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

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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

Review – A Matter of Blood

They’re funny old things, book trilogies. Some genres seem to suit them better than others. For example, you’ll be doing well to pick a sci-fi or fantasy novel off the shelves and not find it “Volume whatever of The Handlecrank Trilogy”. (Usually the second.) There are some genres, however, that are ill-suited to trilogies. Crime, for example, where the book series is king owing to its inherent case-by-case story structure. Horror, too, is often stony ground for trilogies. (Tales of high terror and nerve-shredding peril tend to lose something when you know the protagonist needs to survive to book three.)

So when someone takes the crime and horror genres and then fashions them into a dark fantasy trilogy I’m left with two thoughts. One is: “There’s something you don’t see every day.” The other: “I want to read that!”

All such blathering leads me to Sarah Pinborough’s “Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy”. (Also known as “The Forgotten Gods Trilogy” in the US.)

“A Matter of Blood” is the first of the trilogy, in which we find London suffering under the weight of recession, a highly-contagious new strain of HIV and a serial killer known as the Man of Flies.

The wider world is largely beholden to The Bank: an organisation that was formed by the wealthiest to pour oil over choppy economic waters, one whose fingerprints cover nearly every financial transaction made, but also one that is secretly controlled by cohorts of otherworldly beings. When one of the cohort starts to die – something that isn’t supposed to happen to the everlasting – discord and fear build through the ranks.

Amid all of this we are drawn into the messy world of Detective Inspector Cassius Jones as he investigates a string of murder victims: each with the words NOTHING IS SACRED written across their chest; each sporting a neat arrangement of fly eggs about their person. Meanwhile a parallel investigation is attempting to track the killers of two school friends in what appears to have been a botched gangland hit.

When someone anonymously deposits a DVD at the station showing the boys’ shooting, intrigue is notched higher still. Or at least, that is, until Christian, Cass’ brother, apparently shoots his wife, young son and then himself.

Could there be a connection? Well, we wouldn’t have a 419 page novel if there wasn’t, would we? “Ah, but is it any good,” you ask? My answer is “Yes, but…”

The yes: In “A Matter of Blood” we are given a believable alternate London with a large cast of well-drawn characters on both sides of the law. The star of the show is, of course, Cass Jones, a satisfyingly complex character whose rough edges – his chequered history, his infidelity, his acquaintance with Charles (so to speak), his foot in the criminal underworld – instantly engage the reader. Such a large cast makes for a lot of plot to chew over, and, happily, there isn’t much flab in those pages.

The but: Plot advancement and pacing is sometimes reliant on characters doing dumb or unbelievable things, often jarringly so. An example of a dumb move sees Cass attempting to gain illegal access to The Bank’s headquarters. It quickly becomes apparent why, for the sake of the plot, he does this, but his motive in doing so is weak. Indeed, when he later questions his dumb move you can’t help but wonder if there’s a hint of authorial voice in there. A rather large example of plot-stalling emerges once you’ve read the trilogy and realise one key (and short-lived) character could have saved at least a book and a half by getting to the point and not talking in unnecessary riddles.

More yes: the near-future world in which this all takes place is often brilliantly realised. There is an excellent sense of place in each scene, achieved not through pages of dry description, but through the observations of believable characters. The police procedural elements of the story are so well done there were often times I forgot I was reading a dark fantasy story.

More but: You have all this sterling attention to detail only to then see the story resort to hoary old plot tropes such as “Guess The Login Password”! (And a two-character password at that. If you listen carefully you can hear a million IT guys across the world “WTF” simultaneously, and a squillion office workers say “Huh, I wish.”) Seriously, folks, there are less clunky ways of gaining access to a locked laptop.

So it goes, back and forth, between the really good and the not-quite-so-good. If you can accept the story for what it is and don’t peek too deeply into its plot holes then you’ll find a lot here to enjoy. It does suffer a little for being the first of a trilogy, but, rather like Mark Hodder’s “Burton & Swinburne” series, the story really picks up in subsequent books.

If the somewhat permeable nature of some trilogies (*cough* Night Watch *cough*) has left you jaded, it’s also worth mentioning that there is a genuine sense of closure in “The Dog-Faced Gods”.

(Unless, of course, the planned TV series is a roaring success, in which case all bets are off!)

3/5, but this is a trilogy worth sticking with.

