Monday, 29 October 2012

Pariah: Ravenor vs. Eisenhorn - Dan Abnett


Pariah: Ravenor vs. Eisenhorn is the latest book by Dan Abnett, writer extraordinaire. It's one of those books which is a must read because of the name on the jacket. Expectations are already sky high, and I have not even read the blurb. Having the names Ravenor and Eisenhorn on the cover, which is gorgeous by the way, was almost too much for this poor old reader. Many thanks to the Black Library for providing me with a review copy of Pariah.

When the first Harry Potter novel came out, I found the idea of a school for wizards fascinating. Who would not want to study the arcane, young or old? Pariah is also a coming of age story about children with special abilities, who are whisked away at a young age to attend a school, the Maze Undue. Pariahs are not gifted with magic, rather the opposite in fact. They are psychic nulls, meaning, their presence negates the psychic abilities and powers of the warp. I much prefer Dan Abnett's place of education, you see, it's where the Inquisition train the inquisitors of tomorrow.

Alizebeth Bequin is a student at the Maze Undue, but instead of Quidditch she takes part in a far more serious game. The whole city of Mab is their playground, and the game is one of espionage and intrigue. The missions vary from the mundane to much more serious, but it's always a question of information, and information is power.

Pariah is too good a journey to bring along a guide, so I won't tell you much more. Alizebeth Bequin, who knows nothing of her past or her parents, will soon find out everything she thought she knew might be false. She will need all of her training to survive and make the right decisions. When nothing is as it seems, who do you trust?

There are so many reasons to like Pariah, I barely know where to start. The world building is great, and not just because it's straight out of the Warhammer 40k box, but because Dan Abnett has made it into his own. This is my first visit to the city of Queen Mab, which almost immediately felt like a real city, teeming with life and secrets of its own. It is a city touched by legends and forged in battle and conflict. A living Saint once walked through it, and the streets his feet touched are closed off. Only the warblind go there. They are soldiers from wars long since concluded, kept alive by their modifications. The only thing the know is how to fight. I can't imagine a better setting for any book.

The characters are great as well, which goes without saying when Dan Abnett's name graces the cover of a book. Alizebeth Bequin is a well rounded character, who is very easy to like. I felt we got to know her well by following her from an early age. Sometimes, Warhammer characters can be too one dimensional, which is not unrealistic since they tend to be indoctrinated, and bred for a single purpose. With out heroine this is not the case. She might be a believer in the cause and the need for her organisation, but she is capable of thinking, and she does have a personality. Alizebeth Bequin herself could carry the book on her own, but she does not have to as there are several great characters.  Ravenor and Eisenhorn both take a supportive role, this is the Alizebeth Bequin's story after all.

And what a story. Somehow, Dan Abnett takes all the usual elements of a Warhammer 40k story, but ends up with more. Pariah has a fantasy feel to it, which I think comes from the cloak and dagger and the marvellous setting. Technology is there of course, but often it remains unobtrusive in the background. It's also a more character driven story, instead of just dropping a squad of space marines in front of a group of chaos marines and have them battle it out. It's a immersive read, one of those rare novels where you are sucked straight in, and it just seems to be played out before your eyes.

Pariah is one hell of a read by Dan Abnett, the Warmaster himself.

Pariah: Ravenor vs. Eisenhorn weighs in at 320 pages, and is published by the Black Library. It is scheduled for release in November 2012.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Zero Point - Neal Asher


Zero Point is the second book in Neal Asher's The Owner series. The first book, The Departure, ended with such a bang I just had to start reading Zero Point straight away. Luckily, it was already on a digital bookshelf near me so my delay was only a couple of minutes. Once again, thank you myself for providing me with a review copy of Zero Point.

Things are getting very interesting in Zero Point, just as I suspected they would. I feel very smug right now writing this. Saul, our modified hero, is no longer a mere super genius, but has transcended to something new by melding with an AI. He might have dealt with the threats in The Departure, but unfortunately, when it comes to literature, obstacles tend to come back in a new shape and form. Good thing that, or books would be rather boring.

