Leicht's novel is very definitely urban fantasy, but it isn't urban fantasy as it is traditionally understood. Not only is Of Blood and Honey set against the background of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, inherently a turbulent, violent setting (one of the most famous British atrocities in the history of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday, is written into this novel); but the portrayal of the Fae (and the Fallen), the use of viscera and violence, and the pretty relentless male focus of the novel are not quite in the standard mould...

The plot of Of Blood and Honey is an intermingling of two conflicts; first, the surface conflict of the Troubles, with Liam, our protagonist (I hesitate, for a number of reasons, to call him a hero) caught up in them first through incarceration in Long Kesh and then on Bloody Sunday arrested again.  This draws him into the IRA, although the plot only touches lightly on his actions in the IRA; this is rather more a way to lead into the plot of Liam's father Bran, and the war between Fae and Fallen that is being played out underlying the Troubles, with the Catholic Church playing a problematic role in the conflict as well.  It's a slowly told plot, jerkily transitioning in ways that aren't always clear (whilst Leicht dwells on certain sections with little happening for extended times, for instance the prison scenes and Liam's early IRA involvement, other bits are brushed over and referred back to in passing later, such as his IRA training), and it dwells on the violent scenes and moments for too long (given that this is a novel about violence and horror, this is perhaps intentional; but the timing feels very wrong when rapid, violent scenes are given so much space whilst we skip over so much).  It also requires a lot of wilful stupidity by a number of characters, to the point of straining credibility.

The characterisation is also weak.  The only developed character is Liam, so we'll cover the other main figures rapidly.  Most central is Father Murray; a Catholic priest, he's very simply and one-dimensionally portrayed, in no small part as simply a kindly old man who has a darker side - or rather, who is intended to have a darker side without ever actually showing it.  Mary Kate is similarly basic; her portrayal is as a passive, loyal female without any real personal agency (any agency she has is only ever off-screen, which is problematic in its lack of immediacy) and she is eventually fridged. Liam is the best character, and even he is intensely passive; much of the novel is spent watching things happen to him, and Of Blood and Honey as a result has a real problem with its drive and requires a lot of credit on the part of the reader.  He's also intensely obtuse - that is, the reader is given a lot of hints and clues and is very able to put them together, and Liam, with the same information, is always way behind us, which makes him seem rather... boring as someone to follow.  In the end, the enigmas of the secondary characters are far more interesting than any of our primary cast, simply because we don't see enough of them to realise how uninteresting they are.

In the end, Of Blood and Honey has great potential, but squanders it; there is some very visceral and powerful writing on display, but that isn't backed up with characters or a plot which the reader is invested in, and Leicht uses real events and gruesome horror as a cheap way to manipulate the reader.  The writing style is choppy and poor, and the unsubtle plot and politics - British bad, Catholic Church too dogmatic, Liam's eventual moment of glory (although even that is qualified and deeply passive in reality) - really do intrude for at least this (British) reader in such a way that it harms the novel as a work of fiction, making it more of a polemic.

And this doesn't seem to be what Leicht is after; on the terms the novel is presented in, Of Blood and Honey fails dramatically, since as fiction it doesn't make the reader want to keep reading, and as argument it falls down because we don't care enough about anyone to care what happens to them (except when it's so violent as to be nothing more than cheap, obviously-fridgey manipulation...).  I cannot help but damn this book; certainly, Of Blood and Honey isn't worth your money...
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.
Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series is regarded as one of the better urban fantasy series; it doesn't break new ground - vampires and werewolves, in rivalry, underground but starting to enter mainstream conciousness, in a manner recognisable from anything from The Dresden Files through Blade and Underworld.  Vaughn's novel sticks closely to the conventions of the genre, and it is clear why Kitty and the Midnight Hour picked up an award from Romantic Times rather than anything in SFF circles; what is less clear is why it won any awards...

The first thing to note is the blandness of the plot.  Despite the apparent violence and horror elements of Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Vaughn really hasn't put much of a plot into this novel; we're given a serial-killing werewolf partway through the novel who appears to be intended to be a main element, but really so little is made of him for the majority of the time that he simply doesn't matter; we're given Kitty's radio show and the conflict it induces between the vampires and werewolves, which again has very little made of it and appears to simply peter off without resolution and rapidly; we have Pack dynamics, of which more later because of disturbing implications, which again are made very little of for the majority of the novel.  Even with its shortness, Kitty and the Midnight Hour spends an awful lot of time doing absolutely nothing with its plot, and that really is quite disappointing; there are plots there to be advanced, but Vaughn simply doesn't, in part because of the nature of Kitty's character.

Because Kitty is, essentially, passive.  There are one or two moments when she takes initiative - in changing the format of her show and demanding that she be allowed to keep it, despite her alpha telling her to stop (an argument she wins by bribing him); and at the end of the novel, she suddenly takes the initiative completely.  But for most of the novel, Kitty, our title character, remember, is simply buffetted by external forces, not even reacting but simply accepting what comes to her; the moments when she does take the initiative therefore actually feel out of character, and that despite being some of the best moments in the novel.  As opposed to Anita Blake or Jayné Heller, Vaughn doesn't give us a strong female lead character, and not only is it a loss, it's a real problem, because the only other female character we ever see is a manipulative, behind-the-scenes powergrabber; that is, Vaughn presents women as either passive or evil.  Her portrayal of men is much more nuanced, but also problematic: T.J., a gay werewolf and the Pack's beta, is completely desexualised throughout the novel, and one of three characters to die (the only one who dies not attacking Kitty); Cormac is a strong and powerful character, who Kitty first meets because he's trying to kill her, something which apparently makes him attractive to her; and Carl, the Pack alpha, is an abusive and manipulative man who she can't resist and feels, again, deeply attracted to.  What we're getting here is something really disfunctional.

That's only heightened by one of the revelations in chapter 9, and it's one of the real low points of Kitty and the Midnight Hour.  Vaughn gives us Kitty's backstory - how she became a werewolf; and it starts not only with her boyfriend being abusive and neglectful, but then raping her.  We're not shown the rape, but we're told in no uncertain terms that it happens.  Kitty is then attacked and escapes, becoming a werewolf.  Neither of these events leaves any trauma.  The morning after, Kitty's shaken, but otherwise basically fine.  This is, remember, in the wake of being raped by her boyfriend.  This is followed up by, throughout the book, Kitty justifying actions by Carl that she explicitly notes would be abuse if between humans because they're both werewolves; it's not a matter of saying they're not abuse because they're werewolves, but rather that the abuse is acceptable.  The novel also infantilises Kitty, and says she infantilises herself; this in a scene where Carl is about to assert dominance by having sex with her.  The sexual politics in this novel are not only extremely disturbing, they're inescapable; you can't read it without being slapped in the face with some really deeply problematic conceptions of gender and sexuality.

In the end, Kitty and the Midnight Hour is a novel without enough plot, with a main character who doesn't drive the novel or assert independence until too late, and with so many problematic gender issues that it actually hurts to read it.  That it is the first novel in an extremely successful UF series can only be another nail in the coffin for most UF to my eyes, because this really is a disturbing and appalling book.
Stalking Tender Prey is Storm Constantine's attempt, as far as I can tell as a reader, to bring all sorts of new-age woo together into one novel, including ideas drawn from sources as diverse, and ridiculous, as Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? and other such places, alongside epics like Paradise Lost (thematically, if nothing else).  The problem is that the novel ends up incorporating the ridiculousness of Däniken, and the themes but not the epic scope or the characterisation of  Milton...

The plot of Stalking Tender Prey is rather messy, and perhaps even impossible to explain; we follow various characters, mostly Grigori (not fallen angels, but it's never remotely clear who they actually are, other than part-human with special powers), in a sort of mystical quest that's slow, messily told, and to no small extent seems to be an excuse to write sex scenes of all sorts (although the attitude to homosexuality leaves a lot to be desired, I have to say - it's treated very oddly!).  It's building, perhaps, on Paradise Lost - the idea of the fall and possibility of redemption, but it's also got all sorts of strange things to say about human nature; especially the whole idea of sex-vampirism...  What really doesn't help is the slowness of the plot; there does seem to be a huge extent to which Constantine draws all the events of the novel out beyond all real use or need, leading to fluff like repetitious interactions between characters, pointless introspection leading nowhere and adding nothing, and even extended scenes which just go nowhere and fail to add anything, even tension, to the novel.