Review – Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Everyone likes to find a twenty in their wallet they forgot they had. Nestled between some wrinkly old receipts, its discovery puts a smile on your face and you find yourself saying “Hello, where have you been all this time?”

I found the final three-quarters of Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon a little like that, for reasons I’ll blather about shortly.

Welcome to the by-now utterly bizarre universe occupied, amongst others, by Sir Richard Burton, famous explorer and agent for King Albert (see, bizarre – I told you), and his assistant, the poet Algernon Swinburne. Theirs is a time knocked wildly off-course by the accidental interference of one Spring-Heeled Jack, whose inadvertent influence has given science and technology a premature shot in the arm, leading to bizarre insect-based conveyances (each hollowed out and steam-driven) and eugenically-altered plant life. So, yeah, like I said… mondo bizarro.

It should be said at this point that you really ought to come to Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon having already read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. While Hodder gives the reader a fair amount of backstory, had I have come to this book cold I’d have perhaps put it down three chapters in, wondering what in blue blazes was going on, and declaring the whole thing a little too wilfully outré.

A significant reason for this, as I alluded to earlier, is because the universe in which these stories take place has, by book three, deviated so far from historical norms as to make it almost alien. The creative spurts of the eugenicists, for example, has bridged the gap to create not only animal men, but plant men too. Weaponised vegetation? Check. Acid-spitting plant-life with a thirst for blood? You betcha. In the first book, Spring-Heeled Jack suffers severe culture shock upon landing so far back in the past, which, I suspect, is a sensation not entirely dissimilar to diving into this series three books in.

The most troubling aspect I’d have had, however, would have been the structure of the book. Here you have two Burtons: one preparing to venture to the Mountains of the Moon, to not only retrieve a dirty great diamond but also to once and for all ascertain the source of the Nile; and also a second amnesiac Burton flung forward in time to an alternate World War I, witnessing first-hand the terrible world that has spun off from the actions of both Spring-Heeled Jack and he himself.

In short, I suspect it’d make a hell of a lot more sense if you were to read the first two books, so off you toddle.

For those of you still here, let me say that Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is another great read from Hodder, who, I’m guessing, three books in, is having a whale of a time conjuring up yet more complicated oddness for his alternative universe, when most lesser writers would have jumped off a bridge, declaring to have written themselves into a corner.

Not only has Hodder an imagination seemingly only measurable in light years, but he has a depth of knowledge for the Victorian era to match it. While his universe has spun off in many bizarre ways following the accidental assassination of Queen Victoria, it still recognisably parallels real-life events and the people of the age. But then, in Expedition, he pulls an ace from his sleeve.

We are shown, in the previous books, Burton’s recollections of his time spent in Africa, and how he incorporates the things he learned there into his day-to-day duties as the King’s agent. These references help cement the man as a dyed-in-the-wool explorer. Around a quarter of the way into Expedition, Burton and company embark on their journey for the final as-yet undiscovered black diamond, and here Hodder suddenly reveals himself to be just as good at writing a sprawling (and, crucially, well-researched and expertly-executed) desert adventure. After 2 1/4 somewhat barmy books set in foggy old Blighty I found myself reading Expedition thinking “Hello! Where’s all this come from? This is great!” It was like finding a whole new book, if not that crisp twenty from earlier.

Expeditions is not a book without its issues, however. Like Spring-Heeled Jack before it, the reader is asked to let slide some pretty eye-watering coincidences from beginning to end. For example, the way in which Burton’s party for the expedition is assembled is somewhat contrived (i.e. nearly all the surviving characters from the previous book are somehow shoehorned into the start of the expedition, including one that instantly had my eyes rolling – you’ll know who when you get there). An old returning character is reintroduced to the story in a fashion that had me saying to myself “Of all the oases in all the deserts in all of Africa she walks into mine”. Finally, the author’s habit of dropping in real-life historical figures into the story continues unabated. Some work, such as Sidi Bombay, while others set my eyes rolling again.

Finally, there were a few too many typos than one would expect from a retail book. There are thankfully not as many as there were in Spring-Heeled Jack, but enough that had me starting to watch out for them, taking me out of the story a little.

As for the ending… well, let’s just say I can’t wait to read #4, if only to see how on earth Hodder manages to continue the story. The Goodreads blurb hints #4 to be the start of a new series, which sounds ominous. I’ll reserve judgement, however, until I get my eager peepers on the thing.

