The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief – Lisa Tuttle

“I admit I did not plan my escape very well, but the fact is that I had not planned it at all.”

There is something enduringly appealing about the Victorian mystery, which is probably what caught my eye on this one – along with the title I’ve been misspelling all over the place! ūüėČ Think Sherlock Holmes – mentioned in-novel as a fiction, with Arthur Conan Doyle a contemporary figure – but with a female¬†Watson narrating. Indeed, Miss Lane (she does have a first name, but the reveal is one of the mysteries of the book ūüėČ )¬†has an¬†excellent detective mind in her own right, but she’s a little more down to earth than her ‘Sherlock’, Jasper Jesperson.

The case(s) told here are strongly linked to Miss Lane’s past as a debunker of psychic frauds. When faced with what could well be the ‘real thing’, the crime solving duo must also deduce any links to the disappearing mediums in the city, while trying to set up their new partnership with more mundane cases, like the mysterious sleepwalking of their landlord’s brother in law. And there’s still the shadow of Miss Lane’s previous partner to be dealt with…

I did enjoy this book, but there were a few things that irritated me a little. Firstly, the first person narrative is just a little too… well, full of moans about emotions and doubts and feelings. I don’t want to say it’s ‘girly’, but I’m struggling to find another phrase. There is something just ‘meh’ about a lead character voicing their doubts and fears every few paragraphs.

The other main character, Jesperson, is the opposite: head first into everything with an enormous sense of adventure – which, alas, ends up coming across as childish, not least because he still lives with his mother (the Mrs Hudson of the piece) and acts out like a spoiled brat once or twice. Oh, and of course he’s a martial arts expert, master hypnotist, and not quite as differentiated from the ‘Great Detective’ as I imagine he was supposed to be. Hmm.

Overall, though, the story was intriguing and fun and the period mood remained appealing, so it’s rather a shame I didn’t get on too well with the characterisation. That said, this looks like it might be the first in a series, and I’d quite like to see where it all goes next.

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 32 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: The Curious Affair Of book 1
Read from 7th-14th May 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

Children of Thorns, Children of Water – Aliette de Bodard

“It was a large, magnificent room with intricate patterns of ivy branches on the tiles, and a large mirror above a marble fireplace, the mantlepiece crammed with curios from delicate silver bowls to Chinese blue-and-white porcelain figures: a clear statement of casual power, to leave so many riches where everyone could grab them.”

It would make sense to have read¬†House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, before¬†requesting this between-first-and-second-book short from NetGalley. But, I’d read the opening of the original, liked the premise, but been a little put off by the reviews, so what better way of giving the writing style and story elements a chance?

I love the premise here: in a futuristic yet olde-worlde Paris (huzzah for slightly different locations than the ‘norm’), the survivors of a¬†war in Heaven are divided into Houses vying for power¬†over the shattered city. Scavengers ‘loot’ the bodies of Fallen Angels – literally, as in, stripping the flesh off of fingers, to mine for magic. Ick.

Without wanting to give too much away – you might be more inclined to read things in the proper order, after all! – Children of Thorns¬†shows two¬†applicants to one of the great Houses, masquerading as ‘houseless’ ones to infiltrate a rival power. The application process is perhaps a little unusual, but when strange magical eddies start to swirl, the test¬†becomes more global…

I can see how this would lead into the next book, The House of Binding Thorns. Indeed, this was released as a bonus for pre-ordering the second installment, and was previously not available in any other way.

I was reasonably impressed. There’s a darkness here, and also enough of a difference from most fantasy-type fiction to pique my interest. I’m fully planning on allowing my to-read list to groan some more, and start back at the beginning!

NetGalley eARC: ~34 pages
First published: April 2017
Series: Dominion of the Fallen book 1.5
Read from 13th-15th April 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

Lost For Words – Stephanie Butland

“A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.”

