Review: Best New Horror

The long-running reprint anthology series Best New Horror was launched in 1990 with this book, edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell. It followed the launch of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s successful series Demons & Dreams: The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror a few years earlier, and, in much the same vein, aimed to present a comprehensive overview of the horror genre during the previous year.

This inaugural volume sets the mould for all subsequent entries in the series. It opens with a short summary of the book, movie, magazine and comic book releases during the previous year, as well as an appraisal of the health of the horror genre. (These summaries would soon lengthen with each successive book in the series, sufficient to consistently earn negative reviews from some readers miffed at having 60-80 pages “stolen” from the book they’d just bought. Personally, I don’t mind these summaries, though I agree they make for rather dry reading. I tend to skim over them to reach Jones’s closing comments, which are always worth a read.) This is followed by the main attraction: a line-up of the best horror stories published during the previous year – twenty on this occasion. To round off the book there is a necrology to remember those we lost from the realms of horror fiction, film and all the media in between.

I’ll ignore the opening and closing sections of the book and focus instead on the stories. That’s why we’re here, after all. As any seasoned reader knows, short story anthologies can be something of a curate’s egg, but there are a number of stories here which make Best New Horror worth a read and just about secures a 4/5 score.

These stories were all published in 1989 and run as follows:

Also collected in McCammon’s “Blue World”.

Pin – Robert R McCammon (3/5 – McCammon takes us inside the mind of Joey Shatterley as he psyches himself up to give the world exactly what for in the only way he knows how… by shooting up a local McDonalds. Tsk, nutters, eh? But before he can proceed with this most vital work Joey must first prove himself ready. For that he needs a pin and a certain part of his anatomy… and a whole lot of nerve. A short, sharp shock to open proceedings. Icky, but a bit by-the-numbers.)

 

 

 

 

The House on Cemetery Street – Cherry Wilder (5/5 – Lucy and Joachim are teenage siblings returning to Germany from America shortly after the end of the Second World War. They arrive at their old house and reacquaint themselves with the family elders they had left behind. They are a proud lot despite the relative poverty, tragedy and guilt that had befallen their lives. When Lucy starts seeing a dark-clothed figure among the tombstones of the neighbouring graveyard, it triggers a series of other visions and bizarre noises throughout the house. It seems the house wants rid of its darkest secret. This story takes a while getting there, but the ending will stick in your mind for a long time to come. Probably the best story in the book.)

Also collected in Gallagher’s “Out Of His Mind”

The Horn – Stephen Gallagher (4/5 – Three stranded drivers hunker down in an abandoned roadside recovery hut, sheltering as best they can against an increasingly bitter snowstorm. The snow is thigh-deep outside and rising, the wind is merciless and visibility is almost zero. The phone is out, and the electricity supply soon follows suit. It becomes obvious they cannot remain in the hut, and so one of them agrees to venture out to a jack-knifed road train further up the motorway. From there he will sound a horn for the others to follow. If only it was that simple. I loved reading Gallagher’s stuff when I was in my teens – around the same time that his TV mini-series Chimera was successfully scaring the bejabbers out of me – and he remains immensely readable nearly thirty years on. Good gory fun!)

Breaking Up – Alex Quiroba (4/5 – In this dark and sexually-charged story we closely follow Max Griffin, who is dumped by his girlfriend, Nancy, and whose mind immediately starts to unravel, taking him further and further down a succession of rabbit holes before snapping him back to reality: he slashes Nancy’s throat and watches her struggle to stem the bleeding; he takes his car for a spin and crashes and burns; he attends a porno theatre and unwillingly becomes the main attraction… all ridiculous flights of fantasy, of course. Right? There have been a fair few stories with unreliable main characters or narrators over the years, but this is one of the better ones, helped somewhat by its short running time – it’s in and out before its Cormac-McCarthy-wannabe lack of punctuation begins to annoy.)

Also collected in Campbell’s “Waking Nightmares”

It Helps If You Sing – Ramsey Campbell (3/5 – From the window of his high-rise flat an old man called Bright observes the neighbouring blocks and how they are growing increasingly dark, as if fewer and fewer people are living there. He hears the muffled strains of a hymn here and there, always the same one, playing at different times of the day, sometimes overlapping. When Bright arrives home one day to find two androgynous religious zealots waiting for him by his front door it seems he’s about to discover the truth for himself. This was a disappointing show, sadly. Though there were some nice touches in places, the story was slight and came across as having been written after Campbell had closed the door on the umpteenth Jehovah’s Witness that week.)

