Review: The Silence

A live televised caving expedition in Moldova takes a disastrous turn when a team of potholers and scientists opens up a large and hereto sealed underground ecosystem, releasing from it a swarm of vicious bat-like creatures that promptly feast on their liberators. The now-unmanned cameras keep on rolling, beaming the harrowing footage to a few horror-struck Discovery Channel viewers across the world.

Two such witnesses to the carnage are Ally and her father, Huw, whose stories we then follow as the world rapidly goes to hell. Ally is an easy-going fourteen year old girl getting on with life with her mum and brother in a quiet town in south-east Wales, not letting a thing like her lack of hearing hold her back. Huw, on the other hand, is holed up in a bed and breakfast on the Cornish coast, working lonely weekdays away from home. Both can scarcely believe what they have seen, and yet both are rocked by the footage.

At first the creatures escaping from the cave aren’t deemed much of a threat. As Ally scours the internet and social media for context, she finds many commentators dismissing the footage in one way or another. Surely it’s a movie trailer, right? Right? Well, sucks to be them, then. Shouldn’t have gone down there in the first place. Why should I care? I mean, Moldova is pretty far away, isn’t it?

Then the news stories bring home the terrible truth as towns, cities and countries begin to fall. The creatures are astonishingly quick, immediately attracted to the slightest noise around them, their appetites voracious. They have no eyes, their flesh is a sickly yellow, and their teeth – oh, man, so many sharp pointy teeth. Worse still, in this new ecosystem teeming with unsuspecting walking meat, and with no predators to speak of, the creatures swarm like locusts and breed like wildfire.

Both Ally and Huw know deep down that the situation is serious, perhaps even the beginning of the end. But what can they do? Should the whole family up sticks and run? Even if they did, where would they run to? And could they outrun the coming swarm?

Maybe. Maybe not. All they know is that in order to survive they will need to be very, very quiet.

A couple of years ago I tore through Tim Lebbon’s fairly lengthy end-of-the-world novel Coldbrook and thought it was a riot. Picking up a copy of The Silence, however, I was struck by how similar the premise seemed. It was as if someone had replaced the flesh-hungry zombies of Coldbrook with flesh-hungry du Maurier-esque birds, then reset the apocalypse simulation and hit the play button. Even so, I had enjoyed Coldbrook more than enough to buy The Silence without a second thought, and, y’know what? I’m glad I set my cynicism to one side, because The Silence is excellent.

There is a lot to like here. The pacing of the book is spot-on. The vesps – little, hungry buggers that they are – overwhelm Europe at a frightening pace, and yet, at the same time, Lebbon manages to keep the horror away from Blighty’s shores for as long as possible, ratcheting up the tension brilliantly as Ally and her family struggle to cope in a land fast losing itself to panic. The writing is smooth as silk and, like Coldbrook before it, I tore through The Silence in only a few sittings, probably leaving scorch marks on the pages.

Not only is the pace expertly judged, but so are the reader’s expectations as the story develops. As bizarre as it sounds, I swear Lebbon is telepathically linked to the reader. There were a number of times I found a nagging thought developing along the lines of “surely if everything was going to hell, then such-and-such would have happened/run out/gone off by now” only for that very thing to happen within a couple of chapters.

There’s also a nice bit of symbolism threaded through The Silence, if you go in for that kind of thing – perhaps nothing too subtle if even I’d spotted it, but pleasing all the same. (I’ll keep shtum on that one, in case you’re tempted to have a read.)

But the biggest triumph of The Silence is Ally. She is one of the best-written characters I’ve read for a while, matched only perhaps in my recent reads by Jamie Morton in Stephen King’s Revival and the hapless hikers of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual. It’s quite cunning, really, in that it’s Ally’s normalness that defines her. Any prejudices taken into this book melt away within a few chapters. While we’re never left in any doubt that Ally cannot hear, it seldom seems to matter. She’s just getting on with it, signing with friends and family who know how, and lip-reading those who do not, no biggie, no dramas.

There were niggles and downsides to The Silence, but these were fairly minor. For example, Ally’s chapters within the book noticeably outshone those that focused on Huw. I don’t quite know why, but I never really connected with him. Perhaps it was his tendency to gush with love at the slightest sight, sound or whiff of whichever family member was nearest him. Then again, I am a bitter and cold-hearted sod, so bear that in mind.

I also felt there were small inconsistencies in what it would take to attract a nearby vesp. The slightest whisper could set one upon you, but in other scenes you could gather up a bag of odds and sods with the things peaceably perched almost on your shoulder. Nothing truly jarring, and perhaps easily overlooked.

One plus point, and a rare one for a Titan Books first edition, is that I found no typos in the book! Huzzah! It’s such a shame, then, to find they’ve gotten Ally’s name wrong on the cover. Hey ho, I guess you can’t have everything. (By the way, the copy-proofing offer still stands, guys.)

So, in summary, should you give The Silence a whirl? Absolutely. Read it as if you were watching a movie, and be sure to check your fingertips for burns as those pages fly by. It’s not quite a 5/5 from me, but, equally, it seems harsh giving it only 4/5. Heartily recommended.

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Review – The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: This review contains spoilers for “The Name of the Wind”.

“The Wise Man’s Fear” is the follow-up to 2007’s “The Name of the Wind”, with the third and final part of the trilogy allegedly due in 2015.

