The Labyrinth Index – Charles Stross

labyrinth index cover

“As I cross the courtyard to the execution shed I pass a tangle of bloody feathers.”

Reading the latest few Laundry Files books in quick succession has worked really well, as they form an ongoing story leading us to the state we find ourselves at the start of The Labyrinth Index – look away now if you’re not up to date, and mention of events in book 9 are going to spoil any of 1-8 for you!

Still here? Grand 🙂 So, having signed a deal with the lesser of two dark horrors, Britain is now under New Management. And His Highness has decided priority one is to deal with the puzzling amnesia that seems to be affecting the US when it comes to their… urm.. presid… wait, what was I saying?!

After most of the early books were told from the point of view of Bob Howard, I admit I didn’t take too well to the change. The author’s first attempt at writing from a female view, Mo’s, felt a bit off to me. Switching to Alex in the previous book, The Delirium Brief, worked better, but I was concerned that going back to female with Mhairi might throw up similar issues. Thankfully not: Mhairi is spiky and no-nonsense, and even the ‘inner thoughts’ portion of her journal (for, all the Laundry Files books are technically journals…!) isn’t too whiny.

Story-wise, the shift to the US for this mission gives the book a little more self-contained feel, despite the ongoing story. It’s still not a good place to start – go back and get all the interesting back stories! A lot of the cast is used in brief, support-only roles, so it’s nice to know who they are rather than just a collection of random faces.

Overall, this is Laundry on fair form. Looking forward to the next book, and finding out how all of these end-of-times events play out!

Hardback: 354 pages / 11 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: The Laundry Files book 9
Read from 7th-27th January 2019

My rating: 8/10

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Empire of Sand – Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand cover

“Mehr woke up to a soft voice calling her name.”

Mehr is a pampered if illegitimate governor’s daughter, a virtual prisoner by dint of her gender in the culture she lives in, and a hated reminder of father’s first love and thus enemy of her stepmother. She is also a half-caste, and the half that comes from her mother is not blood that is seen favourably in the Empire. The stories say that the Amrithi are descended from the desert spirits, the Daiva, and hold power in their blood. And it seems as if the immortal head of the Empire’s religion might be taking notice of those like Mehr…

Much as I enjoyed this book, I think perhaps the desert setting and South Asian-inspired fantasy has been a bit too prevalent in my reading of late (although still not as cliched as the Tolkien-esque fantasy of the past half-century, natch!), as I did spend part of this book feeling like I’d read it before. Which is a shame, because otherwise it’s pretty good.

I was a little put off by the themes of women as second class, ‘delicate’ flowers, and even more so by the forced marriage to a complete stranger – however obviously that all turns out. As ever, the teen romance-y type stuff left me pretty cold.

The Daiva also reminded me of too many other things, but in fairness they were well handled. The magic of dance was at least a bit of a different approach, and I genuinely liked the concept of an Empire built on subverting the dreams of gods.

Overall, though, this was an engrossing enough read, just didn’t quite hit the spot with me for reasons not entirely its own fault. Possibly had been over-hyped, too, when in reality I found it a decent, slightly above-average YA offering.

Paperback: 432 pages / 34 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Books of Ambha book 1
Read from 30th December 2018 – 6th January 2019

My rating: 7/10

The Delirium Brief – Charles Stross

delirium brief cover

“It’s twenty past ten at night and I’m being escorted through the glass-fronted atrium of a certain office building in central London.”

Following straight on from events in The Nightmare Stacks, I’m delighted to say we have Bob Howard back as main narrator! Welcome back, Bob 🙂

It really makes a difference – I’ve been a little meh over the last couple of books (starting with Annihilation Score) but this hit the spot much more for me.

Of course, it’s hard to say anything about the plot without huge spoilers for previous books, but suffice to say the extra-reality threats that have been hinted at throughout the series are in full force. The threat level has risen over the course of eight books, and by this point the stakes are as high as can be.

What can go more wrong than tentacled horrors from the deep, or god-like horrors from other dimensions? What about an all-too-realistically dippit government disbanding the agency that stands between us and Them??

If I had to pick fault (and it’s a review, it’s half the point), then to be honest I really wasn’t keen on the sex-as-recruitment stuff; I dunno, it just felt lazy and icky. There’s a tricky path to be trod through the last chapters, as the operation is split into three missions, and we jump back and forth between the three in an almost-too-much fashion.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this and felt that it was Laundry Files back on form. And best news? I’m about to start the next book to find out the fallout from signing deals with devils…!

Paperback: 435 pages / 11 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: The Laundry Files book 8
Read from 19th-29th December 2018

My rating: 8/10

The Nightmare Stacks – Charles Stross

nightmare stacks cover

“A vampire is haunting Whitby; it’s traditional.”

If you’ve not read any of the Laundry Files before, this might not be the best place to start. It’s not the worst, either, since we’ve got a new PoV character in Alex Schwartz, but you’ll miss a lot of background. For instance, Alex’s unfortunate infection with V-syndrome, turning him into a PHANG (aka vampire). Or why ‘Mr Howard’ is spoken of in such revered terms, or what put Mo in the hospital. You don’t *need* to know any of that, but it was a fun journey learning all of that information.

If you are up to date, then Nightmare Stacks alludes to events to date while being its own story. Alex is dealing with his vamp- urm, PHANG-ness, the loss of his high-paying City job, and his new government employer seeing fit to twist the knife by sending him back to his home town of Leeds.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, the last bastion of a suspiciously Elfish race is deciding that their only hope is to find another world to conquer as their new home. Guess where looks promising?