Loveday Jenna Carlew¬†works in a second-hand bookstore, Lost For Words,¬†in York. She’s a bibliophile and a loner, and as the book progresses we slowly start unravelling the mystery of her past and what’s made her so suspicious of people and of attachments.

I surprised myself by how much I loved this book. It’s not my usual genre at all – I picked it based on the bookshop setting (a definite weakness of mine!) but somehow expected something a little less real, and a little more¬†magical. By the end, though, I was definitely snuffling, and read the second¬†half of the book practically in one sitting!

At first, I didn’t really take to Loveday (a traditional Cornish name, I learned). She’s young and awkward and makes too many comments – because this is told in first person – about people reacting to her tattooes, as if she’s some kind of punk chick when the ink is actually the first lines from her favourite novels.

As the story continues there are still a few moments when I thought she was being a bit… well, she pushes everyone away and defends it as ‘sensible’, and the remarks did occasionally have me rolling my eyes. And then the story turns out to be a bit of a romance – absolutely not my genre!

And yet… woven through alternate chapters is the mystery of Loveday’s childhood, and it’s impossible not to feel for her. The past is handled so very well, and makes the present scenes very understandable and real.

As I said, by the time I got to the last few chapters I was invested enough to be teary about it all. Any book that moves you so is probably a worthy consideration for a first-line (see top) tattoo – or, more realistically, a good review!

Not one I’d recommend to everyone, but for something a bit different, or a bit less ‘genre’ than my usual reading, definitely a great find.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 18 chapters
First published: April 2017
Series: none
Read from 15th-19th April 2017

My rating: 8/10

Red Sister – Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.

Given away by her mother, sold into a pit fighting ring, and saved from the gallows by a nun – at 8 years old, Nona’s adventures have only just begun! Taken into the convent for training in fighting and ‘magic’ and poisoning, she’s not safe from external politics or threats from her classmates.

I’ve said it before, fantasy fiction can become quite ‘samey’ if you read a lot of it – and it’s therefore a double joy when you pick up something really really good, and this is.

Mark Lawrence – another author I really should have discovered earlier, it seems! – has created an immersive and intriguing world. With hints of a sci-fi ancient history, the planet is near ice-bound, with only sunlight reflected off the ‘focus moon’ keeping a 50-mile-wide corridor free for habitation.

Into this setting¬†is set a school days tale as far from Mallory Towers as you could imagine! It’s sometimes difficult to remember that the characters are children – or nuns! – as the wider intrigues thicken around Nona and her classmates. Caught between the challenges of deadly school lessons and mysterious goings-on outwith the convent, there’s no shortage of action or blood or high drama – all written¬†with great style.

There’s a nice framing technique used in the prologue, epilogue, and mid-way break, using¬†a ‘flash forward’. To be honest, I sort of guessed some of the ‘reveals’, but it really didn’t matter. And while there’s a lot of completeness to the story told here, the scope for continuing the story is appreciated.

Recommended for fantasy fiction fans.

NetGalley eARC: 512 pages / 41 chapters
First published: April 2017
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 1
Read from 27th March Р9th April 2017

My rating: 9/10

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitl√≠n R Kiernan’s novel,¬†The Red Tree,¬†following a recommendation based on the terrific¬†House of Leaves¬†(Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking.¬†Agents of Dreamland has¬†quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little Рso you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here Рrevealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story.¬†It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a¬†great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks¬†and¬†The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

All Our Wrong Todays – Elan Mastai

“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

Tom Barren lives in a 2016 that looks a lot like 1950s sci-fi predicted it would. Following the invention of unlimited free energy in the 1960s, his timeline is full of everyday wonders –¬†and yet Tom is miserable, useless and out of place. When a series of¬†mistakes end up with him travelling back in time, Tom proves his worth yet again by fouling up the world’s biggest invention – and boomerangs back to 2016, but not the one he knows.