The characters aren't much better; in part because Constantine uses them as props to advance her ideas, but also because a lot of them are so deeply inconsistent.  Every character, even including the one who is supposed to stand above it all unaffected (Peverel Othman), changes across the course of the novel, but not naturally; instead they change jerkily and strangely, in such a way that they stop being recognisable, and become different, worse characters.  Often enough, Stalking Tender Prey gets around problems in the plot with character-changes which are induced by mind-control; or alternatively, by the idea that love is infatuation, and infatuation is instant and complete and thoughtless - a deus ex machina way to allow the plot to advance that really does strip the humanity, likeability and empathy away from characters.

All in all, Stalking Tender Prey feels like a book in need of an editor: at about half the length and with consistent characters, it might have worked as an interesting story, but as it is, it's more like a mess of words...
The Night Circus was tipped as one of the debuts of 2011, and it is no fault of Morgenstern's that I took til 2012 to read it; once I started the novel, it was finished within just over 24 hours.  There appears to be a slight fashion for circuses at the moment in genre circles (see, for instance, Mechanique), and these two very different but also very similar stories demonstrate why: circuses allow the writer a lot of freedom...

The plot of The Night Circus is told in a temporally disjointed, but still clear and, indeed, chronological manner; nothing needs later elements to make sense, though some make a new sense as later events are told.  It concerns the magical contest between Marco and Celia, taught by two different mages and, as children unable to really understand the competition or what it is they are being bound to, drawn into the world of deadly and dangerous magics; it's a romance, in fact, between those two characters, and also (inevitably?) a tragedy.  But it's the telling of how we come from men arranging a strange and magical contest over the head of Celia to the tragic, beautiful end of the novel that really makes Morgenstern's debut shine; that, and the characters she creates as she weaves the illusion that binds the reader.

The Night Circus does have one of the most fantastic casts of any novel I have read for a while.  It's not doing anything particularly revolutionary here - especially for YA, which this book is pegged as (though I'd not hesitate to recommend it to anyone over the age of, oh, comprehension); but the characters are so fully realised, so individual, and so willing to fight against their roles that the writing makes them breathe and live, and makes us laugh and cry with them.  The rivalry and romance between Celia and Marco is so powerfully and beautifully portrayed, the one arising from the other and both being so influenced by their essential characters, so similar and yet also very different, that the reader can't help but care for them and care what happens to them; and despite the large cast of the novel, the reader knows every character so well, because they are each so vivid and unique, so well-portrayed, that they leap off the cage, from the mysterious Mr. A.H-- to Isobel via the twins and Bailey.

The plot is equally well-handled; never losing sight of the contest, Morgenstern doesn't always foreground it, so its pervasive influence is felt in little, rather than grand, ways.  Told episodically and out of order, we're also treated to a way of storytelling that avoids simplicity in favour of complexity, but not obscurity; it's still very linear, and allows us both to explore the wonderous, mysterious and strange Night Circus as well as follow our characters in their adventures and magic, and in which not a moment is wasted.  Everything builds up the atmosphere of the strange and wonderful, and also ups the tension; by the end of the novel, we're at a snapping point, and The Night Circus' tragic resolution was both inevitable and beautiful.

I really, really enjoyed this book, and I'd highly recommend The Night Circus to anyone and everyone; get a copy and read it.  Brilliant, beautiful, and so incredibly well characterised, this really did blow me away...
Liz Williams' work is very well regarded in the science fiction field, but - despite a recommendation from Tricia Sullivan herself - my previous experience of it has been... somewhat disappointing, given the lavish praise laid upon Williams' authorial skill.  Following the specifics of Sullivan's recommendation, however, has proven somewhat more of an explanation for the critical acclaim Williams has: Snake Agent, the first of the DI Chen novels, is a brilliant slipstreamy-type novel.

The reason I describe it as "slipstreamy" is because Williams mixes so many different kinds and categories into Snake Agent.  We see technology out of science fiction - literally liquid display screens that can be spread across any surface and biocomputing as an adjunct to the internet - alongside magic and active demons and gods.  All this in the context of a clearly futuristic P. R. China.  Combine this with the noirish feel of the narrative - although it builds up to be something out of the scope of most noir, in terms of conspiracies (stretching literally into the bowels of Hell!) - and the police procedural/whodunnit elements, and "slipstreamy" is simply the easiest, most complete description of the rolling, changing, shifting and never-quite-solidifying genre of Snake Agent.

The characters are, however, a quite different affair.  We have four main figures in Snake Agent, and they are all excellently portrayed, rounded figures.  The first, naturally, is DI Chen himself; a member of the Singapore Three police force, he deals with matters supernatural, and starts the novel by being asked to track down the kidnapped soul of the daughter of an industrialist.  As the plot progresses and grows more complicated, we see Chen really grow into himself - or perhaps into John Constantine, if we're feeling cynical; because it really does feel like Constantine is something of a reference point for Chen, but not in a bad way - rather they share a common heritage and feeling, as well as a world-weariness, but Chen's is leavened by his stronger urge to do good, and his attachment to Inari.
Inari herself is a demon, and Chen's wife - having fled from an arranged marriage in Hell with Chen's help, she's somewhat dependent on him, but the pair love each other; indeed, there is a beauty and power to their relationship and the way it is portrayed that works incredibly well.  Like all our characters, Inari is incredibly human, and an interesting figure; her inability to quite fit in with humanity and her problems attempting to are affectingly portrayed, as is her state of mind.
Zhu Irzh, Seneschal of Hell and a member of the Ministry of Vice (promotion, not eradication, naturally) is working the same case as Chen from the opposite end; again, he's a very human demon, neatly written as having different standards and ideas of duty as a human, but still having them - and following them.  It's an important note, because Zhu Irzh is so important to the narrative and as a character; Williams writes him very well, leaving him eminently believable.
Finally, Sergeant Ma, a human in the Singapore Three PD who barely believes in the supernatural despite the evidence and dislikes it, is a character like a duck out of water; he lets the reader be introduced to some of the concepts of the novel, and whilst not around for a huge amount of it, his naivety and distaste for demons give us a very different picture to Chen of human society and the world, and a necessary counterbalance.

The plot of Snake Agent is a complex one.  The aforementioned kidnapping is only the way into a complex conspiracy by one of the Ministries of Hell, which is also intertwined with attempts by Inari's spurned betrothed to take her back from Chen and Earth.  The personal, criminal and political run together in complex and unusual manners over the course of the novel, with hidden identities, magical responses, and larger scales than we ever expected at the start coming clearer and clearer, and the raising of the stakes gives rise to more and more elements of the plot being revealed and tied into the central elements, until at the end we have everything swept away, not with a deus ex machina, but with a brilliant resolution reminiscent of such - but far better foreshadowed and executed.

In the end, Snake Agent shows why Liz Williams is a much praised author, and DI Chen is a brilliant creation; I'll certainly be following along his journey.  Williams can, finally, welcome me aboard as a fan!
Prologue by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s prologue to the Wild Cards series, as well as this instalment in it, sets up the backstory quite efficiently, albeit in a slightly “As you know…” manner; however, since it’s presented as an oral history, that works incredibly well. Indeed, the different voices of the story, and their slightly-overlapping timeframes and deeply-at-odds perspectives are very realistic, and really give a sense of what was going on. Good stuff.

30 Minutes Over Broadway! by Howard Waldrop
Waldrop’s story is brilliant; the title belies the seriousness of it, and yet there is humour there too. Jetboy’s a wonderful character, a kid prodigy well-written and thoughtfully put together who has the benefits and the downsides of his history presented well, especially losing touch with his past; and Dr. Tod is a brilliantly Blofeldian villain, with all that implies about his motives and characterisation. However, the story does excellently address the roots of the Wild Cards universe, as well as being well-written and with a brilliant squib on the comic book industry reminiscent of certain bits of Captain America.

