Tuesday, 31 May 2011

'A Matter of Blood' - Sarah Pinborough

I first saw A Matter of Blood while browsing in Forbidden Planet and thought it had quite a catchy blurb that. It promises a dark and gritty crime novel with a paranormal twist and set in London. London is a great setting for any novel and I have not reviewed any crime novel yet so thought it was about time. Buy button clicked!

Any fictional cop worthy of his name will come with a lot of personal problems and Cass Jones does not disappoint here. He drinks, takes drugs, is an adulterer and takes bribes, basically just makes Harry Bosch look like a choir boy. Cass even cheated on his wife with his brother's wife, we hopefully wont see him take the moral high ground anytime soon like those CSI fellas.

There is a serial killer lose in London and his fourth victim has just been discovered. The victims are all women, all found naked, none of them abused and they all have 'Nothing is sacred' written in blood on their chests. There are no real leads so far so it wont be an easy case, the police have contacted an profiler to help them at least narrow down the suspect pool from everyone. Cass has just been assigned this case as a colleague became suddenly sick and needed hospital care. Cass was already assigned to a case where to young boys had been gunned down in a drive by shooting. It looks like the intended target was a well known crime boss who happened to be in that cafe.

Cass starts investigating both crimes when all of a sudden his brother Christian is reported to have killed his wife and young son and then committed suicide. Cass does not believe that his brother would be capable of such a thing and goes to the scene of the crime to see if he can find anything. He does find two things, a laptop that his brother used at The Bank and a ghost. The ghost of his dead brother. Not being the kind of cop that plays by the book he takes the laptop with him and dismisses the ghost as trauma and stress.

To makes matters even worse, Cass is then implicated in the murder of his brother. His fingerprint is found on the weapon and his enemies within the police forst jumps on this opportunity to get rid of him. Things are looking pretty bad, a serial killer on the loose, two dead kids, his brother is dead, he is seeing ghosts and someone is out to get him.

I'm really impressed with Sarah Pinborough's A Matter of Blood, it is a very good book. It's the first part in a series called Dog Faced Gods Trilogy and I have already purchased the second one, The Shadow of the Soul. In A Matter of Blood Sarah Pinborough's London is set in the near future. It's a dark, but realistic future where the economy has taken a beating and crime is on the rise. Police budgets has been cut and London's finest has been pushed into taking bribes to ignore lesser crime. From the ashes of the economy The Bank has emerged, a massive corporation with huge financial power. This is where Cass' brother worked and pretty much everyone knows someone that works there.

Sarah Pinborough has done a really good job with the characters as and especially Cass Jones who feels very genuine. All characters from Cass' partner Clarie May (whom he had a relationship with) to the honourable crime boss Artie Mullins have a lot of depth to them which makes the book such a good read. It pulls you in and you almost forget that it is a book you are reading.

A Matter of Blood is more about good old fashioned detective work than running around with guns blazing, but that does not mean it's boring and the book does contain some action. As Cass unravels more and more of the mystery we are given more hints of the paranormal elements in the book which works really well. In this first book we are only given a taster of what is really going on in our world and there are a lot of unanswered questions for book two and three. All this is accomplished without any sense of A Matter of Blood being a incomplete book, it can stand on its own, you just want more. The only criticism I have is that to get access to his brother's laptop there is some quite corny password cracking involved which maybe could have been done differently. Apart from that the story moves forward beautifully and Sarah Pinborough never has to rely on odd coincidences or weird decisions from her characters. I look forward to reading more about Cass Jones.

A Matter of Blood weighs in at 432 pages and is published by Gollancz.

Verdict: must read

Thursday, 26 May 2011

'Embassytown' - China Mieville

Embassytown was another no-brainer to pick up as China Mieville is one of those author that I read everything from. I am certain I would have bought the Embassytown anyway as it does have a intriguing blurb that hints of yet another unique creation from China. Unlike his last book this one takes place in a distant future where humanity has spread among the stars and a woman returns home to find herself in the middle of a conflict between aliens and settlers.