In the first book we were introduced to a man called Kvothe. His is a name known across the Four Corners of Civilisation thanks in part to his exploits over the years, and thanks also to the exaggerated and sometimes untrue legends that have been told and mistold about him (some of which Kvothe wilfully started himself). But now he’s in hiding, living life as an innkeeper with his understudy, a demon fella called Bast. When a passing scribe called the Chronicler unearths Kvothe’s true identity, he deems it high time his life story was committed to paper in his own words.

By the end of the first book, covering the first fifteen or so years of Kvothe’s life, he had developed indomitable skills in the magical art of sympathy, generally been brilliant at anything he put his mind to, was banned from the University’s library, ultimately expelled from the University (and quickly readmitted – a bit of a cheat if you’ve read the blurb to the first book), met Denna (the supposed love of his life), lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna (you get the idea), and, in a flash of emotion, managed to call the name of the wind – one of the main reasons he had come to the University in the first place.

In the real world, however, something is not quite right. Kvothe seems no longer able to muster up the slightest bit of magic, and, as “The Wise Man’s Fear” progresses, it’s clear he is no longer the skilled fighter of legend either. Is he keeping himself in check, or is he all talk and no trousers? Meanwhile his understudy, Bast, has revealed himself to be a bit of a bad ‘un, threatening Chronicler (somewhat unnecessarily) to bring the old Kvothe from out himself.

Okay, so that was the first book in a very small nutshell. For the first 300 pages of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, see above as it’s essentially more of the same. (No bad thing.) After that we then hit a huge 700 page tangent which basically covers Kvothe’s Gap Yah. It’s perhaps better to be armed with this knowledge before heading into this 1000 page novel, because otherwise, once things shoot off in a different direction, you might start asking yourself whether Rothfuss is ever going to get back to the story.

Maybe this was a deliberate ploy. A life story in which you know what to expect speaks of a dull life indeed. What is more definite is that the trilogy forms as much a character study of Kvothe as it does his life story. We are introduced to the man in the rather pompous “You may have heard of me” speech (see the blurb at the top of my earlier review), and then the remainder of the trilogy is spent substantiating each of those claims while at the same time fleshing out his character.

So in this book we see Kvothe turn from a boy into a man, into a killer of men, and he also does his best Anjin-san impression (a wink to any Shogun fans out there). Oh, and he finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, yada-yada-yada. Meanwhile, during the interludes in his story, we see more evidence that Kvothe may be something of an unreliable narrator, especially as he is given to making up some of his own legends.

So is “The Wise Man’s Fear” any good? Yes it is, but it’s not quite as good as “The Name of the Wind”.

Again the writing is first-rate, although a writerly tic seems to have crept in that I’m sure didn’t appear in the first book (i.e. the whole “grinned a malicious grin”, “screamed an ear-piercing scream”, “sneezed a snotty sneeze” kind of thing), but this is a minor quibble.

The attention to detail and the characterisation is, for the most part, excellent – the exception being Denna, whose repeated appearances of little consequence in the story begin to test one’s patience.

But there are some larger faults to overcome. Once Kvothe’s Gap Yah begins, the flow of the novel becomes choppy, tangential and uneven in a few places, and, while some of this is acknowledged intra-story, I’m not sure they are all deliberate plays on the erratic and elastic nature of storytelling. For example, having ingratiated himself with a very rich and powerful man, Kvothe is then suddenly tasked with leading a band of mercenaries to hunt down a bunch of bandits. Why would the man choose a kid to do that ahead of, oh, I don’t know, virtually anybody under his command?

The story then sags when Kvothe essentially drops everything to get his end away with Felurian, a powerful faerie famed for bonking men to death. The subsequent chunk of story, in which Kvothe struggles to learn the language and the fighting skills of the Adem, also grinds on by. While I can understand why those sections were there, I swear I could hear the story groan under the sheer weight of Too Many Names. If it wasn’t a shopping list of Kama-Sutra-esque acts of nookie, such as the fluttering hand, the harrowed hare, or the chuckling chaffinch (okay, maybe not that last one) it was a litany of fighting styles lifted from some beat-em up’s list of special moves. Some fight scenes therefore became comically abstruse and rather dry, and, as a result, very nearly broke the spell weaved over me by the first book.

Once free of this saggy midsection the story picks up strongly and for me to blather any more about it would spoil the fun.

In short, it’s only a 4/5 from me, but, despite it’s faults, “The Wise Man’s Fear” is still a fair distance ahead of the pack and, for most of those 1000 pages, it is a solid, enjoyable read. I can’t wait to tuck into the final book.

Review – The Name of the Wind

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’

For a while I wondered what all the fuss was about Patrick Rothfuss. I’d picked up a copy of “The Name of the Wind”, read the above blurb and thought, “Meh. It’s a fantasy novel about a braggart.” I then picked up a copy of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, read the blurb and thought, “Again, meh. More of the same.” The covers: “Meh. A shadowy cloaked figure. Well, shit, I’ve never seen that on a fantasy novel before.”

And yet there was something. Since its publication seven years ago the paperback of “The Name of the Wind” has undergone over twenty printings in the UK alone. The thing has been a solid seller. I also saw just what he meant to those who had read his work. (Boneman, if you’re reading this, you won me over!) At a recent convention Rothfuss was one of the most laid-back and approachable people there. So I picked up the novels again. I began to wonder how a 700 page novel could span only a single day (“The Name of the Wind” is subtitled “The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One”). Heck, the follow-up 1000-pager spans the whole of day two…

Long story short: dammit, I became interested, and so it wasn’t long before I bought them both.