Rating: In summary this, like Clockwork Man before it, is a solid 4/5 from me. Heartily recommended, old thing.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

So, you’ve just managed to disentangle a massively complicated plot from your head and successfully gotten it onto the page. Not only that but you’ve managed to hang upon it some very well-researched material to give it a real sense of place, and a huge dollop of imagination to make the story your own. Heck, you’ve even received an award for your efforts.

Where next then? Get a clean notebook out for an all-new story?

Well, if you’re Mark Hodder it appears you decide that the first story wasn’t complicated enough and then go in again with a big spoon to stir things up some more!

Welcome to The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, set in the bizarre alternative universe inhabited, amongst others, by Sir Richard Burton, famous explorer and agent to King Albert (yes, that’s right), and his assistant, the poet Algernon Swinburne. Theirs is a time significantly altered by the unintended temporal shenanigans of one Spring-Heeled Jack, bringing about premature advances in assorted scientific and technological disciplines. Do you want to be flown here and there beneath giant eugenically-engineered swans? You got it, old bean. How about some autonomous steam men clunking about the place? Yeah, we got those too.

Now, if you haven’t read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, then stop right now and seek it out. While many book series are comprised of largely separate stories, the events of both this book and its sequel, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, are tied more with its first book than other series I’ve read. Hodder provides some backstory in each of these follow-ups, but had I come to this story cold then I may have felt these expository parts a little tacked-on. And, anyway, the first book is rather good fun, so give it a whirl.

Anyway, what you have here is another inventive slice of Albertian England involving missing diamonds, contested estates and ghostly manifestations, which then descends into something else entirely.

There’s no farting about from Hodder in this story. The action and intrigue kick in from the get-go – a benefit of having gotten a large amount of the world-building guff out of the way in the first book. In this story Burton and Swinburne follow the trail of a stolen collection of black diamonds. Burton discovers the stones possess a few special properties, chief among them a resonance with human brainwaves. Or they would have done were they not fakes.

Meanwhile, public interest is piqued by The Tichborne Affair, where the sudden return of Roger Tichborne, long considered lost at sea, sees him pitch a claim for the Tichborne estate. The fact that the claimant doesn’t resemble Roger Tichborne in any way seems no obstacle, particularly when many of those who see him in the flesh instantly vouch for him. The general public take Roger to their hearts, despite his social standing, seeing instead a penniless man deprived of what was rightfully his. Tensions mount across London when the claimant’s lawyer takes his client’s case to the masses.

Could the two stories be connected in any way? Oh, come on, what do you think?!

How these story threads come together, however, takes the story off in a completely different direction: one that doesn’t auger well for the course of (this alternative) history, one that smartly ties in with elements of the first book and one that brilliantly sets up the next one. (Don’t worry, there’s closure to be found.)

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is, for me, a great follow-up to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, and one I feel somehow improves the first story. As mentioned earlier, the fewer diversions into world-building enables Hodder to get on with telling the goddam story, and as a result, he keeps those pages a-turning, which, of course, is A Good Thing.

Another Good Thing is the fact that the book is mostly clean of typos, something of a blessing when compared to the first book. It all helped to keep me in the story. (I can’t heap praise onto a published book for being free of typos, however.)

What irritations I found in the story were relatively minor. Again the finale gets a little too silly for me. It’s funny, yes, but you may be well advised to suspend disbelief before stepping in. The main characters once more fall into philosophical discussions that take the reader away from the story, though thankfully only for a couple of pages at a time. Then there was the rather OTT descent into carnage that teetered dangerously close to Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air (whose message, I think, though I could have been wrong, even though it was rubber-stamped on nearly every bloody page, was that communism was bad). Thankfully Hodder uses such civil unrest sparingly and, in a way, eerily presages the Tottenham riots of 2011 that unfolded a month before the book’s publication!

Rating: In all this is a great read, a nailed-on 4/5 from me. Be sure to pick up the next book as well as this one, however, as you will want to dive straight in once you hit the end of Clockwork Man.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Book series are the lifeblood of genre publishing, perhaps more so now than at any other point in publishing history. Take a moment the next time you’re in a bookshop to see just how much shelf space they occupy. (And, annoyingly, how many of those series are missing Book One!)

Book series are popular with readers as they allow them to re-enter a familiar world they previously found entertaining. The cynical among you may also argue book series are popular with authors, agents and publishers because they are a much easier sell than a standalone piece of work.

