Glass Sword – Victoria Aveyard

“I flinch.”

I wasn’t exactly over-gushing with glowing praise for Red Queen or the prequel novellas, and yet I obviously liked them well enough that when I saw book 2 of the series on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to continue reading Mare’s adventures. Usual spoiler warning: in mentioning characters, etc in book 2, that may give away information about events in book 1. Go read that first! 🙂

I found Glass Sword rather difficult to get going with. We pick up events immediately from the end of the previous installment, and unfortunately that includes Mare somewhat wallowing in self-pity. As this is first-person perspective, that means a lot of “woe is me” waffle in the opening chapter that I found really grating. Fortunately the narrative swings back to action pretty quickly, but there are a lot of ‘inner thoughts’ drama throughout the book that remained slightly irritating at times. There’s also at least one instance of being told what’s going on inside another character’s head, which is a huge red flag for me: there’s no way Mare, our narrator, could have known such things.

Fortunately, the story itself manages to overcome most of all that. It is a rather bleak outlook, and I personally missed the little glimpses of glamour from the palace life Mare has left behind. However, she’s still very much the outsider: not silver, but not entirely red, either. The toll this takes on her psyche, especially as she goes out on increasingly dangerous Red Guard missions, does at least give the inner drama a good base!

Unfortunately, Glass Sword does the whole middle-book-ending-on-a-cliff-hanger thing – argh! As such, it doesn’t feel like a complete tale in and of itself, and I’m docking it a mark for that.

If you enjoyed the first book, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this. But be prepared for a nail-biting wait for the third installment and some resolution!

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 30 chapters (including epilogue)
First published: July 2016
Series: Red Queen book 2
Read from 7th-23rd July 2016 (week off with the flu in the middle, bah!)

My rating: 6/10

Mystery Mile – Margery Allingham

“‘I’ll bet you fifty dollars, even money,’ said the American who was sitting nearest the door in the opulent lounge of the homeward-bound Elephantine, ‘that that man over there is murdered within a fortnight.’

I’m on a little bit of a Margery Allingham binge at the moment, following The White Cottage Mystery and The Crime at Black Dudley. Indeed, it was getting hold of this eARC of the rereleased second volume of the Campion mysteries that drove me to read the first, and while I enjoyed it, I’m happy to report that the second in the series is a much stronger affair.

Albert Campion is very much the main character this time, foiling a murder attempt on a cruise ship in the opening chapter. The intended victim turns out to be an American judge, travelling to England in the hopes of avoiding the mysterious Simister – a very Keyser Soze-like figure of myth and rumour – and his gang of criminals, who are trying to either kill him – perhaps in revenge – or at least scare him away from revealing information about the shadowy leader.

Campion takes the judge and his two adult offspring to stay in the tiny village of Mystery Mile, hoping they’ll be safe. Of course, things can’t possibly go to plan…

As ever, I love the period setting of these books and the way they let me remember the TV adaption I loved as a kid. Mystery Mile was actually used for one of the episodes, which made for an odd deja vu in the reading. However, the writing – the story structure in particular – is much stronger here than the previous examples of Ms Allingham’s work I’ve tried, and between that and my dodgy memory I really was left puzzling over the mysteries through most of the book.

There are a few references in this volume to the previous misadventure, but not so much that you have to have read it first. Indeed, I’d suggest this is a better introduction to the mysterious, frivolous, but sneakily crafty, Campion and his world. It does perhaps stray just a little darker than the previous tales, but I still loved the brief sojourn to a whole other place and time, where the police didn’t look too hard at the blackmail material, content to let the victims live their lives while the criminals come to a sticky end!

NetGalley eARC: ~224 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1930
Series: Campion book 2
Read from 28th-30th June 2016

My rating: 7/10

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year volume 10 – various

Short story collections are tricky beasts to review, as you want to capture the whole book as well as the highs and lows of the individual stories. The speculative genre, too, is a tough one for the short format: great that you can explore ideas, briefly, but at the same time it can be hard to contain a huge chunk of imagination in short form, leaving the reader either a tantalising glimpse or just not enough immersion.