A new chairman, or chairwoman rather, of the committee is now in power. As impossible as it sounds she is even more ruthless than her predecessor, and also barking mad. Neal Asher has made her into a very unlikable villain, which is just what I like. Every time the story is told from her point of view, you can expect something outrageously evil, but she still manages to almost justify her actions. Her lack of regard for human life is made for her concern of mother nature, and it is her goal to restore Earth to it's former glory. The only way to do this is to consume less resources, and the fastest way to achieve this is to basically kill all Zero Assets humans. She might have a doomsday device to help her...

To restore Earth she needs the gene bank which is now in the hands of Saul, and a big battleship is built to retrieve it. There is some great plotting involved here where soon several factions are created, all in conflict with each other, but all of them gunning for Saul.

This is where Neal Asher gets creative with how Saul attempts to counter each threat. I have always enjoyed reading Mr Asher's in depth, technical descriptions of new machines, or even theoretical science. To me this is what SF is all about, making the unachievable possible and leaving the reader in awe. Neal Asher does not disappoint. Good thing there was a nutty professor on board the hijacked space station.

Zero Point introduced a few new interesting support characters. My favourite was Alex, a clone of the previous chairman, who was conditioned into the perfect soldier, unquestionably loyal and prepared to do anything to fulfil the mission. Alex will have his conditioning tested to the extreme. Trapped on a space station without much chance of rescue. I love it when people are forced to think for themselves, and are made to question what they are told.

I practically devoured Zero Point in a few lengthy reading sessions. The book was a real page turner. Neal Asher's trademarks were all there, action, imagination and great world building. All the story arcs are of the kind where you just want to read one last chapter before turning the lights off, and then it turns to two, then three. Just like The Departure I get the feeling we have still only scratched surface of what lies hidden in The Owner universe. I will be there for part three.

Zero Point weighs in at 400 pages, and is published by Tor.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dinner by Hodder




I was one of few fortunate readers who was invited to attend a dinner hosted by Hodder. The guest of honour was none other than one of the hottest names in fantasy, Daniel Polansky. Anyone following my blog knows I am a big fan of Daniel Polansky's writing. With his first novel, The Straight Razor Cure, he showed he was a contender in the genre. With the second novel, Tomorrow the Killing, I consider him to be up there with the best. His take on dark, gritty fantasy with a streak of crime solving makes me want to put him in the company of Joe Abercrombie. No way I was going to miss out on a chance to meet him, and free food.

Hodder's choice of restaurant was exciting as well. I have often passed Kettner's in Soho, but never made it across their threshold. I just might have had a little peek at the menu and reviews, both of which looked promising. I am getting ahead of myself though. I joined Daniel Polansky and his Hodder minders in the Spice of Life for a swift beverage. One can only assume this was to introduce Mr Polansky to the old British tradition of getting pissed.

Upon exiting the pub we immediately lost Anne Perry, one of Daniel Polansky's editors, who is possibly the fastest walking person ever. Luckily, once we turned the corner we could see her again, and my dinner was safe. After safely arriving at Kettner's we were greeted warmly by Kerry, Daniel's publicist at Hodder, and my first glass of wine was in my hand before I had even taken off my coat. Introductions were made, food was ordered, and there was much rejoicing.

Turns out Daniel Polansky is a very laid back and friendly sort of a chap. I found out he lives a nomadic lifestyle, traveling most of the time, and has all his precious possessions in storage. This mostly seemed to be his books and vinyls. With a room full of writers and publishers it's hard to avoid talking about books. My contribution was expressing my surprise over the rise of Scandinavian crime fiction. I also pointed out the creme fraiche was missing from the smoked salmon, but that's not really related to fiction.