Also collected in Staig’s “Dark Toys and Consumer Goods”, though hard to find

Closed Circuit – Laurence Staig (4/5 – In a twisted future (at least from the perspective of 1989) Mrs Anderson and her two young children park up at the Consumer Comfort Shopping Mall in order to get some shopping done. Once inside they find other shoppers in the mall fervently keen – some might say insanely keen – on doing likewise. When the high-pressure selling gets a bit too much for the kids to handle, Mrs Anderson tries to hustle them away without buying anything, which proves a mite trickier than it sounds. There’s a strong whiff of The Twilight Zone about this story… no bad thing in my eyes. Hmm, an inescapable nightmare set in an endlessly huge building… I can’t imagine for a second why this one resonated with me!)

Also collected in SRT’s “City Fishing”.

Carnal House – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Another dark and sexually-charged story which sees a man called Gene receive a phone call from Ruth, an old friend from college. She wants Gene to come over, which he does, like he does every time Ruth calls, leaving his seriously-ill junkie girlfriend, Jennie, once more to fester in front of the TV. Ruth is forever hungry for Gene to make love to her, not for his affection but simply to feel something… it’s been such a long time since she’s felt anything at all. When I first read this I wasn’t overly impressed. I generally like SRT’s work – even when he goes full-weird – but something about this didn’t click. I can only imagine I was tired or not quite paying attention, because the story was noticeably better upon a second read.)

Also collected in Newman’s “The Original Dr Shade and Other Stories”

Twitch Technicolor – Kim Newman (3/5 – Michaelis Monte is an artist who makes a living remixing old movies for his clients, not only colourising them but outright altering entire scenes, updating them with gore enough for modern audiences, even editing in actors who were never in the film to begin with. The wonders of future-modern technology! Monte has been losing staff (and rivals) hand over fist, often in gruesome ways ironic to the movie they were working on. He hasn’t given much thought to why this would be. Perhaps he should. As will often be noted during his appearances in the Best New Horror series, Newman has an oceans-deep knowledge of everything cinema, which is rivalled perhaps only by his enthusiasm for the medium. It’s not for nothing that he co-edits the Necrology section in each book with Jones. But sometimes this can be his undoing, and this, for me, was one of those times. Perhaps the story read better back in 1989 than it does today.)

Also collected in Frost’s “Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories”

Lizaveta – Gregory Frost (3/5 – In the searing heat and amid the brutal pogroms of early-twentieth-century Russia, Lizaveta Ostrov tells a soldier a disturbing tale of her life before becoming a whore. Lizaveta had once been a schoolteacher, and had taken up a post in a small village near the Kazakh border. Her predecessor had done a poor job of educating the children of the village, and had mysteriously left without a word. Given the baleful presence of one particular child in her class, perhaps Lizaveta should have done the same. The build-up of this story is really good, and rather reminded me of one of the stories-within-a-story found in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, but Frost throws it away at the end. It’s almost as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. A shame.)

Snow Cancellations – Donald R Burleson (4/5 – Jamie listens to the radio as he watches the snow fall outside. He’s nine years old and he’s waiting to see whether school will be cancelled that morning – which obviously happens. When his mother fails to secure a sitter for him, Jamie is entrusted to look after the house while she’s at work. Jamie calls his schoolfriend, Kevin, and together they listen as the snowstorm claims one place after another. A fun read.)

Archway – Nicholas Royle (3/5 – In this unrelenting misery-fest we follow a near-destitute Bella as she loses her job and, not long after that, her marbles. She repeatedly hears laughter from all angles, sees cracks in her walls that seep pure blackness into the room, and, in pretty much every other sentence, she glimpses a menacing figure wearing a grinning white triangular mask. Not the best form to go tackling a labyrinthine social security system then. This seemed less a horror story than a rant about how shitty life was on the breadline in late-80s Britain, and the ending was nasty purely for the sake of it. Not great. Thankfully, Royle’s subsequent entries in the Best New Horror series greatly improve on this first appearance.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “Noctuary”

The Strange Design of Master Rignolo – Thomas Ligotti (3/5 – Messrs Nolon and Grissul meet one night at a park bench. Grissul is keen to show Nolon a most peculiar and unearthly thing he’s seen in a nearby field. Nolon, on the other hand, is more keen to take Rignolo up on a rare invitation to view the reality-bending artworks the master artist has spent so long perfecting. Little do they suspect the two may be linked. I love reading Ligotti’s work. The dreamlike quality of his writing and the impasto-thick atmosphere he builds; the offbeat characters he creates and the utterly odd situations he places them in – they all mark Ligotti as a true one-off, but this rather slight story left me wanting to like it more than I did.)