If the above blurb left you somewhat in the dark (as it did me), let me say what you’re looking at in this novel (and its sequels) is a man’s life story told in his own unhurried words. The first day’s storytelling forms the bulk of “The Name of the Wind”, the second “The Wise Man’s Fear” and so on. As Kvothe tells his story, so we see the making of the man and the legends that have grown around him. Once you know that, the above meh-worthy blurb starts to make sense.

So is it any good? Good lord, yes, and the key to its success, for me, is the word “unhurried”. It’s a crying shame when you read a decent-sounding story and see it slavishly adhere to some bullshit action-action-action axiom, as if the author is thinking to themselves: “If I don’t blow some shit up or kill someone off soon my publisher’s marketing department says the average reading demographic will switch off and… and… and…”

Thankfully there’s no such nonsense here. Thanks to the narrative device of Kvothe telling his life story, combined with Rothfuss’ determination not to rush things, “The Name of the Wind” has a real kick-off-your-shoes-and-gather-round-the-fire storytelling style, and once you find yourself lost in its world, you won’t want to leave.

In this first novel we find Kvothe living under an assumed name, seemingly content to live his days as an innkeeper while secretly tutoring his student, a demon called Bast. To many he was Kvothe the bloodless. He was Kvothe the Kingkiller. His story is told and mistold across the land, and now, for some reason, he is in hiding.

When a passing scribe unearths Kvothe’s true identity he convinces the man to tell his story, and so we begin.

“The Name of the Wind” covers Kvothe’s first fifteen years. As the son of troupers, the child Kvothe is an astonishingly quick learner, helped in no small part to his exceptional memory. (Hence the lengthy, vivid account of his life story, I guess!) When the troupe takes in an arcanist, Kvothe’s mind is lit up by the old man’s knowledge and the workings of a type of magic called sympathy. By the time the old man leaves the troupe, Kvothe’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, and so he sets his heart on studying at the University and soaking up its vast library of books.

But a great tragedy befalls the troupe at the hands of a legendary monster called the Chandrian and Kvothe is consequently forced to eke out a living begging and stealing in a large town called Tarbean. Broken, alone, and filled with a desire for revenge, Kvothe the boy is forced to rebuild himself anew.

As this is someone’s life story, “The Name of the Wind” is told in a fairly linear fashion. To further describe the story would therefore spoil the fun. Needless to say you won’t be disappointed if you decide to amble through its 700 pages.

And amble you should. Rothfuss takes his time when it comes to writing, and so it would be a crying shame to blast through the story in one sitting. No, this is a story in which to enjoy a good, long wallow. Soak up the brilliantly-drawn characters and the bustling ambience of each scene. Admire the incredible imagination at work, the attention to detail and the wonderful prose. (The first page is so beautifully written it quite rightly bookends each novel.) In short, read it in the same spirit it was written and enjoy.

This is easily a 5/5 from me, and sets a very high bar for any future fantasy I read. Heartily recommended.

Review – The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes is the first book in a trilogy from the popular and prolific penmonkey Chuck Wendig, with the second book, The Hellsblood Bride, due at the start of 2015.

In it we are introduced to Mikey “Mookie” Pearl, a soldier for The Organisation – a powerful crime syndicate that keeps New York’s assorted gangs in check, and which also happens to be the only thing standing between New York and the hellish underworld beneath. Mookie is a big man, which comes in handy when smashing goblin heads together. How big? Well, if you were to gaffer-tape Arnie, Stallone, Van Damme and Lundgren together into a single hulking, sinewy mass of muscle, then you’d be in the right ballpark. So, yeah, Mookie’s a big fella, and he’s about to hit upon a series of big problems.

His teenage daughter, Nora, forever pissed off with her Dad, is making waves in the criminal underworld in the guise of her alter ego, Persephone, and she is determined to either bring Mookie to heel or to bring him down. Things take a turn for the worse when The Boss of The Organisation reveals he is dying, a revelation that, if made public, would invite a power play that would destabilise the uneasy treaty between New York’s assorted gangs. And then there are the growing attacks from assorted horrible creatures from below, from goblins only too happy to lay eggs in your warm bits to wraith-like phantoms that stab thoughts and memories from their victims.

Then things go all to hell when The Boss’s heir apparent meets a particularly gruesome end, seemingly at the hands of Persephone…

For those unfamiliar with Chuck Wendig and his writing, let me try to describe it. Imagine a barbecue upon which there sizzle a tasty array of quarter-pounders, sausages, a couple of corn cobs and one of those big mushrooms. Then imagine someone comes along and slaps a whopping forty-eight ounce steak on the grill, dwarfing everything else on it, and marinaded in the most insanely hot chilli sauce. Once cooked they then drench it with even hotter chilli sauce and serve it up with a side order of another forty-eight ounce steak.

That, folks, is Chuck Wendig. We’re talking big. We’re talking strong flavours. And while The Blue Blazes is about as subtle as a pyroclastic flow through a primary school, it is nonetheless ridiculously entertaining. It’s like reading a long-lost Paul Verhoeven film created somewhere between Robocop and Total Recall. Bold is the word here, from the characterisation to the dialog and set pieces, and such unashamed comic book styling forms a large part of the book’s charm.

But there’s more. The jokes hit home when they need to. The action is riotous and blood-thirsty. The horror is icky and uncomfortable when it needs to be. Wendig’s New York and the sprawling underworld beneath it are well-realised and strangely believable.