Of course, before getting to that stage, all concerned need to surmount that most tricky of obstacles: the first book of the series. That first book has to do a hell of a lot. It has to introduce the main and supporting characters and set up relationships between them all. It has to create an interesting universe in which to house future instalments. It has to nail down some rules for the characters to play by. And then, on top of all that, it has to tell its own mighty fine story in the hope of then luring readers back for more.

This takes us to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, the first instalment of Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne series, detailing the adventures of Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne in an alternative Industrial Revolution-era universe. I bought this along with its subsequent two books, and have refrained from writing a review until I had read all three.

It sounds mean, but I did this because I wanted to know whether subsequent books in the series would improve upon Spring-Heeled Jack. That’s not to say it’s a bad book – far from it – the book won the Philip K Dick award, after all – but had it been a standalone work then I’d have marked it down a little more.

The reasons mostly relate to that First Book Syndrome I was blathering about just now. There are parts of the story, particularly in the first 50 or so pages, where there was a little too much world-building going on. There were also pages of philosophical discussion between assorted characters that made me wonder what I’d let myself in for. Then, thankfully, the story began, and rather good it was too.

Queen Victoria is dead, assassinated very early into her reign, which, after some political jiggery-pokery, brings about the Albertian era. Years pass and King Albert’s subjects are blissfully unaware that history should not have unfurled in this way. Someone has interfered with the past and is desperate to put things right. The ramifications of their actions, however, help accelerate development in assorted scientific and technological disciplines, creating a bizarre London filled with steam-driven Penny Farthings, airborne chairs, parakeet messengers and eugenically-altered people. Peppered throughout this alternative history are attacks from and bizarre sightings of the titular Spring-Heeled Jack.

Amidst this oddness is Sir Richard Burton, explorer extraordinaire, reeling from the apparent attempted suicide of John Hanning Speke, a former friend turned bitter rival. Burton is soon set upon by a raving-mad Spring-Heeled Jack, whose insane rant reveals that history has been altered, and suggests a dull future had once lay ahead for Burton. When Burton is offered the role of the King’s agent he therefore quickly accepts (thus spinning history further off the rails). Assisted by the poet Algernon Swinburne, and assorted other real-life historical figures, they uncover a wonderfully complicated plot of twisted ideologies, bad science and time travel.

(“Just how complicated a plot?” you may ask. Well, reading Spring-Heeled Jack brought to mind an old Mad magazine skit of Back to the Future 2, where a famous US sports pundit would frequently break into the story to explain the temporal tomfoolery that was going on, using a chart covered with esoteric lines and arrows. Hodder’s chart in plotting this story, I reckon, would have been visible from space.)

Now, while I say the story is good, in order to enjoy it fully you are going to have to suspend disbelief more than a couple of times, and flat-out ignore some annoyances that litter the book.

First, even though Sir Richard Burton is a well-connected man, there is a large dollop of happenstance in Spring-Heeled Jack. The cynic in me was sometimes left debating the next historical figure to be shoehorned into the story.

Second, there were times, particularly towards the end, when the story got too silly for me. When the cabal of bad guys was fully revealed it instantly smacked of a Venture Bros episode. (Mind you, if Hodder had planted the line “They hit me with a pantechnicon!” in there, that would have been an instant 5 stars from this reviewer.)

Third, though this is a minor niggle, there is evidence in this book that Hodder will need a new keyboard to replace the Shift and 1 keys, for there are exclamation marks ruddy well everywhere. I often hit sentences and dialogue that didn’t seem to warrant them. They also appear in the narrative voice, which may irk some readers.

Finally, and this perhaps bothered me the most, the copy I had was littered with formatting errors and typos. The odd one I could handle, but there were masses of them in this book. I’d read a line of dialogue only to find it was actually two lines caused by a missing line break. This made for added confusion when the return dialogue began on the next line, but incorrectly indented. I also couldn’t help but notice all the way through that “Spring-Heeled Jack” was hyphenated in the page headers, but not at all within the story itself. I found these lapses surprising and disappointing given the quality of Snowbooks’ previous output.

That said, there is a huge amount of stuff in this book to admire. While Hodder has created an alternative history for his series, it is still a history that recognisably parallels actual events. How he has managed to squeeze all of this into a coherent (albeit bonkers) plot speaks of a deep knowledge of the era as well as staggering inventiveness and imagination.

