anderson wove a number of threads together into an impressive, thoroughly satisfying whole. With The Map of All Things, Anderson has improved on the first, while upping the stakes for the characters and his world. Anderson’s writing is as good as it was in book one, building on the solid foundation, failing to disappoint, as he adds more layers to his world and the cultures that inhabit it.

Terra Incognita series could almost be described as Clash of Civilisations transferred onto a fantasy world: warring religions, centuries-old misunderstandings and intolerance. After the events of the first book, the violence between the Tierrans and Urabans is escalating in a never-ending cycle of ‘eye-for-an-eye’ killings and attacks.

The hatred the two nations feel towards each other, fuelled by revenge and the fiery rhetoric of their civil and religious leaders, burns so hotly in otherwise kind and gentle people. The ra’virs (kidnapped Tierran children, brainwashed by ‘The Teacher’ to wreak havoc in their former homeland) are an interesting creation, with genuinely horrific potential – you could describe them as the sleeper cell terrorists of this world.

One of Anderson’s true triumphs with this series is that readers will find it difficult to form an allegiance to either the Urabans or the Tierrans – each side burns with similar hatred and zeal; each side has its flaws and strengths, heroes and villains; each side has committed atrocities. The Tierrans (the ‘Western’ nation) and the Urabans (the ‘Middle-Eastern’ nation) have clear parallel-characteristics with our own world, and sometimes Anderson’s allusions are surface-deep, but on occasion they do go a lot deeper.

The religious leaders on both sides are pretty crazy – as they blindly follow their version of their faiths, the rest of their people are swept up in their wake or branded heretics or traitors if they even remotely question. Prester Hannes, the zealot from Edge of the World who has done a fair amount to inflame the conflict, is still nominally a ‘good guy’, but he commits a terrible blunder late in the novel that could have dire consequences in the final book of the trilogy, The Key to Creation. In fact, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” – you will be sympathetic towards characters on both sides, and equally appalled and angered by both sides.

The Map of All Things, and the trilogy as a whole, is a study of human nature. Each side has noble perceptions of itself, even as they condemn slaves to death through hard labour and meagre food, or execute them in retaliation for a perceived or actual slight (itself, invariably, the result of another previous slight). Anderson clearly outlines the lies we tell ourselves to make “necessity” a sufficient excuse or explanation for actions we would never consider in other circumstances – and perhaps shouldn’t in the situation described.

Matteo, the childhood best friend of Tierra’s new queen, Anjine, follows her instructions to the letter – regardless of how grisly the task he’s been set – but cannot avoid questioning what they are all becoming.

“Would the cycle never end? The momentum of hatred swept them along like the foamy waters of an uncontrolled flood. This war had changed both Tierran and Uraban, followers of Aiden and followers of Urec alike. It left scars so thick and ugly that not even victory could make them fade...”

Despite the dark times, there are some moments of decency and charity. When Prester Ciarlo, a lowly prester of Aiden, and the brother of Adrea/Istala, ventures into Uraba, he is met with suspicion but also a warm kindness from someone he (and the reader) would not expect – it’s a scene that humanises the enemies for each other, highlighting the differences between the politically-minded court characters and the other strata of society. Interestingly, there is no comparable act by a Tierran for a Uraban.

The Map of All Things is the continuation of an epic tale of religious intolerance and the perpetual spiral of hatred that this can breed. Violent retribution begets violent retribution, as the warring sides cannot seem to stop themselves, even when they realise that what they do is madness. The large cast of characters is easy to follow and they grow and mature over the course of the novel. Intelligent fantasy, but written in an engaging and entertaining style, Terra Incognita is easily one of the best fantasy trilogies of the decade.

It’s a bit difficult to review this book, other than looking at the themes that I have – all the praise I had for the first novel is equally relevant to this one.

Very highly recommended; if you’re a fan of fantasy, you need to read this.

For Fans of: George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front… For the Moment

After such a busy May, things have been very quiet here at CR Towers. Why? Well, this month I’ve decided to read and review some of the mammoth books that have been accumulated of late. This will, of course, mean fewer reviews in June and July. Alyssa and Emma will be contributing a couple, too, but from me there will be fewer posts as I try to get through the novels (and also finish my PhD).

Untitled-1 I’m currently reading Kevin J Anderson’s The Map of All Things, the sequel to The Edge of the World, and the second in his Terra Incognita series. So far (I’m 300~ pages in), it is living up to my expectations, as he weaves the multiple threads together, building on our understanding of the cultures and characters that populate his fully-realised world. This is both a good and bad thing. Good because I’m loving it, and the novel is a pleasure to read. Bad because it makes reviewing the book a bit difficult – whenever I get a book I absolutely love, writing a review that is balanced is a little more difficult, as I come over all fan-boy and just want to get all gushy. There’s a lot going on, some clear parallels with, and themes taken from, current affairs – it even reminds me a little of the themes in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations. It’s an impressive feat of fantasy writing, and it’s really no wonder he’s a top-selling author.

After this, I’m not sure if I’ll be taking a stab at Justin Cronin’s The Passage (it’s massive…), MD Lachlan’s Wolfsangel (which I’m excited about), David Baldacci’s Deliver Us From Evil (always love Baldacci’s novels), or three John Sandford Canavan-TTS-1-TheAmbassadorsMissionnovels (which I have allowed to sit lonely, unread, for far too long – he’s one of my favourite authors, so I’m not really sure why I’ve allowed three novels to go by unread).

Alyssa is making her way through Trudi Canavan’s The Ambassador’s Mission, the first in the latest trilogy set in her fantasy world (The Traitor Spy Trilogy). Initial feedback seems to be positive. As a new convert to Terry Pratchett (I have a tendency to try to convert everyone I meet), she’s offered to write a short review of Feet of Clay, which will be posted soon.