The structure of the book is spot-on too, with each short chapter prefaced with an excerpt from a pioneer’s journal to help the reader keep up and to also flesh out the immediate story ahead. It all helps make this a mighty smooth read and the pages fly by so quickly you risk friction burns on your fingertips.

And yet for me it is not a five star book. Why? Well, there are a handful of reasons.

First and foremost there are some fairly big plot holes to pass, perhaps requiring Burnsy’s All-American quad bike and a helluva run-up. It may be that I missed a page reading so fast, but I think these niggles hold true. (A cynic may suggest the speed of the book helps distract the reader from seeing the holes – I wouldn’t be quite so snide.)

First: Nora, as Persephone, giving the criminal fraternity what-for – I can get behind that. What I struggle to believe, however, is that nobody in New York’s underworld knows Nora is Mookie’s daughter. Mookie is a high-ranking operative in The Organisation. I don’t care how careful he has been, it would be highly improbable for him to hide his family from his “other” family.

Second: the story seems to break its own rules. The Blue Blazes is a drug-like mineral rubbed onto the temples to enhance a user’s strength, stamina and perception, like some kind of computer game power-up. When “Blazing” a human’s third eye is also opened to view the world anew and to see some people for what they really are: children of the underworld, for example, or maybe one of the maligned half-and-halfs. Think John Nada putting on the shades in “They Live”. But this additional property of Blazing, not to mention its addictive qualities, seems to be largely forgotten around halfway through the story. Humans just get to see those gruesome buggers whether they’re Blazing or not, and the Blue no longer seems to have any adverse after-effects.

Finally, and this isn’t really a plot hole, there’s Nora herself. Frankly someone should have thrown her down a well and filled it in with concrete afterwards. While her existence and actions were integral to the plot, her “annoying teen with Daddy issues” act was a bold flavour too far, and the conflicting insights into her mind felt at times like she was panel-beaten to fit into the story.

While I found these niggles irksome, they didn’t really derail me from the story. If you are willing to let these kind of gremlins whizz on by at a hundred miles per hour and to go along for the ride I would heartily recommend The Blue Blazes. It’s enormous fun and I look forward to book two.

4/5

Review – The Year of the Ladybird

NOTE: This book will be released in the US later in the year under the title “The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit”

In “The Year of the Ladybird” we follow a student called David as he takes a job at a seaside holiday resort in Skegness, Lincolnshire, during what was to become the hottest summer on record. It’s 1976, the paint is peeling off the economy and nationalism is beginning to take a hold in the less well-off areas of the country. Once at the resort David finds an industry in decline thanks to the wide availability of cheap package holidays overseas.

David’s parents are disappointed by his choice of employment to say the least. His stepfather is most put out, having gone to some lengths to create an opening within his building company. His mother is deeply upset because David is returning to the scene of his father’s death – something that happened when David was just a toddler. But still David came. It just felt like the right place to be.

Pretty soon David settles into his assorted roles throughout the park, getting to know his fellow Greencoats and the other members of staff in the process, including resident nutjob, Colin, and his wife, Terri. David’s life becomes tangled when he finds himself drawn to Terri, a woman in thrall of Colin. More worrying for David is that Colin seems to have taken a shine to him.

Things take a turn for the bizarre when David catches occasional glimpses of a father and his young son. The father is wearing a dark suit wholly unsuited to the hot weather and carries what looks like a loop of rope over his shoulder. His young son waves to David, as if eager to join in the activities he’s supervising. A second look, however, and the pair are gone.

As the summer progresses the temperature rises, tensions mount between the staff, and the number of ladybirds flying about the place creeps ever higher.

Okay, bear with me, folks. There’s a point to be made here, honest.

There are some people in the world who are so ridiculously good at what they do that it often appears effortless. Consider the brilliant vocals of both Paul Rodgers and Bill Withers, for example. Listen to “My Brother Jake” or “Grandma’s Hands” and you could be fooled into thinking those bluesy, laid-back vocals are easy. That is, of course, until you try singing them yourself. Reality then crashes in and you find yourself standing in a karaoke bar hollering at a bunch of drunk businessmen. Or something.

The same can be said of writing. Pick up a novel and you may be tempted to say “I could have written that”. But you would be wrong. Ignore plot, characters and the setting for a moment and consider something just as important: style. It’s the secret ingredient that stops a story going in like a diesel daiquiri. The smoother the style, the easier the read and the better chance a story has to take root.

“The Year of the Ladybird” represents some of the best writing I’ve read in a long, long time, and for me the key lies in it’s uncomplicated style. Not once was I fighting against unnecessarily verbose sentences. I never longed for the end of a dreary paragraph. Each and every scene in the book was timed to perfection, never once outstaying its welcome. I can usually gauge how well a novel has grabbed my attention by how often I find my eyes drifting towards the page numbers. Within the space of two train journeys I had glanced at the page number twice: each time to pop in a bookmark, and each time I was surprised at how much of the story I’d yomped through.

Not only do we find a beautifully-written story in “The Year of the Ladybird” but we also have some excellent and truly memorable characters. David’s roommate, Nobby, Manchester’s finest motormouth, is a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. Nikki, with whom David frequently finds himself paired, is a wonderful and sympathetic character who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. The best of the bunch, however, is Colin: a truly terrifying man dripping with malice and barely-suppressed violence. He’s like a coiled spring that has been filed down to a razor’s edge and you can feel your stomach lurch whenever he makes his presence felt.