Overall, had this have been a standalone book, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack would have been a 3/5 from me. However, the quality of the sequels help edge this up a notch. If you thought the plot in this book was mad, just see where Hodder takes his alternative history next!

Rating: 3.5, rounded up to 4/5. Cordially recommended, old thing.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – Coldbrook

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Zombies. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no getting away from them at the minute, especially with World War Z shuffling into cinemas soon. So after softening myself with David Wong’s not-really-a-zombie-story-honest-guv This Book Is Full Of Spiders, I thought I’d fling myself into Tim Lebbon’s hell-yeah-we’re-talking-zombies-baby Coldbrook.

This was my first Lebbon novel and, on this evidence, it won’t be my last. What we have here is a surprisingly quick read, for all of its 632 page length, courtesy of a seasoned and prolific writer who, by this stage, most definitely knows his way around a horror novel. You get the impression this is a story Lebbon has been looking forward to writing for a while, which, of course, is A Good Thing. What we also have is Lebbon’s attempt to trump the body count of not only every zombie book on the bookshelves, but perhaps every single book ever written combined! If you want to play Top Trumps with horror novels, this one has the “Body count” category sewn up, and in a very clever way too.

You see, in true Outer Limits style, it’s all the fault of them bloody scientists. No sooner do they rip a portal into the multiverse and connect to another Earth than a withered old zombie wanders in and takes lumps out of people. The infection it carries takes hold fast and soon most of the scientists in the Coldbrook complex are gadding about looking to bite people. When one of the engineers escapes the complex it doesn’t take long for one of the zombies to follow and thus the outbreak truly begins.

Lebbon doesn’t hang about. This all happens in the first 100 pages. The novel follows a number of story threads as it charts the downfall of mankind: Jonah, an ageing Welsh physician spearheading operations following the owner’s suicide, and his struggle to cleanse the complex of infection while being haunted by a mysterious figure calling itself The Inquisitor; Holly, a scientist that escapes through the portal to seek refuge on the other Earth, only to find it not quite as beautiful as it once seemed; Vic, the engineer that escapes Coldbrook to be with his family and thus dooming the planet to zombie domination; and Jayne, a young woman suffering a rare muscle disease that also grants her resistance to the infection.

No one character dominates the story, but neither are any of the main characters short-changed. The action comes thick and fast with at least somebody in dire straits at any one time. It all keeps the pages turning at a fair old pace. Lebbon’s account of mankind’s rapid deterioration is impressive and scary, but is leavened by the spirit of the survivors.

The book is not without its flaws. Apart from a few forgivable typos the exchanges between characters can sometimes seem a bit too chummy, especially between those who have only just met in strange and incredibly stressful circumstances. It doesn’t distract too much from the story, though. What did drive me batty, however, was the sheer number of hanging…

I mean it happens every other…

And not just for one character, either, it’s every one of…

Once you notice it, it starts to get on your…

You get the idea. Don’t play drinking games based on hanging sentences while reading this novel as you’ll be shitfaced by the end of part one. In truth it’s only another minor niggle and it shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the story.

To wrap this review up, in the end I liked Coldbrook. It was certainly worth a read. It didn’t blow my mind, but then that’s not what we’re here for. Fans of the inevitable zombie apocalypse will be well serviced by the novel, and I’m sure that fans of Lebbon’s work won’t be disappointed either. Kudos also to Hammer Books (via Arrow Books, itself via Random House… sigh) for getting this meaty book onto the shelves at the relatively cheap RRP of £6.99, when one would have assumed the page count would have edged it closer to £8.99.

Rating: 4/5

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the second draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – This Book Is Full Of Spiders

Note #1: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Note #2: This review for This Book Is Full Of Spiders is full of spoilers for John Dies At The End. (You can probably guess what they might be.)

Ah, that most hoary of cliches: The Difficult Second Album. How often you come to the aid of lazy journalists across the world, and, hell, who am I to rock the boat?

Sometimes it’s caused by the spark of creativity waning the second time around. Sometimes the suits get too much of a say and piss over every square inch of what made the first effort so good. Either way someone loses out: oftentimes the very people that made that first effort a hit. The fans.

Yes, as you may have gathered, the follow-up to John Dies At The End (JDATE) didn’t quite set my world alight. (A pity as it’s STILL bastard cold outside.) I notice that this book, like its predecessor, divides opinion like few I have read over the years, and while I can certainly appreciate the points made by either side, ultimately I can’t help but think that This Book Is Full Of Spiders (TBIFOS) has been rush-released by the publisher.

