Audio Review: The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan (2011)

The Cold Commands

It’s worth pointing out that an audio book gives a different feel to book, so really I’m reviewing Richard Morgan’s writing and Simon Vance’s performance of it, and it is a performance, Vance gives each ‘voice’ a different inflection to bring them to life. And I’m praying that he’ll be asked to read The Dark Defiles  as I’m really not sure what I’d do if he didn’t [luckily he is]. From that you must know that I’m invested in the lives Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and Archeth Indamaninarmal and their fate.

And fate there is as by the end The Cold Commands sets our characters in places they wouldn’t have expected to be in at the beginning, which made the last quarter or so quite a surprise, and had me scrambling to find two hours listening over 24hrs to finish it.

At the the start it’s not clear where you are going. This does require an act of faith to push through as it feels like Morgan knows you already know and love these characters and will follow them regardless of where they end up but he doesn’t really give a sense of direction.

To be fair the characters aren’t sure what they should be doing either and each of them is eventually pushed or pulled into some sort of action – Ringil is freeing slaves, Egar is bored and does a bit of breaking and entering which gets him into more trouble that he could possibly imagine and Archeth is sent to retrieve a helmsmen, who brings with him promise of her again meeting her people.

The Cold Commands does several things that make it ‘different’ or at least outside the ‘norm’ and reading Brit Mandelo’s tor.com review reminds me that a few of them really should be highlighted.

The sequence is called ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ but who are our heroes? Ringil is probably the most surprising being not only gay but also a gay man whose intimate relationships with two minor characters are supportive rather than destructive,which is unlike The Steel Remains where the close relationship is destructive for him and the wider world and it comes back to haunt events here.  Archeth is struggling with restraint over her own desires and whether a slave girl is an expectable release. And finally, Egar’s own intimate relationship causes danger to all three though it is also a linchpin in strengthening the relationships between them.

I love The Cold Commands for that alone as there is no neon signposting. The sexuality and the problems that brings feels like an extension of the characters and I’m glad that Ringil’s relationships especially don’t ‘punish’ him.

Not that this novel a romance, it has another side shown in some dark and brutal moments. There is a rape scene, which is  rightly disturbing, and its inclusion shows a lot about the world in which everything takes place and is also telling about the characters involved and how they react.

There are a lot of soul searching moments, especially Ringil’s as he transverses the Grey Places, but each of the trio gets focus and attention, and for a middle book in a trilogy it goes deeper and further than just  treading water until the next book’s third act big finale.

Morgan likes to linger on the fights and the sexual scenes, often giving a blow-by-blow account, which I guess makes this ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’ and not for squeamish or prudish. Though I do think it’s important  that it never feels gratuitous; the fights especially have consequences. And often war ‘heroes’ are glorified by others, which are quickly earthed by Egar’s and Ringil’s putdowns.

There is also a turning of the tide here. We see the struggles that the ruler Jhiral Khimran II has in keeping power and how he keeps blocking the damn against the religious furore of the Citadel. I quite like him as character because of who he is and why he does what he does. He has a charm that comes from his scenes with Archeth and even though she’s a lot older than him he often feels much wiser. Though he s brutal and unflinching as well (and here Vance’s performance plays a strong role).

Speaking of Archeth, even she isn’t safe from Morgan’s callus hands. Outside influences extend to even her. But I’ll leave it as that to avoid unneeded signposting or spoiler inducing.

As I said at the beginning, it’s not clear at the start what to expect and I don’t want to flag those moments too much as their revelation makes you rethink a lot of earlier moments and makes a reread or re-listen in my gave something to look forward to.  But I will say that by the end Morgan has prepared the ground for something big. And the point where you hear ‘the cold commands’ will make a shiver run down your spine.

The Cold Commands uses traditional fantasy tropes and stretches those conventions to cover places they normally don’t reach. The main characters should be hard to like but they have plenty to hook your sympathies and understanding especially as their hearts are in the right place as storms gather around them. Honestly The Dark Defiles can’t come fast enough, though at last report it’s 50% bigger than this one and pays of debt due, but I’m nervous about how much Morgan is going to tear into the hearts of our characters.

Vance, as always, does a startling performance, and it always makes me chuckle that the dwenda sound welsh. His portrayal of Jihral especially sets the right tone and the helmsmen sound alien and disturbing. I could honestly listen to him read the phone book. Though with The Dark Defiles being half as long again I hope his voice holds out.

