Given the slim nature of this book, it is surprising it has taken me so long to read it; this is less a reflection of Last Days, which is disturbing and excellent, and more on my current university life.  Evenson's novel is utterly uncategorisable, the ultimate in slipstream; unsettling and strange, I've read it as a part of my Halloween horror focus, and it certainly is, in a stunningly dark way, a horror novel.

The whole setting of Last Days is a mundane, real-world one, although it's never quite located, and that nebulous location adds to the unreal atmosphere of the whole thing.  The novel starts off in a city, and most of the action takes place either in this city or in a cult compound outside the city; the two settings are never really fleshed out to any great extent, but they do give us a sense of place and of the world, since they're both slightly nebulous and unsettling, whilst at the same time rooted in the normal and everyday life of the world.

Our sole real character is Kline, who starts the novel as an ex-policeman who has lost a hand, and killed the man who did it.  Across the course of Last Days, Kline comes to terms with the loss of his hand, and also becomes ever stranger.  Kline is more and more divorced from his humanity and his past as the novel goes on, and he becomes a strange other, with whom we are intimately familiar and yet whom we are utterly apart from, because of the alienness of his experiences and emotions.  That Evenson achieves this without a single overt supernatural occurrence is fantastic, and the imagination applied to the rest of the cast wonderful, even if they do deserve a little more fleshing out as full characters, rather than simply basic figures.

The plot is a very strange one, involving cults, a very Lovecraftian feel, and the numinous.  Last Days takes the idea of mutilation as sacred rite (for historical precedent see, for instance, The Galli of Rome) and makes it even more strange and alien, as well as extreme; the realisation of religious mutilation and religious fervour surrounding the mutilations is fantastically portrayed, with some excellently sympathetic and yet utterly other writing really working its way into the reader's head in a deeply unsettling manner.  The increasing darkness and horror of the novel, as the extremity and ultimate ends of the cult begin to become clear and additional players enter the cultic politics of Last Days, each with their own claim on Kline, really work well as they turn up the pressure and strangeness; and Evenson handles a complex plot excellently.  The writing style, simple, readable, and elegant, adds to this, as the reader is drawn in and on through the novel, not wanting to put it down as the model of a thriller is adopted; indeed, in many ways Last Days is a horrific subversion of the thriller genre, incredibly effectively written.

Last Days has to be one of the most unsettling novels I have ever read, and Evenson is to be complimented for that, as well as his refusal to fall into simple categories; indeed, this is also one of the least categorisable novels I have ever read.  What it certainly won't do is leave me for some time to come.
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.
Bishop's Etched City, a meditation on morality, religion, the numinous and art, is terribly reminiscent of The Trial of Flowers by Jay Lake; both are obvious products of the New Weird movement, both have their roots in a reaction to the standard cliches of epic fantasy, both have a sense of the ridiculous not matched by a sense of the sublime, both have very ugly aspects, and both are married to their settings in very important ways.

Bishop's characters are varied; Gwynn is a relatively simple character and despite this manages to be inconsistent in a very unbelievable way, shifting his views and amorality to the point where what he sees as virtues are abandoned (expediency regardless) in the face of authorial intent, and the importance of something to his character is driven more by the story and less by himself.  Similarly, Raule's lack of a conscience changes and shifts through the novel - not in the sense of developing but in the extent to which it is there or not; her own morality, feelings &c are inconsistent and self-contradictory in (once again) a very inhuman and unbelievable way that suits little but the plot, and not her character.  The only person for whom this is not true if the mysterious figure of The Rev, a brilliant religious man whose fall is something we learn in detail only at the end; the meditations on faith elicited from his character are fantastic, and the final revelations about him in the last pages of the book are great.

The setting is relatively well-done; very similar to the City Imperishable of Lake's novel, Bishop's setting of Ashamoil has a dark underbelly that really has overturned the less seedy surface.  This isn't just a matter of focus but of the whole city; there is no light side here, only the ever-present grime of crime, lust and sadism; indeed, Ashamoil is a somewhat horrifically overdone dystopia of fantasy, and whilst it is easy to see what it is a reaction against it's hard to see it as the good alternative, when it is equally a straw-man (the only time someone stands up to the criminals, they're killed by deus ex machina).

