While busy behind the scenes with production work, I've been falling behind a little on posting my reviews - so time to catch up! Here's a bumper bundle of book reviews, and I'll follow up with a review of audiobooks over the weekend. But first up, time for a spot of Arthurian romance with a very big twist...
The Midsummer Wife, by Jacqueline Church Simonds
I'll confess to not being initially drawn to this story - perhaps it was the title that didn't snare me and I thought it was romance, not my genre for reading generally, but while there's passion indeed within these pages, I was very wrong to scroll by on my Kindle before now.
The Midsummer Wife is a dystopian sci-fi Arthurian romance. Yup. All of those. A nuclear blast has devastated London, taking the royalty and the government with it, and a shattered Britain is left to pick up the pieces - even as its citizens scramble to leave on the next boat or plane.
Into this are plunged the descendants of King Arthur and Merlin, along with the heir of an ancient priestess, Ava, who is crucial to hopes of defeating ancient foe Morgaine and her cultists and hopefully reunite Britain.
The opening chapter of this book may be one of the best openings I've read in a long time. It's taut, pacy, and introduces us to an assured and determined Ava. Except that's just a mask - in truth, she's beset by anxiety and agoraphobia, a fractured soul trying to hide her weaknesses because she knows the fate of the country, perhaps the world, rests on her shoulders.
It's fantastic to have a more complex character at the heart of the story rather than a perfect, infallible hero - and that's before she finds herself driven by impulses more ancient than she knows to form a bond with... the wrong man?
Perhaps... as only turning the pages will reveal.
This book is a little more saucy than my usual reading fare, but that's no knock on the book itself, just a note that you can expect shirt-ripping and gasping ahead.
I was delighted to be surprised by this book, and to be left wanting more by the time I turned the last page.
AI Rating: 5/5
Available on Amazon here.
Available on Amazon here.
Blood Grains Speak Through Memories, by Jason Sanford
I'm late to the parade, of course - this was the Nebula award winner for best novelette, so that tells you all you need to know, right?
Ahh, but were the Nebula voters right in throwing their highest honour on this tale?
Yes. So very much yes.
Sanford creates a remarkable world - where powerful, nanite-infused humans known as anchors guard and protect areas of land, while the rest of humanity is forced into a vagrant, nomadic life, travelling in caravans between lands and hoping not to fall foul of the dangerous, close to pyschotic anchors.
The story is told from the perspective of Frere-Jones, one of the anchors, who begins to doubt her role as one of the guardians of the land.
The nanites, known as grains, push at Frere-Jones to obey, to protect the system, and even manipulate her memories - but still, her doubts remain, and when she gives shelter to a band of nomad humans, that could pit her against other anchors driven to protect the land and even, perhaps, against the humans she tries to guard.
It's a remarkable, bravura piece of writing, and thoroughly worth its Nebula win. It's the kind of writing that lets you peer over horizons you'd never dreamed of, and that is the mark of great writing.
It tugs at your heart, it breaks it in two, and makes you wonder if that's not the right thing after all.
AI Rating: 5/5
The Emotionless, In Love, by Jason Sanford
The sequel to Blood Grains Speak Through Memories, this flips the perspective, telling the story through the eyes of those in the caravans that scuttle from place to place, seeking just enough shelter to eat and survive before moving on to a different spot.
Colton is one of those caravan travellers, and has a link back to characters in the first story. He also has a problem - his emotions have been stolen from him in a previous encounter.
His caravan finds a dangerous kind of shelter in the lands of a crazed, fractured anchor named Sri Sa. She protects his caravan, even as her behaviour endangers them all.
And more, she can make him feel. What price would you pay to feel even sadness instead of nothing at all?
The Emotionless, In Love expands the setting from the previous novel, and shows more of the effects on the other displaced inhabitants of this world.
It's not quite as taut as the previous story, and Sri Sa sometimes seems a little too invincible - the other anchors seem little of a threat at times - but it's still engrossing. A worthy follow-up to the original tale.
AI Rating: 4/5
The Apple-Tree Throne, by Premee Mohamed
I almost don't know how to begin writing about this book, because it is so very different from many modern stories.
Indeed, in some ways, it's a story out of time, that owes a debt to the cautious mannered intrigue of Wilde or MR James, even of Austen, and the classic ghost stories of old.
In an Unreal Britain, Benjamin Braddock is a survivor of war. His commanding officer died in battle, perhaps at the hand of the enemy, perhaps at the hand of his men. Braddock returns home to a country that doesn't need a soldier any more, and has little room to accommodate the trauma that he suffered on its behalf.
And yet... the family of the commanding officer who got so many soldiers killed extend a hand of friendship to him. They offer him company. They offer him his officer's old home. Perhaps even there is the promise of romance with a woman who might once have chased his commander's hand.
There's one problem, however: The ghost of the commander might not be done with everything yet.
Very slowly, very carefully, very deliberately, the author creates a sense of creeping dread - and we do not know whether we fear for the presence of the ghost pawing at the window in the dark or for the fragile and broken man that Braddock has become. It's a story that aches, in the spaces between heartbeats.