The Sleeper by Roger Zelazny
Zelazny’s Sleeper is fantastic; it takes the idea of the wild card virus and extends it, from a general wild card – where each individual infected is affected differently – to a specific; Croyd Crenson is repeatedly changed, from ace to joker and all variants between. Zelazny plays this neatly, with hibernation between each phase, and Crenson slowly catching on to his best course of action; we also see him leaving his normal humanity behind, especially in contrast to Bentley, who was turned into a joker and cured, never losing the humanity that he had. Indeed, The Sleeper really does go into the effect on one’s humanity of the wild card virus, and combined with a strong plot (albeit also a heavy-handed anti-drugs message!) it creates a really good story introducing us properly to the Wild Cards world.

Witness by Walter Jon Williams
Williams takes on one of the worst American domestic excesses of the Cold War in Witness; his story is about HUAC, and about its effects on those it called – both those who spoke, and those who didn’t. Williams’ core cast – Earl Sanderson, a Paul Robeson-style ace; Jack Braun, all-American farmboy with super strength; David Harstein, the Jewish charisma-exuded; and Archibald Holmes, their non-wild carded handler (à la Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, without the anonymity) – are all very different, and individually and well written; it’s obvious from the off that the story is driven by politics because everything is framed in those terms, and especially in terms of Braun’s (our viewpoint character’s) apathy towards such. The climax of the story is the HUAC hearings, and everything hinges on those; we see everything going upwards, and after HUAC it all falls apart for the cast, and lives are destroyed. It’s a really brilliant, and also damning, piece of work, that won’t let the evil of the communist witch-hunt be forgotten.

Degradation Rites by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Snodgrass’ story is quite the dark one, really; indeed, dark on a level Witness didn’t manage to reach, continuing on from there effectively. Told from the point of view of Dr. Tachyon, it tells of the burgeoning relationship between himself and Blythe van Renssaeler, an ace with the power to absorb minds completely (akin to Rogue, but without draining the original person). Tying into Witness directly, we see the relationship take strength… and then HUAC imposes itself, and things turn very dark; people end up destroyed, and Snodgrass is merciless and relentless in her treatment of the effects of it on both Blythe and Dr. Tachyon. If this is the theme of the book and series, Wild Cards appears to be a very grim and bleak universe.

Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace by Michael Cassutt
Captain Cathode… is another great story about the effect of the wild card virus on individuals; and another really, really dark one. Coming seemingly some time after the HUAC hearings and their fallout, we still have jokers being outcast and aces treated with suspicion, but there’s less Red Scare combined with it, and jokers are more like an underclass than anything else. The characters are up to the usual excellent standard of this mosaic novel, and the ability of Cassutt to make them real people is brilliant. The darkness at the heart of the story is an inevitable one, and less surprising as time goes on (though occasionally there is a false trail laid); but the variety of cards shown is fantastic, contributing to a colourful, effective story.

Powers by David D. Levine
Levine’s telling of the U-2 Incident in 1960, the dying days of Eisenhower’s Presidency, is shot through with accurate history, and reads like a better class of Tom Clancy novel; indeed, we even have an intelligence analyst as hero, a Polish-White Russian ace. The whole story’s combination of real-world and Wild Card history and mythology is brilliantly played, since it really does have some excellent characterisation and the style is pitch-perfect for the content. It’s also the first in this collection not to be dark; it certainly has dark moments, but in the end Levine has constructed something which is really quite happy, and is certainly well written. Wonderful stuff.

Shell Games by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s story is brilliant; we’re talking pure 1930s-50s pulps, here. This story could be retitled the Redemption of Dr Tachyon or the Rise of the Superhero, since it’s both those things; we see equally a tactical superhero – the Turtle, a brilliantly thought out idea that really does deserve it’s own full comic series, because it’s just so fun – and Tachyon at his lowest ebb and his recovery from it. It’s a powerful story also in showing how far the wild cards fall in the world, and the Civil Rights parallels are not exactly made subtly, but work effectively for all that. This is a rather nice, and quite uplifting story, and Martin’s obvious homage to the pulps is all the better for its respect for the source the material.

The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato by Lewis Shiner
Shiner’s story is not a terribly good one; it seems, in many ways, to be an excuse to write about occultism and tantric sex (indeed, just eroticism generally), and to treat women as objects, without really hanging it together in a decent frame. After all, Shiner’s use of the wild card virus is so different from anything we’ve seen previously, in a rather ridiculous way; and the whole story is premised on some really rather disturbing ideas about people. That the plot’s quite poor and thin and the characterisations even worse doesn’t help this at all; in the end, it’s occultism and prurience, and nothing more.

Transfigurations by Victor Milán
Milán’s story is a really mixed one. The wild cards seem to come into play really late into the story, and without any real logic – especially that of Grabowski, which seems oddly timed convenient only to the story, and not to the logic of the virus or his life. The characterisation is also quite two dimensional, with Mark Meadows the typical geek who can’t quite be hip, and Grabowski a middlebrow rightwing counter-counter-culture thug motivated by religion and his past; in fact, the extent to which Grabowski’s past isn’t itself coherent and seems to have been left so far behind in his character is itself problematic. The whole plot’s a bit strawman-based, and in the end, this story doesn’t stand up under the weight it tries to take onto itself.

Down Deep by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper
This Vietnam-and-Watergate era story is quite a strange one, a real mix of light and dark. Not without problems – the centrality to one of our narratives of rape, and of the helplessness of a woman to do anything but be a nurturer, is one such – the narrative does work remarkably well as the disparate elements come together. There are strange moments – for instance, the lack of police repercussions for the acts of the Mafia, and the lack of any real motivation for some of our characters to act as they do, especially since at other times they appear to be content to be much more passive as the narrative demands. It is, however, a satisfying story, in the end, and that, really, is what we ask of it.

Strings by Stephen Leigh

Strings is quite a plain story, really; it taps into some American mythology with its own version of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam movement for that matter, but makes it really quite a dark, damning one, attacking those movements in many ways; it’s also a really quite obvious story, which telegraphs its twists far too early on to really make it at all surprising. Indeed, we’re lacking in curveballs or (terribly) compelling characters, instead using excessive tragedy and poorly-concealed “twists” to try to avoid having such things; it’s a bit of a disappointment, but it does fill in some gaps in Wild Cards history, even if the ending’s very anticlimactic.

Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan by Carrie Vaughn
This is one of the better stories in the rump-end of the collection; Vaughn’s construction of the story has some brilliant twists in it, and a really nice building of tension with later sudden releases. Indeed, the plot does manage to combine two separate storylines really well, what with Jennifer’s search for Tricia, and her adventures with Croyd, running parallel but effectively combined; and the characters are really well-written, with Croyd playing true to type and very well written, and Jennifer a brilliant new character, her ace talent played close to the chest for a while and then revealed in the best possible way. A really great story.

Comes a Hunter by John J. Miller
Miller’s story is possibly the single best story in the collection, in part because it reminds me so much of the genre that Martin’s whole universe is playing off: superheroes. Whilst Shell Games manages to be an homage to the pulp era in general, Miller’s story is an homage to Green Arrow in particular, and a brilliant one at that; a normal man avenging his friends against aces, and leading into a fight against crime, using a bow and arrows, with a false name and mark to boot? This is genius stuff, beautiful homage to the superhero comics which pit ordinary humans against meta- or super-humans; and the way Miller plays it, there’s doubt, right until the last, over who’ll win. Amazing.

Interludes/Epilogue/Appendices by George R. R. Martin & others
These little bits and pieces to tie into the world and give a wider view than the stories can tend to be very good in a functional, and stylistically realistic, way.  The problem is that they're not in themselves interesting; as a wider view on the universe, they're great, but some of them are basically impenetrable (Interlude Four especially), others not useful or contributory (Interlude Five, the section in the Appendix entitled "The Science of the Wild Card Virus).  Worldbuilding by telling isn't terribly effective, and texts which go too far in the direction of stylistic mimicry become impenetrable, and that's a flaw in a number of these little linking sections.

