Forbeck's novel of the Titanic's sinking - or rather, the sinking, and what came after it - isn't a strictly historical retelling of the 1912 disaster (a timely release, and probably one of all too many this coming year).  That the Carpathia came to the rescue of the survivors of the Titanic is a matter of history; presumably it was that name that inspired the subject of this novel by Forbeck - because in Carpathia are not simply travellers wanting to go to the Old World, but a hold full of vampires.  Thus what we have here is a tribute to Dracula - more naked than most - and a disaster story uncommonly familiar to us, but combined to great and positive effect.

The plot of Carpathia starts with the sinking of the Titanic, on which we meet Lucy Seward, Quin Harker and Abe Holmwood, our three protagonists (and if you recognise those names from the work of a certain Mr. Stoker, he is defined as an old family friend - Uncle Bram).  The three are fast friends, although the (strictly heterosexual) love triangle complicates matters somewhat; but over the course of the novel their friendship is tried and tested as they are forced to first fight to escape the Titanic, and then to escape the vampiric infestation of the Carpathia.  That they recognise the vampires for what they are is thanks in no small part to Uncle Bram, and its also thanks to him that they can fight them; the trio are very much strong characters, and never pretend for a moment to be otherwise, although Lucy has a moment at the close of the novel where she collapses into the role of early C20th woman who collapses into emotional chaos after being frightened (an annoyingly anti-feminist moment given the strength of Lucy and Maggie, a suffragette minor character who is very outspoken and powerful as a character, in the rest of the novel).  The growing horror and power of Carpathia comes from the change of the threat from that of nature to an unnatural one, and the inevitability of it; the infestation of the Carpathia is complete, and the effect of that on our characters' confidence is unmistakable and excellently portrayed, as is their realisation of just how real vampires are.

The characters of Carpathia are also well written.  Each of our three principal characters are intelligently and thoughtfully drawn, with a sensitivity for emotional detail and crisis that makes the romantic element all the stronger, and their falling out over it all the more effective.  Similarly, their strength is very believable, because they're strong despite being scared; Carpathia doesn't have the kind of emotionless hero who is simply brave, but nor does it have heroes who are terrified but act despite it without reason, instead being blessed by Forbeck with Lucy, Quin and Abe, a trio who are brave because it is what they feel they ought to be, or because of each other.  It's a real strength of the novel, because it makes it much more plausible; these are characters who feel human and alive.  That goes just as strongly for the principal vampires, Brody Murtagh and Dushko Dragovich; despite the full range of vampiric powers (Forbeck has clearly done his homework), they feel very human, motivated by human concerns and desires, simply altered in their scope and the nature of their species-loyalty by their nature.  It's brilliant writing, especially in Dushko, who is evil (a vampire, after all) but at the same time sympathetic.

If we are to see a slew of Titanic-related fiction in 2012, and I suspect we very much are, then I hope Forbeck's novel is indicative of what we can expect: intelligent, well-written and enjoyable fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously without descending into farce.  Carpathia is definitely a novel to watch out for.

Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.  Carpathia will be published in the US and in ebook format on February 28th, and on March 1st in the rest of the world.
Tidhar's third volume in the Bookman Histories not only returns to, but surpasses, the promise of the first volume of the series.  The Great Game - a name instantly suggesting the subject-matter of the novel - is a fun, and enjoyable, thriller, which winks slyly at the audience with literary and historical allusions (our viewpoint characters include Lucy Westenra and Harry Houdini, and the rest of the cast draws on characters from Mycroft Holmes to Charles Babbage via Colonel Creighton and M.; the novel's front cover also shows off one of the more significant influences on the novel...)

The Great Game's plot follows three strands, each of them building together in complex ways to a conclusion that is powerful, horrific and rather unexpected.  The plot follows Smith, a retired agent of the Bureau - Mycroft Holmes' British intelligence service - as he begins a last mission in the wake of the assassination of Mycroft Holmes, hunting down the assassin.  The plot also sees Lucy Westenra similarly sent on a last mission by the great detective's even greater brother, and Harry Houdini set on something of a collision course with Lucy by the Vespuccian secret service.  Each plot strand builds on things learned in the others, and the division into parts of the novel, and only following one character in each part, really does help keep clear what's going on; though the differentiation of character and location is no small boon in that regard too.  It's a nicely controlled, and well-written plot that is both mysterious and brilliant homage to spy thrillers of all sorts; Tidhar's writing really does keep the plot moving fast and stops the mysteries and hidden elements getting annoying, whilst also avoiding letting things slip early or unneccessarily.

