Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky

ironclads cover

“Sturgeon says that, way back when, the sons of the rich used to go to war as a first choice of career.”

It’s the near future. Brexit has happened, but unable to stand alone the UK becomes part of the US – giving the latter a toehold right next to Europe. Governments are increasingly irrelevant, as it’s the giant Corporations who are running things now – including war. And as the opening sentence suggests, the sons of the rich are once again choosing war as a career. Well, it’s not like they have to risk their lives: they’ve got all the money, all the tech. No, it’s an excuse for them to play general while the grunts like Sgt Ted Regan are the cheapest of commodities.

So, when one of the ‘Scions’ – the mega-rich in their armoured tech marvel ‘suits’ – goes missing somewhere in the Nordic countries, it’s Regan and his closest few squad mates who are sent on the rescue mission. And, of course, things are never exactly what they first seem…

This is a short, standalone novella, but wow does it pack in the ideas! The plot is this one mission, but we get plenty of snippets about how the world has changed in the not-so-distant future, grounded in very real politics and such going on right now. It’s a little eerie at times, to be honest.

For the main, though, this is action all the way, with heavy dollops of very satisfying sci-fi all presented with just the right amount of characterisation – the latter not always a sure thing with such strong concepts and world-building. It’s nice to see the location of Sweden and Finland used for a change, too.

I’ve been meaning to try some of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s much-praised work for ages now, and if his longer work is anything like this I’m only sorry I haven’t tried it sooner! Recommended, for sci-fi fans, gamers, and anyone who might like a dose of action with a strong warning about ‘what if…’!

NetGalley eARC: 160 pages / 10 chapters
First published: November 2017
Series: none
Read from 2nd-6th November 2017

My rating: 9/10

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Paper and Fire – Rachel Caine

Paper and Fire cover

“Every day, Jess Brightwell passed the Spartan warrior statue on his way to and from his quarters.”

I’m still utterly in love with the idea of The Great Library: the upswelling of knowledge as the driving and ruling force over the past two millennia, following the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, rather than, say, religion. The dark machinations that came to light through the course of the first book, Ink and Bone, only added to the intrigue and danger.

Alas, something in that amazing mix gets lost through the course of the novel, and very definitely by this one. Instead, we’re plunged rather too much into a series of YA tropes, from the burning love of two teenagers who’ve spent all of five minutes together, to – well, actually, that one was enough to turn me right off.

I’m hoping this is all just a case of middle book syndrome. The various perils go from decent twists to starting to feel a little repetitive for constantly being twists, and I really started to notice little picky things to get annoyed with. For example, the group being stuck together through most of this, there are more times than not where the scene focuses on just two, then suddenly reminds you that the others must all be standing around the edges like mannequins. The YA element means, too, that the teen lead characters far too often seem to outshine and/or half-ignore the few adults about, and again this just jarred a little.

I’ve already got book three lined up, with some trepidation now. I just hope we can go back to the story and more of the magnificent premise, rather than more teenage Romeo and Julietting o_O

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: The Great Library book 2
Read from 22nd October – 1st November 2017

My rating: 6/10

Ink and Bone – Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone cover

“‘Hold still and stop fighting me,’ his father said, and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark.”

Imagine a history in which the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria caused such an upheaval in the ancient world that it is knowledge, not religion, and the Library, not the church, that hold sway over humankind’s lives. In this environment, alchemy is pursued more rigorously, creating many marvels that are still used thousands of years later, and keeping the population in sway far more than any single holy book has yet managed. Still, maintaining rule is hard: the only way is ruthlessness.

Jess Brightwell is the son of a book smuggler. While any title can be read on a ‘blank’ (an e-reader, basically, powered by alchemy rather than technology – it took me a worrying long time to realise this!), possessing copies of actual books is strictly forbidden. For, if the Library isn’t the source of all knowledge, how can they curtail what thoughts people have?

I absolutely adored the premise of this book – well, books about books, and libraries are always appealing! Add in a society still heavily influenced by the Egyptian roots of the ruling organisation, and intriguing glimpses of how the development we know happened in our reality over 2000 years is either quashed or fitted in, and I’m giving high marks for the world building.

However, this is a YA (young adult) novel, and alas very quickly starts to follow a very well-worn path: hero is a bit of an outsider, cast into hostile territory and forced to undergo varying challenges highlighting the evils of the controlling system, setting up an inevitable future clash. Throw in the is he/isn’t he a baddy mentor, some diverse(ish) companions to form close bonds in times of high stress, knowing all might not survive – yup, fairly sure I’ve read this plot already!