Martin has put together an almost entirely excellent collection here, a brilliant homage to the superhero genre of comics that rises above it's origin by moving away from it, whilst remaining closely linked with it stylistically and ideologically.  The use of the mosaic style and the various different authors writing linked short stories is managed excellently, especially the various characters who move between different stories smoothly and simply.  The world's intriguing and the quality of the stories great, so I'll certainly be exploring this universe further!
Hellbent is Priest's follow-up to Bloodshot, and - like Mira Grant's Deadline (spoilerific!!!) - suffers from a number of problems by virtue of being a second novel, including a shared problem of "As you know, Bob..." and a plotline that is a little too messy and disjointed for comfort.  However, on the important counts, Hellbent satisfies the reader, doing what one expects it to; it provides a fun, if not altogether excellent or clear, thriller... with vampires.

Hellbent's characters are substantially similar to those of Bloodshot; our main character is, once again, Raylene, the vampire-heistmeister, and she provides our viewpoint throughout the story.  Her neurotic nature comes through more strongly in Hellbent than it did in Bloodshot, in part because Priest ensures she tells us about it repeatedly, but also because we see her acting it out; there are moments when you expect her to just stop and start going through her bag to make sure she has everything.  Adrian deJesus, the other main stayover from Bloodshot, is a more significant character, and at the same time, he's more characterful; growing out of the ex-SEAL drag queen simplicity of Bloodshot, Priest is really bringing him into his own, on a number of levels, especially the relationship between Ray and Adrian.  The rest of the characters are either relatively backgrounded - Ian, whose problems set one of the plotlines running, is rather sidelined, as are Pepper and Domino - or not explored in enough detail, such as the antagonist of one plotline, Elizabeth.  Whilst this has the benefit of ensuring all attention is on the not-romance-of-course-not-never between Raylene and Adrian, it does mean the novel suffers a little bit of a weak cast, especially if one hasn't already read Bloodshot.

The plotlines of Hellbent are a little problematic, in that they're so disconnected, and yet run concurrently.  Simultaneously, Raylene is asked to steal the penis-bones of various magical beings for her fence for huge financial rewards, and has to settle a problem for Ian - he has been asked to come home, but knows if he returns it will be to be killed.  This leaves Ray with a problem, as she wishes to keep Ian alive.  What follows is a complex, and rather strange, story; Priest appears to have taken the two elements and, rather cavalierly, bolted them together, with neither really impacting the other, except insofar as travel arrangements go.  Each is handled very effectively individually, with some powerful and enjoyable moments throughout, especially with the vampire politics and the penis-based jokes, but one is inescapably left with the feeling that Hellbent would be better as two linked novellas, and the two plotlines better separated than together; but in the end, they are both fun, and enjoyable, pushing the buttons that Bloodshot did, albeit with a little less smoothness.

The real problem comes from Bloodshot, and Hellbent's reliance on events there.  Whilst Priest does highlight it whenever Raylene is giving backstory, it is still didactic and poorly written; necessary, perhaps, but clumsy.  We're given shots of background in one go, rather than even an attempt to smoothly integrate it into the story; this, especially for someone who has read Bloodshot, is jarring and strange.  The rest of the novel is enjoyable and humorously written, with some stunning action scenes and excellent cliffhangers (if a few too many "boner" jokes - though I don't believe that precise one ever appears); the writing style really packs a punch, when Priest wants it to do so.

In the end, Hellbent satisfies a taste for low(ish)-brow urban fantasy with a sense of humour and a sense of style; Priest is capable of better writing, and we've seen it in Bloodshot as well as her other works, but in the end Hellbent is what it (appears to) set out to be: fun, humorous, and slightly silly, brought down by poor exposition and an unintegrated plot.

NB: Combichrist are namechecked in the novel, but I'm having trouble seeing the point of the band, when Neurosis do something similar but better.  Anyone up for explaining them to me?
My previous experience of Lovegrove's work has proven disappointing and flawed, but with a positive review from Eric Brown behind it, I entered Redlaw with high hopes.  Unfortunately, not only did it dash those hopes, but Lovegrove confirmed some of my worst opinions about his writing, and - with a deep disregard for any artistic function other than wallowing in excess - Redlaw has proven to be a terribly poor novel.

The idea of a world where vampires have suddenly emerged, and been forced into Sunless Residential Areas as they immigrate to Britain, areas where humans dare not walk and that are akin to the worst ghettoes and immigration detainment centres, is not entirely unbelievable; similarly, the armed police force tasked with hunting vampires, in the form of SHADE, is a nice idea.  It is from here that Lovegrove really takes things in an appalling direction; because it seems he is trying to make a good political point, but in practice, Redlaw's politics are the politics of the mob and undermined by his clumsiness and refusal to engage in a meaningful way with politics, combined with a contempt for all those who do.  Contempt is a theme we'll find running through this novel, because it is what Lovegrove shows in spades.

This contempt starts with the characters.  Whilst Lovegrove respects Redlaw himself, that's the only character who comes out of this novel well; Redlaw is the straight-up cop who does things his way, in a Dirty Harry style, taking the law into his own hands.  A man whose past is so irrelevant as to not matter (ex-police, his last partner as a SHADE officer killed by Sunless), and whose present is defined by his complete lack of faith in humanity and very mixed faith (now it's here, now it's gone, because that's how people of faith are, right?) in God.  Indeed, the only other man of faith in the novel is a Muslim, Khalid, who is a bad person in part directly linked to his Islam (for instance sniping at female colleagues (p108).  We also see a burning contempt for politicians shining through; the minor player is blackmailed into betraying his principles because he sees an S&M mistress, whereas the more significant character, Slocock (a subtle name there) is introduced to us in a paragraph where he gloats over having gotten "bum sex (bareback, too, a double bonus)" (p35) from a prostitute.  Indeed, Slocock is shown throughout the novel to be contemptuous and awful, without any real principles, as similarly his master, Lambourne, an industrialist and capitalist equally with only money as a driving force, and completely amoral.  With antagonists like these, the novel finds itself rather unbelievable, and even the twist at the end, of who the real villain is, doesn't save it from a descent into ridiculousness, because it's a true Face Heel Turn without any reasonable buildup or characterwork to create or cause it.

The plot is also deeply problematic.  Redlaw functions based on a conspiracy theory, but it only does that if we're assuming that the restrictions surrounding the Sunless are very stupid: completely tight in some ways and practically nonexistent in others.  Furthermore, the end-result of the conspiracy is completely ridiculous; that is, it doesn't work within the parameters of the conspiracy and the conspirators, because it implies a certain degree of wilful stupidity on all their parts.  Beyond this, we have Redlaw's ability to tear it apart (through superhuman abilities - he kills what seems to be dozens of Sunless single-handed relatively early on in the novel, despite their literally superhuman ability (p98) - and a stubbornness that is beyond human) with the help of a Illyria, who is practically a blank-slate character introduced to let Redlaw learn and discover things, and to grow as a character, rather than as a figure in her own right; indeed, she's practically there for the inevitable fridge moment, with her whole character development leading up to that point.

In the end, Redlaw is insulting to its characters, its concept, and its audience, and with the maturity of an adolescent boy.  Lovegrove has deeply underwhelmed me with this novel, and I would advise others to steer well clear.
Having just recently read Rivers of London, to return to the Jim Butcher model of urban fantasy is a little strange; but that is precisely what Hounded is, albeit with a touch of Irish mythology.  That isn't to say it's bad - I enjoy the Dresden Files, after all - but it is, perhaps, less impressive than one might expect.

The characters are universally cut from a standard urban fantasy template; Atticus is Harry Dresden, albeit on the down-low about his power and with a greater degree of it, right down to the 21st century Americanisms and the cool styling, and eternal and powerful enemy, and the other characters fall rapidly into their simple straightforward slots.  We have lots of blood, gore, magic, and sex, and it's never explained why no one notices that the characters can do these things; at one point it really deserves lampshading, but Hearne takes himself and his novel too seriously to really interrogate why people take the magic that they're obviously affected by and in many cases seeing in their stride.  The characters don't really help with that because they are so blatantly magical - werewolves that act like werewolves and have eyes that change colour, vampires that are stereotypically such, and so on.  It's a real problem.  When it comes to the Irish pantheon, it's even worse: the women are all sex-crazed and devious, the men straightforward, blunt, and stupid.  It's underwhelming and manages to completely elide the distinctions between them.