The food was great, especially so the starter and my beef casserole main, which had a posh sounding French name. The highlight of the evening, however, was hearing a couple of title ideas for Daniel Polansky's next book. Just in case it's secret I will keep it to myself, but let's just say it was definitely the kind of title you expect from him. I also learned the technical term for this kind of title is 'gnomic'. A release date was also discussed, and the chief big-wig editor present even promised to try and push it forward. Actually, lots of title ideas were thrown around, with 'A Tearful Bumming' being a clear favourite for best title of the evening.

Many thanks to Hodder for hosting this event. Daniel (we are on a first name basis now) is a great guy, so go forth and buy his books please.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

'Arrow'


Just finished watching the pilot for Arrow, CW Network's adoption of the DC Comic's Green Arrow, and it was not bad at all. Here is why I think you should give it a try.

Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), the playboy son of a billionaire, who is lost at sea with his father and presumed dead. He is not. Our spoiled party brat is playing Robinson Crusoe. We are shown a glimpse of this island, and to be fair, it does look like Mordor could be just around the corner. We are told the island is as dangerous as it looks, and to survive, the boy has to turn into a man and make himself into a weapon. After five years he is rescued and returned to civilisation.

It does get a little bit cheesy here when he sleeps on the floor instead of the bed, and demonstrates his amazing reflexes by catching stuff dropped by the maid. He shows his maturity by turning away a girl by pretending to still be a wild party animal. From now on Oliver Queen seems to be motivated by vengeance and just like in Revenge there is a list of people who needs to be punished. It's time to kick some ass.

Arrow is brimming with action with our hero is traversing obstacles and buildings like a pro traceur. Jumping over a fence, or running up a wall, is not exactly kicking ass though, but not surprisingly, he dances in circles around the bad guys, unless he shoots them of course. They get inventive with the bow, perhaps even a bit too inventive, and I suspect they have not shown us all what this amazing weapon can do. When the Green Arrow enters melee it's over as quickly for the hired thugs, the fighting is quick and brutal. For a TV show it's well done and looks convincing. There is a tendency to have our hero chased by men with machine guns who apply the spray and pray tactic, which I hope the director will move away from as it really only belongs in computer games. There's only so many roof tops you can realistically run over under fire without getting hit.

It's easy to forgive Arrow for being a bit cheesy at times, it is a comic book adaption after all, just as long as it stays fun I'm happy to watch.

Stephen Amell does a good job playing the brooding hero and arrogant playboy, and the writers have delivered a plot who at first seemed to be a simple revenge one, but then it turns a lot more sinister, and betrayal looms on the horizon.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Caliban's War - James S.A. Corey


The conglomerate of writers behind the name James SA Corey are back with the second part in the Expanse series, Caliban's War. I'm obviously curious to know what happens next, and if my favourite hat-wearing detective sacrificed himself in vain or not. Thank you myself for providing me with a copy of Caliban's War.

After surviving the alien horrors of Leviathan Wakes starship captain Jim Holden and his crew signs up with the Outer Planets Alliance. Their mission is simply one of maintaining the security in the region, chasing down the odd pirate or smuggler. When war between Mars and Earth breaks out on Ganymede Holden is sent on a covert operation to find out what happens.

We actually get a front line seat to what went down on the surface of Ganymede, thanks to Bobbie, a Martian marine. In a rather nail biting chapter we follow Bobbie in a fight against a modified protomolecule soldier. It's not much of a fight though, the alien monster tears apart Bobbie's squad, and a squad of Earth soldiers, before promptly exploding. Armour piercing bullets pass straight through the abomination without doing any obvious damage, and in spite of The marines' Space Marine (Warhammer 40k) like armour, it rips them apart with nothing but its bare hands.

In the confusion that follows the space ships positioned in orbit opens fire and Mars and Earth is at war. Ganymede is where most of the food is grown for the human settlements outside Earth, which is why Mars and Earth forces are already posturing on its surface and orbit.

