Quick Review: THE TWO LOST MOUNTAINS by Matthew Reilly (Orion)

ReillyM-JW6-TwoLostMountainsUKHCThe penultimate novel in the action-packed Jack West, Jr., series.

AN INCREDIBLE VICTORY AT A TERRIBLE PRICE

Against all the odds, Jack West Jr found the Three Secret Cities – but at a heartbreaking cost.

TO THE MOUNTAINS AND THE FALL

Still reeling from his loss, Jack must now get to one of the five iron mountains – two of which have never been found – and perform a mysterious feat known only as ‘The Fall’.

A NEW PLAYER ARRIVES

Amid all this, Jack will discover that a new player has entered the race, a general so feared by the four legendary kingdoms they had him locked away in their deepest dungeon.

Only now this general has escaped and he has a horrifying plan of his own…

I’ve been reading Reilly’s Jack West Jr. series since the paperback release of Seven Ancient Wonders, which I think I picked up on a whim (from WH Smiths, if I recall correctly). It introduced a host of fun new characters, and offered an action-packed thrill-ride. A blockbuster movie on the page, filled with secret history, insane action scenes, some fun technology, and superb pacing. Each of the series novels since (the titles have been counting down) has offered much the same level of entertainment and action, building nicely on the mythology of its particular secret history. The Two Lost Mountains is another fast-paced novel, which sets up the final book very nicely. Continue reading

Review: CROOKED by Austin Grossman (Mulholland)

GrossmanA-CrookedAn excellent secret history

Richard Milhous Nixon lived one of the most improbable lives of the twentieth century. Our 37th President’s political career spanned the buttoned-down fifties, the Mad Men sixties and the turbulent seventies. He faced down the Russians, the Chinese, and ultimately his own government. The man went from political mastermind to a national joke, sobbing in the Oval Office, leaving us with one burning question: how could he have lost it all?

Here for the first time is the true story told in his own words: the terrifying supernatural secret he stumbled on as a young man; the truth behind the Cold War; the truth behind the Watergate coverup. What if our nation’s worst president was really a pivotal figure caught in a desperate struggle between ordinary life and horrors from another reality? What if the man we call our worst president was, in truth, our greatest?

In Crooked, Nixon finally reveals the secret history of modern American politics as only Austin Grossman could reimagine it. Combining Lovecraftian suspense, international intrigue, Russian honey traps and a Presidential marriage whose secrets and battles of attrition were their own heroic saga, Grossman’s novel is a master work of alternative history, equal parts mesmerizing character study and nail-biting Faustian thriller.

I was a relative latecomer to Austin Grossman’s novels — I only read You in 2014, and have yet to read Soon I Will Be Invincible (which I do own). When I first read the synopsis for Crooked, though, I knew I wouldn’t wait to read this one: I am a US politics and history nut, with a particular interest in the presidency. So, given that Grossman’s a great author, and that he was mixing two of my favourite things (politics and SFF), Crooked has been one of my most-anticipated novels of the year. I’m very happy to say, I was not disappointed. This is an excellent novel. Continue reading

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt (Vintage/Penguin)

TarttD-SecretHistoryI finally get around to reading the mega-hit novel of a mysterious group of college friends

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….

Another quick review, this (I’m still trying to figure out how best to review literary fiction). The Secret History has been an international mega-hit, and is frequently listed on Must Read books of the decade, your life, and so forth. As a result, it has been on my radar for years. But, because I am never lacking in reading material, I just never got around to buying it. After a particularly acute bout of book-restlessness, I decided it was time for a change from the SFF genres, and picked this up. I read it over a few very satisfying days, evenings and one night (I ended up finishing it at around 3am). It’s not perfect, but it is certainly engrossing and well-written.

The Secret History is a great novel, in many ways. It’s excellently written, and engagingly told. The characters are varied, quirky, and fun to read about (or, as is the case a coupleof times, uncomfortable to spend time with). This characterisation of college students is rather cliché, but I suppose it suits the story – I refer to the peripheral characters, here (drunks, drug-taking, not particularly bright or upstanding). The wild debauchery of Hampden College is merely a backdrop to the main attraction, despite them partaking in it as well. The focus of the novel are the five students in the exclusive Greek classes, and also our narrator, Richard.

There was something that didn’t ring true for me with this group, though: that everybody liked Bunny. Throughout the novel, he is an obnoxious, irritating presence, and I could never quite put my finger on why any of these characters professed to like him. Not a thing he did or said was redeeming or remotely attractive. It does, however, make it easier to believe how quickly our protagonists could turn on him (as we’re informed in the prologue). There were some affectations that didn’t ring true at all – although, because it was difficult to place the novel in a specific time/decade, I may have misunderstood the occasional thing.