…To Feel Another’s Woe – Chet Williamson (3/5 – Adams is an actor auditioning for a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. While he and his fellow New Yorker luvvies await being called, he is warned to stay clear of a fellow hopeful, Sheila Remarque. It seems while her star shines ever-brighter, her previous squeezes have all come away from their relationships with her a shadow of their former selves. This was okay, offering a decent sense of the actor scene, but this deliberately bloodless vampire story didn’t stick in my mind for long, even after a second read.)

Also collected in “The Best of Robert Westall Volume One: Demons and Shadows”

The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux – Robert Westall (5/5 – Geoff Ashden is an antiques dealer who also sits on the board of a local school. When the upper-crust Miss Molyneaux applies for the job of teaching the notorious class 4C, Geoff casts the deciding vote to hire her, mainly because he fancies her. Miss Molyneaux soon has class 4C wrapped around her little finger with her practical, unvarnished teaching style. When a school outing to a largely abandoned church results in some unusual graffiti, the schoolchildren are immediately blamed, but the unsettling sight of a bald-headed man loitering in the background suggests all may not be what it seems. Westall was a celebrated children’s author back in the day and it’s no surprise that the schoolchildren here get all the best lines. The Last Day… is genuinely funny, it’s scary when it needs to be, and it closes with the best line I’ve read in years. This is a superb read.)

Also collected in Lumley’s “No Sharks in the Med and Other Stories”

No Sharks In The Med – Brian Lumley (3/5 – Geoff and Gwen are newlyweds holidaying in coastal Greece. They are driven from the airport by a man called Spiros, who is less-than-shy in his affections for Gwen. As the holiday progresses, so too do Spiros’s attempts to wangle himself into Gwen’s pants. When a drunken confrontation sees Spiros go too far, he apologies and offers the newlyweds a trip out on his boat to a small secluded island a few miles from the shore. Nothing wrong with that, right? This comparatively lengthy tale could have made a half-decent mid-80’s Tales of the Unexpected, but I struggle to call it horror.)

 

Also collected in Lewis’s “The Last Balcony”

Mort au Monde – D. F. Lewis (2/5 – David wakes in a state of confusion to find the door to his room open and a sense of searing red eyes watching him. His beloved Marianne sleeps a few occupied rooms further down the hall, and when David checks in on her, her red eyes and a disturbing grunt from elsewhere in the room send him scurrying back to bed. Perhaps the intervening rooms are no longer as quite occupied as he first believed. Lewis was a highly prolific writer at the time, mainly writing hundreds (and hundreds) of moody ambiguous shorts like this. Though this was well-written, I can’t count myself a fan. I have to be in the right frame of mind for things like this, and that doesn’t come around very often.)

Also collected in Tessier’s “Ghost Music and Other Tales”

Blanca – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – A burnt-out American travel writer arrives in the titular (fictitious) region with the express intention to kick back and relax with a Maigret novel or two. This is a region with a heavy police presence, mostly plain-clothed, but he’s comfortable with that. He makes the acquaintance of a local man, Basma, a Lebanese immigrant, who shows him around town. That night our man experiences a vivid dream in which he looks out from his hotel room and witnesses an indiscriminate round-up of terrified citizens by soldiers on horseback. The next night he witnesses the same scene, only fully awake. Is he experiencing a series of timeslips, or is something more sinister going on? This was another story that left me a little flat the first time around but improved on a second read.)

Also collected in “The Best of Ian Watson”

The Eye of the Ayatollah – Ian Watson (3/5 – The Muslim world is in uproar. Death to the Satan-author, they cry, wherever he is hiding! Immediately following the chaotic funeral of the Ayatollah, an injured soldier, Ali, is shocked to find he carries the cleric’s eyeball in his hand, optic nerve and all. Even weirder, the eye is still infused with life. It seems the eye of the Ayatollah retains a keen desire to hunt out the Satan-author. This story was published shortly after the genuinely chaotic funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini and does a good job of conveying the carnage that took place. From then on, however, the story gets a bit too silly to be taken seriously. Perhaps this read better back in 1989 amid the hullaballoo surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses, but in 2019 it’s a little jarring.)