The characters of The Great Game are also well-written, especially Smith himself.  Smith's a nicely amoral creation, but a loyal one; loyal to Mycroft and to Britain.  His satisfaction in his job is evident, as is his borderline sociopathy; that Tidhar makes such a character an interesting, empathetic and indeed in some ways attractive is the mark of a fantastic writer, especially as we're never quite easy with Smith and his actions.  All of our characters, however, are united by one thing; their role in the game (which is, of course, afoot!).  And in no small part it is the effect of the game on our characters which this novel is about; they have very different outcomes, having gone in as very different and differentiated unique characters, each fantastically well-written, but each put painfully through the wringer and, mercilessly, ground down.

In the end, especially as this can stand-alone whilst referring back to events in prior novels in the Bookman Histories, I heartily recommend The Great Game; not only a satisfying read, but an enjoyable, fun, and interesting one too.

The Great Game will be out at the end of this month in ebook form and in the US/Canada, and on February 2nd in paperback form for the rest of the world.  Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.
Giant Thief is a very traditional fantasy novel on some levels, and a would-be ground-breaking one on others.  Tallerman's bought into the idea of the unheroic protagonist (as seen in various works from Abercrombie down) and the combination of thief-and-brawn (as seen in works from Leiber on down!) and combined them with high fantasy (of the Tolkeinian style, really - right down to the long travel scenes).  The problem is that in amongst this, Tallerman doesn't give us some of the essential ingredients of a novel: a strong main character, a plot we can believe, or a compelling writing style...

To start with the second first, the plot of Giant Thief - such as it is - follows small-time petty thief Easie Damasco as he steals from rampaging warlord Moaradrid, and ends up with more than he bargains for; a stone that could determine the fate of nations.  Naturally, Damasco's reaction to this is to flee, and keep fleeing - and to try to hang on to the stone, which has no intrinsic value and only keeps him in mortal peril.  If you're wondering why Damasco does this, you're not alone - though Damasco himself doesn't ever consider it.  Damasco also picks up Saltlick, a giant, whom with the power of the stone he can command as if he were the giant king; Saltlick, over the course of the novel, helps and refuses to help Damasco by turns, oddly enough demonstrating a problem that Tallerman refuses to address and setting up huge plotholes, given the absolute power the stone theoretically bestows.  Worse still, much of the novel is spent on chases and travelling; time spent which could better be used to advance plot or character development is instead spent drawing out scenes which should be fast-paced, or at least moving us, is wasted in following our characters from one location to another.

Those characters are, of course, another of the problems of Giant Thief.  Tallerman appears to have had a plot outline in mind, and then tried to draw up characters to fit that outline; but the problem here is that the characters he uses to do so don't actually manage it.  Damasco himself is a small-time thief drawn into larger events - but, despite repeatedly wanting to escape from them, he never really does anything to try and do so.  Instead, he gets moved from crisis point to crisis point by the actions of others, never really claiming any agency himself, and especially with this novel being told from a first-person point of view that really draws a lot of power from the novel: much of it is spent watching Damasco watch others take action, and tell us about it, and that makes for a boring viewpoint, and a boring novel.  The other characters are all rather basic; they're not entirely two-dimensional, at least in some cases - Marina Estrada is a rather nice character, with some decent rounding out, albeit occasionally reverting to previous form and losing character development, and Saltlick's rather underutilised character gleams through the dross with some interest.

All in all, Giant Thief is an incredibly disappointing book; with some interesting ideas, Tallerman has written a book that is boring and characterless, conspiring to throw us out of the action repeatedly and with menace aforethought, and characters who don't stand up to scrutiny.  I've come out of this novel with the feeling that I just had to slog my way through it, not of enjoyment, and that's never a good position to be in...