My reasons:

1) The John in TBIFOS is a completely different character to that in JDATE. Seriously, it’s like having Jim Carrey in the first book and replacing him with Will Ferrell for the second. Maybe this was because Wong (or Pargin, if you prefer) intended to beef up John’s character in a further draft, or at least give him more than the handful of funny lines he gets in this book.

2) The book, sold as “another terrifying and hilarious tale of almost Armageddon”, has perhaps a third of the humour of JDATE. This could be a conscious decision by Wong to up the horror aspect; it could be due to the events of the book not lending themselves easily to humour (which they don’t), but could also be because Wong hadn’t had much of a chance to inject much of the slacker humour woven throughout much of the first book.

3) JDATE is told from Wong’s perspective. Around half of TBIFOS, however, is told from umpteen points of view, yet is still presented as Wong’s book. This is obviously caused by the demands of the plot, which sees John Cheese and David Wong separated for a large section of the story, but it frequently left me wondering how Wong could possibly have known the events of the novel happened in such a way. For me, this frequently bounced me out of the story. A spot of author intrusion highlights the fact that Wong is only too aware of this weakness, when he says “don’t ask me how I know this, but…” when presenting a couple of pages from Molly’s point of view. For those who have not read JDATE, Molly is a dog. A funny but ultimately weak epilogue also tries to address this deficiency, but only reinforces the notion that the book had not seen the scrutiny of a strong enough editor, or that the publisher didn’t really care about these weaknesses and was more eager to get the book into the shops.

4) Wong’s insistence of calling the town Undisclosed jars more and more the further into the book you see it. The device is presented as a means to protect the town from Wong’s fans, and his fans from the wrongness of the town. Fair enough. JDATE gets away with this because the events, as loopy as they were, were fairly self-contained. In TBIFOS, however, you have an outbreak that makes worldwide news and its events would ordinarily be etched into history books forever after. Why the hell would you bother continuing to hide the name of the town in light of that? Again, I can’t help thinking this really ought to have been picked up at an early stage.

5) Someone didn’t appear to check the quality of the book prior to release, or at least the edition I bought. Yes, there are typos in there, and the odd unusual formatting issue (“quar-antine” midway across one line). Those I can forgive. But to have the text of page 396 on page 395 and vice versa, well, I’m afraid that’s piss-poor.

The clincher for me, however, is the that the release of TBIFOS ties in too neatly with the movie release of JDATE. The deficiencies of TBIFOS, combined with the pagination error, reeks of a publisher that was too keen to get the second book out of the door while the movie was doing the rounds, when they were perhaps better advised to have tightened the story in time for the Blu-ray release.

That rather long-winded dissection rather paints the book in a bad light, yet there is still much in TBIFOS to enjoy for those willing to overlook the above weaknesses. The humour in the book is still very funny. Wong retains the ability to deliver a knockout gag when he wants to, and Amy’s use of the fur-gun towards the end had me chuckling for a good while. Just don’t expect the same level of laughs as JDATE, nor many killer lines from John.

The horror angle is well served too, with a wonderfully tense lead up to The Massacre At Ffirth Asylum. Those that judge books by their body count and ickyness won’t be disappointed either, as death befalls a good many townspeople in various bloodthirsty ways. The overarching outbreak-cum-zombie invasion story is also very good with several memorable scenes, and the incidental characters – a weak point of JDATE – are considerably better realised in this story.

Overall, This Book Is Full Of Spiders is still worth a read for those ready to forgive its apparent rush release. I would still read a third outing, but only if Wong was allowed to take his time about it.

Rating: 3/5

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the second draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – John Dies At The End

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Comedy horror is a tricky thing to get right. Once the writer has set out their stall with a couple of rib-ticklers they will often reach a crossroads: to continue with the comedy, or to continue with the horror. Go along one route and they get something like Army of Darkness: an enormously entertaining romp, yes, but one that can hardly be called horror. Go along the other route and they get something like The Frighteners: still entertaining, but the rapid change in tone makes for an uneven experience.