The novel is pretty long, but it rarely felt like it was rambling or bloated. I appreciated Tartt’s attention to detail, and the way she realised the world and characters on the page. It is sometimes self-consciously intelligent and pretentious, but that can be forgiven, as it’s perhaps meant as a reflection of her characters (they are a group of young people who are oh-so-prone to affectations and pretentions). The narrative is sometimes disconnected, but always gripping. The final half of the novel, in particular, was riveting, and I stayed up well into the night to finish it off – thinking “one more chapter” at the end of each and every one.

This is a story of betrayal, loyalty and ultimate sacrifice. The way the characters must hide and tip-toe around what they have done, to hide it from their peers, the police and their mentor is plotted very well. Their tension and anxieties felt realistic and palpable. The ending was a tad melodramatic, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t have to end so. I can’t fault Tartt’s ‘world-building’, though.

I’m extremely glad I read this. It’s not the best novel I’ve ever read, but it has certainly added another author to my must-read list. As soon as I finished this, I bought the eBook of The Goldfinch, Tartt’s latest novel. I’m not sure exactly when I’ll have the time to read it, but I hope it is very soon.

Recommended.

Guest Post: “The Magnificent Liar” by Tim Powers

Continuing Tim Powers’s blog tour, I present to you a guest post about the colourful ‘hero’ Edward John Trelawny.

The Magnificent Liar

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Hide Me Among the Graves had a number of colorful characters in it – I can say that with all due modesty, since I cheated and took real people who really lived for characters: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a genius painter who lost his health and his mind to chloral hydrate addiction; Christina Rossetti, a devout celibate recluse who nevertheless worked face-to-face with London’s prostitutes to reform them and wrote reams of poetry about guilt and reproachful ghosts; and Algernon Swinburne, possibly the best English-language poet since Shelley, who furiously dissipated his gifts with alcohol and sado-masochistic obsessions – but the most fascinating of this circle was a man whose greatest accomplishment was telling lies about his own life.

Edward John Trelawny managed – largely by living a long time – to be a central character in the Italian circle that included Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in the 1820s, and also a prominent figure in the London of the 1860s, a close friend of many of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets. The only other figure I can think of right now who did the same kind of era-straddling is Neal Cassady, who was the friend and inspiration of Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg in the 1950s and then, after the Beat phenomenon had petered out, went on to be the same for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in the late ’60s.

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Trelawny, when he appeared in the expatriate literary group in Pisa in 1822, appeared to be the embodiment of a swashbuckling Byronic hero. He told of having deserted the Royal Navy to become a pirate on the Indian Ocean, of having participated in duels and battles, and of rescuing and marrying an Arab princess who was eventually murdered. Everyone – except possibly Byron, who said, “If we could only make Trelawny wash his hands and speak the truth we could make a gentleman of him” – believed the stories he told, and eventually he wrote them all down in his book, Adventures of a Younger Son, which was presented, and universally accepted, as non-fiction autobiography. It’s still a great narrative, the kind of thing Rafael Sabatini would later write.

I believe it was not until the 1970s that researchers discovered that his stories were all lies. In fact he had been honorably discharged from the Navy because he’d contracted cholera, and had then lived a shabby life in London and Bristol with an unfaithful wife. On an allowance from his father, he was able to travel to Switzerland, where he met a friend of Shelley’s and followed him to where the poet was staying in Pisa.

And among this fresh audience he spun his “autobiography.” And it was all fraud.

But when Shelley drowned, it was Trelawny who oversaw the famous funeral pyre, and when Byron sailed to Greece to participate in the fight for Greek independence, Trelawny went along; and after Byron died of a fever in Missolonghi, Trelawny became the lieutenant of a Greek warlord whose stronghold was a fortified cave high up on Mount Parnassus, and he married the warlord’s sister. After leading a number of raids against the Turks, he was shot twice in the back and, over the course of forty days, managed to recover without any medical aid.

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In other words, he began actually living the dramatic sort of life he had previously only imagined and lied about. And any doubts anyone might have had about his previous stories were dispelled by their consistency with his newer, fully chronicled adventures.

He returned to England and wrote a largely true book about Shelley and Byron in Italy, and he became the acknowledged authority on those poets. He even described a long friendship with John Keats, whom he had never met, and no one doubted him.

He lived to be a legendary figure in Victorian England, held in awe because of his piratical youth (false), his friendship with Byron and Shelley (true) and Keats (false), his battles in Greece (true), and other adventures nobody’s sure of to this day.

In his portraits, he glares out of the canvas as if daring you to doubt him. I admire both his very real courage and his very real duplicity, and if I eventually meet him in the author’s corner of Heaven, I’ll listen eagerly to his stories and never doubt him.

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Tim Powers’s most recent novel, Hide Me Among the Graves, is out now in paperback – published by Corvus.