Giant Thief is out at the end of this month in ebook format and in paperback in the US and Canada, and the 2nd of February for the rest of the world. Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.
Anderton's work is the sort of thing that originally got me interested in Angry Robot Books: interesting, well thought out concepts and worlds, with good characters and an intelligent, well-written plot.  Debris, whilst slow to start and perhaps occasionally a little too in love with its own mysteries, is a good example of what makes the Angry Robot such a welcome overlord.

Anderton's setting is perhaps the most fantastic part of the whole novel, encapsulating within it as it does all sorts of ideas and tropes.  A pseudo-Russian (sort of) setting, the stylings and language certainly draw on 19th and 20th century Russia for a lot of their flavour, as does the organisation and economy of the government. Anderton has built her society on an apparently almost entirely state-run economy and a government that is made up of aristocrats who have somehow found their way to the top of society, and this makes Debris' society a new, powerful take on the medievalism of so much fantasy as we see it from those expelled from that structure.  Equally, she has a strong emphasis on the visuals of the world, which focus on Muscovite architecture, but draw, for elements such as the debris itself, on fantastic gothic strangeness with a certain brilliantly-wrought New Weird baroque.

The characters are a more mixed bunch.  Whilst our narrator, Tanyana, is a well-written character who we can't help but love, with her rebellion against the mores of her society turned into a wish to return to it once she is expelled combined with a certain dogged refusal to fit in.  She's also a good narrator in so far as her voice adds a lot of life to what would otherwise, potentially, be a slightly tedious book; it also allows the reader, at the start of the novel, to be straightforwardly and instantly immersed in the world whilst having drip-fed information once her entire world changes after a seeming industrial accident.  A couple of the other characters - Devich, who is much more than meets the eye, and a well-written figure at that; Kichlan, whose gruff and inhospitable attitude gives way to a much fuller, more interesting personality as the novel progresses - are also very rounded out, but most of the cast is sadly two-dimensional and basic, never more so than the old men of the undercity, who are simply wise kindly old sages.

Finally, the plot is a well-written one.  The combination of exploring the city and nature of the society, of discovering the debris and learning about it as Tanyana becomes a collector, and of the intrigue that starts when Tanyana falls or is pushed by the pions at the start of the novel interleave and come together, or not, in a number of places in such a way that Anderton provides some brilliant false leads and some nice non-climactic struggles.  We're given a somewhat tied up conclusion, but left with an open end, in a number of ways, meaning it's a satisfying ending, but not satisfying enough; Anderton's control of the plot and the various factors in it is fantastic, and with the right mindset you can see, somewhat, where it's going, but not precisely.

Overall, then, despite the problematic cast of background figures, Anderton has written an enjoyable, engaging and interesting novel; Debris, out in October, is really quite a good piece of fantasy.

Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.

Roil is a strange story, a mad combination of new weird, steampunk, horror and science fiction, which adds up, sadly, to much less than the sum of its parts in what I can only call the inexpert hands of Jamieson.  Whilst the ideas and thought-processes behind the novel show some promise, the actual execution varies from clunky to downright poor.

The characters are, perhaps, where there is the most potential for brilliance, if Jamieson hadn't added far too much inconsistency to them.  The problem is that every character in this novel has so many problems with their writing.  David, for instance, is at times utterly collected and together, and a brilliant shot; other times, he's completely fallen apart.  If these were matched by his actual drug-taking patterns it would be understandable, but this isn't even close to being the case; and worse, as a portrayal of addiction, he falls down on a number of levels - right up to the complete lack of cold turkey on his withdrawal.  Cadell is simply a mysterious, haunted figure; Jamieson seems to want to keep everything about him mysterious, and therefore does so, but rather than this adding something to the novel it takes a lot away from it, because the mystery is clunky, pointless and inexplicable.  The two female protagonists are at least hypercompetent but both are standoffish, and Margaret seems to have a ridiculous set of character traits that really don't combine into a coherent person; her driving personality is just buried under so much stuff and neuroses that it becomes, realistically, unreadable, whilst Kara is simply a decent character, the only one in the bunch, and a minor main figure at that.

