Thursday, 25 February 2016

Book Review | The Guns of Ivrea by Clifford Beal

Acquel Galenus, former thief and now monk of no particular skill, indifferent scribe and even worse chorister, uncovers a terrible secret under the Great Temple at Livorna that could shiver the one faith to its core. A secret that could get him killed. A secret that could enable an older, more sinister form of worship to be reborn...

Pirate princeling Nicolo Danamis, mercenary to the King and captain of the largest fleet in the island kingdom of Valdur, has made one deal too many, and enemies are now closing in to destroy him.

And Citala, fair-haired and grey-skinned, the daughter of the chieftain of the Merfolk who inhabit the waters of Valdur, finds herself implacably drawn to the affairs of men. She puts events in motion that will end her people's years of isolation but that could imperil their very existence...

All their fates will intertwine as they journey through duchies and free cities riven by political intrigue, religious fervour, and ancient hatreds. Alliances are being forged anew and after decades of wary peace, war is on the wind once again...


With Gideon's Angel and The Raven's Banquet, Clifford Beal handily established himself as an author of fast-paced historical fiction with a generous splash of the supernatural, but in the first of his Tales of Valdur, he goes full-on fantasy with a book best described as Black Sails meets Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle series.

Instead of the seventeenth-century England of the cracking Cromwell novels, The Guns of Ivrea takes place in a secondary world reminiscent of the Mediterranean where piracy is rife and unrest is on the rise:
To be sure, Valdur was not a happy kingdom. Five fractious duchies, three free cities, and a royal enclave not much bigger than a market town made the prospects for prosperity and concordia rather slim. Nor did it help that the king of Valdur was a distracted, vain, and rather stupid man, content to let the dukes and high stewards of the land conspire and scheme. 
But at least he has me, thought Captain Danamis. (p.19)
Captain Danamis—Nico to you and me—is the commander of "a sizeable fleet which had come into his hands as a result of inheritance, brashness bordering on insolence, and a smidgen of blind luck. And this fleet, a collection of great carracks, caravels, and cogs, was now the largest in Valdur." (p.19) This is due to Nico's negotiations with the merfolk, who've taken to trading the treasure they find on the ocean floor for a packages of a plant with intoxicating qualities that can only be had on land. 

Self-interested idiot that he is, Nico could care less what the merfolk do with the myrra, so long as the money keeps coming... but our fool has forgotten something obvious: that the bigger you are, the farther you have to fall. He's about to be reminded. See, some of the pirates under Nico's leadership have been feeling increasingly uneasy about their dependence on the people of the sea, not least because they follow the One Faith, which insists that the mer are the enemies of men.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Book Review | Morning Star by Pierce Brown

I rise into darkness, away from the garden they watered with the blood of my friends. The Golden man who killed my wife lies dead beside me on the cold metal deck, life snuffed out by his own son’s hand.

Autumn wind whips my hair. The ship rumbles beneath. In the distance, friction flames shred the night with brilliant orange. The Telemanuses descending from orbit to rescue me. Better that they do not. Better to let the darkness have me and allow the vultures to squabble over my paralyzed body.

My enemy’s voices echo behind me. Towering demons with the faces of angels. The smallest of them bends. Stroking my head as he looks down at his dead father.

“This is always how the story would end,” he says to me. “Not with your screams. Not with your rage. But with your silence.”


Pierce Brown has several times cited Star Wars—specifically the original trilogy—as a influence of no small significance on the fan-favourite series Morning Star completes, and it's fair to say the pair share a double helix here and a structural strand there.

Like A New Hope before it, Red Rising introduced an almost recognisable galaxy ruled by an evil empire; an evil empire whose merciless machinations gave the saga's protagonist—here, the Helldiver Darrow—a very personal reason to rebel against said. It was a bloody good book, to be sure, but as nothing next to Golden Son, which scaled up the conflict and the cast of characters introduced in Red Rising marvelously, in much the same way The Empire Strikes Back improved in every conceivable sense on its predecessor. It also ended with a catastrophic cliffhanger... which we'll get back to.

In short, it shouldn't be such a surprise that the pattern which held true in books one and two of Brown's breakthrough also applies to the conclusion. For better or for worse, Morning Star is this trilogy's Return of the Jedi—though there are, thankfully, no Ewok equivalents in evidence.

The end begins with Darrow locked in a box.

Time, to wit, has lost all meaning to the Reaper, but he's been in this almost-but-not-quite-carbonite contraption for nearly a year. In the process the young man who freed Mars has lost much of his mind, and all of the carefully-carved body that helped him pass for a Gold in the colour-coordinated caste hierarchy of the sinister Society. He's so far gone, in fact, that he's seriously considering killing himself when a duo of deeply-embedded rebels finally spring him from the Jackal's base of operations.