Hounded's plot is given problems by this.  The various characters engage in ridiculously complicated plots and counter-plots, all focused around a single sword owned by Atticus - it's never really explained why Atticus won't give it up, only why it's wanted, and that's a problem that happens a lot here.  Motives are obscure and strange, without obvious logic or coherence. The various groups - werewolves, a coven, and others - just pop up where they're convenient and necessary and Hearne never really brings a decent sense of coherence to the novel.

The saving grace is that Hearne does have a good writing style.  Hounded has puns and jokes dropped throughout, well-placed and well-timed without distorting the action; and those scenes which are built around action are fast-paced and effective, giving us a decent idea of what's going on.  The dei ex machinae - which fly thick and fast - do reduce the tension of these scenes and make the otherwise-high stakes meaningless, but Hearne's writing style carries them off reasonably well.

In the end, whilst this is a somewhat enjoyable novel, Hearne sacrifices the tension and power for dei ex machinae and poor characterisation.  Hounded is a slight, simple volume with pointless complications saved only by its writing style.
Rivers of London is modern urban fantasy with a twist; rather than glamorise life (in the style of a noir novel), Aaronovitch has grimmed it up, with vampires, about whom "one thing was for certain - they absolutely weren't going to sparkle in the sunlight" (p128).  That kind of humour combined with realism runs through the whole novel, along with a certain knowing intelligence; Rivers of London contains the kind of references that grace novels like The Magicians, with a wider, and more British, sensibility.

Rivers of London is narrated by and centred on DS Peter Grant, a mixed-race Londoner who rapidly learns that there is more to London - and to coppering - than he thought; his narration is peppered with references to popular culture of all sorts, more or less obscure, and he himself is a bit of a flighty soul. Indeed, there are times reading the novel that we wonder why he can't concentrate on something, but we're told that this is his nature right up front; Aaronovitch manages to work it in consistently and well, which is excellent.  It also explains handily why he doesn't notice some clues and spot some conjunctions that the reader rapidly does, which works in the plot's favour.  The other characters are also rather well-presented; Beverly is fantastic in her brief appearances, young and entitled but submitting to Mama Thames, on those occasions she is brought to heel.  Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a proper wizard as anyone can tell, is a fun, if bland, character; he has theoretically-hidden depths which are telegraphed to the reader over Grant's head like anything, and overall does little in the narrative itself.  Finally, DS Lesley May, a female copper, is a nicely written character, with a sense of humour and slightly apart from the supernatural events of the novel; this makes her a fun, interesting character who really plays into the novel and brings out the best of Aaronovitch's dialogue-writing.

The plot is somewhere between supernatural thriller and police procedural; it's something of a whodunnit - but we get told whodunnit significantly before the end, although there are a number of other puzzles to deal with before the thing concludes - and also something of a straight-up thriller, with violent action, suspense, and a climactic showdown.  Rivers of London handles its plotlines well, with some brilliant twists and turns, and the murder-plot keeps upping the ante right to the end, managing effectively to keep the reader interested and to raise the stakes whilst never making them so grand as to become abstract.  This balancing act is effortlessly performed, no doubt helped by the far grander, if subtler and more off-screen, conflict between Father and Mother Thames, which embroils Grant until he can find a (temporary) solution.

In the end, Rivers of London is a thoughtful, well-written urban fantasy that has a strong vein of humour but also more than a tinge of horror; it's Harry Dresden with a badge and a British sensibility to it.  A thoroughly good read.
This review will contain a major spoiler for Disch's novel; read on only if you don't mind being spoiled for The Priest, a work of pointless anti-clericalism, popular anti-Catholicism and simplistic silliness.

Spoilers! )

All in all, then, if you're looking for an interesting novel about the Catholic Church and some of its problems (largely celibacy, but others too), read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.  If you're looking for a poorly written piece of pointless screed, read Disch's The Priest - but I wouldn't advise it.
Ruckley's novel is a cross between police procedural and horror novel, and a strong piece of work; The Edinburgh Dead fits, in many ways, into Tim Powers' idea of the "secret history", incorporating as it does Burke and Hare, Major Weir, and a few other elements into a single whole.

Sergeant Adam Quire, the protagonist of the novel and man whom it generally follows, is a policeman in early 19th century Edinburgh, investigating a murder; this leads him into a whole mass of strange and supernatural horrors involving the undead, possession, demons and other strange things that populate Ruckley's Edinburgh.  Quire himself is a great character, a flawed ex-soldier turned policeman, with a good deal of stubbornness and a bolshie spirit - he cares about the people of Edinburgh, and he also has a certain resistance to authority.  These combine throughout the novel with a tenacity of spirit that drives Quire to destroy his enemies, even if it destroys him; and that gives a certain pathos, and darkness, to the whole novel.  The other characters are less well-written, though still strong; Ruthven is a weak man driven by poverty and desire for power, and this comes across well, although it makes him rather simplistic, and Burke and Hare are brilliantly written, if in direct opposition to their portrayal in the recent film of their lives, with the rest of the cast largely playing second fiddle to Quire.

The plot is quite a strong one; The Edinburgh Dead, by using the Powers' idea of a secret history, adds an air of verisimilitude to its otherwise straightforwardly horror-novel plot, and makes it hit home to the reader that much harder.  Ruckley's writing means that the discovery of the evil working at the heart of the story, in the form of Mr. Blegg, is powerfully effected, and that the twists and turns, the action and the slower moments, all fit together well.  He also manages to keep a plot touching on all sorts of different areas grounded, and to make it clear what the costs of Quire's actions are - this is a horror novel without a clean ending, in which no one comes out of it untouched, and it is that much stronger and darker for it, because lives are ruined and destroyed simply because of the nature of the characters and the horror at the centre of it.

This all adds up to make The Edinburgh Dead a really strong, powerful read, and a great novel; Ruckley's turned in a really good horror novel, with that little frisson that marks out the best from the rest.
Polansky's novel has gotten a significant amount of positive attention across the blogosphere, and the wonderfully titled The Straight Razor Cure is a novel I've had my eye on for some time, so it is with no small amount of joy that I've read it.  The combination of grim-and-gritty fantasy with pulp-style detective novel works well, but Polansky's writing style is occasionally jarring - "friendly fire" and fist-bumps having no logical place in a semi-mediaeval setting, after all.

The unnamed Warden - our narrator, in the first person, whose real name is never revealed (although unlike Locke Lamora, Polansky doesn't contrive to keep it a secret; it just doesn't come up, and the naturalness of this allows the mystery to not be annoying) - is the protagonist of this novel.  A distinctly unlovely man, he's an admittedly and statedly bad person, but at the same time has a code of honour and a certain drive; Polansky makes him believable and sympathetic, to some extent, and we especially feel his emotions towards the end when it packs a real punch and resonance on a powerful, dark level.  The characterisation across the novel is pretty good, with the exception of Yancey the Rhymer (Polansky incorporates too much modernity into him, which just feels false and removes a lot of the verisimilitude for me); we only see characters through the warden's eyes, but their actions speak for themselves, and there's a certain brilliance to the characterisation of one or two individuals that works incredibly well, including the (equally anonymous) Old Man and Crispin.

The plot is also relatively strong; The Straight Razor Cure starts with the discovery of a murdered child, and the investigation into what lies behind the abduction and death of the child is handled really well by Polansky.  The various elements of the plot - the Warden's past, the investigations, Wren's "apprenticeship", and the Warden's network of contacts and criminals - are all drawn together very effectively, without a single missed beat. It can be frustrating to know what's coming (by a third of the way into the novel, we, unblinded by the attachments of the Warden, know who the killer is) while the man we follow has no idea, but Polansky manages to make it work by bringing us along through the Warden's head; we see things the way he does, and that means we both know and ignore the knowledge of who the killer is.

