Review: GUNS OF THE DAWN by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

TchaikovskyA-GunsOfTheDawnAn excellent stand-alone novel about war, family and sacrifice

Denland and Lascanne have been allies for generations, but now the Denlanders have assassinated their king, overthrown the monarchy and marched on their northern neighbour. At the border, the war rages; Lascanne’s brave redcoats against the revolutionaries of Denland.

Emily Marshwic has watched the war take her brother-in-law and now her young brother. Then comes the call for more soldiers, to a land already drained of husbands, fathers and sons. Every household must give up one woman to the army and Emily has no choice but to join the ranks of young women marching to the front.

In the midst of warfare, with just enough training to hold a musket, Emily comes face to face with the reality: the senseless slaughter; the weary cynicism of the Survivor’s Club; the swamp’s own natives hiding from the conflict.

As the war worsens, and Emily begins to have doubts about the justice of Lascanne’s cause, she finds herself in a position where her choices will make or destroy both her own future and that of her nation.

This is a superb novel. I haven’t read nearly as much of Tchaikovsky’s work as I would like, but this is a fantastic place to start. A fantasy war novel, but one that is focused on the impact of war more than battle itself. After a slightly slow start, this really grabbed hold of my attention and didn’t let up until the very end. Continue reading

Review: THE GAMESHOUSE Trilogy by Claire North (Orbit)

A magnificent, linked trilogy of novellas

It’s tricky to review these novellas without spoiling events across the series. So, I’m keeping these as brief as possible, which has meant the reviews are a bit more vague than I would usually like. Really, the take away should be: this is a fantastic series, and a must read.

NorthC-GH1-SerpentTHE SERPENT

In seventeenth century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse.

There, fortunes are made and fortunes are broken over games of chess, backgammon and every other game under the sun.

But those whom fortune favours may be invited to compete in the higher league… a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on a scale as big as the British Isles.

Not everyone proves worthy of competing in the higher league. But one woman who is about to play may just exceed everyone’s expectations.

Though she must always remember: the higher the stakes, the more deadly the rules…

In this first novella, North introduces us to the Gameshouse, and offers a relatively small-scale game. We follow Thene, a woman trapped in an enforced marriage to a drunken waster. After a while frequenting the Gameshouse, and engaging in “standard” contests and games, she is eventually approached by the umpires and invited to play in the higher league. Rather than duelling with an opponent over a chessboard or other table-top game, Venice itself becomes the board, and its inhabitants the pieces. Each player is given a selection of… well, I suppose you could call them “trumps”: specific pieces who have become indebted to the Gameshouse for a variety of reasons.

The Serpent is a quick read, and follows an interesting protagonist — the story is told somewhat from afar, as if we are watching Thene’s play and the directed actions of her pieces from the audience. She’s an interesting character, made cold and emotionless by her difficult childhood and unhappy marriage, but given new life and focus by the Gameshouse.

Through Thene’s first higher league game, we learn of the various ways the Gameshouse operates, how the pieces work, and so forth. Along the way, North also gives us a few hints about the institution’s history — which, as it turned out, would be further elaborated on in the second and third books. The author never info-dumps on the reader, though, much to my relief. The momentum of the story never lets up, while never being rushed.

It’s an excellent introduction to the series. The only weird decision was using em-dashes to indicate dialogue, rather than quotation marks. The only other time I’ve seen this used was in Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century.

*

NorthC-GH2-ThiefTHE THIEF

The Gameshouse is an unusual institution.

Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of Chess, Backgammon — every game under the sun.

But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings…

In 1930s Bangkok, one higher league player has just been challenged to a game of hide and seek. The board is all of Thailand — and the seeker will use any means possible to hunt down his quarry — be it police, government, strangers or even spies…

This second instalment was even better than the first. Pre-Second World War Thailand is brought wonderfully to life on the page — since I was born there, I’m always interested to see how people recreate the city on the page (at any time), and I think North did a wonderful job of creating such a rich and colourful city, and also doing the wilder regions of the country justice.

Our player is a more established player, with centuries of experience. A drunken evening has led him into a game of hide-and-seek against a rival with an unusual determination. As he first flees the city, Remy Burke ends up struggling through the jungle, occasionally benefiting form the kindness of strangers and sometimes suffering betrayals. North does a great job of showing us how difficult Remy’s ordeal is. The two sides of the game are interesting and very different. The solution and tactics of our hero are ingenious, and I gave a little cheer at the end.

We get a little bit more detail of the Gameshouse’s history and origins, while also hints at possible future events. Given a similar event in both The Serpent and The Thief, we’re led to clues for The Master, and after finishing this one I couldn’t wait to see how North brought it all together: the moments that seemed disconnected from the specific games in Venice and Thailand. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait, and dove right into the final novella…

*

NorthC-GH3-MasterTHE MASTER

The Gamehouse is an unusual institution. 

Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of Chess, Backgammon — every game under the sun.

But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings…

And now, the ultimate player is about to step forward.

The final novella in the series brings us up to the present, as the ultimate player decides its time to start the Great Game. The player in question (who I shall not name, in order to not spoil things), has appeared in each of the previous novellas. The Gameshouse has continued to evolve with the times, adjusting what it has to offer with each new generation and era in which it endures.

“New games too: Cluedo, Settlers of Catan, Age of Empires, Mario Kart, Mortal Kombat Whatever fought between a shrieking bishop and a deputy mayor. A judge, a police commissioner, a gangster, a congressman, a chief of staff, a general, a consulting doctor, a research fellow, a professor, a hit-man, a pharmaceutical king, an oil magnate, a seller of used cars and cheap cocaine – all the men and women who think they are someone, could be something more – they all come here as they have come through the centuries, across the world.”

As with the previous two books, The Master is a tightly-plotted action thriller, as the Great Game is writ larger than ever: where first it was a city, then a country, now it is the whole world, and North makes full use of the effectively-limitless resources the two players have to hand. The game, chess, is quite insane, as everything from the NSA and MI5 to entire national armies are deployed, not to mention hackers and assassins. It’s over-the-top, yes, but it never feels as ridiculous as it might in another author’s hands. I was completely hooked, and blitzed through. The ending was powerful, and only gradually was the truth revealed. The way one previous character is used was a great surprise. A superb conclusion to the trilogy. Absolutely magnificent.

Across all three novellas, North continues to show an incredibly gift for writing characters, dialogue and exposition: the people are three-dimensional, even when minor characters; the plots are tight and focused; the atmosphere and environs colourfully described and brought to life, while never in excess.

I’ve said it before in two previous reviews, but Claire North is fast becoming my favourite author.

Absolutely recommended to all, this are must-reads.

*

The SerpentThe Thief and The Master are all out now, published in the UK and US by Orbit Books.

Also on CR: Reviews of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch

Review: THE LORD OF THE END TIMES by Joshua Reynolds (Black Library)

ReynoldsJ-ET5-LordOfTheEndTimesThe Warhammer World… Ends.

The End Times have come. Archaon Everchosen marches on the city of Middenheim, and if he captures it, the key to the Chaos gods’ ultimate victory will be his. The last heroes of men, elves and dwarfs gather to stop him, but to stand against the hordes of the Ruinous Powers, they must turn to darker allies. Against all reason, the last hope for the world may be the Undying King, Nagash himself – if he and the mortal races can find common cause and work together. If they cannot, Archaon’s plan will come to fruition and the world will be consumed by Chaos.

It’s been a fun and interesting few weeks, getting caught up with Black Library’s End Times series. After decades of interest in Warhammer (though, I must admit that I never played a proper game), and especially the novels, finishing this novel was something of a bittersweet moment. Reynolds does a great job of bringing the various threads together, and dishing out plentiful death and destruction. Not only that, he does it with some tongue-in-cheek humour, and an awareness of how big, bold and brash (and just a little over-the-top) this story has become and needs to be at its conclusion. I enjoyed this a lot. Continue reading

Review: SLAYER by David Guymer (Black Library)

GuymerD-G&F-SlayerThe Dooms of Gotrek & Felix…

With their friendship in tatters after a series of betrayals, Gotrek and Felix march south at the head of a ragtag army, intent upon driving the forces of Chaos out of the Empire and returning Felix to his wife. But Gotrek’s doom is at hand, and great powers are at work to ensure that he meets it. With enemies on all sides and destiny calling, Felix must make a choice: to follow Gotrek into the darkness that awaits him, or to abandon his oldest friend once and for all.

I’ve said it many times on CR, but I’ve been a fan of the Gotrek & Felix series since the early-1990s. In Slayer, David Guymer, the fourth author to work on the series, brings everything to a close. Tied in with the End Times, it’s a fantastic, even moving farewell. After I turned the final page, I felt genuinely sad and just a little bit lost for what to do now… Despite one niggle, this is an excellent finale. Continue reading

Review: THE BUILDERS by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)

PolanskyD-TheBuildersIf Quentin Tarantino and Brian Jacques got together, they might have come up with this must-read…

A missing eye.

A broken wing.

A stolen country.

The last job didn’t end well.

Years go by, and scars fade, but memories only fester. For the animals of the Captain’s company, survival has meant keeping a low profile, building a new life, and trying to forget the war they lost. But now the Captain’s whiskers are twitching at the idea of evening the score.