As for the plot, it's pretty much a paper-thin excuse to hang the authorial thoughts and concepts on.  Whilst excusable in a short story, a thin, confused and confusing plot serving more to simply highlight and demonstrate the numinous than to provide actual content or framework for the novel is unacceptable in a novel and Bishop's story is nowhere near strong enough to sustain most readers through the 450+ pages of this novel; whilst the concepts are detailed, interesting and of varying value and clarity, the actual execution and explanation seems to me quite poor.

Altogether then this seems to be an attempt by Bishop to write fantasy as literature: dense, concept-ridden and with poor characters, I cannot bring myself to recommend The Etched City to anyone.
Lake's novels cover all kinds of territory; the main books of his I've read are steampunk - Mainspring and it's sequel - and they're very different from this urban-set New Weird fantasy, very much archetypical of the genre.  Indeed, Trial of Flowers covers many of the tropes of the genres - the weird and numinous, the political, the revolutionary, and the popular; Lake's "heroes" (very much with quotation marks) are very akin to those of, for instance, Perdido Street Station - flawed, imperfect, and only acting from base motives.

Our three main characters - Jason, Imago and Bijaz the Dwarf - are indeed flawed, as are all our other characters; the trajectory of the story involves prophecy, and the characters being driven by ambitions conflicting, loyalties torn, personal relationships and hatreds coming into play.  The characters are all unlikeable and, indeed, almost evil; they are also, however, sympathetic - or rather, Lake forces the reader to be sympathetic to them thanks to the traumas he puts them through, and the way he writes them.  The lesser characters are forceful, acting mainly as revelators to our main characters, with some notable exceptions - revelatory and spoilery ones.

The plot's also rather strange, interlocking various different elements - the political, the religious, the weird, the economic and the social; indeed, it's Marxist influenced, very Miéville-charged, and very much on the complex side.  However, to reveal much about it would reveal spoilers; there's foreign forces, evil Old Gods - those terms precisely, indeed; and Lovecraftian elements.  It's a dark and terrifying place, very much in line with the New Weird.  It's a beautiful plot, really brilliant.

Finally, the setting.  Lake's City Imperishable is a beautiful, gothic, crumbling and ugly creation, with horrific tales and sacrifices, dark gods, and grim religions in the mix.  Indeed, the City is awful and compelling all at once, a force and character all of its own, political and incredible; it's got elements of New Crobuzon, the crumbling and corruption of the urban area, and it's mixed community, underbelly exposed amongst all other elements.

In the end, this is a brilliant example of the New Weird; Lake's Trial of Flowers is a beautiful and horrific, ugly and wonderful novel. I'm in.
This is advertised in many places as a steampunk novel; I would quite categorically state that it's no such thing.  It fits well into the category of new weird, and perhaps of urban fantasy - the city's a better character than any of those we're meant to think of as characters, honestly - but it's not steampunk, single airship notwithstanding.

The city is indeed a fantastic creation; Ararat is a city that stretches from horizon to horizon, in little districts, each with personalities, lots of petty rulers with pretensions to greater things; the inhabitants as a whole and the gods of the city - created by the beliefs and expectations of said inhabitants, sort of - are a fantastic creation, original and well-explored in the novel (to the expense of characters and plot, perhaps?).  They're fascinating things that drive the plot very strongly; the book is more an exploration of a setting and the implications and concepts within it than anything else, but that does take us on some wonderful and incredible journeys.

The fact that the rest of the book is a bit of a letdown is, then, a terrible... well... letdown.  The characters are very flat - whilst the obsessions driving Jack and Arjun give them some life, and at times can inject some real power into their character, the way they rise and fall and surface and vanish so oddly really removes a lot of their power; similarly the single-aspect nature of every character is just a drag, predictable as it rapidly becomes ("I know this aspect therefore I know this character! yay!").

The plot's a little more complex, but it relies a lot on deus ex machina to make it work, and on simply handwaving things away - a lot happens in the background, a lot is just said "yeah this happens" through rumour and newspaper headlines.  If we were given more information and background, or if we were given more hard facts, or even if the characters were simply more inquisitive, then the plot would work a lot better; as it is, it relies far too much on hand-waving and events just happening.

So whilst conceptually it's an interesting, indeed, fascinating book, the execution is very lacking.
Charles Stross’ 3rd novel in the brilliant Laundry series is on a par with The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, the preceding novels in the sequence. Once more we’re following Bob Howard in his battles with ISO 9000 standards, managers, auditors, and Lovecraftian horrors from beyond this dimension trying to eat his soul and mind…
 
This outing with Howard is possibly his darkest and most damaging yet. It opens with a well-deserved warning; however horrific Jennifer Morgue got, and whatever Howard had to do, The Fuller Memorandum goes beyond and makes it worse; Stross has conjured up some seriously awful situations for Howard to end up in, including kidnapped by crazed cultists and (once more) up in front of the Auditors – for something worse than ever before.
 