Caliban's War is off to a great start with its horror inspired action. Intense suspense is one good thing which is present throughout the book, if it's in slime filled corridors, or in deep space during a fight between space ships. The stakes are high, we have Earth and Mars on the brink of unleashing hell on each other.   On Venus the protomolecule is up to who knows what, but the most heart wrenching of all is the kidnapping of a young girl, Mei, who was taken from her nursery on Ganymede.

Holden, who I did struggle to connect with in the first book, to his credit drops everything to assist Mei's father to find her. In Leviathan Wakes I wanted Holden to be a Han Solo character, so I was disappointed when he turned out to be not quite as competent and likeable as the old rogue. He has grown on me, and yes he does not always (more like never) make the right decision, and in some things he is very naive, but, at least his flaws makes him real. Besides, dropping everything to save a child I can totally sympathise with, it's what I would do if I was a captain of a space ship.

The supporting characters are once again great. Bobbie, my new favourite marine stands out. She is described as being over two meters tall, and gains muscle by just looking at weights. The men around her are not sure if they are supposed to be frightened or attracted to her. She is her own personal hell dealing with the deaths of her squad mates, and then has to deal with questions of loyalty when she is recruited by a Earth politician to prevent a war between Mars and Earth.

The Martian marine was like one of those cute little beach bunnies that someone had used editing software on and blown up to 150 percent normal size. The proportions, the black hair, the dark eyes, everything was the same. Only, giant. It short circuited his neural wiring. The lizard living at the back of his brain kept jumping back and forth between Mate with it! and Flee from it!

The Earth politician Bobbie is working for is obviously her opposite, an elderly and frail woman, but men tremble in front of her for other reasons. The old lady also swears a lot, and is a lot of fun. Powerful women, every geeky boy's dream!

James S.A. Corey spins a damn good yarn as well with a lot variety. The suspense comes from both physical threats to the characters and also a lot of bigger problems, like political pressure, or emotional ones. The only thing which felt a bit awkward was sending the galaxy's most notorious person for a covert operation, but other than that, the story moves along at a neck breaking pace. Not many chapters were without a mini cliff hanger which made me promise myself, just one more chapter.

Caliban's War is a great addition to the space opera genre, and I can't wait to pick up the next book in the series, Abaddon's Gate.

Caliban's War weighs in at 608 pages, and is published by Orbit Books.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

'Buckingham Palace Blues' - James Craig


Buckingham Palace Blues, by James Craig, is the third book in the Inspector Carlyle series, and my first. Corruption in Buckingham Palace, who would have thought? My only question was, how high up does it go? Many thanks to Constable & Robinson for providing me with a review copy of Buckingham Palace Blues.

James Craig opens up with some really serious stuff, threat and violence against children of the worst kind. After meeting a confused child in a park, and then quickly losing her, John Carlyle discovers a child-trafficking ring. Apart from actually finding out who is behind it, acquiring evidence, he also has to solve a puzzle much closer to heart. Which of his colleagues can he actually trust?

It's a decent plot, which twists and turns enough to keep me interested. Sometimes the obstacles introduced seem a tad too convenient, and lazy, but James Craig just about gets away with it. At least James Craig does not pull his punches, which gives the story credibility. No gloating gangsters who reveal their entire plot to Batman, only to leave him unguarded and strapped to a dooms days device.

John Carlyle is a new acquaintance of mine, and I feel I did not get to know him well enough. Obviously, it might have been different had I also read the first two books. He does not seem to have any interesting character flaws, no real darkness he needs to keep in check. He even has a loving wife which is very supportive of his odd working hours. When it comes to tenacity he excels and he works the case like a bloodhound. We also get the follow the investigation from the point of view of a few other characters, all of which are well written.

Buckingham Palace Blues was a entertaining read, with both pace and moments of suspense. James Craig gives us delightfully unlikeable villains, which you can't wait long enough for them to finally be caught, and maybe even fall down some stairs...