Emma is currently working on K.E. Mills’ Witches Incorporated and Wizard Squared, and (job permitting) we should get a review up pretty soon. From what I’ve heard, the series is great fun, and Mills’s ‘fun’ series with shades of Pratchett and Worst Witch thrown in there for good measure. I might have to read them after Emma’s done with them, assuming I can wrest the books out of her hands…

Mills-2&3 So, that’s what’s going on with us. Keep checking back for reviews, posts, and other asides.

Happy reading.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

“The Chosen One”, by Sam Bourne (Harper)


A Conspiracy pulling at the String of Power

Bruised by years of disappointments, political advisor Maggie Costello is finally working for a leader she can believe in. She, along with the rest of America, has put her trust in President Stephen Baker, believing he can make the world a better place.

But suddenly an enemy surfaces: a man called Vic Forbes reveals first one scandal about the new president, and then another. He threatens a third revelation – one that will destroy Baker entirely.

When Forbes is found dead, Maggie is thrown into turmoil. Could the leader she idolizes have been behind Forbes’s murder? Has she been duped by his message of change and hope? Who is the real Stephen Baker?

On the trail of the truth, Maggie is led into the roots of a massive conspiracy that reaches back into history - and goes right to the heart of the US establishment…

I was really looking forward to The Chosen One, and its frequent delays only increased my interest. Bourne’s previous novel, The Final Reckoning, was a great thriller, one that was both gripping, intelligent and though-provoking all at once. I had high hopes for this latest, especially given the subject matter – the US president and politics – which is a subject I am already obsessed with.

The novel contains an amazing amount of detail and commentary on the current state of US politics, drawing also on the new faces and mediums of political life and commentary: blogs, Fox News, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and even Twitter. The main protagonist, Maggie Costello, is a strong female character, just fired from the White House staff for calling the Secretary of Defence and ‘asshole’ (which might make you think she’s got moxie, but this was sadly not borne out through the rest of the novel – more on this later). Maggie is clearly a staunch liberal: idealistic and with quite high standards.

“Maggie Costello? Working for a politician? The idea was ridiculous. She had ideals, for God’s sake, and ideals had no place in the snakepit of modern politics.”

The first few chapters were reminiscent of The West Wing, in some ways, which meant I became comfortable with the setting pretty quickly. Bourne also draws considerably on issues and buzz-words/-phrases of the past couple of years, making the novel feel extremely current and fresh (“Arugula-munching liberals”, for example).

I’m going to deal with a couple of issues I had with the novel, before giving my generally positive over-view. First, the revelations that Forbes publicises. It’s amazing to me how the first continues to be an issue for the US electorate – in fact, it’s becoming quite the cliché in presidential fiction, TV and movies: depression as a career-sinker. West Wing had it, too. The reaction from staffers and Maggie at the outset are excessive and overblown: the president was treated for depression, in the past, but now there’s nothing to worry about. Why is this a scandal? It seems clear that he’s better. The second revelation is one that is equally common (to do with campaign finance) and easily proved as a non-issue, and so unprecedented. The big story, too, is somewhat predictable – mainly, because of the clear influences of real political drama, it was almost guaranteed. I guess this was somewhat disappointing, but in the grand scheme of things it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the story.

The novel ticks all the boxes of what political thrillers “need”, yet still manages to be interesting and mostly original: Sabotaged car? Check. Shadowy lobbyists? Check. Possible CIA connection? Check. Difficult personal situation for protagonist? Check. Conflicting loyalties? Check. And on and on.

The ‘bad-guys’ in the novel feel real and believable (naturally, they’re the Republicans), and thankfully Bourne manages to avoid turning them into cartoons – at least, only as cartoony as some real political figures in the US are these days. Maggie, on the other hand, is a little slow on the uptake – there’s no way she didn’t know “the Company” is CIA, given her job in the White House. Convenient happenstance is also an integral part of the story. In Emma’s review of Angelology, she said too often something was the way clearly just because it was necessary for the plot – that it didn’t make sense otherwise – this is also true for The Chosen One, with too many plot devices that were so obviously just that: included purely for the sake of the story, and in a pretty obvious way.

One thing about the novel makes me wonder if the author was, at one point, either rejected by or received a negative review from The New Republic: he refers to their journalists in pretty derogatory terms (“juvenile egghead" is just one of the ways a TNR journalist is described).

The final conspiracy is actually a pretty interesting idea, even if it is plugged into one of the US’s deepest political fears: the influence of moneymen and puppet-masters behind the scenes of power. The conspiracy can best be described using the words of one of the conspirators (don’t worry, this isn’t really a spoiler, and just adds to the synopsis, above):

“Have you never thought about how the great political leaders made it to the top?... Have you never noticed how smooth their path was? How the luck always seemed to go their way?… There are no accidents... There is no luck. There was a pattern to all those events. There always has been and there always will be.”

The nature of the conspiracy he’s chosen to use also raises the possibility that Bourne has read John Judis’s The Paradox of American Democracy (ironic, given that Judis is a frequent TNR contributor) and perhaps also Janine Wedel’s The Shadow Elite. If he hasn’t, he should – they are very much non-fiction books on a similar topic: that there’s an invisible hand at work in US politics, but it’s not Adam Smith’s. [Incidentally, both of these books are pretty good.]

It’s fun to sink in to conspiracy from time to time, and I enjoyed reading The Chosen One. The pacing was a little uneven – at times really quick, at other times not so much. I preferred The Final Reckoning, which surprises me considering Bourne’s latest is much closer to my non-fiction interests. On the whole, though, this is was an enjoyable read, and any fan of thrillers should think so, too.

A good summer read.