The plot’s the usual conceit – double-dealing, backstabbing, betrayal from unexpected sources, mind-eating horrors, computer geekery, domestic drudgery, zombie assassins, and Russian FSB agents dabbling with the occult and playing both sides off against the middle. We learn much more about Angleton, Howard’s boss, and about the Laundry, as well as the various threats-from-beyond that Howard has to deal with in this novel; the world of the Laundry is, in fact, given more fleshing out (perhaps an ill choice of term…) and background than it has ever yet had before, and Stross does it beautifully. The plot advances with our knowledge, and whilst some developments are obvious to a reader Howard himself also learns them (even if he doesn’t tell us, he acts on what he knows). Despite this, Stross still throws some serious curveballs; he’s a bit of a genius in that regard, dropping sudden switches on us at a moments notice.
 
All in all then, this latest outing of our favourite computer geek cum warrior against the Beings Beyond is a brilliant piece of work; whilst one does have to have read the previous novels in a sequence to get all the references and jokes, that’s a pleasure to do anyway! Highly recommended.
 
 
This book was won in a contest run by Graeme of Graeme’s Fantasy Book Reviews.
The Road to Bedlam is Mike Shevdon’s follow-up to Sixty-One Nails, picking up where that left off, and this review will contain spoilers for that novel.
 
The first novel ends on a pseudo-cliffhanger; will Alex have powers, or won’t she? How will Blackbird’s pregnancy turn out? What does being a Warden of the Courts mean? This book is an answer to two of these questions, and Shevdon gives us a look at the answer to the third.
 
The characters are similarly well-drawn; a lot of people from the first novel are revisited – including villains and non-Feyre – and they’re expanded upon a little, more information given about them and new details revealed; we learn more, for instance, about Claire and about Sam, and a lot more about the Seventh Court. Furthermore, we learn about human/Feyre interactions past and present – the implications of the decision that split the Seventh Court from the other six are explored, in part, and prove to be long-lasting and somewhat potentially destructive.
 
Shevdon’s not skimped on the humour, either – there’s moments in this book where one wants to simply laugh out loud, and there are moments which are sly and subtle in their amusement, a nicely paced and finely balanced trick that Shevdon rather excellently manages. At times it gets in the way of the plot or the characters, but in general it adds rather than detracts from the novel.
 
If there’s one criticism I have, it’s that the pacing is off; the occasional point-of-view switch to Blackbird throws the timing of the novel off somewhat, and the two plotlines in which Niall is intimately involved are paced so differently and yet interweave so much that things just seem not to work – he’s in two places at once, or neglecting one thing for another, or doing neither, for far too much of this novel; Shevdon’s attempt to interweave two elements that are so disparate and separate has, I think, drastically weakened this novel.
 
However, it remains a wonderful read, and really justifies the cover-quote on Sixty-One Nails: “Neverwhere for the next generation.” I really do want to keep following where Shevdon leads.
 
 
This review was based on an eARC from Angry Robot Books. The novel will be out in MMPB on September 2nd in the UK.
 Finch is a sequel to City of Saints and Madmen, set in the same milieu of Ambergris.  Like that collection, I didn't draw terribly much enjoyment from it; on the other hand, there are some definite improvements in Finch as compared with City...

The characters of Finch are reasonably varied and well-portrayed; Finch himself is a wonderful enigma and mystery, until the mystery is solved (at which point he becomes a far less interesting character; unfortunately, that's the last third of the novel...).  He has real fears and worries and attachments, and his emotions draw the reader into his character credibly; equally, when he faces dilemmas the reader faces the same ones - we tend to have as much information (never sufficient!) as Finch does.  The other characters, whilst not as well-developed, share these characteristics; and all (this is, I admit, a bit of a flaw - it makes it trite in all of them, rather than strong in a few) are mysterious and strange with largely hidden characteristics.

The setting of Ambergris is rather different that that of City...; the gray caps now run things, after the mysterious (that gets tiring after a while...) Rising.  The gritty, dirty, terrifying nature of the place is put across incredibly well; the people populating it are real - ish - and the city breathes, in a kind of slimy, disgusting way; VanderMeer's demonstration of the changes since the Rising is strong, and demonstrates some vital elements to the reader to make it a real city.