This is a brilliant novella. Polansky’s Low Town novels are among my favourites, of any genre, and so I was very interested to see what the author came up with in this novella. I’m happy to report that it includes gripping prose, fascinating characters and excellently-paced storytelling. I really enjoyed this. A must-read of the year. Continue reading

Review: THE CURSE OF KHAINE by Gav Thorpe (Black Library)

ThorpeG-TheCurseOfKhaineThe Elves prepare for the End Times…

The End Times are coming. With Naggaroth besieged by the hordes of Chaos, the Witch King Malekith makes the decision to abandon the Land of Chill and make one final attempt to seize the throne of Ulthuan. As the druchii march upon the soil of their ancestral home once again, long-laid plans come to fruition and treachery blooms, bringing Malekith closer than ever to his goal. All that stands in the Witch King’s way is the Regent of Ulthuan, Prince Tyrion, and the darkness within Malekith’s own soul, the call of the Curse of Khaine.

This was an interesting addition to the End Times story. Taking a step away from the Empire and “main” thrust of the Chaos invasion and campaign, The Curse of Khaine focuses exclusively on the actions of the High and Dark Elves (with a bit of the Wood Elves). While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Return of Nagash and The Fall of Altdorf, it is nevertheless a very good, engaging novel. Continue reading

Review: KINSLAYER by David Guymer (Black Library)

GuymerD-DoG1-KinslayerThe Doom of Gotrek Gurnisson begins…

Once companions on the greatest of adventures, Gotrek and Felix have long since gone their separate ways. Felix, married and settled, secretly craves the excitment of his youth. And when the opportunity arises, Felix embarks upon what might be his final journey. As the chaos of the End Times engulfs Kislev, Gotrek and Felix are reunited, battling the hordes of the Troll King alongside Ulrika, Snorri and Max. But when long-hidden secrets are revealed, these old friends will be torn apart, and not all of them will leave Kislev alive…

Long-time readers of CR will know that I’m a huge fan of Warhammer heroes Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaegar (because I mention this fact a lot). The characters and series were created by William King, back in the late 1980s, and the series has continued pretty much uninterrupted ever since, until March of this year, when David Guymer brought it to a close with Slayer. Kinslayer is an interesting first half of a finale, tied in nicely with the Warhammer End Times storyline. It is not without its weaknesses, but it is also a must-read for fans of the series. Continue reading

Review: HOUSE RECKONING and HOUSE RIVALS by Mike Lawson (Grove/Atlantic)

LawsonM-JD09-HouseReckoningThe ninth and tenth Joe DeMarco novels

When Joe DeMarco was a boy, he always knew his father, Gino, had a shadowy job, working for a violent mafioso in New York. But he didn’t know that his father had been a hit man until he was murdered. The crime was never solved, but twenty years later, one of Gino’s former mob associates wants to get something off his chest before retiring to his grave: the truth about Gino DeMarco’s killer.

Only the alleged killer was not just another hood, but a supposedly upstanding citizen who is now on the brink of taking a job in Washington, D.C., that would leave him virtually untouchable. If DeMarco has any hope of finding out the truth and avenging his father’s death, he will have to act quickly. But is revenge over a two-decades-old tragedy worth his job, and maybe even his life?

House Reckoning tells DeMarco’s personal story in full for the first time, from his upbringing in Queens to his complicated relationship with his father.

Mike Lawson’s Joe DeMarco novels are among my favourite political thrillers. The series has been pretty varied so far, taking DeMarco all over the map. In these two novels, something from his past takes him to New York City and something in his boss’s past (and a fanatical offspring) takes him to the Dakotas and Montana. Another two great additions to the series.
Continue reading

Upcoming: SLADE HOUSE by David Mitchell (Hodder)

I’ve still not read anything by David Mitchell, which is probably wrong. Hotter unveiled the UK cover for his next book, SLADE HOUSE, yesterday, and it’s gorgeous:

MitchellD-SladeHouseUK

Here’s the synopsis:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley — narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

Slade House is published in the UK by Hodder on October 27th, 2015.

Mini-Review: THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz/Roc)

A superbly written, atmospheric mystery

A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out — literally — of a war in heaven

Paris in the aftermath of the Great Magicians War. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black, thick with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation; or the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

This is a fantastic novel. Superbly written, wonderfully atmospheric and brought to life on the page, House of Shattered Wings is a must-read novel of the year. It’s the first novel by multi-award winning/nominated Aliette de Bodard that I’ve read, and it’s quite excellent. The novel has been generating a fair bit of hype with its upcoming release, and I’m happy to say it’s entirely justified. Continue reading