I’ve always enjoyed the Laundry Files and the mix of humour and supernatural and mundane. To be honest, I didn’t entirely take to the previous volume (although I said nice things about it at the time), thinking that Mo made a poor lead compared to Bob Howard. Here, I’m still missing Bob, but the omniscient narrator voice wasn’t as irksome.

Story-wise, I found this a mixed bag. I actually got a little bored at points, with the author showing a whole lot of research on tanks and artillery and other zzzz items. The story concept wasn’t at all bad, but the revelation in some of the darker, nastier bits didn’t seem to be as well balanced with humour as I was expecting.

Still. A good read, and I’m looking forward to catching up with the two volumes that have been published since.

Paperback: 385 pages / 19 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Laundry Files book 7
Read from 22nd November – 9th December 2018

My rating: 7.5/10

Muse of Nightmares – Laini Taylor

muse of nightmares cover

“Kora and Nova had never seen a Mesarthim, but they knew all about them.”

Usual warning: it’s going to be really difficult to talk about this book without risking spoilers for book 1, Strange the Dreamer, so if you haven’t read that and think you might want to – back away slowly!! 😉

The first instalment begins and ends with a tragedy, and this picks up immediately from events of book 1. As the different groups – godspawn, residents of Weep, and ‘faranji’ outsiders brought in to help – reel from such momentous happenings, new and old dangers combine to ramp up the tension levels.

There have been so many questions raised in this series: who were the ‘gods’, why was there a nursery full of their offspring, why did they disappear. These and more are answered over the course of this novel, and full marks that it never felt like an info dump, or overdose on the flashbacks.

I was a little thrown initially by the introduction of some new characters, but eventually the story unfurls to join the main one. There’s also a little link to Laini Taylor’s other series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which made me smile to see.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. It tied everything up nicely enough without feeling to pat, and at the same time left scope for possible further tales in this world. While the whole teen romance angle did very little for me, the story is not eye rollingly adolescent, by any means, and the mix of very very dark events with magic and hope worked well.

Recommended, as a duology.

Hardback: 514 pages / 64 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Strange the Dreamer book 2
Read from 8th-21st November 2018

My rating: 8/10

Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds – Brandon Sanderson

legion cover

“My name is Stephen Leeds, and I am perfectly sane. My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad.”

Many Lives… gathers the three Legion novellas together in one volume. I received the first of these, Legion, from NetGalley, and it worked: I was hooked, and had to go grab the full book and remaining two stories.

The first installment impressed me with the level of backstory that was revealed and/or hinted at in a very compact form, while still telling a very interesting story – that of a camera that can take pictures of the past.

The second novella, Skin Deep, sees Stephen aka Legion, the man with many ‘aspects’ giving him expertise in anything he needs, approached to find a missing corpse. Twist? The dead man was a scientist working on using human DNA to encode data, like the world’s biggest and most ‘handy’ computer storage drive. Again, this is a fairly short story, but feels much much longer, just with the amount that is crammed in.

The final installment, Lies of the Beholder, gives the keen reader (ie me!) a little more of a personal slant. Aspects ‘die’, Stephen is in crisis, and we might even get to find out a little more about the mysterious Sandra…!

The novella form works brilliantly for these stories. Each is a fairly slim case for Stephen, but the hints and teasers about the man’s life and amazing brain are keeping you hooked as much as the plot. Brandon Sanderson’s preface talks about his idea of “Psychology-as-superpower”, which is absolutely fascinating.

Thoroughly enjoyed this, and I hope there might be more Legion stories to come.

HB: 340 pages / 45 chapters over 3 novellas
First published: 2018
Series: Legion books 1-3 omnibus
Read from 22nd-10th October 2018

My rating: 9/10

Dreams of Gods and Monsters – Laini Taylor

dreams of gods and monsters cover

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts and started the apocalypse.”

(As always, this is a review of the last in a series, so anything I mention might in some ways be a spoiler for the first two books. Read on at your own peril!)

The stories of Karou and Akiva, chimera and seraphim, Earth and Eratz, have spun through two novels already – Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight. In this final part of the trilogy, we get our answers, as well as some further players: what are Akiva’s long-lost relatives, the Stelians, capable of? And who is the mysterious Eliza, plagued by nightmares and terrified of being found?

I had an odd time reading this book. With other things on the go, I wondered more than a few times if I’d lost interest, but every time I picked it up I was sucked back into the story. As soon as I put it down, though, I wasn’t quite so fussed. Not sure what I make of this! I am, however, very glad to have finished this – any! – series, given my awful habit of ‘having a little break’ and forgetting what previously happened!

As in the previous books, I have to say that the teen-ish romance bits didn’t do a great deal for me, although somehow things felt better handled here. To begin with I was a little irritated by the addition of new elements this far into events – things like Eliza, whoever she might be – but they are worked into the story very well and everything pulls together excellently by the end.

Likewise, I also felt – although it worked out very well by the end! – that we had an ending to the bulk of the main plot two thirds of the way through this. The remaining threads, however, had been woven lightly through the rest, so it wasn’t entirely disjointed. Still, it was a little… something?

Regardless, I’d certainly recommend the series if it sounds at all like your cup of tea, as I enjoyed reading it a great deal. Some of the ideas are very cool, and I hope will stick with me; the writing is strong; I perhaps just wasn’t a fan of the romance angle (which was rather half the point!).

Hardback: 613 pages / 86 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone book 3 (of 3)
Read from 31st July – 9th September 2018

My rating: 7.5/10