The plot is equally problematic; the predatory Roil, an enemy which is so ill-explained and motiveless without being alien (I have a feeling Jamieson was shooting for a Lovecraft vibe and missing) that it just descends into ridiculousness, especially with the weapons used against it, drives a novel into nowhere (it's unstoppable, so there's no real conflict).  Similarly, the human enemies are - and this is actually noted in the novel - short-sighted to the point of self-sacrifice; combined with the long-term plots they've been apparently running, but only since the events of the start of the novel, there are too many timescales combined into one novel and too few coherent, non-contradictory series of events to actually allow the plot to breathe or make sense, rather than simply jerking from one crisis to the next.

Overall, then, Roil is not a good novel; Jamieson butchers an enemy that could have been terrifying in more competent hands, wastes characters that could have really given the novel something positive, and fails to lay down a coherent plot.  A really poor novel.

Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books; Roil is out September 7th.
Tidhar's sequel to The Bookman has many of the hallmarks of the first novel, though describing it as a sequel is overstating the case somewhat - rather like the Bas-Lag novels of China Miéville, Camera Obscura is set in the same world as The Bookman, refers to events and characters in The Bookman, and builds on The Bookman... but has a separate plot and set of characters, in a separate part of the setting, with a separate style (to some extent).

Camera Obscura opens in Paris, not under the sway of the Royal Lizards and in the wake of its Quiet Revolution, and travels across large swathes of the world - we see Vespuccia, the America of Tidhar's imagination, and we see something of the immigrant experience (based on the so-called triangle trade of the 18th and 19th centuries).  However, as Camera Obscura goes on, things that were fresh and funny in The Bookman - the literary alusions, the sly jokes, the quiet asides, the wink at the reader - became wearing; the world-building was based on jokes and japery, on amusing ideas, on conceits and not concepts, and that's not enough to sustain a second full novel.

The characters that inhabit the world were mostly equally problematic; mostly sly alusions to literary or historical characters from Viktor von Frankenstein to Cardinal Richelieu, via Count Karnstein and Buffalo Bill Cody, they're very two-dimensional, basic, silly characters that are little more than throwaways to both be jokes and propel along the plot; Tidhar's delight in taking these characters and reducing them down to pointlessness is palpable, and it is strange to see such generally strong figures reduced to a sort of weak tea.  Lady Cleopatra de Winter is our one exception, and thankfully she's the main character; a relatively well-developed character, even when she starts to descend to the farcical level of the rest that change is arrested and her motivations, characterisation and power work really well.  Centring the book on anyone but her would probably have proven fatal, and solving some of the mysteries surrounding her past or exploring them further equally so, but her semi-enigmatic nature works rather well.

The plot... once more delves into the ridiculous, but the readable ridiculous.  It's convoluted and complex and in parts serves as little more than a vehicle for Tidhar to hang set-pieces or episodes that really should have been separate short stories on, but on some level it works; fast-paced, not too serious, with interlinked motivations and plots coming together in a huge climax that... well, makes sense, but the twists it takes to get there are more than a little strange, and indeed, the finale of the book is utterly insane, without reservation; Tidhar, with the brakes off, seems to produce some really strange and psychedelic prose.

Overall, Camera Observa demonstrates that The Bookman was a premise stretched to breaking point, as TIdhar snaps it completely here; the problems of the first novel are brought to the fore more, whilst its strengths move to the backburner. A fun, easy read, but by no means a good one.

Review based on an eARC provided by the publisher, Angry Robot Books. Released in April 2011
Abnett is well known for his military science fiction, with the Gaunt's Ghosts Warhammer 40K tie-in series an epic work of far-future dystopian milSF.  Embedded sees him turning this talent in a new direction, original long-form prose work; and unfortunately, Abnett seems to have some very, very messy problems with it...

The characters are, I will grant you, pretty good; each of them is individual and well-drawn, with the cohesion of a team - or not, as the case may be; they are at times simplistic - especially Rash and Bigmouse, who really do just move the narrative along, with the complications that arise smoothed out far too easily, especially at one or two key moments, all serving to just allow Abnett to power through his difficulties.  Falk, however, is a good, well-rounded character, with some serious issues; whilst these are occasionally pushed to the side - and I have major issues with the way this is done, as things that seem to cripple him one moment mysteriously vanish and resurge, without explanation - overall it's well dealt with, even if this does feel like a book that was meant to be written in the first person.