The previous stop on the Blog Tour was over at SF Signal, and tomorrow’s is at Fantasy Book Review. Be sure to check them all out! Here’s the tour poster, so you know where to go beyond these two:

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Hide Me Among the Graves is published by Harper in the US (the second cover, above).

“Necessary Evil” by Ian Tregillis (Orbit/Tor)

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The masterful conclusion to the Milkweed Triptych

12 May 1940. Westminster, London, England: the early days of World War II. Again…

The history of the Twentieth Century has been shaped by a secret conflict between technology and magic. When a twisted Nazi scientist devised a way to imbue ordinary humans with supernatural abilities – to walk through walls, throw fire and see the future – his work became the prized possession of first the Third Reich, then the Soviet Army. Only Britain’s warlocks, and the dark magics they yield, have successfully countered the threat posed by these superhuman armies.

But for decades, this conflict has been manipulated by Gretel, the mad seer. And now her long plan has come to fruition. And with it, a danger vastly greater than anything the world has known. Now British Intelligence officer Raybould Marsh must make a last-ditch effort to change the course of history – if his nation, and those he loves, are to survive.

In the final book in Tregillis’s awesome Milkweed Triptych, superhumans and dark magic collide once again in a secret, supernatural history of early Twentieth Century. A series that has consistently impressed me, and improved with each book, Necessary Evil brings the story to a close with aplomb. This is a superb conclusion, and Tregillis has pulled it off, managing to tie everything up skillfully. And I almost cried at the end…

This is a very tricky review to write (I’ve said that a fair bit, recently, but it’s always true). Not only is this the final part of a trilogy, but it also features some time-travel, which for the first one-hundred pages or so messes about with events from book one and two. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, so I am going to deal very briefly with the plot, and then move on to general impressions.

The novel starts off with a brilliant prologue: it’s a summary of Gretel’s story thus-far, told in a strange disassociated-yet-intimate manner. It’s from Gretel’s perspective, and she talks about her powers and when they awoke, how she came to understand them, and gives us a very brief catch-up, without being clunky. Really excellent to start to the novel.

Raybould Marsh, one of Britain’s best spies, has travelled to an alternate timeline, in a desperate attempt to save at least one future from destruction at the hands of the Eidolons – creatures older than time, and pure evil. They have have been observing our species from space, and harbor an incandescent hatred for humanity. In order to accomplish his mission, Marsh must remove all traces of the Nazi’s “Willenskrafte” experiments, and the supermen that were created by the mad genius Dr. von Westarp.

Marsh’s biggest challenge, his bête-noir, is the mad seer Gretel, one of the most powerful of von Westarp’s “children”. A version of Gretel is in this timeline. She has seen all possible future timelines, and in every single one, she dies at the hands of the Eidolons, and she is determined that this will not come to pass, even if it means destroying most of humanity to save herself. Struggling with Gretel’s hidden agenda, his need to keep his true identity secret from those around him – including a younger version of himself, his mentor, his family, and his best friend – and also his single-minded desire to protect his family in this timeline, Marsh discovers that his mission could be too difficult to complete.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Going into any more detail would just ruin so many surprises and innovative developments. As with Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War, I was hooked from the very beginning of the book. Everything about the novel worked for me: Tregillis’s excellent prose style, the steady pacing, the gripping narrative, and fascinating supernatural elements just worked for me. Most of all, though, the characters are all compelling, realistic, and nuanced. This is a superb series.

The various questions raised by the end of The Coldest War are all answered, and the remaining loose ends are likewise tied up. I loved the way the characters changed under the different circumstances – sometimes dramatically, as events that would have redeemed or damned them do not come to pass. It was very believable, but also showed that Tregillis had considered all angles. There are so many small details throughout the book (and series as a whole, actually) that help make the characters more-real, and the time more vivid.

Gretel is an absolutely fascinating character, and one of my favourites in any book or series: she is both star and villain; Machiavellian in the extreme and ultimately tragic. Her story is as important, and perhaps more compelling, than Marsh’s. Their connection, their polar-opposite feelings for each other, and their near-constant conflict is brilliant. As Marsh’s actions start messing with the timeline, Gretel’s powers of precognition start to break, sending her on a steady decline that understandably has a devastating impact on her psyche – this is best reflected in a handful of Interludes, told from Gretel’s perspective.

Ultimately, Tregillis brings the novel and series to a brilliant close. The ending of Necessary Evil is heart-wrenching, as we learn what happens to Marsh the Elder (I almost cried), but it feels right, given what’s come before.

The Milkweed Triptych is one of my all-time favourite series. It is a must-read. Very highly recommended.

Also on CR: “The Origin of the Götterelektron” by Ian Tregillis (Guest Post)

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Necessary Evil will be published in April in both the US (Tor) and UK (Orbit). Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War are available in stores now.

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UK / US Covers

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UK / US Covers