 Embassytown, a city located on a planet on the edge of the furthest reaches of known space. It's populated by the Ariekene, a remarkable species with a unmatched skill for bio-engineering. In spite of their advanced technology they lack space travel, but does not really seem interested in leaving their planet. What puzzled the first settlers was that their computers could translate the language of the Ariekene, but could not be used to talk to the Ariekene. The aliens did not even react to the machines when they produced speech. It's like they only heard noise and simply ignored it. The Ariekene have two mouths and requires each mouth to speak one part simultaneous to the other mouth speaking another part, but still the computers could not make the Ariekene understand their synthesized speech. It turns out that unless spoken by something with real intelligence the Ariekene can not understand it and regards it as just noise. Even though there is now a way of communication with the Ariekene they are not easy to understand as they think so difficult, they also don't have the concept of lying. Even for aliens they are very alien to us.

To communicate with the Ariekene the embassytowners had to resort to cloning people to produce two identical copies of a person. These are then carefully groomed through trainin, medication and empathic implants to come as close as humanly possible to having one shared mind. Every day they go through a process that eliminates or replicates any differences between the two. If they pass the necessary Language tests they are dubbed Ambassadors and are allowed to communicate with the Ariekene.

Avice was born and raised in Embassytown and she was considered a fairly normal child by her shiftparents, maybe a bit braver than most girls, until she showed talent for immersing. Human space travel is done in the immer and only immerser have the skill to navigate the immer. Avice is one of few who ever leaves Embassytown, only her skill as an immerser lets her do this. She travels around the stars and finally meets a man, Scile, that she takes as her forth husband. Scile is a language researcher and is fascinated by the Language spoken by the Ariekene so Avice relents and takes Scile back with her to Embassytown. There is a big event taking place, for the first time ever an outsider has been made an Ambassador.

EzRa is the new Ambassador and they are not cloned, but two normal people who through chance are similar enough to come close to sharing a mind and being able to speak Language. A large group of the Ariekene have come to meet the new Ambassador and hear his welcome speech. As EzRa starts speaking something strange happens, the Ariekene all appear to be in shock and they are practically reeling from shock.
The consequences from EzRa's speech proofs to be very dire for everyone. People and aliens as well are forced to take sides in the coming conflict and Avice is not sure where here allegiance really lies.

I really enjoyed Embassytown, it's a very good book with some brilliant world building. As we follow Avice throughout her life we get a very good picture of life in Embassytown and how the humans and other aliens live alongside, but not together with the Ariekene. China has again done something that is outside of the box, this is not just a Sci-Fi novel, it's almost a study of alien psychology and linguistics, but also a Avice's biography. All the bioengineering gives the world he has created that surreal feel which I have come to associate with China's work. Almost everything is alive, components and machinery are actually farmed by the Ariekene. It's really cute how they are followed by their living batteries and I do hope we will have some fan art picturing all these things.
However, large parts of the book are about the technicalities of Language and sometimes it feels a bit like you are being lectured. I felt that at times the book is lacking in pace, there is a lot of dialog between characters, but not much is actually happening. Never did I really felt that I connected with Avice in anyway, in spite of knowing quite a lot about her I did not find her very interesting. In China's previous books I have always been a lot more interested in the characters, but Avice just does not work. I am not happy with how she turns into the spider in the web for some reason, she just does not bring much to the table. Maybe I have read too many books featuring a 'Chosen One'. The story is told from her point of view and maybe that's probably her biggest contribution for most of the story. OK, rant over. I still liked the book and it is interesting and well written, but it does not live up to China's earlier books.

Embassytown weighs in at 368 pages and is published by Del Ray Books.

Verdict: read

Monday, 23 May 2011

'The Ritual' - Adam Nevill

Recommended by Tim Lebbon on twitter and when it comes to horror I trust him so had a look at the blurb and to my joy the setting for The Ritual is in Sweden not far from where I grew up. I could not have pressed the buy button any faster.

Four friends that met while studying at university and also shared a flat together have met up 15 years later for a hiking trip through northern Sweden. We have Hutch who is the unspoken leader, owner of a bicycle shop and he does a lot of hiking and other adventure sports. It was at his wedding the four friends decided to go on this trip. Dom and Phil are both very successful businessmen who did not adhere to their plan of hitting the gym to get fit for this trip. Lastly we have Luke who has not done as well as his friends and is living of minimum wage and lately been suffering from problems controlling his temper. This culminated with some tube rage where Luke flattened another passenger who did not wait for him to get off the train. Luke has in spite of being the poorest been able to go regularly to a gym so together with Hutch they are the only ones fit enough for this hiking trip.