The one really jarring note here is the writing style and world building, and for the same reason.  Polansky's world is a very confused, mixed one; at the same time it appears to be set in a period analogous to the Industrial Revolution, with mills and factories and large immigrant ghettoes, and yet the weaponry belies this, with bombs and artillery mixed with crossbows and swords (no rifles), and language and actions more suited to the modern world (fist bumps, phrases like "friendly fire").  And yet at times, Polanksy's writing appears to evoke high fantasy; on a number of occasions sentences are brilliant, poetic, wonderful, and completely out of place, because their style is simply wrong for the world Polansky is trying to build.

In sum, then, The Straight Razor Cure (Low Town to Americans - I think we get the better title here) is a good, readable fantasy, and a strong debut; but Polansky needs to be more consistent in his worldbuilding, and more polished in his writing style, to really write the really effective work he is clearly capable of.
The Magician King, like The Magicians, to which it is a sequel, is at once a paean to and rejection of the idyllic visions of Lewis and Rowling all at once; a rejection of Hogwarts and of Narnia, and yet also a love ode to them. It is also a novel by a dyed-in-the-wool geek, who can't - like any of us - stop referencing other things.  But beyond that, The Magician King is a beautiful, powerful book.

The characters are, in the best way, frustrating: Quentin and Julia are both genre-savvy, but not to the genre they actually inhabit.  They're savvy to the idyllic versions of their genre, and Grossman is furiously realistic, and this leads to tensions between the expectations of the characters and the reality they inhabit.  Here, the characters are older and more mature than they were in the original novel; Quentin has changed, and Julia is developing in a much more independent way, her past revealed in interweaved chapters alongside the main narrative.  The novel uses these two characters, and the differences in their outlook - derived from the differences in their past - to show two very different attitudes to the world and to magic; it's a beautiful, and dark, and in the end incredibly moving, relationship which Grossman paints really very well.  The other characters slightly suffer for this; they're far more backgrounded than they perhaps deserve to be, and their development is rather foreshortened, to the point of one particular character death being played more for the benefit of Quentin than as a part of the plot.

The plot, however, is a strong one; rather than just unquestioningly give us a quest-narrative, Grossman is interrogating the standard post-Lewis/post-Tolkein conception of the quest.  The plot sees a series of quests, all part of one meta-quest, and Quentin's changing understanding of the idea and reality of "quest" is tied in with these quests and the one great metaquest; the interrogation by Grossman is an intellectual one that doesn't take much at face value, but creates a strong, powerful narrative that leaves one feeling cleansed and emotionally pained by its close - a dark, cruel, but necessary and inevitable ending of a novel that doesn't hesitate to make itself felt where necessary.  Indeed, the control exercised over the plot really does speak well of Grossman's writing skills and makes The Magician King rise above the problem of characterisation.

Overall, then, The Magician King is a powerful, well-written response to Narnia, and Fillory is as glorious and as dark as ever; Grossman's achievement in this (apparent) duology is a wonderful, and readable, interrogation of a number of received ideas in the fantasy community that should leave it shaken.
Waking the Moon is a horror novel, rather than science fiction or urban fantasy, at its heart; a horror that Hand writes and controls masterfully, combining elements reminiscent of Marion Zimmer Bradley and H. P. Lovecraft into an awful inevitability.

The characters of Waking the Moon are an excellent crowd; Hand’s intellectual approach to the novel is borne out in the nature of the characters – educated, knowledgeable, and very boho. The exception is our main character, who isn’t so boho, so educated, so power-housey; Sweeney Cassidy is only involved in this story by accident, as a bystander, and yet the whole thing turns around her, not just as a narrator but as a part of it. She’s a good character; intelligent enough and sensitive enough to get involved and understand the action to some extent, but still needing some explanation of the details of what’s going on. The other characters are generally those who understand it, or at least part of the picture; Oliver and Angelica are the centre of the drama, whilst Annie Harmon, Baby Joe and Hasel are peripheral. The whole cast are well-drawn and have beautifully written interactions, powerful relationships and relationships of power feeding into how the characters age and develop.

The plot of the novel is that of a secret society, the Benandanti, and the Goddess that they wish to prevent manifesting itself again; Hand’s take on the power of women and the matriarchal society is a dark, horrific one, deeply disturbing and described in a really horrific manner. Following Sweeney, with sidelines into Angelica’s development as the avatar of Othiym, is an excellent way to draw out the horror, as we see snapshots of the increasing darkness and way it grows towards climax whilst we see a more mundane Sweeney grow into herself. The plot is circular, beautiful and well-written; a simple cycle from start to close, with twists and turns towards the conclusion that is at once inevitable and impossible. Combining a writing style that brings the numinous Lovecraftian elements out strongly enough to stick in the mind with powerfully graphic if hallucinogenic visuals, Hand really turns in a stellar novel.

Waking the Moon is an absolutely fantastic modern horror novel; dark, disturbing and strange, Hand creates a really believable story that keeps the reader going and draws one in, hard. A strong recommendation.
Tricks of London and Seven for a Secret, taken together, give us the earliest and last tales of Abigail Irene Garrett, one of Bear's protagonists in the New Amsterdam world (previously noted in New Amsterdam and The White City); they're an interesting study in the woman, and how she changes... and stays the same.  Because they're so closely linked, I'm going to review them together, with one paragraph on characterisation, and one each on the plots.  Some spoilers may crop up for New Amsterdam.

Bear's characters, as previously, are handled very well; what stands out here is the pairing of Sebastian and Abigail Irene.  Whilst Sebastian doesn't appear in Tricks of London, he is developed in Seven for a Secret quite significantly; here, what Bear has been hinting at for some time - the pain of losing a companion to age - is brought out to the forefront as Abigail Irene is near her death.  This gives him a certain added pathos and pain, and alongside the pain of having lost Jack in New Amsterdam, makes him an incredibly human character; and the effects of his age are well-portrayed and fantastic.  Abigail Irene is a very different story; her age changes her very little, leaving her stubborn, intelligent, incisive, uncompromising and all round a wonderful character.  Whilst I would like to see her more centre-stage in Seven for a Secret, her age makes that impossible, and the whole of Tricks of London is pretty purely centred on her to make up for it.  Tricks of London also brings in Sean Cuan, a DS with the Met; he's an interesting, if slightly two-dimensional, character who has a hint of mystery around him without any real substance to back it up, and exists largely as a foil for Abigail Irene.  On the other hand Seven for a Secret shows us Ruth, who is a much more interesting character; she is torn between duty and love, and has to make the choice between the two, and her whole character is well-written, driven and powerful; the hint at the end of the novella gives me hope for future writing in this 'verse featuring her.

Tricks of London is a relatively simple Jack the Ripper inspired crime drama; it introduces Abigail Irene in her youth and shows us things we have never seen before, but doesn't really do much surprising plot-wise - it's relatively pedestrian, although Bear's writing style makes the pacing work fantastically, with a definite movement and sense of impending something that really does add a huge amount to the suspense of the novellette.  Seven for a Secret, on the other hand, has a much better plot; it focuses on the possibility of a kind of pseudo-Nazi werewolf being developed by the Prussians after the invasion of Britain (yes, really). Sebastian and Abigail Irene are out to use this against the Prussians, whilst Ruth herself is one of these werewolves.  The story takes in all sorts of elements, from the Holocaust (not treated lightly, thankfully) to historical myths of the werewolf; it delves into the alternate-past of London in this 'verse, as well as giving us a well-paced and, in a way Tricks of London wasn't, deeply human story.

Overall, then, whilst Tricks of London  - probably in part due to its short length - was not quite up to what I've come to expect from Bear, Seven for a Secret was absolutely fantastic, and a very readable little novella.  Very enjoyable.
Williams’ novel is a real genre-bender; science fiction (Winterstrike is set on Mars, with hugely futuristic genetic engineering), fantasy (haunt-tech, a ghost-based magic/technology thing) and perhaps even horror too. It’s a reasonably enjoyable novel, but I have to admit, I was left wanting more…

The characters of Winterstrike are well-written, that’s certain. Hestia is a brilliant protagonist and viewpoint-character, strong but knowing her limits; she’s got a definite sense of agency and also an apartness from her surrounding culture that allows her to comment on it, and it’s not an artificial apartness as it might be. Essegui is a very different kind of protagonist; rebelling against her culture and parents, but not really breaking out of the assumptions of that culture; with limited agency and a set of drives that aren’t hers. The problem that is inherent to how Essegui is written is her capabilities – they’re too great for the character, in an unexplained manner; this seems rather strange, really. The other characters are much more subtle than Williams gives immediate credit for; we have appearances of strength held tight – with the occasional, rapidly covered, crack; we have the driven, vengeful characters; and a number of others – but each is an individual and well-written, with motivations and drives that are reasonable and well-controlled.

Winterstrike’s plot is much more messy than the characters. There are a number of plotlines which are never tied up satisfactorily; whilst some elements – the disappearance of Leretui, the role of the Changed – are somewhat dealt with, and the mission Hestia starts the novel with is explained, there are many elements which are never closed, not only leaving the path open to a sequel but actively necessitating it. There’s no satisfaction to finishing this novel, not only because the characters are left unsatisfied, but because it’s only finishing, not ending; and Williams hasn’t remotely covered that fact up. The interaction of the plotlines is hinted at and referenced, and the various possible puppet-masters are brought together at the end… but there are unexplained absences (what happens to the Queen?) and a complete lack of discussion.

The other noteworthy element is the worldbuilding. Whilst neglecting the historical side of this (there is history, and its referred to, but we don’t know what it is; how the world got from its present state to this future one is just ignored, practically), Williams does create a beautiful, and interesting, world in Winterstrike. The Martian matriarchies with the outcast genetically modified males (in various semi-mythological forms) are well-portrayed and simply done, without comment; and the broad-brush architecture gives us an idea of the visuals without too strictly defining the limits of the imagination. Similarly, the Earth is painted in vague detail; there is clearly more there, but there’s no reason for the characters to know it – so Williams won’t tell us; and the integration of haunt-tech in Winterstrike is simple and effective into people’s lives.

Overall, then, if Williams had written a longer (or more cleanly ended, even!) novel, Winterstrike would be fantastic; as it is, it’s too unended and feels unfinished in a horrible way, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. I enjoyed it, up to the end… but the end really did put me off Williams’ writing, because it wasn’t an end, and it obviously wasn’t intended to be.
Priest's Bloodshot is unlike either of the other series of hers that I have read - the Clockwork Century (steampunk) and the Eden Moore series (Southern gothic horror); rather, it is urban fantasy thriller, fast-paced, fun, light but with some serious points to make, and deeply shot through with a sense of humour.  That these novels are so different from each other perhaps suggests the versatility of Priest's ability.

The characters are well-written, to say the least. Raylene, our viewpoint-character in this first-person novel, is a brilliant tone-setter, faithfully followed throughout with little notes of self-awareness about the narrative style (digressions and repetitions noted, self-analysis with a sense of humour perfectly incorporated).  Where she stops and the writing style starts is impossible to say, but let it be noted that the novel is witty, and the character good-humoured and light-hearted but with a capacity for serious emotion - panic, vengefulness, even just horror - that comes through clearly and creates a verisimilitude of character that would be hard to match.  Priest backs up Ray with Adrian, an ex-SWAT drag queen (yes, really; there's quite a lot of dwelling on how built he is, but Adrian is actually a fantastic character), Cal (who is used to great effect, even as something just to play Ray off against) and Ian, whose predicament starts the whole story off and whose character is quite brilliant, in a very English way (he's American, but somehow he seems to me to have an English accent and a certain sophistication and class).  Even the villains, when we come across them, are well-written and you do start to sympathise with them; this novel is not entirely one of clear black-and-white, and Ray might not be in the right, to some extent.

The plot is brilliantly handled; a conspiracy novel, with huge thriller elements, it draws a complex picture where right and wrong aren't entirely clear to the reader - despite Raylene's very black-and-white view of it (which is a difficult trick for any author to pull off, yet Priest manages it excellently).  The Bloodshot programme, which blinded Ian as part of military research into vampires, is a brilliant antagonist for Ray, because it allows Priest to do all sorts of interesting things with the government; and it also allows some really nice tricks to be pulled off to do with responsibility and how to tackle a government programme.  There are brilliant twists as the novel progresses, and the increasingly personal nature of the mission for Ray is starkly presented, really driving it home for the reader what the stakes are.