The plot's convoluted, however; it's a sort of detective thriller with political elements and the whole thing fails to tie up in any way - too many plots and counter-plots, insurgencies, counter-insurgencies and counter-counter-insurgencies, and too many people trying to pull Finch's strings; the whole thing is messy not in the way life is, but in the way a badly thought through novel is. It ends up confused and even the resolution makes little sense, pushing the whole thing into the realm of the strange and inexplicable and nonsensical; clues and theories are thrown about without actually being consistent or coherent.

Overall, whilst the novel is technically well-executed, it relies too heavily on mysteries which it then solves and on an air of superiority that I found tempering my enjoyment. I know I should enjoy Finch; I also know that I don't.


This book was won in a competition run by Graeme of Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
This is in the vein of novels like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and China Miéville’s King Rat: mixing fantasy with the city, and – as is common – the city of London. It also has a touch of Marie Brennan mixed in, with the Feyre (or Fey) playing a major role as the alternative London; and as usual, whilst playing on a common trope, it throws in its own spin.
 
The plot’s relatively straightforward – man enters world he didn’t know, of mystery and strangeness; goes on quest; discovers power, resolves personal issues, falls in love; succeeds and wins out. However, Shevdon does an impressive job in keeping the suspense there regardless; the plot may be straightforward, in simple terms, but the specifics make it a far more interesting proposition than the generalisations I’ve just written. Whilst not really twists and turns, the tricks and elements Shevdon introduces make the novel far more interesting and the story is more compelling for it.
 
He also writes great characters, especially Rabbit and Blackbird – though by no means them alone. Rabbit’s is the perspective from which we experience the novel, first-person as it is, as he is plunged into the world of the Feyre; it’s a good perspective as he is, indeed, intelligent and insightful but not willing entirely to accept the world he’s thrust into (as in the Gaiman and the Miéville, indeed). Every character is rounded and individual, and the writing makes them stand out from each other in almost every respect really clearly; a masterpiece.
 
Shevdon’s writing really helps the novel, not just in terms of characters but in terms of pace. He knows when to speed up and when to slow down, and he manages to make really interesting ideas clear, and really strange elements – some of the magic for instance – are so well and vividly described you can imagine Shevdon himself experiencing them, and as the reader you are certainly drawn into the same feeling of personal experience of the events.
 
All in all, Shevdon’s novel is a pleasure to read, and a compelling novel start to finish; I look forward to reading its sequel!
This pastiche spy thriller is the second in the Laundry series, following the Atrocity Archives and preceding The Fuller Memorandum, which is currently winging its way to me courtesy of Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. Whilst I wasn't too aware, whilst reading it, of the pastiches that underlay the Atrocity Archives - not in a specific sense, anyway - The Jennifer Morgue is much more bluntly a Fleming-alike (indeed, a riff of a few Bond novels/films) and makes that element of the novel utterly integral to the plot.

The story moves in a way somewhat like a James Bond novel - if you threw Lovecraftian horrors in as villains, an inhuman creature in as the "opposition ally", and a computer geek (named Bob Howard - homage maybe?) in place of James Bond.  Stross doesn't just create a fun scenario - which that definitely and undeniably is, no? - but also uses it to good effect to create a novel which goes beyond the Fleming source material to be a funny and thrilling novel in its own right.  The plot draws on a variety of Fleming's novels and the films, but most strongly on a combination of Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me; however, it doesn't slavishly adhere to their principles and there's a twist at the end which - whilst somewhat telegraphed - is still well handled, although it does rob one character of a lot of development and everything else.  That robbing is not ignored but is handled as the conclusion of the novel, thankfully; Stross isn't one to make the mistake of leaving untouched a problem he's created.

He is, as usual, pretty strong on characterisation; Bob Howard is drawn very well, as is Ramona - the spy who loved him, if you will - and they're more than just Bond-novel archetypes; in fact, Howard is anything but, being very much the computer geek who strayed into the wrong story much of the time, and some of the time a panicked Bond-style hero more worried he's going wrong than anything else.  The characters are fresh and human, worrying about human relationships and human matters as well as the cosmic chaos they're trying to police, which is a skilful line to walk; Stross, however, tapdances down it spinning a plate as he goes, never missing a note.

All told, Stross has once more created a brilliant piece of pastiche and made it, in its own right, fantastic.  Really enjoyable and unmissable, I can't wait for the arrival of the sequel!

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