The Ritual starts a couple of days into the hike and things are not going well. Phil and Dom are simply not fit enough, they have the wrong equipment, bad shoes and have already injured themselves and are slowing the group down. Hutch decides that they need to cut some time off the hike and finds a short cut. They come across a ghastly sight, a corpse of an animal has been brutally slaughtered and the remains are suspended on tree branches. There is no stench of decays, it is a fresh kill.

The four friends soldier on through the virgin scandinavian forest and just before dark they reach an abandoned cottage. They are soaked through and they decide to break into the cottage and spend the night there in spite of Luke's protest that it is not right. The other three enters the cottage leaving Luke outside and as he is about to go inside a load crack echoes through the woods. It sounds like something large and powerful has just ripped off a thick tree branch and Luke can smell the freshly laid bare wood. It's a two story cottage and as they settle in on the first floor they cant help feeling uneasy about something. The walls are covered with hand made crucifixes and the skulls of animals. Phil walks upstairs, but comes running down his face ashen. They are not alone, there is SOMETHING upstairs.

The Ritual terrified me. I just had to keep turning the page to find out what would happen next and all of a sudden it's 1am. I am amazed I could sleep after all the suspense. Adam Nevill knows what he is doing and The Ritual is a real roller coaster ride. There is always a hint, something on the edge of their vision, a terrible sound echoing around them. When something actually does happen it does so at a lightning pace and I found myself holding my breath once or twice. I don't normally read horror books and now I remember now, I just don't like being frightened. It is a very good book though and I felt I really got to know all the characters in it and what makes them tick. You cannot help feeling a bit sorry for Luke with all his repressed anger and how he feels like an outsider among his more successful friends.

The Ritual weighs in at 368 pages and is published by Macmillan.

Verdict: must read

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

'Sea of Ghosts' - Alan Campbell

Alan Campbell is one of my favorite authors and I loved his Deepgate Codex series in which he had created a really amazing world. Seriously, a city suspended on chains. How cool is that? When I first heard about his new novel Sea of Ghosts (Gravedigger Chronicles I) I knew straight away that it was a must buy.

The Umner are a powerful race that had enslaved large parts of humanity. The chains were finally broken  when the psychics of Haurstaf joined the war. The Umner's final act was to poison the world with their ichusae, flasks that endlessly spew out poisonous brine. The brine is poisonous to humans, first it kills them then it transforms them into sharkmen. Wherever the brine touches skin it will thicken the skin into grey hardened leather. All oceans are now full of brine and the water level keeps rising, the world is slowly drowning.

Thomas Granger is a colonel in the imperial army. He is an honourable man with an iron will who just does not know when to give up. He is disgraced and forced to flee away from emperor Hu. He ends up on an island where the empire sends its prisoners and after many year he inherits a prison from the man he found work with. Granger is now a jaded man without ambitions and hope. The spray of brine from the sea has slowly poisoned him and at the slightest effort his chest burns, but he still performs his daily chores in the prison. The prison has decayed with him and is in urgent need of repair and extension to keep the rising brine filled water at bay. He travels to the market where new prisoners are distributed among the prisons and one prisoner calls his name. His life changes forever and he finds himself with something to fight for once again.

Alan Campbell has once again showed his talent for world building. I love the cataclysmic setting in Sea of Ghosts, not only is the world drowning, but it is drowning in poison. Humans and wild life has been forced to adapt and it all comes together really well. Just like in the Deepgate Codex series we have a world full of despair and decay, but people still fight on. The reanimated drowned are living under the water where the living have been forced to retreat. Humanity have turned into scavangers where they hunt for 'trove' from the now imprisoned Umner, anything to give them an edge over the dangerous environment they live in. Alan Campbell has also conjured some fantastic Umner artifacts with amazing functionality, often quite funny and quite deadly. It's really top notch steam punk innovation we see here.

So far so good, but there are a few weak points in this first book. The characters lack depth and often feel very stereotypical, especially so the villains. The plot lacks direction as well, it is not really clear what is going to happen in the second book. This might be preferable to a cliffhanger situation, you could easily just read the first book as it works on its own.