SFR: The Eyes Have It by Randall Garrett (1964)

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Title:  The Eyes Have It
Author: Randall Garrett
Source: Lord Darcy by Randall Garrett  (Fantasy Masterworks )

This short story can be summed up as a classical-feeling detective story set in an alternative reality with a magical twist. It welcomes you to a world where the Plantagenet kings survived, where the laws of magic were discover and physical sciences where never pursued. Not that we’re fed all that in one go. Instead we’re thrown in the deep end.

We start, as these things do, with the discovery of a body, which unfolds into an analysis of the relationships between the main suspects. We are also introduced to Lord Darcy and his forensic sorcerer, Master Sean O’Lochlainn, though Lord Darcy is definitely the boss.

It feels very grande. The characters and setting are social elite and Garrett seems to revel in the setting and the characters. The alternative reality feels natural and the use of magic, being licensed by the Church, is a nice twist – especially the pseudo-science-method of explanation.

As a piece of fantasy it is evocative and as detective fiction Garrett makes it work very well. I think the setting and the characters are more interesting than the murder itself, though it has its moments.

As an introduction I’m intrigued and I’m keen to see what direction it goes in next. This collection has nine other short stories and a novel so I’m going to have the chance to find out.

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor (2012)

Days of Blood and Starlight

There is no way of getting around it. This is a love story. You see, once upon a time an angel and a devil fell in love and imagined a new way of living and so far that dream has caused both of them nothing but pain. At least that was how Daughter of Smoke and Bone ended and in Days of Blood and Starlight that feeling continues.

Not so strangely in the US this is released through Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and I’d place it, if labels are important to you, in that YA category. Though saying that if you’ve read the first book then you’ll know what to expect and the labelling will be irrelevant.

Please though don’t let the YA/love-story elements  put you off the idea of reading it but read Daughter of Smoke and Bone first. Laini Taylor is telling a big story through the relationship of Karou, currently almost human, who is trapped into rebuilding an army (by placing saved souls in newly formed bodies) and Akiva, an angel, who along with the rest his kind, has the sole mission of destroying Karou’s race.

In Daughter of Smoke and Bone there was a stalemate of opposing armies (Angels vs Chimera) with neither side gaining ground which was then shattered and we deal with the aftermath here. Laini Taylor isolates her two main characters and shows the conflict from their opposing sides but they both have their own internal conflicts, not only in their personal relationships, but the role they play in the war.

And for a story which has two heavy threads Taylor has a light touch with both giving you enough of each to keep you wanting to know more rather than wanting to stick with one or other. Saying that though the plotting and the conveniences in events aren’t so smooth. But somehow that doesn’t matter because if you’ve made it this far and become reinvested in their plight you’re happy to follow along even wishing some scenes would end before anything too horrible happens (Taylor on the whole doesn’t pull back on those).

I like Taylor’s take on angels being the more horrible of the two and that the ‘beasts’ are mostly defending themselves though that view is harder to stomach with some the events now gathering little sympathy in their retaliation .

But each time we see Karou and Akiva representing a different way. It’s not a spoiler to say that things get worse and not better throughout Days of Blood and Starlight and part of me missed the sense of fun that was strong element in the first book, mostly it is missing because Karou doesn’t spend time with her friends, though the scenes where they do make an appearance brings back that lightness before again being swallowed up again by the dark.

 

Overall, rather than turning sickly sweet Laini Taylor takes us to a darker place than the original in this sequel but at the same time giving hopes that everything is not doomed just before raising the stakes at the last minute.

Luckily Dreams of Gods and Monsters is out in a few days so I don’t have long to wait to see how it all ends.

Review: The Mystery of a Butchers Shop by Gladys Mitchell (1930)

mitchell_mystery_of_a_butchers_new

When Rupert Sethleigh’s body is found one morning, laid out in the village butcher shop but minus its head, the inhabitants of Wandles Parva aren’t particularly upset. Sethleigh was a blackmailing moneylender and when the peerless detective and renowned psycholanalyst Mrs Bradley begins her investigation she finds no shortage of suspects. It soon transpires that most of the village seem to have been wandering about Manor Woods, home of the mysterious druidic stone on which Sethleigh’s blood is found splashed, on the night he was murdered, but can she eliminate the red herrings and catch the real killer?

Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley is a wondrous creation. She’s gnarled, rich and wickedly humoured. She’s also interfering. These qualities makes her a perfect candidate of a detective. And like Christie or Doyle Mitchell was quite prolific.

To give you an idea Vintage have already published 13 books featuring this devilish detective and and this month are going to be releasing 20 more (4 normal paperbacks with 16 as print on demand and all are available as ebooks). They’ve been coming out quite sporadically up until now with Vintage choosing their favourites before filling in some gaps.

This is to explain why I’m now reading Mrs Bradley’s second appearance (my next read is the first  the series Speedy Death) but from the ones I’ve read so far it doesn’t seem to matter what order you read them in as Mrs Bradley doesn’t have any development but is more a mechanism to let the other characters kill each other and then nose around until she finds the murderer.

I read this one in two parts. The first half I read last year (around Halloween) but I picked it back up a few days ago and devoured the rest. Partly what I struggled with in the first half is the habit Mitchell has of dropping you into a scene with lots of dialogue but not grounding you in the scene by having the characters give some context to the scene.

It’s not something I struggled with from reading her other books and I think Mitchell got lots of  opportunities to practice her technique. But maybe it was me as well as I was much more comfortable with the cast of characters and what was being described when I picked it up again. Maybe it just took some time to get up to speed? As for the murder itself as it says in the blurb it looks quite simple but pinning it down takes Mrs Bradley some time.

The cast of characters here is entertaining with their personalities all quite different. Mitchell is great at exploring motivations and giving them layers of problems and interest so that no character feels like a cardboard walk-on. And when I got to the end I was annoyed in a good way as Mitchell manages to keeps you on your toes. Mrs Bradley is no goody two-shoes and the ending proves it.

As a book which is 84 years old you may think it would have dated but it doesn’t really. It doesn’t have modern obsessions with gore, flawed detectives, and its glamour is understated rather than gaudy. It feels classical if that makes sense.

I honestly can’t wait to see where Mitchell places Mrs Bradley next.

Review: The Line of Polity by Neal Asher (2003)

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Neal Asher has to be one of my favourite authors, notice I didn’t say SF authors (why add an unneeded label), but I’ve been reading his Polity series in a bit of an odd order.

Here is the internal chronological order:

  1. Prador Moon
  2. The Shadow of the Scorpion
  3. Gridlinked
  4. The Line of Polity
  5. Brass Man
  6. Polity Agent
  7. Line War
  8. The Technician
  9. The Skinner
  10. The Voyage of the Sable Keech
  11. Orbus
  12. Hilldiggers

Plus a collection of Polity-focused short stories

The Gabble and Other Stories

And here is the order I’ve read them in so far:

  1. The Gabble and Other Stories 
  2. Prador Moon
  3. The Shadow of the Scorpion
  4. The Skinner (audiobook)
  5. The Voyage of the Sable Keech (audiobook)
  6. Hilldiggers
  7. Orbus (audiobook)
  8. The Technician
  9. Gridlinked
  10. The Line of Polity

The reason that I mention my reading history is that I’ve already seen the aftermath of some of the events in The Line of Polity from reading The Technician but probably not realised their significance. The same can probably said of Agent Cormac as The Shadow of the Scorpion explores the Cormac as he’s manipulated (or should I say shaped) into Agent Cormac.

I’m not unhappy with my reading order though as The Skinner, The Voyage of Sable Keech and Orbus make up their own trilogy and Hilldiggers and The Technician are stand-alones. And The Gabble is a great introduction and if you like short stories they really hooked me into flavour of the Polity.

What it has done is make me want to re-read The Technician again, in fact I want to re-read all Neal’s Polity books. There is something about the continual exploration/evolution/enjoyment of Asher’s Polity that makes it fascinating to read – though also makes me read his books slowly (when I’m not listening to the audiobooks) so I can digest everything.

The plots themselves, like The Line of Polity, are pacy, and the details that are absorbing. And in this one we have Agent Cormac again called on to deal with the alien known as Dragon (though not the same aspect as found in Gridlinked) at the same time as the planet Masada is going through a slow rebellion in the hope that the Polity will intervene.

Neal weaves three main threads, which really start off as the two mentioned above, before Cormac underestimates the skills and knowledge of a biophysicist called Skellor who brings a whole new danger with him.