Darrow may be back in play from this point on, but Brown is smart not to simply dismiss Golden Son's devastating denouement. The Reaper, returned, is no longer a leader. He has to be carved all over again, and retrained as if here were a new recruit to the cause. "Like a prisoner who spend his whole life digging through the wall, only to break through and find he's dug into another cell," (p.70) he feels beaten, defeated—which is understandable, because he was.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Book Review | City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions. Now the city's god is dead and the city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is just a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.

So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh—foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumoured war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister—has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten. At least, it makes the perfect cover story.

The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world—or destroy it.


I was of two minds when I learned that Robert Jackson Bennett would be making a return journey to the world and the wares he so successfully peddled in City of Stairs. On the one hand, he hardly scratched the surface of Saypur and the Continent it opted to occupy in that multiple award-nominated novel; on the other, I feared a sequel would bring to an end to the endless reinvention that has kept the aforementioned author's efforts so incredibly fresh. And it does... until it doesn't.

For all that City of Blades shares with City of Stairs, Bennett's decision to bench book one's embattled protagonist Shara Komayd in favour of General Turyin Mulaghesh sets the two texts apart from the start.

In the several years since the ungodly conflict which capped that last narrative, the hero of the Battle of Bulikov has entirely retired—from the adoration of the army, from the appraisal of the public eye, and, last but not least, from the expectation that she should be a reasonable human being. It follows that we find Mulaghesh on an isolated island; drunk, damn near destitute, and struggling to adjust to life with one less limb than she might like.

But just when she thought she was out, the Prime Minister pulls her back in! When a messenger arrives to request that Mulaghesh do one last secret service for Saypur, she sees an opportunity to resolve some of the hellish memories and awful losses that haunt her:
She couldn't erase the past, but maybe she could keep it from happening again. Some young men and women, Continental and Saypuri, never made it home because of her. The least she could do was make sure others didn't fall to the same fate. It'd be a way to make the dead matter. A way to put back some of what she'd broken. (p.313)
What the messenger doesn't tell Mulaghesh—wisely, I'd add—is where she's to be sent: Voortyashtan is, after all, the "ass-end of the universe [and] armpit of the world." There, there's "a one in three chance of her being murdered or drowning or dying of the plague" (p.23)—fittingly for a country famed first and foremost for its apparently-departed Divinity: Voortya, the god of war and death.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Book Review | Medusa's Web by Tim Powers

In the wake of their Aunt Amity's suicide, Scott and Madeline Madden are summoned to Caveat, the eerie, decaying mansion in the Hollywood hills in which they were raised. But their decadent and reclusive cousins, the malicious wheelchair-bound Claimayne and his sister, Ariel, do not welcome Scott and Madeline's return to the childhood home they once shared. While Scott desperately wants to go back to their shabby south of Sunset lives, he cannot pry his sister away from this old house that is a conduit for the supernatural. 

Decorated by bits salvaged from old hotels and movie sets, Caveat hides a dark family secret that stretches back to the golden days of Rudolph Valentino and the silent film stars. A collection of hypnotic abstract images inked on paper allows the Maddens to briefly fragment and flatten time—to transport themselves into the past and future in visions that are both puzzling and terrifying. 

As Madeline falls more completely under Caveat's spell, Scott must fight to protect her. But will he unravel the mystery of the Madden family's past and finally free them... or be pulled deeper into their deadly web?


Damn near a decade since his last standalone, two-time Philip K. Dick Award winner Tim Powers paints a characteristically trippy picture of modern Hollywood in Medusa's Web, a tense time-travel thriller about addiction and the fault lines that families straddle. 

The far-from-happy family at the heart of this narrative are the Maddens, under ancient Aunt Amity—a half-mad matriarch and erstwhile author who owns the deteriorating estate where the bulk of Powers' tale takes place:
Madeline had moved out of Caveat seven years ago, leaving her aunt with Ariel and Claimayne and the solitary writing of her endless unpublishable novels. Scott had left six years before that, to get married, though when that Louise woman left him he hadn't moved back in. (p.58)
Neither Madeline, an astrologer, nor Scott, an artist, had planned to come back to the moldering mansion they left so long ago, but Amity Madden's explosive suicide necessitates a reassessment. Her hastily-written last will stipulates that this house in the Hills is theirs to do what they want with if they can stomach spending a week within its walls—so home they go, much to Ariel and Claimayne's dismay.

Although Caveat has certainly seen better days, Ariel and Claimayne see it as their hard-earned inheritance. Understandably, then, they do everything in their power to drive Scott and Madeline away... until the same secret that tore the Maddens apart to start—a stash of so-called "spiders"—resurfaces, endangering everyone in the property in the process.