Sea of Ghosts was still a good book with a lot of action and I will pick up the second one.

Verdict: read

Monday, 9 May 2011

'The First Dragoneer' - M.R. Mathias

The First Dragoneer is a novella prequel to M.R. Mathias' The Dragoneers Saga series. The blurb is very short and pretty much only tells us that two young men are out hunting together. They do find something, but will they live to tell the tale. I wanted to know if they would live so I bought it.

Bren and March are two best friends who are out on a final hunting trip together. March is the third son and the custom is to leave home to lessen the burden on the family and find his own fortune. Bran being the only son has to stay to support his mother and sisters until they are all married. They are both experienced huntsman and Bran is the best bowman that March has ever seen so they are confident that their hunt will be successful. This is the farthest they have ever been from their village and both boys are excited about their last adventure together.

The First Dragoneer is real old school fantasy with two young boys having their first taste of adventure. I was reminded of when I first started reading the Wheel of Time series. Village boy power! M.R. Mathias does a reasonable job with the two boys, they feel realistic enough and I found myself quickly warming to them. He does really stress how much the two boys care for each other and for a while I was worried we would have a Breakback Mountain situation. The action was solid, with good description of what went on without losing the sense of pace. It's certainly not a game changer, but a good effort in spite of being a bit cheesy at times.

It did pique my interest for The Dragoneers Saga, but right now I feel there are books from more established authors that seem more promising and it will have to wait.

The First Dragoneer is self-published by M.R. Mathias and weighs in at 43 pages.

Verdict: read

Thursday, 5 May 2011

'Zoo City' - Lauren Beukes

The blurb for Zoo City is rather sparse with information and at first I decided to skip it altogether. Luckily, I heard someone saying that it was a crossover between urban fantasy and crime which had also been nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award. After I bought it, Zoo City won the 25th Arthur C Clarke award so I was feeling quite confident it would be worth reading.

Zinzi December is a women who had everything, but lost it all. She is a survivor, drugs and alcohol did not bring her down and neither did prison. In Zoo City only the strong will survive and Zinzi is a hard woman. Her drug addiction left her in debt to gangsters so she needs every job she can get. She is willing to do whatever it takes to survive even if that means straying outside the boundaries of the law. This is what you do if you live in Zoo City. Before everything went wrong Zinzi was a freelance journalist, but nowadays the only writing she does is for a gang of email scammers. Scamming retired people of their savings is not something she is proud of, but the money has to come from somewhere.

She has left notes here and there advertising her ability to find lost things. When meeting someone Zinzi will see any item that a person has lost with threads leading her to the lost item. Like a cloud of tentacles, but with a hidden treasure at the end. Zinzi has an animal companion, Sloth, and they have an empathic connection. When a missing item is in a difficult to reach place it is good to have a little friend that can crawl into places you cannot.

It all starts with an old woman having lost her ring and she hires Zinzi to recover it. Zinzi finds the ring, but the old woman is brutally murdered and Zinzi has to spend hours at the police station explaining why she has the old woman's ring, her money and why her prints were found in the flat.
Some time later two strange characters approach her, one is a very dapper man with a Maltese, and the other a tall lady with a Stork strapped to her back. The strange couple has a jobb offer for Zinzi, a music producer has discovered two very talented twins, but one of them has gone missing. Finding missing people is not something that she normally does, but there is a lot of money at stake and the chance to do some good so she accepts.

Zinzi is a very likeable character, she is a strong woman who speaks her mind and does not save her words. There are some pretty graphic metaphors which really suit her character and the world that Lauren Beukes has built. It must be mentioned what a kick ass job she has done with her world building, it feels current with the all technical references that she uses, but also bizarre and frightening.

I have not really mentioned much about why the book is called Zoo City and why Zinzi has a Sloth as a companion and I wont. Lauren Beukes does a much better job of providing context for her story than what I could ever do. We are throughout the book slowly being drip fed information about the events that changed the world. Between chapters she interleaves information in the form of movie reviews and paper abstracts which works really well.

It's a dark story, but it is never overbearing and  Zinzi has a sharp tongue which helps to lighten the mood at times. I enjoyed reading this book, but at times I felt the pace of the plot was uneven, especially at the end where a lot of things happened. The crime investigation part of the book works, but feels week at times as it is hard to follow how she reaches certain conclusions. These are both minor issues in an otherwise good book and my biggest problem with Zoo City was all the foreign words that certainly makes the book more realistic, but leaves non-South Africans baffled.