By the end, I felt I was still trying to get to grips with the story, trying to fit pieces in their place - and lingering on it in my mind more than I expected in the early examination of a quasi-Victorian steampunk world had promised. It's a very personal tale of a man and his journey through grief and despair, an exquisitely crafted clockwork timepiece for our age of digital phones.
I heartily recommend it - but don't expect to rush, savour the slow build.
AI Rating: 5/5
Leaps of Faith, by AM Leibowitz
I'll be upfront from the start - this wouldn't normally be my kind of book as it sits outside the genres I usually read. I read it as a book club pick, and one of the nice things about book clubs is that it brings books to you that you might not normally encounter, broadening your horizons.
It's a series of short stories - but all interconnected, telling the story of a young couple and those around them as characters explore their gender identities, their sexuality, what makes them love, what makes them hurt.
There are sex scenes, and other elements that probably make this a book that fits at the top end of Young Adult and more squarely in New Adult but there's a great value in the stories within.
Let me explain by taking a trip back in my own time - back in the 1970s, author Joan Lingard published a series of novels that these days would be classed as young adult. They told the tale of Kevin and Sadie, two young people on opposite sides of the religious divide in Northern Ireland at a time when that kind of difference could get you killed.
As a young Northern Irishman myself, they struck a chord on who I was, on the journey others like me were going through - and that's what is most striking about this collection. For those questioning who they are, who they identify as, who they are attracted to, there are representations here of others on that same journey. Just as I could pick up those Kevin and Sadie books and see myself in them, so too many readers either exploring their identity or sure as heck of who they are but not of how to express it to a world might read Leaps of Faith and say "This is me". For those who don't see themselves in the world around them as much as they might, that's no small thing.
AI Rating: 4/5
Dark Flash 3, by Maria Haskins
Maria Haskins is a wonderful writer, as anyone who has read my reviews of her previous Dark Flash anthologies is probably aware.
Dark Flash 3 continues the collections of her stories written to feature in RB Wood's Word Count Podcast - short pieces of flash fiction often inspired by a photograph and then heading off into the wild blue yonder of Maria's imagination.
It's a quick read - with just nine pieces of flash fiction in there - making it an ideal book for a commute, though it might just transport you to more distant places as you read.
There are monsters here, and tales of transformation - sometimes into the very monsters themselves. Maria has a habit of picking at the seams of fairy tales and sewing them into a new set of clothes for her characters to wear. It's unnerving, in just the way you'd expect unravelling others' childhood legends to be.
Keep freaking me out, Maria, it's a twisted pleasure indeed!
One sidenote - a while ago, I reviewed Mic Drop by Rob Edwards, which also included a number of stories from the same podcast - and it's an interesting exercise to compare those that started out from the same point, and the destinations each author reached.
You can also hear the podcasts over at RB Wood's webpage here.
AI Rating: 5/5
Bell-Clock Heart, by NC Stow
Have you ever read a story where the potential of it soars off in a dozen different directions and you wonder just how it's all contained in a short story?
That's Bell-Clock Heart for me.
I've read a number of NC Stow's short stories now, which often plunge into Russian mythology in all its wonder and occasional craziness.
The story tells the tale of a boy who has his heart stolen, literally. In its place is a whirring contraption of cogs and gears, which has a side effect of allowing him to trap spirits.
He comes to the aid of a girl in need - but is he a greater danger than the perils facing her?
There is absolutely a fairytale quality here - a dreamlike nature in places - and readers would benefit from reading some of the author's earlier stories first, such as Ogon and Voopyre.
Go read those - and if you're hooked, follow through to here. The boy's clockwork heart will be waiting for you, ticking patiently.
AI Rating: 4/5
Graphic novel reviews
A Study In Emerald, by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone and Dave Stewart
Look, here's all that I need to say: Neil Gaiman writes a story mixing Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos.
Not sold? Really?
Great Old Ones in charge of the British Empire while a gentleman detective and his former military companion investigating a grim case in the midst of it all doesn't draw you in?
Let me add that it's a dazzling short story, full of twists and brilliant logical leaps - all told elegantly in this graphic novel form by a team that shows admirable restraint rather than plunging into the blood and madness one might indulge in with a HP Lovecraft-inspired setting.
I shall spoil nothing, because the less you know about the story itself the better, just be prepared for something wonderful.
AI Rating: 5/5
Wolverine Epic Collection 13: Blood Debt
This is one of those chunky collections from Marvel that bundles a whole host of individual issues together - but by golly this is as mismatched a collection as you'll find.
The front half is exactly what you'd expect from the cover, a bunch of Rob Liefeld-era Wolverine that's pretty low on story quality and all about the art style of the day. It even has one of those Wolverine vs Deadpool fights that makes no sense whatsoever, not least that Deadpool shows up with a whole gang of dull new supervillains who then play no role in the fight. It's the kind of thing that did big numbers in the 90s but is pretty hard to read going back.
And then you get to the second half of the book which is the utterly splendid Wolverine: Origin, written by Jemas, Jenkins and Quesada and beautifully illustrated by Kubert and Isanove. It's a level of quality light years above the rest of the book and worth it for that alone.
So, one star for the front of the book, five stars for the back. I'll average that out as three - because goodness knows if you've got Origin in the collection and you opt for a Liefeld picture as the cover, you're missing the lede.
AI Rating: 3/5