The plot's workable, if a little ridiculous; again, it seems to serve as something to hang the ideas and action on, rather than something in itself - there's a very simple, basic plot, with very few real twists, one or two moments of confusion, and some really big holes (how Falk inhabits Bloom's body, and how he heals massively, being really, really big ones, but sadly by no means alone); Abnett's got some really nice scenes, and his credentials as an action writer are not shaken by this novel by any means, nor his ability to really jerk the tears with deaths, and he isn't afraid to kill or wound his characters in the service of realism or the plot, but it doesn't seem to hang well together.

Finally, the alternative-history worldbuilding, with differences that aren't explored or explained despite how much they affect the whole narrative of the book, except in brief toward the last third of the novel, is really problematic.  There's linguistic changes that really are just superficial, name-changes that are illogical and confused, and odd moments where one has no choice but to wonder why Abnett's done this - he's married, as far as one can tell, serious milSF to Goodberg's idea of science fiction as ridiculous satire; it gives the worldbuilding an inconsistent feel that also manages to feel like a piece of 1960s right-wing propaganda, without the passion, even where it tackles very modern issues (eg. sex slavery).

All in all, then, one comes away from Embedded disappointed; disappointed that it's not on a par with Abnett's better military SF works, and disappointed that it's so ridiculous that any serious points are lost in the morass.  I can't bring myself to recommend this novel, hoever much I like Falk...

Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.  The book is on general release in April.
Following on from The City of Dreams and Nightmare, Whates' second novel in the series has an equally dualistic title, mirroring the first novel; but also more abstracted.  Oddly, this story is much less focused on the city, and the title doesn't have the same degree of resonance to the plot as that of the former - though it does sum up the various strands better.

The characters of City of... are mixed in a way reminiscent of the first book, in part because many of them are the same - Dewar, Kat, Tom, Mildra; Dewar's new role allows for a good deal of further character development with his background being revealed, brilliant as it is; and Kat becomes a more interesting figure as well, as she developes and her relationship with the Tattooed Men and her sister Chavver comes more to the fore.  Equally, Tom, a bit of a plain-Messiah in the first novel, with an innocent naivete, is much more fully rounded here; he's much less innocent and much more human.  The new characters introduced, or fleshed out and brought to the foreground, are also better than in the first novel, presumably because the background needs less establishment; the Prime Master and Seth are both brilliant characters, really individual and well drawn.

The two (three?) plots of the novel, which seem utterly unrelated in virtually every way, are really well done; Kat's plot, with the Soul Thief, an interesting figure and idea with some brilliant mixed motivations on the part of Kat and the Tattooed Men, has the sort of twists which really take one's breath away.  However, there is also an extent to which too many of them are foreshadowed and telescoped; not much comes as a surprise - although that's not to say that none does, especially towards the end.  Tom's plot, the standard adventure-quest, is also a little formulaic and straightforward; though the complex role of Seth adds a brilliant element, and the really well done Mud Slinger episode is wonderful, humourous, and absolutely brilliant, with two fantastic characters appearing and disappearing rapidly but forming a wonderful little part of the book.

Overall, then, this novel is one I would heartily recommend; City of Hope and Despair is a fantastic book, full of emotional ups and downs, turmoil and adventure, drawn with a steady, deft hand by Whates, whose authorial control is magnificent. I really want to see where this series is going.

Out in March in the UK and Australia, April elsewhere in the world. Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Press.
King's novel is a sort of crazed urban fantasy thriller, with Biblical overtones and a very odd underlying philosophy of really mixed dualism.  Death's Disciples is very much a novel of the post-9/11 world in some respects whilst also completely rejecting and ignoring it in others; which of these impulses is stronger varies across the novel, as does the level of spy-versus-spy style plotting.