What I like about Asher’s stories is that he has a passion for biology and uses that to inject new variations of life on to the worlds he presents. This time we have deadly creatures, who have said mostly away from the human inhabitants of Masada until chaos unfolds drawing their attention.

He also shows a love of technology and layers different levels of advancements with the Theoracy having low worn out tech, there is an outline station, Miranda, that is old by Polity standards but above Theocracy, and then we have Dragon whose is able to construct creatures with advanced DNA and then we have what Skellor initiates.

The level of thought and details always makes Asher, for me, slow reading as the plot wants to zip but I want to enjoy the ideas and the settings. It’s quite a skill I think to give you a pacy plot that you want to slow down so you can take everything in.

The current paperback is 660 pages and towards the end you come to realise that it’s not going to be a neat ending. And that the next one, Brass Man, has to pick up certain bits left behind, as does The Line of Polity in some respects.

The danger of intertextual conversions is that the author cannibalises their own ideas so much they end up as skin and bones, but from experience of the Splatterjay trilogy Asher digs deeper, which is why I said earlier that I really want to get round to rereading but first I think I need to catch up with the canon.

One thing I haven’t really mentioned is there is an underlying anger with religion (or so it seems to me) as the echelons of the Theocracy literally live above the people that prepress in the name of God and are deluded that their belief their faith will one day make the Polity crumble.

Asher cover a lot. Highly recommended for SF fans who like explosions, technology, biology, and knowing that the author is a fun.

Review: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris (2014)

gospel-of-loki.jpgJoanne Harris, of Chocolate fame (which you knew already, right?), has written her first adult fantasy novel, which introduces us to the life of the world’s most infamous trickster, Loki.

I know what you’re thinking and it starts with H cough Hiddleston cough and as great as the on-screen version of Loki is Harrison recounts of life with the Gods of Asgard as if you were having a drink with him in a pub, which is something you’d never get from Hollywood.

And what a tale it is. Odin calls forth Loki and is bound to him as a brother (yes BROTHER) and takes him to Asgard though Loki never quite fits in. But the Father of Lies isn’t EVIL as such he’s just misunderstood plus it’s in his nature to be disruptive.

Harris sets the tone at the start with Loki’s slightly snarky though charming introduction of the cast of characters we’re going to encounter before interrupting the recounting of the ‘authorised’ version of events of told by ‘The Prophecy of the Oracle’ (her (very loose) verse translation of Voluspá) before moving on to the main event and telling us all the lessons he’s learnt from his life as the Bringer of Light.

It’s a big task for Harris to introduce readers to a whole pantheon of characters who may be unfamiliar when compared to the likes of Loki, Thor and Odin but she manages it with ease. And then manages to recount Asgard’s entire history without it feeling like a stale history lesson. Quite to opposite.

Loki is a silver-tongued storyteller as each mini-tale (or lesson as he frames them) builds and builds revealing more and more of the Loki’s nature and his motivations but also sets out the tests and trials that Odin has him endure for the good of Asgard.

He does bring a fair bit of it on himself but you are left wondering how much of what happens is the gods’ own self-fulling prophecy and how different it would have been if they’d just built him a hall of his own treated him as one their own instead of a constant scapegoat?

I dare you not to fall for his charms and feel sorry for him by the time this tale is done. Though you may not agree with what he ends up doing especially when you how lovely his wife.

There are some amazing set pieces, which I’ve been very tempted to research and compare but you know I’m just going to enjoy the ‘reality’ The Gospel of Loki for a little bit longer.

It’s hard to convey in this review how enjoyable Loki is but hopefully a bit of his ‘wisdom’ via his lessons will give you an idea:

Love is boring. People in love even more so …

&

Friendship is overrated. Who needs friendship when you can have the certitudes of hostility. You know where you stand with an enemy. You know he won’t betray you. It’s the ones who claim to be your friends that you to beware of.

&, finally

Never Trust a wise man to do the work of a felon.

And on that note I’ll wrap up. Harris’ Loki has redeemed what has started off as a bit of a shaky reading year with an epic tale of Gods, demons, and the end of the world. I couldn’t be happier or more enthralled by The Gospel of Loki and his bringing of Ragnarök to the gods of Asgard.