Can Tom fix the timeline and get back home? Can he survive in our version of 2016, with pollution and wars and all the bad stuff? But, what about the good stuff he finds – like, a sister never born in his timeline, or a love of his life?

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I do like time travel and alternate reality stories, and this one has quite the intriguing premise for those. On the other, it takes almost half the book to really get going on those things, and prior to that we get a lot of whining from the narrator about how useless he is, etc etc. Which is why I put the book down and went and read something else.

However, I am¬†glad I came back to it, as the good bit of the story is very definitely the second half. Suddenly, we have proper action and ‘oh no!’ moments and the need to find out what will happen next – and, of course, time travel conundrums a-plenty.

It’s tough to suggest slogging through the first half, but there are plenty of reviewers who didn’t seem to mind so much. It is, I’ll confess, quite a relief to have a flawed, very human lead character. For the ideas, the imagination, and the wanting to know what happens – yeah, glad I stuck with it!

NetGalley eARC: 393 pages / 137 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 3rd February – 24th March 2017

My rating: 7/10

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

“The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.”

Okay, first question: WHY HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING BY JOHN SCALZI BEFORE?!

By which I mean, oh boy did I enjoy this book! It’s not perfect, but it was a LOT of fun!

In the far-flung future, mankind has expanded far beyond the Earth – and subsequently lost touch with its home planet. This happens after the ‘Flow’ to Earth – the path that allows for travel between vastly remote locations within a sensible time span – collapses. Without that pathway, the journey could take millenia.

So, civilisation now consists of what is called the Interdependency: a highly structured, convoluted system of¬†guild-owning families, each with a set of monopolies on certain trade items. The theory being, if everyone absolutely¬†needs to rely on everyone else, peace and prosperity will reign.¬†Well, it’s a nice theory…!

The Collapsing Empire is a fast-paced story following several characters, including the woman who has just discovered she’s unexpectedly about to become the new Emperox, or supreme ruler. The action takes place between her home, Hub, and the¬†most remote planet in the Interdependency, End.¬†With trouble in the Flow, and scheming nobles on both worlds, the new Emperoxy is certainly going to be an interesting time.

What I loved about this book was the cast of characters, particularly the thoroughly amoral, self-serving, foul-mouthed Lady Kiva. She seems incapable of not using the f-word in every sentence, so do be warned – about that, and also her obsession with having sex with anyone who wanders into view! This might not be to everyone’s taste, but the absolute hedonism (or, actually, sybaritism– hedonism is a little bit less self-centred ;)) with which she lives her life is kind of refreshing.

Tales of the future are so often dark and miserable these days. In fairness, we’re only seeing the higher echelons of society here, but while lives are not perfect at least it feels like society has made¬†some¬†improvements. Like, the utter irrelevance of gender, it would appear – loved that! Although it might be said that the author possibly drove these views just a little, whereas just having that the reality would have been enough and more subtle.

Talking of, there is a very obvious correlation between the events unfolded in the story, and a real-world analogy. It’s not rammed down anyone’s throat, but some people do find that sort of thing annoying. And no, as the author’s note at the end is at pains to point out, it isn’t the title linking to any political landscape of the past 12 months!

Back to the story, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the romp of a read, I did find it a little, hmm – shall I say, unsurprising? I’m not sure if there was meant to be a twist, or revelation, but it felt just a teenie bit flat for lacking that, which felt odd given the story coming from several different aspects. I’d also suggest the opening is a bit¬†off,¬†starting with characters who subsequently¬†aren’t that important, although the snippet of their story is sort of background to events much further along.

I was wondering as I approached the end if there was actually a good case for a sequel, let alone a series, but the last few lines do add an intriguing hook – and I can’t wait for volume 2! I just have to hope that the¬†author’s back catalogue – shamefully overlooked in my reading to date – is half as much fun as this ūüôā

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 24th March 2017
Series: The Collapsing Empire book 1
Read from 17th-21st March 2017

My rating: 8/10