Which is a bit of a shame, because I really did love the setting and the atmosphere created. I will continue with the series – it’s perfectly well-written – but with quite reduced expectations on the storyline, to be honest.

Kindle: 368 pages / 16 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: The Great Library book 1
Read from 16th-22nd October 2017

My rating: 7.5/10 – excellent premise, rather familiar YA plot

The Dragon Keeper – Robin Hobb

dragon keeper cover

“They had come so far, yet now that she was here, the years of journeying were already fading in her mind, giving way to the desperate needs of the present.”

Ask me what my favourite (fantasy) series of all time is, and odds on I’ll go with Robin Hobb’s Farseer (or Assassin) trilogy. I can’t remember a book that so caught me up, that even on a re-read I was walking along that odd black stone path towards such revelations, and the ending hitting me right in the gut even a second time. Thankfully, there are two further series with Fitz (The Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies), but between each, Hobb explores a different part of the world she has created.

To be honest, I found it hard to appreciate the Liveship Traders trilogy after falling so in love with the first books. It’s always a wrench when things are different, I suppose – although other readers apparently have exactly the opposite preference between the two strands! Still, as well as doing my usual spreading out of the books I most want to read, I was also not as keen to dive into the Rain Wild Chronicles, knowing they went back to the world of the Liveships and Rain Wilds. And, as much as I appreciate the wider picture of the ‘Realms of the Elderlings’, I’m not sure this was the book to sway me.

Before you read on, know that mentioning anything about the plot of this is likely to spoil some of the twists in the first (Liveship) series – you have been warned!

Dragons have returned to the world, following the events of the Liveship Traders, but for spoiler-heavy reasons, the first of the new clutch are not the majestic creatures they should be. Deformed physically and mentally, neither of the broods’ initial carers – the dragon Tintaglia, and the Traders she struck a bargain with – have much of a continued interest in looking after these weaklings. Seeing possibilities of discovering one of the Elderlings lost cities, plus ridding themselves of the least desirable, most-disfigured (as Rain Wilders are from their toxic environment) youngsters of their small society, the Traders send a party to accompany the dragons as they try to find a better, freer life for themselves in fabled Kelsingra.

The bulk of the initial story only half-deals with setting up the above, rather more concerning itself with the life of a Trader’s daughter, Alise. Hers is not a happy lot, and to be honest I was for grinding my teeth reading some of the casual sexism of her young life – I know, it’s fiction, but generally I’d like to read to escape from this kind of nonsense! So, from the get-go, I wasn’t wholly warming to this side of the story.

As things progress, the rather glacial pace of the whole thing becomes rather apparent. Part of the appeal of Hobb’s writing is, I suppose, the detail and how much she draws you into the lives of the characters. Still, that nothing much actually really happens is just a little bit of a draw back. I was forced to abandon reading this for quite some time due to external events, and picking it back up again I was at no point left struggling to remember what had happened – because nothing really had. Eeep!

Still, the whole thing is rather gorgeously written. I adore the world building, and while the story itself is slow, there is no sense that the rich, immersive descriptions are what’s holding things up – they’re a plus, not a negative, all the way.

There are another three books and 1500 pages in this series, which is plenty of room for more to happen – so, onwards!

Paperback: 553 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: Rain Wild Chronicles book 1 (of 4) / Realms of the Elderlings book 10 (of 16)
Read from 6th August – 22nd October 2017 (with a massive gap in the middle cos life)

My rating: 7/10 –  love Hobb’s writing, but story-wise this is just a bit too slight and slow

Greenglass House – Kate Milford

Greenglass House cover

“There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.”

It’s the first day of the Christmas holidays, and Milo already has his homework out of the way so he can enjoy the festivities with his parents. Then, disaster: the usually quiet season for their family-run hotel is disturbed by not just one unexpected guest, but an increasing parade of odd and shifty characters. It seems obvious that they’re all looking for something – probably the same thing – but what on earth could be hidden in the home Milo’s lived in all his life?