Another thing that impressed me was the restraint shown throughout the story. The creeping nationalism of the time (something that sadly seems to be making a comeback) could have been easily overplayed. Not so here. There’s no drum-banging or chest-beating, just the characters behaving in exactly the way you would have expected back in the day, and so the intelligence of the reader is treated with a great deal of respect.

The downside of this, if there is one, is that David can sometimes come across as a little too naive. There are a few times you think to yourself “I wouldn’t have done that.” When David questions his actions you wonder if there is a hint of authorial voice there.

But this is a minor gripe against an overwhelmingly excellent novel and one I would recommend you snap up immediately. I’m almost ashamed to say this is the first and only novel by Graham Joyce that I’ve read. It’s a situation I hope to rectify soon.

5/5

Review – NOS4R2

NOS4R2 is Joe Hill’s third novel, following “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Horns”, the latter of which has been recently made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe.

In NOS4R2 we are introduced to a young girl by the name of Vic McQueen. She’s beginning to twig that her parents aren’t exactly getting along. When her mother loses a cherished bracelet Vic sets out to find it before all hell can break loose. She happens across a covered bridge suspended over the Merrimack River. The trouble is the bridge shouldn’t be there. Upon crossing it she is amazed to find herself at a diner they had all visited earlier in the day, wherein she finds said bracelet. She has discovered a magical bridge that can take her between lost and found, and, crucially, it belongs only to her.

Unfortunately, Vic’s use of the bridge sustains a painful toll upon her in the shape of agonising headaches. As Vic grows up the trips she takes across the bridge become less frequent, but when she learns of an evil fellow called Charlie Manx doing the rounds in his similarly magical 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, complete with NOS4R2 number plates, her interest is piqued. When she storms from the family home following a blazing row with her mother and heads out looking for trouble you can guess where her bridge offers to takes her.

All the while Charlie Manx is on a mission to save the souls of assorted children he claims are under threat. He does this by whisking them away to a place called Christmasland, where every morning is Christmas morning and all the kids get to play such delightful games as “Scissors For The Drifter”. What his sleazy right-hand man, Bing, does with the adults is often left up to Bing himself. Needless to say it never ends well.

When Vic finds the trouble she was looking for, and succeeds in getting Manx locked away, a bitter vendetta is born. As time goes on, Vic finds herself paying a heavy price indeed…

So let’s talk some NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 as it’s known in the US. A2, R2, potato, pota-too, let’s call the whole thing off…)

Moving on.

The more I read Joe Hill’s work, the more I find a top-notch writer and a very talented storyteller. His work goes through more drafts than a conscientious objector and it really shows because NOS4R2 goes in without ever really touching the sides. (The story, that is, not the 700 page hardback. *Coughs*)

There is, of course, an inevitable temptation to wang on about him being a chip off the old block, but I’m not so sure this is accurate. There’s more than enough here to see Hill stand out on his own. For example, there’s a lot of invention in NOS4R2: some real put-the-book-down-and-utter-“you clever, clever bastard”-under-your-breath moments. I genuinely can’t recall ever doing that with a Stephen King tale. (That said, I’ve recently splurged on a whole lotta King recently to put that to the test.)

The main players of the story are all well-realised and are often brilliantly observed. The pacing, too, is just about perfect. No one scene ever outstays its welcome. We’re always trucking on, engrossed, to the rather bombastic finale.

In a book of this size, however, not everything is perfect. Initial drafts of NOS4R2 contained around a hundred pages of Charlie Manx’s backstory, for example, but these were eventually dropped from the novel. If I recall correctly, the reason behind this hefty excision was that Manx’s backstory risked softening his menace. Hill reasoned that in cutting away a monster’s history we know less about them as a person, and so the more fearsome they can become. By taking Manx’s story out of the novel, however, a noticeable imbalance develops. You get Vic McQueen’s backstory, and by virtue of that you get a decent snapshot of a number of supporting characters. You even get some backstory for Bing, Manx’s right-hand man. But the most you get about Manx’s past arises from a frank confessional he makes to one of his charges. (He says, tip-toeing around the spoilers.) When you consider Manx is taking said lad to Christmasland, and would otherwise be making upbeat promises of brightly-lit fairground rides and more candy canes to eat than those found in an Acme Candy Cane factory, said confessional had a feel of raw scar tissue about it.

The other gripes I had with the book were all fairly minor, and they were mainly little tics that I felt became overused. For example, several of the earlier chapters ended by leading into the title of the next. This was initially a neat touch, then became wearisome, then stopped altogether and then restarted again near the end. (I can’t for the life of me work out why!) Manx’s overuse of exclamation marks! Also! Gets! A bit much! After a while! The nods to geek culture and to his father’s universe risked bouncing me out of the story the more I picked up on them, and there were the occasional narrative asides to the reader I could have done without.

Anyway, like I said, these are minor gripes. NOS4R2 is a great read, and one that belies its length. I’m not the quickest reader around by a long chalk, but I tore through the final third in one sitting. The ghoul in me would have liked a little more story at the end, but that perhaps says more about me than the book.

Before finishing this review I’d also like to credit Gabriel Rodriguez’s excellent illustrations sprinkled throughout the book. It takes a really steady hand and a strong line to make something rather technical and geometric look so simple. Brilliant stuff.

This is the second of Hill’s novels I’ve read. It certainly won’t be the last.

4/5

Review – Cold Turkey

Disclaimer: This review is based upon an advance proof of Cold Turkey, provided by TTA Press.

Cold Turkey marks TTA Press’ third entry in their novella series and was written by Carole Johnstone, who has contributed a number of stories to TTA’s Black Static magazine over the years. In it we find the story of a primary school teacher called Raym and his increasingly bizarre battle to quit smoking.

We initially find Raym fretting over his health and dwelling on the recent deaths of his parents, both having succumbed to separate smoking-related illnesses. When he resolves to kick his own twenty-a-day habit for the umpteenth time he immediately finds his sleep plagued with bizarre, trippy nightmares where he is chased around a surreal landscape liberally populated with assorted sci-fi and horror icons of his youth.

But there is someone else in Raym’s dreams, a terrifying constant, a fragment of his childhood made manifest in a tall, spindly man dressed in a crooked top hat and tails. The man’s fingers are long and dancing, his mouth is “the idea of a sharp-toothed grin”, and his arrival is chillingly foreshadowed by jangling ice-cream van chimes. He is Top Hat, the tally van man.

When Top Hat starts leaking into the real world, Raym begins to fear for his sanity. The chimes stalk him through empty streets. He finds himself being chased all the way to the school doors on a morning. Worse still, he finds he’s starting to lose time: an hour here, an hour there. And all the while Top Hat keeps asking him, “Are you done with all this yet?”

As much as he would love to dismiss Top Hat as a mere hallucination, Raym fears the tally van man is real for he’s not the only one to have seen him. Some of the schoolchildren have seen him too…

Which gets us into the meat of Cold Turkey, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Those of you with sufficient stamina for my reviews will recall I was rather impressed with TTA Press’ previous novella release, Spin by Nina Allen. Does Cold Turkey continue this fine standard?

Nnnnnnnnearly…

It’s just those first twenty or so pages. I found them a little difficult to read in that sentences would veer off here and there, (sometimes spanning a couple of lines, housed within parentheses) sometimes via tangents that – and I’m only hypothesising here – were perhaps an attempt to convey a sense of the gossipy undercurrent that exists within every close-knit community… which I found jarring. A few times I was forced to backtrack and reread a passage to make sure I had it right.

(That said, I’m not the quickest reader on the planet. I tend to chew over the words as I read them. You might therefore find these early chapters an easier read.)

Happily, once beyond those initial chapters the story becomes a smoother ride and one well worth a read. While TTA’s previous novella, Spin, was a literary blend of science fiction and fantasy, Cold Turkey is a horror story through and through.

Raym’s parabolic glide between bleak sanity and potential madness is deftly handled and well-paced. This is frequently helped by a cast of well-drawn and often excellent secondary characters for Raym to riff against, chief among them Wendy, his long-suffering other half.

The grimness of Raym’s predicament is often leavened by some well-judged humour, particularly within a number of staff room scenes. (The caretaker, Lachlan’s, sweary turn at the Easter Fayre elicited a genuine belly laugh.) It all helps to keep those pages turning.

While Raym is not the most likeable central character in the world, he does have his moments. The way he tries to deflect a young pupil’s terror upon seeing Top Hat, despite his own fears, has you warming to him. (You could of course argue he should be doing this anyway, being a teacher.) The cunning he shows in twisting a bad situation to his advantage, specifically his missing hours, also had me nodding in appreciation, if perhaps not his… um… “extracurricular” reasons for doing so.

And then there’s the ending, one which I think will linger long in the mind. It’s powerful stuff indeed, going from the comically awful to the breathtakingly horrifying within the space of a few uneasy pages. I think I actually uttered “Holy shit!” under my breath while reading it. Great stuff!

Would I recommend Cold Turkey? Absolutely. Persevere with those first few chapters and you’ll be rewarded with an evening’s read of some mighty fine horror.

Just don’t sneak away for a nervous ciggie midway through…

4/5

Review – The Executioner’s Heart

I’ve been a fan of George Mann’s Newbury & Hobbes series for some years now. The stories are often fast-paced and exciting, with a lot more going on in the series’ steampunk universe than intricate clockwork automata and chuffing great engines. The central duo of Sir Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes are often engaging and great fun (even if their mutual lusty restraint doesn’t exactly chime). The books are blessed with a well-drawn cast of supporting characters, from Newbury’s chum on the force, Charles Bainbridge, to the gross and cold-hearted Queen Victoria, for whom Newbury acts as agent.

I do find the series a little like the Indiana Jones movies, however, in that you get marvellous odd numbered books but wonky evens. “The Affinity Bridge” was a great start to the series. “The Osiris Ritual” was okay, but not as good as I’d hoped. “The Immorality Engine”, on the other hand, was flat-out brilliant.

As “The Executioner’s Heart” marks Newbury & Hobbes’ fourth novel-length adventure, you don’t need a crystal ball to get a gist of what’s coming.

It’s London, 1903, and we find an assassin at large; one whose calling card sees them ripping open the chests of their victims and removing their hearts. When Charles Bainbridge is called to the scene of a third victim he suspects a ritualistic edge to the crimes and so calls upon the expertise of a man he knows who lives and breathes the occult, Sir Maurice Newbury.

But all is not well with Newbury. When he’s not receiving death threats from thwarted occultists, megalomaniacs and all-round loony-tunes from his previous escapades, he’s being tasked by the Prince of Wales to root out rogue elements within the Empire that could spark a war. And when he’s not got that hanging over him, he’s using his considerable knowledge and willpower to root out the terrifying premonitions that have long afflicted Veronica’s younger sister, Amelia: a girl the Crown believes (and would prefer) to be dead.