Also collected in Wagner’s “Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane”

At First Just Ghostly – Karl Edward Wagner (4/5 – Cody Lennox is a best-selling horror author who is visiting Britain partially to attend a writer’s convention, but mainly to drink himself into oblivion. Lennox soon catches up with a few fellow professionals, who ably assist him in this regard. But during this, his latest visit to Blighty, things take a very peculiar turn. Lennox finds calling cards dotted around the place, his luck is in time and again on the fruit machines, and it seems a whole other, seemingly supernatural, side of London seeks his acquaintance – not least a legendary figure calling himself Kane. This novella was nominated for a Stoker award back in the day, and it’s not hard to see why. There is a broad seam of humour running throughout this story which makes it immensely readable. Though this was a Kane story, you don’t need to be too familiar with the character to enjoy it. (I hadn’t read any of Wagner’s Kane stories before this.) The one thing that held the story back is something it genuinely cannot help. Lennox is a thinly-veiled version of Wagner himself, and shares the author’s prodigious capacity for drink. Wagner died five years after this was published, due largely to complications brought about by his alcohol consumption. He was 48 years old. It’s hard to read a character express concern about Lennox’s wellbeing in this story and not feel this was the author’s inner voice speaking. Such a shame.)

Bad News – Richard Laymon (5/5 – When Paul retrieves his morning paper and leaves it lying on the coffee table, the last thing he expects is for a disgusting creature to worm its way out from the folds and to chase him all round the house trying to eat him and his family. For as much as Laymon divides opinion among the horror community – I’m in the “like” camp, for my sins – I’m sure everyone can get behind this one. It’s funny, the horror starts almost immediately, it escalates rapidly and it never, ever lets up! As a closer to the book, this is an absolute scream.)

And that concludes this review of Best New Horror. If any of these stories whet your appetite then you should be able to find a second-hand copy of this book without too much difficultly. If you’d prefer a nice clean copy then PS Publishing offer a swanky 25th Anniversary edition. Finally, if digital is your thing, then you can find Best New Horror for purchase on several popular eBook platforms.

Till the next one – TTFN!

LP

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Reading Best New Horror

If, like me, you are partial to a spot of short horror fiction, then the chances are you’ll have come across Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror series.

Launched in 1990 by Robinson Publishing in the UK and Carrol & Graf in the US, and continued in recent years by PS Publishing, this long-running reprint anthology series presents an annual selection of the best short horror fiction published during the previous year.

The Best New Horror family photo. I really ought to buy some bookshelves…

Each volume opens with a detailed summary of all things horror released during the year and finishes with a necrology that honours those the genre lost. In the three-to-four-hundred pages in between, Jones showcases a broad variety of stories, written by old hands and future stars of the genre, frequently demonstrating that there’s much more to horror fiction than mere zombies and werewolves and vampires (though they do inevitably get a look-in every now and again). No one subgenre or theme is allowed to dominate, and it’s arguably this tight editorial control that has played a large part in the series’ success, particularly considering the horror genre’s poor health throughout the decades.

Some time ago I undertook to complete my collection of Best New Horror with an aim to eventually reading them all in sequence and perhaps get a sense of how the horror genre has changed over the last three decades (albeit through one editor’s eyes). Thanks to some second-hand bookdealers and the power of the internet, this proved neither too tricky nor too expensive. So long as you are willing to take a chance on quality, you shouldn’t struggle getting a copy of each volume.

If the thought of holding a book that may have once been owned by someone who habitually forgets to wash their hands after going to the toilet horrifies you, then you should be able to find eBook editions across a variety of platforms, usually priced between £2.50 and £4.00 each. If you’d prefer to hold a crisp clean copy in your hands, then PS Publishing have selected volumes of the series available in a variety of formats from around £12 each.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll review each book in sequence, offering up a brief summary and mini-review of the stories found therein. I’ll also provide links where I can to author’s collections in which you can also find the story. Over time this should build a pretty comprehensive overview of the several hundred stories published across Best New Horror for anyone who may be tempted to dip into the series.

Before we begin, here’s a brief overview of how I score things in my reviews:

1/5 – The story had nothing going for it, or it wasted my time, or it pissed me off, or all of the above. Few stories earn this score as I can usually find something in a poor story that partially redeems it;

2/5 – Overall the story was a disappointment because it was weak or too clichéd, or it was blatantly over-engineered, or – worse still – it wasted the potential of a great idea or central character;

3/5 – The story didn’t exactly set my world on fire, but nor did it leave me feeling like I’d wasted my time. On occasion this score might also indicate a story that had some great points but also some equally naff ones;

4/5 – The story left me feeling entertained or enlightened in some way or impressed by a certain aspect of it. There may have been the odd fly in the ointment here and there, but the overall quality of the story made up for it;

5/5 – I don’t often score things a 5/5, but every now and again there will be a story where the quality of the writing is extraordinary, where a real sense of place is achieved, where meticulous attention to detail has really paid off, or, generally, where I get to the end and can’t help but say “that was bloody brilliant!” When that happens, 5/5s follow.

To keep things simple, the average score across each story in a book will decide its overall score. Will there be a book that scores 5/5, I wonder?

Let’s begin with book one and find out, shall we?

LP

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.

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