Any fan of urban fantasy will certainly like this book and it certainly made me wish I had a Sloth.

Verdict: read

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

'The Horns of Ruin' - Tim Akers

Murdered gods, steampunk, a dying cult, conspiracies and one female paladin with a two-handed sword. Enough said really, The Horns of Ruin ticks all boxes and it even has a gorgeous cover. This latest book from Tim Akers seems to have similar fantasy noir setting as his first book, Heart of Veridon.

So who is Eva Forge? Apart from having a kick ass name she is a very talented young lady. Eva was given to the Cult of Morgan the Warrior at a young age. The brothers and sisters of the cult trained her in the arts of war and especially the way of the blade and she was finally ordained as a paladin. Being a Paladin of the dead warrior god Morgan means most of her talents are related to violence. Think Modesty Blaise in a plate mail wielding a massive sword and you won't be far off. Oh wait, Eva Forge has some pretty cool magic at her disposal as well. I really like what Tim Akers have done with magic in this world. The magic is based on the history of Morgan, on the deeds and heroic feats that he accomplished while he was alive. Before and during combat Eva recites passages from Morgan's history, and for instance Everice among Streams let's her divide her attention to face multiple attackers. When Eva is properly buffed up even a Space Marine would have to think carefully before taking her on.

There were three brothers who through their great deeds achieved god hood and immortality. Morgan the god of war, Amon the Scholar and Alexander the Healer. For reasons unknown Amon betrayed them all and killed Morgan. Henceforth there are two aspects to Amon, the Scholar and the Betrayer. Amon was the second brother to be killed and now only Alexander remains as the god king of the human tribes.

Eva is the last Paladin of Morgan and her assignment to escort Fratriarch Barnabas to and from Library Desolate, the prison of the remaining Amonites, goes horribly wrong. At the Library Desolate Barnabas requests that an Amonite should be released into his custody. On the way back they are assailed by men in strange helmet and armor. Barnabas shields himself and Cassandra, the scholar that joined them, in a cocoon of steel and leaves Eva outnumbered and outgunned to hold them off until reinforcements arrive. Eva buffs herself with the incantations of Morgan and one on one the black armored men are no match for her, but this is not a one on one fight. She is forced to withdraw and has to trust that Barnabas is safe behind his barrier of steel, but when Eva returns Barnabas and Cassandra are gone.

The corpses of her attackers turns out to be corpses animated by engines inserted into their chests. Certainly not the style of the followers of Amon the Betrayer, but Eva cannot think of anyone else who would be able to animate the dead. The Rethari, a race of lizardmen, are constantly attacking the borders, but this kind of attack deep within the City of Ash is not like them.

Owen, an Alexian healer and his squad are assigned to help, and keep an eye on Eva, and they quickly turn into a bad cop good cop couple. Owen wants to follow procedure without stepping on toes, but Eva only wants results now. Barnabas is the Fratriarch of her order and practically raised her and nothing will stand in her way, especially not protocol.

Not only does Eva have to find the kidnappers, unravel the mystery of why Barnabas needed an Amonite in the first place, she also has to come to term with her own hatred of something that happened hundred of years ago.

A lot of detail and thought has gone into the world building in The Horns of Ruin and Tim Akers has really pulled it off with the City of Ash where the story takes place. Amon and his scholars built the city on a lake where the brothers had waged war upon the Feyn. The water is forever soiled black from the ash of the burned ruins of an old city.
The City of Ash reminds me of Alan Campbell's Deepgate which was suspended on chains over a near bottomless chasm. Both cities feel dark, brooding, desperate and with an air of decline.

I loved The Horns of Ruin and I suspect it will feature on my top 10 list of books in 2011. There is a lot of action that kept my pulse high, but also deeper and more emotional stuff which accounted for my high goose-bump count. Eva Forge is a real kick ass girl and it was a lot fun following her throughout the book and Tim Akers have really succeeded in making her and the City of Ash to feel real.

The Horns of Ruin weighs in at 269 pages and is published by Pyr.

Verdict: Must read