Buckingham Palace Blues weighs in at 304 pages, and is published by Constable & Robinson.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

'Tomorrow the Killing' - Daniel Polansky


I read a lot of good books last year, but Daniel Polansky's first Low Town novel, The Straight Razor Cure, really caught my attention. There are a lot of books with anti-heroes and dark, gritty worlds, but few of them are executed as well as The Straight Razor Cure. Tomorrow the Killing was a no brainer. Thank you Hodder for providing me with a review copy.

Not much has changed since the first book, Warden is still running his little one man crime empire. Being too small for the big guys to worry about and just crazy enough the smaller operations stay away from him. He still owns a bar with his friend from the army, Adolphus, and spends most of his time drunk or doped up on drugs. Warden is contacted by the father of his military commander, so he reluctantly sobers up to go meet with the old man. It's not an easy meeting, it brings back a lot of memories from his past, which he would have preferred to stay forgotten. The old man's daughter has gone missing, and she is in Low Town asking questions about the death of her brother. This is the brother who was Warden's commander back in the day, and he knows her questions are unwanted, and so does the old man.

Warden, being a anti hero after all, obviously refuses, but he ain't fooling anyone. Daniel Polansky writes brilliant power games, and this is what a young woman's questions turn into. Warden is once again pulled into a intricate political game, where every piece on the board is expendable. There is a lot more to it than a missing person, Warden's past plays a big part of it. Context to the main story arc is provided by flashbacks. Not only does it explain the why, but it also lets Warden grow as a character. This is a world where humanity is not showing it's best side, a place where the strong devours the weak. A sign of goodness is a sign of weakness, and holding on to it, is what this book is all about.

I really liked The Straight Razor Cure, but I absolutely loved Tomorrow the Killing. Everything which was good in the first book is even better in the second. Daniel Polansky ticks every box, but it's his protagonist, Warden, who really shines. A gruff anti hero character is not easy to pull off, and often they feel over the top, and unrealistic. Not the case here, Warden is lifelike, but you can see why he is so defensive and closed with other people. The man also delivers some cracking one liners, which lightens up, an otherwise, very serious book. I don't want to go on about the grittiness of the world anymore, but lets just say it's not about winning, just making sure everyone else loses more than you.

Tomorrow the Killing weighs in at 368 pages, and is published by Hodder. It scheduled for release on the 11th of October 2012.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

'Boss'


My impressions of the first couple of episodes of a newish TV show, Boss.

Boss, a political drama originally aired on Starz, really caught me by surprise. I had a brief look on IMDB, and saw it was categoried as crime and drama. To my surprise, there were no police involved at all, and instead the show was focused on the mayor of Chicago, but don't think West Wing, as Boss is much closer to Sopranos. More on that later.

Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer), the mayor of Chicago, is diagnosed at the start of the show with a degenerative neurological disorder. This is quite a major plot obstacle, as not only is it fatal, the symptons are bad, and he is already experiencing the first ones. He is hearing things, having hallucinations and suffer from spells of disorientation, while mumbling to himself. If this ever got out his career would be over quicker than lager turns to piss. To Tom Kane, nothing is more important than his career.

Boss manages to surprise me again. In West Wing the politicians were honourable, any tricks played were within the confines of the law. This is not the case in Boss, and I just didn't see it coming. This is a Kelsey Grammer you have never seen before, the sheer raw and brutal anger he projects is scary. It's not just tellings people off either, it's physical as well. Nothing is held back when a underling messes up on a construction project by altering the press, and Tom Kane transforms from mayor to crime lord, by demanding to have the man's ears delivered to him.