Fortunately, this lives up to its name of being a ‘best of’, and thus there are no turkeys here. Which isn’t to say I loved every story, but in terms of experiencing some fantastic writers and a wide variety of topics and styles, this hit lots of buttons.

We open with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Black Dog, which I’d read previously in his Trigger Warnings collection but is so bloomin’ brilliant that I happily read it again. Of course, not every story is going to come with the background of a full novel (American Gods  which I am now itching to reread!) giving it roundness and weight, which made it all the more difficult to get into the next few stories. There were several in a row which I found rather too bleak (e.g. Alastair Reynold’s A Murmuration) and depressing (City of Ash by Paolo Bacigalupi) for me – but these are relatively minor disgruntlements, of course! 🙂 One of the ‘problems’ – and joys – of collections like this is that it can offer things to suit many tastes.

As for my own taste, perhaps it should be called into question given that this year’s Nebula Award winner, Alyssa Wong’s Hungary Daughters of Starving Mothers, is a notable inclusion here – and not one of my favourites! That title goes to the penultimate tale, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T Malik, which – possibly because it’s longer than many of the others – really does conjure up setting and emotion.

Other tales that grabbed me include Catherynne Valente’s The Lily and the Horn, briefly sketching a dark fantasy world where dinner parties stand in for war, Greg Bear’s mindbending take on quantum theory in The Machine Starts, and The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir, which put me in mind of Charles Stross meets Neil Gaiman – excellent mix! Ian McDonald’s Bontanic Veneris surely needs a stand-alone volume displaying some of the fantastical – well, ok, impossible! – papercut botanical drawings used so effectively to intertwine with his story, told with remarkable non-straightforwardness for the short format.

It’s getting difficult not to mention more – all – of the tales here, containing such fantastical elements as talking rhinos, possessed Christmas trees, as well as more ‘commonplace’ themes such as first contact, AIs, and colonising other planets.

Whatever your taste in the ‘out there’, there’s something here to appeal. The short story format doesn’t always get much love, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing what a range of talented authors could offer in such contrained packages.

NetGalley eARC: 624 pages / 27 stories
First published: 2016
Series: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, volume 10
Read from 14th May – 15th June 2016

My rating: 8/10

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet – Charlie N Holmberg

“The first bit of honey taffy melted in my mouth.”

Maire has an amazing ability: she can infuse her baking with emotions and aptitudes, passed on to whoever eats her treats. She doesn’t know why or how – but then, she doesn’t remember who she is or where she’s from, either.

This book wasn’t what I thought it was going to be – the description of the baker imbuing her cakes with feelings put me in mind of Sarah Addison Allen, so I was half-thinking it’d be magical realism, rather than full fantasy – surprise the first. Then I reached the scene with the request to bake an enlargement cake, labelled ‘Eat Me’, followed by a house made out of gingerbread…

Well, colour me intrigued! I fairly wolfed this book down, like one of Maire’s best bits of baking. The mysteries piled up: the ghostly angel-like figure, the brutish yet almost child-like man demanding Maire fulfills these strange orders. Can she escape? Will she – and we! – discover who she really is and where these strange gifts come from?

I’d love to say I continued to adore this book – it does have the feel of a book that should and indeed could  be adored. Alas, while a lovely read, it just didn’t quite satisfy me. Those little fairy tale bits fizzle out and don’t quite live up to potential, and while I did like the ending it didn’t quite pack the ‘oomph’ I expected from the earlier build up.

Still, very glad I read it, and I’d be tempted to sample another of the author’s work next time I feel in need of a sweet little nibble of a read 🙂

NetGalley eArc: 306 pages / 29 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 5th- 9th June 2016

My rating: 6.5/10

The Fireman – Joe Hill

“Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.”

No one knew why the tattoo-like marks started to appear on people’s skin: intricate swirls of black and gold. But it’s a deadly beauty: from ‘Dragonscale’ to smoking (and we’re not talking cigarettes!), and then a plague of human combustion.