As Amelia’s condition improves, so too does Sir Maurice’s deteriorate. When a particularly gruelling ritual from an ultra-rare (and stolen) book yields the chilling word “Executioner” scrawled over and over again in Newbury’s hand, Amelia has an awful feeling the message is a warning meant for Veronica.

Meanwhile Veronica is growing increasingly suspicious of Bainbridge’s new ally, Professor Archibald Angelchrist. What interest could the Secret Service possibly have in all of this?

So unfolds “The Executioner’s Heart”. It is, for me, the weakest book of the series. It’s still worth a read if you’ve already devoured the first three books, but don’t expect it to reach the giddy heights of “The Immorality Engine”.

The book takes a grave misstep right at the start when Veronica is killed. The story is then rewound to the start so we can follow the events leading up to her murder. Now, there is a device often used in TV shows called the “cold open”, where the show opens with a real WTF curve-ball that leads into the titles. The idea is to hook the viewer into watching more in the hope they will discover just what the hell happened back there at the start. Think of virtually any episode of The X-Files and you’re there. It is not a cold open, however, when you go on to repeat the same scene at the climax of the story and then make a small, yet significant difference to the outcome. What you have instead is a cheating, tenth-rate way of getting readers to the end of the book, and it really leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Then there’s the “investigation” part of this particular Newbury & Hobbes investigation. Essentially there isn’t one. If you take a step back from the story you soon realise the plot is flanneling along until Aldous Renwick, Newbury’s friend and rare book dealer, pulls out a dossier on the assassin and says “That’s the one.” It’s also fairly obvious who is hiring the assassin before reaching the half-way point.

Finally we come to typos. I have in the past dragged this book’s publisher, Titan Books, over the coals for their shoddy work on David Wong’s “This Book Is Full Of Spiders”. It’s therefore disappointing to also see some pretty calamitous typos in this book, including what appears to be one sentence pasted into the middle of another. Given the number of eyes cast over the manuscript, I’d dearly love to know how these things manage to slip by undetected. Seriously, Titan, I’m all ears.

So, yeah, I didn’t really get along with “The Executioner’s Heart”. Being a fan of the series as a whole I really wanted to like it, particularly when I learned there was somehow more to come after the jaw-dropping conclusion of “The Immorality Engine”. Maybe that’s it. I’m only theorising, but I’m wondering if Mann wrote Book Three feeling there would be no more to come, and went hell for leather with the plot as a result. (The first three novels were put out through a different publisher, Snowbooks.) “The Executioner’s Heart” also has the whiff of a reboot about it. Certain holy-shit moments from Book Three aren’t necessarily ignored, but they are dialled down in their importance in ways that don’t feel right, presumably to regain control over the plot. It’s like re-boxing a mess of uncoiled springs.

While the plot and the structure of the novel were a let-down, the novel is partly saved by its characters. They are all as engaging as ever, and do help keep those pages turning. Those who enjoyed the bloodthirstiness of the previous books will also be well served here.

Should you read “The Executioner’s Heart”? Yes, but only because it sets up “The Revenant Express”, book five in the series – an odd number lest you forget. Pray that Mann pulls it off because the next one sounds like a belter.

3/5

Review – The Chosen Seed

Note: this review for “The Chosen Seed” contains spoilers for “The Shadow of the Soul” and “A Matter of Blood”.

“The Chosen Seed” is the final book of Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy (also known as the “Forgotten Gods” trilogy in the US) and concludes the story of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones following the frantic conclusion of “The Shadow of the Soul”.

Dr Hask and DI Ramsay are hunting for the newest killer stalking London, one who is murdering people using the lethal Strain II virus, a stronger derivative of HIV. A dying victim recalls a clean-cut man in his early thirties saying to her “For this is the word of your God. Spread it.” Shortly afterwards she began to display symptoms.

Meanwhile Cass Jones is on the run following the murder of a man linked to the disappearance of his nephew, Luke, and also that of Adam Bradley (the real murderer). While his former colleagues, Hask and Ramsay, have a hard time accepting his guilt, Jones’ former partner, DS Armstrong, has no such concerns. He is hell-bent on bringing Jones to justice.

Jones lies low while his underworld contacts arrange a new identity for him, but his mind is alive with the mysterious Mr Bright, a man who has long pulled his strings and those of his family, and someone who most certainly knows what happened to Luke. Events take an unusual turn, however, when Jones’ murky undercover past comes back to haunt him.

All is not well within Mr Bright’s world and those of the Cohort – his fellow eternal, otherworldly beings. Not only do some find themselves dying, but now it appears an emissary has appeared, having seemingly come to Jones’ rescue at the end of the previous book. Her presence is a bad omen that suggests the imminent arrival of Him and the onset of the Rapture. At the same time the first of their kind has finally woken from his comatose state and is found to be in no fit state to lead the Cohort as hoped. He has woken an old man, meek and scared.

So here we have it, the final part of “The Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy, and while it’s better than “A Matter of Blood”, I didn’t find it quite as good as “The Shadow of the Soul”. The pages fly just as fast, the plot keeps on coming like a flood, the characters are just as good, and – yay! – there are no passwords being guessed, but… I don’t know… there were a few things that kept the book tantalisingly short of excellent.

For example, the underlying threat of revenge hanging over Jones and his undercover past, touched upon several times during the previous two books, comes to very little. Any bad blood is all too quickly forgotten. The brutal cruelty meted out to one of the characters (you’ll know when you get to it) also left a bad taste in the mouth. (The same could be said of Mr Craven’s exploits in the previous book.) Finally, and this is for me a minor point, when you take a step back from the trilogy and consider it as a whole you could be left wondering why no other religions were touched upon at all, though this was perhaps a conscious decision to keep an already huge story as lean as possible.

That said, there are some excellent scenes too. The finale is well worked, with a real sense of urgency and impending doom in the run-up. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough once it got going. The epilogue gives some real satisfying closure to the story. Yes, the story could be re-opened later down the line, but you at least feel there is no need to do so (i.e. there is no “Meanwhile at Camp Crystal…” bullshit to contend with at the end).

I think the faults I have with the trilogy mostly stem from the incredibly complex plot that spans all three books – nearly 1200 pages’ worth. Beneath the main plot threads touched upon in my reviews you will find a ton of subplots, incidents and secondary characters. Given all that, it is perhaps inevitable that some panel-beating would be required to fit it all in. Taken as a whole, I’d suggest not looking too hard at the few niggles that exist and tuck in, folks. There’s a lot of good stuff here to chew over.

The Dog-Faced Gods marked my first foray into Sarah Pinborough’s work. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to seek out “Mayhem”.

4/5

Review – The Shadow of the Soul

Note: This review contains spoilers for “A Matter of Blood” (albeit nothing you wouldn’t find in the blurb).

“The Shadow of the Soul” is book two of Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods” trilogy (also known as the “Forgotten Gods” trilogy in the US) and continues the story of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones following the dramatic conclusion of “A Matter of Blood”.

Six months have passed since that climactic shootout, London is recovering from a string of recent severe bomb attacks, and Cass Jones is investigating a series of unusual student suicides, each linked by a single bizarre phrase: “Chaos in the darkness”. He has a new partner in tow that he can barely stand, his testimonies against fellow coppers attract suspicion and resentment from many of his colleagues, and he finds his messy private life and family history further entwined in the machinations of the mysterious Mr Bright and The Bank.

Specifically, it turns out that Luke, the nephew he had thought murdered, was not the biological son of his brother, Christian. A switch at birth had taken place, and one that Christian had grown to suspect. It does not take a giant leap of logic to suspect Mr Bright’s involvement, particularly when Cass finds the man in age-old family photographs looking not a day younger.

We are introduced to a new character, Abigail Porter, security operative for the Prime Minister. When CCTV footage reveals a large fat man in the vicinity immediately before each bomb blast in London, it becomes evident that they are seeing the same person each time, something that should not be impossible when the bombs were all detonated simultaneously. When Abigail spots the same figure in the crowd prior to an official engagement she chases him down into a tube station. He looks close to death and, when he touches her hand, her mind is filled with bizarre images and sensations. He leaves her with a single word, “Interventionist”, before hurling himself under a train with a big grin on his face.

Meanwhile a fear of death permeates the cohorts of The Bank. They are supposed to be eternal, otherworldly beings, and yet several of their number are finding their lifeforce, their “Glow”, on the wane. While Mr Bright is convinced it is all a state of mind – that they have simply grown tired of living for so long – the fear among the ranks is proving enough to stoke a rebellion. It is the last thing Mr Bright needs. The first of their kind remains comatose, and the way home across the Walkways is proving as elusive as ever.

For anyone who thought “A Matter of Blood” dragged a little (particularly in regard to Cass Jones’ home life) let me put your mind at rest. “The Shadow of the Soul” thunders along like a speeding freight train. With the (ahem) dead weight cut from Cass’ overarching story, the pages turn thick and fast, helped in no small part by a healthy dollop of Even More Plot. Yum!

Sometimes when completely new characters are crowbarred into established stories it can be quite jarring and off-putting. (I finally lost track of how big Tony Soprano’s extended family became by season six, for example.) While the temptation would have been there to plonk Abigail Porter into the story simply as a means to further Mr Bright’s storyline, this has been largely resisted and results in a great, fully-rounded and kick-ass character: perhaps my favourite of the trilogy.

On top of this, exposition is drip-fed into the narrative in mostly the right places and really helps draws you into the story. If you hadn’t quite guessed who or what the cohort were by the end of book one, for example, you’ll be in little doubt by the end of this one.

There are issues to overlook, however. We have the re-emergence of Guess The Login Password, which, as my previous review mentioned, is a plot trope that should suffer the editor’s red pen the world over. Luckily this time it’s not as integral to the plot. There is also the usual riddle-talking and copious amounts of I-know-something-you-don’t-know from Mr Bright that can become rather tiring.

There was another thing that niggled me throughout the series, though I fully admit this may have been just me. I am aware that the author used her former pupil’s names for characters in her earlier books. For this trilogy she appears to have name-checked several fellow authors and editors in the field: Ramsey (Campbell), (Jo) Fletcher, (Steve) Rasnic (Tem), Brian Freeman, (Stephen) Jones, (Paul) Cornell and so on. On the one hand this is a nice gesture, and yet, once I noticed it happening, I must say every fresh nod bounced me a little out of the story.

Otherwise I was looking at an entertaining read in “The Shadow of the Soul”, and one that satisfyingly ratchets things up from “A Matter of Blood”. Recommended, but make sure you read the first book!

4/5