SFR: Drive by James S. A. Corey (2012)

Edge of Infinity Title:  ‘Drive’
Author: James S. A. Corey
Source: Edge of Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

One Word Review: DVD-extra

One Line Review: The origin story of how space ships in The Expanse universe got to go a little bit fast is a mixed with a  story of love and companionship.

One Paragraph Review: I’ve not read Leviathan’s Wake yet, which is the first novel in this universe, but after reading this short I’m not sure that I’m much wiser about the setting. The only thing that is clear here is that it’s more ‘realistic’ than I’m used to in terms of space travel and exploration. We’re on a colony on Mars and time scales for Earth sending ships is given in months rather than hours or days which took me back a bit showing how much I’m used to the idea of faster travel. The collection’s theme is about the next big leap from Earth into our Solar system and ‘Drive’  describes when became available but at a cost. It’s sweet and romantic (which distracts slightly from everything else for me if I’m honest) as it tells the formation and continuation of a relationship. You also get to see snipped of politics and threats to Mars colony from Earth and the pressures that could be applied to get Earth’s way in negotiations. I’ve called it a DVD-extra as I think you have already introduced to The Expanse rather than take this as your first experience.

SFR: Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris (2010)

A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of StringTitle: ‘Wildfire in Manhattan’
Author: Joanne Harris
Source: A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String by Joanne Harris

One Word Review: Positive 

One Line Review: Harris gives us a gentle reminder that it’s always a good idea to ask a damsel if she needs saving.

One Paragraph Review: We’re dropped into a world where gods wear Aspects to walk among us and the aspect of wildfires meets his brother as they are reconnected with an ancient danger in modern day Manhattan. I think this is set in the same setting as Runemarks – at least I hope it is because as I was reading I was thinking I’d like to see more of this idea. The fun aspect was the idea of rune magic and it was more flingy than Tolkien. But mostly it shows men being all protective  and ‘manly’ disregarding if the person they are protecting actually needs their help. I don’t think that spoils it but might give you something to think about as you read it.

Review: Ghosts of the Citadel (The Copper Promise Part 1) by Jen Williams

Ghosts of the CitadelIt’s strange to see a large publisher chopping up a book and publishing as a serialisation in ebook but having read Ghosts of the Citadel it works. Mostly as Jen Williams has written the novel in parts and this bit definitely tells complete incident but not the whole story.

Ghosts of the Citadel grabbed me with the opening chapters due to its playful Sword and Sorcery setting. After you get past the first chapter’s torture scene you are in classic territory of hired swords, leather, magic and mysterious places to explore.

We join hired-swords Wydrin of Crossheaven and her business partner Sir Sebastian Caverson who are accompanied (and paid for) by Lord Firth as they explore the magically-protected Citadel and try to access its secrets. What makes it  feel alive isn’t the setting, as it’s nothing that new, but the characters of Wydrin and Sebastian, who feel like people that you’d enjoy going on an adventure with.

Williams has a knack for the playful and the banter between them keep the whole thing moving along with an enjoyable tone. There are some nice moments of revelations about the characters pasts. And Lord Firth has an unshared agenda, which has unforeseen consequences, and is the reason to read the next bit (Children of the Fog). But even as mysterious as he is definitely going to play a central role in what’s the come as he gets moment in the spotlight.

That’s not to say it’s all light as Williams doesn’t pull her punches either and she’s a tricksy writer.  Something happens and I had to check in my proof of the whole book if a character did actually die as I was that concerned about them.

This part is only short, 87 pages perhaps, but for 99p gives you a mini-adventure, lets you know Williams’ style and, I think, makes you want to read what happens next.

SFR: Crouch End by Stephen King (1993/1980)

Nightmares & DreamscapesTitle:  Crouch End
Author: Stephen King
Source: Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King

One Word Review: Transgressive

One Line Review: King successfully enters the world of Lovecraft with a woman who reports her husband as missing at a police station.

One Paragraph Review: Two policeman are on the nightshift when a distressed American women comes in telling them the story of how her husband disappeared after they took a cab to Crouch End and find themselves abandoned and lost in a strange desolate series of streets until they heard something strange moaning. To be honest it’s hard to make Lovecraftian-horror terrifying, and this story is chilling, mildly unnerving, haunting but does invoke the sense of terror the main character feels from events. It’s narrated third person watching over the women and one of the young policemen as he’s introduced to the strange events that he hadn’t come across up until now. A worth effort with a nice slippery ending.