In sum, then, Bloodshot is urban fantasy done excellently; Priest's humour and style fold excellently into this novel, and make it power along with a laugh track in the background, but it also never loses sight of its seriousness.  A great piece of work, and I'll be sure to pick up Hellbent.
Blood by Roddy Doyle
Doyle’s story is a tragicomic tale of vampirism; it’s played, in some ways, campily, and in others, horrifically, as a self-declared (and repeatedly re-assertedly) ordinary man has increasing cravings for blood. It’s an odd, strange little story, without really much substance or power to it; on the other hand as a piece of light and fun entertainment, it’s a decent piece.
Fossil-Figures by Joyce Carol Oates
Oates’ story is a slow disturbing one; quite an odd concept, the E. Waldman twins are a pair of opposites, explicitly invoked as complementary throughout the story. The whole thing is quite macabre and gruesome, with no real character for either of the twins ever created beyond a very, very simplistic two-dimensional pseudo-character enough to drive the story and create a motivation; but the gothic horror of the story offsets this, to make it, if not satisfying, at least not bad.
Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris
Harris’ story hits all the right buttons here; the combination of Norse mythology, a powerful sense of fun, suspense and horror, whimsy and laughter, danger and joy together really do work to make this a great story. The characters – Lucky, Brendan, Arthur and Sunny – are fun, with Lucky an abnormal portrayal in modern culture; and they’re also real people, in the ways that matter. This is a really fantastic, fun story.
The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s is, unsurprisingly, another fantastic entry into this anthology; a folkloric Scottish clan tale, it has strong characters (MacInnes and the nameless narrator) and a compelling narrative and mysterious element; some parts of the plot are held in reserve by Gaiman right up to the conclusion, though foreshadowed at the start, and the whole story takes on a very different feel after you finish it. A really fantastic piece of work.
Unbelief by Michael Marshall Smith
Smith’s story is a really quite odd one; quite fun, not terribly insightful (once more we see the conventional psychopath portrayed, without any more depth). The build up, without any real suspense – the course the story must take is obvious – and the characters really should leave this as a simple bit of fluff, but Smith’s writing style and poignant, dramatic ending give it some emotional resonance that really does work well. An odd piece of work.
The Stars Are Falling by Joe R. Lansdale
Lansdale’s story is… surprisingly poignant, in its way. Whilst it has his usual concern with sex, the gore is generally missing, and the viscera has almost totally vanished (which given the settings, is really surprising). The characters are well-written and fleshed out effectively into real people with real motivations, and the reader can see the necessary outcome with horror even as the characters themselves fail to do so; it’s a dark, strange and disturbing, but quite brilliant, and very serious, story.
Juvenal Nyx by Walter Mosley
Mosley’s story of vampirism is not, by any means, a strong story; indeed, I would argue it is quite weak – the sexualised element, the hopelessly romantic element, the oh-so-sad-and-limited humans, the pointless emoting, are all so overdone and overblown simultaneously that it really loses any emotional punch it might have attempted to have; it’s a clichéd, poorly-written story with very simplistic, poor characterisation.
The Knife by Richard Adams
Adams’ story is short, which is something to be grateful for; so substanceless as to be pointless, it attempts to add depth to a story with basically no weight of any kind (it substitutes telling for showing throughout, and appallingly so) with a question that attempts to make you think without really doing so at its end, and the whole thing is just so characterless and substance-free as to feel boring.
Weights and Measures by Jodi Picoult
Picoult is not known for having a light touch, emotionally, and this story demonstrates that quality quite strongly; however, Abe and Sarah are powerful characters, and reading this story did make me choke up on more than a couple of occasions. The plot is quite neat – not massively strong, but interesting, at least, and the emotional punch as we see more and more backstory and more of the characters is incredibly powerfully played, undermined only slightly by a few occasional, and minor, inconsistencies.
Goblin Lake by Michael Swanwick
Swanwick’s story is about characters in a story, and the odd differences between story and life (not universal ones – there are a number of books, for instance, wherein characters read, not least Among Others). Goblin Lake works really well by subverting expectations and referencing other fictions, so that it really does become meta-fiction: fiction about fiction, and thoughtful, with interesting (if intentionally archetypal) characters to drive it along well. Swanwick’s is a truly fantastic, and very thoughtful, story.
Mallon the Guru by Peter Straub
Straub’s story is odd; I have mixed feelings about it, because whilst the strange, and unexplained, element of fantastika is brilliantly played, the lack of clarity and the nebulous beginning and ending of the story make me feel like this is little more than an excerpt from a longer piece than a self-contained story; if that was what Straub was aiming for, he’s got it perfectly, but otherwise this feels unfinished, incomplete, and therefore flawed…
Catch and Release by Lawrence Block
Block’s story is by far the most sinister of the collection so far; brilliantly written, the nameless main character (really, sole character, though other people intersect briefly with him) is a deeply strange personality, powerfully effective and with a series of subversions of expectation – each one scarringly well done, creating a really unsettling, disturbing story that gives one a prickle of fear as we finish the story. Utterly devastating in its skilful execution.
Polka Dots and Moonbeam by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is a fun one; there’s layers of meaning in there that I freely admit to missing – I think they’re cultural references I’ve not got the background to get – but there are great characters, Ade and Dex especially although all the others too; and the odd, slightly whimsical, very fantastical, nature of the story’s setting also works effectively, with the strange events well-written and well-styled. A fun, interesting piece.
Loser by Chuck Palahniuk
Palahniuk’s story is a really chaotic, strange one; written as if on drugs, it really does read like some chaotic and senseless imaginings. The pop-culture references and gameshow settings simply date the piece, the rape-joke at the start of the story sets it off to a bad start, and the way its structured and the characterlessness of the whole thing makes it not unreadable, but uninteresting, which is much worse. A real trial to get through.
Samantha’s Diary by Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’ Christmas story is quite hilariously brilliant; by turns romantic, silly and serious, the combination of tradition and science-fictional concept, as well as the realisation of a Christmas carol, all combine to really drive home some points about how silly certain romantic notions are. The characters are well written – although Samantha is not likeable at all – and the whole story trundles along beautifully. A really fun piece.
Land of the Lost by Stewart O’Nan
O’Nan’s story is somewhat unsettling, a really good demonstration of how obsession can completely change a person. Well-written and developing in a realistic, powerful and inevitable way, the character development and the trajectory of the story power on to a finish that packs a strong punch; the writing style keeps things from getting too bogged down on one detail or another, but we really do get a picture of the character at the centre of this really well.
Leif in the Wind by Gene Wolfe
This is not, despite the title, a Norse fantasy; it is instead a strange, poignant, disturbing and beautiful piece of science fiction – with Lovecraftian elements. The characters are disturbing, in their way – their approach to human life and to each other is not quite right, because of their environment; and the powerful descriptive elements of the story are just beautiful and prosaic as any saga. Indeed, Wolfe’s style animates a story that otherwise might founder on its own concept, but instead rises phoenix-like and flies, powerful and unsettling, into the heart and mind of the reader.
Unwell by Carolyn Parkhurst
Parkhurst’s story really does seem quite odd; there are a number of points at which the characterisations and styles seem to be very much pastiche, others at which they are contradictory, and we’re asked to believe some incredible things; about people, and about events. The whole thing really does fall apart, especially because of a couple of stylistic tics that really drive home the utter unreality of the whole story.
A Life in Fiction by Kat Howard
This is another story similar to Goblin Lake: a story about, in some sense, stories, although in this case more about writing and the art of writing. As a first piece, it seems odd, since it involves some ideas that tend to come out in interviews with established, rather than new, authors; but the powerful strangeness of it, the fantastical nature, the stylistic simplicity, and the credulity of the story as to its events all keep the reader very interested; a powerful, and interesting, meta-story.
Let the Past Begin by Jonathan Carroll
This story is quite an odd one; a well written, culturally distinct story that has elements of horror and of “literary fiction”. The characters are powerfully communicated, and the darker side of the story is an undercurrent even in seemingly lighter moments; as we have further and further revelations of the more supernatural and strange elements of the story, and as events continue, Carroll draws us into his tale masterfully. This is one of the better literaryish stories here.
The Therapist by Jeffrey Deaver
Deaver’s over-long story is not blessed with a surfeit of virtues; whilst the main characters are strongly developed over its 40 pages, the nature of the story is quite appalling, what with its lack of research into the nature of psychology, its rather obvious “twists”, and its confusion about what’s going on. Deaver’s style is florid and purple without any real sense, and the general flow of the story is quite poor… a really bad showing here.
Parallel Lines
by Tim Powers
This strange story is well-written and stylishly executed, with the implied development of BeeVee through the background of the story; the twists and turns of the story are quite brilliantly dealt with as the plot slowly develops, in a mixture of more and less tragic ways. The characters of Caroleen and Amber are powerfully developed, but backgrounded by the absent BeeVee, and Powers’ use of the supernatural is effective to create a great story.
The Cult of the Nose by Al Sarrantino
Sarrantino’s story is a story that sets itself up as, and continues for its bulk to be, amusingly whimsical and silly, but with disturbing elements, which at the last moments sheds all whimsy and amusement. The fact that Sarrantino executes this complete reversal so perfectly and expertly, whilst not contradicting or changing what has gone before, whilst developing the characters and plot further yet than they had gone, is what makes it so effective and brilliant; a stunning dénouement.
Human Intelligence by Kurt Anderson
Anderson’s story is a mixed one; whilst the main character, Nicholas, is written not appallingly, he is also written far too humanly, and Nancy is a simply badly written character: her motivations and actions don’t match. The whole thing is really set up for a joke, and goes on too long, leaving some really interesting and fascinating concepts unexplored, in favour of playing out that joke; it is simply a waste of a great concept and brilliant potential.
Stories by Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s story, about human relationships, about the art of writing, about the differences between genres, about, really, the British art-SF scene of a couple of decades ago (in a fictionalised way, though with reference to some very real writers), is well-written and fantastic; about all the sorts of things that literary fiction is about (sex, relationships, sex, midlife crises, sex, the middle classes, sex, with less sex), Moorcock adds a certain genre focus and turns the whole thing on its head brilliantly. A story that really rips down the boundaries, Stories seems to be the sort of thing this collection is all about.
The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand
Hand’s story is moving, indeed, heartbreaking, and powerfully well written. She displays a control of narrative and character that really does work to make this relatively simple tale all the more incredible. The lightly fantastical elements are brilliantly worked into the narrative so that they’re seamlessly integrated, and the references – such as to MST3K and a combined reference to the Star Trek reboot and to another anthologist – are worked in simply and neatly. A great piece of work.
The Devil on the Staircase by Joe Hill
This is the first story in the collection where layout and typography reflect the nature and events of the story; this slow-burn horror story is a fantastic fantasy where character, landscape and intolerance run into each other in a strange, powerful way to create a fable which doesn’t need to belabour its moral too strongly in order to convey it. The use of strong characters and a strange, half-mystical setting combine to really give this the sense of a timeless tale, although the ending grounds it firmly chronologically, and Hill’s story really does create a fine end to this collection whilst being by no means its strongest entry.
As an attempt to rehabilitate and blur the boundaries between genre fiction and literary fiction, this is a signal failure as an anthology; as a rule genre authors handle the genre elements well, literary authors either don't or ignore them entirely.  There's no coherence or cohesion to the stories, there's no commonality, and the quality is far too mixed.  Whilst some stories are truly outstanding - Swanwick and Moorcock deserve especial praise here - others are rather more mixed, and some are just downright bad. I would say, if you buy it, choose carefully what stories in Stories you choose to read...


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February 2012

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