Harper is a school nurse, but as the Dragonscale takes hold of the population civilisation goes into emergency mode. She spends her days volunteering at the hospital encased in a hazmat suit, but is that enough to protect her? If the worst happens, though, her husband has a plan…

The Fireman is a sprawling look at the end of the world (probably), as this infection grips hold of the population. And, suffice to say, it’s not just the spore that can be deadly. The big strength of this book is probably the way it shows human nature: fear, hope, survival, and even pettiness creeping in despite the horrors being faced.

This is my first experience of Joe Hill’s writing, and my impression is that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – Hill, of course, being the son of horror master Stephen King. I could easily imagine The Fireman having come from King-the-elder’s pen: the slow build, the focus on the human stories amid catastrophe and chaos. The Stand  is a book that sprung to mind, thematically at least, while almost all of King’s later works have had that same achingly slow description of ‘normal’ life woes amid the horror.

Which… is both a strength and a weakness, including here. Yes, it can let you really understand and feel for the characters. And yes, it takes the book out of the shock-for-the-sake-of-it pace, allowing petty (that word again) horrors – generally the people kind – sicken the reader even more than the pandemic.

Other advanced reviews of this book have been absolutely glowing with praise, and I get that. But, while I can appreciate the book, and did enjoy it, I just didn’t love it. The pace irritated me a little (I felt I needed a break halfway through – from the length of the book, and the unswervingly grim and tense mood). I didn’t actually come to care for the characters much, despite spending so much time with them, which was kind of ‘hmm’. And, for such a long book, I didn’t really feel I was reading anything new in the story – as I said, reminders of some of ‘dad’s’ work, and of another book dealing with a fungal spore pandemic, which a few years back surprised me in ways this just didn’t.

It took Mr Hill 4 years to write this book, and I’m a little sorry I couldn’t love it more. I’m still planning on trying some of his earlier works, though, as the writing is strong. As it is, I can appreciate the time and effort that’s gone into it, and it stands as an impressive enough, solid piece of work – but, maybe just not as great as I expected  or hoped for.

NetGalley eArc: ~768 pages / 145 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 16th-30th May 2016

My rating: 6/10

The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North

“They said, when they died, that all they could hear was the screaming.”

When Hope Arden was 16, she started to disappear. Not literally, but from people’s memories. It wasn’t long before she was being greeted as a new student in school every morning, but when her parents started redecorating her room she knew she had to leave. How can a person survive when no one remembers you from one moment to the next? Unable to take a job, she turns to theft – and with her unique skill she’s pretty good at it.

That’s already more than enough intrigue for any book, but Claire North isn’t done yet. No, she’s intent on asking: Do you have Perfection?

Perfection is an app. A lifestyle improvement program that is sadly not as far-fetched as you’d like it to be. From tracking your fitness and diet efforts, it starts to make suggestions on where to shop, get a haircut, who to date. It wants access to everything – and chillingly, that’s only one more permission than Facebook Messenger (have you looked at those? Really – do, and then delete in horror!) in real life. Following the ‘advice’ earns points. The more points you have, the more perfect you must be, right?

The two plot threads play off each other brilliantly, as Hope is ensnared in a global cat and mouse game over the goings on behind Perfection. What is it really doing to people, to society? Harmless search for happiness – or something more sinister? And either way, can it help Hope overcome her crippling ‘superpower’ curse?

I requested a copy of the text on something of an intrigued whim, and boy am I glad I did! The writing is compelling, each of the twin plots utterly fascinating. This is the kind of book that made me think – about the fallibility and tricks of memory, about happiness and the quest to be ‘better’, about how we define ourselves based on reactions from others, and how hard it is to be so isolated from the rest of the human race.

Recommended wholeheartedly, especially if you want something a bit different, and a lot thought-provoking!

NetGalley eArc: 480 pages / 106 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 3rd-10th May 2016

My rating: 9/10

Cruel Crown – Victoria Aveyard

“As usual, Julian gave her a book.”

Cruel Crown comprises two short stories, Queen Song and Steel Scars, both prequels to the novel Red Queen, which kicks off the series of the same name.

The first, Queen Song, was my favourite by far, telling the story of Coriane, the King’s first wife. This chilling little tragedy is hinted at in Red Queen, and it was quite fascinating to hear the full dark tale. It also gives more background into Elara, a key player in the main novel.