It's safe to say Boss makes an impression, and a very forceful one. It's not all about mafia style violence though, Tom Kane is a man beset by conflicts of all kinds. A journalist is stalking him, hoping to discover the next big scoop. He seems to have broken all contact with his daughter, Emma Kane (Hannah Ware), who is a priest. The only contact he has with his wife, Meredith Kane (Connie Nielsen), is during public functions. Connie Nielsen is amazing in this role, she is the coldest of ice maidens, and her dedication to her own career is even greater than her husband's. The casting is excellent, and pretty much every character seems interesting, and they all have their own demons.

Once I was over the initial shock of expecting something very different I was thrilled by Boss. The show is in your face from page one with how brutal and honest it is. The politicians we see on TV are nothing more than masks put on for the cameras, but when no cameras are present, the masks come off. It's another show which chooses to show shades of grades instead of black and white, much like Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad. I look forward to watching Tom Kane grapple with his disease and political opponents.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

'The Departure' - Neal Asher


The Departure, by Neal Asher, has been sitting for quite a while on my reading pile. Or rather, my imaginary reading pile, since I did not actually buy it until recently. It took me this long to get used to the idea of no more Cormac, Spatterjay, or Old Captains. You see, The Departure is the first book in The Owner series. Tough time when my two favourite SF writers decide to do a major reboot. Once again, I'd like to thank myself for my generosity in providing me with a copy of The Departure.

The Owner universe is very different from the Polity one, gone are the benign AIs and Earth is in the hand of the totalitarian Committee. The population is divided into different categories based on their perceived usefulness, with the members of the Committee at the top, and 98% of humanity are so called Zero Assets (ZA). Basically, they are not worth anything, and are considered a drain upon resources. The overpopulation is serious enough that the ZA category are systematically killed by the Committee, but ironically their own inefficiency and waste is huge. At least there are no crab like aliens trying to eat them.

To me there are three things that Neal Asher excels at, action, world building, and creating likeable, slightly psychotic, characters. Lets see how much of the above is still true in The Departure, and The Owner universe.

When it comes to action, and blowing shit up in creative ways, no one is even close to Neal Asher. The pace is relentless, and the first chapter kicks off with some quality infiltration work, assassination, and equipment which would make Bond green with envy. It's just the starter, and the rest of The Departure is pretty much a smorgasbord of violence.

The world building works for me, but it's not really what I wanted. No killing drones bristling with weapons, no huge leeches, no other crazy nightmare creatures, and no Mr Crane. The furthest we go is Mars, and the scariest we have is some robots, which to be fair, would make me wet myself I I ever met one. It's just not quite same, which I guess is the purpose of switching to a new universe. Neal Asher does do a good job, and the hopelessness of the ZA population is clear, and we also have some interesting exposition at the start of every chapter. I do hope it never comes to this, but I can't help feeling the timing of The Departure is good considering the events in our own reality.

Last, but not least, are the characters, which means I should probably mention something about the plot as well. Vengeance. There, that covers the plot. Our protagonist is in a rather unfortunate situation, he does not remember who he is, only the face of the man who tortured him. On the flip side, he seems remarkably good at killing people, and also highly intelligent. The very capable AI, who goes by the name Janus, is also a fortunate resource. So off he goes to exact just retribution, and maybe even topple a government or two on the way. Comparing our new protagonist to agent Cormac wouldn't be unfair at all, although this new chap has some serious issues with authority. Both are highly capable individuals with a past shrouded in mystery. To me the biggest difference is the lack of interesting supporting characters, which our new man could have used. He is very focused, not very emotional, and maybe a little boring. A humorous sidekick, preferably a seahorse shaped drone, would have lightened things up a little.

At first I was not sure what to expect, and what I got was not quite what I wanted. Halfway through, The Departure was just another good action packed SF novel, but as Neal Asher revealed more and more where he was really going with the Owner series, my fascination grew. The Departure shows us a glimpse of what to expect in the future, and the potential of what could come next really excites me. It's the foundation of something new, and I want to be there when the rest of the building comes up. As soon as I finished The Departure I bought the second novel, Zero Point.

The Departure weighs in at 352 pages, and is published by Tor.