After reluctantly teaming up with the housekeeper’s youngest daughter, Meddie, the pair set out to discover the secrets of Greenglass House. After all, it was once owned by a famous smuggler…

I am so, so glad I took up the recommendation to read this book – and to read it instantly, not do my usual of adding it to the insane reading pile – as it is quite possibly the best thing I’ve read in ages! Fair warning: it’s a ‘middle grade’ book, so the main character is about eleven, but think Narnia or Sabriel – by which I mean, the themes are still a little dark at times, and the language is totally not ‘dumbed down’, despite the suitable-for-younger readers status. It’s also hugely suitable for older readers, who are open to having a little magic in their lives 🙂

There is an absolute magic in this story, in the way it swept me up and stirred up memories of childhood adventures – or at least, the ones I imagined, whereas Milo and Meddie get to have the reality of familiar surroundings becoming so much more exciting. The plot is a perfect mix of mystery and adventure and a little of the supernatural. It’s also got a huge amount of heart, not least from the background detail of Milo’s adoptive status. Overall, it’s just lovely!

Not only was I utterly in the mood for that, but reading this actually reminded me of why I want to write: to capture the excitement and enthusiasm for stories, for adventures. I can’t give that anything less than full marks!

Do yourself a favour: at time of writing this is still on sale in the Kindle store, under £2. It’s an absolutely perfect, slightly cosy but still exciting book to snuggle up with and particularly appropriate for the Christmas season. Go go go!! 🙂

Kindle: 384 pages / 15 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: Greenglass House book 1 (of 2 so far)
Read from 11th-15th October 2017

My rating: 10/10

A Pocketful of Crows – Joanne M Harris

A Pocketful of Crows cover

“The year it turns, and turns, and turns.”

Taking inspiration from The Child Ballads (which I’ll confess I’d never heard of, but turn out to be a collection of traditional ballads collected by Francis Child, rather than songs about children!), A Pocketful of Crows is a lovely, if dark, fairy tale-esque story of the magic of nature, and love, and revenge.

Set over thirteen chapters, one for each month and back to the beginning again, the use of the seasons is really wonderful. We follow a nameless wildling girl, a creature of the forest, who risks her innate magic for the love of a young man from the town. The outcome of this has a real sense of dread and inevitability through the first third or so of the book, with the remainder taken up with consequences.

I really enjoyed this. It’s very immersive for a relatively short book, catching up my emotional response almost from the get-go. My only minor complaints would be the use of the terms ‘folk’ and ‘travelling folk’ for the two kinds of people in the story, which I found a little confusing at first, and the ending just seemed ever so slightly abrupt.

Perhaps another few paragraphs could have lightened the mood a little, as overall it’s quite a dark tale, and I must confess I love the slightly more whimsical nature of T Kingfisher in her fairytale retellings. That’s a personal thing, though, as the cold indifference of nature, or at least its mix of dark and light, is perhaps one of the themes here.

Recommended, particularly for those who enjoy their fairy tales but are perhaps looking for something a little more unique.

NetGalley eARC: 256 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 19th October 2017
Series: none
Read from 28th September – 6th October 2017

My rating: 8/10

Death Overdue – Allison Brook

death overdue cover

“Time to move on.”

I’m getting quite fond of the ‘cosy mystery’ genre, turning to these kinds of titles for easy and uplifting reads. I also love books set in libraries, so this sounded like a win-win.

Carrie Singleton is getting ready to leave her childhood town again and go back to her rootless existence when she’s offered a better role at the library where she’s been temping. One of her first tasks is organising a talk by a former police detective, one who’s now promising to solve the cold case he failed with fifteen years before: the murder of a local mother and library employee. However, it seems that the secret killer might be less than keen to let him have his say…

There’s plenty to enjoy reading this book, but in all honesty I can’t give it a very high rating. It’s a lot more ‘chick-lit’ and romance-based than I would have hoped, which could be fine, but alas that pushes the mystery and paranormal bits not only to lesser importance but to rather rushed and not-great written parts. The opening murder, for instance, seems very clunkily handled: a ‘I know I need this bit, but not quite how to write it’ feeling, which is a real shame.

There’s also the usual fluffy genre failing of the heroine’s too-perfect life falling into her lap. First it’s the near-perfect job – okay, that one comes with half an explanation. But then there’s the massively reduced rent on an amazing house, interested dishy men to chose from, family who spoil her endlessly, enemies made good, and heck – we can even squeeze a kitten in here because why not?! I didn’t even wholly like the main character, with her goth look so easily cast aside, murky reasonings for turning sleuth and quite frankly daft ways of stumbling onwards, and not-great treatment of other characters.

Still, it was easy enough to read and keep going with, despite the flaws. Perhaps the next in the series will be able to build on the strengths – an intriguing and helpful library ghost, for instance, or perhaps an explanation as to how this particularly library is so well-funded – and lose some of the fluffier failings.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 37 chapters
First published: October 2017
Series: A Haunted Library Mystery book 1
Read from 6th-11th October 2017

My rating: 5/10