The second tale, Steel Scars, didn’t impress me as much. It’s told by Farley, as she takes her first mission command as part of the Red Guard. There are hints as to why she joined, but not really the same character exploration, I felt, as the first tale. Starting before the events in Red Queen, it covers the period up to Farley’s introduction in the main novel. It also fills in a bit of back/side story between that and the end of the novel, but still felt rather slight and uninvolving. I also really disliked the ‘memo-style’ communication – I’ve always found it hard to slow down my reading enough to pay attention to such ‘to’ and ‘from’ type things, so find them irritating.

Overall, then, I’d give the first story 6/10 and the second maybe 4. For fans of Red Queen, these are nice little additions to the background, but nothing you have to read for the main narrative.

The version I read also included a sizable chunk of preview of the next book in the series, Glass Sword.

NetGalley eARC: 208 pages / 2 stories
First published: 2016
Series: Red Queen, prequels 0.1 and 0.2
Read from 19th-22nd April 2016

My rating: 5/10 for the pair, but the first one is definitely better than the second.

Fellside – MR Carey

“It’s a strange thing to wake up not knowing who you are.”

Jess wakes up in hospital. There’s talk of a fire, a death. When she’s told she’s the one responsible for both, her drugged-up memories can’t deny it. Overwhelmed by guilt, she thinks prison is exactly where she belongs. And so she arrives in Fellside, a notorious women’s prison, where she’s already hated. Shunned or threatened by the other inmates, it’s no wonder she finds her long-forgotten childhood inner world reopening. But when the other prisoners start to dream strange dreams – is all really what it seems?

I absolutely adored The Girl With All The Gifts – I mean, book of the year loved. The follow-up, then, was always going to have a LOT to live up to, and really, it was always likely to fall short. But, just a little short 🙂

What Fellside shares with GwAtG is the can’t-put-down, must-read pace and need to find out what’s really happening. I was fascinated by the situation – Carey is excellent at teasing out information little by little, even to his main character – and the dynamic within the prison is superbly done. I’m not a fan of prison dramas so that side of things was relatively novel to me – I have, however, heard others mentions Orange is the New Black in relation to this, so your mileage may vary, as they say. Either way, prepare for some brutality!

Alas, the supernatural side started out intriguingly but in the end was the slightly weaker link for me. Unlike GwAtG, which gripped me with it’s “never saw that before”, there was something vaguely familiar here, and I think that led to me finding the ending just a little ‘hmm’ rather than ‘wow’.

I’m still giving this book a large recommendation. Lower those expectations, fellow admirers of GwAtG, and enjoy this for what it is: a well-written, gripping drama, with added supernatural goings-on.

NetGalley eARC: 496 pages / 100 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 3rd-10th April 2016

My rating: 8/10

The Seventh Bride – T. Kingfisher

“Her name was Rhea.”

Re-tellings and re-imaginings of fairy tales have been all the rage for quite a while now, and to be honest, if you’re feeling a little bored of all that then I don’t blame you. But perhaps you could put that aside for just a few minutes, and consider T.Kingfisher – the pseudonym for the wondrous Ursula Vernon’s not-for-kids work – and this charming little tale.

For a start, it really helps that the fairy tale in question isn’t one of the obvious ones. Bluebeard is a typically nasty children’s tale, about a serial groom and his string of vanished wives. Kingfisher’s version adds a good twist to the idea, a large dollop of magic, and a hedgehog.

While this definitely isn’t for younger readers, as per Ursula Vernon’s e.g. Hamster Princess series, it inhabits that odd place between that and a ‘grown up’ book. It’s still very much in the fairy-tale realm, with an added dark sensibility. If I had to compare it to anything, it’d be Neil Gaiman, and possibly his slightly younger-skewed work. Which is a compliment!

Although the ending felt a very little flat compared to the bulk of the book, and I can see how I’d have to be ‘in the mood’ again to really enjoy the style, I did love the language and telling enough to want to go and buy the rest of the T. Kingfisher catalog.

eARC from NetGalley: 183 pages / 29 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: could be linked together with Bryony and Roses and The Raven and the Reindeer
Read from 18th-20th February 2016

My rating: 7/10