Susan, our main and viewpoint character, is a strange figure; amnesiac at the start of the novel and therefore with an apparently new personality, we discover more about her past as the novel progresses, though one fact - a "twist" revealed about 2/3 of the way through the novel - is clear from the start; indeed, King really doesn't bother to conceal it in any serious way.  Sergeant Krupinski is equally anodyne as a character, just with one imperative and no real drives, and no proper humanity to him. There's one purpose to his character, and he fulfills it, I guess: he brings version 1 of Susan out of herself, and creates a space for the twist to be really shocking (which it is - but only because it's so utterly stupid and inconsistent in its execution, to be blunt).  The other characters and just 2D, pure and simple; I have no sympathy or care for any of them, the villains don't have a clear motivation or cohesion to them, the good guys are simply useless and ineffectual... leading the reader to just conclude that it's ridiculous.

And the plot doesn't do much to contradict that, on some levels.  It's a little - no, a lot - ridiculous and little cartoonish, with some really obvious moments and twists; the only problems with those twists are the extent to which they're foreshadowed... and yet still don't make sodding sense.  That's a real problem with King's novel, he's not got a consistent idea of character; and that affects so much of the plot that it makes it hard to believe in the characters or become sympathetic to them, as they do heel-face-turns with alarming regularity and alarming obliviousness to the complete change in behaviour.  What rescues the novel, then, is this: the concepts are brilliant.  The intermingling of Biblical prophecies and concepts, the use of Egyptian (and Masonic...) mythology in the conspiracy, the dualism/materialism combination that King has (I'll admit it's what causes some of the problems, but it is also rather interesting), and the brilliant ideas that come across in Death's Disciples really manages to save a huge amount of the novel.

It's also a decent read; fast-paced, actiony, without getting bogged down in discussion or philosophy despite being steeped in them, the vocabulary suits the characters and the moment, and the style is really well dealt with - King pulls off shifts of focus, scene, and time really well, and indeed manages to keep the reader interested despite the flaws of the novel because they want to know how it's all going to play out. This impulse becomes stronger towards the end of the novel as we see the plot revealed, but it's there at the beginning to, as things start to become complex.

In Death's Disciples, King has constructed a proper post-9/11 thriller. It's just a shame not also fantastically written, but overall, I think I'd recommend it - I certainly enjoyed reading it, and couldn't have stopped before that final page.

Based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books. Death's Disciples is out now in the UK, and from February in the US & Canada.
Gav Thorpe's non-Black Library debut, released by Angry Robot Books, doesn't deviate much from his work inside the Games Workshop stable; that is, it is military, it is political, it is gritty, it is fantasy, it has strong characters, it has magic, and it is clearly Thorpe.  Arguably strongly influenced by writers like Joe Abercrombie, it is of a piece with the fantasy movement that he has come to represent; not one I am a strong fan of, but one that I can enjoy.

The Crown of the Blood is a very well-plotted and well-constructed book; the politics and military elements meld well together and the character-driven plot is exceedingly well-paced, pushing ahead without overlooking the more dull elements of military campaign (there's a nice bit about waiting being the worst part, done in a fresh enough way to not be clichéd!) and moving slowly enough to let us get to know the characters and get attached to them.  The fact that it's, in some ways, such a simple plot is therefore very disappointing; and one or two inconsistencies or plotholes are a little too glaring to overlook.

Thorpe's characters really are a selling-point though.  He uses them to drive the novel, with the general Ullsaard, his noble friend Noran, the merchant Anglhan and the slave-then-soldier Gelthius being our main foci; the ambition of Ullsaard (driven by a not-really-concealed revelatory plottwist about half-way through the novel) is what drives the strife and conflict that fuel the fires of war in the story, and all the characters mentioned above with their own motivations see the novel through to its end, giving the various points of view on the conflict and their own feelings and opinions, making the novel rather more flavoursome than otherwise.

Where the novel does fall down is worldbuilding; changing the directions and names, but otherwise using the (late) Roman empire and world, is not really the best way to get a reader into your world - it's not new, it's not terribly interesting, and when your desert savages are called the Mekha it really can throw the reader out of the book a little.

Worldbuilding aside, then, this is an absolutely fantastic novel; I recommend it.

The Crown of the Blood is released in the UK on September 2nd.  This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Angry Robot Books


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