John Dies At The End, for me, errs towards the latter of these. After a rollercoaster ride of ickyness and about a thousand Roswells’ worth of utterly barking scenes, Wong (or Pargin, if you prefer) tries to inject some heart into the story to give the ensuing drama more oomph and, in doing so, leaves the reader wondering where the laughs went. There are a few other niggles too, such as how some incidental characters drift out of the story leaving you to wonder why they were there in the first place, or are brought into the story and then criminally underused. Also, while not explaining everything is by no means A Bad Thing you are left mulling over some scenes and wondering if they were just thrown in there to keep the wackiness up.

So far, you may say, so negative. So why the four stars? Well, despite its faults, as it turns out I rather liked The Frighteners, and in John Dies At The End I can forgive much of the above in exchange for the genuine belly laughs, the excellent dialogue, the vivid imagery and effective metaphors the guy chucks onto the page, and that’s even before we get to the truckload of imagination that went into knitting together one of the most wilfully odd stories I’ve read in ages.

I’m keen to see the movie, partly because I loved Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep, but mostly to see if they can pull it off, and already have the follow-up beside me ready to crack open once I’ve posted this.

In short, I liked this a lot, but I can see how it may grate on others. This might be one to read the first however-many-pages on Amazon beforehand.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a book full of spiders to open…

Rating: 4/5

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the second draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review: Spin by Nina Allan

spincover[1]Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this novella from TTA Press.

Review: It requires a degree of courage to take an existing story and to then create another based around it. Such endeavours are often met with the immediate prejudice of the reader, who will naturally wonder why the author didn’t create their own tale to begin with. (To all the lazy, execrable “mash-ups” currently clogging up bookshelves across the world, I’m looking straight at you at this point.) Yup, these days, if you’re going to step into that particular arena, it seems you’ll need a rocket-propelled grenade to accompany that trident and net of yours.

To then make your own story work regardless of the original, and when the original story itself is older than most every story in history… well, that requires a hell of a lot of skill too.

Which takes us to “Spin”, Nina Allan’s aptly-titled take on the story of Arachne, newly released by TTA Press as part of their novella series.

Set in a near-future alternate Greece we follow Layla as she leaves her father, Idmon, a successful dyer, and travels from her small coastal village to the big smoke where she begins to make her own way in the world as a weaver of considerable skill. Along the way she meets an old woman who informs her that she knew her mother, a sybil who died in tragic circumstances when Layla was a child. The old woman informs Layla that she too has the “gift” once possessed by her mother. What happens next… well, you’ll have to get hold of a copy to find out.

Of course, those versed in Arachne’s story may have an inkling where this all leads. As one who is not up on their Classics to the extent they perhaps ought to be, however, I’m happy to report that “Spin” stands up well on its own terms. You don’t need an intimate knowledge of the source material in order to understand and appreciate the story. There is much to enjoy here, particularly for those who like their fantasy and sci-fi stories with a literary bent.

For me, it is in describing and fleshing out her alternate Greece that Allan really shines. Layla’s expert eye allows Allan to fill her world with dazzling splashes of colour, from topaz sunsets to “the searing catamite yellow of the robes of choirboys” – a wonderfully barbed line that had me dashing for my Chambers (which is no bad thing). I’m fairly certain that the scorching heat described in the story upped the temperature in my house a couple of degrees, which was no mean feat given that it was close to Absolute Zero outside.

Even the parts of Allan’s alternate Greece that initially jarred began to make sense the morning after the read before. For example, the casual mention of drachmas and their relatively low exchange rate clicked once one took into account the technological advancements that the country (or at least the wealthier element) enjoyed. Allan’s Greece is a more economically sound country than the one we see today, and yet it is one that still carries chilling echoes of the very real racial intolerance and right-wing politics brewing there.

It is this attention to detail that should give you an idea of the skill and the care that has gone into writing this piece. Allan has an immense, poetic command of language and a vocabulary to die for. This is one for which you will want to pour a drink, pop your feet up on the sofa and to put your phone on silent before heading on in.

Ultimately “Spin” succeeds for me because Allan is not trying to compete or improve upon the Arachne myth, nor is she wilfully offering up a new and jaunty twist. (Meowmorphosis… please.) No, instead what we get is a highly personal piece that was written for and is dedicated to her father. No RPG’s were needed in the arena after all, folks. The fight wasn’t there to begin with.

In short, I’d heartily recommend “Spin” to fans of literary sci-fi and fantasy, and especially to those already familiar with Nina Allan’s work. If you tick any of those boxes then I doubt you’d be disappointed with this.

Rating: 5/5

And finally…
I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the second draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll